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Mar 29

Replicability and Ego (depletion)?

I’ve written/stated in a few places that the main problem with replicability in psychology and social science is simply that we don’t replicate enough.  Participants are a precious resource that are time-consuming (and therefore expensive) to recruit and test.  Any decision to replicate a study reflects a huge opportunity cost — you spend resources on an old idea instead of developing a new one.

A key part of my perspective is that research areas with large volumes of research are stable and that accuracy concerns about research are typically for individual studies.

However, a claim that a large research area is in imminent collapse was brought to my attention:

http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/cover_story/2016/03/ego_depletion_an_influential_theory_in_psychology_may_have_just_been_debunked.html

The claim is that Ego Depletion may not actually exist.  If so, this is potentially an important counter-example to the idea that a volume of research establishes an idea.

Having worked with the concept of ego depletion, I would say that we would not be all that surprised that there is something misunderstood in this area.  We found an effect of ego depletion on implicit learning, but also found the effects to be somewhat small and “slippery.”

I wouldn’t abandon the core idea just yet for two reasons:

  1. The “collapse” of the area is simply one large-scale failure to replicate.  I think that non-replication study shows that a key paradigm doesn’t work as intended, but there are a lot of other paradigms and probably something is going on there.
  2. When/if a major research area is invalidated, it is likely to be due to conceptual/definitional issues.  That is, the theoretical description embeds a flaw or overlooks key hidden factors that we have yet to discover.  That process is a normal part of research and isn’t so much a “replication failure” as how science advances.

Probably there is something importantly “wrong” about current theories of ego depletion.  But there is also something right about it we haven’t nailed down yet.

 

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