July 15, 2009

What should the further development of psychology look like?

A special edition of the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science has come out around this theme: The Next Big Questions in Psychology. In this issue a list of leading psychologists share their views on what they see as the most important questions to be asked in the coming decade. A few examples of the content. Timothy Wilson, author of Strangers to ourselves, has a contribution on self-knowledge which he sees as a very important topic. Lisa Feldman Barret writes an interesting article on how to connect mind to brain. Martin Seligman and Michael Kahana write about the topic of intuition. I think the the question of how psychology will or should further develop is interesting and important. I am extremely curious about how psychology will develop the coming years. In their terrific article Achieving and sustaining a good life, authors Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson provide the following description of the dynamic and diverse development of psychology so far:

"Since its beginning, psychology has been variously defined as the objective description of the elements of consciousness (structuralism); the study of the inherent patterning of these elements (gestalt psychology); the investigation of the consequences of consciousness-mind in use (functionalism); the prediction and control of overt behavior (behaviorism); the uncovering of unconscious motives and conflicts (psychoanalysis); and the science of cognitive contents, styles and processes (the cognitive revolution). Psychology has been pursued as a natural science and as a social science. It has employed numerous qualitative and quantitative research methods. It has been regarded as a basic science, as an applied science, and sometimes as both. At present, psychology is expanding in two different but equally exiting directions - inward (where it joins forces with neuroscience) and outward (where it joins forces with anthropology and sociology)."

This description shows how diverse psychology is and always has been and how it has constantly evolved over time and continues to do so. The question is: how will it further evolve? Or maybe: how should it further evolve? Should it focus on different topics than before? (self-knowledge, the good life, etc). Or should it change its research approaches (more multivariate, multimethod, longitudinal, etc...). Or should it make a change that is perhaps more fundamental and develop into a psychology of possibility? Should it seek more cooperation, or integration with other disciplines (maybe even to the point of dissipation)? (biology, economics, network science, information technology, etc).

I would love to hear some comments on this topic from you (psychologist or not). My question is: How do you think psychology should further develop in the coming years?


  1. Great topic Coert. I should warn readers that lacking a formal academic education myself, I speak 100% naively about psychology, but also possibly free of the curse of knowledge.

    Having just been to IPPA and spoken with Marty Seligman I was struck by both the great ideas and the divisive tone of the research work. Contrary to the positive bent of positive psychology the research strives to prove others wrong. This attitude also exists in the solution focused world. Pointing out the problem with other models, theories, research findings, and so on seems problem focused. Some of the commentary is quite angry in tone. The idea seems to be that intellectual bullying leads to intellectual rigor. Perhaps.

    I see the dawn of an era where the rigor of psychology includes research that works to prove what works best for the recipient, not just the position of researcher. Here in Ontario CAMH and the government are working to bring the many community stakeholders together to deal with mental health and addiction on a cross-functional basis. Good healthcare requires collaboration among the providers. Schools are beginning to teach it. Silos prevent it.

    Undoubtedly, the squabbling among academics is actually good natured and does add fantastic new knowledge. Yet, there can be few fields of human endeavor that directly impact the lives of so many and where there are literally hundreds of models most of which claim superiority over the other by proving the others are wrong. There is a way to move beyond this approach.

    I greatly look forward to my ideas being dismissed as naive. Alan.

  2. Hi Alan,
    great to see you here and thanks for your interesting answer. I have noticed that change in general often comes forth out of dissatisfaction with some status quo. (E.g. in our 7-steps we often start with problem acknowledgement).

    Science is a special case I think. Science makes progress due an in-built system of testing claims and discarding any ideas that don't stand up to the test. So, looking to disprove claims is the natural thing to do for a scientist. But what triggers me in what you say is the angry tone. I have seen this too, even up to a point of arrogance and condescendingness which I think is counterproductive. The reason I think this is: when confronted with aversive emotional responses of colleagues people might become shyer to put forward their provocative and counterintuitive claims.

    So, a skeptical focus on disproving claims is key but always in a dispassionate way.

    Do I understand you correctly if I summarize your view on the future of psychological science as follows: you'd like to see psychological research to shift further in a client centric direction?

  3. I believe that the direction is/should be towards simplification.
    We see a lot of complexity being delegated in Positive Psychology or Solution Focused Change by focusing on the desires, on the positive.

    Tolstoy said "All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

    So, focusing on the positive is bound to reduce complexity.

