Why psychologists need to ask better questions (Oct 08)

Friday, 31 October 2008 12:30

IS PSYCHOLOGY a science? This was the big theme in the fourth year of my undergraduate psychology degree at the University of Sydney, Australia, in the late 1940s. Our professor, Bill O'Neill, devoted many lectures to this question.

The subject matter of research in psychology might not fit easily into experimental designs, he argued, but that should not prevent us from holding fast to scientific principles to define our terms and refine our hypotheses. The purpose of science, he said, was not to discover facts but to ask better questions.

Today, psychologists - and the public - take it for granted that psychology is a science. I base my work on the developmental psychologists who study infants, and neuropsychologists who study how we make sense of our experiences. I know developmental and neuropsychologists follow O'Neill's principles.

However, many psychologists prefer to try to show that the world is what they want it to be, while others fear venturing into any area where they might have to confront the questions of how our brain creates meaning, and how, out of this meaning, comes what the neuropsychologist Chris Frith calls the "illusion" of being a person.

The subjects of research in the physical sciences adamantly remain themselves, refusing to disclose their nature until researchers ask them the right questions. In psychological research, things are different. Research subject and researcher can assess each other. Astute researchers can choose their subjects carefully, then frame their questions to guide subjects' answers and, by playing on the subjects' desire to please, produce the results the researcher wants.

This process has important consequences when it comes to "belief". Researchers who are advocates for religion are more likely to find that people with religious beliefs are happier than those with none, even though depressed people often report that their religious beliefs, rather than supporting them, actually create intense fear and guilt.

Our religious or philosophical beliefs about the nature of and the purpose of life are central to how we live and, as such, are appropriate subjects of psychological study - provided researchers can set aside their own fantasies about life and death.

Undeterred by such a notion, one branch of the field known as "transpersonal psychology" is based on the assumption of the existence of spirituality. On the website of the British Psychological Society, the transpersonal psychology section states that it "might loosely be called the psychology of spirituality and of those areas of the human mind which search for higher meanings in life, and which move beyond the limited boundaries of the ego to access an enhanced capacity for wisdom, creativity, unconditional love and compassion". I don't think my old professor would regard this as an operational definition.

But consider, too, what happens at the other end of the "belief" spectrum. Here, instead of trying to understand how we use religious or spiritual beliefs to overcome our greatest fear - that of ceasing to be a person - or trying to understand why we do what we do, some psychologists rely on an equally unscientific model of humans as puppets driven by genes, or by bits of the brain, as if our brain is separate from who we are. Such psychologists are always surprised to discover that we know more than we are consciously aware of, when to be conscious of everything we know would be to be overwhelmed by information.

Alongside all this, a vast amount of psychological research is into the trivial and the obvious (just look at the papers every day). This can occasionally be interesting or even useful but, like the psychologists who believe that we are all spiritual or all puppets, those who engage in such research are running away from what human beings really do. Consciously or unconsciously, we are all engaged in creating meaning: that is, interpreting what is happening around us.

Our interpretations determine what we do. Some of them we reveal to other people, but we do not pass on information, ideas or memes in a kind of "pass the parcel". Someone speaks to us and we create a personal version of what was said.

These interpretations can come from only one place: past experience. Since everyone's past experience is different, no two people can ever interpret anything in exactly the same way. There will be as many interpretations of this Comment and Analysis as there are readers of it

There will be as many interpretations of this article as there are readers of it.

The wealth and complexity of the scientific study of meaning, via the discipline of psychology, is immense. It should be relished, not run from. As yet we do not know how brain activity becomes meaning, how the firings of neurons translate into subjective experience. So the only fantasies we need right now are the kind that turn into testable hypotheses.

Dorothy Rowe is a psychologist and author of What Should I Believe? (Routledge)