The (Mis)organization of Psychology

Psychology is divided into areas such as biological psychology, clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, industrial/organizational psychology, social psychology, personality psychology, and so forth. Departments often organize their professors in this way, graduate programs are usually structured in this way, and jobs are typically advertised in this way. This organization of the field, departments, graduate programs, and jobs is less than optimal; it represents a misorganization of the field.

By subsuming psychological phenomena under fields of psychology, the discipline encourages a narrow view rather than a broad approach to understanding psychological phenomena.

Several factors play a role in maintaining the current (mis)organization:Tradition. First, and foremost, it is the way things have been done for a long time. When a system of organization is entrenched, people tend to accept it as a given. For example, most psychology departments have chairpersons, but members of those departments probably do not spend a lot of time questioning whether they should have chairpersons – they just accept this system of organization. Of course, new fields within psychology come and go. For example, the fields of evolutionary psychology and health psychology are relative newcomers to the roster of fields of psychology. But even as new fields come and go, what remains the same is the organization of psychology by fields, old and new.

Vested Interest. Second, once a discipline such as psychology has been organized in a certain way, people in the discipline acquire a vested interest in maintaining that organization, much as people gain a vested interest in maintaining any system that seemingly has worked for them in the past. For example, most cognitive psychologists were trained as cognitive psychologists, or personality psychologists as personality psychologists. Were the field suddenly to reorganize, current scholars and practitioners might suddenly find themselves without the kind of knowledge base and even socially-organized field of inquiry that would allow them to continue to function successfully.

The Need to Specialize. Third, no one can specialize in everything. Students of psychology need to specialize in some way, and structuring psychology in terms of fields has been viewed as a sensible way to define specializations. Thus, someone who specializes in social psychology will be expected to know about a series of related phenomena such as impression formation, attribution, and stereotyping. Or someone who specializes in cognitive psychology will be expected to know about a set of related phenomena such as perception, memory, and thinking. And successively greater levels of specialization ultimately may be encouraged, such as in cognitive approaches to memory, to implicit memory, or to the use of priming methodology in studying implicit memory.

We believe that the current organization of the field is distinctly suboptimal and even maladaptive. We have several reasons for this belief.

This organization of the field bears no resemblance to psychological phenomena. Examples of psychological phenomena include memory, intelligence, dyslexia, creativity, prejudice, and amnesia, among others. None of these phenomena are best studied within a single specialized field of psychology.

For example, although memory can be investigated as a cognitive phenomenon, it can, and should be, studied through the techniques of a number of other fields. These fields include biological psychology and cognitive neuroscience (e.g., in attempts to find out where in the brain memories are stored), clinical psychology (e.g., in the conflict over repressed memories), social psychology (e.g., in preferential memory for self-referential memories), behavioral genetics (e.g., in the heritability of memory characteristics), to name just some of the relevant fields. Someone studying memory only through one approach or set of techniques will understand only part of the phenomenon.Similarly, intelligence can be, and has been, studied from differential, biological, cognitive, social, personality, cultural, and other points of view. Someone studying intelligence from only one of these points of view-let’s say differential-almost certainly will understand the phenomenon only in a very narrow way, in terms of individual differences, without fully appreciating the role of biological or cognitive processes, or of culture, for that matter.

Consider the well-worn parable of the blind men each touching a different part of the elephant and each being convinced that he is touching a different animal. In psychology, the situation is like always touching the same part of a phenomenon and thinking that this part tells you all you need to know to understand the whole phenomenon.

The same argument can be applied to virtually any psychological phenomenon. By subsuming psychological phenomena under fields of psychology, the discipline encourages a narrow view rather than a broad approach to understanding psychological phenomena.

Organizing by fields can isolate individuals who study the same phenomena. Two individuals within a psychology department may both study creativity or insight, but if one is in personality psychology and another in cognitive psychology, they may have little interaction. This is because in a typical department, students and professors often are located next to – and attend the same meetings and read the same journals as – others in their field, regardless of the phenomena being studied.

The current organization may create false oppositions between individuals or groups studying phenomena from different vantage points. Here’s an example: Individuals studying memory from a cognitive perspective may never quite understand the work of those studying memory from a clinical standpoint; this can lead to a sense of hostility toward the viewpoints of those who do not understand their (“preferred”) way of studying memory. Or individuals studying intelligence from differential versus cognitive-experimental points of view may (and sometimes do) see themselves in opposition, as though there were a uniquely correct approach to studying a psychological phenomenon.

The current system tends to marginalize psychological phenomena that fall outside the boundaries of a specific field. For example, psychological phenomena such as imagination, intelligence, wisdom, and even emotion may tend to be ignored in a department if they are not seen as part of the “core” of a field. This also extends to the people studying such phenomena. They may have difficulty getting hired because hiring is often done by area, and the people studying phenomena at the interface of fields of psychology may be perceived as not fitting neatly into any one area. In turn, faculty in a given area may not want to hire such people if they feel that they will not get the full benefit of a slot or that such individuals will not contribute adequately to graduate (or even undergraduate) training in that so-called “core” field.

