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Top 15 most popular laws in psychology journal abstracts

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How many of these laws do you know? The top 15, listed below, are based on psychology journal articles 1900-1999, as calculated by Teigen (2002):

LAW  (REFERENCE)   NUMBER OF MENTIONS
1. Weber’s law (Weber 1834)  336
2. Stevens’ power law (Stevens 1957)  241
3. Matching law (Herrnstein 1961)  183
4. Law of effect (Thorndike 1911)  177
5. Fechner’s law (Fechner 1860) 100
6. Fitts’ Law (Fitts 1954) 82
7. Law of initial values (Wilder 1957) 82
8. Law of comparative judgment (Thurstone 1927) 72
9. Yerkes-Dodson law (Yerkes & Dodson 1908) 52
10. All-or-none law (Bowditch 1871) 45
11. Emmert’s law (Emmert 1881) 43
12. Bloch’s law (Bloch 1885) 41
13. Gestalt laws (Wertheimer 1923) 41
14. Hick’s law (Hick 1952) 31
15. Listing’s law (Listing 1870) 29

Although it’s no longer in fashion in psychology to suggest that empirical generalizations are “laws”, I think the perception ones have held up fairly well. In perhaps every case exceptions have been found, but most of the laws are still useful as generalizations over a lot of empirical territory.

Many people are generally skeptical of psychology as a science, and their voices have grown louder thanks to recent cases of fraud and to articles such as “Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting Anything as Significant”, recently published in Psychological Science. So it’s nice to be reminded that psychological science has produced robust generalizations.

On the other hand, few question the validity of perception and psychophysics, which provides many of the laws above; the skeptics are thinking more of other areas, perhaps social psychology, clinical psychology, or developmental psychology. In those areas, effect sizes are smaller and data is harder to gather, so published results are more likely to be statistical flukes.

The “file drawer problem” is clearly one of the biggest reasons to mistrust psychological results, and I’d say it’s probably the biggest problem in all of science. The file drawer problem refers in part to the fact that when scientists can’t replicate a previously published effect, they are very likely to file the results away rather than try to publish them. So I’ve been helping create a website, psychfiledrawer.org (currently in beta), for people to report their failed replications.

Teigen, K. (2002). One Hundred Years of Laws in Psychology The American Journal of Psychology, 115 (1) DOI: 10.2307/1423676

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Written by alexholcombe

November 19, 2011 at 7:02 pm

One Response

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  1. Good notions. All information contributes to the statistical evidence towards any sort of conclusion, and even failed reproductions give us information about single tests that resulted in something specific. You are correct, psychology is hard to generate laws for, however it is the use of these generalizations that makes them highly accurate. One should not pigeonhole analysis in accordance with them, but like stereotypes use them as guides for possible and probable conclusions. IN the end, it is up to the person to analyze and feel the truth of the matter.

    Psychology Student

    May 20, 2012 at 2:12 pm


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