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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Ecological and Social Psychology - Is it Holt or Nothing?!?

My initial article connecting Holt and Ecological Psychology (see discussion here) generated two comments. The comments covered many points, but the most consistent thread was that Ecological Psychology had studied social behavior and had not needed to turn to Holt to do so. The journal (Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, IPBS) invited me to respond. Taking the strongest tact I could, the title of the reply focused on the main bone of contention: "Ecological Psychology and Social Psychology: It is Holt,or Nothing!" (full text available here). While that might have been a bit extreme, seven years later I still believe that if it overstepped, it was not by much. The central problem is that Ecological Psychology is fundamentally a theory of perception, while Social Psychology is fundamentally about how congregations of things with minds are different than collections of things without minds; for Ecological Psychology to truly contribute to Social Psychology, the assertion must be made, at some level, that we can perceive the things that make the interactions of things with minds interesting... we must, at some level, be able to perceive minds. As I set up in the text:

  • If ecological psychologists have anything to offer regarding the unique concerns of social psychology, their contribution will develop and extend the ideas of Holt.
  • If ecological psychologists will not accept Holt’s basic premises, then they can contribute nothing to solving the unique concerns of social psychology.
After laying out the basics of Ecological Psychology, I point out that there are three options regarding how social situations may look from an the perspective of an Eco-Psych researcher:

It may be the case that (A) nothing unique exists in the social situations from the ecological point of view. This would be rather dull. True, ecological psychology could contribute to social psychology, but doing so requires no innovation by either side. The amount of heady discussion generated in this endeavor suggests that this possibility is unlikely. Alternatively, it may be the case that (B) there are things unique to the social situation, and they are perceivable. This would be ideal—standard ecological theory may require some adjustment to accommodate the phenomenon in question, but such adjustment is possible. Ecological psychology can make a contribution to social psychology, and such an extension might benefit ecological psychology as well. Finally, it may be the case that (C) there are things unique to the social situation, but they are not perceivable. This would be unfortunate; ecological psychology would never be able to contribute significantly to social psychology proper.
The focus of the article is then on developing option B, which is the option that is interesting from a theory/philosophy of psychology perspective. (Option C is the standard Cartesian assertion, and option is A has been worked over thoroughly in connection with reductionist efforts over several centuries.)

Let us reject [the] traditional view of minds, and declare that people do not have unique access to their own mental states. Let us assert that people can, under the right conditions, know other minds. Such a declaration provides, I assert, the only viable starting point from which a theory of directly perception can contribute insight into the uniquely social. That is, if ecological psychologists want to explore the possibility of a significant contribution to social psychology, then they must begin by rejecting the Cartesian view of mind, and positing direct perception of other minds.
The challenge this leaves us with is clear, as is the necessary solution if we are developing the idea that Eco-psych can contribute to the unique aspects of social psych:
The most challenging part of this thesis is to determine how minds can be seen. The outline of an answer to that challenge is obvious, as we are working within the context of ecological psychology: Mental states are composed of perceivable elements, objects taking part in particular events, arranged in some manner. These elements structure the energy array in a manner not only specific to themselves individually, but also in a manner specific to the relation between the parts. An organism can thus perceive the mental state of another organism if it is sensitive to the higher-order information that specifies the mental state. Q.E.D. As always, the devil is in the details. In this case, the primary challenge is to identify what mental states are made up of.

In fact, there is a lot of work already in Ecological Psychology that falls in line with this, though the full implications are not always developed (in terms of the inherent assertion that mental states should be visible). Discussion of that will continue next time.

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