From Brain Researcher to Social Scientist: They All Answer to ‘Psychologist’

In a brightly lit laboratory in Northern California, Jennifer Eberhardt listens to the final thumps of a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) apparatus. In its cylindrical confines, a college student looks at pictures of Black and White males while the device measures the blood flow in his brain.Jennifer Eberhardt Back east in New England, Bruce Compas’ research assistants help a 12-year-old girl who suffers from unexplained abdominal pain settle in at their cozily-appointed lab. After affixing electrodes and a velcro belt to monitor the girl’s heart and respiration rates, the assistants measure the girl’s reactivity to pain by placing her arm in near-freezing water. Next, they assess her cognitive reactivity to pain words with a computer task. Finally, the girl’s mother joins her in the lab, and they talk about her last episode of abdominal pain, while a video camera records their interaction.

Bruce Compas Across the country, thousands of scientists record reaction times, code videotaped interactions, slide their subjects into magnets, pore over longitudinal records and dusty archives, distribute surveys, interpret assays, measure biological responses and score myriad pencil-and-paper measures. And all of them answer to “psychologist.”

Why? What unites the scientist who queries the “me” at the center of experience with the scientist who explores the cauliflower at the top of the spinal cord? Psychological researchers from a variety of subfields were asked to talk about the common themes that unite our tribe, as well as the extent to which our perceived in-group heterogeneity is getting the best of us. If their views are any indication, there are a great many shared practices and understandings across subfields. We’re all curious about brains and minds, we explore them at the individual level, we often employ cognitive methodology, we believe in the scientific method, and we’re committed to The Real World (that’s the real Real World, not the MTV series).

The first of these commonalities is the most obvious: We’re all interested in brains and minds, and tend to think that they are somehow related. This is a dramatic shift from the days of behaviorism, when brains and minds were the no-man’s land between stimuli and responses. Our fascination with the brain and mind also marks a departure from the original meaning of psyche. When the Greeks first started muttering it, psyche meant “breath.” Later, the word came to mean soul or spirit – concepts with which modern psychology has but rare and cautious contact.

Modern psychology’s association of brain with mind also marks a peculiarity of the culture in which this field arose. Not everyone thinks that minds emanate from the cranium. I am reminded of this when conversing with Japanese colleagues, who tap their chests when they say, “I think.” In Japanese culture, mind is in the heart. Ask the Ifaluk of Micronesia wherein the mind lies, and they may tap their tummies. (Perhaps some people really do think with their guts.)

As a field, we have decided, or at least inherited the idea, that the action happens between the ears. With the cognitive revolution came the idea not only that we can study what’s going on there – consciously, unconsciously, biologically – but also that we must.

Herein lies a second similarity marrying the branches of our clan: the emphasis on individual cognitive processes. We have social cognition and cognitive development, cognitive neuroscience and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Even social psychology has become remarkably antisocial. “Social psychology used to be not simply looking inside the head and inside the person, but also thinking about that person in connection to others and to groups,” says Eberhardt, a social psychologist at Stanford who studies the effects of racial knowledge on perception. “Since social cognition has become dominant, the focus has been on the processes that are going on within the head of one person.”

Not all are pleased with the individualization of psychology. Russ Fernald, a Stanford biologist who examines the transduction of social information into biological realities, sees it as a considerable limitation: “Studying an individual and an individual’s choices is of value, but limited value. That has plagued psychologists and biologists forever. It’s much easier to take an animal or human and abstract it out of its environment and discover a lot about how this animal behaves on its own – but not much about how it would deal with a conspecific, or two, or ten. So much of our lives and animal’s lives are necessarily in groups, but that’s a bigger and harder issue to research.”

Despite these concerns, psychology has forged ahead in its journey to the center of the psyche. But how do we get inside the head?

In much the same way that Freud endeavored to make the unconscious conscious, modern experimental psychologists attempt to make the internal external. Since subjects are none too keen on trephination, psychologists have had to be quite clever in designing their devices. Cognitive psychology arose specifically to fill this order. As a result, the methods of cognitive psychology have become the lingua franca across many subfields.