    In the same direction, I discovered recently Nonviolent Communication and it is mind-blowing simple. Feelings and Needs. It reduces all communication to just 2 things: "Please" and "Thank you".

    All the violence of a person directed towards others or towards his own person is reduced to: "Please help me, I'm in pain because this need I have is not being met." Amazingly simple. Amazingly effective.

  4. Hi Peter, Thank you!

    A more simple and positive sounds good.
    Thanks for quoting Tolstoy. This is a thought which was also expressed by Aristotle. he said: "It is possible to fail in many ways while to succeed is possible in only one way."

    Although this sounds wise to me and I admire both Aristotle and Tolstoy I am not sure what I think of this particular claim. I think there is a lot of attraction in what seems like an opposite way of putting it: "There are many ways to be successful." I think much can be said for this, too.

    Thank you for mentioning non-violent communication. I don't know a lot about it but I think criticizing and attacking language often does not work and could better be replaced by more appreciative and friendly language.

    Which language works well in different types of situations might also be a good topic for psychological research, I guess.

  5. Coert, I don't think the quotes are antagonists. Tolstoy said that they resemble. Imagine different animals running. Each runs in its own way, each looks different. But the motion, is similar. The motion of the act of running of one animal resembles the motion of the act of running of another MORE than... let's say the motion of the act of eating. :)

    As for NonViolent Communication... it is amazing. I saw last evening "The Basics of Nonviolent Communication", snippets from a workshop done by Marshall Rosenberg in 2000, around 4 hours and it was amazing. So much violence in the way we speak and we don't even see it as violence. To get to see violence in rewards or in praise, that's something of an eye opener.

    Look it up, I highly recommend it!

  6. Thanks Coert, yes please to your thoughtful response/question. I have been doing work in a university where some of the professors are starting to buy into the notion that their work has to be student centered in order to be relevant. Doing so, doesn't negate intellectual rigor or end debate - it enlivens it. Alan.

  7. Dear Coert,
    you write:
    "At present, psychology is expanding in two different but equally exiting directions - inward (where it joins forces with neuroscience) and outward (where it joins forces with anthropology and sociology)."

    Maybe I am being swayed by situational cues...
    but picture the Golden Gate Bridge in your mind :)

    The 2 towers are neuroscience (and genetics, biology,...) i.e. the inward on the San Francisco side and sociology, anthropology, ethology... i.e. the outward on the Sausalito / Marin County side.
    Psychology would be the actual bridge, i.e. where cars and pedestrians travel to and fro (Mark's in-between). I see it as a bunch of evidence-based "tricks" that allow people to move better, more efficiently, and where they want to go. it is about protocols: to be healthier, to flourish, to fight depression and OCD,... and about interactions.

    Now if the span of the bridge is not anchored to the two towers, and if it is not aligned to the two towers, it will fall. It won't be able to sustain itself.
    In the same way, psychology needs to be anchored to the 2 towers of the inside and the outside.

    And if psychology decides to dig deeper and to add a third tower... well, it is going to be useless, not necessary and it just gets in the way of moving around (e.g. see Freud's psychodynamics).
    The best it can do is strengthen the links and cables to the two towers (e.g. evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics...).

    Sometimes psychology strayed because it failed to connect to the two bridges who share a common foundation: the scientific method. See for example the disasters of facilitated communication or memory retrieval (see the book "mistakes were made") - those disasters happened because some basic rules of science were not heeded. In the morning fog, well-intentioned practitioners failed to orient themselves. And believe me, in the early morning fog, if you run that bridge, it feels you are in the middle of nowhere...

    So, there is a toll to pay to travel the span of the bridge: literacy in basic statistics and scientific inquiry, and I would say you need to pay it not only if you travel southbound (as it is on the actual bridge) but in both directions!

    Thanks again for the interesting topic,

  8. Hi Paolo, this is a powerful metaphor! Thank you!

  9. Hi,
    Are you suprised, that when I not use the crossroads metaphor for psychology. I use the bridge one, like Paolo:-)

    More thoughts from me when I have a little time of from my heavy holiday fatherly duties (such as playing rockband2 with my 6 year old, then go on to discussing libertarianism and the possible scientific explanation for qi gong with my 12 year old - and finish of with monthy pyton videos in the evening)

  10. Hi Michael, yes I am going to do holiday things too. Are you going to put your guitar stuff on youtube?

    looking forward too your thoughts on the question

  11. one more thing
    non-viololent communication from Marshall Rosenberg, that Peter mentions is indeed interesting.

