A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Unifying Psychology: On framing a positive message

As some of you may know, I am editing a special issue of the Review of General Psychology. The focus is on potentially unifying theories. There are, of course, many past attempts to bring unity to the field. Most take two forms: First, there are the pipe dreams; bold visions from young Turks or senior scholars. Second, there are those who want us to give up the quest for a unified underlying theory and instead claim that we are already unified sufficiently by our agreed upon subject matter. The latter often come off as apologists, who hope we can learn to revel in our differences. Neither of these approaches is necessarily bad, but I am not sure another special issue with one of those focuses would be helpful, and suspected there was a better way to make progress.

Rather than solicit speculative proposals to unify the field, or to describe how it is already unified, I solicited short manifestos from existing approaches. Twenty one statements are being prepared, each representing a particular, already existing, research-active sub-discipline of psychology. It is my hope that these articles will start a larger conversation that will demonstrate the close connections between several of these emerging and established approaches. Even though each one is small (most would only boast a few hundred adherents), together they represent quite a large number of psychologists.

The approaches differ in terms of the breadth of unification they propose, and in terms of the “level” at which they are attempting to unify various sub-disciplines. This was intentional. The volume aims to make clear that there are a variety of well-developed approaches to psychology being actively pursued. More details to come.

The Negative Message
Editing through the papers, an ambitious task, to say the least, one frustration sticks out... Many authors cannot seem to get past their current status as a marginalized member of the field. I tried to avoid this problem through explicit instruction to the authors, telling them:
I have tried describing the desired papers in various ways, and some have found each description appealing: manifesto, vision statement, wish list, or just the instructions to ‘explain how things would be different if you were in charge of psychology’. Especially if you are thinking in terms of the latter, I would like to reemphasize that one function of the word restriction is to encourage people to write a forward-looking presentation, showing a bold image for the future of the field. This is in contrast with the compare and contrast pieces we have all seen, which typically spend considerable space bashing the current state of the field. (Some criticism is certainly allowed, but it should not be the emphasis.)
Despite those guidelines, several papers have used a considerable amount of space trying to explain a) why the current system is unacceptable, and b) how their approach fixes these horrible, horrible flaws. As I have suggested previously, in some of my discussions of Ecological Psychology, I think this is a bad approach.

Many people who might be open to a new way of think, will not be open if you start out by telling them they are stupid, and that they have dedicated their lives to a flawed and potentially amoral profession (yes, a few authors have even suggested that mainstream psychology might be amoral).
Also, given that your audience is mostly professionals, interested most directly in either their next experiment or their next patient, it doesn't get you very far to just focus on abstract theoretical points. Newtonian mechanics might have some deep philosophical problems, but frankly it is quite useful and most engineers don't need to worry about quantum or relativistic effects. Even if you find someone genuinely interested in "getting it right", they are probably still most concerned with doing studies that get it right, or doing therapeutic interventions that get it right. That is, if you have a better system, they are much more interested in learning about your better system than in learning about the flaws in the thing they are ready to give up if you can effectively sell your approach.

This is really hard. No one is writing me an article about mainstream approaches, everyone is representing a position frustrated by its lack of traction in the field. Thus, in professional contexts, we are all used to having to explain how we are different from the mainstream. A core set of 'differences from the mainstream' has become crucial to our identity. I have mentioned this before in my discussions of Ecological Psychology. I have been trying to convince the field that it is time to come together and produce a textbook. Though the attempt is currently floundering, many seemed interested at first. However, most of those interested wanted to focus on how to best contrast our approach with the mainstream cognitive approach. "Who cares about that?" I asked, "Freshmen and sophomores are not yet indoctrinated, and so we don't need to contrast. Worse, you might actually be teaching them to think the way you don't want, actively building in resistance to what you will teach them next." Some of the younger members of the field seemed to get my point, but the more senior members of the field were so wedded to the conflict-narrative, that it seemed they could not imagining describing the field without a negative focus, a focus on what the field is not.

The Positive Message
Perhaps at some point in the initial formation of a new field, the negative orientation is necessary. This type of posturing, with an emphasis on the distinction between your approach and the more popular alternative, likely serves a crucial social function. In addition, when an approach is newly-formed, there might not be much else to discuss - the core of the field is that it contains contrasting properties. However, all of the authors invited to contribute to the special issue represent approaches that could move beyond this attitude. Now that the approaches have been around for a sufficient amount of time, and grown to sufficient size, the core of each approach now is a body of work, done by members of the sub-discipline. That is, what distinguishes these approaches from the "pipe dream" models of unification is that each is an active field of research, with a substantial group of followers.

