A reset for psychology as natural science
Homeostasis, the state of steady internal conditions, is a well-established principle in living systems. Here I discuss ‘Psychological Homeostasis’, a construct which gives rise to three ‘big ideas’: a new general theory of behaviour; an alternative theory of evolution; and unifying Psychology as part of natural science.
My aim is to persuade you that these ideas have legs. Psychology’s fragmentation and its separation from the natural sciences can – and must – be repaired. Here I offer one way to take this unification project forward.
A NEW GENERAL THEORY OF BEHAVIOUR
We are all familiar with the thermostat on the wall that we use to regulate the room temperature. We are also familiar with a process inside the body called ‘physiological homoeostasis’ which controls variables such as our body temperature and fluid balance to keep them within pre-set limits (Cannon, 1929). What is new and less well established is the idea of a ‘Behavioural Thermostat’, a type of psychological homeostasis striving to control the equilibrium and stability of the external environment. Let’s call this concept ‘Homeostasis Type 2’ or ‘HT2’ for short.
I wish to argue that Psychological Homeostasis is every bit as important as its physiological counterpart. It is designed to keep everything in the surrounding environment ‘ticking over’, not too ‘hot’ and not too ‘cold’. HT2 is an innate process built to quietly keep everything ‘cushty’ (as Jamie Oliver might put it).
There are several popular idioms about this process: it is said that ‘we don’t like to rock the boat’, ‘cause waves’, ‘ruffle feathers’ or ‘upset the apple cart’. I want to suggest that the HT2 is so indispensably routine that most of us for most of the time simply aren’t aware of its existence. Just as fish don’t know they’re in water, we don’t know we’re in homeostasis. Yet – I wish to argue – all of our behaviour, thinking, and feelings are ultimately controlled by it.
If that sounds a little bit scary, it doesn’t need to be. Homeostasis isn’t a malevolent force, it’s doing good, making our lives easier. HT2 brings multiple forms of help and healing free at the point of delivery, like an in-built NHS. HT2 is one of those rare, ‘good-news’ stories. It’s all about preventing and fixing things before there is a breakdown. If we see an apple cart about to turn over, we stop it from happening. If we see one that’s already overturned, a situation in need of repair, then we set about repairing it. HT2 repairs and ‘resets’ on a routine basis, guiding our behaviour.
I explain why this is possible in my new book A General Theory of Behaviour (Marks, 2018). The General Theory consists of 20 principles and 80 auxiliary propositions that make predictions at individual, social and societal levels.
Admittedly there is ‘nothing new under the sun’, and the theory has links with other motivational theories, especially Conservation of Resources Theory (Hobfoll, 1989). Yet the construct of Psychological Homeostasis as an analogue of its physiological cousin has never been systematically developed. In 1848 German physicist Gustav Fechner used the term Lustprinzip. Fifty years later Sigmund Freud copied this idea with the ‘Pleasure Principle’, which has an almost exact equivalent in Cannon’s concept of homeostasis, which in turn has the goal of tension reduction for the sake of maintaining, or restoring, the inner equilibrium (Marks, 2018, p.40). The General Theory holds that striving for equilibrium is a primary motivation of behaviour, not only pleasure seeking or pain avoidance, as suggested by the Law of Effect.
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty – how exactly does Psychological Homeostasis work? Firstly, the theory proposes an internal director (a ‘Reset Equilibrium Function’ or ‘REF’) that strives to keep everything ‘cushty’. If, as Shakespeare viaJaques famously asserts, ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players’, actors must each have an internal director. The REF-director guides each individual towards winning rewards and avoiding losses. Individuals can’t win Oscars but they can appear authentic, smooth and convincing to participants and onlookers. The goal of the REF is to strive for the best performance of the actor in balance with, and collaboration from, the other actors in the ‘drama’. By persuasion, recruitment and/or manipulation, gains are maximised and losses minimised in a zero-sum game.
The REF thus directs individual actions, prevents and fixes problems and eliminating barriers before any situation becomes uncontrollable. It helps to make the world livable and as comfortable as possible, an internal fixer and mixer. Wherever we go and whatever we are doing, the REF within us is striving to maintain good family and public relations, and a tolerable balance of safety and stability in our physical and social surroundings. If there are competing drives, conflicts, and inconsistencies pulling the flow of events ‘off balance’, our innate REF system guides us back inside our comfort zones.
