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6 Feb 08 – Lloyd Morgan’s Canon, Anthropomorphism, and Mechanomorphism

6 February 2008

On this day in 1852, Conwy Lloyd Morgan was born. Morgan developed a fundamental precept of comparative (animal) psychology often known as “Lloyd Morgan’s Canon”:

“In no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of the exercise of a higher psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of the exercise of one which stands lower in the psychological scale.”

This precept relates to a concept known as “anthropomorphism,” the attributing of human characteristics (motivation or behaviors) to animals.  Essentially, Morgan was saying that we should not apply human characteristics to animals – we should keep descriptions of animals as simple and non “humanistic” as possible.  Lloyd Morgan’s Canon is considered a special instance of Occam’s Razor (or the Law of Parsimony), which is named after a Friar (William of Ockham).  This principle states that the explanation of any phenomenon should involve as few assumptions as possible.  Unfortunately, Lloyd Morgan’s Canon has been applied not only to non-human animals but also to human “animals” in the sense that there was a strong push in psychology, especially in the 1940s, to not attribute human characteristics to…well, humans. 

In the 1940s, R. H. Waters wrote about this interesting tendency in psychology, noting that this rise culminated in the development of behavioristic psychologies, which were focused on constructing mechanical analogies of human behavior.  Essentially, Waters concluded by stating that this was a limiting conceptualization:

“To think of the organism as a machine is to adopt a premise and a method that leads the investigator into a blind alley – a blind alley that precludes the observation of certain types of evidence clearly indicating the presence of activities or capacities which are included in our concept of a conscious human being.”

This was likely an outgrowth of the fact that we chose our method of investigation in psychology before we considered our subject matter.  With our “physics envy” (as Leahy put it), we borrowed the mechanical methods of physics and applied them to psychological studies.  Given this, it was short step to begin to withdraw human characteristics from humans and, instead, apply mechanical conceptions to them.  In the 1950s, Robert Oppenheimer, the respected physicist, warned us about this tendency to “mechanomorphize” (as Waters put it) in our efforts to emulate classical (which in physics means “outdated”) physics:

“…the worst of all possible misunderstandings would be that psychology be influenced to model itself after a physics which is not there any more, which has been quite outdated.”

Unfortunately, this is exactly what occurred.  In fact, quite prophetically, 20 years earlier than Oppenheimer’s warning, the psychologist Robert Yerkes stated that, “Almost unconsciously…psychologists are becoming physiologists.  The probably outcome of this movement is the disappearance of psychology as a science of experience and its assimilation first by psychobiology and ultimately by physiology.”  By the 1970s, psychologists such as Donald Hebb flatly stated that, “Psychology is a biological science.” 

Fundamentally, the point I am trying to make is that the Morgan’s Canon and Ockham’s Razor have come to symbolize that explanations of psychological phenomena, even human mentation, motivation, etc., should rely on biological explanation.  In essence, in the “simplest form,” everything psychological is biological and should be understood (and treated) as such.  For this reason, there is currently a noticeable rise in biological understandings of psychological phenomena (what some, including me, refer to as “the biologization of psychology”).  It is also related to the increasing trend in psychology toward pursuit of prescription privileges – a traditionally biological treatment conducted by biologically – medically – trained practitioners (psychiatrists).Still, such understanding, as Waters was ready to admit in the 1940s, limits perspectives and ignores such issues as agency.  In essence, by conceptualizing humans as machines, the humanity of humans and the creative process and agentic action that they engage in is lost.  Worse still, it is ignored and unaccounted for. 

My belief is that the problem is not with the idea of using the simplest description, it is with not recognizing that the simplest description must still account for all the variations that exist.  Biological explanations certainly are a component of understanding and treating psychological phenomena but they are a necessary and not sufficient component. 

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.

February 6, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

5 Feb 08 – Watson/McDougall – The False Dichotomy of Nature/Nurture.

5 February 2008

On this day in 1924, a debate entitled, “Battle of Behaviorism,” sponsored by the Psychological Club of Washington, D.C., was held in the D.A.R. Memorial Constituion Hall.  The debate was between John Watson and William McDougall.  McDougall was declared victorious, with his hereditary perspective holding sway over Watson’s environmental perspective on behaviorism.

This debate was one of many representations of the “nature versus nurture controversy.”  Essentially, the arguments are pitted as conceptualizations of whether it is biological factors that determines behavior (e.g., genetics, neuroanatomy, neurochemicals) or environmental factors (e.g., family constitution, peer groups, nutrition, socioeconomic status, educational resources).  Today, it is commonly accepted that an interaction of factors – biological and environmental – are involved in the presentation of behaviors (though, there is an increasing trend toward considering neuroscientific explanations as sufficient for understanding such presentations). 

Still, this acceptance warrants some attention because it amounts to acceptance by philosophical fiat.  That is, it appears to be completely understandable that such acceptance should be arrived at, considering that both biological interpretations and environmental interpretations possess an identical philosophical grounding: naturalism.  According to the philosophy of naturalism, all behaviors are the result of past determinants – either biological or environmental.  With recognition that naturalism is the grounding framework for both arguments, this debate can be seen to be a false dichotomy – they do not represent two competing perspectives but instead represent the same perspective developed from slightly different vantages.

Essentially, the argument on both sides is for linear, efficient and material causation for behavior.  When combined, it merely increases the number of efficient and material causal variables.  Still, they remain determinants; neither perspective escapes the fundamental perspective that individual behavior is the result of forces that are outside of the individual’s control.

What, then, would be a genuine alternative?  Agency!  That is, the perspective that individuals have possibility, an “otherwise,” that they can act on.  They can choose their behavior, with constraints of context and ability taken into consideration.  In other words, by agency I do not mean indeterminism or chaos.  There is a limit to one’s ability to act for the sake of goals, motivations, and purposes.  Yet, the acting for the sake of and the variable possibility inherent to choices made allow that neither biological nor environmental determinants are sufficient for explaining all behavior. 

This, then, would frame a truly meaningful debate: Determinism versus Agency. 

