A plea for integration within psychology

Frederick Toates with a biopsychological contribution.

Despite some noble attempts at integration (Tolman & Diamond, 2001), psychology remains fragmented. My contribution is designed to be one small step towards integration, by suggesting how biology can provide insights but how it is also underused and misinterpreted. 

Limitations on the integrative use of biology arise from:

  1. (a) neglect or even hostility from some psychologists (e.g. social constructionists and ‘critical psychologists’) towards biological explanations and (b) from suspicion in ‘hard’ psychology, e.g. neuroscience, that letting in ‘soft’ information dilutes the science.
  2. Some common misunderstandings (e.g. distal and proximal explanations), politically-driven misinterpretations and sloppy use of biology (e.g. implicitly retaining dualism where it suits).
  3. The failure of psychologists, including the biological variety, to write in a way that is clear to non-experts in their discipline. When exploring a new branch of psychology, one needs to carry a specialist dictionary.
  4. If it even happens, delays of years before insights percolate via textbooks from one discipline to another. 

 Exemplifying the problem, Gough and Lyons (2016) claim that ‘Subjectivity remains stigmatised, a problem to be policed lest it leak out and spoil the research’.  

Beyond biological determinism 

Over the decades, the same misinterpretations of evolutionary psychology (EP) proliferate. Seemingly, no amount of refutation will hinder this. 

For example, Rose (2000, p.305) criticises evolutionary psychologists in that they ‘insist on distal (in their slightly archaic language, “ultimate”) explanations when proximate ones are so much more explanatory’. This is a little like complaining that social psychologists insist on studying social psychology. The relation between distal and proximal explanations is not one of competition but rather complementarity, illustrated vividly by an adaptive explanation for pregnancy sickness

Evolutionary psychologists, e.g. (Kurzban & Haselton, 2006; Workman & Reader, 2021) have repeatedly pointed out that EP is not synonymous with biological determinism. Whatever behaviour emerges is the product of genes and environment. Yet some ask, ‘for example, how evolutionary psychology confirms differences between men and women and make them seem biologically unchangeable…’ (Parker, 2007, p.1). 

A unifying theory to motivation

Maslow (1943, p.381) stated: ‘Sex may be studied as a purely physiological need.’ Following this lead, literally thousands of authors have placed sex, food, water and heat/cold, at the base of a pyramid of needs, which must be met before others can be addressed. This appears to confuse evolutionary/distal and causal/proximal explanations. Each of these ‘needs’ is imperative for genetic perpetuation and all except sex are imperative for homeostasis/survival. However, happy celibates demonstrate that sex is not necessary for bodily survival. By contrast, belonging is located two layers higher in Maslow’s hierarchy, yet surely very few flourish in its absence.

Each bottom layer has traditionally been associated with a drive. However, based upon biological evidence, drives are no longer in favour, having been largely replaced by incentive motivation (Berridge, 2001; Bindra, 1974; Toates, 1986). This gives a unifying theory to motivation.

The notion of drive carries some important social implications. Lorenz’s aggression drive, called by some a ‘blood-and-guts’ model (Billig, 2007), implies a certain inevitability about the appearance of aggression, as in periodic warfare. By contrast, an incentive model interprets aggression as normally being fine-tuned to threatening external circumstances, involving learning with nothing inevitable about it.

Similarly, the notion of sex drive implies an internal source of energy and a near inevitability about its expression. It is often claimed to be stronger in men than in women. A search on Google of ‘sex drive’ yields over 17 million hits, some describing dire implications, such as the inevitability of rape. The incentive model (Toates, 2014) allows for a more nuanced set of predictions, with an important role for experience in shaping desire, which is why it is favoured by feminist sexologists such as Leonore Tiefer (Basson et al., 2015). Developmental interactions between sexual incentives and dominance/aggression give hope for early interventions and cultural changes. 

In locating the normal triggers to motivation outside the animal, we should not make the mistake of ignoring such internal factors as hormones (sex, aggression), nutrients (hunger) and withdrawal (drugs). It seems to be surprisingly easy to ignore the fact that any behaviour is internally caused since, unless one believes in telekinesis, motor neurons are the only route to effecting action. To underestimate, if not ignore, the internal factor would create an inverse fundamental attribution error (Sabini et al., 2001), placing all the weight on situational rather than dispositional factors. Consider the following (Johnson, 2009, p.184):

‘Treating the psychological aspect of addiction requires that the analyst interpret manifestations of forces that provoke addictive solutions – solutions that may be gratifying and have nothing to do with biology.’ 

Nothing? Not even the incentive motivational processes involved in craving? Hammersley and Reid (2002) write:

‘Behind the myth of addiction lies an example of the fundamental attribution error; to assume that things that have powerful effects on people must be caused by clear changes in their brains.’

A moment’s reflection reveals that they must be caused by changes in their brains (whether clear or not), such as enhanced dopamine neurotransmission, even if this is the consequenceof external events such as finding a new peer group. Johnson (2011) writes:

‘….. physical addiction involves a completely different pathophysiology than psychological addiction; capture of the ventral tegmental dopaminergic SEEKING system by addictive chemicals.’

This carves nature at joints that are unnatural. Evidence suggests that any addiction is mediated via these dopaminergic pathways. Consider the following (Johnson, 2003):

‘One type of addiction is a character type; a second is a biological disorder. Addictive character is a repetitive, stereotyped response to helplessness via compulsive behaviours. Physical addiction is due to an upregulation of the ventral tegmental dopaminergic pathway with lifelong drug craving and drug dreams.’

