Big Questions: no.1 Why is psychology “wrong”?

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


Top evening out last night (thanks Matthew & Steve & co). And some fascinating conversations. One above all with Ellie which prompted this – my 200th – post on the Herd blog. (Don’t think I’ll save the big questions just for round numbers but it seems a good point to do this one as there’s something in New Scientist this week which points in this direction, also.)

I think we’ve gone wrong in our attempts to understand, describe and predict mass behaviour in an over reliance on the discipline of psychology. This is not to say that all psychology’s findings are necessarily wrong or without merit; no, to be absolutely clear about it: psychology as we understand it (that is in its applied and diffused form) is based on a number of assumptions about humans that are just plain wrong.

i. that individuals are self-determining agents (they act independently of each other).
ii. that it is the internal mental processes of the individual which are important in shaping the behaviour of that individual (the thinking – conscious or unconscious – is the bit that counts)
iii. that individuals can examine and report their own internal processes and their actions accurately

Now, I’m aware the headline to this post seems like a big and blunt assertion: as in so many disciplines there are almost as many differences of opinion as there are folk to have opinions and within the psycological world there are folk who do not accept all 3 of these assumptions (or those, like the Freudians who have their own particular crosses to bear). That said, I think these assumptions cover much of the ground we would accept of psychology-as-she-is-in-the-world (psychology as we know it).

And why is it important to expose the wrongness of psychology? Does it really do any harm? Couldn’t we just accept the frame is a bit cock-eyed, the data less than perfect (we could blame the complexity of humankind, couldn’t we?) and let it do what it does, let itplay the role it does in society? After all, there’s nothing better yet to understand human behaviour, is there?

Well, Yes. And no. And No (in roughly that order).

It’s important to expose the ‘wrongness’ of psychology because as Pinker puts it it distorts our scholarship and science and everyday lives: it produces a map that is inaccurate and that, like the eugenic-driven pseudo science of phrenology, can lead us to dark places as well as dead ends. So Yes, it does do harm.

And no, we shouldn’t just accept the faulty nature of the framework. We wouldn’t accept the framework of phrenology as a means to understand and predict human behaviour because we know it’s based on silly assumptions about human nature and behaviour*. So why should we do the same with the psychology frame? Of course phrenology and psychology both provide answers and of course both sets of answers are less than perfect. But they are less than perfect because the assumptions behind the models are wrong not because the practice is per se wrong or willfully misleading.

And finally, there are other frames. A large number of the posts here feature other ways of thinking about and describing human behaviour based on the different assumptions to those on which psychology-thinking rests: that other people are they key influence on individual behaviour and that thinking and internal processes have little to do with shaping individual behaviour (we just tend to do stuff and then make sense of it later – NS suggests that it this is true for up to 90% of human life).

So for the record: why are psychology’s assumptions wrong?

First, we know from social conformity research and the other behavioural sciences that the influence of others is much more pervasive than any one agent would like to admit. Zimbardo for example points out that that it is the situation that shapes how otherwise good people do bad things rather than their volition or nature; Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling underlines how most human life is a response to a context which consists largely of other individuals’ responses to a context of other individuals’ responses. Copying is the key learning strategy for our species (not just for our children; it continues throughout our lives) and in fact more for our species than other primates. As Alex and Duncan point out copying accounts for much of what is needed to model behaviour cascades in populations…

Second, as a result, the internal processes that we – children of the “I” culture – would like to believe are the real drivers of our individual actions are necessary to a useful account of how human behaviour is shaped turn out to be much less important than we think. On the one hand, our consciousness has been shown to overclaim it’s own importance: Libet is amongst those showing how our sense of deciding something comes after the behaviour has started and not before (but is retrofitted by our minds). And contary to our experience – and the widespread assumption in Western culture since the Ancient Greeks – our opinions and attitudes tend to change after our behaviour rather than before it. As the NS points out, our conscious mind tends to play much less of a role in shaping our future behaviour than in making sense of present and past behaviour.

Third, it is widely recognised in the academic end of market research that individual consumers are unreliable witnesses to their own lives. Unfortunately, some practitioners together with other audiences (including the users of the data) insist that things are otherwise and carry on looking for “consumer-truths” to be revealed by witnesses or for individuals’ accurate assessments of their own future behaviour to be accessed by “just the right technique” or methodology. And of course, as the Recovered Memory Syndrome scandal shows, if you are convinced of what you will find, you can sort the data to suit just about any hypothesis, blaming the tools or “being in denial” if you don’t find what you’re after (or others don’t agree). The amount of energy exerted to compensate for or overcome the unreliability of individuals as witnesses to their own lives suggests to me that this is a real problem even for those who accept assumptions i. and ii are wrong. The experience that each of us has our of lives is captured in assumption iii. Giving that up seems to be just too much for any of us (even I struggle that my sense of my own knowledge and guidance of my life is illusory…it would be easier to pretend otherwise.)

