Psychology “Incompatible with Hypothesis-Driven Theoretical Science”

Researchers point out how the field of psychology often manipulates studies to support theories rather than revising theories in light of new results.

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In physics, researchers use the scientific method to test specific predictions. If the evidence gathered in a well-designed study doesn’t fit the exact prediction of the theory, then researchers know the theory is at least partly incorrect and needs to be revised or discarded for a better one.

Psychology doesn’t work the same way, according to a recent paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science, authored by Stijn Debrouwere and Yves Rosseel at Ghent University in Belgium. Psychological theories are rarely rejected, no matter what results researchers find. Instead, researchers take pains to explain away inconvenient results and design their studies to be vague enough to “support” any theory.

Debrouwere and Rosseel write that psychology is “an experimental science in which interventions lack ecological validity, a science that theorizes freely but misses some of the basic facts, and a science that uses statistics to whitewash uncertainty.”

One of the sharpest critiques against psychological research is that striking, positive studies—which become accepted “common knowledge”—almost always fail to replicate when other researchers test the same effect again. For example, one study in which researchers tried to replicate psychological science findings found that only 36% of findings were confirmed after another test.

And according to the authors, the most well-known psychological experiments, such as Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, run the gamut from unethically conducted to poorly documented to outright falsehoods. Little can be generalized from studies that are misleading at best and fraud at worst. In a survey of 2000 psychologists, more than half admitted to misleadingly presenting their results (such as switching outcome measures or “spinning” negative results to appear positive), so this problem is pervasive.

Some researchers have suggested that improving the quality of psychological research can solve this problem. Solutions have been proposed, such as trial preregistration, open access to data, documenting effect sizes (instead of just a binary measure of statistical significance), and alerting readers to bias from, for instance, financial conflicts of interest. And these methods would likely help avoid fraud, “spinning” negative conclusions into positive ones, and other forms of bias.

However, Debrouwere and Rosseel argue that these solutions don’t solve the underlying problem: the scientific method can’t truly be applied to psychological questions.

They write, “We believe that psychology is fundamentally incompatible with hypothesis-driven theoretical science.”

According to Debrouwere and Rosseel, predictions in physics are extremely specific and testable. For instance, Newtonian mechanics predicted that light would bend slightly around a mass like a sun, and Einstein agreed—but under Einstein’s theory of relativity, the specific amount that it would bend was different. When astronomers measured this during an eclipse, they found that light bent to the exact degree specified by Einstein, not Newton. This conclusively demonstrated that Newton’s theory was missing something and that Einstein’s theory of relativity was correct.

When it comes to psychological science, though, Debrouwere and Rosseel write that researchers make vague predictions and, even when they are contradicted, researchers explain away the fact that their study failed and indeed claim that the study was still a success.

They give this example: “A psychologist may posit that people with high social standing will tend to do what they can to maintain that standing (our theory) and that they might therefore be inclined to boycott social competitors or withhold access to important resources (our hypothesis). However, if it turns out that instead, those of high social standing tend to be magnanimous, this too is easily explained: Generosity is a great way to showcase one’s superior status. Our theory aligns equally well with both hypotheses, even though they are diametrically opposed to each other.”

In the example from physics, measuring the degree to which light bends around a large celestial body would inevitably prove that at least one of the two theories was wrong. Either it would bend to the exact degree predicted by Newton, predicted by Einstein, or neither. No matter the result, it would conclusively demonstrate that at least one (and possibly both) theory was wrong.

But in the example from psychology, no matter what the researchers found, it proved nothing. Any result was vague enough—and the theory itself vague enough—to be explained away.

So Debrouwere and Rosseel ask, what is the point of tests like these?

“What if competing theories lead to similar causal models? What if we simply cannot predict the magnitude of an effect with even the most sophisticated of theories? What if it is unclear when a phenomenon will or will not show up?”

The authors do present an answer, though. They write that the focus on hypothesis-testing science is doomed to failure in psychology. But psychology can focus on the descriptive, taxonomic science that forms the basis of disciplines like zoology, botany, mycology, and even meteorology.

“In order to learn about the world,” they write, “we may explore and document the great variety of phenomena, to organize them, to see whether there are any obvious regularities.”

This type of science requires researchers to put aside their biases about generalizable laws of human behavior and, instead, with curiosity, observe the facets of the human experience in as many different settings as there are people:

“This leads to a very different kind of research wherein we do not prove or disprove theories, but rather try to find the conditions under which a particular phenomenon or mechanism will or will not show up, what strengthens and weakens it. Through slow, careful mapping of the territory, we will start to see whether a behavioral or cognitive phenomenon is widespread, robust or ephemeral, whether it strongly affects our actions or life outcomes, or whether it is only a curiosity with limited impact.”

