Wednesday, August 26, 2009

There is no "real" psychology

By William Todd Schultz
May 29 2009

A recent post on "real psychology"--as opposed to all the fake or unreal psychology out there--got me thinking. The day we all decide on what real psychology is, is the day psychology dies. Real psychology equals dead-ended, myopic, oversimplification--of subject matter and of methodology. Real psychology is a means-centered approach. That is to say: only psychologists making use of prescribed, narrowly-defined "scientistic" methods are allowed into the fold. All others are touchy-feely, hopelessly subjective trespassers. Such a stance is 1) naïve, 2) unhistorical, and 3) regressive.

The study of the mind goes way back, of course, but let's just look at the 20th century. We had Wundt and his "experimental introspection," research into things like reaction time. We had the wonderfully overreaching brilliance of William James, who was into the same things as Wundt--attention, memory, sensation--but also psychic phenomena, religious experience, and philosophy and art. We had Freud and psychoanalysis. We had Jung and his association experiments. Then there was the biologically reductionistic doings of psychiatry that led, by the 1950s, to seizure therapies and lobotomy. Skinner's radical behaviorism had its day, followed by the cognitive revolution and, in time, by neuroscience. Lots always going on, in other words, from lots of different angles. Methodologically speaking, there was case study, experimentation, introspection, animal behavior, surveys, projective techniques, dream analysis, phenomenology, lesion studies--the list goes on and on. Methodological pluralism was/is the norm. But still today, let's face it, psychology is more or less in the Stone Ages. No doubt much has been accomplished. Powerful mid-level theories do exist that are promisingly predictive. But as for the great big questions, those enduring mysteries, we've taken only very small steps. We still don't know why we dream. We still don't know what causes schizophrenia. We still can't make solid sense of the function of consciousness. So let's not start proclaiming what real psychology is. Better to keep that question helpfully unanswered.

Psychology's disorder now is multiple personality, and in a way that's fine. What we've got is something like 60 sub-disciplines leaving in their wake a farrago of sub sub-disciplines. Each sub-discipline is pretty insular, there is little harmony overall (far more cacophony), and what's especially funny is this: every sub-discipline tends to believe--according to an in-group, out-group dynamic--that it is THE ONLY ONE DOING REAL PSYCHOLOGY. In fact, each is focusing on its own little hiccup of mind, its own pet variables, while mainly neglecting the questions other sub-disciplines find so essential. So each sub-discipline inflates the importance of its methods/questions while devaluing the methods/questions of other sub-disciplines. That attitude was on hair-raising display in the post cited at the top of this one.

Take my situation. I have a PhD in Personality from UC Davis. Now, presently, with some important exceptions, Social Psychologists sometimes devalue Personality Science while Personality Psychologists sometimes devalue Social Psychology. I like to think of this as the narcissism of minor differences, but that's another subject altogether.

I also do qualitative case study research that in my case goes by the name of Psychobiography. According to some, that's not real psychology because it is not experimental. Well, someone should have clued in Piaget, Erikson, Maslow, Freud, Jung, James, Skinner (who also used single-subject design), RD Laing, Henry Murray, Silvan Tomkins, etc etc etc, ALL OF WHOM DID CASE STUDY AND ALL OF WHOM ARE REGARDED AS SEMINAL FIGURES IN THE FIELD. I don't know, it's a strangely territorial neurotic mind-set that 1) believes itself in possession of true knowledge and 2) feels a need to tell lowly others that what they are up to is BS.

I say this: we psychologists know a lot less than we think we do, and at this very early stage of the game in the study of mind, all promising approaches and questions are welcome. The more the merrier. Does anything go? No. But is there one real psychology? Double no.

Published on Psychology Today (

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