Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Mainstream psychology

This entry is ridicously long. It started out as a short clarifying note on ‘mainstream psychology’, but grew to an entire chapter. My apologies for any inconvenience.
The one rule that anyone with moral stamina actually can follow is the one that commands us to avoid the comforts of the ‘mainstream’.
(Robinson, 2000, p. 43)
Within the field of theoretical psychology, and particularly critical psychology, there are frequent references to ‘mainstream psychology’, usually in a context that implies that it is something problematic, bad, or even dangerous. Although this is a topic for debate and disagreement, it might be helpful to elaborate on what this ‘mainstream psychology’ refers to.

At first glance, the sheer diversity of the numerous subfields of psychology hardly suggest that there is anything ‘mainstream’ about psychology at all. Cognitive, biological, developmental, social, clinical and personality psychology—just to mention a few—all have their own set of theories and methodological approaches. Neuropsychology, which at the outset is a branch of neurophysiology, has little to do with organizational psychology, a discipline bordering on economics and business management. Nevertheless, they are regarded as different aspects of human functioning and activity, often in a ground-up fashion where biological processes are seen as the foundations of organizational behaviour.

A widespread textbook in psychological research methods claims that ‘most [psychologists] represent mainstream psychology, which is integrative in nature, drawing from many psychological theories and many areas of research’ (Graziano & Raulin, 2007, p. 24). This ‘integration’ of theories from such diverse research areas as, for example, social psychology and psychophysics, is often done in a rather unreflective manner, insensible to the underlying meta-theoretical or even metaphysical assumptions.

Mainstream psychology is all about those underlying assumptions. They are hard to spot, and I realise I have expressed them in various ways over the years, so what I give an account for here is the present formulation: mainstream psychology draws on the assumptions that (1) mental phenomena can and must be measured in order to be scientifically meaningful (the quantitative imperative), (2) all mental phenomena can be reduced to the laws of neural function (reductive materialism), and (3) in order to conduct scientific research proper, the psychologist must subscribe to the ‘empirical’ method.

The quantitative imperative

The quantitative imperative is ‘the view that in science, when you cannot measure, you do not really know what you are talking about, but when you can, you do’ (Michell, 2003, p. 5)⁠. In order to be scientifically meaningful, psychological phenomena must be quantified and measured (measurement being ‘the assignment of numerals to objects or events according to rules’ [Stevens, 1946, p. 677]⁠).

This focus on measurability dominate contemporary psychology: cognitive psychology is entirely based on measurement of behavioural responses and reaction times, psychometric self-rating scales are mandatory in clinical psychology, complex mathematical procedures are used in attempts to measure ‘personality’, social psychology relies on measurement and observational methods, and so on. Simply put, anything that goes into an analysis of variance (ANOVA) is eligible for psychological research, anything that doesn't, is not. (This is also an aspect of the dedication to the ‘empirical method’.)

William James
Modern psychology take this measurability of mental phenomena for granted, but it was controversial and widely debated during the late 19th century when psychology was founded. For example, William James (1842–1910), one of the founders of american psychology, criticized the german psychophysicist Gustav Fechner (1801–1887), who, according to James, in the notion of Weber's law held the position
1) that the just-perceptible increment is the sensation-unit, and is in all parts of the scale the same (mathematically expressed, Δs = const.); 2) that all our sensations consist of sums of these units; and finally, 3) that the reason why it takes a constant fractional increase of the stimulus to awaken this unit lies in an ultimate law of the connection of mind with matter, whereby the quantities of our feelings are related logarithmically to the quantities of their objects.
(James, 1890, p. 545)
What Fechner claims is that there is a lawful regularity between our inner experiences and the events and objects of the external world, and that this regularity can, as with all natural science, be mathematically expressed. To this, James has the following objections:
To begin with, the mental fact which in the experiments corresponds to the increase of the stimulus is not an enlarged sensation, but a judgement that the sensation is enlarged. What Fechner calls the ‘sensation’ is what appears to the mind as the objective phenomenon of light, warmth, weight, sound, impressed part of body, etc. Fechner tacitly if not openly assumes that such a judgment of increase consists in the simple fact that an increased number of sensation-units are present to the mind; and that the judgment is thus itself a quantitatively bigger mental thing when it judges large differences, or differences between large terms, than when it judges small ones. […] But really it has no meaning to talk about one judgment being bigger than another. And even if we leave out judgments and talk of sensations only, we have already found ourselves […] quite unable to read any clear meaning into the notion that they are masses of units combined. To introspection, our feeling of pink is surely not a portion of our feeling of scarlet; nor does the light of an electric arc seem to contain that of a tallow-candle in itself.
(James, 1890, p. 546)⁠
Although James interpretation of Fechner should be accepted only with some caution (James was rather impatient with contemporary german psychology), his criticism of the supposed quantifiability of mental phenomena is still valid. The fact that contemporary psychology relies on behavioural observation and operationalism, that is, ‘the intuition that we do not know the meaning of a concept unless we have a method of measurement for it’ (Chang, 2009)⁠, does not change the fact that the measurability of the matters of interest is not a scientific fact, but an epistemological assumption.

