Two Approaches to Psychology

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Laboratory rat
I'm a dependent variable

Boundary Conditions

The nature of a science depends upon boundary conditions imposed to study the object of interest, so for example, cell biology establishes boundary conditions at the cell walls and cosmology, at the infinite or not so infinite universe. Likewise, psychology established boundary conditions, but boundary conditions morph depending upon the field of psychology and the purposes of the investigator. This makes comparison among psychological studies extremely problematic. Although the studies are cataloged under the rubric of “psychology”, in fact, the studies belong to different fields of discourse. Hence profound and contradictory findings and results frequently occur within psychology simply due to different boundary conditions.

A basic distinction may be made between studies that draw boundary conditions around the body and examine internal biological, physiological, neurological, or mental processes and those studies that include external agents and events. The importance of boundary conditions is found in the theories of Humberto Maturana. He was my colleague with Jerry Hirsch, Hobart Mower, and Heinz von Forester at the Biological Computing Laboratory at the University of Illinois. The “view from within” and the “view from without” are incommensurate. As Maturana argued common visual “illusions” are not illusions when viewed in terms of the dynamic processes that occur in the brain. An illusion can only be judged as an illusion if the observer steps outside the boundaries of the brain to examine the presumed source of the illusion.

Inner Processes

Studies of inner processes involve internal causality and contingency. The complex nature of internal regulation requires multivariate, systems models of processes. Moreover, inner processes occur in time and so real-time models of systemic change and organization are characteristic features of research. The “internal” psychological disciplines, and those relevant to psychology, are physiology, neurology, cognitive science, and psychoanalysis.

With the development of powerful computers, these processes may be modeled through application of algorithms, feedback and feed-forward processes, evolutionary learning, and other mathematical models. These “methods of demonstration” oftentimes require sophisticated mathematics, programming, and application of systems’ theories. The complex interactions observed are characteristic of biological organisms. This is a very different way of thinking, approach to understanding, and worldview than that characteristic of bread-and-butter psychological research.

Psychology Often Not About Inner Processes

The preponderance of psychological studies simply excludes observation of inner processes and correlates external influences with external responses. The processes of the inner world are treated as contingent upon outer stimuli. Self-organization and internal regulation are not directly “observable” and thereby excluded from dust bowl style, experimental psychology. In consequence, little understanding of inner processes can occur. A variant of this approach reduces inner processes to “cognitions” and “emotions” sorted by a rating scale or evaluated in terms of “true-false” agreement. Studies that employ trivial measures of inner processes, such as rating scales, provide a poor proxy for the inner events. The nature of human nature is imposed by methodological assumptions.

Studies of outer processes that impact inner processes largely are inspired by requirements for “operationalization” and experimental research design. Operationalization defines the translation of some variable into terms which may be observed and hopefully quantified. As a student at Purdue University, one of my professors, Victor Dennenberg, “operationalized” anxiety in rats by having his students count little pellets of rat poop termed “bolvi”. The idea here was that the more bolvi, the more anxious the rat. Since bolvi are nearly uniform in size, the professor could quantify anxiety by the number of bolvi.

Experimental research design requires that research be cast in terms of independent and dependent variables. Independent variables are manipulated by the experimenter and dependent or outcome variables are observed. Experimental research design was given a great boost by R.A. Fisher who between 1920 and 1930 developed the Analysis of Variance. Fisher developed classic designs to evaluate the role of fertilizers, irrigation, and types of seed on crop yield. During the early 1930s, his method was eagerly embraced by US Agricultural Research Stations, then promulgated from agriculture to psychology. His method became de rigueur throughout the teaching and research of psychology to this day. Dennenberg followed this train and found early stimulation of rats related to less defecation in unfamiliar situations.

This type of research where an “outside factor” is related to an “inside factor” is the common coin of psychology today –a psychology by virtue of its methodology that provides simple answers and simple solutions. The method itself discourages deeper probing of self-regulation and adaptation. A little knowledge keeps the knowledge away. For example, rats that are stimulated early may have a lower “set point” for alert attention, and thereby be more at risk in an adverse environment. Associative learning to threats may be less efficient and so on. The point is that we do not understand or model the rat’s dynamic system of internal regulation through studies of contingent behavior to isolated variables. This understanding is available only through conceptual and algorithmic approaches that embrace multiple variables and data points.

Sometimes, the difference between research that emphasizes the inner world and research that emphasizes the outer world appears a matter of emphasis –especially given that a research method that developed to optimize crop yields may be applied to observations that reflect inner processes. I agree that sometimes research that arises from systems modeling and straight-ahead, experimental study may be non-contradictory and even point to a common factor, but the difference in these ways of understanding the inner world remains poles apart.