An undergraduate’s experience with replications

A lot of psychologists are in a bit of a tiff right now. I think everyone agrees that replications are important, but it doesn’t seem like there is a consensus for how it should go about (For many perspectives, see: here, here, here, here, here, here, here). Since Sanjay asked for more perspectives from people who aren’t tenured, I figured I’d write up my experience with replication. Take note, I graduated but I am not in graduate school yet, so I am one vulnerable puppy. Luckily my experience was very civil.

During my junior/senior year fellowship, I ran 2 identical direct replications of a psychophysics experiment and both were disappointing. I wasn’t the first person in the lab to try to replicate it either: the addition of my “failures” made it 5 collective unsuccessful replications. At what point do you throw in the towel and say, “We’re never gonna get it”? I went on to manipulate the stimuli and task and ended up finding some cool results, but the taste of sour data was still in my mouth. The worst part was that I had to slap my “failures to replicate” on a poster and travel cross-country to present them at a conference. I was nervous before presenting, because how are you supposed to explain failures to replicate in psychophysics? It’s not like social psych, where one can point to the specter of “unknown moderators” (no offense, that’s my field now).

So, how did the conference go? Very well I should think. I was not surprised by some reactions I got from viewers when I said those dreaded words, “failed to replicate,” on the order of: “Oh wow, that sucks for them,” “Welp, that’s never good,” “Oh no! He’s in my department…..that’s embarrassing,” “Did you really try 5 times? I would have stopped after 1.” The most stress-inducing part of the whole thing was when the person I was failing to replicate came up and introduced himself. I was expecting hurt feelings, or animosity. What I got was a reasonable reply from a senior in my field. He said, “Well, that’s really too bad. You never got it in 5 tries? Hmmm…. I guess we might have overestimated how robust that effect is. It could be that it is just a weak effect. We’ve moved on since then to show the effect with other stimuli but we haven’t done this exact setup again, maybe we should. Thanks for sharing with me, if you write up the manuscript I’d love it if you sent it to me when it’s done.”

What a reasonable guy. I was expecting barred teeth and a death stare, but what I got was a senior in the field who was open to revising his beliefs.

One thing to note: his comment, “if you write up the manuscript I’d love it if you sent it to me when it’s done (emphasis added)” really highlights the view that replications are likely to be dropped if they “fail.” Hopefully this special issue can change the culture and change that if to when. Thanks to Daniel Lakens (@lakens) and Brian Nosek (@BrianNosek) for trailblazing.