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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

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

25 Jan 08 – E. G. Boring – Myth Making in Psychological History?

25 January 2008

On this day in 1933, Edwin G. Boring’s book entitled, Physical Dimensions of Consciousness was published. As the title of this book implies, Boring was inclined to conceive of psychological phenomena in biological terms. Given this, it is no small wonder that Boring’s history of psychology (entitled, A History of Experimental Psychology) was revisionistic – putting a revised slant on the history, which made biological theorizing central to the foundation of psychology. There are three examples, which stand out among others, of how Boring went about revising history: the selection of 1879 as the official date of psychology’s beginning, the selection of the “father of experimental psychology,” and the characterization of this “father” as a physiological reductionist.


Boring solidified 1879 as the beginning of experimental psychology. His selection of this date has had such a profound impact that it is now rare to sit through a history of psychology course, especially in undergraduate psychology, and not be required to select this date on an examination. In fact, I think this showed up on my licensing exam (I know it was in the study materials).

How did Boring arrive at this date? Honestly, I am not quite sure. Based on other research (e.g., Robert Watson’s historical research) it is clear that even the suggested location of “the very first formal psychological laboratory in the world” was not actually formally “founded” until about 1894. I think we can be sure that Boring had some justification for choosing this year. Unfortunately, this is lost to “history.”

Father of Experimental Psychology?

What we do know is that Boring had a clear preference for whom he associated with this date and this formal psychological laboratory: Wilhelm Wundt. Based on what we learn in the history of psychology, this is the patently obvious selection as the father of experimental psychology. Wundt, unfortunately, was not the obvious choice. Two other psychologists, at minimum, preceded Wundt in their experimental efforts in psychology: William James and Gustav Fechner.

William James, for example, began teaching at Harvard University in 1875, four years before the chosen date of 1879. There, he brought together threads of psychological experimentation, physiological medicine, and forms of explanation derived from the theory of evolution. He was involved in active psychological experimentation and his seminal work on the topic of psychology, presenting elements of all his early interests, entitled, The Principles of Psychology was published in 1890, 4 years before the formal founding of Wundt’s laboratory.

Alternatively, Gustav Fechner was conducting research even earlier. With a background in physics (and during his career holding the chair of the physics department at Leipzig), Fechner was probably the first “psychologist” to develop experimental methods for the study of psychological phenomena. His work was a conjunction of experimental methods for the study of perception and philosophical debate regarding the fundamental nature of psychological phenomena. Fechner’s views on both, in the are called “psychophysics,” were summed up in his book entitled, Elements of Psychophysics (English translation of the German), published in 1860 – a full 19 years prior to the chosen date for the beginning of experimental psychology!

Why Wundt, then?

Given the foregoing, we are certainly left with the question of why Wundt was chosen to hold the exalted title of “Father of experimental psychology.” Well, there are somewhat apparent responses to this question, both founded in Boring’s perspective on psychology and in his writing on the history of psychology.

Boring (born in 1886), as a professor at Harvard University (where he developed and chaired the Department of Psychology in 1934), would certainly have been familiar with James (not to mention he would have been familiar with him by notoriety alone). Yet, by the time that Boring interacted with Jamesian thought, James had moved from experimentation to investigation of philosophical concerns. James’ perspective on philosophical concerns and the role of religion in psychological (presented in his text entitled, Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature published in 1902) had a decidedly dualistic tone. That is, he conceived of humans as having both a corporeal body and a metaphysical/spiritual mind (his framing of which sometimes made it difficult to determine whether he believed humans were determined or had agency – “free will”). Boring, alternatively, as the title of his book (which started this blog) suggests, was more inclined to view humans as the product of their biology alone.

Similarly, Fechner, while steeped in the physics of his time, also conceived of humans in a different manner than did Boring. In fact, Fechner saw body and mind as two ways of conceiving of the same thing. Fechner’s perspective, then, was a holistic conception, not unlike the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Physics, which conceived of physical objects as having a complementary composition that is both “corporeal” and, for lack of a better word, “inferred.” From both perspectives, it was essential to understand both sides of the whole in order to understand the phenomena under analysis. Boring was quite aware of this aspect of Fechner’s position and chose to see it as prompted by the fact that Fechner suffered through a period of physical and mental illness: for Boring, instead of considering this perspective as possibly legitimate (based on his own biases), he instead considered it the ramblings of a troubled man. It didn’t hurt that it clearly did not fit with Boring’s own conceptions.

