Imagine Psychology Without People

In 1971, John Lennon released the now-iconic song “Imagine“. In the song, Lennon invites us to imagine a world without religion, countries, or personal possessions where everyone coexists in peace with one another. Now, of course, this is not the world in which we exist. In fact, Lennon apparently preferred to keep this kind of world in the realm of imagination himself, using his substantial personal wealth to live a life well-beyond his needs; a fact which Elton John once poked fun at, rewriting to lyrics to imagine to begin: “Imagine six apartments; it isn’t hard to do. One’s full of fur coats; the other’s full of shoes”. While Lennon’s song might appear to have an uplifting message (at least superficially; I doubt many of us would really want to live in that kind of world if given the opportunity), the message of the song does not invite us to understand the world as it is: we are asked to imagine another world; not to figure out why our world bears little resemblance to that one.

My imaginations may differ a bit from John’s, but to each their own.

Having recently returned from the SPSP conference (Society of Personality and Social Psychology), I would like to offer my personal reflections about the general state of psychological research from my brief overview of what I saw at the conference. In the sake of full disclosure, I did not attend many of the talks and I only casually browsed over most of the posters that I saw. The reason for this state of affairs, however, is what I would like to focus on today. After all, it’s not that I’m a habitual talk-avoider: at last year’s HBES conference (Human Behavior and Evolution Society), I found myself attending talks around the clock; in fact, I was actually disappointed that I didn’t get to attend more of them (owing in part to the fact that pools tend to conceal how much you’ve been drinking). So what accounted for the differences in my academic attendance at these two conferences? There are two particular factors I would like to draw attention to, which I think paint a good picture my general impressions of the field of psychology.

The first of these factors was the organization of the two conferences. At HBES, the talks were organized, more or less, by topics: one room had talks on morality, another on life history, the next on cooperation, and so on. At SPSP, the talks were organized, as far as I could tell, anyway, with no particular theme. The talks at SPSP seemed to be organized around whatever people putting various symposiums together wanted to talk about, and that topic tended to be, at least from what I saw, rather narrow in its focus. This brings me to the first big difference between the two conferences, then: the degree of consilience each evidenced. At HBES, almost all the speakers and researchers seemed to share a broader, common theoretical foundation: evolutionary theory. This common understanding was then applied to different sub-fields, but managed to connect all of them into some larger whole. The talks on cooperation played by the same rules, so to speak, as the talks on aggression. By contrast, the psychologists at SPSP did not seem to be working under any common framework. The result of this lack of common grounding is that most of these talks were islands unto themselves, and attending one of them probably wouldn’t tell you much about any others. That is to say that a talk at SPSP might give you a piece of evidence concerning a particular topic, but it wouldn’t help you understand how to think about psychology (or even that topic) more generally. The talks on self-affirmation probably wouldn’t tell you anything about the talks on self-regulation, which in turn bear little resemblance to talks on sexism.

The second big issue is related to the first, and where our tie in to John Lennon’s song arises. I want you to imagine a world in which psychology was not, by in large, the study of human psychology and behavior in particular, but rather the study of psychology among life in general. In this world we’re imagining, humans, as a species, don’t exist as far as psychological research is concerned.  Admittedly, such a suggestion might not lend itself as well to song as Lennon’s “Imagine”, but unlike Lennon’s song, this imagination actually leads us to a potentially useful insight. In this new world – psychology without people – I only anticipate that one of these two conferences would actually exist: HBES. The theoretical framework of the researchers at HBES can help us understand things like cooperation, the importance of kinship, signaling, and aggression regardless of what species we happen to be talking about. Again, there’s consilience when using evolutionary theory to study psychology. But what about the SPSP conference? If we weren’t talking about humans, would anyone seriously try to use concepts like the “glass ceiling”, “self-affirmation”, “stereotypes”, or “sexism” to explain the behavior of any non-human organisms? Perhaps; I’ve just never seen it happen.

“Methods: We exposed birds to a stereotype threat condition…”

Now, sure; plenty of you might be thinking something along the lines of, “but humans are special and unique; we don’t play by the same rules that all other life on this planet does. Besides, what can the behavior of mosquitoes, or the testicle size of apes tell us about human psychology anyway?” Such a sentiment appears to be fairly common. What’s interesting to note about that thought, however, would not only be that it seem to confirm that psychology suffers from a lack of consilience, but, more importantly, it would be markedly mistaken. Yes; humans are a unique species, but then so is every other species on the planet. It doesn’t follow from our uniqueness that we’re not still playing the same game, so to speak, and being governed by the same rules. For instance, all species, unique as they are, are still subject to gravitational forces. By understanding gravity we can understand the behavior of many different falling objects; we don’t need separate fields of inquiry as to how one set of objects falls uniquely from the others. Insisting that humans are special in this regard would be a bit like an ornithologist insisting that the laws of gravity don’t apply to most bird species because they don’t fall like rocks tend to. Similarly, all life plays by the rules of evolution. By understanding a few key evolutionary principles, we can explain a remarkable amount of the variance in the way organisms behave without needing disparate fields for each species (or, in the case of psychology, disparate fields for every topic).

Let’s continue to imagine a bit more: if psychology had to go forward without studying people, how often do you think would find people advocating suggestions like this:

If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of “academic freedom”?…When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.

Maybe in our imaginary world of psychological research without people there would be some who seriously suggested that we should not put up with certain lines of research. Maybe research on, say, the psychology of mating in rabbits should not be tolerated, not because it’s inaccurate, mind you, but rather because the results of it might be opposed to the predetermined conclusions of anti-rabbit-heterosexism-oppression groups. Perhaps research on how malaria seems to affect the behavior of mosquitoes shouldn’t be tolerated because it might be used to oppress mosquitoes with seemingly “deviant” or extreme preferences for human blood. Perhaps these criticisms might come up, but I don’t imagine such opposition would be terribly common when the topic wasn’t humans.

“Methods: We threatened the elephant seal’s masculinity…”

So why didn’t I attend as many talks at SPSP as I did at HBES? First, there was the lack of consilience: without the use or consideration of evolutionary theory explicitly, a lot of the abstracts for research at SPSP sounded as if they would represent more of an intellectual spinning of wheels rather than a forwarding of our knowledge. This perception, I would add, doesn’t appear to be unique to me; certain psychological concepts seem to have a nasty habit of decaying in popularity over time. I would chalk that up to their lack of being anchored to or drawn from some underlying theoretical concept, but I don’t have the data on hand to back that up empirically at the moment. The second reason I didn’t attend as many talks at SPSP was because some of them left me with the distinct sense that the research was being conducted with some social or political goal in mind. While that’s not to say it necessarily disqualifies the research from being valuable, it does immediately make me skeptical (for instance, if you’re researching “stereotypes”, you might want to test their accuracy before you write them off as a sign of bias. This was not done at the talks I saw).

Now all of this is not simply said in the service of being a contrarian (fun as that can be) nor am I saying that every piece of research to come out of an evolutionary paradigm is good; I have attended many low- to mid-quality talks and posters at the evolutionary conferences I’ve been to. Rather, I say all this because I think there’s a lot of potential for psychological research in general to improve, and the improvement itself wouldn’t be terribly burdensome to achieve. The tools are already at our disposal. If we can collectively manage to stop thinking of human behavior as something requiring a special set of explanations and start seeing it within a larger evolutionary perspective, a substantial amount of the battle will already be won. It just takes a little imagination.

Comments are closed.