 

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Debrouwere, S., & Rosseel, Y. (2021). The conceptual, cunning, and conclusive experiment in psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/17456916211026947 (Link)

28 COMMENTS

  1. It is not that science has no relevant things to say to psychology being as it is “science”, it is that “science” itself is a big beautiful fairy story, as is most of reality.

    In psychology’s honourable striving to peel itself away from “science” it is preserving the notion that “science” is serious. Serious enough to peel from, or brush off, or expunge. Psychology does this to preserve the whole idea of revering seriousness….because it continues to want to keep its finger in that serious pie.

    Psychology will never let “science” be myth. Because psychology does not want to seem like a thing of play.

    Instead psychology will call “science” A SERIOUS THING that psychology needs to be seriously divorced from, because it is so serious, as is psychology serious.

    Poppycock!

  2. My dinner was smoking and I wrote that standing up. Let me soften my guffaw.

    Science is a beautiful storybook “choice” to believe wholeheartedly in.

    Psychology is a beautiful storybook “choice” to believe wholeheartedly in.

    If you believe in science then by all means take it seriously. Deeply so.

    If you believe in psychology then by all means take it seriously. Deeply so.

    Take what YOU like utterly seriously. Passionately so.

    Have it be YOUR pespective that informs YOUR reality. And cherish it. And share it with other whom you feel may like it.

    A Buddhist’s reality is not any better than a Mormon’s reality.

    All “choices”, of realities, are precious and valid and lovely and playful and fun.

    No “choices” of realities hurt anyone.

    Hurt only occurs when one person’s “choice” is deemed the ONLY correct choice for everyone.

    The way people impose that sense of correctness is though taking some aspect of their “choice” so seriously that they cannot let anyone else peaceably live without “having to” align with that perspective. Again this is where “consensus opinion” comes in.

    Lots of people take “logic” deadly seriously.

    In trying to assert one “choice”, say science, there can be a tendency to dismiss the “logic” of another “choice” as rubbish, say psychology. But “logic” when IT is the “choice” being taken super seriously leapfrogs from one “choice” to the other in a “reasonable” and “logical” fashion, because “logic” wants to preserve the air of solemnity and seriousness in IT as a “choice”, that everyone “has to” align with. And so the bullying of other peoples “choices” continues unabated.

    Logic always wants to make a star of one particular “choice”, such as the psychiatry “choice” OR the “anti-psychiatry “choice”. You cannot be free to like bits of both, or so you get informed. There is no relaxed looseness. You cannot be both a Buddhist and a Mormon, reason says. The overly “logical” say that it is intrinsically not “logical” to have your cake and eat it.

    So you cannot like the rationalism in science AND find it all an enjoyable romp of a myth. Logic says you cannot “play” with your “choices”. You must be diligent.

    Off to finish the second coat of paint with the help of Abba.

    Some might say two incompatible “choices”.

  3. Peter – thanks for this, I downloaded the original article. Wittgenstein ends ‘Philosophical Investigations’ with this remark: “The confusion and barrenness of psychology is not to be explained by calling it a “young science”; its state is not comparable with that of physics, for instance, in its beginnings… For in psychology there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion… The existence of the experimental method makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us; though problem and method pass one another by”.
    His ‘Remarks on Psychology’ and ‘Philosophy of psychology’ contain some very astute observations of human psychology – more than many textbooks on psychology – and those remarks have led to radical enactivism which has become the dominant voice in cognitive science today. (Kahneman, who is referenced in the Debrouwere & Rosseel paper, was a student of Wittgenstein; and went on to develop his ‘fast and slow thinking’).

  4. Based on my personal experience, asking anybody, whenever I get the chance, I’d say MOST Americans either have no idea there is a difference between psychology & psychiatry, or don’t know, AND don’t care. I have only met like maybe 2 or 3 people who know there is a difference, and NOBODY who could state with certainty what the main differences are. Psychiatry has flourished largely by this ignorance. If more people were better educated, we’d have less psychology, and NO psychiatry, which is pure FRAUD, and a pseudoscience….
    So the “Replication Crisis” in psychological study is an entirely SELF-INFLICTED wound. Psychiatry is blatant unscientific fraud, & psychology is almost as bad….

    • Most movies and TV shows portray psychiatrists as therapists. I’m sure that’s not by accident. The confusion between psychiatrist, psychologist, and therapist counselor is important to protect psychiatry from people understanding that psychiatry is akin to drug pushing.

      • I agree, it’s likely intentional deception by Hollywood and the mainstream media. But I also agree, psychology is most definitely NOT innocent. Psychology’s “SELF-INFLICTED wound” is due to their intentional choice to follow psychiatry down the scientifically “invalid” DSM path. And I can’t name too many American psychologists (the great Philip Hickey is one) who are – even now that the DSM has been debunked – speaking out against the “status quo.”

