Researchers Make a Case for a “Theory of Nothing” in Psychology

Deconstructing psychological constructs and the place for “pragmatic nihilism”

Zenobia Morrill

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.”

Photo Credit: Bob May, Flickr

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)

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Zenobia Morrill
MIA-UMB News Team: Zenobia Morrill is a graduate of the dual master’s counseling psychology program at Columbia University. As a doctoral student and researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, she seeks to understand the context informing psychology research and the underlying social factors that influence individual psychology. She is currently involved in projects examining the impact of structural violence.

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  1. This article clarifies what confuses me about popular criticism of psychology at this website. I am an anti-psychiatrist because psychiatry is pseudoscience; it has no legitimate (scientific) connection to neuroscience and biology (biological reductionism). In contrast, the author (and most psychology critics) wrongly assumes that psychiatry represents a biological reductionism perspective. Critics understand that psychiatry is without scientific support but they seem fearful that real neuroscience might eventually support psychiatry instead of assuming that real neuroscience will prove psychiatry wrong!

    • It is hard to imagine neuroscience fully or even mostly supporting the psychiatric worldview, primarily because the “diagnoses” they have promoted have no actual connection to any physiological reality, and as such, the “groups” they are purporting to study are almost completely heterogeneous. It is quite possible that SOME members of a particular group may have some kind of genetic or physiological problem causing their “mental” difficulties (such as porphyria) , but these would only be a small proportion of the whole and might even span a number of different “diagnoses.” Medicine can’t even find genetic causes for obviously physiological things like heart attacks – what is the likelihood that such causes would ever exist for such a nebulous and subjective category as “depression” or “anxiety disorders?”

  2. My doubt is that soft science should be considered science at all. The problem here is that some mental health professionals think they are dealing with an exact science when there is no real proof that this is so.

    Michel Foucault in Madness: The Invention of an Idea (1954, revised 1962) suggested that without madness there would be no psychology. Psychology presumes all behavior to be accessible to reason, even unreasonable behavior, and unreasonable behavior is not accessible to reason, it would be idealistic to presume otherwise. Funny how unreason, trying to crack that enigmatic inscrutable nut, would keep this profession going strong, isn’t it?

  3. 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.

    This is funny, imagine telling this crap to a person who’s broke, alone, lost, homeless and has given up trying to cope in this world? This is the worst kind of gobbledygook I’ve read in ages- get out of your universities and help people on the streets, or do somin that might help another person, rather than intellectually wanking…

  4. I wonder if attempts to be “scientific ” hurts our efforts to help people in mental distress.
    I was lucky enough to have a 50 year career as a medical psychotherapist,(but unlucky enough to have it in an age when professional bodies thought drugs were cheaper and better).
    The vast majority of the time I found that talking with patients and helping them to understand themselves seemed to help them to feel better.
    With psychotic patients it was different: they seemed to need antipsychotic drugs in order to become comprehensible.
    My final supervised case in psychoanalytic training at the British Institute unexpectantly became psychotic. The patient and I both became hopelessly confused, and he felt doomed…..
    But fortunately my supervisor was Dr Donald Winnicot, a gifted pediatrician/psychoanalyst, who suggested I stop talking and listen.
    This was very difficult to do, but since I had no other option I tried it.
    The patient, who’s life had completely disintegrated, kept coming and talking. I was reminded of the hundreds of schizophrenics I’d done mental status exams on as a medical student at a huge mental hospital on the Hudson River.
    But one day suddenly I felt I’d understood something he’d said. I gave a positive noise. Later I was able to give a positive word, then a sentence, and we gradually became able to communicate.
    Dr Winnicot was helpful in an unusual way: in our first session he’d said that he wasn’t a very good supervisor and wouldn’t be able to tell me what to do, and he stuck to this. What he did, after I’d read my notes written after sessions, was talk about therapies he was struggling with. This would somehow stimulate me to talk further about my patient and myself, which would stimulate him, and so forth back and forth .
    At the end of the session I would thank him and he would thank me!
    It felt wonderful: and the patient became well after 4 years therapy and thanked me for helping him to feel human!
    This is the kind of reward on gets from helping deeply disturbed people.
    Not much science involved, except that all of them had early life trauma that they needed help with. I’ve thought that Freud’s conscious/unconscious split and Sperry’s split brain work told me something about our efforts to help our children to have integrated personalities and brains.