What works?

Dan Davies at TheLong & Short: “Evidence-based policy is very much in fashion at the moment in all departments of government. Of course it’s a good idea; the main argument for it is summarised admirably by the name. But people who expect big things from evidence-based approaches ought to be really quite worried right now.

Because the methodology used in a lot of evidence-based policy analysis is very similar to that used in experimental psychology. And at the moment, psychology is a subject with some very serious methodological problems.

It’s being called the ‘reproducibility crisis’ and in summary, the problem is that large-scale and careful attempts to replicate some of the best-established and most important results of the last few decades are not finding the effects they were meant to find. This is even happening for effects like ‘ego depletion’ (the idea that resisting temptation requires effort and makes it harder to exercise willpower), which are the subject of dozens or even hundreds of research papers.

There appear to be two related problems. First, there is a knot of issues relating to methodology and the interpretation of statistical tests, which means that there is a systematic tendency to find too many statistically significant results. And second, it turns out that a lot of psychology results are just ‘fragile’ – they describe much smaller sets of individuals than hoped, and are very dependent on particular situations, rather than reflecting broad truths about humanity.

Both of these problems are likely to be shared by a lot of other areas. For example, the methodology of behavioural economics has a very big overlap with experimental psychology, and is likely to have many of the same reproducibility issues. So lots of ‘nudge’ schemes related to savings and pensions could be based on fragile results….(More)”