Another day, another replication

It has been a very busy day as the academic year has started again with some intense teaching sessions for fresh soon to be teachers on my schedule. That’s why I haven’t shared this new example of replication study tackling a famous insight from psychology yet. And that’s a pity, because the study is mentioned in Nature (yeah!) and was conducted by a team from the KULeuven (a Belgian University and while being patriotic is the least Belgian one can act, still yeah!!).

From the article discussing the replication in Nature:

Physiologist Ivan Pavlov conditioned dogs to associate food with the sound of a buzzer, which left them salivating. Decades later, researchers discovered such training appears to block efforts to teach the animals to link other stimuli to the same reward. Dogs trained to expect food when a buzzer sounds can then be conditioned to salivate when they are exposed to the noise and a flash of light simultaneously. But light alone will not cue them to drool.

This ‘blocking effect’ is well-known in psychology, but new research suggests that the concept might not be so simple. Psychologists in Belgium failed to replicate the effect in 15 independent experiments, they report this month in the Journal of Experimental Psychology1.

“For a long time, you tend to think, ‘It’s me’ — I’m doing something wrong, or messing up the experiment,’” says lead author Tom Beckers, a psychologist at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium. But after his student, co-author Elisa Maes, also could not replicate the blocking effect, and the team failed again in experiments in other labs, Beckers realized that “it can’t just be us”.

The scientists do not claim that the blocking effect is not real, or that previous observations of it are wrong. Instead, Beckers thinks that psychologists do not yet know enough about the precise conditions under which it applies. (read more)

Abstract from the study:

With the discovery of the blocking effect, learning theory took a huge leap forward, because blocking provided a crucial clue that surprise is what drives learning. This in turn stimulated the development of novel association-formation theories of learning. Eventually, the ability to explain blocking became nothing short of a touchstone for the validity of any theory of learning, including propositional and other nonassociative theories. The abundance of publications reporting a blocking effect and the importance attributed to it suggest that it is a robust phenomenon. Yet, in the current article we report 15 failures to observe a blocking effect despite the use of procedures that are highly similar or identical to those used in published studies. Those failures raise doubts regarding the canonical nature of the blocking effect and call for a reevaluation of the central status of blocking in theories of learning. They may also illustrate how publication bias influences our perspective toward the robustness and reliability of seemingly established effects in the psychological literature.

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