    • Yes, psychiatry is essentially the drug approach to mental disturbance. And just as ignorant about the difference between psychology and psychiatry is the ignorance about pseudo-scientific neuro-psychology and actual psychology, and then there is also the ignorance about the differences in methodological approaches and limitations of the actual psychologies.
      My god (LOL),some people still think that Freud is relevant.

  5. Bias as you say or Confirmation bias is an unavoidable part of any hypothesis. In the example of people of a certain social standing, there is the added problem of assigning motives. Much of the soft sciences in this regard suffers from a form of omniscience that its authors impute to themselves. Here the solution is simple: avoid the arrogance that underpins confirmation bias and practice an agnostic humility

    Psychology started as an empirical science. Freud began as a neurologist. Jung’s early work was based on observations. he coined the terms extraversion and introversion. The 20th Century took a more theoretical turn. The apotheosis of this is seen in Jung’s writings in the Nazified German psychoanalytical journal.

    The dangers inherent in theory cannot be overstated. Perhaps, as the authors conclude, a more empirical psychology would avoid the bias inherent in theory. There is much to be learned without rushing to specious conclusions. We must acknowledge to what point what we know is only a collection of “discrete’ data.

    But then we are “rational” animals and what we do know began with an induction, a hunch… At one extreme is Karl Popper and the idea that all knowledge is contingent. At the other extreme are the many of the prevailing theories in psychology. Perhaps these are empirical insofar as they are results-based. The bigger question is what can we take pragmatically-speaking from clinical psychology that will inform the practice of psychology.

    • I’m not sure how to read your comments about Jung, but on the surface, the linking of the word “Nazi” with Jung appears to be a smear that is scurrilous. I look at Jung as the Einstein of psychology. In my view, To me, Jung corrected the mistakes, confirmation bias, and wrong turns of the materialist Freud by sticking rigorously to the empirical method using cross-cultural research of psychic reality and not confusing it with research into physical reality.

  6. LOL! One view of this article would be that this is science finding psychology to be incompatible with its authoritarian approach.
    In my view, the definition of “psychology” is lacking in this so-called scientific analysis, thus making this article unscientific. The article fails to understand that the field of psychology is psychic reality, not physical reality! This failure to distinguish the different fields of reality is what makes “neuroscience” fundamentally un-psychological. And that failure also makes many psychologists deluded about the field they are supposed to be studying and they mistake psychic reality as physical reality. I could go on, but the source of the problem is that most psychologists want the prestige of the material sciences power and don’t recognize that the psyche is not material reality, but is the field of psychic reality. This split in real psychology and pseudo psychology developed in the hyper-reactive response to Carl Jung’s psychology and the materialists of physical reality calling his work in psychic reality “mysticism.” But its roots go all the way back to Aristotle who divided reality into physics and metaphysics and then after Aristotle metaphysics became superstition and mysticism rather than a field of scientific study. Jung brought science back into the field of psychic reality but the materialist scientists were outraged and painted Jung with all kinds of smears to invalidate his work. Jung is the Einstein of psychology still waiting for his proper due respect.
    It’s very ironic that the article ends with a recognition that validates Jung’s whole approach using cross-cultural research of religion, myth, and dreams. That is, Jung’s methodology was exactly to “explore and document the great variety of phenomena, to organize them, to see whether there are any obvious regularities.” This is the basis of Jung’s empirical approach to psychic reality where he worked with the psychic imagery of his patients and meticulously cross referenced them against alchemy, religious imagery, mythology, and dreams across cultures to determine his hypothesis on the organization of psychic reality.
    The last quote from the paper pretty much describes Jung’s “very different kind of research” but Jung has been so demonized by modern materialist psychologists trying with their pseudo scientific approaches to study the mind as if it is a physical reality that they have buried his “kind of research” under such labels as “unproductive” and “unscientific.”

  7. I’m afraid that Jung wrote antisemitic editorials when he was editor of the German language psychoanalytical journal — this at the height of nazi antisemitism — during the 1930s. he referred to Jews as “parasites” and made other such statements which don’t bear repeating. Hitler was a “shaman,” according to Jung, who embodied the Aryan unconscious and other such nonsense. Some of these writings have been translated into english. Of course, Jung has his apologists. Google “Jung and antisemitism.” You will find there is some debate about this. I have reached my own conclusions but it is a very uncomfortable question for Jungians, particularly Jewish Jungians.

    As for Freud, the Oedipal complex is very real. I had one. But Yes there is much debate about Freud’s theories. Karl Popper dismissed them all as unprovable…

  8. Yes, the so-called “Oedipal complex”, like so-called “mental illnesses”, are both exactly as “real” as presents from Santa Claus, but not more real. Both are subjective concepts which have NO OBJECTIVE REALITY. At best, as with all religions, they are only as “real” as their believers believe them to be. Freud truly was misogynist, a cocaine user, and his half-baked “theories” have been debunked & totally deconstructed for the wrongful nonsense they are. And for the WIN, of who was a more horrible, despicable person, Freud, or Jung, it’s Freud the Fraud….

