The Failure of Psychology

Psychology is failing….. miserably.

The primary purpose of psychology is to help people understand themselves. Millions of college students every year take psychology 101. How many of them would you say “Know Themselves”. I have been thinking about this for over thirty years and I believe that we have accepted many systems to help us discover ourselves that have missed the mark. You can’t expect people to know themselves when there isn’t even a consensus about a method. Every science has a dominant theme based on our need for orientation. Astronomy answers questions about how our world fits into the universe. Chemistry answers questions about the differences between this stuff and that other stuff. Physics answers questions about how things work and move. Biology answers questions about life and its origins. Psychology is supposed to answer questions about our “selves”. What makes one person different from another? We need a BIG THEORY in psychology comparable to quantum mechanics in physics, the periodic table in chemistry, the Copernican revolution in astronomy, and DNA in biology.  These BIG discoveries enabled a structured approach  to experimentation and resulted in rapid progress.

But, before we get to the BIG THEORY, let’s first consider how we got to this point in psychology. Psychology is steeped in the religious belief in an immaterial soul. In fact psychology even derives its name from the Greek word for soul. Shamans believed that spirits animated everything that moves. Anima is the Latin equivalent of the Greek word psyche, or soul. Something that is animated is moving as if by some invisible entity. Animism, explained the source of movement of everything by invisible forces. The mystical understanding of the soul continued to be an enduring theme and philosophers became apologists for the religious/Platonic concept of soul which in turn set the stage for the scientific search for the soul. Locate the soul – became the mission. All of the unresolved conflicts involved with explaining the relationship between the body and its soul flowed right into psychology.

Some would say that connecting thinking with our brain was the first truly significant step forward. Humans began observing the behavior of people who suffered head injuries and brain poking has been going on ever since. The question became: How does the soul interface with the brain. This effort to locate and assign personality to various brain modules proceeds today with the help of advanced magnetic imaging technology (fMRI). Numerous studies have appeared with diagrams of brains divided into sections that are linked to certain types of behavior.

Others focus their brain studies on using introspection, paper and pencil tests, and dreams. Of course brains don’t have innate knowledge about how they work so a lot of the research is like being in a room of mirrors with infinite reflections everywhere you look. You have to get out of that room at some point so you can look elsewhere and gain objectivity. Brain studies haven’t made the difference you would expect from a BIG discovery. In some ways the focus on the brain has been the biggest distraction and set-back for psychology. It has perpetuated the misunderstanding that brain and body are unrelated.

In the last quarter century a new contender for the title BIG THEORY has appeared. The Big Five model of personality description is called BIG for a reason. The consensus at this point in time is that the Big Five Factors are the game changer for psychology. The source of material for this new effort is the dictionary. By means of statistical methods it sorts through the words humans have used to describe people with the goal of finding the fewest possible words that describe individuals.  By means of paired twin studies they have established that the Big Five traits are significantly heritable proving that there are biological causes.  But, where do they go to find these “causes”?  They go directly to the brain and completely skip over the body (Soma).

The Mind/Body

The point that is missed is that the soul is not IN the body or any single part of the body. Rather the soul is OF the body. It is the whole functioning organism. A person is a particular relationship between the essential systems of a living organism. This understanding reaches all the way back to Aristotle’s model of the “soul”. In his treatise on the Soul (De Anima 2.3 413b 11-13 ) Aristotle describes soul

“ For the present let it suffice to say that soul is the principle of the capacities we have named; the nutritive, the sensitive, the ratiocinative, and movement.”

Basically, Aristotle is saying that there are only four capacities of an organism, and the interaction of the systems that generate these capacities identify the individual or “soul”.

  1. An organism needs a system for nutrition (gut).
  2. An organism needs to be able to move (muscle).
  3. An organism needs to select a direction (nervous system).
  4. An organism needs orientation (sensory system).

This system approach is explained in detail at: Measuring the Big Components of Personality.

These BIG structures and their capacities are variable and can be ranked based on dominance to generate an interpretive scheme similar to what is done with the scales of many paper and pencil tests. Is it so difficult to imagine differences in behavior between people who are muscular and skinny and others who are dominated by their gut and low in muscularity. A very simple scheme emerges with the various permutations of the rank order of the systems. Basically people could be described by what they want and their preferred method of getting what they want. The other side of the equation would involve describing people by what they avoid and how they tend to avoid what they don’t want. Using only four capacities/scales/dimensions yields twenty-four distinct types. This is quite enough to compete with any of the popular tests that are supposed to identify personality.

It should be evident that philosophy as a shaper of of attitudes can be extremely important in determining the direction of our research. If more attention had been given to Aristotle’s “soul” instead of Plato’s “soul” psychology might have had its revolution. Behaviorism attempted an escape from the “soul cloud” (J.B. Watson 1924) by skipping right out of the body and into the environment in search of the causes of behavior. By doing this they ended up throwing out the body along with the mind. But, even worse, behaviorism created an institutional split between those looking for the control center in the brain (neurologists) and the environmentalists who believed all control was somewhere “out there”. The body was lost in the battle. This is where body typing (somatotyping) comes in. Somatotype describes the essential systems of the body so that you can rank them by degree. It is the macro-structure of the organism that should be the starting point for studying the soul, not the micro-structure. It is the big things of the organism that lead to interpersonal struggles not some little neuron. The brain needs to be placed in proper perspective as only part of the organism/soul.

Somatotype has been ignored and even ridiculed by the psychological community. This is in spite of the fact that the little research that has been done, has consistently shown that the correlations between somatotype and personality tests are significant, though not as dramatic as researchers would prefer. My personal hunch is that the proper research will explain the importance of somatotype and also why the correlations aren’t higher. One of the biggest problems is with the lazily administered paper and pencil tests that are presumed to measure personality accurately.  It may be that the most important trait is our adaptability which makes us adjust to our environment. If that is the case maybe the personality tests measure our adapted personality. In that case our core temperament may have adapted at the expense of our real self and would tend to get buried under a layer of poor adaptations. That seems to be the basic premise of psychotherapy. Such research can’t be done effectively in a climate where a serious amount of research is jettisoned based on nothing more substantial than professional prejudice.

In 1959 Aldous Huxley gave a series of lectures at Santa Barbara where he spoke enthusiastically about William H. Sheldon’s somatotype theory. His final words in that series of lectures illustrate why psychology may be doomed to a future of failure.

“The only criticism I have had has been in reference to some of the people that I thought had made important contributions, such as W.H. Sheldon. I may be wrong, and Sheldon may be wrong, but I happen to think he is right. In regard to this I will just say what I have already said, that it is not necessarily true that, because a particular doctrine at a particular moment is orthodox, it is correct. There have been too many examples in the past of orthodoxies proved to be profoundly incorrect, for anybody to feel it necessary to accept everything in the orthodox view.”

By promoting interest in somatotype I’m not asking people to accept a new dogma. What I am asking is that psychologists put aside their dogmatic rejection of somatotype and begin to treat this information scientifically as a “working hypothesis”. This is not a settled argument. I have been thinking about this for over thirty years and I have found some new clues that merit further investigation. There is ample evidence that this is an area that needs to be revisited.

After thousands of years, we still await the BIG THEORY in psychology.

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