As late as 1940, the American Psychological Association had 644 members (along with around 2,000 affiliated practitioners). I mention this to add perspective to our current notion of minority positions in the field. I am not pointing that out because I think a few hundred adherents is a major success today, I am point that out because I don't think anyone would deny that Psychology, as field, was getting a lot done in its early decades. Several of the approaches to be represented in the special issue, though 'marginalized' by today's standards, represent more active researchers than there were in the entire field 100 years ago. Those researchers have, so far as I can tell in every case, created a body of work worth sharing: there are paradigmatic examples of methods and success, novel findings, and progressive building of ideas.

These approaches have each grown to the point where it is possible to lead with the positive side of their message. They could simply work through their paradigmatic examples, and put their successes on display. That is, they could demonstrate, through concrete example, how their approach produces novel findings and/or successful interventions.

Why, when you have the option of making a positive pitch, would you focus on decades old identity crises? Though most would reject Freud with disdain, it seems pretty clearly like an instance of fixation due to (academic) childhood trauma. Alas, I'm not sure what can be done to help people see the alternative possibility. In my unique position, I can attempt heavy-handed editing, but I dislike that approach, and is not available as a more general solution. My intuition is that the time is ripe to make fundamental progress towards unifying psychology, outside the mainstream, several isolated groups are converging rapidly upon similar ideas. But this progress will be squandered if the many groups cannot explain their positions in a (primarily) positive manner. Is there any chance this obstacle can be overcome?

I would love to hear some thoughts....


  1. Okay, here are two somewhat distinct thoughts.

    (1) You suggest that your authors could "lead with the positive side of their message" by showing (with examples) "how their approach produces novel findings and/or successful interventions." This suggestion presupposes that the "novel"ty of the findings will be evident even without the kind of framing that would have been provided by a description of "the current state of the field" as the background against which the "novel findings" form the figure. Maybe this presupposition is true in some (or many, or all) of the cases; I can't know (but you probably can). However, as you describe your authors, it seems that *they* don't perceive the truth of the presupposition. Maybe there is an editorial-therapeutic intervention you can make in order that they will.

    (2) I don't know what editorial guidelines you sent out with your solicitations (or with your acceptances of replies to solicitations). But it occurs to me (as still quite an outsider to the peculiar constitutive rules required of papers in various fields other than mathematics) that the apparently standard *formal* requirements of having a "literature review" and a "conclusion" may make it very hard *not* to dwell on the past (though not necessarily in a "negative" way--though given a lot of negative past experiences as outsiders, etc., your authors might find it hard not to express some negativity themself). In this case, the obvious editorial-therapeutic intervention (cut out the literature review!) may be impossible, depending on how much freedom you, as special-issue editor, have.

    1. I probably shouldn't have even used the term "novel"... I mean novel in the sense of "things not known before" rather than "things your inferior system never could have found". I think there is pretty unanimous agreement by scientific psychologists that "things that produce new findings" are valuable, while "things that produce new distractions" are less valuable. Thus, I suspect, when people-doing-research-you-dont-know-much-about start trying to get into a lengthy philosophical discussion, it is usually a turn off, but if the just jump into methods and results it will more often create a good conversation.

      That approach also reduces overall posturing. Often the results of a "marginalized" approach could have been found by the old methods, in theory, but probably never would have (because it would never be prioritized). Sometimes people devalue your work, and you need to fight to get its value seen. Other times people would value your work, but you never got around to talking about it because you spent the whole time trying to convince them of the value of the thing you never talked about.

      P.S. You are correct about the format of the standard article. However, these are short manifestos, with pretty explicit instructions.

  2. Eric - make sure you announce this issue here when it comes out :)

  3. Really lookin forward to this issue! I hope mansell's and marken's PCT paper was helpful. The interview with Richard caused quite a debate with Andrew and Sabrina!

    1. I liked their paper a lot.

      I think the referenced argument (found at the end of the nice PCT article found here)was a pretty good example of what I am trying to avoid. So far as I can tell, the core idea in PCT is also a core idea in Eco Psych. There are different supplemental things, and different vocabularies, but the research programs and the take home messages should be extremely compatible. Among other things, the discussion devolved pretty rapidly into an argument over details of particular scientific results rather than staying on the big-picture of agreement over how to do the science.

      Part of the trick is to get people to say "I am working on problem X using approach B, and also care a lot about Y. You are working on problem X using approach B, and also care a lot about Z. Let's not get in a fight over whether Y or Z is more important, and instead make some serious progress on problem X using approach B."

      P.S. For most, but not all of the articles, X and B have something to do with embodiment and embeddedness.

    2. I'll look forward to seeing this paper; I have to say I wasn't that impressed by the details of the approach, it was missing a lot (dynamics, action, etc) so it'll be interesting to see what they say here.