Thursday, 3 March 2016

Potential of an ecological approach to a unified theory.


           
Traditionally, psychology and other social sciences like sociology, political science, etc., have been considered to be “soft science” disciplines, whilst natural sciences like chemistry, physics, etc., have been considered to be “hard science” disciplines.  This soft science label can be considered as a chip on the shoulder for most researchers in social science disciplines, particularly psychologists.  Unlike the natural sciences, psychology is still considered to be a rather young field of science, particularly experimental psychology, which the first lab dedicated to experimental psychology being opened in 1879 by Wilhelm Wundt.  Though many would argue that psychology is a hard science on the grounds that researchers attempt to rigorously adhere to the scientific method and prefer quantitative methods, and results, above qualitative methods, alongside the widely accepted concept that large sample sizes will make the results more generalisable to the general population.  

            As Behaviourism began to rise as the “theory that will explain all”, researchers began to take preference of requiring participants to sit in a room where a single aspect of their behaviour was studied, completely isolated from the world.  The results from these experiments were then used to form theories, or to further support current theories (e.g., the use of conditioning theory to explain language development).  Soon after, cognitivist researchers began to closely follow the example of the behaviourists in regards to research and interpretation of results.  The results of these “White room experiments” only revealed an interesting aspect of humans in how they think or behave but they do not explain how these aspects occurred, they only describe them.  

            This form of experimental work has provided an insight into how people behave or think under constructed conditions or within restricted clinical procedures but it does not provide an understanding of how people might think or behave under different circumstances that are outside of the laboratory.  It was because of the desire to study human behaviour outside of laboratories that the school of ecological psychology developed.  This school is predominantly associated with Gibson’s theories of an ecological approach, but it also draws from Barker’s empirical research from the Midwest Psychological Field Station.  Although Barker first used the term ecological psychology, claiming that ecological psychology is “concerned with both molecular and molar behaviour, and with both psychological environment… and the ecological environment”, his approach to ecological psychology is sometimes referred to as environmental psychology, but both Barker’s and Gibson’s views and schools do overlap, particularly in the emphasis of real world studies instead of laboratory studies. 

            It is from this school of psychology that researchers would benefit greatly in regards to theory development and empirical research.  Unlike other scientific disciplines, psychology lacks a core, unifying theory to assist in explaining the studied phenomena.  The lack of a core theory has caused difficulty in the development of the field of psychology, particularly with the use of empirical research to study behaviour, or cognition, when developing theories.  As I have said before, white room experiments describe a phenomena in a structured, isolated environment but do not explain how or why such phenomena occur, as such the theories based on these results are being developed with an attitude of “here are the results, I don’t know what caused them but aren’t they interesting?”, but with the consideration of an ecological approach when developing theories of behaviour and cognition there is potential to provide stronger theories to account for these phenomena as well as possibly explaining abnormal results or phenomena.  For example, if we consider the research of Bem (2011) on precognition, where participants were given a list of words with a free recall task which was then followed by training on a set of words from the list there was a statistically significant improvement on free recall.  Bem claimed that future occurences were influencing previous performances.  Rather than attempt to explain how these results occurred using the current theories of recall and memory, Bem simply described what occurred and attempted to loosely explain them through quantum mechanics.  In contrast to this, we can see that if implemented correctly, the use of the ecological approaches theory can be beneficial in theory development research when we consider Bingham’s Perception-Action Model (1988), where the use of an ecological approach assisted to provide structure and dismissed alternative explanations for the phenomena.   


The discipline of psychology requires a unifying theory which will be beneficial to its development, but there are multiple factors that are slowing the progress in the potential development of this unified theory.  The current approach taken by psychologists towards theory development is more harmful to the discipline rather than beneficial, they are describing laboratory results and failing to explain them, the zealous desire to be considered as a “hard science” is a possible cause of this attitude, too many researchers believe that the use of statistics and rigorous artificial environments will make their results more “scientific”.  The problem with the lack of a unifying theory of psychology can possibly be overcome by attempting to advance the research with an ecological approach in mind and use it as a guidance through the development of the theory.  The benefits of a unified theory can been seen in other disciplines of science, for example when attempting to explain why neutrinos were travelling faster than the speed of light Adams et al (2011) used the relativity theory to explain the inconsistent results rather than creating a new theory.  Once a unified theory of psychology exists, research can progress further, and faster, than it currently does and allow for more reliable interpretations of results and explanation of abnormalities.  Such a theory would also allow for communication between different fields of psychology opening up more discussions and potential development.  

References:
Bem, D. J. (2011). Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,100(3), 407-425.
Bingham, G. P. (1988). Task-specific devices and the perceptual bottleneck.  Human Movement Science, 7(2), 25-264.

3 comments:

  1. Are you convinced that a "unified theory" is possible in principle? How would you know that you had arrived at such a theory? What would it range over? Wouldn't such a construction instantly end all wars and strife in the world (and isn't that a hint that it's not possible?). So many questions . . .

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  2. For me it depends on which day I'm thinking about this. At some points I am of the belief that something akin to a unifying theory might be possible and then I read something, often anthropological data, that makes the project for a unifying theory rather over ambitious. Still it might be possible to agree on some empirical tools for conducting observations rather than a theory

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  3. For me it depends on which day I'm thinking about this. At some points I am of the belief that something akin to a unifying theory might be possible and then I read something, often anthropological data, that makes the project for a unifying theory rather over ambitious. Still it might be possible to agree on some empirical tools for conducting observations rather than a theory

    ReplyDelete