A Call for Critical Approaches to Cognitive Psychology

Richard Prather asks fellow researchers in cognitive psychology to incorporate critical models and approaches into their practices.


While critical psychology has gained traction in social, political, and even clinical psychology, other subfields within psychology, such as cognitive psychology, have yet to be affected by the critical shift. In a new article in-press at the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, Richard Prather makes a case for incorporating critical thought into cognitive psychological research, questioning the current approaches of cognitivism, which includes generalizability, deficit models and the centralization of quantitative methods.

“Broad generalization as a focus for psychological and cognitive sciences is closely related to the idea of normativity, that the behavior and cognition of certain people are ‘normal’ and others, if different, represent a deviation,” Prather writes. “A critical approach to cognitive and psychological sciences would, among other things, push back against the idea of a normative human cognitive and psychological experience.”

Conceptual image of human brain in colorful splashesPrather first calls out the idea of generalizability as the primary goal of psychological science. Generalizability is the thought that research into the individual psyche of a small group of people, usually done under controlled, experimental conditions, can then be applied to everyone outside of that group.

As he points out, issues have been pointed out over the last few decades with this idea, including the “overrepresentation of certain groups in psychological research.” This is often called the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) phenomenon. Not only has most research performed on white, cisgender, heteronormative male groups, but it also excluded a vast number of people outside of “Western” society. While this is partially due to the availability of these groups when the research was done, it also undergirds an ideology that white, cisgender, heteronormative men are the norm.

Prather calls on cognitive and psychological sciences to integrate a list of four positions. First, psychology, and cognitive psychology, in particular, must “abandon the ideas of a generic human actor and universal defaults.” Second, researchers must “focus on an in-depth characterization of developmental, cultural, and societal context.” Third, They must also “avoid deficit models and hierarchical alignments.” And fourth, research must “integrate participatory and qualitative approaches to reevaluated quantitative methods.”

Abandoning the ideas of a generic human actor and universal defaults
“We cannot simply hope that behavior from a small homogenous group of participants will generalize to the entire species.”

Not only is Prather suggesting psychologists stop applying results from research done with homogenous groups onto the rest of humanity, but also to stop taking the results of these studies to mean there is a normal experience of cognition. In other words, psychology cannot continue to place the experiences, thoughts, and behaviors of these WEIRD participants as the norm, marking any human in any place with any experience, thought, or behavior that deviates from this norm as deviant, exceptional, or even a sign of illness.

Focusing on an in-depth characterization of developmental, cultural, and societal context
“Historically, a large focus of cognitive and psychological sciences has been on decontextualized individuals. Motivations for this include controlling for ‘extraneous’ variables much the way experiments in the natural sciences seem to do so.”

While this approach seems purposefully unbiased, it can lead to biased results by ignoring the contextual experiences of people that create differentiation at an individual level. While Prather states that “some [within] Critical Psychology may suggest…that we can only talk about humans through social and cultural dynamics, “he is also quick to add that “the issue is not that the individual level of analysis shouldn’t be pursued, it is when individual analysis is decontextualized and prioritized above all other levels of analysis.” Individual behavior will always deviate from one human to another, and this phenomenon cannot be ignored either.

Avoid deficit models and hierarchical alignments.
“Psychological sciences have a long history of framing particular groups of people as the norm and others as deficient. Examples include differences along race, gender, disability, socioeconomic status, and sexuality, just to name a few.”

By creating norms around behavior and experience that centers on the privileged, psychology has framed suffering as a lacking on the part of the individual and not as being intertwined with societal and cultural forces. Famous examples include the jump in hysteria diagnoses during the Women’s Suffrage Movement and, as Jonathan Metzl’s “The Protest Psychosis” shows, the increase in schizophrenia diagnoses in black men during the Civil Rights Movement. Prather asks how “we can look at some of the intervention literature that seeks to ‘improve outcomes’ of marginalized people within a system while letting the system (not a natural one but a socialized one) sit as assumed to just be.”

Are these models helping psychologists better assist in suffering, or do they end up with psychologists just “training people to ‘do better’” in these unjust systems? According to Prather, psychology needs to ponder this question.

Integrate participatory and qualitative approaches to reevaluate quantitative methods.
“Researchers are not merely objective observers of human behavior. Decisions regarding which questions to ask and how to frame them are embedded in a particular sociopolitical structure.”

As Prather points out, many inferential statistics and other quantitative results have helped enforce the idea that some groups of people are inferior to others.

Much of how this happens stems from the idea of “objectivity” in social and human sciences. Critical Psychology postulates that researchers must perform a reflexive examination of their situatedness in their research, including how their background, identity, privileges, and oppressions may influence or guide their research.

Qualitative and participatory research allows for a more “in-depth understanding of the participants’ context directly from the participant.” Therefore the researcher is no longer the authority on the subject being studied, but instead, the researcher centralizes the experience of those experiencing the phenomenon. Prather also suggests that quantitative approaches should not be abandoned, but psychology should “instead reconsider their centrality, uses and limitations.”

 Cognitive Psychology and Critical Psychology

As one of Critical Psychology’s pioneers, Ian Parker has also stated that Critical Psychology does not need only to concern itself with social and cultural psychologies. Just as Prather described in the paper, Parker says that “cognition is as much to do with relational things as what is whizzing around in private.”

Another issue identified by Prather, Parker, and other psychologists, including Erica Burnam, is that many research psychologists have developed a “fetish” around the idea of psychology as a natural science. They became focused on attempting to mimic physics, geology, and other “hard sciences.” However, as Prather discusses, “Focusing on interactions and relations as the thing we study is not unique to behavioral sciences. Even in physics, one interpretation of quantum mechanics posits that quantum mechanics studies not objects but the relations between objects.”

Prather here is saying that because of psychology’s obsession with being naturalistic, it has fallen behind the disciplines it has been trying to emulate. Prather’s call here for critical approaches to Cognitive Psychology and Parker’s call for Critical Psychology can be seen as attempts to correct this issue while also beginning to have psychology better reflect on its past mistakes, both mild and egregious.




Prather, R. W. (In press) A New Path: Why we need Critical Approaches to Cognitive and Psychological Sciences. Pratherlab.org (Link)


  1. Psychology as a “field of study” is a hard nut to crack since it’s built mainly with ego and hubris, but it’s wise to be critical of whoever is telling whatever story. And studies like these seldom go anywhere because people generally don’t like change, and one needs a “study” to find this out.

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  2. Hi Kevin, Whilst I have much sympathy for Ian Parker’s critical psychology, when the goal is generalizability we get out of the trap of relativism. I am a fan of radical enactivism (Hutto), which has something to say about human nature which is common to all cultures. When we look through this lens we see for example the weirdness of Western culture, compared to most indigenous cultures which remain closer to our common human nature (As pointed out by Henrich (“The weirdest people in the world” – 2020, Farrer, Straus & Giroux)).

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