Barbara Tversky These methods are vast and becoming more so, but APS Fellow Barbara Tversky, a cognitive psychologist at Stanford, notes there is commonality in the methods: “The standard joke about psychology experiments is that they measure either percent correct or reaction time.” Looking across the fields, there seems to be some truth in this jest.

“Percent correct” refers to memory measures, be they implicit or explicit, recall or recognition, procedural or semantic. Across the subfields, line drawings, word lists, videotapes, tall tales, recipes, and random number sequences have been pitched to subjects, then partially retrieved, in the pursuit of the mind’s mysteries.

Likewise, reaction times have proven a handy tool for many a researcher. How long does it take you to read the word “blue” if it is written in red ink? How quickly do you associate “Black” with “bad”? How long does it take you to respond to a dot-probe if it appears closer to a pain-related word than a neutral word? The Stroop task, Implicit Attitudes Test (IAT), and dot-probe task are but a few examples of reaction-time tests used in cognitive, personality, social, developmental, and clinical psychology.

Neuroscientists get to the center of things even more directly, gleaning snapshots of brain activity with EEGs (electroencephalagrams), PET scans, CAT scans, and – the queen bee of imaging techniques – fMRIs. These methods sketch the brain by means of measured electrical activity, positron emission, X-ray absorption, and oxygenated blood flow.

With an arsenal of these and other methods for getting inside the head, most psychologists then embark on their favorite pastime – trying to prove themselves wrong. This odd diversion reflects another tie that binds experimental psychologists: our belief in the scientific method, especially the part of it that says you can never be right, but only less wrong. In other words, we’re all in the business of falsifying hypotheses.

Where did we get this non-intuitive idea that the road to enlightenment can only be paved with failure? Whip out that dog-eared copy of Sir Karl Popper’s, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, turn to Chapter 1, and there you will see the codification of scientific psychology’s central tenets. In this classic tract, Popper attempts to solve “the problem of induction”: how is it logically possible to generalize from individual experiences to universal theories?

After dismissing repetition of experiences (such as the sun coming up each morning) as but paltry evidence for the truth of universal theories (such as the theory that the sun will rise every morning), Popper concludes that the best we can do is use individual experiences to falsify theories. APS Fellow Walter Mischel, a personality psychologist at Columbia University, agrees with this approach: “To the degree that psychologists do good science, they frame things in a way that allows a null hypothesis to be tested.”

There is a host of ways to explore a null hypothesis, but psychology’s coup has been to adopt the laboratory experiment as its falsifier of choice. This is yet another commonality: our employment of the experiment (although not to the exclusion of other methodologies). Experiments are powerful because they lay bare to others the “severity” of the tests to which we have subjected our theories. In attempting to shoot our own theories in the foot, we must prove that we used the right gauge of shotgun and kept our eyes open when we pulled the trigger. While this path to truth may seem slightly masochistic, it gives psychology a degree of credence with the lay public that other fields of inquiry do not always enjoy.

Robert MacCoun Social psychologist Robert MacCoun has experienced the clout of the laboratory experiment firsthand. With appointments in the Department of Psychology, the Goldman School of Public Policy, and Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley, MacCoun works alongside economists, lawyers, historians, and political scientists. His research has graced a variety of topics – from the effects of gays on military cohesion to the effects of reduced penalties on rates of drug consumption.

While his own work reflects a colorful cocktail of methodologies, he acknowledges that “experimentation is still the most powerful way of testing hypotheses. In the policy world, a successfully implemented field experiment is elegant and rhetorically powerful because the data speak for themselves. A problem with non-experimental research is that you have to analyze the data in very complex ways in order to make the case that something worked or didn’t work.”

“Unless the policy audience is statistically sophisticated,” said APS Member MacCoun, “the analyst is essentially saying, ‘Trust me. Take my word for it.’ Policy makers are very skeptical of that.”

As powerful as these experiments may be, psychologists beseech each other to be modest in our generalizations. APS Fellow Jacquelynne Eccles, a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan who studies human achievement in a wide variety of contexts, warns that “an experiment can tell you a great deal about what happened in that laboratory. But there can be problems when people try to apply these findings to situations and settings outside the laboratory.”