Unfortunately, very often agency is merely subjugated to the position of “unscientific,” again, by philosophical fiat.  That is, the philosophy of naturalism, which underlies modern conceptions of science, especially in psychology, rules out before investigation and discussion (in a very UNscientific manner) the legitimacy of agency.  Hence, such a debate devolves before it is engaged in, with the position of agency dismissed as non-sensical. 

Furthermore, as implied above, all too often agency is dismissed in a false polemical manner, with those believing in determinism painting anything other than determinism as “indeterminism” and therefore, unscientific, because there is no ability to predict from chaos (which results from indeterminism).  In essence, a straw man is set up, which is easily set to flames.

However, agency does provide for a tremendous amount of predictability.  In fact, the few studies that have endeavored to investigate it have indicated that an understanding of one’s goals, purposes, and motivations are highly predictive of future behaviors.  Consider someone who, as a high school junior, has an established goal (that they have affectively affirmed) to be a cardiovascular surgeon – we can predict pretty readily that this individual will not skip school, will study hard, and will be involved in endeavors that increase his or her likelihood of achieving that goal. 

The point of all of this, however, is even more simple: we have created a false dichotomy in psychology that was easily solvable and the solution to which provided us with a false sense of satisfaction in our ability to reconcile differences in perspective.  What remains, however, is a significant countermovement in psychology that understands the false dichotomy and is now involved in presenting agentic perspectives as legitimate and in need of recognition by the mainstream. 

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.

February 5, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

4 Feb 08 – American Psychological Society and Fragmentation in Psychology.

4 February 2008

On this day in 1987, the American Psychological Association (APA) Board of Directors rejected a proposal to reorganize the APA into 2 to 5 autonomous assemblies.  As a result of the failed proposal, the Assembly for Scientific and Applied Psychology formed.  This group formed the basis of the American Psychological Society, which later became the Association for Psychological Science. 

This proposal was the brain trust of a group of “scientific psychologists,” who wanted to maintain the scientific basis of psychology.  The result was, at the time, conceived as the ultimate indication of the fragmentation of American psychology, with practitioners staying the course with the APA and science-minded psychologists breaking ranks and joining the American Psychological Society.

Still, the idea of fragmentation would require that there was unity to begin with.  That is, the word “fragmentation” implies unity as without unity there is nothing from which to break off or detach from.  In other words, fragmentation implies that there was a paradigm in psychology. 

Unfortunately, there is no clear indication that there was at in 1987, is now, or ever was a paradigm in psychology.  Certainly, we have heard that there has been a “cognitive revolution” in psychology that involved an overthrow of the old behaviorism regime.  Furthermore, there is clear evidence that neuroscientific explanations of psychology are gaining favor.  Hence, we would assume that before cognitivism, behaviorism was the paradigm.  Before behaviorism, many believe that psychoanalysis held sway.  Now, many believe that there is a paradigm shift toward biological explanations.  While I tend to agree that there is an increasing “biologization” of psychology, at no time has there been a single accepted paradigm in psychology.  Instead, we have had a number of different perspectives on how to understand psychological phenomena. 

There have also been great arguments regarding other grounding frameworks or paradigms that are philosophically based.  For example, Brent Slife conceives of the field of psychology being held to linear time conceptualization, naturalistic conceptualizations, and abstractionistic conceptualizations.  While certainly a great majority of the field accepts, probably implicitly, such philosophical conceptualizations, as Thomas Leahy pointed out, these are probably prepardigmatic.  Slife, for example, is quite well aware of evidence that does not support such linear time, naturalistic, and abstractionistic conceptualizations.  These might be conceived of as “anomalies” to the paradigm.  However, these anomalies are truly genuine theoretical concerns that amount to foundational philosophical questions that require acceptable answers in order for there to even be a paradigm.  Hence, they cannot be anomalous because there is no paradigm to be anomalous to. 

Instead, there needs to be a paradigm – given the both linear time and non-linear time, naturalistic and non-naturalistic, and abstractionistic and relational evidence that exists – that is holistic.  Only with a holistic paradigm can we adequately comprehend and synthesize the knowledge that we have.  Only with such a paradigm can both the “science-minded” and “application-minded” individuals work together to advance the science and practice of psychology and prevent the science-practice schism that so many see as ultimately inevitable.

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.

February 3, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

3 Feb 08 – Mental Illness: A Social Construction?

3 February 2008

On this day in 1845, Dorothea Dix presented a document to the Pennsylvania state legislature describing her 2-year survey of the state’s treatment of people with mental illness.  She found people with mental illnesses in jails, alms-houses, and cellars of public buildings.  As a result of her presentation, the Pennsylvania State Lunatic Hospital was created.

This story brings up the question of what is mental illness.  How did Dix determine that the mentally ill were to be found in these different locations?  How do we define mental illness? 

We can read a lot about the typical definitions, to be found in our diagnostic manual, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) now in its 4th edition (with a text revision).  Essentially, disorders are defined based on expert consensus and research conduct on these professionally accepted constructs. 

An alternative view, however, was presented by Thomas Szasz in his book entitled, Myth of Mental Illness (which was originally published as an article in the American Psychologist).  Szasz traced the history back to the Middle Ages and a pair of monks named Sprenger and Kramer, which always makes me think of a bad daytime talk show.   

[SIDE NOTE: In fact, Sprenger and Kramer did have a bit of a scam going on where they claimed to be clairvoyant.  They would set up a tent.  One of the two would gather information from the people outside the tent.  The people would be ushered in and the one who gathered information would go around the back of the tent and feed information to the one in the tent doing the “clairvoyancy,” thus making the people believe that they knew things they couldn’t know.]

Though the history of people being conceived of as mentally odd probably goes back further than Sprenger and Kramer, these two codified a specific category of mental deviance in a book entitled Malleus Maleficarum (which means “Hammer of Witches”).  In this book, Sprenger and Kramer developed means of determining who witches were.  They defined them based on certain features, which are relatively unimportant to the present discussion.  What is important is that this book was used to determine who were witches.  Then, individuals used it to go out and find witches.  Unfortunately, those finding the witches were paid on a sort of commission, wherein they received the lands of those found guilty of witchery.  So, it is probably not surprising that a number of single women were found to be witches.


