Quick Take: Does Psychology Really Matter?

Hoo boy. Here’s a guy who knows how to rattle cages.

Check out this blog post by Adam Mastroianni at Experimental History proposing that the entire discipline of Psychology is meaningless (note: to get to the article you have to set up a free account).

The argument boils down to this: Some of the highest profile stuff in modern Psychology has been shown to be fraudulent or impossible to replicate. And yet the world keeps turning. As Elizabeth Gilbert and Nick Hobson of Big Think observed when pondering Mastroianni’s argument,

Eliminating natural selection would upend biology; uncovering that the periodic table is unreliable would derail chemistry; cutting Einstein’s discoveries would have huge ripple effects in physics. Not so, it seems, with the field of psychology: There’s been no fundamental shift in our understanding of the human mind, brain, or behavior.

I’m not here to pile onto Psychology or to revive an old debate about whether behavior analysis is, or should be, part of it. I have a fondness for many parts of Psychology and therefore hope you’ll read a partial retort to Mastroianni in that Big Think piece. Also check out this reflection on when and whether the science celebrated in Nobel Prizes matters.

But let’s take what Mastroianni’s doing at face value and ask ourselves: How would you know if a discipline was succeeding as a science and contributing as a force for good in society? How, objectively, would you verify that it matters? At the least Mastroianni’s argument may persuade you that it’s maybe not as simple as you might think.

Which raises a question I hope to pursue in depth in a future post: How, in objective terms, might we measure the value of behavior analysis? When I say “objective terms” I mean pointing to outcomes on whose importance everyone, including people who might not start out as our fans, can agree. This means immediately dropping a common approach, which is to suggest that we are philosophically superior (our approach to things like measurement and defining cause-effect relationships is better than what other people — including a lot of Psychologists — use). Philosophical arguments are by their nature debatable.

And we probably have to eschew that old favorite strategy for demonstrating social relevance, the conceptual analysis, because it’s a form of interpretation, and interpretation is not evidence-based and therefore, by its nature, debatable.

We probably have to use data, but what kind of data? Contemporary behavior analysis is the culmination of almost 100 years of systematic research that has revealed a ton of functional relations. Few would debate that the data exist, but how many people have been persuaded by them that our science is important? Where basic behavior science is concerned I suspect we could do better in persuading the world that we’re studying — and illuminating — important stuff. Where applied science is concerned, we’ve definitely made some societal inroads, but much of our work disproportionately targets tiny slices of the overall population, so how “important” does that look to people on the street? Even if they agree we’re addressing important problems, would they say what we do is more valuable than other approaches? After all, most of our effectiveness evidence comes in the form of studies showing that treatment works better than no treatment — we don’t actually have a lot of relative effectiveness data.

There may be answers to all of this but in this quick post I wish only to get you thinking. Just be aware that to have the discussion that I hope can flow from this post requires theory of mind. In defending the value of our discipline, I think we’re extremely good at crafting arguments that we like to hear. But I’m not sure these arguments meet other people where they are or speak to their needs and values. Anyway, expect more on this eventually, but as a starting point, I would be thrilled to learn that your seminar students dived down this rabbit hole or that an intellectual barroom brawl erupted when you brought this up to your behavior analysis colleagues. Feedback requested!