Consumers of mental health literature frequently encounter psychological constructs in the form of diagnostic labels and other terms such as “intelligence,” “cognitions,” “personality,” and “emotions.” But what meaning do these words really hold, and how are they operationalized and statistically modeled within psychology research? Eiko Fried at the University of Amsterdam explores these questions following the recent work of researchers Peters and Crutzen, who back “pragmatic nihilism” as an opportunity for advancement in psychology.
“Although at first glance, ‘pragmatic nihilism’ might sound pessimistic about the state of our science, we hope to persuade the reader of the opposite: that accepting both premises (i.e., what we termed ‘pragmatism’ and ‘nihilism’) affords scientists a refreshing and empowering flexibility in the development and application of theory without the need for a Theory of Everything.”
As a way to confront reductionist explanations of behavior, academics in psychology and health psychology, specifically, have turned to developing integrative theories that attempt to capture complex constructs more broadly. The Self-Determination Theory (SDT) and iChange model provide two such examples. In an effort to rectify the limitations of previous explanations, these multi-theory models are formulated and implemented, but ultimately, as Peters and Crutzen note, these “valiant” efforts paradoxically become riddled with their own shortcomings in the quest to provide a “Theory of Everything.”
A paper by Eiko Fried, hosted through the Open Science Framework, further deconstructs terms, such as “attitudes” or “emotions,” and the models that seek to explain them, which are often referenced without clarification. His investigation has led him to identify four different ways researchers tend to conceptualize constructs as (1) natural, (2) social, (3) practical, and (4) complex “kinds” of experiences.
A greater understanding of the assumptions embedded within these ontological frameworks, or theories of existence, illuminates patterns fueling recurring debates in mental health. One example of this is the clashing between the notion that experiences of psychopathology are undergirded by biomedical explanations and the idea that psychopathology exists solely as a social construct. Fried’s overview of these different conceptualizations of psychological constructs is summarized below.
Psychological constructs as “natural kinds”
Viewing emotions or psychological experiences through a “natural kinds perspective” involves defining them as intrinsic, ahistorical entities. This view understands emotions as discrete experiences. Therefore, depression and experiences typically framed as psychological “disorders” are conceptualized as organic, brain disorders with underlying biomarkers. However, this stance on cognitive or emotional experiences remains unsupported, despite various attempts to demonstrate biomarkers for mental health experiences (see MIA report).
Psychological constructs as “social kinds”
The “social kinds” perspective conceptualizes psychological constructs and emotional experiences as socially constructed and culturally defined. Rather than being discovered as already-existing categorically distinct entities, they are produced. From the “social” view, psychological “disorders” such as depression, would be understood within a context, and an emphasis would be placed on the socially prescribed concept of “normalcy” as its reference.
Psychological constructs as “practical kinds”
This account of conceptualizing constructs is less concerned with the reality of an entity, and more focused on the utility that could be derived from the construct’s existence. For example, Fried cites the construct of Socioeconomic Status (SES). While SES does not represent a metaphysical reality in and of itself, it is scientifically useful in understanding social structures and in working toward prevention of adverse social outcomes. “From this perspective,” writes Fried, “emotions, personality characteristics or mental disorders should be judged in terms of practical scientific success, not whether they correspond to an independent reality.”
Psychological constructs as “complex kinds”
Conceptualizing psychological concepts through a “complex” approach involves understanding natural processes that co-occur, forming a cluster connected by an underlying causal force. This relationship is probabilistic, not deterministic, and the features of these properties aggregate in imperfect, inconsistent ways. For example, if depression is viewed as a “complex kind,” it would be consistent with the notion that some features of depression are caused by other features, and that different patients may present with various clusters of symptoms. Unlike “natural kinds,” “complex kinds” do not have defined necessary and sufficient features, yet their existence is not purported to be symbolic in the case of “practical” and “social” kinds.