At any rate, in the 1960s, Zilboorg discovered the Malleus Maleficarum and made the following statement, “the Malleus Maleficarum might with a little editing serve as an excellent modern textbook of descriptive clinical psychiatry of the fifteenth century, if the word witch were substituted by the word patient, and the devil eliminated.” Essentially, Zilboorg felt that Sprenger and Kramer, who happened to be a couple of con artists, had created a document, which happened to be used selectively to fabricate witchery and claim riches, was an excellent frame of reference for defining mental illness – if only we were to change the word witch to patient and take the devil out of it.

Szasz came along and interpreted both the Malleus Maleficarum and our current diagnostic system as social fabrications.  The point of both were to control people that did not fit neatly into the current social system.  In essence, Szasz said that “mental illness” was a social construction.  Szasz also felt like the “treatment” of this social construction was borderline abusive.  For example, he described the treatment of the “father of modern psychiatry” whose face appears on the DSM, Benjamin Rush.  Benjamin Rush was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the personal physician of George Washington (and probably bled him – a common treatment at the time – to death), and a psychiatrist.  Rush’s treatments sometimes involved spinning people excessively until they said they no longer were experiencing the aberrant thoughts/behaviors.  He also devised specific treatments for specific individuals.  One person thought he had snakes in his intestines and Rush gathered some snakes from his garden, put them in a bucket, and had the person defacate in the bucket – now the snakes were out!  Another thought he was a plant and Rush urinated on him to kill the plant (or some such).  This, for Szasz, was evidence enough of the origin of poor treatment of those deemed “mentally ill.”

I guess, given this, it is not a far stretch that Dix would find the mentally ill in such destitute locations.  Still, we might benefit from some better understandings of what mental illness truly is.  Instead of accepting particular framings, we might benefit more from understanding the humanity and inhumanity that is involved in such designations and the treatment that stems from it.  What, for example, does it mean for those individuals, without words such as “crazy,” “depressed,” “anxious,” etc., to feel what they feel?  What does it mean for them to be told they are depressed, anxious, crazy, etc.?  What does it mean for them to be treated the way they are?  What are their relationships like?  How do they feel they fit into the world?  How do they conceive of the world?  What do the hallucinations and delusions of schizophrenics mean to them?  If there are some meanings to them, should we dismiss them as the result of a biochemical imbalance and treat them, as a result, with some psychotropic medication and ignore the meaning that these individuals do have?

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.

February 3, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

31 Jan 08 – Neal Miller, Learning and Logical Learning.

31 January 2008

On this day in 1969, Neal E. Miller’s article entitled, “Learning of Visceral and Glandular Responses,” was published in Science.  This article described instrumental conditioning of autonomic responses, essentially setting the groundwork for biofeedback.  This article was heavily cited in the years subsequent to its publication.

Neal Miller was an American psychologist, trained in psychoanalysis in Vienna.  Likewise, his close associate, John Dollard was trained in psychoanalysis.  The two developed a theory of personality that essentially blended psychoanalysis and behaviorism.  Unfortunately, the blending involved removing all choice from individuals and replacing choice with environmentally governed determinants.  That is, though these individuals spoke of motivation and mediator variables, these elements of “response” were created through a linear process of prior stimulus-response connections.  For example, I may be motivated to write this blog, based on Dollard and Miller’s conceptualization, but this motivation is determined by my past behaviors, which were determined by past input in the environment.  I really have no choice in the matter: I (and my motivation to write) are all the result of past input from the environment. 

As Joseph Rychlak stated in his 1977 article entitled “Logical Learning Theory: Propositions, Corollaries, and Research Evidence,” such theories bear the meaning of “motivation” as an effect of previous causes.  Rychlak further points out that causation theory can be traced back to Aristotle, who developed four terms that subsume the meanings of all experience: 1. material cause: the substance that makes up things; 2. efficient cause: the impetus that brings events or things together over time (with past being the most important time factor in this impetus); 3. formal cause: the pattern or form of events or the various shapes that things take on; and 4. final cause: that “for the sake of which” events happen and things occur (e.g., reason or intention).  Dollard and Miller’s conceptualizations were entirely within the material cause and efficient cause framings.  Psychoanalysis, alternatively, took on elements of all of these forms of causation (see the section on personality on my web site: for more on this topic).  Dollard and Miller, then, circumscribed their perspective when they “combined” psychoanalysis and behaviorism.  Essentially, they added a concept and conformed it with behavioral theory.  In other words, it was only a combination of psychoanalysis and behaviorism in theory.  Technically, it was a somewhat beautified behaviorism.

This material and efficient causal perspective, in turn, underlain Miller’s conception of the “learning of visceral and glandular responses.”  In other words, Miller conceived of the ability of individuals (really rats) to control such responses as the product of classical conditioning (clearly presented in behavioral terms).  There is not indication of individual choice in the matter. 

Alternatively, Rychlak has presented a “logical learning theory,” that involves personal choice in which he conceives of individuals as acting “for the sake of” premises, purposes, reasons, goals, etc., that are not the result of past input.  Instead, as Brent D. Slife puts it in his book entitled Time and Psychological Explanation, Rychlak:

           “views the learner’s cognitive organization and the organization of the
            information to be learned as being analogous to syllogistic principles (or parts of
            the whole)…this relation takes place concurrently; the environment is not
            chronologically first…the mind is logically precedent because it formulates the
            intention ‘for the sake of which’ behavior is carried out…Aspects of the
            environment that are relevant…to the person’s internal cognitive organization are
            those that are learned most readily…meanings…related to the person’s goals are
            the most meaningful…Learning is an elaboration of what one already
            knows…the “already known” can be inborn or even cognitively invented in the
            present…[it] is implicit in…the cognitive organization of the learner.”

