Psychology: Thinking Small or Big?


I’ve been reading, preparing, and engrossing myself in the works of three Sydney-based researchers: Drs. Richard Bryant (UNSW), Max Coltheart (Macquarie), and Joe Forgas (UNSW).  In various ways each has developed scholarship demonstrating how our thoughts and the generation of those thoughts are affected by our emotions. Psychology has some history regarding these topics. Or, more specifically, the way our field has developed is that emotional expression and mood are generally studied separately in the sub–discipline of social Psychology. Cognition and thought processes are studied in the discipline of cognitive psychology and its more current cousin, cognitive-neuroscience. More severe, intense emotions, such as those that are suffered at the expense of trauma, are encompassed in clinical Psychology.

At the onset of the field in the late 19th/early 20th century, influential thinkers from Wilhelm Wundt to William James thought and wrote about the intersection of thought and emotion. They carefully noted their personal phenomenology and the interactions of these conscious experiences as they were expressed in their thoughts and behaviors. As the field progressed, a certain kind of practicality set in and (especially) experimental Psychology pressed towards a more reductionist approach. Instead of asking big questions with multiple domains of influence spanning affect and cognition, and all the related variables that might be required, Psychology’s influential thinkers started to work smaller and more mechanistically. We asked, what are the tiny pieces, the very subtlest of influences that produce causation affecting thought and behavior? Can we isolate that specific cognitive process for letter or word identification, that specific bit of neural circuitry for happiness, that one key factor that makes trauma so severe? In an effort to get a hold of something real, palpable, and controllable Psychology went small to isolate the most volatile and influential bits of the brain and mind.

That reductionism has been beneficial. Psychology reduced itself from an exponentially complicated field (when one considers the nearly infinite set of variable interactions possible when variables are not isolated) to a potentially testable one. To make Psychology testable we isolated, we simplified, and we reduced every way we could so that the complexity of thought and behavior could be subjected to scientific observation. Hallelujah.

While reductionism has produced a wealth of understanding, we also acknowledge the leap from a minimalist controlled lab study to real-world  behaviors. There is a speculative leap from the sensation of a small quanta of light to a full scene, and another leap from that full visual scene to the phenomenology of that scene set again a social circumstance with all manner of cultural and individual variables. How does a motor vehicle accident affect one’s life? It isn’t just a cognitive problem or a change in emotions, or a change in sociability. It may be all of those things and more. How does a romantic involvement change a person? Does it affect one’s social life? Yes. One’s thoughts and decisions? Absolutely. One’s emotions? Sure. One’e mental health, capacity for complex thought, the pattern and use of verbal expressions of language, sleep patterns, arousal patterns, dietary approaches and habits are all affected by a romantic relationship. What about a new job? Or a new child? Or any infinite number of things new and old that we interact with on a daily basis. When we consider the spectra of human existence, historically Psychology has emphasized that which was possible to control and accepted that there was much more complexity awaiting consideration.

After years of developing a science of reductionism and simplification to produce an isolated understanding, our more recent history has featured a return to bigger, more complex situations. We’ve moved  to asking questions that integrate domains and bring back the messiness that Psychology. As Joe Forgas demonstrates time and time again, the bigger and more complex the decision, the greater the influence of a person’s mood on that judgment. It is cognition through the lens of affect. As Richard Bryant demonstrates, following a trauma a person’s mood and well-being may take any number of trajectories: from a slow return to well-being, to a delayed and dramatic turn towards processing trauma and depression months or years after an incident. His work has shaped an understanding of trauma, grief, and  stress through the lens of cognitive processes. As Max Coltheart demonstrates, even the very fabric of that known reality may be shaped by mood and emotional state. In understanding everything from the mysterious Capgras syndrome (i.e., the delusion that everyone in one’s life is actually an impostor) to mirrored self-misidentification (i.e., the delusion that the person one sees in the mirror is a stranger who mimics one’s every move) to the interacting modules of the mind that might promote reading, Coltheart sees the interaction of belief states with arousal systems, and the presentations of context influencing behaviors.

In the past 40 years of Psychology we have embraced a more discipline fluid approach, borrowing furiously across domains as we ironically splintered farther and farther afield. The move to embracing these domain-crossing paradigms has produced some amazing findings. From the neuroscience of morality to the ways that bilingualism might help sustain the brain and make it resistant to Alzheimer’s disease, to the importance of sleep for treating and reducing susceptibility to mental illness: thinking big and broad has opened up news avenues of approach in Psychology. But there is also risk. There are findings that are wild and seem to be too good to be true. In point of fact,  the continuing progress of Psychology has been to support some amazing effects (e.g., inattentional blindness, IAT) and to demonstrate the irreplicability of others.  We now find ourselves in a kind of crisis of replication wherein several modern day classic findings may have depended on a small, and/or seemingly biased sample or an unspecified (previously unrecognized) confounding variable. The emphasis on going big created a vulnerability for the weird and awe-inspiring that might be possible and implausable. As a science  built on the statistical likelihood of phenomena, there should always be some findings that are anomalous,  but most experiments, most of the time should  prove valid.

Psychology is at a cross-roads wherein we’ve seen time and time again that cutting across our subdisciplines leads to new and fascinating grounds for discovery. Thoughts and behaviors are messy, uncontrollable and always fraught with variables that are difficult to anticipate and harder to account for.  It is both natural and statistically inevitable that some findings will not replicate. But hasn’t  that always been the path of science? Reach for discovery? Take a step forward and then spend  the next 10 years evaluating the meaning of that discovery, its validity, its applicability, its real value? The influential scholars of our recent history seem to demonstrate the power of thinking broadly and integrating across the physical and social sciences.  More and more as I speak with people and read the state of their work, I also have a sense of great change coming to Psychology. We are changing our standards requesting more representative samples and more transparent approaches to data analysis. We are being influenced the access to a behavioral economics approach, big data, and computational power that makes the once impossible data collection both accessible and viable. And Psychology became the most popular social science — with more than a million introductory Psych students every year in North America and record numbers becoming Psychology majors and entering professional Psychology. The field seems to be in a position of flux and, if the influential scholars I’ve been speaking with on this journey are a good indication, the path forward will cut across the sub-disciplines.


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