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Unifying Psychology


[Photo by otherthings]

Since psychology’s split from philosophy around the turn of the last century, much talk has focussed on how the discipline should model itself on the natural sciences. Wilhelm Wundt, the godfather of experimental psychology thought psychology should look towards physics for its inspiration. Physics and psychology are, of course, very different disciplines, but, despite this, they do still have one common goal.

A long-held dream of physicists is the unification of the fundamental forces of nature into a grand unified theory. Much progress has been made in unifying the electromagnetic forces but the difficult one has always been gravity. Some progress has been made with ideas like String Theory but finding that elusive Higgs Boson is holding things up.

Psychology, meanwhile, languishes back in the Dark Ages compared to physics. At least physics has agreed on common terminology for its fundamental concepts. You don’t find different physicists with different names for gravity. By contrast in psychology, as Staats (1999) points out, we have, for example: ‘self-concept’, ‘self-image’, self-perception’, ‘self-esteem’, ‘self-efficacy’ and the plain old ‘self’. What’s the difference? Perhaps little, yet all these words are still used and this is just one of many ill-defined concepts.

Let’s set aside the question of whether it is possible or even desirable to unify psychology and accept its utility for the purposes of discussion. What factors have lead to the current state of disunity and how might this problem be rectified? Two recent articles provide some answers, Sternberg & Grigorenko (2001) see a largely methodological and organisational problem solved by the adoption of new research habits, while Henriques (2003) sees an epistemological problem in search of a meta-theoretical solution.

Sternberg & Grigorenko (2001)

The first problem Sternberg & Grigorenko (2001) identify is psychologists’ focus on single methodologies. The example they provide – well-known to undergraduates – is of the connection, or lack of connection, found between attitudes and behaviour. The standard way of investigating attitudes in the past has been to ask people to complete a questionnaire on their attitudes and then, later, observe their behaviour. Frequently little connection is found between what people say they believe and how they act – a finding cynics would consider unsurprising.

A good example of a challenge to this approach is the Implicit Attitudes Test (IAT) used in the study of prejudice. This is a computer-based test that measures participant’s reaction times to the faces of Black and White people. Low and behold a number of prejudices are revealed when each face is assessed relative to other faces. By relying on reaction times, this test cleverly nullifies the ability of participants to cover up their prejudiced attitudes in order to conform to social expectations.

Sternberg & Grigorenko (2001) call this methodological pluralism ‘converging operations’ and offer some reasons why researchers don’t adopt this approach more often:

  • Training: Psychologists are often not trained in multiple methodologies and tend to see retraining in alternative methodologies as too great an investment of time and effort.
  • Panaceas: Researchers see the particular methodology they use as providing all or most of the answers that they are looking for. In reality, no one methodology can do this.
  • Norms: Journals, fields of study, departments. They all have norms researchers follow, whether consciously or unconsciously.

The second major problem for Sternberg & Grigorenko (2001) is the way psychology is split into sub-disciplines. One clear example of this is the study of memory. Memory is generally studied by cognitive psychologists who have trained in cognitive psychology and work in a department most closely with other cognitive psychologists. But memory should be studied across fields: by cognitive neuroscience, biological psychology, social psychology, clinical psychology, behavioural genetics and so on. Integrating ideas from all these fields on the same phenomenon seems more likely to produce a more useful model.

Ultimately the reason that change has not occurred is that many people have vested interests in the way the system already operates. Apart from this many are not aware, or do not accept, that there is a problem to be addressed.

Sternberg & Grigorenko (2001) Unified Psychology [Abstract]More on Henriques’ approach to unity in this post.



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