Big questions: no.1 Why is psychology “wrong”? (2)

Posted by on Jul 6, 2007 in Uncategorized | 5 Comments


Ok, here’s a couple more big reasons why it’s not so useful a frame (forgetting whether it’s right or not).

1. Psychology as we understand it in the West is primarily about individuals. As Robert Farr points out, American-led Social Psychology was deliberately shaped by its leaders as primarily a discipline about individual behaviour and responses NOT about group behaviour.

2. This would be ok if we were actually interested in individual behaviour, but we’re not: we’re interested in the behaviour of large numbers of folk and as Bernard Cova points out, aggregating up individual isolated responses misses a great deal (now Rory, just throw away the individual-channels that we can use to reach individuals – I’m talking about people and not channels).

3. Moreover, most Psych abstracts individuals from their context: other people. It puts them – we think – at the mercy of our super-fantastic-all-powerful brand marketing activity. It’s a lot less messy, isn’t it? But that doesn’t make it right. Or accurate.

4. In the real world their interaction with each other is crucial to the behaviour of individuals. So, even the Social Psych gang tells less than half of the story because it’s always trying to root things back in the individual context.

I happen to think that at the root of this lies an important cognitive bias that all of us have: we find it really much easier to respond to individual others than to the confusion of the group. It’s easier to think of the face in the crowd than the crowd. Now there’s a psychology insight that might be useful…

That’s enough for now, eh?


  1. Alan
    July 7, 2007

    Focussing upon “4. In the real world…”.
    Should we label this world as “real” when, on p.73 of HERD, you rightly point out that our sense of “I” through which we view the world is “often also largely an illusion”? I’m not being pedantic — rather I’m suggesting that, through our words, we often forget or ignore the much more important issue…
    Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” is one expression of the fundamental illusion we live under and we are conjecturing about our real nature while acknowledging that the environment in which we do so is “largely an illusion”. We are like Plato’s cave dwellers trying to surmise the nature of themselves by watching their own flickering shadows on the wall of the cave.
    On that same page you also wrote: “It is important to acknowledge these illusions…”. More than mere acknowledgment, I would suggest that it’s vitally important for each one of us to dare to leave the “cave” of illusions and see the outside world (Truth) for ourselves.
    And this is the problem: very few people are interested in seeking and finding Truth directly. We will not sincerely and diligently practice the simple change in our state of attention (self-awareness) which eventually leads to Truth. But is it really lack of interest or is it lack of choice?
    Following my comment on “Big Questions: no.1” did any reader (Mark, Kevin?) actually try being aware of their peripheral vision? …Or did the “clever” mind come up with some justification for not choosing to practice self-awareness and thus stay in the “cave”?

  2. mark Earls
    July 7, 2007

    I think I agree with much of what you’re saying from a personal perspective, Alan (that said, I think the illusion of I seems to be important in sustaining health in the face of the truth).
    However, I think we may be talking at cross-purposes. What Herd is primarily focussed on is how to understand and shape the behaviour of large numbers of individuals (that’s what I mean in this context by “the real world”) NOT the individual’s experience of the world.
    However, it’s also the reason why in this latest post that I refer to the cog bias of all the individuals thinking about mass behaviour: I think the individual illusions stop each of us seeing the bigger picture: we keep coming back to individuals…because that’s how our minds seem to work.
    I’m struck by the unsuitability of the mental tools each of us has to understand the world as it is: maybe what the Enlightenment would see as our “greatest gift” (our minds) is not quite as great as we’d like to think.

  3. Alan
    July 9, 2007

    Mark — re: the last paragraph in your comment above. (I’m struck by the …)
    Sages have been telling us throughout history that the mind is NOT our “greatest gift”. Many painters of the great art of the Enlightenment strived to show the contrast between the typical state of most individuals identified with their minds and rare, admired individuals free of their minds. My previously mentioned website “Artful Awakening” attempts to clearly show this through renaissance art — particularly the key practice which eventually leads to freedom from the mind (often referred to as Enlightenment).
    The modern day Krishnamurti advised: “Do not think but watch.” And from millennia ago we’re told: “I say unto all: Watch.” and: “Blessed is he that watcheth.” (A simple way to Watch being to pay attention to one’s peripheral vision.)
    …Now these instructions are something to be tried, but interestingly (although apparently only to me) the mind resists letting the “watcher” take over. Why is this? …Isn’t it strange? “Watching” or self-awareness is a simple but powerful change in the state of one’s attention — it puts to an end to what you, Mark, rightly point out is “the unreliability of individuals as witnesses to their own lives”. And yet there seems to be no interest in discovering the extraordinary results to be gained from this practice.
    To end, here are a couple of examples of “Watching” from around the 1460’s…
    …”Watching” (which involves no thinking whatsoever, but instead, the Will) will confirm what you suspect, Mark: that the mind is “not quite as great as we’d like to think” …but only if you practice it.

  4. Clyde McKendrick
    July 13, 2007

    I guess all this is about dragging belief, aspiration, wonder, entrancement, curiosity, intrigue etc… to the forefront of the individuals mind within their social context.
    Reminds of me of the old Edward Bernase “Torches of Freedom” stunt linking womens liberation in the US to the symbolism of smoking. Take a shared group desire (liberation) add a unacceptable behaviour within the society as a catalyst (women smoking) and the result is mass adoption (revolution).
    Given that was a Freudian theory at root based on how individual behaviour changes and can be manipulated in groups it’s easy to see how the foundation of mass communication was established. Then add technology in communication and the effect is simply magnified – a shockwave of opinion?
    I’m all for this approach and I don’t really see it as something new to marketing but a good way of refocusing on how brands consider treating target groups with different idea propogation characteristics.
    Take a ‘Herd’ – add a ‘Tipping Point’ focus with a captivating concept and magnify…

  5. mark Earls
    July 17, 2007

    Thanks Clyde but I think you’ve missed the point.
    You include things like “opinion” “desire” etc which make sense after the fact as a shared but individual phenomenon
    My pov says you don’t really need to include them in your account (as they either aren’t important or are good post rationalisations)