So what do we do about this? How do we move forwards? Here are some suggestions:

1. I think that – as the therapeutic cliche puts it – we need to admit we have a problem. That psychology is a partial science at best and that it is in the minority of behavioural sciences in assuming that individuals shape their own behaviour independently of others.

2. There are a number of other approaches and ways of thinking about things which seem to add up to something more well-evidenced to deal with our social – HERD – nature. The collision between Anthropology (in its many forms), Sociology and behavioral economics is a good place to start. Ethnography is a key tool for this, as is behavioural observation.

3. Accept that within this new frame you don’t get quite the same questions and answers to worry about (the discipline of psychology is very much a product of the culture in which it arose so it deals in issues around why individuals do things, how they reason and the role of traits vs. other factors). Don’t just do what the neuromarketers have done and squeeze all the new learning into the same old frame.

4. Check yourself: because of the culturally-resonant assumptions behind psychology-led frameworks, you’ll find yourself slipping back into the “I” way of thinking again and again.

At the end of the day, the choice is this: do you want to stick with bump-like ways of explaining,describing and predicting human behaviour which you know to be fundamentally wrong or do you want to do the job properly?
Answers on a postcard please.

* Well actually we do accept some of the most important assumptions of phrenology which psychology has borrowed: for example, the idea that the brain is seat of the mind (not entirely true as modern neuroscience is largely agreed that the brain is only part of the nervous systems and not the whole deal by any means). Or the strange idea that the brain has specialisations which act independently of each other…one very popular with popular science – remember the debate around the search for the buy-button?


  1. Alan
    July 6, 2007

    Focussing upon the notion of “the unreliability of individuals as witnesses to their own lives”…
    This is the “sleep” religions for millennia have been exhorting us to awaken from. And just as one can develop muscles, one can exercise and develop the ability to “witness” one’s own life. In different religions this key practice of “witnessing” goes under various translations. In the Christian tradition it is the repeated edict to “Watch”. In the Buddhist tradition it is to be “Mindful”.
    A simple way to develop the ability to witness one’s own life is to practice paying attention to the shapes and colours in one’s peripheral vision. In this state, rather than just looking, one is aware of oneself looking — self-awareness. If Libet is correct, then choosing to “witness” is perhaps the only choice we can ever really make — and most cannot even make that choice! (As you may discover for yourself.)
    For some inspiration, many artists have portrayed this important practice and the subsequent stages of Presence and Awakening — as can be seen here:
    Name: ABC
    Password: 123456

  2. kevin
    July 7, 2007

    Mark, interesting, thoughtful posts… and a great summary of your position, I think
    1. maybe it makes for stronger rhetoric, but it seems to me that the argument is not psychology is WRONG, but that it is limited or partial, has been much over-emphasised and this can lead to false conclusions and bad outcomes
    The assertion ‘it is all wrong’ is saying ‘this is right’ (Herd theory), but the argument about rights and wrongs in absolute terms can be a bit of a pointless side show – like two people hitting each other repeatedly over the head with a wooden stick
    And surely we cannot escape our minds. even in thinking about the Herd, or writing blog posts.
    Nor can we escape our past and as you say, psychology has something to teach us about how we (as mere individuals) got to develop in the way we did
    But we are physically separate beings and my brain (and nervous system) is housed inside my body and not anyone else’s and is not part of a cyberborg collective mind.
    I am no pysch-apologist, though. And this is my point …
    2. Because of all of the above, it is ALL THE MORE IMPORTANT to think and talk Herd (or other people). Maybe as a counterbalance, maybe as the new way of thinking, maybe as a semi-religious (or spiritual) thing, cf last comment.
    I sense that there is a shift towards a more collective (Herd) way of thinking and away from rampant individualism and that a growing appreciation of our interdependence rather than independence will cause all sorts of changes in how people behave and how marketers deal with consyoumers. And big hat tip to you for being a major part of this shift. But …
    3. what is the higher purpose (of Herd)? I think there is one and that it is behind what you have been banging on about, ever so eloquently, for so long.
    Are we maybe seeing it today – the Live Earth concerts, the idea that the only way to save the planet is to change our behaviour and that change will come from copying others (near us) and being more aware of others (further from us), rather than just pondering about things?
    (This last point was Tania’s and I nicked it but she can put it better so look out for comment later today)