However, there was one person he knew he could at least make conform with his own perspectives, through a tricky kind of slight of hand: Wundt. This slight of hand was the fact that Wundt was portrayed by his student Titchener as a physical reductionist (e.g., someone who saw humans as essentially the product of their physical composition).

Physiological Reductionism?

Unfortunately, Wundt’s own writing does not even conform to this physiological reductionism perspective. Wundt, not unlike James, was a dualist. He perceived that conceiving of humans as only the products of their physiology as something that would take away all meaning from the human condition. Still, in his experimentation, he focused on those “objective” elements of the dualism (e.g., the physical), which Titchener took with him to the United States (and to Boring). Wundt, however, continued to present his philosophical analyses outside of the laboratory, where he clearly indicated this dualistic mindset.

In then end, then, Boring revised the history of psychology in a way that fit with his own perspectives. He chose Wundt (and a date that “sufficed”) because, via Titchener, Wundt could be painted to fit Boring’s conception of what psychology (and, specifically, experimental psychology) was all about.

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

January 25, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

23 Jan 08 – Cognitive Psychology – Revolutionary?

23 January 2008

On this day, in 1970, the journal Cognitive Psychology was first published by Academic Press.

With the advent of cognitive psychology, behavioral theory was, at least theoretically, supplanted.  With a growing belief in psychology about the existence of intervening variables or mediator variables, cognitive psychology appeared to permit a true involvement on the part of human beings in determining their behaviors.  That is, unlike behaviorism that conceived of humans as determined by the environment or past reinforcements, cognitive psychology appeared to present a conceptualization of human beings as agents in their own behaviors.   

Was the “cognitive revolution,” however, really a revolution? The long and short of the answer is, “probably no.”  Cognitive explanations have come to dominate not only the basic aspects of the discipline, such as learning and language, but also the more applied aspects of the discipline such as school psychology and clinical psychology/psychotherapy.  This domination of the discipline means that explanations are now based less on observable behaviors and more on inclusion of the mind. 

Although mainstream psychologists have been more willing to theorize about non-observables, they have maintained their Newtonian heritage and their models have been instrumental in preserving the Newtonian paradigm for modern use.   

During Newton’s time, the universe was conceived of as operating like a great clock (he was, of course, a clock maker), flowing continuously and objectively along the line of time.  Today, the analogy used by cognitive psychology is the modern digital computer – but the concept has remained fundamentally unchanged.  While the new computer analogy places more emphasis on the software, it has not changed the characteristics of the machinery itself.   

Time – one parsimonious way of summing this up is to point to their common temporal metaphysic.  A Newtonian, linear approach to time, as Slife points out, remains a primary assumption in cognitive psychology.  Events are conceived as taking place across time and cognitive processing of these events is itself subject to temporal constraints.  Objective, linear time relations, wherein the past is the determining factor in present events, still organizes input from the environment.   

Cognitive psychology does, on first blush, appear to represent more rationalistic theorizing than did behaviorism, given the representation of mind in its theorizing.  However, when analyzed more closely, the cognitive turn is, in fact, just as empirical in its perspective as behaviorism was.  Past input governs all cognitive systems.  Even cognitive explanations that seem to emphasize present constructive or reconstructive aspects of cognition are often reducible to conventional linear, Newtonian, theorizing, just as behaviorism before it. 

While cognitive psychology has liberalized behavioral method and theory to include the “software” of the mind, it still relies exclusively on mechanistic metaphors and preserves every characteristic of Newton’s temporal framework.  Thus, the cognitive revolution was not, in fact, very revolutionary at all. 

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

January 23, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , | 2 Comments

21 Jan 08 – Gestalt Psychology, Formal Causation, and the Question of Humanity

21 January 2008

On this day in 1887, Wolfgang Köhler was born. Köhler is best known for his contribution, along with Koffka and Wertheimer, to the creation of Gestalt psychology. I would like to start with some background, dating all the way back to Ancient Greece, to present the unique contribution of Gestalt Psychology.