Research may tilt toward issues to which a limited set of tools may be applied. The current system essentially equips students with a set of tools (e.g., the methods of cognitive psychology, or cognitive neuroscience, or social psychology, or mathematical psychology). Instead of being driven by substantive issues, the system then encourages students to go in search of phenomena for which they can use their tools, much in the way a carpenter might seek to find objects for which he or she can use a hammer.

The current system can discourage new ways of studying problems. If someone wishes to educate students in terms of the existing boundaries of fields, they will encounter little problem. But if they want to cross those boundaries, other faculty may worry that the individual will not be properly trained in a field, or may have trouble getting a job, or may not fit into the departmental structure. And in truth, they may be justified in all these concerns.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the traditional disciplinary approach of largely subsuming psychological phenomena under fields of study, rather than the other way around, leads psychologists to confuse aspects of phenomena with the phenomena as a whole. This confusion is analogous to the use of synecdoche in speech, where one substitutes a part for a whole (e.g., “crown” for “kingdom”), except that unlike poets or other writers, psychologists are unaware of their use of this device. The psychologists believe they are studying the whole phenomenon when in fact they are studying only a small part of it.

Consider the well-worn parable of the blind men each touching a different part of the elephant and each being convinced that he is touching a different animal. In psychology, the situation is like always touching the same part of a phenomenon and thinking that this part tells you all you need to know to understand the whole phenomenon. Consider two examples:

In the study of human intelligence, psychometricians may keep discovering a “general factor” and thus become convinced that the general factor largely “explains” intelligence. Biological psychologists may find a spot or two in the brain that lights up during the fMRI or PET-scan analysis of the commission of cognitive tasks and become convinced that these parts of the brain fully explain intelligence. Cultural psychologists may find wide cultural differences in notions of the nature of intelligence, and become convinced that intelligence is best explained simply as a cultural invention. Each psychologist touches a different part of the metaphorical elephant, and becomes convinced that part represents the whole (and fairly simple) animal.

As a second example, learning disabilities have genetic, neuropsychological, cognitive, educational, social, and cultural aspects. Much of the debate in the field of learning disabilities has come to be over whether their origins are genetic, neuropsychological, cognitive, educational, social, or cultural. This ongoing, fruitless debate is unlikely to end until scientists are trained in each other’s fields and paradigms so that they will understand that learning disabilities, like other psychological phenomena, need to be understood from all of these perspectives, not just one. Of course, the same argument applies to many other psychological phenomena, such as emotions, consciousness, motivation mental disorders, perception, memory, creativity, and so forth.

In general, scientists who are not well trained in one another’s techniques are likely to be suspicious of the other’s techniques and of the conclusions drawn from them. These scientists probably will continue to do research within their own paradigm, which keeps supporting their views and thereby reinforces their confidence that they are right and that those who adhere to a paradigm from some other field are misguided.

We believe that a more sensible and psychologically-justifiable way of organizing psychology as a discipline, and in departments and graduate study in psychology, is in terms of psychological phenomena. We advocate a different way of organizing the discipline of psychology, namely, in terms of psychological phenomena – which are not arbitrary – rather than so-called fields of psychology – which largely are arbitrary.

Under this approach, an individual might choose to specialize in a set of related phenomena, such as learning and memory, or stereotyping and prejudice, or motivation and emotion, and then study the phenomenon or phenomena of interest from multiple points of view. The individual thus would reach a fuller understanding of the phenomenon being studied because he or she would not be limited by a set of assumptions or methods drawn from only one field of psychology.

Our proposal carries with it a number of advantages that are largely complementary to the disadvantages of the present field-based approach that currently dominates the discipline.

People might very well end up specializing in several related psychological phenomena, but they would understand these phenomena broadly rather than narrowly, which is certainly an advantage if one’s goal is comprehensive psychological understanding. Psychology would be less susceptible to tendencies that field-based organization encourage: narrowness, isolation, false oppositions, marginalization, largely method-driven rather than phenomenon-driven approaches to research, discouragement of new ways of approaching psychological phenomena, and confusion of the part with the whole.

Are there disadvantages to our proposal? Perhaps. In the near term, it would be inconvenient because it is inconsistent with an entrenched system that extends to departmental organization, graduate and even undergraduate education, job offerings, and the like. It also is inconvenient simply because this is not the way people currently in the field have been trained, and people tend to value systems that have worked for them in the past and that are likely to work for them in the future without disturbing their world.

Nevertheless, if the goal is optimal understanding of psychological phenomena rather than preservation of a misorganized system, we believe our proposal represents a preferred path for the future of our discipline.

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