Psychology now and then


With increasing frequency I’ve been speaking  with amazing scholars about their lives, their journey’s to Psychology, and the contributions that they’ve made to this discipline. I’ve now traveled 27,000 mi/43,000 km from New Jersey to Boston, from  Boston to Montreal, from Montreal to Toronto, from Toronto to Ohio, from Ohio to Wisconsin and Iowa, through Illinois, across South Dakota to Utah, up to Seattle, down through Oregon in to the San Francisco Bay Area. From there this journey went to Sydney, Australia and over to Aukland, NZ. I drove south across the North Island to Wellington, NZ, ferried across to Picton, and continued south to Christchurch. A short(ish)  flight later we continued traveling to Melbourne, then up the west coast of Australia to catch a flight back to California from Sydney. Over the past two weeks we’ve made our way south to Santa Barbara and Los Angeles and will continue across the southwest in the weeks ahead until we catch our flight to London.

I think my understanding of Psychology has evolved since the start of this journey. No, that is insufficient. Rather, this journey has been mind-blowing, and often feels revelationary. It has required thousands of hours reading articles, historical news clippings, books, and essays from those scholars targeted during this journey (and often the publications of their mentors and colleagues).  Whatever journey my body traversed, my mind has been transported tenfold as I’ve sought to gain passing competence in the rich and varied subdisciplines of Psychology. And, more importantly, I’ve had the opportunity to engage and encourage reflections on Psychology from some of the most outstanding thinkers and creative scholars of our generation.

During the decades from the start of the second half of the 20th century until now the changes have been dramatic. While once nearly every experimental student in Psychology was looking to B.F. Skinner, Clark Hull, and Jean Piaget as the basis for their research, and every clinical student reading Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers for the best interventions, the distinctive fingerprints of those esteemed scholars have begun to fade, their ideas now becoming quaint, and Psychology has splintered.

The American Psychological Association (APA) which began in 1892, saw the formation of new central organizations to accommodate emerging scholarly areas. The Psychonomic Society began in 1959 and the Association for Psychological Science was started in 1988 — both continuing to operate and supporting thousands of members around the world.  The APA, itself, continued to complex from a monolithic to a vast network of more than 50 active divisions. Flagship journals like Journal of Experimental Psychology (1919-1975) first divided into three separate publications to accommodate expanding areas of expertise with the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition which is different in aims and content from Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance and Journal of Experimental Psychology: General;  and then two more versions of this journal were added in the 1990’s to meet the needs with a Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied and a  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition.  Much more recently the open-sourced publication Frontiers (started in 2007) and it currently hosts no fewer than 16 sub-topic journals in Psychology, from Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience to Quantitative Psychology and Measurement. 

Psychology continues to be the field of thought and behavior — that has been a constant. Browsing studies from the 1940’s until today we saw the number of animal behavioral studies diminish, and a greater embrace of human behavioral/behavioral neuroscience studies. We saw the rise of mathematical and computational approaches; there has been a larger and increasingly representative inclusion of participants to address issues of gender and ethnicity, age and culture, SES and genetics.  We saw the psychology of developmental stages morph into a psychology of an age-related continuum, blurred boundaries and context dependent life-changes. We saw new techniques in clinical practice and changes in what we were diagnosing; new optimism in a post-WWII generation found a home in positive Psychology; and we sought to better support/embrace diversity in Psychology with an understanding of how that diversity can create strength and yet also create obstacles.

And we saw studies start to get larger. Larger research teams, supporting more students — requiring larger grants — met with better tools like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and calls for better representativeness to improve the validity of studies.  Whatever the state of Psychology, that state is dynamic, it is constantly remaking itself, and it is rapidly growing. While in the 1950’s Psychology graduated approximately 10,000 students annually, today that number is exponentially greater, with more than 100,000 new psychology graduates annually and more than 1,000,000 students enrolled each year in Introduction to Psychology courses across North American. (Also, if all the millions of you could buy this much anticipated book on the modern history of Psychology through the voices of its influential scholars when it is available, that would just be swell!)

Psychology is growing and it is complexing. Our areas of expertise and the networks of our collaborative peer-groups have thinned while our ranks, journals, and potential avenues of discourse have swelled. The voices of Psychology have demonstrated time and time again the subtle, yet critical influence of our current state (e.g., what we think about our lifespan, our closeness to others, our place in the world, our current desires) and how that state is instantiated in neural and mathematical needs constraining our future behaviors. At our core we have a body, we protect and nourish that body through our physical, social, and (increasingly) cyber interactions, and our Psychology echoes that interaction between body and environment. In moving from a rat model of an animal running in a maze in the infancy of our field, to an undergraduate student participant model with heavy-reliance on convenience sampling, to a broad-based community model in our participant samples we have made Psychology more personal. More valid. We’ve witnessed how a self-image of gender, or community, or ethnicity changes the experience of our own body and its needs for connection, safety, and nourishment.

Psychology has become more complex as it has become more personal. Isn’t that always the way? We see more of our own complexity than we see in the people around us. We see more complexity in the groups and communities with which we identify than in the groups we identify as others (e.g., people in my religion are diverse, the people in that religion are the same; my political affiliation is diverse, that other one is all the same; the region I live in is diverse, the people in that place are all the same). The closer we look at an issue and the more connected we feel towards it, the more complexity it reveals to us.

It is in this context that the systems of modern Psychology seem to have emerged.  The sub-fields interact and pull on each other even as they spread  further apart in their practice — a vast system of intertangled webs.

If the psychology of then (somewhere 150 years ago) was the psychology habit, reaction, and trending towards the mean, the psychology of the modern day is that of the continuum, the person, the dynamic state. If the psychology of then stressed our constancy, the psychology of now seems to stress our transience. If the psychology of then was to determine a final, stable truth, the psychology of now demonstrates only the process itself is more valid than any end-state.

Heisenberg noted that the very process of observing a system changes it right at the level of the smallest particles. Today, now, in  Psychology, we have tried to observe ourselves, and we have seen our changes in glorious detail. Would Heinsenberg laugh?

(Photo credit to Alexis Yael of a Spider’s web interconnecting aged wooden posts somewhere near Sydney, Australia)

3 thoughts on “Psychology now and then

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