As can be noted from this, Rychlak took a clearly “Kantian” perspective on “learning” believing that we have a priori abilities.  Essentially, what I mean by “a priori abilities” is that Rychlak believed that we were born with the innate capacity to organize structural information in the environment (following a formal causal perspective) and act for the sake of these formulations (following a final causal perspective).  The past is not primary in this formulation because such ability is innate.  There is no past to precede the initial ability.  This perspective is summed up in Rychlak’s six theoretical propositions related to logical learning theory (from his 1977 paper referenced above):

     1. In place of the efficient-cause construct of stimulus-response, logical learning
         theory employs a final-cause construct of “telosponsivity” to conceptualize behavior.
         A telosponse involves affirming the meaning premise, whether it be a visual image, 
         language term, statement, or judgmental comparison, related to a referent (some goal) 
         that acts as a purpose for the sake of which behavior is intended.
     2. Human thought is dialectical (meaning dual/bipolar – involving both the thought and its
         opposite) as well as demonstrative (meaning singular/unipolar – involving only the thought
         itself), so the person must always “take a position” on life: choose one from among many
         alternative meanings open for framing as initial assumptions, etc. (By the way, this was
         also the grounding for Rychlak’s mentor’s – George A. Kelly’s – personal construct theory).
     3. Meanings encompassed by the premises of telosponsivity are brought forward to endow/
         enrich experience with understanding in a tautological fashion. (A tautology is a relation
         of identity between to thought concepts).
     4. Once a meaning is selected from among the many dialectically possible affirmations open
         to the person, this premising frame acts as a precedent on the basis of which tautological
         extensions of meaning occur sequaciously (e.g., following in logical sequence that flows
         from the meaning of precendents – without time considerations).
     5. Telosponsivity begins from birth (i.e., from the outset of whatever we take to be the
          beginning of organismic existence). Before they develop language, infants behave for the
          sake of affective assessments, and although later language terms are associated to
          experience and used in framing premises, the unlearned affective side to learning never
          leaves the human being.
     6. Telic considerations of behavior, such as agency, choice, and decision-making, are
          encompassed directly.

While most empirical research follows a sequence of developing data with a theory implicit and interpreting the data based on the implicit theory, Rychlak and his colleagues conducted over 30 years of research with the theory explicitly informing the research.  Rychlak was well aware of the fact that we often confound theory with method, assuming a connection that is not perfectly evident, and that alternative theories may also apply to any given set of data.  Given this, Rychlak used logical learning theory to develop eight testable corrollaries (theories, by the way, are not generally testable because they are assumptive):

     1. Tasks that are predicated positively, including self-predications of a positive
         nature, should reflect meaning-extensions facilitating the learning of positive
         materials over negative materials.
     2. Tasks that are predicated negatively, including self-predications of a negative
         nature, should reflect meaning-extensions facilitating the learning of negative
         materials over positive ones.
     3. The role of affective assessment in learning cannot be reduced to or accounted
          for by constructs relying on frequency and contiguity (by the way, Miller, himself,
          indicated this was true in his Presidential Address to the American Psychological
         Association – published in the American Psychologist as an article entitled,
         “Analytical Studies of Drive and Reward”.  In this article, he states
         that, “…contiguity alone [is] not sufficient for learning, while contiguity plus reward [is].”
         Following a logical learning theory perspective, we would substitute “goal” for “reward”).
     4. As it is unlearned and therefore a spontaneously “natural” way in which to order tasks
         meaningfully, affection can be shown to be especially important to those subjects who
         are performing in tasks that either outstrip their capacities or dislodge their personal
     5. Patterns of affective learning style occur between or across tasks as well as within tasks.
     6. Affective assessments are conceptual, occurring instantaneously as patterned organizations
         of meaning.

I would encourage anyone reading this to get a copy of Rychlak’s 1977 paper to see a summary of the works that empirically demonstrate these corrolaries of logical learning theory.  I would also recommend picking up a copy of Rychlak’s The Psychology of Rigorous Humanism.  Rychlak had a clarity of mind to analyze learning from a very essential alternative perspective, which allows for human agency to be involved in the process of life, that is rare in psychology.  If only for this reason, I would recommend these readings.

Back to topic, however: Given the propositions and corrolaries of logical learning theory, how would one explain the learning of visceral and glandular responses in terms of logical learning theory?  It relatively clear that Rychlak would see such “learning” as the extension of innate capacity to develop meaning/structure in our experience.  The meaning/structure we develop, however, is likely to be different (or at least not identical) between individuals.  So, the changes that occur in visceral organs or glandular activities following feedback of such activities would likely be conceived of, in logical learning theory, as the extension of innate structural capacity for the sake of changing currently experienced psychological phenomena.  Kelly’s statement regarding the development of personality dysfunction is informative here: “any personal construction which is used repeatedly in spite of consistent invalidation” (this, by the way, was likely the origination of the statement often attributed to Einstein that, “insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results).  In essence, biofeedback is the extension of innate capacities (for example, breathing in a certain manner to calm oneself) for the sake of making a change in currently maladaptive states of acting.  The biofeedback, itself, merely awakens that knowledge already within oneself to extend the meanings to the goal the individual has.

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.

January 31, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

30 Jan 08 – Just Say No? No! It Just Doesn’t Work.

30 January 2008


On this day in 1986, the then president of the American Psychological Association, Robert Perloff, presented the APA Presidential Citation to Nancy Reagan for her efforts in promoting the “Just Say No” campaign against drug abuse.  This is an interesting blip in the history of psychology given that there was no evidence at the time for or against the campaign.  Furthermore, now that evidence has come back, we have discovered that, just as with all other abstinence movements, it just didn’t work.


What does this mean that it didn’t work?  The anti-drug curricula developed was developed in the 1980s.  There was a steady drop in drug use from the early 1980s to about 1992.  However, this decline in drug use predated the effective implementation of this anti-drug movement.  By the time that it was fully implement (in the early 1990s), the use of drugs was again on the rise.  In 2002, for example, when the movement should have shown progress, 53% of seniors said they had used illegal drugs.  This is compared to 41% in 1992. 

