One of the biggest changes in psychology in recent years is the drop in esteem that social psychology has experienced. Social psychology has gone from an essential component of psychology to being one of psychology’s less relevant subfields in less than 10 years.

How did this happen? One major reason is the replication crisis. When the Open Science Collaboration (2015) group replicated 55 social psychology studies, only 25%-49% of social psychology studies replicated, with the exact range depending on one’s preferred definition of “replication.” (I find the lower part of the range more plausible.)

The replication crisis has been a serious blow to social psychology’s reputation (though not the only one). It’s hard to take a science seriously when less than half (perhaps three-quarters) of its findings do not replicate.

I think that the loss of esteem is starting to show up in psychology education. On the eve of the replication crisis, social psychology was offered in 98% of undergraduate psychology education programs, and it was the 6th most frequently taken class by psychology majors (Stoloff et al., 2010).

My university was part of this trend. When we designed the current psychology major in 2014, it was uncontroversial among the psychology faculty that social psychology should be a required class for all students. I do not recall any arguments over the course and its central place in the curriculum.

Fast forward to 2019, and the psychology faculty at my university are revising the curriculum. The discussion is very different now, with a significant portion of the faculty stating that social psychology should not be a required course. The division doesn’t seem confined to my department:

It’s pretty astounding that over half of this non-representative sample thinks that social psychology is not essential for an undergraduate psychology education. That would have been unthinkable just five years ago.

When compared to other core psychology classes, social psychology does not fare well:

In the end, the psychology faculty at my school decided to make psychology fulfill a major requirement, though other courses can fulfill the same requirement. Social psychology is part of the curriculum–for now.

But the damage is done. Fewer students will be exposed to social psychology, and it is unlikely that my university will hire a social psychologist in the near future. I anticipate that social psychologists in the near future will enjoy fewer students, fewer job opportunities, and less demand for their expertise.

And the social psychologists have only themselves to blame. Their field lost prestige because of social psychologists embraced shoddy research methods and small sample sizes. Now the field is not taken as seriously as it used to be, and I have heard social psychologists complain about this new situation. It often sounds like a modern version of Cassio’s lament:

Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself and what remains is bestial–My reputation, Iago, my reputation!

Othello, Act II, scene 3

Losing a reputation is extremely serious because it takes a long time to rebuild a reputation. Unfortunately, many social psychology leaders seem unwilling to reform. I am not sure that the field can regain its prestige.

It is important to remember, though, that this is not the result of some coordinated attack on social psychology. And, to be fair, social psychology is not alone in this. Positive psychology, for example, has the same problem.

Social psychology’s fall from grace has been swift, but it is a necessary adjustment after the field’s entrenched errors. Let us hope that there is some redemption, if the field can amend its ways.

Gustave Doré’s image of Satan after his fall from grace in Paradise Lost.

References

Open Science Collaboration. (2015). Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science. Science, 349(6251), aac4716-4711-aac4716-4719. doi:10.1126/science.aac4716

Stoloff, M., McCarthy, M., Keller, L., Varfolomeeva, V., Lynch, J., Makara, K., . . . Smiley, W. (2010). The undergraduate psychology major: An examination of structure and sequence. Teaching of Psychology, 37, 4-15. doi:10.1080/00986280903426274

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