A train wreck on the way

Many people in the communications business (well the best of them anyway) have been influenced in recent years by the advances in social psychology – from social marketing around behaviour change to political policy based on ‘nudge’ strategies to persuade people to do (or not do) various things.

 Campaigns against alcohol abuse and drugs and road safety; superannuation policies to encourage default investment options; and, the broken windows policing strategies have all had a base in social psychology research.

 Social psychology findings have also become the foundation of best-selling books – the Malcolm Gladwell series including The Tipping Point are examples. Two extraordinarily influential books have been Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Duncan J.Watts’ Everything is Obvious which recount how people actually make decisions, think about problems and make mistakes. Watts has also been a pioneering researcher, building on the work of Stanley Milgram, on network analysis which is throwing light on what how social media actually functions as a networking tool and how inter-personal communication networks actually work. The Watts research ought to be more influential than it has been among those public relations people who constantly mouth platitudes about how important social media is without seeming to understand how to use it effectively, where it can be used and how to measure its effectiveness beyond counting hits.

 However, last year Kahnneman sent out an email to various researchers warning that a ‘train wreck’ might be looming in the social psychology field because of replicability problems in research on priming effects. I have written about this before (see this website’s Articles and Speeches crikey contributions section and the article Nobel prize winner’s bad news for pundits).

Now a friend, John Spitzer, has sent me a recent article, Power of Suggestion, from The Chronicle of Higher Education (30/1/2012) by Tom Bartlett (http://t.co/9uyEnMFm) which is a really excellent summary of the state of play. For everyone who has an interest in the best research into how people think and make decisions it is very useful reading.

A risk is that the priming debate might have flow-on effects on the credibility some other social psychology insights but hopefully there will be lost of survivors if train wreck does occur.