By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
There’s a growing awareness in the field of psychology that even studies that use standard scientific protocols need to be replicated in order to verify their findings. Failure to confirm widely proclaimed results is referred to as the ‘replication crisis’. In several high-profile cases, findings from psychology studies were widely touted to the public, but subsequent studies failed to reproduce their results.
The Concept of Power Pose
In 2010, a study was published by Harvard business school professor Amy Cuddy demonstrating the benefits of simply adopting a Wonder Woman-like expansive body posture on boosting people’s feelings of power. This paper presented data showing that people who sat for just two minutes in a high-power pose, in expansive posture, felt more powerful and performed better in mock interviews than those who sat in a low-power pose, leaning inward and legs crossed.
The power pose people also claimed to show changes in hormone levels, increases in testosterone, the dominance hormone, and decreases in cortisol, the stress hormone. Cuddy’s TED talk on power posing was seen by millions of people, leading job candidates, athletes, public speakers, and so on to adopt such a posture as a way of improving their performance.
Criticism of Power Posing Study
Five years later, in 2015, prominent people in social psychology began critiquing the power posing study.
A paper attempting to replicate the findings couldn’t do so, suggesting that maybe the initial data was just a fluke. Other researchers accused Cuddy of using inappropriate statistical techniques to manipulate her data to provide evidence for power posing.
In response, in 2018, Amy Cuddy published yet another paper that combined data from 55 different studies. This new paper replicated one of the findings from the original paper: Power posing, or what she re-described as ‘postural feedback’, in fact did make people report feeling more powerful. This new paper, did not, however, find evidence that posture influenced levels of hormones.
Re-evaluation of Famous Studies
In other cases, the findings from famous studies that were conducted in earlier decades have been called into question. In some cases, evidence has come to light suggesting the original data was problematic because researchers didn’t accurately report their data or didn’t use appropriate procedures to avoid biasing the results. In other cases, more recent attempts to repeat classic studies have failed to achieve the earlier results.
In sum, the replication crisis has led researchers to give a lot of old studies far more robust scrutiny and has led to some pretty heated debates at conferences and in leading journals. Most importantly, this shift to greater skepticism has led to more rigorous research techniques that ultimately strengthen the field of psychology and its conclusions.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
In addition to this revolution in how psychology research is done more carefully, it is important to highlight what psychology has been emphasizing over the past two decades: How to increase happiness. The field is called positive psychology.
Books by non-psychologists had been touting ‘the power of positive thinking’ for much of the 20th century. However, the science of positive psychology is a relatively new development, pioneered by Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and 1998 president of the American Psychological Association.
Considerable research in the field of positive psychology demonstrates that people who go through life with a positive outlook not only feel happier, but also experience better physical well-being; fewer physical symptoms, such as coughing, fatigue, and sore throats; faster recovery from surgery; and lower rates of both minor and major illnesses—asthma, the flu, diabetes, and even coronary heart disease.
Healthy Mind, Healthy Body
A 2020 study shows that we can learn skills in positive psychology and experience substantial health benefits. This study, one of the first randomized controlled trials, assigned adults between the ages of 25 and 75 to either a waitlist control condition or a 12-week positive psychology intervention called ENduring Happiness ANd Continued self-Enhancement or ENHANCE.
This program consisted of one-hour lessons each week on a particular topic, a weekly writing exercise, and an active behavioral assignment, such as meditation. It focused on enhancing three distinct sources of happiness: First, helping people identify their core values, strengths, and goals; next, learning strategies to regulate emotions and practice mindfulness; and finally, fostering gratitude, positive social interactions, and community engagement.
The researchers assessed people’s well-being and physical health during the intervention, and again three months after the program ended. And yes, people who received the positive psychology intervention reported higher levels of subjective health and well-being and fewer sick days, both during the program and even after it ended.
So, this study suggests that improving psychological well-being, even among generally healthy adults, can lead to improvements in physical health.
Common Questions about the Replication Crisis and Positive Psychology
The replication crisis in psychology is the growing awareness that many studies done in the past may not have used entirely accurate scientific methods or may have reported biased data. The crisis refers to when a study’s results cannot be replicated under the same circumstances.
As a result of the replication crisis, the findings from famous studies that were conducted in earlier decades have been called into question. This shift to greater skepticism has led to more rigorous research techniques that ultimately strengthen the field of psychology and its conclusions.
The field of positive psychology focuses on how to increase happiness. Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and 1998 president of the American Psychological Association, has pioneered this study. Considerable research in the field of positive psychology demonstrates that people who go through life with a positive outlook not only feel happier, but also experience better physical well-being.