The Crisis in Social Psychology

Wednesday, December 30th, 2015

Early in his career, social psychologist Lee Jussim faced a crisis:

An early mentor, Jacquelynne Eccles, handed him some large datasets gathered from school children and teachers in educational settings. He tried testing the social psychology theories he had studied, but consistently found that his data contradicted them.

Instead of finding that the teachers’ expectations influenced the students’ performances, he found that the students’ performances influenced the teachers’ expectations. This data “misbehaved”. It did not show that stereotypes created, or even had much influence on the real world. The data did not show that teachers’ expectations strongly limited students’ performances. It did not show that stereotypes became self-fulfilling prophecies. But instead of filing his results away into a desk drawer, Jussim kept investigating — for three more decades.

Some months after Jussim’s presentation at the 2015 Sydney Symposium, the results of the Reproducibility Project in psychology were announced. This project found that out of 100 psychological studies, only about 30–50% could be replicated.


When I went through University as a psychology undergraduate Jussim’s work was not on the curriculum. His studies were not to be found in my social psychology textbook. Nor was Jussim ever mentioned in the classroom. Yet the area of study Jussim has been a pioneer of — stereotype accuracy — is one of the most robust and replicable areas ever to emerge from the discipline.

To talk about stereotypes, one has to first define what they are. Stereotypes are simply beliefs about a group of people. They can be positive (children are playful) or they can be negative (bankers are selfish), or they can be somewhere in between (librarians are quiet). When stereotypes are defined as beliefs about groups of people (true or untrue), they correlate with real world criteria with effect sizes ranging from .4 to .9, with the average coming in somewhere around .8. (This is close to the highest effect size that a social science researcher can find, an effect size of 1.0 would mean that stereotypes correspond 100% to real world criteria. Many social psychological theories rest on studies which have effect sizes of around .2.)

Jussim and his co-authors have found that stereotypes accurately predict demographic criteria, academic achievement, personality and behaviour7. This picture becomes more complex, however, when considering nationality or political affiliation. One area of stereotyping which is consistently found to be inaccurate are the stereotypes concerning political affiliation; right-wingers and left wingers tend to caricature each others personalities, most often negatively so7.

Lest one thinks that these results paint a bleak picture of human nature, Jussim and his colleagues have also found that people tend to switch off some of their stereotypes — especially the descriptive ones — when they interact with individuals7. It appears that descriptive stereotypes are a crutch to lean on when we have no other information about a person. When we gain additional insights into people, these stereotypes are no longer useful. And there is now a body of evidence to suggest that stereotypes are not as fixed, unchangeable and inflexible as they’ve historically been portrayed to be8.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Robert Putnam was also embarrased by his data showing that diversity hurts community feeling.

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