Similarly, concerning aggression, Tedeschi and Felson (1994) write:

‘The focus of traditional theories on intrapersonal factors – such as hormones, brain centers, frustration, arousal, stress, instincts and learning – as proximal causes of aggression is viewed as at best misleading and at worst simply wrong. (p.159)

Instead of searching inside the person for drives, brain centres, hormones, arousal patterns, or other internal sources of behavior, one looks to the social context.’ (p.172)

Drives trigger a fruitless search but the others do not. Incentive theory suggests looking outside the skin for triggers, but the behaviour requires the brain machinery of aggressive motivation.

In a critique of the notion of sex addiction, Ley (2012), argues that dopamine ‘only explains a single piece of the puzzle’ (p.101). This is true but, in incentive motivation terms, the role of dopamine and its sensitivity to environmental events as well as internal events are fundamental. Ley makes the common argument that the existence of altered brain states accompanying ‘so-called’ sexual addiction is hardly definitional, since the brain changes with any new activity such as learning to ride a bicycle. This is true but the location and nature of this change and its similarity to that induced by hard drugs is definitional.

Ley also suggests (p.29):

‘But there are significant problems that arise when we try to apply our understanding of addiction, based upon drug and alcohol research, to sexuality, where no outside substance or chemical is introduced into the body. Sexuality is a natural process that our bodies, brains, and behaviors were actually designed to pursue and enjoy….The neurochemical and biological processes are working the way they are supposed to during sexual activity.’

Here the arguments of evolutionary psychology are insightful: the sexual desire system was adapted to an earlier environment, with an absence of such things as brothels, pornographic videos and hook-up dating sites. Similarly there were no fast foods and presumably no food addiction.

The need to integrate the biological and the subjective

Several phenomena illustrate where subjective and biological evidence needs integration. For example, Cushing’s syndrome is a hormonal disturbance usually associated with a tumour. However, its first manifestations can be psychiatric, e.g. psychosis or depression (Wu et al., 2016).

Stenner (2015, p.47) contrasts the richness of Marcel Proust’s description of emotion in terms of social meaning with Cannon’s theory of emotion, writing of the latter:

‘In this highly influential theory, emotions are identified with neural processes in the thalamus that are symbolically associated with a militant working class. Parodying Marxist language, these potentially violent forces are presented as if ready to seize control of the means of production (in this case, the means to produce motor responses) from a ruling class associated with the rational control circuitry of the cerebral cortex.’

From Plato, through LeDoux to Kahneman, thinkers have described the control of behaviour in terms of levels and inhibition between them. It is unclear to me whether it is Cannon or Stenner who is doing the parodying, but I doubt that Cannon was influenced by Marx. He was influenced by Bechterev (whom he cites) and probably Pavlov. In terms of emotion, a modern synthesis describes low-level automatic responses to stimuli (Cannon) and high-level processes (Proust) in dynamic interaction.

In the tradition of incentive motivation theory, Kapur (2003) argued that the positive features of schizophrenia (e.g. hallucinations) arise from abnormalities in subcortical dopamine. Kapur theorises that the abnormality in dopamine causes the attribution of unusually high incentive salience to certain events that would be ignored by controls. There is disruption to the ‘autobiographical self’ (Mishara & Fusar-Poli, 2013). Individuals try to make sense of the phenomenological experience top-down in terms of a narrative, as revealed to their therapists. Kapur writes (p.15):

‘…..the same neurochemical dysregulation leads to variable phenomenological expression: a patient in Africa struggling to make sense of aberrant salience is much more likely to accord them to the evil ministrations of a shaman, while one living in Toronto is more likely to see them as the machinations of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.’

Garrett (2016) writes:

‘Hypersalient objects (people and things) beckon, inviting special attention, offering a ready-made container to receive projected fragments of the psychotic person’s mind.’

When they are effective, dopamine blocking drugs slowly lower the intensity of the salience (‘insight relief’) without removing the thought itself. Thereby, drug use can be integrated with psychotherapeutic interventions to achieve narrative modification. The insights represent a two-way street. As Mishara and Fusar-Poli (2013) p.285 note that ‘The phenomenological approach leads to neurobiological hypotheses, which can be tested’. 

For another example, consider the symbolic interactionist school (Anderson, 1994). Some seek to change their identity (e.g. from that of stigmatised, experiencing ‘ego identity discomfort’). They attach themselves to drug users and thereby succeed in changing identity, while becoming addicted. Some were told that (p.167):

 ….there was something special, intriguing, and rewarding about certain drugs.

But the chosen social group and method of assimilation are not arbitrary. In so far as the drug-naïve succeed in changing their identity, it is surely the unique combination of the new social group and the chemical property of the drug that is responsible. 

Lavallee (2020) divides the word along the following lines:

‘…. addictive cravings are psychologically complex desires that aim at emotionally significant experiences. This view is motivated by theories of addiction that take social, psychological, emotional and identity-based factors to be reasons for addiction, over the chemical effect of drugs. (p.234)

……what makes addictive cravings uniquely strong is not a matter of how drugs interact with the brain’s reward system…’ (p.236)

What makes addictive drugs uniquely strong is the combination of chemical effects, social context and meanings. Otherwise one might more safely and cheaply become addicted to, say, lemonade. 

Time is ripe for integrated teaching

For too long, psychology has been riven by division, e.g. behaviourism versus cognition, when both schools have much to offer. To say that you don’t believe in evolutionary psychology (EP) is like saying that you don’t believe in astronomy. You might argue with a branch of EP about, say, modulatory but that does not undermine other theoretical lines within EP schools or other processes. 

Now is the time for integration. If, as social constructionists claim, all psychology is social, surely by the same token all psychology is simultaneously biological. Might the time be ripe for fundamental change? I have a radical thought experiment. In the second year of university should evolutionary, developmental, biological, cognitive and social psychologies be taught only as integrative psychology?

- Frederick Toates, Open University, Milton Keynes 

[email protected]


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