In Ancient Greece, the reputed philosopher Aristotle set out to develop an understanding of the cause of phenomena. It must be noted, however, that Aristotle’s concept of cause was used to account for responsibility. That is, Aristotle wanted to determine what was responsible or accountable for a phenomenon occurring or coming about when he discussed cause. Given this logic, when a cause was determined by Aristotle, blame could also be placed. Hence, if a certain cause was determined then the other causes thought to be implicated in a phenomenon could be exculpated. More than this, however, Aristotle was attempting to account for, in their entirety, any phenomena that might be investigated. In order to account for phenomena in their entirety, Aristotle borrowed ideas from several prominent philosophers.

The first form of causation, what was referred to as “material causation,” should be familiar to anyone attempting to understand and account for human phenomena based on the body. Borrowed from the belief of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Thales of Miletus that the world is made up entirely of water in various guises – which was later named by Anaximander “the boundless,” the principle behind material causation is that, “To account for something, one must describe the substance of which it consists.” As applied to humans, then, in order to account for a human, one must describe the humans body, especially the inner substances of that body. Following from this principle, modern researchers expend a great deal of effort to describe the biology of individuals, especially pathological individuals.

The second form of causation, “efficient causation,” very often accompanies material causation in our efforts to understand biological mechanisms. The principle behind this form of causation was taken by Aristotle from an argument between Parmenides and Heraclitus. Parmenides argued that there is no such thing as change. Alternatively, Heraclitus argued that there was a constant flux of change within the overlaying order of events. The principle that followed from this was that, “To account for something, one must describe it in terms of the motions it takes on over time, bringing it to be what it now is.” As applied to humans, this is most often reflected in the notion that we must understand that individuals upbringing and background. However, this form of causation also relates to looking for the changes that are occurring in the body. That is, while the principle of material causation requires us to look, for example, at what the difference is between non-pathological and pathological humans, the principle of efficient causation requires us to look, for example, at what changes are occurring in the pathological individual that bring about the pathology. Combining the two principles, then, we are required to look at the biological (material causation) changes that come about over time (efficient causation) to account for humans. This is the common effort to discover biological mechanisms.

The next form of causation is “formal causation.” The principle behind formal causation was borrowed from Heraclitus. Heraclitus believed that the pattern we see over and above the constant flux of events was of true importance, stating that, “we never step in the same river twice.” This constant pattern is the logos of nature – from which logic, the study of patterned meanings, has its root. This principle is summarized as follows: “To account for something, one must describe it according to the reliable pattern it takes on.” In relation to accounting for humans, this principle means that we must account for the context in which the individual exists. This context involves the relationships the individual has and the interactions he or she has. It also involves how the individual experiences the different interactions in his or her life and how he or she, himself or herself, interacts.

After borrowing these three principles from other philosophers, Aristotle still felt that there was a principle unaccounted for. This last principle of causation he called “final causation.” Final causation was “that for the sake of which” something exists or takes place. It amounts to the reason, purpose, goals, or intentions of an object or event in existence. The principle for this form of causation is, “To account for something, one must describe it in terms of that reason it has for being, or the end (goal, purpose) toward which it is intending.” In terms of humans, this means that, in order to account for an individual, we must understand his or her goals, what he or she is directed toward.

Aristotle called these principles his concepts of “aitia” or “cause.” The suggestion was that we only truly have a complete knowledge of something when we can explain it in terms of all of those causes (material, efficient, formal, and final) that are responsible for its occurrence or existence. That is, from Aristotle’s perspective, in order to fully account for any phenomenon, we must account for all of these forms of causation.

The last two forms of causation (formal and final), however, have found little place in science. This is especially true since the time of Nathaniel Hobbes who believed and did an admirable job of convincing the world that both the realm of mind and of human action were material or biological in nature. As such, the only forms of causation that were important were those that considered the motion (efficient causation) of biological material (material causation) that bring about states in humans. Given Hobbes’ belief and his ability to convince the scientific community that only these two forms of causation (material and efficient) were important, the final two forms of causation that Aristotle proposed were, fundamentally ignored. These often ignored final two forms of causation, however, were, for Aristotle, of primary importance in understanding and accounting for phenomenon. Without them, we would be left with incomplete and potentially misleading knowledge. In essence, we would remain in ignorance.