Reductive materialism

The previously mentioned textbook on research methods also claims that psychology is the scientific study of behaviour, and is ‘often considered to be a social science, but its roots are clearly in the natural sciences’ (Graziano & Raulin, 2007, p. 25)⁠. Although this reflects the predominant conceptions of contemporary psychology, it has little support in history. At the outset, psychology was never a simple branch of natural science, nor concerned only with behaviour. Psychology is not a straight line from Wilhelm Wundt and his laboratory in Leipzig to Philip Zimbardo and the Stanford Prison Experiment.

During the 19th century, when psychology was founded as a scientific enterprise, three traditions or approaches to matters of psychology emerged and have prevailed ever since, although one of them became the dominant perspective at the expense of the others. First, there is what Robinson (1995) terms reductive materialism, based on the proposition that ‘all mental states, events, and processes originate in the states, events, and processes of the body and, more specifically, of the brain’ (p. 306). Reduction in this context refers to the notion that psychological phenomena can be reduced to the laws of neural function, and materialism to the ontological claim that, in the end, all that exists, even consciousness, is nothing but matter in motion. Thus, all a ‘true science of the mind’ needs is a careful examination of and experimentation with the nervous system and its functions. In other words, psychology is perceived as a natural science, in search of the universal laws that govern behaviour and the human mind.

Second, introspectionism is the view that the subject matter of psychology is consciousness, and the method of choice is introspection, that is, the psychological method of self-examination. Robinson (1995)⁠ carefully points out that this refers to experimental introspection in the tradition of Gustav Fechner and Wilhelm Wundt, not the ‘method of private or personal introspection of the philosophers’ (p. 306). The introspectionists were convinced of the irreducibility of mental phenomena and claimed that only the person who had an experience could report it. According to the introspectionist approach, psychology is a mental or human science, in search of the universal laws that govern human experience.

Third, some observers were persuaded neither by the reductive materialists nor the introspectionists. Materialism can shed no light on the complexities of social life, and introspection can never discover any ‘laws of the mind’. The proper subject of psychology, they claimed, ‘is the actual conduct of real persons in socially significant settings, their doings, their ideas, and the pressures operating on them’ (Robinson, 1995, p. 312)⁠, thus proposing that psychology must be a kind of social science. In some ways, this is the precursor to contemporary social psychology.

Wilhelm Wundt
Note that both William James and Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920)—two significant names in the history of psychology—were introspectionists. Despite the modern dedication of ‘father of experimental psychology’, Wundt developed a holistic, anti-reductionist Physiologische Psychologie, that more closely resembles the later Gestalt-psychologists and Husserl's phenomenology, than American experimentalism (Kim, 2009)⁠. Both James and Wundt were trained physiologists, but aimed at establishing psychology as an independent discipline bordering on physiology and philosophy.

