Thoughts on Psychology

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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:

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:

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:

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:

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?

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:

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:

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


Written by daijones

December 22, 2010 at 3:15 am

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Psychologists in the media

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A good piece from the Guardian’s Lay Scientist blog on the ethics (or lack thereof) of psychologists who appear in the media passing comments on celebrities they’ve never met:

Written by daijones

November 18, 2010 at 11:58 pm

Posted in Media, Pop psychology, Quick Link

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Gender in pop psychology

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Nice piece in the Guardian on the popularity of gender difference claims in pop psychology, and the absence of firm evidence for the same:

Written by daijones

November 16, 2010 at 2:15 am

Blog on forensic psychology

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A promising looking new blog on forensic psychology:

Written by daijones

November 9, 2010 at 1:17 am

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Quack psychology in the media

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Nice article about “psychologists” talking shit to the media:

Written by daijones

November 9, 2010 at 1:16 am

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The changing face of psychology degrees

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In Tyson, Jones & Elcock I argue that the discipline of psychology is shaped, in terms of what it investigates and how, by social context, including sources of funding. We’re about to see this in action within UK psychology, following the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review and the Brown review of Higher Education. These two developments will have a significant impact in the shape of British, or at least English, higher education generally, and psychology degree syllabuses particularly. This in turn affects the views of psychology of the next generation of psychologists, and so the way psychology will be conducted going forward.

There has long been a disagreement within parts of psychology about whether psychology should be a science, and if so what kind of science psychology should be. Historically the dominant view has been that psychology should aspire to the status of a natural science, and its methods and theories have developed accordingly. This emphasises positivism, reductionism, and the search for universal nomothetic laws to explain human behaviour. Against this, as far back as Windelbrand and Wundt some have argued that psychology should be a distinctly social science, with an emphasis on interpretive understanding, so Geisteswissenschaft rather than Naturwissenschaft. There has recently been an increasing recognition of the peculiarly reflexive nature of psychology, and with it an increased awareness of the need to consider it a social, or at least human, science, rather than aspiring to the natural science model. (The historical trends are discussed in Jones & Elcock; the modern recognition of reflexivity is at the heart of Tyson, Jones & Elcock.) However, in Britain at least this recent trend looks likely to be set back by recent developments in Higher Education.

The recently announced Comprehensive Spending Review posits significant changes to the funding of Higher Education in England. In particular, it proposes the withdrawal of all public support for courses in social sciences, arts and humanities; and the maintenance of such support only for courses in hard sciences, technology, education and medicine (so called STEM subjects). The argument for this is that only STEM courses bring direct economic benefits, and public money shouldn’t be wasted on courses without such benefits. This ignores the social capital – in terms of culture, human development, the foundation of civilisation – that inheres in the University system. Higher Education should be seen as a public good, and at least in part funded as such, as it has been for these past many years. Unfortunately those days are apparently gone, public financing of this huge amount of social capital being jettisoned to pay for the mistakes of the banking sector, which apparently escapes unscathed. We should be grateful that the British Museum isn’t similarly being crucified, so that at least some public support for culture remains, although the same economic vs culture argument could be made for removing public funding from that institution and similar. Still, that’s by the by. The impact of these changes on psychology will be significant, since it is not seen or funded as a STEM subject for the most part. British degrees are funded according to four bands, to reflect the differential costs of courses. Medicine is in band A, attracting the most public funding, and most hard sciences are in band B, attracting less than band A but more than others. Humanities courses are in band B, which attracts less. Currently, psychology is funded as band C, receiving more than humanities courses to cover the costs of research labs and equipment. In future band C funding will be removed, meaning not only that psychology courses lose public support; they lose more support than some other courses making them particularly expensive for Universities to offer. Something will have to give.

