Six Games Psychologists Play

Six Games Psychologists Play

Psychology September 17, 2013 / By Dr. Jonathan Wai
Six Games Psychologists Play

In 2013: “In the wake of several scandals in psychology research, scientists are asking themselves just how much of their research is valid.” But nearly fifty years ago, Marvin Dunnette wrote an insightful article illustrating that many of the games we see played in the field of psychology today were present in 1965. Something needs to change.











Tia Ghose of LiveScience recently wrote: “In the wake of several scandals in psychology research, scientists are asking themselves just how much of their research is valid.”  But in 1965, nearly fifty years ago, Marvin Dunnette—then a professor at the University of Minnesota—wrote an insightful article illustrating that many of the problems in psychology that we see today are not really new.  They’ve been going on for at least half a century.  In his article Fads, Fashions, and Folderol in Psychology which appeared in the American Psychologist, he discussed the various games that psychologists play.  I have distilled the main insights here, but the full article provides many examples that illustrate his points.

1. The Pets We Keep

This game essentially refers to a psychologist’s obsession with a “Great Theory” or “Great Method” which become favored pets that are to be protected at all costs.  Students of these psychologists then inherit the tendency to continue protecting these theoretical and methodological pets.  As T. C. Chamberlin explained: “The moment one has offered an original explanation for a phenomenon which seems satisfactory, that moment affectation for his intellectual child springs into existence.”

2. The Names We Love

This is essentially a word or naming game which is often used to protect a pet theory.  It is not really a surprise that many psychologists become famous for coining a new theory or effect.  What may be a surprise is that these popular terms might not actually mean all that much.  Dunnette noted this game is “the coining of new words and labels either to fit old concepts or to cast new facts outside the ken of a theory in need of protection.”  One result of this game is that “If facts appear that cannot be ignored, relabeling them or renaming them gives them their own special compartment so that they cease to infringe upon the privacy of the theory.”

3. The Fun We Have

This game is played when psychologists tend to forget the problem they were working on and instead get caught up in the apparatus, computers, models, or simply testing the statistical null hypothesis.  Dunnette writes: “The most serious yet most common symptom of this game is the ‘glow’ that so many of us get from saying that a result is ‘statistically significant’…In my opinion, this one practice is as much responsible as anything for…the ‘little studies’ and the ‘little papers’ of psychology.”

4. The Delusions We Suffer

According to Dunnette, “This is probably the most dangerous game of all.  At the core, it consists of maintaining delusional systems to support our claims that the things we are doing really constitute good science.”  For example, the common but misleading defense of a new theory or method on the grounds that it stimulates others to do research.  “Unfortunately, an inestimable amount of psychological research energy has been dissipated in fighting brush fires spawned by faddish theories.”

5. The Secrets We Keep

This game is the one that is probably receiving the most attention today in the media.  Broadly, this game encompasses all the things psychologists do to look good in public.  One corollary of this is the tendency to hide negative results.  Dunnette notes that “I only recently became aware of the massive size of this great graveyard for dead studies when a colleague expressed gratification that only a third of his studies ‘turned out’—as he put it.”  Now fifty years later, the graveyard of dead studies has multiplied into something unimaginable.

6. The Questions We Ask

All the games that have been discussed before conspire together to lead psychologists to limit the questions that they ask and the problems they think need to be solved.  Often, they end up focusing on trivia.

J. P. Campbell put it this way:

“Psychologists seem afraid to ask really important questions.  The whole Zeitgeist seems to encourage research efforts that earn big grants, crank out publications frequently and regularly, self-perpetuate themselves, don’t entail much difficulty in getting subjects, don’t require researchers to move from behind their desks or out of their laboratories except to accept speaking engagements, and serve to protect the scientist from all the forces that can knock him out of the secure ‘visible circle.’”

This was in 1965.  The reward system in psychology is still the same.  Something needs to change.

© 2013 by Jonathan Wai

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Note: This article originally appeared on Psychology Today.

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