So, have we found psychology's non-stick frying pan?
Do we eclipse other sciences?
Phil Banyard (‘Where is our non-stick frying pan?’, Letters, September 2015) bemoans what he perceives to be a lack of useful discoveries in psychology. Does any of what we do as psychologists amount to more than ‘a hill of beans’, in contrast to the glorious achievements of other sciences? In a fit of physics envy, Banyard declares Einstein’s general theory of relativity ‘spectacularly tested’ during the 1919 solar eclipse, when light was shown to be bent ‘to the amount predicted’.
However, Banyard ‘spectacularly’ misfires with this example. There are several errors worthy of discussion in such retellings of the myth of the 1919 eclipse ‘proof’ of general relativity, not least an enormous misunderstanding of how science actually works. Remember the ‘discovery’ of cold fusion? Genuine scientific discovery is not like an election or a football match, a one-off contest (Newton 0; Einstein 1); rather, it must survive many rigorous validations through replication and triangulation of results.
However, given the central argument of Phil Banyard’s letter – that physics trumps psychology – I wish to concentrate on the particular irony of deploying the eclipse myth here: what really happened in 1919 tells us much less about physics, and much more about psychology, than is popularly supposed.
Sir Arthur Eddington, scientific leader of the expedition and huge advocate of Einstein’s theory, felt enormous pressure to gain the ‘correct’ result. A devout Quaker, Eddington had noted that the heavens on 29 May 1919 (the day of the eclipse) had seen fit to deliver a particularly favourable alignment of celestial bodies for ‘weighing light’, as he put it (see Eddington, 1920). However, the technology of the time was simply not up to delivering the precision required (accurate testing of general relativity had to wait another 40 years and more). Interpretation of the fuzzy results was influenced by knowing what experimental data would precisely fit the theory.
‘[L]ater examination of the photographs taken on that expedition showed the errors were as great as the effect they were trying to measure. Their measurement had been sheer luck, or a case of knowing the result they wanted to get, a not uncommon occurrence in science’ (Hawking, 1988). Psychologists have a name for this: it is confirmation bias: ‘the seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand’ (Nickerson, 1998).
Note that the Stephen Hawking quotation I have given above is from A Brief History of Time, a book Banyard may well have heard of, or even own. So I suspect he would not have had to look far to refute the stuff of his own argument, had he really wished to do so. Thus his claim itself evidences just how widespread and pernicious is confirmation bias: Phil Banyard seized on the 1919 eclipse myth uncritically, because it ‘confirmed’ his bias towards spectacular physics. His letter, far from making the case that psychology amounts only to an undersized mountain of beans, illustrates how much we need psychological theory to inform our understanding of other sciences and ourselves.
Senior Specialist Educational Psychologist (Autism Spectrum)
Essex County Council
Eddington, A. (1920). Space, time and gravitation: An outline of the general relativity theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hawking, S.W. (1988). A brief history of time. New York: Bantam Books.
A few years ago I treated a 66-year-old woman. She had suffered with psychological distress from age 16 and in that time had been in and out of mental hospitals and had experienced the full range of psychotropic medicines plus several bouts of ECT. When I met her she was pretty much housebound and socially isolated, she was alienated from her children and she lived a life of constant misery and anxiety due to her extreme OCD. This was largely manifest by intrusive thoughts of becoming violent towards other people.
I am not a particularly expert therapist but within three months of a straightforward application of exposure and response prevention, a technique that psychology (and psychiatry) can rightly claim to have invented, this woman was showing clinically significant improvement. Eighteen months later her life was totally changed. She was able to go out by herself and shop in a nearby large town. She was back in contact with her two daughters. She had nursed her husband through his terminal illness and was coping well with her bereavement. She was planning to take her first ever holiday abroad. The intrusive thoughts still came occasionally and she knew how to deal with them.
Phil Banyard may not think this is ‘impressive’, but I did and so did she. She had been in contact with mental health services for 50 years yet it was only when she was put in contact with a (very ordinary, jobbing) clinical psychology service that she received effective treatment. Of course it won’t always be like this, and I agree that psychologists have a lot to be modest about, but let’s hear it for the treatments that work and the hope they bring.
Paul Whitby CPsychol, AFBPsS
Wiltshire Specialist Therapies Team, Green Lane Hospital, Devizes
Nickerson, R.S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2(2), 175–220.
A recent, despondent letter entitled called for information on the greatest scientific inventions in psychology. Please permit me here to mention just a few great ones: (1) Watson’s behaviourism based on Pavlov’s classical conditioning, (2) The Skinner Box; (3) Thorndike’s ‘law of effect’ plus operant conditioning, (4) Harlow’s surrogate mother monkeys plus ‘The nature of love’, (5) the doorbell at a psychotherapist’s office.
Donald F. Smith
Retired Research Psychologist,
Psychiatric Hospital of Aarhus
The most useful item developed by psychological science is the concept of intelligence. For more than a century this sturdy understanding has been tweaked from pure g to multiples, from fixed to malleable, admired and despised. Although around the world it may be somewhat differently interpreted, there is a basic understanding that individual intelligence is to do with the ability to deal with one’s world. Measures of intelligence are reliable and regularly improved to serve their purpose of predicting intellectual achievement, mostly in school. It’s an infinitely more valuable tool than a non-stick pan.
Professor Joan Freeman FBPsS
My candidate for psychology’s answer to the non-stick frying pan or chemistry’s periodic table of elements is the Big Five model of personality (see e.g. Goldberg, 1981). This has proved to be extractable from the lexicons of many languages and is increasingly supported by the findings of neuroscience (DeYoung et al., 2010). The Big Five dimensions, and their various circumplex combinations (see e.g. Hofstee et al.,1992), have a wide range of convenience. They have been empirically related to an impressive number of psychological phenomena and, with their facet scales, are beginning to bring sense to the confusing taxonomy of overlapping personality disorders (Skodol et al., 2011) in the DSM-5.
Vice Chair, The Psychometrics Forum
DeYoung, C.G., Hirsh, J.B., Shane, M.S. et al. (2010). Testing predictions from personality neuroscience: Brain structure and the Big Five. Psychological Science, 21, 820–828.
Goldberg, L.R. (1981). Language and individual differences: The search for universals in personality lexicons. In L. Wheeler (Ed.) Review of personality and social psychology (Vol. 2, pp.141–165). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Hofstee, W.K.B., de Raad, B. & Goldberg, L.R. (1992). Integration of the Big Five and circumplex approaches to trait structure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(1), 146–163.
Skodol, A.E., Clark, L.A., Bender, D.S. et al. (2011). Proposed changes in personality and personality disorder assessment and diagnosis for DSM-5 Part I: Description and rationale. Journal of Personality Disorders, 2, 4–22.
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