The REF is triggered whenever a process moves beyond its set point or set range. As a general rule, the majority of people for the majority of time strive to calm and quieten disturbances of equilibrium rather than to exacerbate them.Of course, nobody has the power to win the battle for ‘calm’, ‘balance’ and ‘control’ on every occasion. Inconveniences, mistakes and an occasional calamity raise their ugly heads sooner or later. A measured response is necessary to restore equilibrium and there are certainly different styles and ‘personalities’ influencing the best way to go about this. Potentially a single action can push a system out of its comfort zone requiring reset. When a process resets, a ‘domino-effect’ tends to occur when other interconnected processes require a reset also.
One drink too many might bring on a sleepless night and an early morning hangover causing a missed meeting and a ticking off from the boss. An angry outburst from one unhappy individual may provoke others and the boss might have to send round an email about the importance of punctuality. It’s all grist to the homeostasis mill. Yet we cannot live without homeostasis, and evolution itself would not have progressed so much in our favour.
AN ALTERNATIVE THEORY OF EVOLUTION
At every level of existence, from the cell to the organism, from the individual to the population, and from the local ecosystem to the entire planet, homeostasis is a driving force towards stability, security and adaptation to change. One way in which homeostasis guides evolution is through niche construction (Lewontin, 1983). Like many other organisms, humans actively adapt the environment, not simply adapt to it. Niche construction alters ecological processes, modifies natural selection and contributes to inheritance (Laland, 2017). The sweep of niche construction is broad, incorporating many aspects of behaviour including ownership of goods and property, self-decoration and design, and the marking of identity.
The individual organism extends its ability to thrive in nature by using HT2 to build niches. Humans are prolific cultivators of food, clothing, construction materials, fuel, alcohol, drugs, and ornaments. All are forms of self-extension designed to create zones of safety and identity. Classic examples in nature are the dam-building of beavers and the propogation of fruit by bowerbirds for use in sexual display. It has been suggested that male spotted bowerbirds Ptilonorhynchus (Chlamydera) maculata use the fruit of Solanum ellipticum not as food but as components of sexual display. Madden et al. (2012) observed that males indirectly cultivate plants bearing these fruit – the first known cultivation of a non-food item by a non-human species.
Niche construction promotes identity, security and survival, which in some cases (e.g. houses) can be passed to the next generation. I believe that niche construction is homeostatically-driven. To quote J. Scott Turner’s book Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something "Alive" and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It: ‘Niche construction …[allows] organisms to manipulate environments to suit themselves, essentially constructing their own ecological niches, and so, in some sense controlling the selective milieus they inhabit.’
We humans are prolific niche constructors. Tools, weapons, fire, domestication of animals, language, money, goods, agriculture, science, technology, engineering, medicine, culture, music, literature, the Internet and social media all enhance safety, identity and control. By constructing inhabitable zones of safety, humans have learned to survive in extreme environments such as the polar regions, outer space, on the surface of the moon and there are plans to settle on the planet Mars. When a human habitat is extended with possessions, the possessions themselves become part of personal identity. William James (1890) wrote: ‘a man’s Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands, and yacht and bank-account. All these things give him the same emotions’.
Other examples of niche construction as identity-marking include clothing and the beauty industry, and the motor car. Enzo Ferrari, once said: ‘The fact is I don’t drive just to get from A to B. I enjoy feeling the car’s reactions, becoming part of it.’ ‘Becoming part of it’, whether driving to maximise safety or to gain the adrenaline rush of speeding, the feeling of oneness is palpable. Driver and car are as one (Marks, 2018, pp. 66-67).
In producing safety, security and thriving, HT2 and niche construction co-direct adaptive evolution. They provide a second pathway for an adaptive fit between organisms and the environment. I agree with Turner who suggests: ‘homeostasis does not derive from natural selection; it is homeostasis that drives selection.’ And note the down-side to niche construction – niche destruction by climate change. Psychological perspectives on this, ‘the largest social dilemma in history’, are reviewed in a recent article in The Psychologist (Brick and van der Linden, 2018).
