What has Happened During the Decade of the Behavior?

This post is a continuation of the previous posts:



120109_Zurich_Minds_Folge_11_Roy_Baumeister_thumb4Just in the middle of the Decade of the Behavior Roy Baumeister and his co-workers decided to verify whether psychologists are really capable of  examining behavior. To do this, they analyzed the content of January 2006 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP), one of the most prominent psychological journals. The issue contained 11 articles reporting 38 studies. Apart from one case, not a single one of those 38 studies contained direct observation of behavior. The dependent measures consisted entirely of introspective self-report ratings, either on paper or computer-administered questionnaires.[1]

These findings  are all the more striking when we consider that for decades now psychology students have been taught that psychology is the science of behavior and that its primary goal is to describe and explain human behavior. The same description of our discipline has been given in  most psychology textbooks, with some of them having even appropriately corresponding titles, such as : Psychology: the Science of Behavior.

To make sure that their discovery was not a mere chance, Baumeister and his co-workers decided to examine previous issue of the JPSP. Again, there were only two out of 38 studies in which behavior was observed. To form a more systematic and quantified view on this problem, the investigators  decided to analyze the content of JPSP over decades. To this end,  they selected March and May issues from 1966, 1976, 1986, 1996 and 2006. That is what they found:

“Back in 1966, when most articles contained only a single study, about half of these involved actual behavior. The study of behavior increased its share of the journal into the 1970s. But the use and study of behavior dropped sharply in 1986, and the subsequent decades have seen a continued downward trend. Apparently, the study of behavior has been in a steady decline since the early 1980s.”[2]

It seems that the decade of behavior did not change  much in this respect as in 2009 one of the best known field researchers in social psychology, Robert Cialdini published an article that can be seen as  a kind of desperate confession. In the first sentence of his paper he announced:

I am planning to retire early from my university psychology department position.(p.5)[3]

He gave three reasons for his decision:

(a) the advent of the cognitive revolution, (b) the unwritten (but nearly iron-clad) requirement for multiple study packages in our very top journals, and (c) the prioritization of mediational analysis of one’s effects through the use of secondary measures.

Although he admitted considerable worth associated with each of these trends, he also noticed that his specialization is doing experiments in naturally occurring settings with behavior as the prime dependent variable. However, that experimental orientation does not fit  the developments he listed.

History comes full circle and we are again in the reality created by JPSP. Cialdini wrote:

 The flagship journal in social psychology is the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP). As a past Associate Editor, I know how to get papers accepted there; along with my coworkers, I’ve continued to have JPSP articles published regularly in recent years. But, I haven’t had any of my field research published there in over 15 years. And field research, remember, is what I do best. So, I have had to take reports of that work elsewhere, sometimes to top-of-the-line scholarly outlets in consumer behavior, organizational science, survey research, marketing, and management.[4]

Was Cialdini offended by the changes that had occurred in psychology? Not necessarily. He points to serious consequences of this shift which in his opinion had been devastating at least in one respect:

I am no longer able to accept graduate students. At least, I am no longer able to do so in good faith because most apply hoping (a) to be trained by me in field research methods for investigating behavior in naturally occurring settings and (b) to be competitive for the best jobs in academic social psychology at the end of that training. For the foreseeable future, I know that I can reasonably help them attain only the first of those goals.[5]

Cialdini’s confessions revealed not only his personal dilemmas. What he  unearthed was, above all, the most critical  problems plaguing  psychology today. The failure of the profession to address and solve them adds to the transformation of psychology into  a cargo cult. It was  well shown by West and Brown in 1975 who conducted the same experiment twice, in two different ways. In the first trial they asked a group of individuals to indicate what their behavior would be in a specific situation . In the second study,  they actually staged the whole event. The experiment involved an alleged accident victim asking people on the street for money to help pay for medical care at a nearby clinic. What was not surprising, the levels of donations were dramatically diverse. . The declarations were far more generous than actual donations given to the “victim”. Moreover, the victim’s attractiveness did not have a significant effect on hypothetical donations, but it did have a significant effect on real donations. The results of this research unambiguously show how worthless conclusions about human behavior are if drawn only from declarations.

Unfortunately, similarly worthless are people’s predictions about how they will react and feel[6] or how they will make decisions.[7] They are not far from the conclusions formulated by cargo cult believers. But it was not always so. Baumeister and his co-workers state:

The move from behavior to an emphasis on introspective self eport and hypothetical responses to imagined events is potentially a hugely important shift in the very nature of psychology. Psychological science started out in the 1800s with introspection (e.g., Wundt, 1894). One major development of the 20th century was the shift from introspection to direct observation of behavior, widely regarded as an advance in the development of scientific methodology. Did someone, somewhere, decide that that had been a mistake and that we should now go back to introspection?[8]

Unfortunately, it is the scientists themselves who decided about this shift. It is far easier to make an academic career examining self-reports rather than behavior. It takes much less energy to carry out research in laboratory rather than in natural settings. It is much cheaper to ask for self-reports than to observe behavior. And all this, instead of developing our discipline into a domain of empirical knowledge, is little by little changing it into a cargo cult.

What is puzzling, if someone would like to bury themselves in  an exhausting review of the efforts of thousands scientists working on behavior throughout the Decade of Behavior, they  will find nothing but emptiness. No enthusiastic speeches, no reports enumerating endless achievements, no conferences or banquets celebrating accomplishments. The Web site http://www.decadeofbehavior.org/ launched by The National Advisory Committee for the Decade of Behavior is empty now. The links to pages created by APA with announcements of this initiative have  vanished into thin air. In my own pursuit of any achievement summary I searched the EBSCO data base for scientific articles that contained the phrase “decade of behavior” and “decade of behaviour” which had been published in the years 2010-2015. What I found was only 11 papers matching my search criteria.  Rather than lists of scientific accomplishments, it was just few minor mentions in editorials and articles. Are some ashamed of how this decade has ended?