Robert Sternberg Robert Sternberg of Yale University agrees. As a cognitive psychologist-cum-general psychologist, Sternberg, an APS Fellow and Charter Member, has developed and tested theories of love, intelligence, and creativity. Not resting on the results from his stateside labs, Sternberg has put his theories to the test in India, Jamaica, Spain, China, Gambia, Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania, Finland, Germany, and Venezuela. As he explains, “Our lab is most interested in whether a theory works, not in promoting the theory itself. That’s why we have a heavy emphasis on testing our theories in a variety of environments, including cross-culturally. It makes no sense to say a theory is universal until you test it universally.”

The quest for airtight, non-false theories does not necessarily lead to noetic bliss. In order to conform with the strictures of Popperian induction, researchers may develop broad theories that are so underspecified that they can predict everything, or so narrow and overspecified that they fail to generalize to real-life situations.

Within and without the field of cognitive psychology, Tversky has seen quite a bit of these lukewarm research programs: “Hypothesis testing has often meant that you have your own theory, which makes a different prediction than a competing theory. Then your goal is to run an experiment that will allow your theory to trounce the competing theory. These sorts of experiments often end up with tiny effect sizes, and perfunctory, uninteresting paradigms that aren’t very reflective of the real world.”

Luckily, psychology has a built-in check on this tendency: our commitment to real-world phenomena. There are many sciences with tighter theories and bigger equations, but psychologists like their basic research with a side of the applied.

Nancy Kanwisher “Math and philosophy are also important and worthwhile ways of gaining knowledge,” says neuroscientist Nancy Kanwisher of MIT, who uses fMRI to study face perception in humans, “but personally I’m more interested in how things actually work in this world. I’m not so interested in how people may think on Jupiter.”

Yet the balance between the basic and applied is a difficult one to strike. Indeed, the various subfields of psychology may be viewed as different solutions to the problem of where to place the fulcrum between basic and applied research. Anchoring the “applied” category would be clinical psychology, while molecular neuroscience would arguably being the most basic. Between these two poles, a continuum of subfields may be constructed: the neurosciences (themselves ranging from the molecular to the behavioral), cognitive, developmental, personality, social, organizational/industrial.

Different dichotomies give rise to similar continua: quantitative/qualitative, individuals/groups, mind/society, science/humanities, process/content, nature/nurture. But the legitimacy of these dichotomies increasingly is being called into question. In turn, this calls into question the organization of our field. For example, in developmental psychology Eccles concludes that “the dichotomy between social and cognition is false. Many cognitive activities are social, and all social activities involve cognition.” Similarly, Fernald observes that “the nature/nurture issue is no longer seen as dichotomous. That dichotomy is not even useful anymore.”

Richard Hackman, a social psychologist at Harvard University, likewise questions the organization of psychology into subfields.

“I could say there are different problems and different characteristic methods, but I believe these differences are epiphenomenal” contends Hackman, a Fellow and Charter Member of APS. “I think the reason we have the different fields is that people like to hang out with, be reassured by, and socially compare themselves to people who are reasonably similar to themselves. Areas are institutional social constructions. God did not arrange the world this way. Yet we need these constructions to be able to make our hires, do our promoting, publish in our journals, and manage our fields.”

Be it legitimate and necessary, or anachronistic and arbitrary, the division of psychology into subfields is not always ideal. “What concerns me about the areas of psychology is that they’re often method-bound,” says Compas, a Fellow of APS and a clinical psychologist at the University of Vermont. “If you are bound by one method, then you can’t sort out the degree to which your findings are an artifact of that method, and the degree to which they may not generalize beyond that method. Linking different methodologies is what makes good clinical science.”

Similarly, Mischel observes, “there is a tremendous amount of specialization in psychology. It’s increasingly fragmented. But specialization and increasingly molecular analysis are inevitable with the growth of a science. Having a common core that continues to address the issues at the interface of these areas is therefore critical.”

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