Take the case of intentionally smiling which should make you feel better. This so-called facial feedback hypothesis had been discovered in 1988 by the German psychologist Fritz Strack and his team. The investigators took 92 students who had to put a pencil either between their teeth (which made them smile) or between their lips (which made them pout) and then judge funny cartoons. In the former case they found the cartoons funnier than in the latter case. How this mechanism worked was not clear but it was applied by many behavioural therapists. However, in order to ensure that research results are correct – for instance that they are not caused by factors not studied in the investigation – any research should have to be repeated. Therefore, recently, at the instigation of Strack, seventeen laboratories in the USA, Canada and Europe performed replication tests. Maybe that it wasn’t known how the facial feedback hypothesis worked should have been a warning, for it came out that it had to be refuted. How pity, for I used the effect sometimes when I felt tired at the end of a long bike ride with still many kilometres to go: I simply straightened my back, lifted my head, looked around and smiled. This gave me again the mood to go on with a decent speed. It was not that I was less tired then, but it felt so.
The facial feedback hypothesis is not the only result in social psychology that recently has been rejected after replication. To take another case mentioned in my blogs: We tend to walk slower, when we see old people passing by, or also when we have read a text about old people with words like old, slow etc. Also this psychological classic appeared not to be true. Even more, when investigators tried to replicate about hundred of such “facts”, two third could not be validated. Combined with recent cases of research fraud we can say that social psychology is in dire straits.
What does all this mean? The refuted investigations helped build a certain philosophical image of man. Psychologically they painted man as a kind of physical dope that is the outcome of hidden mechanisms that work independent of the will: If we are funny, happy, helpful, sad, angry, nice etc. we are often so despite ourselves. Now I don’t want to deny that man is the result of hidden processes in some way. Too much points to the fact that most of what we do is “decided” on an unconscious level, but apparently how this takes place is not as simple as suggested by the now rejected psychological studies. Apparently we are not the kind of automatically behaving persons we had come to think we are on the basis of the rejected studies. Man appears to be structured in a different way and – let me formulate it carefully – there might be more elbow room for a free will than the studies suggested. This may especially be so, if we accept that there need not be a contradiction between the fact that what we do is prepared by unconscious processes within us and the idea that we have a free will, as I have explained before.Nevertheless, when I make a bike tour and I become tired, I still can decide to make a smile, for whatever the investigators say, to my feeling it works. Already simply the idea of smiling cheers me up. Maybe it is a kind of placebo-effect and it works because I think that it works, and just that is what makes that I am going to ride better. But my adagio is: If it works, it works. So, I keep smiling. Why not you too?