Saturday, 29 December 2012

"Psychology" - The Struggling Science of Mental Life


Many of you may be old enough to remember George A. Miller’s book “Psychology: The Science of Mental Life”. As an undergraduate psychology student I was brought up with books with titles that variously contained the words science, psychology, behaviour and mind in them. These books had one main purpose – to persuade students of psychology that psychology was a legitimate scientific pursuit, using rigorous scientific methods to understand human behaviour and the human mind. All on a par with the more established sciences such as biology, physics and chemistry.

Even if you’re happy with the notion of psychology as a science, we then have the various debates about whether psychology is a biological science or a social science, and in the UK this isn’t just an issue about terminology, it is also a major issue about funding levels. Do psychologists need labs, do undergraduate psychology students need to do lab classes to learn to be psychologists? This almost became the tail wagging the dog, as funding bodies such as HEFCE (and its predecessor the University Funding Council) looked to save money by re-banding psychology as a half-breed science sitting somewhere between social science and biological science. I even seem to recall that some psychology departments were designated social psychology departments and given little or no lab funding. So were students in those Departments being taught science or not? What breed of psychology was it?

Just one more example before I get to the main point. A few years ago I had the good fortune to teach a small-group elective to second-year medical students. This was a 6-week course on cognitive models of psychopathology. I was fortunate to teach this group because it contained highly motivated and intelligent students. Now, I have never viewed myself as anything other than a scientist using scientific methods to understand human behaviour in general and psychopathology in particular. But these groups of highly able and highly trained medical students inevitably had difficulty with two particular aspects of the material I was teaching them: (1) how can we use science to study “cognitions” when we can’t see them, when we make up ‘arbitrary’ concepts to describe them, and we can’t physically dissect them? and (2) at the end of the day, cognitions will always boil down to biology, so it is biology – and not cognitions – that should be the object of scientific study.

What struck me most was that these students had already developed a conception of science that was not procedure based, but was content based. It was the subject matter that defined science for them, not particularly the methodology.

My argument here is that while psychology had been touted as a science now for a number of generations, psychologists over these generations have failed to convince significant others (scientists in other disciplines, funding organizations, etc.) that psychology is a science on a par with other established sciences. Challenges to psychology as a science come in many forms and from many different sources. Here are a few examples:

(1)      Funding bodies frequently attempt their own ‘redefining’ of psychology, especially when budgets are tight, and psychology is a soft target here, with its large numbers of students offering significant savings if science-related funding is downgraded.

(2)      Students, teachers and researchers in other science disciplines often have very esoteric views of what science is, and these views revolve around their own subject matter and the techniques they specially use to understand that subject matter. Psychologists have probably not been proactive or aggressive enough in broadcasting the ways in which psychology is science and how it uses scientific methodologies in a highly objective and rigorous way.

(3)      Members of other science disciplines frequently have a ‘mental block’ when it comes to categorizing psychology as a science (that’s probably the nicest way I can put it!). This reminds me of the time a few years ago when I was representing psychology on the UK Science Council. There was a long discussion about how to increase the number of women taking science degrees. During this discussion it was pointed out that psychology was extremely successful at recruiting female students, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too pessimistic about recruiting women into at least some branches of science. The discussion paused briefly, and then continued as if nothing of any relevance whatsoever had been said!

(4)      All branches of knowledge are open to allegations of fraud, and there has been some considerable discussion recently about fraud in science, fraud in psychology and the social sciences, and – most specifically – fraud in social psychology. Arguably, psychology is the science discipline most likely to be hurt by such allegations – not because methodology is necessarily less rigorous than in other science disciplines or publication standards any less high, but because many scientists in other disciplines fail to understand how psychology practices as a science. Sadly, this is even true within the discipline of psychology, and it is easy to take the trials and tribulations that have recently been experienced in social psychology research as an opportunity for the more ‘hard-nosed’ end of psychology to sneer at what might be considered the softer under-belly of psychological science. One branch of psychology ‘sneering’ at another branch is not a clever thing to do, because this will all be grist to the mill branding psychology generally as “non-scientific” by members of other science disciplines.

I’ll finish by mentioning a recent report published in 2011 attempting to benchmark UK psychology research within an international context. Interestingly, this report (published jointly by the ESRC, BPS, EPS and AHPD) listed nine challenges to the competitiveness of current psychology research in the UK. A significant majority of these challenges relate to the skills and facilities necessary for pursuing psychology as a science!

Psychology still requires an orchestrated campaign to establish it’s scientific credentials – especially in the eyes of other science disciplines, many of which have their own distorted view of what science is, but already occupy the intellectual high ground. Challenges to psychology as a science come from many diverse sources, including funding bodies, other sciences, intra-disciplinary research fraud, and conceptual differences within psychology as an integrated, but diverse, discipline.