All the same, there is one trace of the Decade of Behavior that is worth mentioning. This is the Books in Decade of Behavior Series created by APA and it will certainly last for a long time.[9] However, the criteria for selection of books seem somehow incomprehensible . The series offers  many interesting titles with regard to  visual perception, intelligence, cognitive processes, self-interest, social categories, memory, gender differences and other academic areas of interest.. Are all these fields of research called behavior now?

Although, as Baumeister and his co-workers have shown, behavior (the behavior understood in the old-fashion terms, not as described above) is so a rare subject of psychological research, that it is not by  a coincidence that most examples of reliable psychological practices which we can identify are taken from the disciplines where behavior is analyzed. In many areas of our functioning, neither behavior,  introspection nor cognitive mediating variables have a crucial importance. That is the case of health psychology.

It has been argued that 48% of deaths in the USA are attributable to behaviour, the ‘all consequence’ behavioural risk factors being smoking, physical activity, dietary behaviours and alcohol intake”(p. 509).[10]

Even in preventing cancers the behavioral factors has been evaluated as high as 70% of all causes.[11] Despite the fact that behavior is of such significance from the point of view of  health psychology, researchers focus rather on intra-psychic phenomena, such as thoughts and emotions than on behavior.[12] To make a psychological theory useful for implementing evidence based practices in healthcare, researchers must overcome obstacles that pile up . A consensus group within the project of implementation of psychological theory into behavior change practices, composed of healthcare professionals recognized 33 psychological theories explaining behavior with 128 theoretical explanatory constructs.[13] And this has not been an effect of exhausting literature review but merely an outcome of brainstorming session of this consensus group. It is highly unlikely that we need so many theories to explain behavior. This manifestation of proliferative character of our discipline results in overlapping theories. Its constructs are most often variants of those that have already been developed. It seems that an enormous amount of energy has been used for “rediscovering the wheel.”

When I think about this problem, I imagine a garage cluttered up with many unnecessary tools. It is full of  used parts of unknown machines, and other accessories everyone thinks are useful but no one knows what they are really designed for. Several centuries ago English philosopher William of Ockham, proposed a very useful scientific tool, nowadays known as “Ockham’s razor”. We can use it to introduce  order into our discipline, but it seems that almost nobody is truly concerned to do so. . What we really need in psychology nowadays is a minimalistic approach. However, it is beyond the bounds of possibility  among cargo cult believers. All these countless theories and constructs are very useful to develop and fuel  next rituals. Looking for correlations between them, explaining interactions, presenting them on conferences, earning scientific grades – all these activities are building blocks of a cargo cult system. To take these toys away from cargo cult followers  is to take the meaning of life away from them.

To be continued…

[1] R. F. Baumeister, K. D. Vohs, and D. C. Funder, “Psychology as the Science of Self reports and Finger Movements,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, (2007): 396-403.

[2] Ibid.

[3] R. B. Cialdini, “We Have to Break Up,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4, (2009): 5-6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] T. D. Wilson, and D. T. Gilbert, “Affective forecasting,” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 35, ed. M. Zanna (New York: Elsevier, 2003): 345–411.

[7] C. A. Holt, and S. Laury, “Risk Aversion and Incentive Effects, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies Research Paper Series, 06-12, (2002): ttp://ssrn.com/abstract=893797

[8] Baumeister, et. al., “Psychology as the Science,” p. 397.

[9] http://www.apa.org/pubs/books/browse.aspx?query=&fq=DocumentType:%22Book/Monograph%22%20AND%20SeriesFilt:%22Decade%20of%20Behavior%20Series%22

[10] M. Johnston, and D. Dixon, “Current Issues and New Directions in Psychology and Health: What Happened to Behaviour in the Decade of Behaviour?” Psychology and Health, 23, (2008): 509-513.

[11] R. Doll, and R. Peto, “The Causes of Cancer – Quantitative Estimates of Avoidable Risks of Cancer in the United-States Today,” Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 66, (1981): 1191–1308.

[12] J. Ogden, “Changing the Subject of Health Psychology.” Psychology and Health, 10, (1995): 257–265.

[13] S. Michie, M. Johnston, C. Abraham, R. Lawton, D.Parker, and A. Walker, “Making Psychological Theory Useful for Implementing Evidence Based Practice: A Consensus Approach,” Quality and Safety in Health Care, 14, (2005): 26–33.

One response to “What has Happened During the Decade of the Behavior?

  1. Psychology currently enjoys a status, prestige and reputation in America that belies its pathetic results. In spite of its semi-religious aura on popular television and radio talk shows, it rarely “cures” anyone of their maladies, often causing worse complications due to its increasing trend of prescribing many, untested medications with terrible side-effects. It virtually ignores the social, political and economic problems affecting large numbers of Americans, choosing instead to place all responsibility for human troubles on isolated individuals. By doing this, it insulates many of its practitioners from their own personal responsibilities to the larger, failing social, political and economic climates. Furthermore, I will challenge any common American to find a psychologist who will ever define normal human behavior. Instead, a person will encounter psychological “experts” who offer an ever-growing laundry list of “disorders” that must be controlled, medicated or extinguished to produce an “adjusted” individual to the faulty society that goes unchallenged. Increasingly, the psychologist has replaced clergy by pulling the “science” card and claiming results which actually turn out even worse than those accomplished in churches and synagogues. Someday, America needs to raise serious questions about the false myths told by peddlers of psycho-babble.

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