Gestalt psychology represented a valiant effort in the history of psychology to combat the tendency to formulate explanation in merely material and efficient causal terms. Gestalt psychologists, including Koffka, Kohler, and Wertheimer, presented a theoretical perspective that was essentially formal causal. That is, the structure of the relationship of the parts to the whole was what was ultimately important for the gestaltists. For example, the popularly recognized “optical illusion” that involves, when perceived in one way a duck, and when perceived in another a rabbit was used by the gestalt psychologists to demonstrate that we do not see the lines in the drawing and then either a duck or a rabbit. Instead, we see whole first and then deconstruct them into the various components.

As such, the reductionistic nature of the positivistic science that we were using in psychology was conceived by the gestaltists to be counter to what we were proposing to do in the early history of psychology: develop a scientific discipline with its own unique subject apart from physiology. This was so because in reducing phenomenon from their whole to their parts would necessarily ultimately end up with a reduction to physiological conditions. Gestalt psychology, alternatively, proposed that psychological conditions were primary. Perhaps, there were biological wholes that correlated to the psychological wholes but they were not as important to the discipline. What was important was the relationships among the parts, which made “the whole more than just the sum of its parts.”

The gestalt theorists, then, provided a unique perspective on psychological phenomena, certainly quite unique from the structuralistic and behavioralistic perspectives that predominated at the time gestalt was taking form. It is interesting to note, however, that, even though Gestalt developed largely from phenomenological philosophical positions (in fact, Koffka, Kohler, and Wertheimer were students of Carl Stumpf who was a student of Franz Brentano – also the teacher of Edmund Husserl – the “father of phenomenology”), there is an interesting, phenomenological question that remains in the gestalt formation. Phenomenology, itself, is surely based on a Kantian distinction between the phenomena and the noumena. The noumena is “objective reality” that is conceived to exist “out there.” However, it is not directly accessible. Instead, what we have is interpreted reality, “phenomena.” Unfortunately, from the gestalists’ perspective, there is a structure to perception that comes together as a whole. However, it is uncertain what the role of the person is. In phenomenological philosophy, the role of the person is clear: the person is the interpreter, generally interpreting “for the sake of” something (e.g., in final causal terms).

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

January 21, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

20 Jan 08 – Children with Emotional Disturbances and Expulsion from School

20 January 2008

On this day in 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Honig v. Doe, that schools may not expel children with emotional disorders for more than 10 days without parental consent or court order. I would like to offer a dissenting opinion on this case, as I think that it reflects our tendency to “biologize” psychological phenomena (e.g., see them as biologically determined, without any personal or interpersonal choice involved) and sets a poor precedent, starting early in people’s lives, for excusing bad behaviors.

I believe that the underlying thought process behind this is that children with emotional disorders really have no choice in their behaviors. They are, instead, determined by forces (such as “chemical imbalances”) outside of their control. These children are not responsible for their behaviors; nor are they responsible for changing their behaviors. As such, expelling them is unreasonable and requires some checks and balances to prevent undue abuse of these disabled individuals.

This certainly could have some important implications. One important implication for the children is that their behavior has nothing to do with the choices that they make. That is, as long as these individuals are perceived to not be responsible for their behaviors, it also follows that their behaviors are not a result of the choices and decisions they make.  Instead, it is merely their biology, working at a level over which they do not have control, which is responsible for and governs their actions. Furthermore, it means that they are perceived and perceive themselves as incapable of changing their behaviors on their own, either making it better or worse, because they have no choice in their actions.

An analogy, here, might help to clarify how this perception operates. Based on the deterministic logic that underlies this perspective on such children and their behaviors and that implies that children are controlled by natural (in this case, biological) forces over which they have no control, we could logically analogize these children to any other natural object that was being controlled by other forces (e.g., if children are determined, like any other natural object, by sources over which they have no control, they are no different, in-kind, from these natural objects). Take, for example, a ball being thrown from a pitcher to a catcher, bracketing out, for the moment, the involvement of the pitcher. Much like this ball has no choice about where it will land and what it will do between the pitcher and the catcher, based on the deterministic perspective, neither does the individual diagnosed with an emotional disorder have any choice or control over his or her actions or behaviors. The individual, like the ball, is controlled by hypothetical natural – in this case neurobiological – forces over which he or she has no control. As indicated above, with no control over his or her own behavior, this individual can also not be held responsible for his or her behaviors and is, thus, not perceived to be responsible for these behaviors. There is, in essence, no one – no human, at least – who is perceived to be blamable for the individual’s behaviors.

