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Overemphasis on Theory Development Is Damaging Organizational Psychology

2013 April 25

ResearchBlogging.orgIn a recent article appearing in Organizational Psychology Review, Pillutla and Thau[1] make some very strongly worded arguments about the role of theory development in psychological science. I’ll start exploring their paper with a  quote in their own words:

The state of [industrial/organizational psychology] and its obsession with novel theoretical contributions is antithetical to the goals of the scientific method.

The authors lament the over-reliance on the development of novel theory as the foundation for a meaningful contribution to scientific research. They suggest, rightfully I think, that the pursuit of novel theory creates a perverse incentive structure for scientists, encouraging them to pursue identification of “facts” which may fit available data but do not really exist, ultimately leading to the creation of theories that do not truly complement or build upon any prior theories, orphans of the scientific literature that provide no true value to our understanding of organizational phenomena.  They label this approach the pursuit of the “interesting” at the expense of good science.

They further argue that this state of affairs is in fact the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the scientific process.  The enterprise of science is not one where we should aim to identify facts, because facts do not really exist; instead, it is one where theory is used as a tool to incrementally better understand phenomena, each additional bit of research contributing to a better description of a real research problem.  When we pursue conclusions like “this is how organizations function” or “this is how employees behave”, we are misleading both ourselves those that rely upon our research.

Certainly, such misunderstandings have occurred before, with highly damaging implications for the progress of science. One such misunderstanding was the over-reliance on statistical significance testing, where “statistically significant” was mistakenly taken as synonymous for “real” or “important”.  Although people still make such mistakes in interpretation, the movement toward effect size interpretation and model specification (as evidenced through changing APA guidelines for reporting) is clearly targeted at reducing this continuing problem.  In their article, Pillutla and Thau are arguing that theory development as the sole target of science is the research-methods equivalent of the statistical-significance interpretation problem – that this over-emphasis in academic publishing is pervasive and harmful.  Like statistical significance testing, sometimes novel theory development is the right approach, but many times it isn’t.

Through analysis of citations to one of the most dominant proponents of theory-building as the basis of all science, the authors also contend that management, business, and applied psychology have been disproportionately harmed by this viewpoint, in comparison to other areas of the social sciences.

This view is a bit extreme, but may be the front edge of a coming wave of reform.  I’ve noticed myself over the last few years that fewer and fewer papers appearing in our top journals – Journal of Applied Psychology, Personnel Psychology, Academy of Management Journal, etc. – have solved any real problems for actual organizations.  Instead, they focus on exploring and specifying increasingly minute aspects of organizations – interesting, sure – but not terribly useful in any tangible sense.  From chatting with practitioners and other early career scholars, I’ve discovered this view is not all that unusual.  One person at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology conference this year even told me, “I haven’t seen anything I could actually use to help my employees in Journal of Applied Psychology for at least five years.”  That is a terrible state of affairs.  If we’re not solving real problems, what value do we really provide to both organizations (whom we study) and taxpayers (who pay us, or at least those of us working in state institutions)?  The push to publish only in top tier journals – where such theory development is required – only exacerbates this problem.

Interesting theories are not, by themselves, worthy of investigation unless they are put to the service of explaining research problems… the quest for novelty and interestingness of facts has infused them with significance without any regard to the knowledge that they generate.

So are things as dire as Pillutla and Thau indicate?  There have certainly been a number of high-profile cases in psychology lately that have caused the public to question the value of our entire field.  And we should absolutely work to repair that damage, but the path to do so is unclear.  Some researchers have taken a purely empirical approach, attempting to replicate controversial papers and examine their convergence, eschewing theory entirely in the quest for reliable knowledge.  Is that enough?  I’m guessing we’ll find out in the next five or ten years.

  1. Pillutla, M., & Thau, S. (2013). Organizational sciences’ obsession with “that’s interesting!”: Consequences and an alternative Organizational Psychology Review, 3 (2), 187-194 DOI: 10.1177/2041386613479963 []
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