Just because it makes it into print, doesn't mean it's eternally settled.

Staff Writer

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Bloggers love new research findings. They’re novel and interesting. They sound authoritative and helpful, and the people behind them are generally eager to chat with a nosy writer about their work. We get content, scientists get publicity, and the reader gets actionable insight to improve or understand their lives.

That’s the theory anyway.

But I’m duty bound to throw a wrench into the works of this little well-oiled process. I have to tell you that psychology is in the midst of a crisis. If you haven’t heard already, tons and tons of well regarded, well publicized findings are being questioned as fellow scientists try — and fail — to replicate the original results.

Willpower is a limited resource? Really?

I first read about this phenomenon as an interested layperson, but then it struck a little closer to home. Several times in the course of my work, I’ve written about studies showing that willpower is a finite resource. Spend too much energy resisting the chocolate donuts in the break room in the morning, a large body of research shows, and you’re more likely to do something dumb and impulsive in the afternoon. The implication was that you should conserve this limited resource by making important decisions early and developing routines to take unimportant ones off your plate.

But then I came across several write-ups of new research that noted that this basic principle of how the human mind works, which I’d passed on to my readers as settled science, was actually currently the focus of frenzied expert debate as new research failed to show the expected effects. Apparently, the “facts” as I understood them weren’t facts. Were there other articles of mine out there that mislabeled ideas now currently understood to be unproven and controversial as proven facts?

Other psychological “facts” you should reconsider

The answer to that question (both for me and for a lot of my colleagues) is a resounding yes. At least that’s what I had to conclude after reading a recent British Psychological Society Research Digest blog post laying out ten famous findings in psychology that are proving hard to replicate. Amongst them, I recognized several I’d personally written about previously.

For instance, maybe you heard that standing in a Wonder Woman-like “power pose” can boost your confidence? (Maybe you even heard it from me.) But despite journalists recommending the strategy left and right, apparently it’s currently the subject of heated discussion among researchers. The most recent analysis of the science, which will be presented in a forthcoming paper, shows “the existing evidence is too weak to… advocate for people to engage in power posing to better their lives.”

The same goes for the assertion (which again I’ve repeated in my posts) that forcing a smile can actually make you feel genuinely happier. This was “proven” by a classic 1988 study, but the most recent attempts to replicate that older research failed.

So what’s the takeaway here? For writers like me, it’s a reminder that while certainty makes for a good headline, it often makes for lousy science. For readers, the best takeaway is a healthy dose of skepticism. If standing like Wonder Woman makes you feel better before a big presentation, by all means go for it. But be aware that findings in psychology have been as changeable recently as dietary guidelines.

Just like one year butter is terrible for you and the next it’s margarine that will kill you. One year, a fake smile will boost your mood and the next it might just offer you a pointless cheek workout. Don’t take what you read when it comes to psychological research as gospel truth and keep your ear to the ground for whether results stand up to further scrutiny.