Why a New Popular Press Psychology Book Refrains from Giving Advice

During this pandemic winter, many of us will be away from the people we love most. The absence of the physical presence of loved ones deprives us of hugs, physical touch, and feelings of physical and psychological warmth that no amount of Skype or Zoom ever seems to fully replace.

In his forthcoming book, Heartwarming, one of the authors of this editorial (Rocha IJzerman) explores the science of why this is, a field called social thermoregulation. This science points to promising technologies like the Embr Wave, smartphone-controlled warmth-producing bracelet, that seem to provide ways to compensate for the physical and psychological warmth that Skype and Zoom lack. Yet the book stops short of recommending these technologies, or indeed offering any concrete advice at all. Why is this?

One reason stems from the sordid tale of Brian Wansink. A former marketing researcher at Cornell, Wansink excelled at conducting clever-sounding studies on the psychology of eating and packaging them into bit-size, actionable pieces of advice tailor-made for public consumption. He would then pitch this advice in outlets ranging from O Magazine to the Today Show. His work even served as the basis for federal policy in the form of the Smarter Lunchroom Movement. Yet, proper scrutiny revealed a shocking level of sloppiness in Wansink’s research. Although Wansink had spun his research into advice for millions of people and a federal program funded to the tune of $22 million dollars, all these products were built on foundations of sand.

Nor is Wansink’s work the only example. Take the example of research on implicit bias. Defined as a set of fast, relatively automatic mental pairings between social groups and other concepts, the concept of implicit bias was popularized largely due to the efforts of Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji. These two researchers developed a test, the Implicit Association Test, and demonstrated it in a press conference in 1998 in which they claimed to have data demonstrating that 90 to 95 percent of people harbor “the unconscious roots of prejudice. The test became an immediate sensation, receiving favorable coverage by the wildly popular science journalist Malcolm Gladwell, NPR correspondent Shankar Vedantam, and, more recently, even then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the rarified halls of a US presidential debate.

Yet a closer look at the evidence on implicit bias reveals a field that is woefully unready for application. The Implicit Association Test is plagued with measurement problems (as are, for that matter, other alternative measures of implicit bias). For example, too often the same person who takes the test multiple times gets a different result, probably because the test is contaminated by large amounts of measurement error. The relationship between people’s score on the IAT and their actual behavior is also quite weak. Finally, a closer look at studies that ought to be most relevant to policy -- those that try to change implicit bias -- reveals that this field relies very heavily on student samples, rarely assesses whether the changes persist, and contains little to no evidence that changes in implicit bias lead to changes in behavior.

In Heartwarming, Rocha IJzerman wanted to avoid the mistakes of Brian Wansink, Tony Greenwald, and Mahzarin Banaji. We believe psychology can learn from other research fields, like rocket science and drug development, that excel at translating research findings into safe and effective applications. Rocket science uses a framework called the Technology Readiness Levels to evaluate the state of the evidence behind an application and to guide the research program. Drug development uses a series of phased trials to evaluate both the effectiveness and the safety of a novel drug. As we have seen from the accomplishments of these fields -- from putting people on the moon to creating a safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine in record-breaking time -- this systematic process works.

Heartwarming judges the science of social thermoregulation using standards closer to those of rocket science and drug development rather than those of Brian Wansink. According to those standards, social thermoregulation, though promising, is not yet ready to serve as the basis of advice and other applications. Our unpublished quantitative review suggests the available evidence on social thermoregulation can support the broad conclusion of Heartwarming: there are intriguing links between the regulation of temperature and social relationships that promise to provide unique insights into the roots of human sociality. Yet social thermoregulation research still largely relies on samples of participants that are very peculiar -- college students from Europe and the United States. We also know little about the effectiveness of different dosages of warmth for changing psychology. Nor, as would be routine in drug development, have the technologies based on social thermoregulation research been evaluated in household settings for things like unintended side effects.

Thus, while Heartwarming does present science that is promising enough that it could in the future serve as the basis for advice and application, it does so with caveats. The book therefore notes where social thermoregulation research relies too heavily on unusual and non-representative samples, and it also notes where its findings have not been subjected to the type of big-team, large-scale testing that you might get in drug development.

Psychology may yet initiate the reforms necessary to make it robust enough for application. Psychology researchers (ourselves included) have developed our own frameworks to help evaluate just when psychology evidence is ready for application. Moreover, psychology researchers have created organizations and proposed broad-based reforms to make the big, team-style research more commonplace.

In the meantime, beware psychologists bearing overconfident advice. You are bound to be disappointed.

Hans Rocha IJzerman is the author of Heartwarming: How Our Inner Thermostat Made Us Human.