It’s impossible to predict what effect these finding changes will have on Universities, but we can rehearse the possibilities. One possibility is that many Universities decide that psychology courses are uneconomic to run, despite their healthy recruitment, because in future they will be funded by student fees in the same way as cheaper courses that don’t need to pay for laboratory work. The current resource requirements set by the British Psychological Society for courses seeking the Graduate Basis for Chartership are a particular problem here – the required resources can’t be afforded without either public support or higher fees. A second possibility is that psychology courses change to try to attain the status – in the Government’s eyes – of hard sciences, and so retain public funding. This will have the effect of cementing the view of psychology as a natural science discussed above, retarding the recognition of psychology as a reflexive, human science. A third possibility is that a split will appear within psychology courses, with some BPS accredited courses emphasising their natural science credentials and charging high fees; and other courses reducing the emphasis on lab work in order to charge lower fees. The former institutions are likely to be the ones that can sustain high fees and afford a degree of cross subsidy, and so will be the richer, higher status institutions. The latter are likely to be newer institutions of lower status. When high status institutions emphasise psychology as a natural science, and lower status institutions downplay this, then we can expect that the natural science approach to psychology will attain an even higher status than it has now, again retarding the reflexive human science view. A sign of this is in a survey on the future of undergraduate psychology being conducted by the Higher Education Academy’s Psychology Network, which asks in part whether there should be more differentiation and specialisation between psychology degrees.

The changes to Government funding arrangements then seem likely to reinforce the view of psychology as a natural science. However, these changes go hand in hand with the recommendations of the Browne review of Higher Education, particularly in that public support for HE will be replaced with the fee mechanism laid out by Browne. Discussion of the Browne review has concentrated on fees, and Universities are gratefully clutching at this straw to replace the funding lost to bail out the bankers. However, as this analysis shows, the Browne report is about much more than funding, and envisages the reshaping of Higher Education along market lines, on the assumption that such a market in HE would work like the perfect markets described in old economics textbooks, even though modern economics (with insights from psychology!), everyday experience, and the example of the banking crisis show that markets don’t actually work that way. This market model emphasises economic benefits over social capital, as with the Government spending review – the two clearly inform each other – and also the operation of market mechanisms as the determinant of undergraduate provision. Market forces will determine what degrees will be offered, and what those degrees will consist of. This could go one of two ways for psychology. On the one hand, student satisfaction is seen as the main outcome that will drive degree choice by applicants and hence degree survival and content. Most students dislike psychology’s heavy emphasis on research methods and statistics, so one might expect that this change will reduce demand for natural science heavy courses in psychology. That seems to me unlikely. Instead, applicant choices are likely to be increasingly swayed by the perceived status of institutions, as a very poor analog for student experience; and by the perceived economic benefits of a degree in terms of job opportunities. This again would suggest psychology provision will be dominated by richer Universities offering BPS accredited courses, since such accreditation will be necessary to pursue a career in psychology, and psychology will increasingly be studied only by those seeking such a career.

Taking these two changes together, I would expect to see – though I very much hope I’m wrong – a contraction in psychology ,with fewer students choosing from a smaller choice of courses, and those courses emphasising a BPS accredited, natural science heavy curriculum. As part of this, there’ll be an increased focus on cognitive psychology and neuropsychology, and on particular areas of applied work. The insights gained from other approaches to psychology, and the personal benefits to be gained by studying psychology for reasons other than professional practice, will be greatly diminished.

Clearly there’s a political point being made here, but that’s incidental to the main argument: the content and nature of psychology degrees will change, meaning that psychologists will change, not as a result of a progressive refinement of psychological science, but as a result of policy and funding decisions by the Government. As argued in Tyson, Jones & Elcock, psychology is very much shaped by its social context.


Written by daijones

November 3, 2010 at 8:36 pm

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Yet again the media uses brain science to denigrate women

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I love the Daily Mash, but it’s undoubtedly funnier when you know the story they’re satirising. Sadly, when I first saw this article I didn’t know the background, so couldn’t get full benefit…

Happily for me, Dr Petra Boynton has commented on the original research, focussing on the media’s reporting of it. This post is typically informative and illuminating, but also makes the Daily Mash post more fun:

Dr Petra’s post includes links to other blogs criticising methodological aspects of the study being reported on.

This kind of research is typical of the modern trend towards seeking brain based explanations, as if they were sufficient, and the media is happy to lap this up. But even if the study were methodologically sound, what would it tell us? The implication is that differences in brain state cause differences in libido, but then what causes the differences in brain state? From my point of view, the brain state is a reflection of the psychological condition, rather than the cause of it. The Daily Mash perhaps puts it best:

But Dr Logan’s wife, Emma, said: “My study suggests very strongly that it’s not me it’s you, you fat, bald, stinky little shit.

“If I don’t like sex, then what the fuck are all those tea lights doing in the bathroom?”

Written by daijones

October 29, 2010 at 12:23 am

Posted in Biological determinism, Media, Quick Link

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