What accounts for this negative trend?  Why didn’t the anti-drug curricula work?  Certainly, there are a number of potential hypotheses.  However, I would surmise it does not work because the pressure comes from an outside source.  The individuals targeted are not developing an internal motivation to follow through with non-use.   Essentially, the message is “conform to my peer pressure that involves non-use” and “don’t conform to other peer pressure that involves use.”  This is an odd message to begin with and certainly not a useful one to deter someone who has an inclination, however mild, to rebel against mandates from authority figures.


In fact, research on controlled behaviors versus autonomous behaviors predicts exactly this sort of behavior.  Controlled behavior, such as imposing perspective such as abstaining from drug use or anything else, involves an external perceived locus of causality (e.g., that something or someone other than the behaving individual determines the behaviors) and is experienced as pressured by demands and contingencies (e.g., to use or not use the drugs).  Autonomous behaviors, on the other hand, have an internal perceived locus of causality (e.g., that the behaving individual determines the presentation of the behaviors) and are experienced as chosen and volitional (e.g., that the individual is agentic).  Perceived autonomous, agentic behavior, as opposed to perceived controlled, determined behavior, is related to enhanced performance and persistence (e.g., continuing to abide by that personal choice).  Based on such findings, the discovery that drug use actually rose after individuals were told to abstain makes sense:  they perceived they were under control of outside forces, both forces toward and away from use, which made it easier for them to “change with the winds” of the forces upon them.  They were, in this sense, much like a sail boat without a captain: at the whim of forces not under their control. 

Alternatively, agency beliefs about effort and ability are the strongest and most critical predictors of actual performance.  In this sense, then, a better tack would have been to engage the individuals in discussion.  This discussion would be non-threatening and non-punitive, perhaps led by a respected peer.  The point of the discussion would be to address myths and misconceptions and provide facts but not provide mandates on behaviors.  The discussion would also involve an open discussion of what the individuals motivations for and against drug use (or other concerning behaviors), in order to address ambivalence regarding it.  Finally, the discussion would conclude with the individuals, themselves, stating their reasons for and against use of drugs and for them to make an honest, confidential assessment of their motivation to use or not use.   

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.

January 30, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

29 Jan 08 – Allport and the Importance (or Detriment) of Avoidance.

29 January 2008

On this day in 1954, Gordon Allport’s book entitled, The Nature of Prejudice, was published.  This book focuses on various factors involved in prejudice.  It addresses everything from the normative nature of prejudice to theories of prejudice to religion and prejudice.   Today, however, I would like to spend a little time with Allport’s main contribution (in the area of personality) and his intellectual influence on a figure in psychology who is not so well known but who had a great influence on me: Richard Bednar. 

Allport noted that there are a surprising number of individuals who experience high levels of anxiety related to feelings of inferiority.  In response to these feelings, we can either shrug them off or make adjustments in our goals.  If the sense of inferiority happens repeatedly, however, a tension arises that amounts to a feeling of personal deficiency. 

What is important, then, for the development of normal or abnormal development, from Allport’s perspective, is how each of us respond to our own feelings of inferiority.  If we take the feelings as a challenge, exerting greater effort and practice toward overcoming the challenge, we can make the problem a perceived strength rather than a perceived weakness.  Alternatively, we can choose to develop different goals.  Finally, we can attempt to recognizing and facing the problem at all.  For Allport, the act of avoidance or confrontation is what differentiates the “normal” from the “abnormal”:

      “…to confront the world and its problems is intrinsically a wholesome thing to do, 
      because it brings about appropriate adjustment and mastery; to escape from the
      world is intrinsically a dangerous and diseased thing to do. Extreme escape is
      found in the most severe forms of mental disorder, the psychoses…The neurotic
      shows much defense, less coping. In the healthy personality coping ordinarily

This perspective on abnormality (avoidance) versus normality (confrontation/coping) was influential in the formation of Richard Bednar’s theory and practice of psychotherapy.  Before I discuss this theory and practice, let me talk a little bit about Bednar.

Bednar, as I mentioned earlier, is a little known figure in the history of psychology.  He, as one of my main professors and one of my psychotherapy mentors (along with Brent Slife who is also my intellectual mentor), had a tremendous influence on me.  Bednar was a thoroughgoingly bright, uncompromising person.  He was incredibly authentic and would not falsify his own personality for anyone.  He was driven by his own moral convictions and was incredibly gracious.  In fact, as will be apparent after I present his theory and practice of psychotherapy, he very much lived his by his own words.  Dick, as I knew him, was a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University.  Prior to that, he was the director of the Clinical Training Program at the University of Kentucky.  Dick was well published, with a consistent 20 year record of publications that involved chapters in well respected psychology review textbooks (Annual Review of Psychology and Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change) and articles in such professional journals as Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (for which he was also a consulting editor), Journal of Counseling Psychology, and Journal of Applied Behavior Science.  His knowledge and background in psychotherapy, especially relational approaches and group psychotherapy, was immense.  As such, he was highly sought after as a guest speaker and provided countless psychotherapy workshops.  I am speaking of him in the past tense because he, unfortunately, died in a freak snowmobile accident.  Fortunately, he was doing something that he loved with the person he loved, his wife.  He died shortly after retiring from Brigham Young University.  Even in his retirement, Dick continued to provide supervision to clinical psychology student from BYU. 

Dick’s perspective on the theory and practice of psychotherapy is presented in his book (with Scott Peterson) entitled, Self Esteem: Paradoxes and Innovations in Clinical Theory and Practice.  I, of course, highly recommend this book (which was in its second edition when Dick died and is quite difficult to find now).  A testimony to its functional significance is the fact that the book sold over 35,000 copies!  This is amazing given the fact that most professional resources such as this sell about 700 copies.  He could also conduct a workshop about the theory at any time he wanted to do so (and commanded a quite impressive fee for such workshops).  By the way, his wife, Sandra, informed me that all proceeds from his books went to charity…what a great guy!

