About the Misery of Psychology, Cargo Cult, and the Decade of Behavior

Wiklinowy samolot 1In my last post I tried to explain How has the Cargo Cult Spread Throughout the Social Sciences. Today more details about the way of cargo cult into psychology.

Cargo cults have arisen from the misery of life their future followers had been leading at a time when those fortunate visitors luxuriating in all kinds of wealth, set foot on their land. The gap between those two was so remarkable that it could only have been ascribed to supernatural forces. The New Guineans chose the only interpretation of reality that they could comprehend.

Psychology came into being in the era of resounding triumphs of science and technology. The date of establishment of the first psychology laboratory founded at the University of Leipzig by German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt in 1879 is considered to mark the emergence of psychology as an independent empirical discipline. Rail transport has already conquered the world then and first cars are produced. The theory of evolution has been known for more than twenty years, Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements for ten and telephone for two years. Early into the year when Wundt created the first psychological lab, Thomas Alva Edison files his patent for a lightbulb and already in December he presents to the public his system of electric illumination. A year later Alexander Graham Bell uses his photophone to make the first ever wireless transmission of sound. In 1882 Robert Koch discovers bacteria that cause tuberculosis, in 1885 Louis Pasteur vaccinates the first patients against rabies and in 1887 Herman Hollerith obtains a patent for his tabulator based on punched cards as data carriers. At that time psychology hardly got through a systematization process of the method for recording subjective thoughts and feelings, knowns as introspection.

In the nineteenth philosopher and psychologist and “the Father of American Psychology”, William James lamented over the then condition of psychology as science:

A string of raw facts; a little gossip and wrangle about opinions; a little classification and generalization on the mere descriptive level; a strong prejudice that we have states of mind, and that our brain conditions them: but not a single law in the sense in which physics shows us laws, not a single proposition from which any consequence can causally he deduced. This is no science, it is only the hope of a science.[1]

A large affluence of scientific breakthroughs and technological inventions taking place at the birth of psychology as empirical science set against the scarcity of its own accomplishments is deceptively similar to the situation experienced by the poor islanders and the wealthy strangers. It is nothing but heroic attempts to rival glorious achievements of science that led psychology astray. As sad as it is, almost no one among those responsible for the development of these subjects of study that had been straight away doomed to failure, was able to bring themselves to admit that they had wasted time and energy looking for answers where they by no means could have been found. This is how first cargo cult sciences came to life, such as for instance psychoanalysis. Their leaders have been stuck to this day, marking their time by performing rituals whose outcome is as inevitably evident as the outcome of efforts taken by cargo cult followers.

However, fallacies of the originators of psychological fields of study are not that intriguing. At the end of the day, had it not been for them, there would have been no progress at all. It is only the subsequent sluggishness spreading despite important discoveries which could have propelled our discipline forward, that seems to be a puzzle worth solving.

Unfortunately, a poverty of accomplishments in psychology as compared to other, even related sciences is not only distant history. Quite recently, in 1990 „the Decade of the Brain” was announced by U.S. president George H. W. Bush as part of a larger effort involving the Library of Congress and the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health “to enhance public awareness of the benefits to be derived from brain research.”[2]

The efforts put into the understanding of the human brain were very fruitful. This is how editors of Acta Psychologica summarize this decade:

The amount of knowledge gained from investigating the neural basis of behavior and cognition was unprecedented. As a result, a new interdisciplinary field emerged, the cognitive neurosciences, specifically devoted to understanding brain-mind relationships. Tremendous progress has been made: five years after the first monumental edition of The Cognitive Neurosciences (Gazzaniga, 1995, MIT Press), a second equally monumental (and almost completely new) edition was published, titled The New Cognitive Neurosciences (Gazzaniga, 2000, MIT Press) (p.1).[3]

But this is not the whole story. As the authors put it in a subsequent part of their article:

Some fainthearted will be daunted by so much newly accumulated knowledge in such a short time span and would want to give up attempting to follow that progress. But then others would happily take over. In Fact, some neuroscientists have already been so enthusiastic about this progress that they forget that there is more to understanding behavior and cognition than tracing the neural activities alone. For example, in his Principle of Neural Science the most recent Nobel laureate in medicine, Erick Kandel, states that “the goal of neural science is to understand the mind – how we perceive, move, think, and remember” (Kandel, Schwartz, & Jessell, 2000, p. xxxv). Some psychologists will be shocked by this kind of statement because understanding the mind was supposed to be the traditional territory of psychologists.

In reaction perhaps, the American Psychological Association declared the new decade “the decade of behavior”.[4]

My intention is not to decide whether the establishment of the decade of behavior was the result of a shock caused by the accomplishments of the decade of the brain. Personally I am far less enthusiastic about the advancements of neuroscience than the editors of Acta Psychologica. This discipline sometimes transforms into a cargo cult as well, the phenomenon which I have explored more thoroughly in one of my previous posts.

Nevertheless, the decade of the behavior came immediately  after the decade of the brain and was announced in grand style:

 At press time, a bipartisan group of 10 senators had signed a letter asking President Clinton to make it official and name 2000-2010 the Decade of Behavior. But even without the president’s endorsement, the Decade will begin, says Richard McCarty, PhD, executive director of APA’s Science Directorate. The National Advisory Committee for the Decade of Behavior, which includes representatives from psychology, sociology, geography, anthropology, political science, economics and public health, has gained support for the initiative from 17 federal funding agencies.[5]

To my knowledge, president Clinton never made a formal endorsement of the decade, but it is certainly worth finding out what psychologists have learned and gained from these ten years of research.

Everything what I have found about the Decade of the Behavior will be described in one of the next posts.

[1] W. James, Psychology: Briefer Course. (New York: Holt, 1892): 468.

[2] E. G. Jones, and L. M. Mendell, “Assessing the Decade of the Brain,” Science, 284 (April 1999): 739. doi:10.1126/science.284.5415.739

[3] Editorial, “Beyond the Decade of the Brain: Towards a Functional Neuroanatomy of the Mind,” Acta Psychologica, 107, (2001): 1-7.

[4] Ibid.

[5] B. Azar, “APA Ushers in the ‘Decade of Behavior,’”. Monitor on psychology, 31, (January 2000): http://www.apa.org/monitor/jan00/decade-of-behavior.aspx


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