It should also be noted that the introspectionist view did not oppose materialism, at least not as much as it opposed Cartesian dualism and German idealism. The claim was that mental phenomena—ideas, feelings, sensations, perceptions, concepts, art, science, faith, conscious, unconscious, and illusions—cannot be reduced to mere physiology or neural functioning, but must be studied on their own terms. William James adopted a neutral monist view, that is, the belief that ultimate reality is all of one kind, a kind of ‘neutral stuff’, neither mental nor physical. Wilhelm Wundt wrote at length on what he called psychophysical parallelism, which might be thought of as a monist variant of the dual-aspect theory:
If we could see every wheel in the physical mechanism whose working the mental processes are accompanying, we should still find no more than a chain of movements showing no trace whatsoever of their significance for mind. So that, despite the universality of the parallelistic principle, all that is valuable in our mental life still falls to the psychical side.
(Wundt, 1907, p. 446)⁠
To the extent that reductive materialism and introspection were competing approaches to psychology, it was the former that were successful. Experimental introspection never resulted in reliable, repeatable observations, even with experienced observers (Wundt and his assistants used trained ‘observers’ in the Leipzig laboratory, not naïve ‘subjects’ like contemporary psychology), and there were major disagreements on what exactly could be observed through introspection. Oswald Külpe (1862–1915) and Edward Titchener (1867–1927) abandoned Wundt's strict paradigm of careful and immediate introspection and tried to study higher cognitive processes experimentally, an enterprise to which Wundt strongly disagreed. Külpe and Titchener, on the other hand, disagreed on the possibility of conscious content not based in some kind of mental imaging, a dissent that went down in history (now mostly forgotten) as the imageless thought controversy (Thomas, 2010)⁠.

John B. Watson
All in all, this led to a loss of confidence in the scientific value of introspection and paved the way for alternative approaches to psychology, most notably observations of behaviour. This also meant that the subject matter of psychology changed, from the introspective study of consciousness and the reductive materialist examination of neural functioning, to the pure study of behaviour. In this regard, John Watson's (1878–1958) behaviourist manifesto marks the end of this debate, rather than the beginning of behaviourism (Richards, 2010)⁠:
Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness. The behaviorist, in his efforts to get a unitary scheme of animal response, recognizes no dividing line between man and brute. The behavior of man, with all of its refinement and complexity, forms only a part of the behaviorist's total scheme of investigation.
(Watson, 1911, p. 158)⁠
Burrhus Frederic Skinner
Although few psychologists actually subscribed to the extreme reductionism expressed in Watson's work, it helped to establish psychology as a natural science. Psychology adopted a highly technical language (stimulus, response, conditioning, reinforcement, etc), initially borrowed from the russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936) and later developed by the chief architect of behaviorism, B. F. Skinner (1904–1990). ‘Mentalistic’ references to consciousness, feelings, emotions, mental images, fantasies and the like, were not ‘objectively observable’ and thus utterly unscientific (Richards, 2010).

The questions of consciousness and mind-body dualism, that so bothered the pioneering psychologists, were quite simply abandoned. Instead, the reductive materialism that underpins behaviourism and Pavlovian reflexology were, perhaps unwittingly, taken for granted. With time, it became a prerequisite for scholars of psychology, thus securing reductive materialism as the primary approach within academic psychology. The advent of cognitive psychology, which must be considered the current ‘paradigm’ of psychology, has not changed this. The ‘cognitive revolution’ was not much of a revolution when it comes to epistemological concerns. On the contrary, cognitivism meant nothing more than accounting for subjective experiences (not merely ignoring them) by the notion of ‘cognitive processes’.

The ‘empirical’ method

In their textbook on research methods, Graziano and Raulin (2007)⁠ claims that ‘all areas of psychology use the scientific model to study behavior’ (p. 25), where model refers to the ‘model of the research process’ to which the entire book is devoted. It is, perhaps, significative of the discipline of psychology that 24 pages is dedicated to the history and philosophy of science in general and psychology in particular, while the remaining 353 pages concern how to properly conduct psychological research.

Daniel N. Robinson
Scholars in other academic disciplines often (rightly) accuse psychology for its dogmatic use of the ‘empirical method’. Empirical in this context essentially means ‘experimentation’, and Daniel Robinson summarizes matters tellingly:
What has been characteristic of experimental psychology is the adoption of a rather prosaic set of experimental “controls” and a repeated-measures paradigm. In a wide variety of settings, this method of procedure has yielded fairly stable functional relationships between dependent and independent variables under conditions generally so unlike the domain of interest as to render generalizations jejune. It is a credit to the psychologists of the nineteenth century that they valiantly undertook to apply such methods to psychological phenomena, for only by attempting to develop psychology in such a fashion could the limits of the method be assessed. It is less of a credit to the legions that have dutifully imitated these efforts for the better part of a century.
(Robinson, 1995, p. 332)⁠
To laymen and first-year students of psychology, it is rather surprising that contemporary psychology is hardly ever concerned with apparent psychological matters such as ‘mind’, ‘consciousness’ and ‘self-reflection’. This is not so because such phenomena don't exist (because they do!), but because the accepted method—the ‘empirical’ method—is unable to address these matters. ‘The contemporary psychologist, if only insensibly, has made a metaphysical commitment to a method and has, per force, eliminated from the domain of significant issues those that cannot be embraced by that method’ (Robinson, 1995, p. 333)⁠.