There are four underlying assumptions of the Bednar’s model:

     1. People should expect to receive regular amounts of negative feedback from
         their social environment, most of which is probably valid.
     2. Most people receive and enjoy substantial amounts of authentic favorable
         social feedback, but they tend not to believe it.
     3. Self-evaluations are a reality for most people.
     4. Self-evaluative processes can provide a basis for continuous affective
         feedback from the self about the adequacy of the self.

We can, of course, see the obvious connections between Bednar’s model and that of Allport’s theory: feedback from the environment is taken in, with the negative feedback being more apparent, and the feedback is interpreted and emotional responses are developed based on the interpretations.  From Bednar’s perspective, the interpretation that forms the basis of a person’s perspective on himself or herself (which Dick, I think, poorly called “self esteem” – and that I had conversations with him about) is a dynamic attribute.  Furthermore, psychological threat is unavoidable.  The interpretations, however, modify the psychological threat.  Given that the interpretation is now a part of the client’s worldview, then, the psychotherapist must assume that the therapeutic relationship is prototypical of other relationships. 

The psychotherapist’s job is to help the client identify, describe, and experience the self-evaluative intensity of their avoidance patterns (or, what Dick refers to as “image management” – the tendency to pretend to be what we think we are not in order to gain favorable social feedback in the process of which we avoid who we really are).  Finally, the psychotherapist must “catch” the client being authentic (not image managing) and focus on the client’s self-evaluative processes. 

There are four basic steps in dealing with the negative interpretations the client exhibits:

     1. Identifying and clearly labeling the dominant avoidance patterns used in
         anxiety-arousing conflict situations.
     2. Identifying and clearly labeling the self-evaluative thoughts and feelings
         associated with these dominant avoidance patterns.
     3. Learning to realistically face negative self-evaluations and avoidance patterns.
     4. Gradually learning how to cope with personal conflicts.

Essentially, the theory is that people present fake selves because they don’t like who they think they are.  In the process, they live a lie and don’t like themselves for doing so.  So, they are now caught in a place where they don’t like who they thought other people thought they were, based on their own interpretations of themselves, and they don’t like the person that they are being because it is not who they are.  Therefore, the paradox is that they are image managing for the sake of creating more fulfilling relationships but, in the end, have poor relationships because they are not truly involved in them (this “fake self” is).  Therapy, then, is aimed at developing an authenticity in relationships, confronting anxiety provoking interpersonal situations and dynamics in order to develop a more realistic perspective on the self in relationship as well as to truly address and not avoid the shortcomings that we do have in relationships.  In other words, it is focused on taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions!  What a concept!

It is interesting to note, Dick readily admitted how simple this concept is but how difficult it is in practice because of its simplicity.  It is strange that people have such difficulty with just being “real.”  All we really have to do, as Allport noted, is be aware of our limitations and address them…we are, after all human and fallible.  All that is really required of us is to be ourselves.  It’s kind of interesting, given Allport’s theory of personality, that the one prejudice he didn’t write about in The Nature of Prejudice was our prejudice against ourselves!

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.

January 29, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , | Leave a comment

28 Jan 08 – Baldwin, The Baldwin Effect, and Human (Non-Deistic) Teleological Evolution.

28 January 2008

On this day in 1902, Andrew Carnegie endowed the Carnegie Institution. This institution was created in order to support scientific research, including psychological research. A committee, then, was formed to recommend worthy psychological research projects. This committee was headed by James Mark Baldwin. I would like to use this blog to talk a little bit about Baldwin, especially the “Baldwin Effect,” and to talk about an issue that is currently a “hot topic”: evolution.

James Mark Baldwin was an American philosopher and psychologist, trained in philosophy under the tutelage of James McCosh at Princeton University. Similar to the philosopher Thomas Reid, McCosh felt that our beliefs were the direct result of sensation and, thus, not open to question (this belief was central to Gibson’s account of perception in yesterday’s blog post).  McCosh also felt that evolution glorifies the divine designer:

                 “All that science has demonstrated, all that theism has argued, of the order, of the
                 final cause and benevolent purpose in the world is true, and can not be set aside.
                 Every natural law — mechanical, chemical, and vital — is good. Every organ of the
                 body, when free from disease, is good. There is certainly the most exquisite
                 adaptation in the eye, however we may account for its formation, and for the
                 numerous diseases which seize upon it. Agassiz has shown, by an induction of
                 facts reaching over the whole history of the animal kingdom, that there is plan in
                 the succession of organic life.”

We can see from this statement of McCosh’s that he believed that there was a final cause (or teleology) in evolution. That is, from McCosh’s perspective, evolution proceeded in a purposive way. For McCosh, this purpose was determined by God – it was a deistic teleology:

                 “Development implies an original matter with high endowments. Whence the original matter?
                 It is acknowledged, by its most eminent expounder, that evolution can not account for the
                 first appearance of life. Greatly to the disappointment of some of his followers, Darwin is
                 obliged to postulate three or four germs of life created by God. To explain the continuance
                 of life, he is obliged to call in a pangenesis, or universal life, which is just a vague phrase for
                 that inexplicable thing life, and life is just a mode of God’s action.”

Inclined toward consideration of evolution as his mentor McCosh was, Baldwin is probably best known for what has come to be called, “The Baldwin Effect.” In the Baldwin Effect, he drew heavily from his interaction with McCosh in formulating theories on both development and evolution. There is an interesting pseudo-teleology in Baldwin’s theory, evidencing a mix of McCosh’s teleological take on Darwin (while appearing to want to maintain a more deterministic perspective) and a pseudo-Lamarckian perspective (where acquired characteristics were inherited). The Baldwin Effect essentially states that the sustained behaviour of a species can shape the evolution of the species. For example, if learning to create a shelter quickly makes it more difficult for the weather to kill individuals in the species, individuals who learn to do this quickly have an advantage. As time passes, the ability to acquire that skill with be genetically selected for and at some point it will be an instinct.

