Unifying Psychology

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.
& 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.
the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD
is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from
University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about
scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book
“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.
Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.