  9. Bradford, Thanks for commenting. I remember having an Oedipal complex as a boy only because my parents had a bad car accident. My sister and I were informed of this by telephone. My first reaction was to wish that my father, who I loved dearly,had died in the accident so that I could take his place in my mother’s affections. So Yes the ambivalence I felt was, as you say and Freud would agree, highly subjective.

    There is a David Kronenberg film about Freud and Jung. It is based on fact. Jung slept with his patients. This caused them great grief. Today he would lose his license to practice.

    As for Freud and cocaine, Freud regretted his dalliance with cocaine. He lost a close friend to cocaine addiction. So Yes he was also very human and fallible. He had though a gift for listening and is attributed with being the originator of the “talking cure.” So No he took the time to listen and wasn’t a pill pusher.

    Much more could be said about the questions you raise. If I remember right, the neuroscientist Norman Doidge has written about the physiological basis for some of Freud’s ideas. And the French are still taken with much of Freudian theory but Yes here in the U.S. he has fallen out of fashion.

  10. Bradford, thanks for your reply. As I said, Freud was flawed. That far we agree. And Yes my childhood experiences are anecdotal and not proof of anything. It is a fluke that I remember them at all. I doubt however that Freud was malicious in the manner you suggest.

    At a time when women had few prerogatives, Lou Andreas-Salome and Helene Deutsch were brilliant Freudian psychoanalysts. Their take on Freud is insightful and not dogmatic at all. I have read and re-read Lou Andreas-Salome. Deutsch’s work anticipated much of the feminist thought that would come in the ’60s. She was the director of a clinic in Vienna in the 1930s. Truly groundbreaking people and students of Freud.

  11. Sorry, Phil, but the story is perhaps more sordid than you know, regarding the evil Dr. Freud.
    “Malicious” may not be the exact best word to describe what he did. “Dismissed” is too casual a word for what he did. He thought they were LYING. Yes, he DISMISSED their reports of the physical & sexual abuse they endured. He was most anxious to find the “cause” of their distress WITHIN THEIR OWN BODIES & BRAINS. To find a “something” that he could control them with, and profit from them. To find a “diagnosis” which would ONLY point the finger at the victims themselves. Freud was trying to blame them for their own victimization. Thus, Freud was the immediate successor of the current genocidal regime which is psychiatry. I think you are being way, way, way TOO forgiving of Freud. He did great damage, and his nephew Edward was just as diabolical…. Freud is best left on the scrap heap of history. And understood as an early sign of the pseudoscience malignancy of current psychiatry….

  12. Bradford, Freud started out believing all neurosis was caused by sexual abuse. He later moderated this view. And Yes, with Wilhelm Fleiss Freud quite literally did much “damage” to a woman. You evidently have your ideas on Freud. Others have drawn different conclusions. Freud was quick to acknowledge his limitations as a man in understanding women. But as you say, Freudian theory has indeed been applied wrongly by people like Bruno Bettelheim and his treatment of autism. And Yes Freud’s 1905 book Three Theories of Sexuality does continue to influence much thought in psychiatry and elsewhere.

    • He didn’t so much moderate this view as recant his earlier theory, which was of course very much on the right track, but made Victorian male society VERY uncomfortable (especially as so many of them had themselves engaged in sexually abusing girls and young women). He was roundly attacked by his colleagues and society at large for putting forward a theory that put the blame on the more powerful members of society, and under this pressure, he backed out and came up with a theory that was less threatening to the status quo. It was almost 100 years later before the incredible frequency of childhood sexual abuse and its connection to what is now called “mental illness” was finally revealed. Even today, there is great resistance in many quarters of the psychiatric world to understanding and attributing causality to childhood abuse and neglect when discussing ‘mental illness.’ It’s always easier to blame the victim.

  13. Steve, I am always wary to assign people motives. Did Freud say explicitly what you claim? If so, where? I am very interested. It is a simple observation that all neurosis is not caused by sexual abuse, whatever its incidence.

    Freud’s patients came largely from a certain segment of Viennese society. What do we know about the incidence of abuse in that particular part of Vienna? (Horrifically, many of Freud’s patients perished in the Holocaust.) Are there patients who came forward with claims against Freud? I would be very interested in reading these claims. Freud’s understanding of women was limited by being a man but many brilliant women have contributed in important ways to his theories.

    What we do know is that Freud did get involved in covering up Jung’s sexual abuse of a patient and that is indeed criminal and well known. There is no controversy there. The record is clear. And Yes this occurs still today.

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