David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
from the world's big
Start Learning

10 Scientific "Breakthroughs" That Don't Stand Up to Scientific Scrutiny

Does smiling make you happier? These and many other popular claims in psychology are not standing up to scrutiny. Here's what that means for science.

A crucial element of scientific progress is the reproducibility of experiments and their results. A problem in contemporary academic institutions has been the discouragement of repeating experiments. The Economist reported in 2013 that in the midst of this deep lack of support for reproducing published studies, some people have been pushing back – most notably in the field of psychology.

A recent article by Christian Jarrett in The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest reveals both how active some researchers have been in scrutinizing influential findings through replicated trials from and how deep the stakes are for encouraging such efforts. He sheds light on ten common claims in psychology that are often cited and invoked as true but have not held up to re-testing:

1. Confident body language makes people feel more confident. 

2. Smiling makes people feel happier.

3. Individuals have a finite amount of self-control, where “the more of it you use in one situation, the less you have left over to deal with other demands.”

4. Making revisions after taking an exam can retroactively help to improve scores. [This seemingly unlikely yet influential finding now, like the others on this list, seems unlikely to be true.]

5. Behavior can be influenced by exposure to certain kinds of words. More specifically, “Exposure to words pertaining to aging will make you walk more slowly.”

6. Hygienic cleaning helps to ameliorate moral guilt (aka the “Macbeth Effect”).

7. Babies imitate others’ behaviors.

8. Images and feelings of being watched compel people to act more honestly.

9. Smelling oxytocin, the neurochemical released during cuddling and sex, makes people more trusting of others.

10. Mentioning money makes people act more selfishly.


Jarrett locates the experimental origins of all of these influential, frequently cited claims. Then, with each one, he reveals a battery of recent tests that have been done aiming to replicate the findings. In every case, the attempts have been unsuccessful, usually indicating no relationship between the relevant variables (e.g., between smiling and feelings of happiness).

Yet the paper arguing that smiling makes the smiler feel more pleasant has been cited more than 1,500 times. Meanwhile, its conclusions continue to elude researchers trying to reproduce the experimental results or scrutinize the original data. Jarrett points to a recent study in Psychological Science critiques the original paper about bold body language as well as a follow-up that was published and finds that the experimental data that was used does not reflect statistically significant data. Professors Joseph P. Simmons and Uri Simonsohn, the authors of the recent critiques, sum their findings succinctly by asking: “Does the literature reviewed by Carney et al. (2015) [the researchers behind the original paper] suggest the existence of an effect once we account for selective reporting? We conclude not.” They arrive at their conclusion through statistical analysis of the original data.

The purported happiness-inducing effects of smiling have similarly not been standing up to scrutiny. As Jarrett demonstrates in another article in Research Digest, 17 different labs tried independently to regenerate this well-known finding. And they failed. The researchers claimed, “Overall, the results were inconsistent with the original result.” Not only do these findings suggest that the original finding is difficult to generate but also that, given how many studies have now been done, that the original conclusions may most likely be deeply wrong.

The failure of so many findings in academic and popular psychology to persist through repeated trials has direct implications for how we ought to apply the findings to our lives. For example, if confident body language does not evoke feelings of confidence, then gesturing boldly when feeling insecure may be effective only in appearing more awkward.

More broadly, these studies demonstrate the importance of actively encouraging researchers to perform and publish on repeat-trials. This, as Jarrett demonstrates, is crucial to interrogating consequential conclusions of experimental researchers. The stakes are high. If the causal link between smiling and a spike is happiness is blurrier than we once thought, what other claims are taken for granted in psychology? In physics? In medicine?

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
Keep reading Show less

Masturbation boosts your immune system, helping you fight off infection and illness

Can an orgasm a day really keep the doctor away?

Sexual arousal and orgasm increase the number of white blood cells in the body, making it easier to fight infection and illness.

Image by Yurchanka Siarhei on Shutterstock
Sex & Relationships
  • Achieving orgasm through masturbation provides a rush of feel-good hormones (such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin) and can re-balance our levels of cortisol (a stress-inducing hormone). This helps our immune system function at a higher level.
  • The surge in "feel-good" hormones also promotes a more relaxed and calm state of being, making it easier to achieve restful sleep, which is a critical part in maintaining a high-functioning immune system.
  • Just as bad habits can slow your immune system, positive habits (such as a healthy sleep schedule and active sex life) can help boost your immune system which can prevent you from becoming sick.
Keep reading Show less

Live on Tuesday | Personal finance in the COVID-19 era

Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.

How DNA revealed the woolly mammoth's fate – and what it teaches us today

Scientists uncovered the secrets of what drove some of the world's last remaining woolly mammoths to extinction.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Surprising Science

Every summer, children on the Alaskan island of St Paul cool down in Lake Hill, a crater lake in an extinct volcano – unaware of the mysteries that lie beneath.

Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…