Psychology majors in Associate Professor Christopher Poirier’s lab are doing more than learning about research in the field. They are actually helping to change it.
Jessie Pappagianopoulos ’15, Griffin Sullivan ’14, Katie McConnaughy ’14 and Matthew Attaya ’15 worked with Poirier this past academic year, trying to replicate a well-known study on memory. Whether they succeed or fail in duplicating the results, they are helping to fundamentally alter research in the field of psychology.
The “Novel” Conundrum
“The sciences, including psychology, have been roundly criticized for not having a formal system for the replication of research findings,” explains Poirier, a 1997 graduate of Stonehill. “In order to publish a research manuscript, the research findings have to be novel.” This is where the problem comes in: the best evidence of genuine discovery is showing that independent scientists can produce the same results, using the same methods. If the results can be replicated, then it can be used to advance knowledge. If not, the theory can be discarded. “But when research labs attempt to replicate findings in psychology, there is no outlet for their work,” he continues. “And, more importantly, if there is a failure to replicate a published research finding, there is no way of publishing and publicizing it.”
In order to address this problem, last May, the Association for Psychological Science (APS) announced an initiative: the Registered Replication Reports. The idea is to enlist labs around the world to replicate important findings in the field and to publish them in a peer-reviewed journal. A total of 30 labs were selected worldwide, the vast majority of them at large research institutions. “It’s significant that a small, liberal arts college like Stonehill is represented. This really puts us on the map,” Poirier notes.
The labs first step was to test the results of Schooler and Engstler-Schooler’s 1990 study of what’s called “the verbal overshadowing effect.”
It works like this: participants watch a video depicting a bank robbery. Following the video, half of the group is asked to spend five minutes writing a detailed description of the robber’s face. The other half is asked to write down countries and capitals from memory. Then each group is shown a video line up and asked to identify the bank robber. In the study, the “verbal rehearsal” group performed more poorly than the control group. The Schoolers called this effect “verbal memory overshadowing” because the verbal memory overshadowed the visual memory.
Learning by Doing
“Is it real? Possibly not,” says Poirier. “Other labs have tried to replicate it but haven’t been able to get the same results.” Because it’s related to his own research of face recognition, he applied to be part of this project—and was excited when his lab was selected. During this past academic year, Poirier’s team of undergraduate researchers were involved in all aspects of the project.
“At the beginning, they helped revise the research protocol and create the research materials,” he continues. “Then they tested nearly 225 participants on campus.” Volunteers were enlisted from students enrolled in introductory psychology courses. After that, the group analyzed the data and submitted their findings to the APS. “Our findings, along with the results from the other labs, was published in the September 2014 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science.”
“Overall, this has been an amazing opportunity for my students,” he concludes. “In doing this work, they’re actually addressing a problem we talked about in our research methods course. They understand how crucial this is. They’re part of something bigger: advancing the field of psychology.”