Thoughts on Psychology

Psychology in everyday discourse

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I’ve said various things in various lectures about the relationship between the discipline of psychology and people’s everyday psychological thinking. These include that psychology (the discipline) creates concepts that change our everyday understanding of the psychological, and that our everyday psychological understanding is reflected in the language we use – what Graham Richards calls Folk Psychological Language. If these claims are true, then we might expect innovations and change in the discipline of psychology to be reflected in everyday language. I’ve long been interested in doing a piece of large-scale research on this, but other writing projects have taken priority. However, a new tool released by Google Labs, the Books Ngram Viewer, makes such a project much easier so I might revisit the idea. This project relies on the huge store of literature that Google Books has built up, and has made that store into a searchable database so that you can search for the occurrence of particular terms in books over time. Let’s look at a few examples.

I’ve claimed that the notion of “motivation”, which seems so fundamental a part of human psychology, is a relatively modern Western innovation, which has value and meaning only in particular socio-economic contexts. It first comes to psychology through psychoanalysis, but is given a different meaning by mainstream scientific psychology. If we search for occurrences of motivation in English books we get:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=motivation&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cmotivation%3B%2Cc0

Basically nothing until Freud introduces the term at the start of the 20th century, then some growth, followed by a spurt with the rise of industrial/occupational psychology in the US from the 1940s. The trend is delayed in French language psychology:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=motivation&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=19&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cmotivation%3B%2Cc0

Here, it’s only from the 1950s that motivation really takes off as a concept. I’ve written elsewhere about Western Europe adopting the forms of US psychology after the second world war, and this is perhaps evidence of it. One other example, this time from Russian psychology:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=%D0%BC%D0%BE%D1%82%D0%B8%D0%B2%D0%B0%D1%86%D0%B8%D1%8F&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=25&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2C%D0%BC%D0%BE%D1%82%D0%B8%D0%B2%D0%B0%D1%86%D0%B8%D1%8F%3B%2Cc0

Russian psychology is interesting because under the Communist regime scientists were limited in what they could do by the ideological demands of the state apparatus. Clearly Stalin – who died in 1953 – wasn’t happy with the idea of motivation, as an import from Western capitalist societies. Later Communist regimes were more accepting of the concept, and it continues to grow as Russia becomes a capitalist society. (Russian is tricky because ‘motivation’ translates into multiple terms, but I think I’ve got the right one.)

What these examples seem to indicate is that the idea of “motivation” as a psychological construct is socially and historically dependent. What about some other concepts? Let’s try IQ:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=IQ&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2CIQ%3B%2Cc0

The term is only developed in the 1910s, so you wouldn’t expect to see any mentions before that: those few that occur are likely noise arising from how the algorithm works, I need to tinker with the settings more to get cleaner data. Anyway, the concept of IQ was clearly very successful, very quickly, in the English speaking world. But of course, everyone knows that “IQ tests” were invented by the French psychologist, Binet, so how was the concept received in French psychology?

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=QI&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=19&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2CQI%3B%2Cc0

In French psychology, we see little increase in the use of the term when IQ tests are first developed – the French didn’t want anything to do with IQ it seems. This isn’t surprising, since IQ tests, and the concept of IQ as we understand it, are very much American innovations reflecting a specific socio-political context. Binet did develop tests of intellectual performance, but these were in no way IQ tests: they had a very different inspiration and purpose. The English speaking concept of IQ only gains widespread acceptance in French psychology after the second world war, reinforcing the point above.

It’s probably a little sad to admit, but I could play with this data set for hours. One more example will suffice for now though. I’ve talked about how when psychology introduces a term it changes our understanding of our own condition; and of the increasing medicalisation of psychology. I’ve used the example of the change from the concept of “melancholy” to the concept of “depression”, suggesting that the latter has replaced the former, and with it changed the way we understand mental health. Let’s have a look:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=melancholy%2Cdepression%2C&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cmelancholy%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cdepression%3B%2Cc0

The pattern is pretty clear: the more ‘modern’, scientific term “depression” takes over at the start of the 20th Century, and receives a particular boost with the growth of clinical psychology as a profession.

This tool gives a quick and easy way to trace the history of a concept. What about psychology in Germany? It emerges in the mid-19th Century, grows to a certain extent, but then gets a massive boost when the nazi regime found it to be politically and practically useful:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=psychologie&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=20&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cpsychologie%3B%2Cc0

Which I hope corroborates the claims I make in Tyson, Jones & Elcock

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