The “pseudo-teleology” in this is that there appears to be a purpose to the behaviour and the genetic selection of the behaviour. That is, the purpose is that individuals do not want to get killed. So, they engage/develop this behaviour. It is a trial and error sort of mechanism. Unfortunately, it is the mechanistic portion, driven by genetic variability, which underlies the Baldwin Effect: essentially, it is not driven by human choice. Instead, it is driven by random chance of the genetic variation that creates this ability. This is where the Darwinian (and “Spencerian” – Herbert Spencer who used the phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe) “natural selection” enters into Baldwin’s theory: everything is “selected” naturally (with no human interference) from the random variations in genetic code.

Alternatively, the modern counter-argument is that there is some “intelligent design.” Intelligent design can mean many things. One of these many perspectives on intelligent design is that God designed the world with a clear purpose and it is this design that is followed through evolution. Every change in species was predetermined. What we are now and what we will be are similarly determined by something (or someone) outside of human choice determined our current status.

Though this is more appealing to people who believe and accept divine intervention, such intelligent design formulations have the same limitation that evolutionary theory does: it removes responsibility from the individual (and society). How, for example, can we be responsible for our actions if they were either the result of genetic forces outside of our control or of Godly forces outside of our control? We had no choice in the matter and, hence, we cannot be responsible. Given this lack of responsibility, we could therefore not be held accountable for those behaviors, at least not with any credibility. It would be akin to saying, “bad dish,” to a dish that fell out of a cupboard: the dish had no choice in the matter, it was the result of factors outside its control. The only difference between such intelligent design formulations and Darwinian formulations is that the intelligent design formulations are less random and chaotic (its interesting that scientists who are so concerned with prediction and control accept a formulation, which is a deterministic basis of much of their scientific work, that is itself fundamentally unpredictable and uncontrollable…its almost as if they rule out the real ability to predict and control when they accept such a formulation).

Alternatively, a human teleology perspective on evolution would allow for personal choice and responsibility. Under a human teleology formulation, we develop skills for a purpose. That is, we realize that having a shelter (something over our heads) keeps us dry for the rain. For the sake of keeping the rain off of us, we make a shelter. This making of shelters is recognized by others and becomes a social phenomenon. Eventually, it becomes ingrained into the fabric of life. Such a perspective neither rules out the place of genetics or of God. For example, those who do not accept that they should make shelters for the sake of keeping the rain off of them would likely be shunned by those who do. As a result, they would likely mate with those who had similar perspectives. Those with the same perspective, mating with like minded individuals would then continue to present their views to their offspring, thus creating a cultural mindset where the origination of the idea or change was lost to time but the behaviour continued. Eventually, the individuals who chose the perspective that was more adaptive to the environment would continue to thrive in that particular region and those who did not choose that perspective would either migrate to another region or cease to exist.

Similarly, there is nothing to rule out an involvement of God in this process. God could still be conceived as permitting the agency of those humans in either pursuit/perspective. God would still be the creator, much like any other parent, but the actions of the children (or humans) do not necessarily follow the desires (or dictates) of the parent (or God).

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.

January 28, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

27 Jan 08 – Gibson, Merleau-Ponty – Perceptual Action/Embodied Agency.

27 January 2008

On this day in 1904, James J. Gibson was born. Gibson is known for his research on perception, which has been interpreted as demonstrating that perceptual qualities are not built from simple sensory inputs. Instead, they are directly sensed from the environment. Essentially, this means that we perceive through experience of the world; we are in direct interaction with the world as it is.

This should not be confused with a meditational perspective on our interaction with the environment, such as that offered by cognitive psychology. That is, Gibson was not saying that we are involved in a one-way process, wherein we process value-free information from the surrounding environment, organize it, and then act on our organization (the mediation occurring in the mind). This cognitive mediation perspective assumes a relatively passive mechanism of sensation adapted to random, chance events in the environment. It is a dualistic perspective that separates the subjective mind from the objective environment, the products of the subjective mind being mediated by the mechanisms of sensation (the mechanical registration of bits of sensory information from the environment). This is sometimes referred to as a “representational” view of sensation wherein humans are conceived of as representing the external world through a step by step process, essentially in the physical nervous system.

Gibson, instead, conceived of perception as an attribute of the human and the environment together, in holistic fashion. Perception, in this framing, is not an indirect process carried out within the individual. Instead, it is a direct interaction carried out between the individual and his/her environmental context (this is why it is often referred to as “direct realism” – a term borrowed from the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid – or “ecological psychology” – attending to the contextual situatedness of the perceptual experience). Perception, then, is not passive; it is active and exploratory – in tune with the living meanings already pregnant in the contextual environment itself (Gibson referred to these living meanings as “affordances” – possibilities ways that the contextual environment makes itself known to the particular individual). The living meaning (or affordance) depends on the interaction that the individual is having with the contextual environment, explaining why a piece of chalk can be afforded the meaning of writing instrument or, as one of my professors in undergrad vividly demonstrated, a foodstuff (should we wittingly choose to take a chomp out of it). These affordances are not inside the mind. Instead, they are living possibilities and properties of the contextual environment itself when the contextual environment is perceived in a ways that is not dualistic, artificially separating a subjective mind from an objective reality. From Gibson’s perspective, perception is an active interchange between the active intentions of the individual and the living, meaningful possibilities (“affordances”) of the contextual environment.


The French existential philosopher, Merleau-Ponty, actually preceded Gibson in developing a very similar formulation of perception. A wonderful, albeit quite difficult book to read, which presents Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy on perception is entitled, The Phenomenology of Perception. In this book, Merleau-Ponty suggests that, unlike Husserl’s perspective that “consciousness is always consciousness of something,” consciousness is perceptual consciousness; perception is of primary important to being conscious at all. From this philosophical grounding, Merleau-Ponty explores perception as the active engagement between the contextual environment and the individual, which occurs through the body. That is, the “lived body” adjusts and acts in response to the active solicitations of the contextual environment. This is conceived of almost like an active conversation between the body and the context. Much like Gibson’s later formulation of the concept of affordances, Mereleau-Ponty conceived of the things that we interact with, such as a mountain, as correlative with our bodily capacities and acquired skills, so that, for example, a mountain affords climbing. This affordance is not merely a cross-cultural phenomenon based solely on body structure, nor a body structure plus a skill all normal human beings acquire. It is an affordance that comes from experience with mountains and the acquisition of mountain-climbing skills.

