Zombie Theory

It is hard to totally disprove a theory or idea in social sciences — there is always some possibility that a different experimental design or a new sample will show that it works in certain circumstances. However, if we are scientists we must be willing to discard an idea or theory after a reasonable number of rigorous studies have failed to find support.

Sometimes that doesn’t seem to happen even after significant evidence is in. If an idea or theory is intuitive or attractive it may live on even after significant counter evidence is in place. Two examples leap to my mind:

  1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and
  2. Brainstorming and Group Ideation

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is probably one of the most tested hypotheses of social psychology. There is evidence in favor of the categories of needs, although they may be modified and updated, but there is not evidence of a hierarchy of the needs.

Despite the extensive evidence, a textbook I use in Sales Management bases its argument for non-monetary compensation on the hierarchy. I saw a paper delivered in a conference recently that was totally based on the hierarchy. Maslow’s hierarchy seems so intuitively appealing that empirical evidence is not sufficient to kill it.

Brainstorming and Focus groups for ideation continues, as I noted in a recent posting, despite 50 years of evidence that compared to group methods, individual brainstorming or interviewing:

  1. Generated more ideas,
  2. Generated better ideas,
  3. Generated the best ideas, and
  4. Better discerned the best ideas.

However group methods are fun and create an illusion of effectiveness.

If hundreds of studies cannot dissuade researchers and practitioners from bad theory, what should a social scientist do? (Rule out silver bullets and head shots…)

Can you suggest other candidates for a list of zombie theories — bad theory and ideas that linger well beyond death?

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7 Responses to Zombie Theory

  1. Gary says:

    A former colleague nominated “product life cycle” as a potential zombie. He argues that it is a tautology — either managed by a company or of unpredictable length — and is therefore untestable. He argues that it is primarily an excuse for management…

  2. mobilechristine says:

    I’d say the thing that first comes to “mind” is that old saying, “we only use 10% of our brains.”

    My roommate in college was a Psych major and told me once that that saying was largely due to a single experiment wherein a strange gentleman decided to see how much brain matter a pigeon could do without.

    Not something I’ve often wondered about, but then, I’m not a psychologist. Anyway, this gentleman found that, after a few days and with gradual removal, the pigeon seemed normal after 90% of its brain had been removed!

    Reasons why this is flawed:
    1. Who can tell when pigeons act retarded?
    2. We are not pigeons.
    3. Who would trust the word of a man that scooped out pigeon brains for fun?

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  5. So, zombie theories are the urban myths of academe?

  6. In finance and accounting, the efficient markets hypothesis is the likeliest candidate for zombie theory.

  7. gschirr says:

    Nice analogy, David! I like it…

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