UNIFYING PSYCHOLOGY AS PART OF NATURAL SCIENCE.
Homeostasis is a reset and repair agent, a DIY specialist. The Psychology Discipline itself is one object in need of an urgent DIY makeover. The General Theory springs into action to bring unity to Psychology as part of natural science.
Psychology claims to be a science, yet there are so many sub-regions, mini-theories and models, and no generally accepted paradigm. Our professional society for psychologists in the UK, the British Psychological Society, is emblematic of the discipline. The extreme diversity of the Society with dozens of divisions, special groups and sections, is an undoubted strength. Yet it is also reveals weakness. Where is the collective vision of our science? We do not have one. We are lacking a backbone.
Commentators suggest that a major redesign of the discipline is long overdue. The majority of psychologists agree that integration is necessary. Fragmentation has been a longstanding and difficult problem. Over more than a century, fragmentation has been called a ‘crisis’. The extreme plight of the discipline has been the subject of a penetrating book, Psychology in Crisis by Brian Hughes, who wrote about it recently in this very magazine.
So I humbly offer my General Theory as a unifying force, both for psychology research currently out there and to drive future study. I argue that the theory can make falsifiable predictions on a vast range of topics, encompassing the whole of Psychology… learning, striving, action, making friends, falling in love, self-control and addiction, surfing the internet, work, sleep and so much more.
I already see published research which chimes with my thinking on the General Theory:
- Natural field experiment in a public car park found that subjects for whom other drivers stopped were more than twice as likely to extend a similar act to a third party, indicating indirect reciprocity (Mujcic & Leibbrandt, 2018). This mirrors my prediction that we strive to achieve goals while maximising cohesion and cooperation with kith and kin and, at the same time, striving to take away or minimise the suffering and pain of others.
- Social observational studies find that police officers frequently employ de-escalation tactics, including the ‘respect’ tactic, the ‘human’ tactic and the ‘honest’ tactic, which are associated with a calming of a citizen’s demeanour (Todak & James, 2018). This mirrors my prediction that the majority of people for the majority of time strive to calm and quieten local disturbances of equilibrium rather than to exacerbate them.
- Studies suggest that the forebrain provides a common central mechanism for both physiological and psychological homeostasis (Edlow et al., 2016). This suggests that, as I propose in my book, homeostasis of both Types I and II is controlled by a single executive controller in the forebrain.
I have given only the briefest taste of what the theory holds. I know these are bold, wide-ranging claims. If you disagree with what I have set out, challenge me. If you find aspects you agree with, join me on this journey. The next steps require investigations aimed at falsification of the General Theory. However long it takes, our broken discipline needs to be put together into one beautiful whole. It needs a backbone.
Illustration: the author's own.
Brick, C. and van der Linden, S. (2018). Yawning at the apocalypse. The Psychologist, September, 30-35.
Cannon, W. B. (1929). Organization for physiological homeostasis. Physiological reviews, 9(3), 399-431.
Edlow, B. L., McNab, J.A., Witzel, T. and Kinney, H.C. (2016). The structural connectome of the human central homeostatic network. Brain Connectivity, 6(3), 187–200.
Marks, David F.. A General Theory of Behaviour (SAGE Swifts) (p. 23). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.
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Madden, J. R., Dingle, C., Isden, J., Sparfeld, J., Goldizen, A. W., & Endler, J. A. (2012). Male spotted bowerbirds propagate fruit for use in their sexual display. Current biology, 22(8), R264-R265.
Marks, D. F. (2018). A General Theory of Behaviour (SAGE Swifts) SAGE Publications.
Mujcic, R., & Leibbrandt, A. (2018). Indirect reciprocity and prosocial behaviour: Evidence from a natural field experiment. The Economic Journal, 128(611), 1683-1699.
Todak, N. & James, L. (2018). A Systematic Social Observation Study of Police De-Escalation Tactics. Police Quarterly, 1098611118784007.
Turner, J.S. (2017). Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something "Alive" and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It. New York: HarperCollins.
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