Substituting neurobiology for the pitcher, it is merely the individual’s neurobiology that is perceived to control how the individual will behave. Certainly, there are other forces that can act upon the ball and this is also true of the individual. Still, all of these forces are considered to be natural – or, similarly, neurobiological – over which the child is perceived to have no control or no choice in changing. The ball is not seen as choosing to curve or be pushed by the air. Similarly, the individual diagnosed with an emotional disorder, if the emotional disorder is perceived to be caused by neurobiology, is not seen as capable of choosing to change his or her behavior.

There is certainly a paradoxical sense in which those in the child’s social environment (such as the school system look toward expulsion) want to hold the child responsible, as if he or she was choosing his or her behaviors. Still, it would make little sense to say, “bad ball,” for not heading in the proper direction as the ball had no choice in its direction. Similarly, following the deterministic perspective, it would make little sense to say, “bad child,” for not behaving appropriately, as the child had no choice in his or her behaviors. As the biologically deterministic logic goes, the children are perceived as not responsible for their behaviors. Still, schools want to hold the children responsible. The Supreme Court, evidently, however, felt that the children were not responsible and a check of attempts to hold them responsible was warranted.

So what? Why should we be concerned about this apparent irresponsibility? The possible implications of such meanings of medication are important considerations in addressing these questions. The most important implication of what such meaning of medication may indicate has to do with society. The past president of the American Psychological Association, George W. Albee, for example, noted that, ” …the conservative view of causation [of the medical model]…perpetuates social injustice.” What does Albee mean by joining forces that “perpetuates social injustice?” Simply put, Albee’s appraisal implies that the medical model and the centrality, in this model, of biological causation is responsible for the experience of medication as indicating lack of personal responsibility. The result of this lack of personal responsibility is what Albee refers to as, “social injustice.”

What, then, might be meant by social injustice? If someone is not considered responsible for his or her behaviors, especially those behaviors considered negative, asocial, or maladaptive, because he or she is biologically determined to act in certain manners, then, as noted above, he or she also cannot be held to blame for those actions. The implication of not being held responsible for negative actions is especially important when those actions are defined as including impulsive and potentially destructive social actions. If, for example, an individual happens to be apprehended committing a crime of an impulsive and potentially destructive nature, and the individual has been diagnosed with an emotional disorder, by virtue of the logic that this individual is a product of his or her biology, this person cannot be held responsible for these actions. He or she could say, following the biologically deterministic perception of his or her emotional disorder-related behaviors, “I am not to blame. My neurobiology made me do it.” He or she might blame the physician for not refilling the medication in a timely manner. Alternatively, the parents might be blamed for not ensuring that the medication was given or taken by the individual.

According to the implicit deterministic logic, in the end, however, not only would personal responsibility be forfeited when one is considered to not be responsible for his or her behaviors but so would societal responsibility. Why, for example, would an individual have to answer to society for his or her crimes if they were not his or her crimes but crimes caused by something over which he or she did not have control, such as his or her neurobiology? This is, in fact, the logic that underlies some interpretations of the insanity defense, indicating that the perception of irresponsibility due to mental state – equated to physiological state – is a cultural perspective accepted by far more individuals than merely those included in this investigation. This is also what is meant by social injustice here: justice – in the sense of upholding the law and ensuring equitable treatment for breaches of conduct – cannot be served because the individual committing the crime could not, legitimately, be held culpable for the actions if other phenomena (e.g., biochemicals, physicians, parents) could be blamed in the individual’s stead.

Alternatively, the child could be interpreted as someone who does possess responsibility. Conceptualizing the child as someone who does possess responsibility would mean a dramatically different perspective on such children and their behaviors. The concept of personal responsibility is interwoven with the concept of experiential meaning. Experiential meaning, experiencing an individual’s actions as meaningful (e.g., intrinsically important and significant), occurs only when the individual doing the acting is responsible for the actions taken.

An action could certainly be meaningful without the individual perceiving himself or herself as responsible. That is, the individual could be responsible, whether or not the individual perceives himself or herself to be so. However, if the culture perceives them to not be responsible, then the meaning of the behavior is reduced to the biological determinant and does not relate to what the individual values, thinks, or feels about significant aspects of his or her everyday life and actions. Therefore, for an action to be meaningful in terms of what the action means about what the individual values, thinks, or feels about significant aspects of his or her everyday life and actions, the person has to perceive himself or herself as personally responsible – or be responsible – for that action.

