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:
- Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and
- 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:
- Generated more ideas,
- Generated better ideas,
- Generated the best ideas, and
- 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?