How Should We Talk About Amy Cuddy, Death Threats, and the Replication Crisis?

Amy Cuddy. Photo: Kimberly White/Getty Images for New York Times

Last week, Eric Vanman, a psychology researcher, published a Storify of tweets from Katie Corker, another psychology researcher, who was attending the Midwestern Psychological Association’s annual meeting in Chicago. In the tweets, Corker ran down down a talk Amy Cuddy, the Harvard social psychologist and power-posing evangelist, gave there.

Here, a very brief recent history is in order: For a long time, Cuddy has been accused of overhyping the research she has conducted on power posing, or the idea that briefly adopting assertive, open poses can improve one’s performance in various social settings (in part because doing so cues certain hormonal changes). That’s because power-posing effects have failed to replicate on multiple occasions, and there is a strong and growing case that the original claims, which helped bring Cuddy a megapopular TED Talk, a book deal, and lucrative speaking gigs, were overblown.

These charges were lent some new fuel in September, when one of Cuddy’s co-authors on the original power-posing paper, Dana Carney, admitted in a letter she posted on her website that the original study had been p-hacked, or statistically manipulated in a way that overstated its results — a practice that, it should be said, is increasingly frowned upon and which leads to shoddy science, but which was once common and which isn’t viewed in the same light as outright research fraud. “I do not believe that ‘power pose’ effects are real,” she wrote, underlining and bolding that sentence for emphasis.

Back to Cuddy’s talk last week. In it, she made clear that all of this controversy has had an extremely negative impact on her life and how she views her research field. To take some of the tweets compiled by Vanman:

This has led to a follow-up discussion on Twitter consisting of two general camps: those who think Cuddy is being treated unfairly, and those who believe that complaints about bullying or harassment are a distraction from the most serious problem here, which is the elevation of shoddy research to a place of such profitable prominence.

This tweet and its many responses are nicely representative of the conversation currently unfolding.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on here. It might be useful to disentangle a bit. For anyone interested in this ongoing controversy, here are three key points:

Genuine harassment and bullying are never acceptable, and people should strongly stand up to such behavior. It’s truly atrocious that Cuddy has received death threats, and hopefully the police will be able to find and punish whoever is responsible (though this is unfortunately unlikely given how rarely online threat-hurlers are caught). Overly vituperative name-calling is also counterproductive, given that science, when it’s conducted most effectively, should be about the evidence. Screamfests don’t help.

No one should underestimate the effect this sort of behavior has on the target, especially people who haven’t experienced it first-hand. This person is criticizing my work, albeit harshly and This person truly hates me and might want to harm me are two genuinely different feelings.

That said:

No one will ever agree on what is the “right” amount of criticism for p-hacking, overhyping results, and other forms of research overreach. These are totally subjective issues. As one of her examples of unfair treatment at the hands of her colleagues, Cuddy complained that “A popular blog mentioned me over 600 times,” though she doesn’t name names (I was pretty sure it was Andrew Gelman’s, but a Google search doesn’t support that theory).

The implication here seems to be that this blogger is obsessed. And sure, that does sound like a lot! But it’s important to keep the broader context in mind here: It’s pretty common, among those who are arguing that the response to psychology’s replication crisis is overblown, to invoke the language of obsession and harassment to describe their critics. Take, for example, when Susan Fiske, the highly regarded social psychologist at Princeton, complained about “methodological terrorists” using social media to unfairly snipe at researchers who are just trying to do their jobs. Those in the Fiske/Cuddy camp (I think it’s fair to place them in the same camp) portray many of the claims made by those who position themselves as reformers and debunkers as out of bounds, as overheated and mean-spirited.

The problem is, there’s a massive gray area between “Here, with respect, are my objections to the decisions you made in your statistical analysis” and death threats. A lot of the time the debunkers make fair points, but do so in a way that is perhaps a little overheated, albeit far from death threats. But how overheated? So overheated their qualms with the research they are criticizing should be ignored?

Everyone has differences of opinion on what constitutes speech that is “too mean” or “too personal.” Reasonable people, as long as they agree that death threats and outright hatred are unwarranted and should be pushed back against — and there are approximately zero people within social psychology saying “I think death threats are good!” — can and do disagree on thornier tonal questions. That’s why it’s not particularly fruitful to spend all that much time parsing critics’ speech, trying to determine who is too “mean” or “personal” — these questions really are quite subjective, and the focus should be on the science.

Which brings us to:

The more open and transparent science is, the less time researchers and observers will spend on hopelessly subjective questions of tone and intent. To be clear, there will never be a time when the questions raised by the replication crisis can be answered or evaluated in a purely objective manner, of course. Even when everyone has access to the data underpinning a given controversy, reasonable people, again, can and do disagree on which claims are warranted on the basis of which evidence.

But the faster we can get to an age in which data sharing and transparency in general are established norms in psychology, the easier it will be to avoid getting mired in unanswerable debates about really subjective subjects like tone. If everyone has access to researchers’ data and preregistered hypotheses, for example, there’s a lot more meat to work with, and it’s less likely the conversation will devolve into one that’s more about allegations of bullying and counter-allegations of deflection than an actual discussion of the science.

Because at the end of the day, Amy Cuddy has, by dint of her success with power posing, thus far had a career most social psychologists could only dream of. If she did so on the basis of research that’s as shoddy and fragile as her critics think, that’s a big problem — not to mention a deafening foghorn indicating that things are deeply amiss within social psychology. None of this means she deserves to be cyberbullied, and it definitely doesn’t mean she, or anyone, deserves death threats — what it means is that, to the extent possible, it’s important this conversation center on the big questions that matter most.

On Amy Cuddy, Death Threats, and the Replication Crisis