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Tuesday, 4 December 2012

‘Stickers’, ‘Jugglers’ and ‘Switchers & Dumpers’ – Which kind of researcher should you be?


I often look back on my own research career with some surprise at where it’s all travelled to. When I was a PhD student I was a dyed-in-the-wool behaviourist loading rats into Skinner boxes and clich├ęs into arguments. Cognitions didn’t exist – and even in the remote possibility that they might, they were of no use to a scientific psychology. I was a radical Skinnerian pursuing a brave new world in which behaviour was all that mattered and contingencies of reinforcement would win out against all the airy-fairy vagaries of other approaches to psychology. Just a few years on from this I was still wondering why my PhD thesis on the “determinants of the post-reinforcement pause on fixed-interval schedules in rats” hadn’t been nominated for a Nobel Prize! 

I’ve begun with this personal example, because it emphasizes how relatively narrow interests (and views and approaches) can seem like they are the universe – and that is especially the case when you are personally invested in a specific piece of research like a PhD thesis. But what happens later on in our academic lives? Should we stay focused and hone our skills in a focused research niche, or should we nervously wander out of that niche into new areas with new challenges requiring new skills? 

It is certainly a question for young academics to think about. Stick with what you know, or get other strings to your bow? If you are a newly graduated PhD, you are more likely than not to be a “clone” of your supervisor, and that may well be a block on you getting a lectureship at the institution in which you did your research degree. But then most recruiting Departments will want to know that you are – as they put it - “capable of independent research” before appointing you. Do you go scrabbling for that last section in your thesis entitled “Future Directions” and try to stretch out your PhD research (often in a painfully synthetic way, like seeing how far some bubble-gum will stretch – even though the ‘amount’ there is still the same). Or do you bite the bullet and try your newly-learnt skills on some new and different problems? 

You have one career lifetime (unless you’re Buddhist!) – so should you diversity or should you focus? Let’s begin with those people who focus an entire research career in one specific area – “the stickers” - often concentrating on a small, limited number of research problems but maybe have the benefit of developing more and more refined (and sometimes more complex) theoretical models. Cripes – how boring! Take that approach and you’ll become one or more of the following: (a) The person who sits near the front at international conferences and begins asking questions with the phrase “Thank you for your very interesting talk, but…”, (b) That butcher of a referee who everyone knows, even though your reviews are still anonymous, (c) Someone who sits in Departmental recruitment presentations openly mocking the presentation of any applicant not in your specific area of research (usually by looking down at your clasped hands and shaking your head slowly from side to side while muttering words like “unbelievable” or “where’s the science?”, or, finally, you’ll become (d) Director of a RCUK National Research Centre. 

So what about taking that giant leap for researcher-kind and diversifying? Well first, it’s arguably good to have more than one string to your bow, and become a research “juggler”“. The chances are that at some point you’ll get bored with the programme of research that you first embarked on in early career. Having at least two relatively independent streams of research means you can switch your focus from one to the other. It also increases (a) the range of journals you can publish in, (b) the funding bodies you can apply to, and (c) the diversity of nice people you can meet and chat sensibly to at conferences. It can also be a useful way of increasing your publication rate in early mid-career when you’re looking for an Associate Editorship to put on your CV or a senior lectureship to apply for. 

But there is more to diversifying than generating two streams of research purely for pragmatic career reasons. If you’re a tenured academic, you will probably in principle have the luxury of being able to carry out research on anything you want to (within reason) – surely that’s an opportunity that’s too good to miss? B.F. Skinner himself was one who promoted the scientific principle of serendipity (a principle that seems to have gone missing from modern day Research Methods text books) – that is, if something interesting crops up in your research, drop everything and study it! This apparently was how Skinner began his studies on response shaping, which eventually led to his treatise on operant conditioning. But diversity is not always a virtue. There are some entrepreneurial “switchers and dumpers” out there, who post a new (and largely unsubstantiated) theory about something in the literature, and then move on to a completely new (and often more trending) area of research, leaving researchers of the former topic to fight, bicker and prevaricate, often for years, about what eventually turns out to be a red herring, or a blind alley, or a complete flight of fancy designed to grab the headlines at the time. 

Now, you’ve probably got to the point in this post where you’re desperate for me to provide you with some examples of “stickers”, “jugglers” and “switchers and dumpers” – well, I think you know who some of these people are already, and I’m not going to name names! But going back to my first paragraph, if you’d told me as a postgraduate student about the topics I would be researching now – I would have been scornfully dismissive. But somehow I got here, and through an interesting and enjoyable pathway of topics, ideas, and serendipitous routes. Research isn’t just about persevering at a problem until you’ve tackled it from every conceivable angle, it’s also an opportunity to try out as many candies in the shop as you can – as long as you sample responsibly!

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