Behind the everyday usage of terms like “depression,” “mental illness,” or “intelligence” are the philosophies shaping the investigation of these experiences or states. The questions we ask, and the methods used to evaluate these matters, stem from our theories about their existence. Peters and Crutzen’s recently published paper in Health Psychology Review elaborates on the ways in which approaching research through an integrated fashion, may ultimately limit our ability to capture a construct or experience usefully.
“Theories deal with bounded aspects of reality. This is not a shortcoming, but a part of the definition of ‘a theory’ (Kok & Peters, 2016), or, in other words, this is not a bug, but a feature. This feature merely becomes more salient when combining theories in this manner. That also makes clear why building a Theory of Everything would yield an unwieldy theory: a Theory of Everything would have to contain variables and specifications for operationalisations that can cover the entirety of people’s psychology.”
In their proposal to embrace pragmatic nihilism, Peters and Crutzen argue toward understanding cognitions and emotions as “metaphors rather than referring to entities that exist in the mind.” It is this abandonment of the attempt to map out latent constructs to tangible realities which, they propose, would allow psychologists to operationalize and study psychological constructs more effectively.
They write, “cognitions and emotions are useful constructs when theorizing about behavior, but cannot be pinpointed physically in people’s brains.”
It is important to emphasize that the metaphorical understanding of subjective experiences suggested by this approach is not put forth as a way to avoid rigor and specificity when operationalizing terms and constructs. The authors highlight the ways in which pragmatic nihilism seeks to honor the complex nature of constructs, viewing them as aggregated across multiple abstract dimensions spanning levels of behavior specificity, time, duration, etc., while also approaching investigations practically and intentionally.
The complexity of psychological experiences demands that one acknowledges the limitations of any one approach, opening up a flexible alternative in which researchers can precisely pinpoint a “slice” of a construct to observe. On the other hand, the attempt to completely capture a construct through integrated theories perhaps unintentionally endeavors to compress these complex factors, thereby reducing the very construct they are trying to observe fully.
A fundamental tenet of pragmatic nihilism is the idea that if constructs are seen as useful metaphors from which to model experiences, then the operationalization of a construct and the definition of the construct are one and the same. Meaning that operationalizing depression would also serve to define depression temporarily. To this point, Fried argues that differential client ratings of symptoms on a depression scale would indicate different “depressions,” according to pragmatic nihilist theory.
“Thus, pragmatic nihilism holds that variables certainly exist as their operationalizations, but may not, and need not, exist otherwise. This places a strong burden on the researcher to guard the clarity and scope of, as well as verify and report the validity of their operationalizations. Data about a variable are only as good as its operationalisation, and therefore, any theory should include, in addition to clear definitions, instructions for operationalisation of each variable.”
Among the benefits proposed by embracing pragmatic nihilism, Peters and Crutzen call attention to the implications this would have for research moving forward. They recommend that earlier stages of research feature qualitative investigations of constructs or experiences within the population of interest. This allows for a richer, inductive exposure that may inform intentional operationalizing and later developing of quantitative instruments. Ultimately, the researchers assert that this method may facilitate greater understanding of behaviors and therefore, produce more effective behavioral interventions
The authors include the following statement as they close:
“We hope pragmatic nihilism’s implicit encouragement to remain critical, even irreverent, towards all individual theories, can further facilitate such eclectic approaches, inspiring researchers to be more theoretically promiscuous. At the same time, we hope that pragmatic nihilism makes it clear that theory is crucial when predicting and changing behavior. We hope that pragmatic nihilism helps to move away from behavior change interventions based on one theoretical perspective, such as the health belief model or the RAA, and towards flexible integration of theories for each specific problem instead of striving towards generic integrative theories.”
Fried, E. I. (2017, March 29). What are psychological constructs? On the nature and statistical modeling of emotions, intelligence, personality traits and mental disorders. (Abstract)
Gjalt-Jorn Ygram Peters & Rik Crutzen (2017): Pragmatic nihilism: how a Theory of Nothing can help health psychology progress, Health Psychology Review, DOI: 10.1080/17437199.2017.1284015 (Abstract)