    It is sort of the communication equivalent for mindfulness based approaches. Skillfully secularized by Rosenberg NVC and Kabat-Zinn MBSR Kabat-Zinn is basically theravada buddhism practices undercover. But, importantly, this makes it completely accessible to all kinds of uncompromizing scientific research)


  12. Hi Coert, and others. As a scientist and a true outsider in this field I can give some clues from my field (structural biology/chemistry) for what it's worth. If there are many competing models trying to describe similar things then an objective benchmark is the way to go. Objective in the sense that the model-builders do not know the answer. This has worked quite refreshingly in these fields, in that loose claims of success had to be proven (and indeed many models were proven to be wrong or incomplete). I have no idea whatsoever whether this is feasible in psychology, but would be curious to hear your response.

    Otherwise the questions where psychology *should* go is best left unanswered I would say, leave it to the field...

  13. Hello David, nice to see you here! Thank you for offering an outsiders' view on this issue. I am always in favor of exact scientist thinking along on social science topics. I am curious to hear more (from you or others) about use of an objective benchmark might be applied in psychology. Anyone any ideas on how this may be put to use?

  14. On LinkedIn, Terry Paulson, PhD, came up with an interesting answer:

    "This is such a big question one wonders where to begin. May I propose that we may be asking the wrong people. Could it be that rather than being defined by psychologists, researchers and academics that the future requires a more fluid, almost viral model that let's the consumers (those benefitting) to define it as we move to connect to their world. What topics will tap the viral nature of social media in a way that serves, shows we've hit a nerve and invites further study and models to understand. Our subjects are now not willing to just be studied, they want to be part of the process.

    We've spent so much time doing research that no one reads using words that confuse rather than inform and we think we are the experts. When you look at the march of theories and approaches you described, you realize that no one approach was adequate. Each was a window to what is happening. You see us going inward and understanding neural factors and the social context.

    I remember a theologian once saying that the jewish faith of old refused to name God for to name him was to limit or in some way control him. As a result, they used images and actions to show windows into what God was like. I humbly suggest that psychology will always be that--limited windows. We won't finish the movie...more like a soap opera of ongoing discovery searching for relevance to the people we hope to serve.

    Just thought I'd get the ball rolling for you! Thanks for starting the discussion.


  15. Dear Terry,

    Thank you for putting an interesting twist on the question by focusing the answer on the content but on the process. Involving consumers/clients in determining the future development of psychology could help make it more beneficiary centric. It seems like a modern and useful idea. It might also make them feel more interested in the scientific process and its products. It reminds of effective product innovation in which customers are also involved in the early (defining) stages of the process.

    I think the metaphor of the little windows is useful. I think you are right there won't be a grand convergence and that is more likely that there will remain much diversity and fragmentarism. Still, I am optimistic about psychology's ability to progress and find new themes and approaches that will ad new value and will be useful. I am very interested in hearing more ideas.

    Kind regards,
    Coert Visser

  16. Hi Coert,
    I think the scientific-method has forced a rigid boundary around the discipline of Psychology for too long. Psychology is not static and needs to form more of a dialetical relationship with such fields as Polical Science, Social Work, Education, Mass Communications, Public Health, Urban Planning, Biology and so forth). Psychology weaves itself through so many layers and its interconnections extend far beyond the mirco-level but reach into the structural dimensions as well. The scientific-method has many advantages (e.g., clinical trials) but does create "silos" or "psychology-type camps" such as the behaviorists. Recent developments in mind-body connections has perhaps opened the door to a more expansive view of psychology. Mind-body science has legitimized an approach to cross boundaries of enquiry. In the coming years, it is hoped that psychology will further evolve by recognizing its power to permeate so many dimensions of our life, cross more boundaries, and create new perspectives.
    Greg Babcock

  17. Hi,

    I am not a psychologist but an art therapist. But I have been interested in psychology during my Master program because art seems to be a powerful transitional object for a person or group dynamic to gain insight about a person. Like psychology before positive psychology moment, art therapy seems to go into treatment of psychological disorders, trauma, or issues. I am particularly excited for psychology to look into human virtue and positive resources. I wish to see the future psychology to focus on techniques and research building on personal and group strengths for an active and quality life.

    Best Regards,
    Paul Lee

  18. Dear Paul, thank you for sharing your ideas.

  19. Dear Greg, thank you for your comment. I like the idea of psychology forming interconnections with disciplines like the ones you mentioned and agree that psychology could gain a lot from evolving and finding new approaches.


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