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On Null results, refined.

September 17, 2014

The other day, JP de Ruiter tweeted in:


He has a point.

And, well, we do not want to use the sleight of stats Keith Laws suggests.


Which, as this post that just precedes this one shows, I have been pondering before, and I’m far from the only one pondering this. (Hey, it is my blog. I get to repeat myself. I think I’m sketching….)

Unlike Animal Farm animals, all studies with null results are not created equal. All of us know the standard reason why null-results are not published passed down through the training generations: There are many reasons why a study doesn’t work out, and a lot of them are scientifically entirely uninteresting. The uninteresting ranges from poorly thought through methods, badly chosen stimuli, errors in timing, badly run studies, crappy conceptualization, like those unhappy families though terribly uninteresting to write tomes about. This is what we remind our students of when they with feeble hope pipe up that it is really interesting to know what doesn’t work.

Sure. But the universe of” doesn’t work” is endless. Only things that don’t work in interesting ways are informative. Which, well, raises the question, what is an interesting way?

I know of two papers that published null-results prior to the replication flurry. On one, my advisor was a co-author along with June Tangney and others on certain aspects of Higgins Self-Discrepancy theory. The second was work by Jari Hietanen where he looked at whether the emotional expression of a centered face with eyes pointing to either direction in an attention paradigm (bear with me) mattered. That is, are we more likely to be lured by the eye-direction of a frightened face (as evidenced by faster reaction times when the target is in the direction, and slower when the target is in the opposite direction) than other emotional expressions?. He didn’t find that in 5 different experiments, using different depictions of faces. Both involved multiple studies and multiple variants of stimuli and paradigms. Tangney’s et al also included an alternative prediction. Lots of work. Perfectly reasonable. Rarely seen.

But, there are a lot of other types of null results.

Across the street from where I work, there is a museum called “skissernas museum” – the museum of sketches. It is filled with earlier drafts, sketches, and preliminary models of artwork that are officially displayed in museums, or as sculptures in squares, and in some cases well known.

A piece of art is not created from blank thoughts to the finished product in one go. Before are the sketches, the attempts, the miniature models. Even I, in my feeble amateur painting spent a bit of time sketching.

This is how I think about my spiders and snakes and attention (insert Oh My here) work, which has yet to see the light of day. We got something in each study, but could not interpret it. So, we kept tweaking them. Changing a thing here or a thing there. Alas, I left for Sweden before we had a tweak that gave us clear results.

A lot of the filedrawer may be just this kind of work. Sketches. Drafts. Preliminary work.

Some are more like our tweaking of a Stapel Ebbinghaus Study (as far as I know based on genuine data) where instead of social categories we used emotional expression. The non-results of that one probably lingers comfortably in that file-drawer, or land-fill as is the case now (as I emptied the drawers out myself). We gave it a good try, didn’t work, oh well, it was a bit of a long shot (although I have seen it done lately. Gasp).

Then there are those that may be informative in different way. I think the five variants of testing whether emotional state influenced perceptual processing of emotion-congruent faces might have deserved a null-publish. We thought it might work, it didn’t, and we had some ideas why (and, also as a warning, don’t waste your time doing this.)

And, then the even more troubling kinds– when researchers have attempted to replicate fairly directly some interesting effect that has already been published, and not getting it.

Pre-registration takes care of some of that, but that is for fairly late in the game. Here things are well thought out, and one can make a full-blown hypothesis testing that may or may not work out, and people are willing to bet both time and money on setting it up. But, not all of the attempts are of that kind.

These last couple of types are the ones that are missing, and that would be informative for research

But the rest? The sketches? And all those attempts that find no results because of reasons that has nothing to do with what is tested, but everything to do with the performance (and one has to remember that we likely all make these kinds of mistakes on the way, where the problems with stimuli, with collection, with design, and thinking things through which is only evident in hind-sight). What to do with them? Not all are strategic cases where you run a lot of studies and publish what “worked”. They just didn’t.

Publish? As if the literature isn’t crowded enough as it is. Even Skissernas Museum limit themselves to fairly late prototypes and sketches.

Paul Meehl suggested that it might be a good idea to have some place summarizing the pilot work that didn’t work out, in order for others to not go down that particular wrong turn. (Some turns are just so attractive that we may go down there multiple times, just to find it is a dead end).

For some areas that may be very interesting to formalize. But keeping it all may be like insisting on plastering every scribble of your kids daycare work on the wall.

Perhaps one of the issues also is that the criteria for publishing has been too lenient, or that the methods for determining what is real (aka null-hypothesis testing) is just too weak. Yes, I know, lots of people think that, and have said that for a long time! (I just re-read Meehls paper on Sir Karl and Sir Ronald where he chides hypothesis testing for being much too light of a challenge for a hypothesis. Put them to risk!).

*Yeah, I realize I covered this in my earlier post too. But it is my blog so I get to repeat myself if I want to. Perhaps I’m sketching.


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