Furthermore, for an individual to experience his or her action as important or significant (e.g., “meaningful”) to the extent that he or she owns it as his’ or hers’, the action must be intentional. The individual must intend to perform the action for a specific purpose. An individual, however, does not have to be conscious of his or her intent for him or her to be responsible for it. This intention, however, does include the act on his or her part of selecting among various options, whether consciously or not, and behaving for the sake of the options chosen. Selection from among the various options implies that personal responsibility requires possibility. As Brent Slife and Richard Williams once stated, “Possibility is a category of assumptions with no ‘must’.” In other words, possibility indicates that an event can be interpreted differently than would be expected based on previous events. Possibility, then, involves the assumption that experiences (which are interpretation plus reality) are not determined by previous events. It is the indication that an “otherwise,” a choice, is available.

From this perspective, then, personal responsibility implies a possible alternative perspective to the deterministic perspective accepted by the Supreme Court in this ruling: agency. Agency refers to such factors as choice, free will, or self-generated thoughts and actions. As it relates to the present issue, agency would imply that children with an emotional disorder are able to do otherwise than some causal force (e.g., the neurochemical imbalance or genetics) has dictated. This definition of agency, as requiring responsibility and possibility, then, is synonymous with the idea that such children have the ability to act “other than” the perceived causal forces – such as neurobiology – would seem to determine.

Furthermore, under the alternative perspective of agency, these children would be perceived as responsible for the choices they make. If we were to perceive the treatment for an emotional disorder as involving agency on the part of the individual, then responsibility, both individual and societal, would re-enter the picture. For example, we might say that, much like the ball being thrown from the pitcher to the catcher, there are certain actions occurring that are not under the direct control of the individual (e.g., the actions of the biochemicals, for example, within the individual). However, if we include the complete picture of the scenario, instead of merely the ball, as a representation of the individual diagnosed with an emotional disorder, the phenomenon of interest becomes more complex. In this case, the ball now has an ability to choose among various options and act intentionally for the sake of those things the child chooses. As such, it might be easier to follow the analogy if we think of the child as the pitcher instead of the ball. The complete picture of the scenario, then, might also involve awareness of the pitcher (the child, himself or herself), the pitcher’s abilities (what the child can truly not do and what the child truly can do), both already developed (what the child has learned) and what is expected (both from self and others), and the pitcher’s motivations and desires (what the pitcher is willing to do and wants to do), as well as contextual factors such as those giving the pitcher guidance (such as the catcher giving signs or the catcher’s analogues – the child’s parents, teachers, and physicians) and the environment in which the pitcher is pitching (including the wind velocity and direction or these factor’s analogues – the limits placed on the child by outside forces). If we limit our focus to merely part of the picture – the ball in its trajectory or, analogically, the individual’s biochemicals or the effects of changes in those biochemicals – it is easy to lose sight of responsibility.

The result, then, of pathologizing and biologizing of behavior, as noted, has some serious implications. Read and Harré, for example, found that people who attributed mental disorder to biogenetic causes tended to hold more negative attitudes toward it. Similarly, Mehta and Farina showed that confederates who disclosed a psychiatric problem were blamed less but treated more harshly when the problem was described as being of biological rather than psychosocial origin. Furthermore, Walker and Read found that a biomedical explanation of a psychotic man’s condition increased perceptions of his dangerousness and unpredictability. Some investigators have argued that biologizing behaviors such as emotional disorder-related behaviors trigger paternalistic responses linked to mandating of treatment, such as medication, and encouraging a view of the disordered as deeply and categorically different. The view of children with emotional disorders as categorically different and requiring the provision of different standards is certainly evidenced by the Supreme Court’s ruling in this case. Furthermore, Read & Harré have asserted that attributing the disorder to causes outside the control of the individual, such as the neurobiological determinants evidenced in this study, produces a perception that the disordered are unaccountable, irresponsible, and unpredictable and may produce a sense of vulnerability among the unaffected. Again, the Supreme Court’s ruling in this case support this assertion.

