Why doesn't the field of psychology have a unifying theory — and where can it get one?

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Biology has the theory of evolution. Physics has the theory of special relativity. Psychology has...?

Psychologists Andrew Wilson and Sabrina Golonka have written an excellent piece on the present state of their own field of study, its lack of a core theory, and why it's high time it got one. No matter your personal opinion of psychology — whether you're a research psychologist yourself or skeptical of the field's scientific merit — this post is a must read.

Included here is a short excerpt:

Psychology has a problem. We have no core theory to guide our research; no analogue to the theories of evolution or relativity. When particle physicists recently found that some neutrinos had apparently travelled faster than light, it never actually occurred to them that this is what had happened. On the basis of the extraordinarily well supported theory of relativity, everyone went 'huh, that's weird - I wonder what we did wrong?', and proceeded to use that theory to generate hypotheses they could then test. It would take a lot of fast neutrinos to disprove relativity.

Psychology, though, when faced with an empirical result that violates the laws of physics, can't find any principled reason to reject the result and instead spends a lot of time squabbling about whether Bem's result might possibly be true because 'quantum'. Worse, when people do replicate the experiment and fail to support the original result, they can't get their 'null result' published. It's a bit embarrassing, really.

One of the problems of having no core theory is that you can't simply rule things out as options. Psychologists almost all consider this a strength: we can pick and choose from a variety of mechanisms which enables us to cope with our messy and erratic subject matter. Can't imagine how perception can explain a result? Just hypothesise a mental representation to fill the gap. After all, no single theory is going to account for the opportunistic and idiosyncratic behaviour of people, so why limit ourselves? We tried that with behaviourism, and it got us nowhere. Let's stay flexible.

The problem with this approach is that psychology has gotten lazy; when you can't come up with a simple solution to your complex problem, you suggest a complex solution that fills all those pesky gaps, and never notice the gaps were a bit weird to begin with (Costall, 1984). Representations can solve everything if they contain the solution, and thus they explain nothing at all.


Read the rest over at PsychScientists.

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