Thursday, 5 May 2016

Circular Reasoning in Psychology

Psychology receives a barrage of complaints from the harder sciences because it doesn’t result in useful theories that can effectively explain and predict human behaviour. It also suffers from regularly conflicting results or issues of circular reasoning, which don’t act to solidify it’s standing in the scientific world.

An example of the circular reasoning that is rampant, especially in cognitivist approaches, comes from the literature on Intrinsic Motivation. According to Deci and Ryan (1985), the biggest proponents for the concept, intrinsic motivation reflects a desire to act without any external reasons to do so, because the activity is inherently interesting or enjoyable, or because personal significance is attached to the task.

The biggest measurement for intrinsic motivation is allowing someone to take part in a task without giving them incentives to do so, and monitoring how long they participate (Carton, 1996). High levels of intrinsic motivation are measured by long periods of participation in the task, and the reason the participation is long is said to be due to the high levels of intrinsic motivation. The circular reasoning here is glaring and is commonly referred to as the “begging the question fallacy”. A similar fallacy occurs if someone says, “Game of Thrones is popular because everyone is watching it”. No explanatory power is derived from this sentence, and it carries no scientific value. Nevertheless, numerous hours of research was funded to further investigate this contrived concept.

Intrinsic motivation has been applied to education, exercise, nutrition, smoking and many other fields (Cameron & Pierce, 1994). Self-determination theory, which is a description of intrinsic motivation by Deci & Ryan (1985), has been touted as one of the best explanatory frameworks for motivation. Furthermore, it has been used in a variety of interventions, with proponents stating benefits related to improved understanding, increased performance, and higher enjoyment. Countless researchers have mentioned that intrinsic motivation correlates with higher task enjoyment, claiming this highlights one of the benefits of having intrinsic motivation (Williams, Gagne, Mushlin, & Deci, 2005).

If we return to the definition of intrinsic motivation, it says it is the desire to act without external influence, because the task is inherently interesting or enjoyable. It says it right there in the definition. Intrinsic motivation is basically a measure of how enjoyable a task is. If measuring how long people will spend playing an enjoyable video game versus a boring one, longer play times on the first game will reflect the entertaining value of the game, not some inherent characteristic of the player. Therefore claiming intrinsic motivation correlates with higher task enjoyment is as useful as saying that laughter correlates with good comedy, or that respiration correlates with life expectancy.

While the circular reasoning in this field is glaringly obvious to me now, it took me an undergraduate thesis, a master’s thesis and a PhD appplication in the same area for the issues to become apparent. So I can really understand why psychology is currently in a crisis. More and more previously well-established findings can’t be replicated, and publication bias has become a real issue. Journals are unlikely to publish a paper that supports the null hypothesis, and so evidence against these concepts is ignored.

Current research is mostly hidden behind paywalls and not avaiable to mass public scrutiny. Hope emerges that movements towards open access journals will not only improve access to knowledge, but also increase the standards for which we do science. It is the responsiblity of researchers to delve deep into the concepts that are taken for granted as unanimously accepted. Only then can we hope to reach new levels of understanding of humanity in all its complexities.


Cameron, J., & Pierce, W. D. (1994). Reinforcement, reward, and intrinsic motivation: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational research, 64(3), 363-423.

Carton, J. S. (1996). The differential effects of tangible rewards and praise on intrinsic motivation: A comparison of cognitive evaluation theory and operant theory. The Behavior Analyst, 19(2), 237.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). The general causality orientations scale: Self-determination in personality. Journal of research in personality, 19(2), 109-134.

Williams, G. C., Gagné, M., Mushlin, A. I., & Deci, E. L. (2005). Motivation for behavior change in patients with chest pain. Health Education, 105(4), 304-321.

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