Finally, the empirical literature indicates that a biologized self-understanding handicaps sufferers, engendering a belief that they are incapable of ever functioning normally, a belief that may elicit pessimism and disengagement if also held by the lay public. This negative view of self can involve a belief that they are deficient and different from others. Such a view is also likely to be held by those in their social network. The empirical literature, according to this perspective, does demonstrate that children with emotional disorders have worse self-esteem than those in control groups. Why wouldn’t they? After all, they perceive themselves and others as less than, or at least different from, others in their social context. Furthermore, research indicates that children diagnosed with emotional disorders show a tendency toward attributing both good and bad behaviors to external forces. In other words, the negative view of self, deficiency, and difference, fostered by a biologized and materialistic perspective on their behaviors, appears to generalize to feelings of incompetence, incapability, and, ultimately, feelings that they are controlled by external forces.

The research on controlled behaviors versus autonomous behaviors predicts exactly this phenomenal experience. Externally controlled behavior, with the implicit assumption of personal irresponsibility, 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., taking or not taking the medication). 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, persistence, and creativity, heightened vitality, self-esteem, and a general sense of well-being.

Agency beliefs about effort and ability in achieving academic success are also the strongest and most critical predictors of actual school performance. Similarly, when children who attribute failure to a lack of ability rather than to the difficulty of the task or insufficient effort are taught to practice lack-of-effort explanations (e.g., “Maybe I didn’t give it my best effort”) rather than lack-of-ability explanations, both their responses to failure and their school performance are improved. In sum, conceptualizing children as possessing agency empowers them and improves their potential for success.

My dissenting opinion, then, involves a simple counterargument/counterperspective: let’s hold people accountable for their behaviors, even children with emotional disorders. I believe this, ultimately, empowers them, whereas not doing so (as implied in the Supreme Court’s decision) subjects them to an ultimately debilitating state wherein both others and themselves perceive such children as incapable, deficient, and, simply, inhuman.

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

January 19, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

19 Jan 08 – Rosenhan, Pseudopatients, and “Insanity”?

19 January 2008

On this day in 1973, David Rosenhan’s article entitled, “On Being Sane in Insane Places” was published in the eminently well-respected scientific journal Science.  This was a highly provocative article summarizing the findings of a study that involved eight “pseudopatients” (one graduate student, three psychologists, a pediatrician, a psychiatrist, a painter, and a housewife) being admitted to twelve different hospitals in five different states on the East and West coasts.  Each of these pseudopatients was admitted after complaining about hearing voices saying relatively innocuous words such as, “empty,” “hollow,” and “thud.”  While the facts of these pseudopatients’ names, vocations, and employment were altered, no further alterations in life histories and circumstances were made.  All of these, debatably, “normal” individuals were admitted to the psychiatric ward.  All but one was admitted with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

Following admission to the psychiatric ward, these pseudopatients ceased presentation of any symptoms of abnormality and began tracking their interactions in notebooks.  In the absence of “abnormal” symptoms, it was quite common for other patients on the ward to tell the pseudopatients that they did not belong there.  The psychiatric staff, however, did not surmise this.  In fact, the length of hospitalization for these pseudopatients lasted anywhere from seven to fifty-two days, with an average stay of about nineteen days.  During this time, these eight pseudopatients were given approximately 2,100 pills, including antidepressants and antipsychotics (none of which they ingested). 

Rosenhan noted that even the pseudopatients’ tracking of their experience was taken as evidence of psychological disturbance.  Rosenhan suggested that the reason for this misinterpretation is that the behaviors of these pseudopatients were interpreted with reference to symptoms of psychological disorder.  In other words, because these individuals were disordered, and because the location of the disorder, in atomistic fashion, continues to remain within the individual, the behaviors must be indicative of the disorder.  In the end, all of the pseudopatients were discharged with a diagnosis of schizophrenia “in remission,” an indication that the schizophrenia may merely be in hiding but remains within the individual just as a remitting form of cancer remains within a treated cancer patient.

There was much debate regarding this study subsequent to its publication.  Much of the debate focused on the methodological problems.  Still, it is difficult to doubt the role of biases in interpreting not only others’ behaviors but also the results of investigation.  In fact, our values and biases appear to have clear relevance to our clinical decisions in psychology as well as our interpretations of research data.  It is encouraging that such a well-respected journal as Science would publish such a thought-provoking and dialogue engaging article as this.

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

January 19, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment