A cautionary tale for researchers

Ever been tempted just to cite something that someone else has cited without checking the reference? You know, to say “Wheelbarrow cites Schnittwinkel to show that X is true” without bothering to read Schnittwinkel yourself? Especially if the Schnittwinkel article is in German (or some other language that you don’t read all that well) and you know that it will take you quite some time to make sure that you’ve understood it correctly? Well, I will be tempted no more! Not after yesterday’s research.

There is a very famous paper by Allport and Postman (1945) often cited in the psychological literature about eyewitness testimony that shows how racial stereotyping can influence eyewitness testimony. Allport and Postman showed their participants a picture of an African American man in a suit talking to an Anglo man in overalls, holding a cutthroat razor by his side. They are standing on a subway station. When questioned about it (a week or so later), over half of the participants remembered the razor in the hand of the African American and some of them had him threatening the Anglo with it. Lots of people have cited it, very much as I have.

Except that this is not actually what Allport and Postman did. They actually gave some people a picture showing the event I’ve described above and asked them to describe it while looking at the picture themselves to someone else who couldn’t see it . The second person (still without seeing the picture) then described it to another person, who described it to another, and so on. There were about six people in each “rumour chain” and in over half the rumour chains the razor switched from person to person at some stage in the retellings.

It’s not about eyewitness testimony at all. It’s about the way rumours spread. It was even published first in a paper called The basic psychology of rumor and then in a book called The Psychology of Rumor!

In 1989 (so a mere 44 years after the original) Molly Treadway and Michael McCloskey from Johns Hopkins published a really interesting paper in Applied Cognitive Psychology pointing out that quite a number of people over the intervening four and a bit decades had clearly not read Allport and Postman’s paper very carefully, if at all, because they’d all described the eyewitness version rather than the rumour version. The previous year Julian Boon and Graham Davies from the University of Aberdeen published a paper in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science which pointed out the problem without listing those who had mis-cited the original research.

Oh, ooops!! I’m not all that impressed with some of Treadway and McCloskey’s analysis of their attempts to replicate the research that people said Allport and Postman carried out, but I bet there were some red faces when it first hit the streets (or whatever psych journals actually hit).

Fortunately, my regular visits to Mark’s Theological German/Theologisches Deutsch are improving my German reading skills and I can sometimes even skim read German text with understanding, which is also helping to reduce the temptation to report citings unseen, even in German. -)

And for those who are not good at recognising humour in written form and who haven’t seen my collection of painstakingly gathered journal articles and photocopied book sections, no, I do not make a habit of citing material that I haven’t read. There are just days when I wish I could!


8 thoughts on “A cautionary tale for researchers

  1. Absolutely agreed. What frustrates me sometimes is seeing a citation that merely cites Wheelbarrow for the proposition without mentioning Schnittwinkel at all. But when you look up Wheelbarrow, the only support for it is Schnittwinkel. This isn’t the proper way to avoid citing a source one hasn’t read, and it is even less informative that the secondary citation. The proper way is to read Schnittwinkel.

  2. Indeed. Of course, this is sometimes tricky when it becomes obvious that it is Schnittwinkel’s doctoral thesis/dissertation that is being quoted and your interlibrary loan librarian informs you that it is going to cost you over $100 to get it posted from Europe to Australia and then you have to sign an agreement that you won’t remove it from the library or photocopy anything and the two months you can have it includes the transportation time. (These are the conditions that St Andrew’s makes for its non-electronic theses, so I decided that I didn’t really need to read Neller’s thesis on Thomas after all – I’d just make do with his journal article.)

  3. Pingback: psych | Info news site

  4. Hey Judy, you had me worried. When I saw the title, and a link to my site, I was afraid you were going to cite me as a glaring example of a erroneous citation. I have had a few blogger friends out there who have caught a typo or two.

    Thanks for keeping our feet to the fire. Keep up the good work.

  5. Goodness, no, Mark! If I had found a mistake on your site, I would either email you if I had your email address, or post a comment on your blog. Pointing out someone’s failings in public without giving them a chance to fix problems is rude and nasty. At least IMHO.

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