Do Social Psychology Findings Persist Over Time?
Replication—the repeatability of a scientific finding in new studies—is considered one of the major principles in science. If a finding is here today and gone tomorrow, one wonders if it is real or was only a fluke. Only if different researchers obtain the same results repeatedly can a result be recognized as scientific knowledge.
When in 2015 a group of psychologists, the so-called Open Science Collaboration, reported that they were not able to successfully replicate more than 25% of the social psychological findings they tackled, the research community was shocked. As a result, in the years after, many different psychologists tried unsuccessfully to replicate various social psychological findings. Such failures can erode the credibility of social psychological research and raise serious concerns: Are social psychological findings credible? Should these findings be featured in textbooks and uncritically taught to students? Can these findings be trusted to inform public policy?
When pondering these questions, it occurred to us that most previous replication attempts in social psychology have focused mainly on findings that were originally published within the last 10 to 20 years and thereby neglected classical findings obtained much earlier. Why would this be the case? We figured that these classical studies typically applied more complicated methods that were a lot of trouble to do over again. For example, many studies involved trained confederates of the investigators. Confederates pose as “real” people and their behavior is carefully scripted so that the researcher can create a realistic experimental situation in which participants’ behavior can be studied. Studies using confederates are so effortful, costly, and time consuming that researchers might have refrained from replicating them.
However, to gain a complete picture of the replicability in social psychology, we must repeat these important studies too. Therefore, as an initial step, we asked about the famous “door-in-the-face technique,” a well-known persuasion strategy.
The Door-in-the-Face Technique
According to the door-in-the-face technique, people’s likelihood to comply with a request increases after having turned down a larger request. Robert Cialdini and his research team showed this can happen back in 1975. In one of their studies, confederates approached 72 students on the campus at the Arizona State University and asked them for a favor—namely, to take a group of young delinquents on a two-hour trip to the zoo. Crucially, one group of students was first asked for a larger favor. Would they volunteer in a juvenile detention center for two days a week during a two-year period? After the students (predictably) denied this large request, they were given the smaller request—the two-hour trip to the zoo.
It Worked Then
The researchers’ famous finding was that students agreed to the smaller request much more often when they had first turned down the large request, compared to students who had not previously been asked for the large favor.
Good findings need a good theory to explain them. Cialdini and colleagues explained their finding according to the reciprocity norm. According to this norm, people should perceive the shift from the large request to the small request as a “concession.” After rejecting the large request, they feel the need to respond to this concession by accepting the subsequent smaller request. In other words, they need to offer a concession, too.
We took on the replication challenge, 45 years later. We did it in another country on another continent. Our confederates approached 410 people on the campus of the University of Cologne (Germany). The confederates asked them the very same questions as Cialdini and his colleagues did.
And It Still Works
The results astonished us as we detected almost the exact same data pattern as Cialdini and colleagues found nearly half a century ago. Moreover, further analyses supported the idea that the door-in-the-face effect is based on the norm of reciprocity.
Yes, this is just one replication of one experimental finding. Nevertheless, our successful replication indicates that at least some classical findings may last over time and across cultures. This is not the only classical finding to stand the test of time, but it is an important one. Those fundraisers and salespeople who employ this technique are using sound science to manipulate you!
For Further Reading
Cialdini, R. B., Vincent, J. E., Lewis, S. K., Catalan, J., Wheeler, D., & Darby, B. L. (1975). Reciprocal concessions procedure for inducing compliance: The door-in-the-face technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 206-215. doi: 10.1037/h0076284
Genschow, O., Westfal, M., Crusius, J., Bartosch, L., Feikes, K. I., Pallasch, N., & Wozniak, M. (2021). Does social psychology persist over half a century? A direct replication of Cialdini et al.’s (1975) classic door-in-the-face technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 120, e1–e7. doi: 10.1037/pspa0000261
Open Science Collaboration. (2015). Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science. Science, 349, aac4716. doi: 10.1126/science.aac4716
Oliver Genschow is a junior professor for Social Psychology and Social Cognition at the University of Cologne (Germany) and editor-in-chief of the popular scientific psychology magazine In-Mind (https://in-mind.org).Replication—the repeatability of a scientific finding in new studies—is considered one of the major principles in science. If a finding is here today and gone tomorrow, one wonders if it is real or was only a fluke. Only if different researchers obtain the same results repeatedly can a result be recognized as scientific knowledge.