22 June 2009

Non-Humanistic Research Psychology

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:55 am

I’m going to try writing posts while I’m thinking about them, rather than doling them out in regular intervals or choreographing a particular sequence of posts. When I save up ideas for later I either forget about them or lose interest myself.

So, the thought on my walk this morning was that academic psycyhology, ironically enough, is non-humanistic. A human participant in a research project is called a “subject,” but the real subjects of psychological research are the variables and forces that converge on and animate humans. Researchers are interested in aggregate statistics: means, standard deviations, correlation coefficients, structural modeling equations, and so on. Individual difference is of little interest, being dismissed as noise or random variation in the aggregate models.

While I was working on my doctorate in psychology I split my time between research and practice. My sense was that, in the person-to-person encounter of psychotherapy, research was pretty much irrelevant. I practiced a distinctly humanistic version of therapy, emphasizing personal connection as a means of strengthening the client’s self-efficacy. At the same time, clinical research was increasingly focusing on identifying “evidence-based” interventions: treatment strategies and tactics that, on average, generated significant positive outcomes. The problem in practice is that, even for statistically significant findings, the noise was always much stronger than the signal. In other words, individual variation far outweighed the strength of the averages. Building a humanistic praxis on the basis of weak non-humanistic research findings just didn’t seem very useful to me.



  1. K: Individual difference is of little interest, being dismissed as noise or random variation in the aggregate models.

    Do you think this is (a) a case of psychology following the currents of the greater cultural preferences for homogeneity? or (b) do you think psychology is diverting from a general zeitgeist that appreciates and celebrates “difference”?

    In other words, do you think that now, in 2009, that the postmodern emphasis on “difference” and “other” has sunk in? That these non-humanistic approaches to psychology that focus on aggregate statistics are an attempt to get the Modern homogeneous project back on track after a little bump in the road? Keep the corporate wheels a turnin’, difference be damned?

    Comment by Erdman — 22 June 2009 @ 12:49 pm

    • It’s mostly psychology committing itself to empirical science. This is not unlike the tenuous relationship between medical practice and the underlying scientific disciplines of physiology, biochemistry, etc. You could become a good practicing physician without ever thinking about the science.

      The postmodern is moving away from a humanism that has been integral to the self-centered trajectory of modernity. The focus shifts to the sociocultural factors and the subpersonal forces of desire and instinct and unconscious that shape individual consciousness, will, ability, etc. So the scientific version of psychology is in a sense more compatible with this post-humanistic outlook. What strikes me about current psychological practice is that its evidence-based scientific commitment valorizes the old-school individual egoistic agency that the science itself calls into question.

      I’m not sure if that’s clearly stated: let’s get more specific. Empirical psychological science looks at neural processes and evolutionary adaptations and other biological subprocesses that not only operate outside of conscious awareness but that actually shape consciousness. In contrast, the psychological practitioners compile empirical evidence in support of cognitive-behavioral methods, which rely on having the client use their consciousness to rein in their emotions, their unconscious desires, etc. There’s a mismatch between the basic scientific trends and the clinical trends.

      Reinforcing the mismatch are some sociocultural tendencies. The ethos of personal choice emphasizes this sense of conscious decision-making as the basis for all human action. There’s also a strong pragmatic instrumentality, where the model for intervention is rather mechanistic: the therapist repairs the machine and gives it a tune-up. Outcomes of a more individualistic praxis are hard to quantify, because each individual might want something different out of the experience. And health insurers want very time-limited, focused interventions because they’re cheap.

      All this is part of the late-modern, individualistic, market-driven world. Will the increasingly biotechnical psych science reverse the trend, or accelerate it into even more mechanistic post-human intervention styles? Probably the latter: brain scans/probes, more custom-tailored pharmaceuticals, gene therapies, etc.

      Comment by john doyle — 22 June 2009 @ 2:44 pm

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