Embodied Agency 

Though both positions are quite difficult to summarize in the little space I have provided here, I think the best way to conceive of them is as akin to the concept of “embodied agency.” According to the concept of embodied agency, what have been traditionally assumed to be two separate and distinct entities – mind (possessing agenctic qualities) and body (possessing deterministic qualities) – are viewed as parts of a larger system wherein the mind and body mutually constitute one another. Accordingly, the nature of the mind constitutes the nature of the body, and vice versa. This would account for the numerous empirical studies that indicate how agentic factors (e.g., choices) contribute to neurobiological change. As but one example of this, using positron-emission tomography (PET) to measure the neurological effects of certain therapeutic processes, investigations have indicated that conscious withholding of obsessive-compulsive behaviors had the same eventual effect on changes in neural activity as the recommended drug for obsessive-compulsive disorder. In other words, agency and biology interact, wherein agency is associated with changes in biology. Similarly, according to the assumption of embodied agency, biology has affects on agency. For example, the constraints of my current bodily make-up – including my body type and current cardiovascular endurance – prevent me from successfully engaging in certain actions such as running a 6 minute mile. No amount of agency on my part will change my ability with regard to accomplishing this task right now. Furthermore, the constraints of my current biology disallow me from seriously considering that option, thereby constraining my available options and, thus, my agency. Alternatively, many athletes, with appropriate body types and well developed cardiovascular endurance, certainly do have the ability to run a 6 minute mile. As such, their agency is widened, at least with respect to the choices related to this task, by their biology.

The perspective offered by embodied agency, then, means that individuals and their actions are not explainable or understandable without reference to both their biology and their agency: amounting to a truly holistic perspective. As neuroscientist Eliot Valenstein put it, “…it is impossible to understand [biological phenomena such as] consciousness and thought without considering the psychosocial context that not only shapes the content of thought, but also the physical structure of the brain.” Alternatively, as Slife & Hopkins note, agentic acts such as, “…a good deed requires a relatively sound body. Good deeds simply cannot be performed without the biological properties of a relatively healthy body.”

Hence, based on the concepts offered by Gibson, Merleau-Ponty, and the perspective of embodied agency, perception cannot be reduced to either the products of the mind or the body, alone. There is no clean distinction between subject and object. Instead, perception is considered, based on these perspectives, as a holistic, active, interactive process, involving possibilities afforded by both the living environment and the lived experience of the individual.

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.

January 27, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

26 Jan 08 – Selye…What is Stress?

26 January 2008

On this day in 1907, Hans Selye was born. Selye is best known for his work in the area of stress and the development of the concept of the “general adaptation syndrome.” The general adaptation syndrome is Selye’s term for a three-stage process that is carried out in response to prolonged states of stress. First, a state of alarm occurs; next, resistance (attempts to cope) occurs; and, finally, exhaustion occurs. According to Selye, stress is a nonspecific response of the body to any demand.

Cannon Bard Theory

Selye was heavily indebted to Walter Cannon. Cannon was a physiologist who developed both the idea of “fight or flight” (the belief that animals respond to threat either by attacking or running away) and “homeostasis” (the belief in a steady-state condition in all open systems). He also developed, with psychologist Philip Bard, the Cannon-Bard Theory of emotion. According to the Cannon-Bard Theory, people feel emotions first and then act upon them. This can be seen to be the basic feature of Selye’s general adaptation syndrome, wherein the feeling of emotion is characterized by the alarm state and all of its accompanying physiological responses and the action related to the emotion occurs in the resistance stage.

James-Lange Theory

An alternative to Cannon’s theory was the James-Lange Theory. More accurately, Cannon’s theory was an alternative to the James-Lange Theory. In fact, William James was Cannon’s professor. Though Cannon had a great deal of respect for James, he disagreed with this theory. The James-Lange theory is named after both William James and Carl Lange (a Danish physician and psychologist), who both independently developed this theory. According to the James-Lange theory, emotions are the result of changing physiological conditions within the body; they are an effect not a cause.

Two Factor Theory

Another alternative is the Schacter and Singer’s (both psychologists) Two Factor Theory. According to the Two Factor Theory, emotion has two factors (hence the name): physiological arousal and cognitions. Cognitions are used to interpret the meaning of the physiological reactions to outside events.

My alternative

I would like to propose the possibility that stress is simply associated with ignorance, properly construed. That is, being ignorant (not knowing) about various factors (whether they be natural or fantastical) leads one to develop a state of existential anxiety. In other words, faced with uncertainty of the context, the individual is left with a fear of not being: the fear of death. This visceral fear immediately potentiates into the various bodily reactions that are characterized in the general adaptation syndrome. The existential anxiety state is so primordial that it is almost “built in,” much like Kantian pro forma concepts. We all possess this tendency, which is why the general adaptation syndrome is pretty much a universal finding.  In fact, we could conceive as the person as fundamentally inseparable from and continually in interaction  with the context in which he or she exists. The response, then, is nonreflective (not requiring reflection and immediate) because of the inseparable character of the interaction.  The continuation of alarm and failed resistance, characteristic of “disorders” such as post-traumatic stress disorder, however, are the result of our interpretations of the phenomena of which we are ignorant when we are separated from the immediacy of the context in such a way that we continually avoid ever facing the reality of it (similar to the two-factor theory). This interpretation is built on our own “abstracted” (e.g., disconnected, separated) construction of the world/rlity (or worldview) and functions to direct our future actions (for the sake of avoiding the feared phenomena). Unlike the simplistic perspective of the flight or flight response that Cannon developed, humans also have the capacity for confrontation, especially with other people, which does not always mean fighting. Instead, we can dialogue and address problems as they arise, which mitigates the existential anxiety that is the basis of stress.

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.

January 26, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , | Leave a comment