Letter/Observer Forum

Psychological Science’s Human Clientele: Beneficiaries or Victims?

Barbara Tversky’s engaging article, “Seeing Psychological Science Everywhere” (Observer, September 2018), prompts a historical note and some (brief) reflections on the present and future.

  • In 1978, a stellar group of scholars revisited George Miller’s 1969 APA Presidential Address on “giving psychology away.” The participants in that event (Kasschau & Kessel, 1980): William Bevan, James Jackson, Sigmund Koch, Michael Scriven, Sheldon White, Belvin Williams, and George Miller (who, rather than review his address and remember its dramatic setting,1 provided speaker introductions and some “Afterthoughts”).
  • Most relevant here — Koch’s opening which, as its title suggests (above), involved a critical analysis of Miller’s assumptions and substantive assertions:

“I had long wished to demonstrate the vacuity of the presumption that scientific psychology is a font of great ‘gifts’ (actual and potential) to the human race, and to show — via particular illustrations — that the force of modern psychology has been to coarsen or, indeed, obliterate many of the insights concerning the human condition which have slowly emerged in the humanities and, more generally, within human
praxis … Miller’s address had become something of a classic in relation to its themes — but had always impressed me as a classic in another sense: that of an exercise in celebrating the mainstream pretentions and objectives of a flawed and turmoiled discipline … bearing on a very grave set of issues,” Koch wrote.

  • In the heart of his chapter, Koch tied specific analyses to his conception of “The Psychological Studies” as necessarily encompassing scholarly efforts that range well beyond the conventionally scientific. (See, e.g., Kessel, 2013; 2017.) That leads to the question: In what ways could such a critical perspective inform the kinds of discussions Tversky is inviting?
  • Noting her “dark clouds hovering,” I suggest that we should ask whether the contributions of “psychological science” are necessarily beneficent; that we should temper the judgment that all our work is inherently “thrilling,” even though — or because — it is ever more widely cited and adopted; and more generally, that at least some of us should engage in self-critical consideration of the normative, moral dimensions of our science and consistently consider the sociopolitical contexts of knowledge production and use.
  • A current example: Several scholars (Kessel et al., 2018) argue that this is especially called for regarding research in several major areas of developmental psychology.2 While still largely focused on WEIRD populations (Henrich et al., 2010), such research is being used to justify, as scientifically supported, large-scale, well-funded interventions aimed at improving parental practices in highly diverse sociocultural settings. The problematic political and ethical dimensions of how such supposedly well-established knowledge is being “given away” could provide the kind of important caution of humility that Miller himself recognized. Thus, I suggest that at least some discussions of giving psychology away could fruitfully address this challenge: Who decides, on what normative bases expressing which and whose values, what family practices — indeed, any cultural practices in particular and diverse settings — are “normal,” “healthy,” and “best”? And how do scientific data — of whatever scale and drawn from whichever (inter-)disciplines — fit, or not fit, into the consideration of any such complex, “very grave” issue?

-Frank Kessel
APS Fellow
Professor Emeritus, University of New Mexico

References and Further Reading

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 61–83.

Jackson, J. J. (1980). Promoting human welfare through legislative advocacy: A proper role for the proper science of psychology? In R. A. Kasschau & F. Kessel (Eds.),  Psychology and society: In search of symbiosis.  New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Kasschau, R. A., & Kessel, F. (Eds.). (1980). Psychology and society: In search of symbiosis. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Kessel, F. (2013, March). Interdisciplinarity: Present, past, future. APS Observer, 26.

Kessel, F. (2017, December). Interdisciplinarity and integration: How far and wide? APS Observer, 30, 9.

Kessel, F., Chaudhary, N., Rogoff, B., Serpell, R., & Shweder, R. A. (Manuscript submitted for publication).

“Cultural diversity, interventions, and ethics.” Conversation Roundtable proposal, Society for Research in Child Development Biennial Meeting, Baltimore, March 2019.

Koch, S. (1999). Psychology and its human clientele: Beneficiaries or victims? In D. Finkelman & F. Kessel (Eds.). Sigmund Koch: Psychology in human
context —essays in dissidence and reconstruction
(pp. 291–311). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

White, S. H. (1983). Psychology as a moral science. In F. Kessel & A. W. Siegel (Eds.), The child and other cultural inventions. New York, NY: Praeger.

James Jackson’s impromptu introduction to his presentation — about how he and others prevented Miller from beginning his address by taking over the podium with demands about the paucity of Black graduate students — was both humorous and a reminder of the tumult of those times.

Attachment theory and the “word gap” are two primary cases in point.


Back in the middle of the last century, Erik Erikson wrote in Childhood and Society that child-rearing practices in different cultures were geared to producing individuals that would fit their cultures, with both the virtues and the weaknesses conducive to effective functioning. This insight has been effectively reversed by practitioners who assume that a “desirable” social culture can be engineered by promoting the child-rearing practices that presumably produce individuals who function well in cultures defined by democracy and dominated by a large middle class.

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