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

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The problem with alternatives to cognitive psychology

In the last post, I pointed out the problem with cognitive psychology: While often hopelessly ambiguous, it creates a practical and useful sense of solidity, making it easy to use for normal professional activities. But what about alternative approaches?

Alas, the situation is almost the complete opposite for most attempts to get “beyond cognitivism”: They are not, or at least do not seem, useful in the above sense. They are not flexible, in that they are picky about which theoretical constructs are plugged into a given hole; they are not utilitarian, in that it is often unclear how to implement a program of research based on the theories, even if you agree with them completely; and they are non-conformist, in that they involve rejecting the way lay westerners think of the world. Further (or perhaps as a result), though the terms used might be quite concrete, they provide a firm illusion of being hopelessly ambiguous. The combination of little flexibility, little usefulness, unintuitiveness and seeming ambiguity, make it difficult for aspiring psychologists to understand, and further, once the neophytes become convinced, it will be difficult for them to go about standard professional activities. (p. 195)

The paper goes on to take a particular look at phenomenology, as the paper is officially in reply to a target article arguing in favor of that approach. However, the points apply equally to all "alternative" approaches I am familiar with, including modal behaviorism, radical embodied cognition and enactivism, hermeneutic approach, ecological psychology (Gibson or Barker), semiotics and cultural psychology, etc. Those approaches are more difficult to pursue, and  there is often little effort within the communities to overcome the challenges that difficulty creates for new researchers and for mainstream researchers who are willing to consider switching over.

The article concludes:
Those advocating so-called alternatives to cognitivism bear a heavy burden. First, they must be able to present their approach in a way that allows others to understand the new system and to use it in ways necessary for empirical examination, professional development, and public presentation. This goal is achievable; the initial step towards achieving it is to make the models underlying the vocabulary explicit, rather than leaving it implicit. Second, to prove they have a true “alternative” they must argue that their system can be accepted fully, and cognitivism can be rejected fully. This is almost certainly not achievable; the reason is that the domains of interest presented by the alternatives are different than the domain of interest of cognitivism. Instead, the alternatives should encourage diversity, and emphasize the situations in which their approaches can lead to benefits that the cognitive approach would not allow. If they followed this suggestion fully, they would encourage a variety of approaches and foster the production of new ideas. If in many years it is found that their approach has exerted its influence, it will not be because they brow beat outsiders, but because people could achieve their goals within the system or it’s yet unthought of derivatives. (p. 199)

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