Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Mainstream experimental psychology; should it be more critical?

I feel there are constant warnings against false dichotomies in psychology, such as nurture versus nature, or that the individual and social binary is extremely fuzzy. Simplistic approaches that attempt to explain human cognition such as perception, based on experiments that measure stimulus response, are extremely reductive. Dewey's paper brilliantly illustrates this. Furthermore, any given theory has underlying assumptions and any research that attempts to provide evidence should be clear about those assumptions.

Clearly, we need to adopt assumptions and simplify matters in order to progress, especially in experimental psychology. My objection is not to that, but to findings being presented as if they are free from assumptions, generalizable, capture all aspects, and are the only explanations, and that there are no alternative explanations/approaches.

In most mainstream experimental psychology there is little (if any) attention paid to the complexities of cognitive processes and the individual is often studied in isolation. It isn’t unusual to read research findings as if they are generalizable and with no mention of any limitations, controversies or the assumptions adopted within that framework. Indeed some theories/research findings are presented as facts. Here it is claimed that poverty has the same effect on the brain as constantly pulling all-nighters. Poverty, a very loose term, which is a dynamic interplay of many possible factors such as financial, motivational, cultural, contextual, historical, environmental, and/or personal etc., is oversimplified and compared to pulling an all-nighter.

Mainstream experimental psychology covers a wide area as I have experienced as both an undergrad psychology student and as a postgrad cognitive psychology student. My (na├»ve) perception of psychology when I embarked on my first degree was to come out of it understanding certain facts regarding human behaviour. I wonder if others shared similar expectations and how those expectations changed. For example, I had always wondered what makes some people more intelligent than others. After some years in the discipline it seems that there are no ‘facts’ or ‘proofs’  and most phenomena such as intelligence are highly complex and can never be attributed to a single factor.

In fairness some modules do make it clear that there are always alternative explanations and models in, say, understanding memory, and clarify that no model is free from assumptions or limitations. Others encourage you to take a healthy critical stance and make you look deeper. However, in some modules there is little mention of assumptions, alternative explanations or controversies. In a recent psychology lecture I attended, I felt there was very little (if any) critical engagement; something I probably wouldn’t have noticed if I were in the first couple of years of studying psychology. For instance, this finding (in my opinion a controversial one) claims that “75% of people see the face as a valid guide to personality” without any mention of controversies or limitations. This is a huge claim and its discussion should include the assumptions, criticisms, limitations, and so on, but this was absent. Since one has been constantly told to be wary of big claims like this, this lecture is confusing to say the least and unsatisfying for the critically minded. Presumably, the module was only beginning and critical evaluation would follow. However, I think when presenting a given theory/research finding any limitations, assumptions, or controversies associated with it should be included as part and parcel of it.

This may sound like a bit of a rant of a blog post but what I’m trying to say is that, most topics that psychology is investigating are not fully understood and any claims should be treated with caution and their underlying assumptions outlined. Alternative explanations should also be sought. Most importantly, the student should be made aware of complexities and limitations from the beginning. That way those (and maybe it was just me who had unrealistic expectations) who choose to study psychology know what they are getting in to and that there is seldom one right answer.


  1. Then the Topics module might provide the critical illumination you miss (I hope!).

  2. The tutorial format of todays lecture offered some deeper discussion of limitations of research findings and biases which was useful. The format of discussions were structured around debating the pros and cons of Tovees approach. It seems the general lectures are trying to cover a listing of vast references of theories that investigate each topic with little time for acknowledging limitations. Or perhaps it is an attempt to get our handwriting up to speed and efficient before our exam at the end of term!!? I guess we can fuflill the critic of papers among ourselves?

  3. Nice to hear there were discussions of limitations and criticisms. Not surprising that the attempt was to cover vast references and theories with little acknowledgement of limitations. This sounds like some of the psychology modules I was referring to in the above post. But shouldn't the limitations, criticisms, and alternative perspectives be given as much time as listing a certain theory? May be that is wishful thinking.

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