What is meant by ‘empirical’ in this context is something rather different from what the historic empiricists—John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, and even William James—had in mind. ’”Empirical,” if the contemporary usage is to be captured, must also suggest measurement, practicality, impersonality, ethical neutrality and (ironic) “antimetaphysicalness”’ (Robinson, 1995, p. 334)⁠.

A characteristic feature of this dogmatic use of the ‘empirical’ method is the heavy reliance on statistical procedures. Statistics, as used in psychology, is a way of ‘modelling reality’ by distinguishing systematic variation from individual or ‘random’ variation—in other worlds, to describe (and hopefully explain) human behaviour in terms of mathematical relations between variables. This dependency on statistical procedures has some important epistemological implications, particularly when it comes to null hypothesis significance testing (NHST)—the mandatory p-values without which hardly any article in experimental psychology is publishable.

First, NHST of so-called parametric procedures (such as Student's t-test, ANOVA and linear regression) relies on the normal distribution, which, in its original formulation by Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777–1855), was a method to minimize the impact of measurement error. When using these methods in psychology, the notion of ‘measurement error’ is used in its very broadest sense, where human subjects are treated as ‘errors’ deviating from a grand mean. Thus, means are not about real people, but of some kind of abstract, generalized man.

Second, the very idea of NHST is based on probability theory and statistical inference, where the improbability of a given result from a stochastic (or random) process yields statistical significance. More specifically, a statistical test calculates the probability of the data (D) given the null hypothesis (H0), that is, P(D|H0). Besides regular misinterpretation of p as the probability that H0 is false—that is, the probability of the hypothesis given the data, P(H0|D)—rejection of H0 is frequently taken as an affirmation of the theory that led to the test:
So even when used and interpreted “properly,” with a significance criterion (almost always p < .05) set a priori (or more frequently understood), H0 has little to commend it in the testing of psychological theories in its usual reject-H0-confirm-the-theory form. The ritual dichotomous reject-accept decision, however objective and administratively convenient, is not the way any science is done.
(Cohen, 1994, p. 999)⁠
The mechanical—and sometimes anxious—use of statistical procedures in psychology reflects its metaphysical commitment to the ‘empirical’ method. As Jacob Cohen so aptly puts it:
All psychologists know that statistically significant does not mean plain-English significant, but if one reads the literature, one often discovers that a finding reported in the Results section studded with asterisks implicitly becomes in the Discussion section highly significant or very highly significant, important, big!
(Cohen, 1994, p. 1001)⁠
Third, even if the use of NHST is gradually abandoned in favour of statistical modelling (Rodgers, 2010)⁠, the question what the mathematically expressed regularities represent remain. If almost all persons stop at a red light, is that because the manipulated independent variable (red light) causes the observed dependent variable (stopping the car)—or because the cultural meaning of red light when driving a car means ‘stop the car’ and most people simply choose to conform to those cultural understandings? Regularities, whether mathematically expressed, cannot be taken as evidence that behaviour is causally determined and predictable. Considering culture, people within a particular society can be expected to show certain similar patterns of behaviour in specific contexts—including the psychology laboratory (Moghaddam, 2005)⁠.

The rigorous experimental settings, the arcane statistical procedures and the seemingly ‘hard facts’ in the form of numbers and p-values, brings psychology a semblance of ‘scientificality’: of objectivity, accuracy, validity. However,
[p]rogress in science is won by the application of an informed imagination to a problem of genuine consequence; not by the habitual application of some formulaic mode of inquiry to a set of quasi-problems chosen chiefly because of their compatibility with the adopted method.
(Robinson, 2000, p. 41)⁠


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