Tuesday, April 16, 2013

My conversation with Diederik Stapel

On April 1, I received an email from “Diederik Stapel” sent from a gmail address. Because of the date, I thought a former graduate student was pulling a prank on me. I had played a joke on her last year by using a fake gmail address and pretending to be an editor (well, I am an editor but I pretended to be a different one). I thought this was her getting back at me so my response was “Nice try, Lisa. What’s the date again?”

I received a response that showed some irritation about my lack of seriousness and responsiveness. Still thinking that it was a prank and that my former student was getting desperate because I wasn’t buying it, I then decided to wait until after April 1 to see what would happen. If the messages were somehow not from my student, then I would surely receive another one after April 1.

On April 3 I did indeed receive another email from Diederik Stapel to which I wrote a serious response. Stapel wanted to meet with me because I had “a refreshing perspective” on the current methodological crisis in psychology. I was curious to hear what he had to say. We agreed to meet in a cafĂ© in Utrecht on April 11.

We had a very pleasant and interesting two-hour long conversation. Of course there were some barbs traded. Not unlike many other social psychologists, he thought that I was biased against social psychology (I disagreed) and that my jokes on Twitter at his expense were lame (guilty as charged).  I, on my part, was not letting him off the hook about his past transgressions (although he clearly wasn’t letting himself off the hook either).

Our free-flowing discussion centered on a few topics, some of which I will describe here. It is important to mention that Stapel has read this text and agrees with my posting it.

One topic we discussed was social priming research. I told Stapel I am genuinely puzzled about the large effects that are often reported in the literature combined with the far-fetchedness of some of the manipulations. Stapel seemed to resonate to this and gave a humoristic caricature (I hope) of an experiment that involves priming people with lamppost and then assess whether this influences the amount of light shining out of their eyes. On the other hand, Stapel also gave an interesting and compelling theoretical defense of the notion of social priming.

Another topic we discussed was the current publication culture. Stapel readily admitted that he really wasn’t under external pressure to submit lots of papers; he was the victim of his own ambition and vanity. We agreed that the publication culture and reward structure should be changed and that there should be a move toward a more qualitative assessment of research contributions rather than a mostly quantitative assessment (which in my experience is even more common in the Netherlands than they are in the United States).

A third topic was the role of experimentation. I mentioned to Stapel that many of his studies were interesting theoretical observations and might have been fine in their own right had they not been marred by the need or desire to present “empirical data.” This led to a discussion of whether an experimental approach is suited to address all theoretical issues in social psychology. Perhaps a hermeneutic approach would be preferable in some cases over (far-fetched) experiments. We did not end up with strong opinions on this but thought it was an issue worth debating.

A fourth topic was whether Stapel could contribute in any way to the current discussion. On the one hand, it is obvious that his credibility as an empirical researcher is non-existent at the moment. On the other hand, he is widely read and nobody questions his theoretical knowledge in the domain of social psychology. Furthermore, as he noted, he has first-hand experience with committing fraud and might have important insights to offer with regard to fraud prevention.

Stapel is entertaining the notion of starting a blog on a variety of topics. He expressed concern that people may not want to hear from him or that he might be further exposed to verbal aggression.  Many people will harbor resentment towards him. But there is always freedom of expression of course.

As Stapel well knows, the merits of what he has to say will solely reside in the persuasiveness of his arguments and not in the compelling force of “empirical data.”

After finishing our final cappuccino and espresso we said goodbye, agreeing to keep in touch.


  1. Very interesting, Rolf.

    As a social psychologist, I feel both aggrieved by Stapel's fraud -- because behavior like his undermines the credibility of the discipline -- and inclined to be open to forgiving him, although I'm not there yet.

    I don't think everyone would behave like Stapel in the same circumstances -- and I like to believe I wouldn't (I have some preliminary evidence in that I haven't yet) -- but I also don't think that makes him "evil".

    What's most troublesome to me is (1) the neglect of the harmful consequences to others that his actions were likely to have, and (2) the repeated, systematic nature of the fraud. I hate the fraud itself, too, but that's more easily forgiven than hurting others, especially those who depended on him, like his students.

    It seems to me that the challenge for Stapel will be to find some appropriate way to atone for his mistakes, and I don't think this will be easy. If he can do that, I think people may be open to hearing what he has to say. I certainly think there's a lot to be learned from how he managed to get himself in the position of committing fraud -- I don't think he's a one-in-a-million case and that this could never happen to anyone else. I think those who dismiss him as an evil outlier to be forgotten as quickly as possible are making a mistake.

    Still, it's hard to muster very much sympathy from my distance. I'm curious what it was like for you, meeting with him face to face as a person rather than as a symbolic caricature of everything that's wrong with the field?

  2. Thanks Dave, I have had exactly the same sentiments as you are articulating so well here. I'd like to underscore your comment that I think those who dismiss him as an evil outlier to be forgotten as quickly as possible are making a mistake. . When I was asked after the Stapel case broke if I thought there were other cases like him, I said I didn't think so. Two months later I was chair of the Smeesters committee.

    I 'd never met Stapel before but he was described to me by someone who knows him well as "despite everything, a nice guy." I could see why this person said that.