  3. mark Earls
    July 7, 2007

    Think you’re spot on Kevin. Let’s talk more…(you see, Conversation is Good)

  4. Alan
    July 7, 2007

    Mark: “spot on”? — I respectfully disagree. No worthwhile change will come from Kevin’s “copying others and being more aware of others.” The illusion will only continue — still stuck in the cave merely copying and being more aware of one’s shadows on the wall. Unless, that is, what people are copying is being aware of themselves, i.e. the practice of self-awareness…
    As I wrote previously, the only worthwhile change is to get out of the cave and the key to achieving that is the practice of self-awareness. It is the distribution of this teaching of self-awareness that is the higher purpose to which Herd can and should be put. Everything else is just illusory cave-stuff.
    You already pointed out “the unreliability of individuals as witnesses to their own lives”. Yes exactly, we live life robotically, unconsciously copying each other — Herd behaviour. And all this is done within the illusion, the “cave”. The only way out of the cave of illusion is to (ironically) use Herd theory (in informing and encouraging the practice of witnessing/self-awareness) to free us from Herd behaviour itself.
    Mark, you replied: “I think the illusion of I seems to be important in sustaining health in the face of the truth”. …Most people aren’t even aware that there is any Truth to face. Most people would be surprised to learn that they are living in ignorance of a great Truth (as if in a cave).
    And far from sustaining health, this illusion of “I” is the cause of much of people’s poor health — the sense of unease in not being in control of one’s own life (merely unconsciously imitating others) is a source of great discontent and frustration which manifests as “dis-ease” in the body. Health (associated with whole/holy) is gained through living consciously achieved via the practice of self-awareness and ultimately, complete liberation by “seeing Truth” (enlightenment/out of the cave).
    In my previous comment I asked some specific and relevant questions: “But is (our failure to practice self-awareness) really lack of interest or is it lack of choice?” (i.e. free will) … “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”?”
    …I await your answers with interest.

  5. Asi
    July 13, 2007

    wow….where to start? I spent 4 good years of my life dealing with exactly these issues and questions….
    What you call ‘psychology’, or your claims against it are in fact the spirits of the Cartesian “Cogito Ergo Sum” and the ways in which it shaped both folk and academic knowledge about us humans – that idea of the solitary individual and it’s cognitive relations to his/her environment.
    This mis-conception was strengthened in the late 60s with the cognitive and information processing revolutions which dominated the academic psychology for too many years.
    These scholars reduced ‘cognition’ to the minimal level of inner-mental activity regardless of interaction and communication. However, our cognitions are chiefly the products of communication with others, and many of these cognitions are eventually communicated to others.
    The vast majority of these studies, have entrenched the individual at the centre of their explanatory and methodological frameworks. Contextual, social, cultural, ideological and historical aspects were almost completely ignored. Even when they were taken into consideration, (predominantly in the sociological studies) they were faintly acknowledged as factors impinging on the individual, thus remaining for the most part external impositions, in no way internally related to individual functioning, and hence outside the purview of psychological explanation.
    The constraints on communication and the transmission of mental content between minds, the
    transformation of these contents, and the resulting change in the participants, are rarely studied in mainstream psychology.
    But, apparently there is a different social psychology – the continental and more sociological paradigm of social psychology.
    One that recognises that getting better understanding of the people, or seeing the world through their eyes does not mean to enter the consumer’s head, to ‘decode’ the consumer and make inferences about his/her subjective state. Rather, it means observing, analysing, communicating and negotiating with the consumer about meaningful events, truths and versions of social realities and cultural worlds in real life, meaningful contexts…
    right….I can go on and on about this forever…would love to chat that over a coffee or a pint.
    have a great weekend

  6. mark Earls
    July 17, 2007

    Asi. Quite agree as to how psychology got “individualised” in the 60s but the truth is for most versions it happened a lot earlier(see Farr’s history of social psych as e.g. ). Indeed the individualists of the 20s and 30s specifically responded to the European tradition which was different.
    The point really is not psychology but “Psychology” (hence the title of these two posts): it’s how it is understood in the population of folk who use insights and understanding from the discipline to fuel their models (as you hint) of how behaviour works. My experience is that this “Psychology” is precisely what limits our understanding of humans in marketing, research, government and social studies….we assume that individuals make decisions on their own and that somehow thinking is involved in shaping behaviour as a causal (and therefore preceding) mechanism