Brit psych journal retracts Stapel paper on the paradox of failure

In 2011, Diederik Stapel, a Dutch researcher who at the time was a shining star in the world of social psychology, published an article in the British Journal of Social Psychology with the counter-intuitive claim that failure can sometimes be more emotionally gratifying than success.

We’re guessing this isn’t one of those times. As readers of this blog well know, Stapel has admitted to fabricating loads of data. The BJSP has now retracted the article.

Here’s the notice for the paper, which has yet to be cited, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge:

The following article from British Journal of Social Psychology, ‘When failure feels better than success: Self-salience, self-consistency, and affect’ by Noordewier, M.K., & Stapel, D.A. published online on 1st March 2011 in Wiley Online Library ( has been retracted by agreement between the co-author, the journal Editors in Chief, John Dixon and Jolanda Jetten and John Wiley and Sons Ltd. The retraction has been agreed following the results of an investigation into the work of Diederik A. Stapel ( The Levelt Committee has determined that this article contained data that was fabricated as supplied by Diederik A. Stapel. His co-author was unaware of his actions, and not in any way involved.

Meanwhile, as we reported recently, last month, Basic and Applied Social Psychology retracted two Stapel papers — on salesmen and women who change their names when they marry (all that’s missing is a ringing postman).

At the time, we wondered whether the journal had similar plans for a third article, by Stapel and co-author Camille Johnson, “Harnessing Social Comparisons: When and How Upward Comparisons Influence Goal Pursuit.” That paper was mentioned in the same expression of concern that cited the two retracted articles.

But BASP‘s editor Leonard Newman told us that it likely will stand pat on the paper:

The Johnson article has not been retracted yet because the committees have not found this article to be fraudulent. If they do, we will retract the article. But based on (1) the fact that a number of papers Stapel published with Johnson have already been investigated, and (2) informal communication with the co-author involved, I do not anticipate another retraction.

If that changes, we’ll let you know.

For those who are wondering, the discredited failure-emotion paper made the following argument:

People like self-consistent feedback because it induces feelings of predictability and control, but they like positive feedback because it induces positive self-esteem. We show that self-salience determines whether people are more consistency- or positivity-driven. When self-knowledge is salient, people’s primary responses (i.e., under load) are consistency-driven (people with low self-esteem feel better after negative feedback than after positive feedback, whereas people with high self-esteem feel better after positive feedback than after negative feedback) and controlled responses are positivity-driven (people feel better after positive feedback than after negative feedback, regardless of self-consistency). Without salient self-knowledge this pattern reverses: people’s primary responses are positivity-driven, whereas people’s controlled responses are consistency-driven.

Frankly, we’re not sure what that’s supposed to mean in English. But it seems to be arguing that while positive feedback reinforces positively (nothing succeeds like success), if you suspect you’re a schmuck and you act like one, well, job well done!

At the risk of becoming a beer-hall analyst on all this, we’re wondering if this is yet another example of Stapel revealing a bit of his own psyche. After all, as a fraudster he likely 1) didn’t feel great about his own abilities as a scientist; and 2) was afraid of getting caught — which would serve to validate his own sense of inadequacy. And recall that he wrote a 1999 paper on scientific misconduct.

0 thoughts on “Brit psych journal retracts Stapel paper on the paradox of failure”

  1. “After all, as a fraudster he likely 1) didn’t feel great about his own abilities as a scientist”

    While I appreciate this was written tongue in check, but I have a feeling that despite being a fraudster, Dr Stapel had a very high regard for his own abilities.

    In fact, fraud and a high self regard probably go together more often than not. Dr Stapel’s theories, after all, were brilliant, penetrating and insightful. It was Reality that was at fault for failing to live up to them. Should we be too judgemental that he attempted to correct some of reality’s more blatent shortcomings?

    My experience of a deliberate fraudster was more like those alpha male types who are always looking to dominate people and situations – similiar to the types that make good executives or corporate leaders. Experimental results are just another thing they try to dominate.

    1. Think youre right. All most reckless fraudsters I met were very carismatic, tyranic persons who were very proud of themselves. And they greatly trust they will never get caught, and that if exposed they will have everyone on their side. I have seen only one case here in which that did not happen — guy got to the newspapers and lost all credibilty. Although it made a big impact on him (depression, etc) he did not loose his pose and remains being a “proud” fraudster. They simply beat the dust from their coats and put their chins up, it is truly unbelievable.

    2. “Dr Stapel’s theories, after all, were brilliant, penetrating and insightful. It was Reality that was at fault for failing to live up to them.”

      What’s that saying, something like ‘it only takes one fact to kill a beautiful hypothesis’

  2. It’s good job that none of this stuff makes any difference to everyday life!
    Mumbo-jumbo it was, mumbo-jumbo it remains.
    “Kidology” is how the working-class comedians have correctly diagnosed the diease for about a century.

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