A short blog on psychology from a sickly man

In my experience of psychology, its history is a series of dramatic swings where saviours appear on the scene to destroy supposed anti-scientific rivals. When Watson wrote his ‘Psychology as the Behaviourist Views it’ he attacked introspective psychology as being totally unscientific. This was a bit of an exaggeration. The introspective school was an improvement on the rationalist and empiricist philosophical schools because of its use of experiments and statistical generalisations of their results, and their recognition that all people don’t think or experience the world in the same way etc. Watson was right to criticise a lot of their work. For example, the fact that different labs were confirming the different theories of Titchner and Wundt, did show that something was badly wrong with the experimental techniques they used. But I think Watson went too far with his arguments that the study of introspection was unscientific. The work of people like Dennett and Evans, have in different ways, shown that we can gain scientific data from introspection if we are careful. Watson’s rhetoric was useful in one sense though; his emphasis on external behaviour, and behaviour modification did make science more practical. We can see this with the countless people with Intellectual Disability and Autism who have had their lives dramatically improved by Applied Behavioural Analysis.

But there were a lot of problems with behaviourism, for example the downplaying of introspective data, and notably the fact that they constantly attacked theory driven science. If one looks at physics, the most successful of the sciences, it is typically theory lead. There is nothing wrong with letting theory lead the way, as long as one modifies the theory when new data comes in.

One thing the behaviourists were not though was blank slate theorists. Watson famously made a very silly claim about modifying a child in any conceivable way using behavioural techniques. He ended his famous quote by admitting that it was a wild exaggeration of the facts, but that it was no worse than the exaggerations of Nativists in the opposite direction. But people like Pinker latched onto to Watson’s silly claim as evidence that behaviourists were blank slate theorists. But the quotes below from behaviourists Quine and Skinner clearly show that they were not blank slate theorists:

 “What can be said of innate dispositions now? When I posit an innate disposition I am assuming some specific though unspecified arrangement of cells or perhaps some combination of such arrangements. It could be a nerve tract or a gland. It could consist of several structures, variously situated in the organism. It could be one structure in one individual and some different and some different structure to the same specified effect in another individual. Its innateness consists in its being complete at birth…The innate dispositions, then, are a mixed bag: innate reflexes are learned in utero, while innate dispositions of deeper sorts are handed down in the chromosome. They are a mixed lot of structures, specified primarily by what they make the animal do in what circumstances, and grouped together by the accident of being complete at birth” (Quine ‘The Root’s of Reference’ p.13)

“Yet the innate sense of perceptual similarity has, for all its subjectivity, a degree of objective validity. After all, man’s inductive expectations are reached by extrapolating along the lines of perceptual similarity: experiences that begin similarly are expected to turn out in similar ways. Our innate standards of perceptual similarity show a gratifying tendency to run with the grain of nature. This concurrence is accountable, surely to natural selection. Since good prediction has survival value, natural selection will have fostered perceptual similarity standards in us and other animals that tend accordingly.” (ibid p.17)

“Descartes thought we had innate knowledge and innate ideas. Locke thought not. I despair of sharpening the issue by defining the term ‘idea’. Definition even of ‘knowledge’ is in trouble since Gettier’s challenge of the definition of knowledge as true warranted belief. However, we need no such sharpening of the issue to see that the evidence favours Descartes over Locke.” ( Quine: The Innate Foundational Endowments 1996)

“For, whatever we make of Locke, the behaviourist is knowingly and cheerfully up to his neck in innate mechanisms of learning-readiness…Since each learned response presupposes some such prior inequalities, some such inequalities, some such inequalities must be unlearned; hence innate. Innate biases and dispositions are the cornerstone of behaviourism, and have been studied by behaviourists.

The qualitative spacing of stimulations must therefore be recognised as an innate structure needed in accounting for any learning, and hence in particular, language learning. Unquestionably much more addition innate structure is needed to account for language learning” (Quine: ‘Philosophy and Linguistics’ p.37 1968)

“Just as we point out the contingencies of survival to explain an unconditioned reflex, so we point out to ‘contingencies of reinforcement to explain a conditioned reflex” ( Skinner 1974 p. 43)

“The task of a scientific analysis is to explain how the behaviour of the person is a physical system is related to the conditions under which the human species evolved, and the conditions under which the individual lives” (Skinner 1974 p. 14)

These quotes show the absurdity of the caricatures of used by Chomsky and Pinker. But it has to be said that Chomsky and Pinker’s caricatures of behaviourism were no worse than Watson’s caricatures of the introspective school of psychology.

I think that we are making progress in psychology but I think this constant talk of revolutionary paradigm shifts doesn’t help. I believe that thinking interms of integrating past knowledge and modifying our theories in light of new data is a better approach than painting older theorists as radically unscientific. Though who knows if people like Chomsky, Watson, etc didn’t play a bit dirty and exaggerate a bit things might not have changed.

I am not a behaviourist. If I had to attach an “ist” label to myself it would be pragmatist. I think psychology and linguistics would improve vastly if it adopted a more pragmatic attitude, making use of all empirical data instead of simply restricting itself to a particular school of thought. So called evolutionary psychology used the same rhetoric as the behaviourists and cognitive scientists. By labelling themselves as ‘evolutionary psychologists’, they instantly associated themselves with evolutionary theory, and implied that other psychologists were ignorant of evolutionary psychology and denied that our evolutionary history played any role in our psychology. This though is unfair; Skinner and Freud, for example, tried hard to integrate their theories with evolutionary science. There is no option but to be an evolutionary psychologist unless one is a creationist psychologist. But the term evolutionary psychologist should not be reserved for Cosmides, Tooby, and Pinker’s hyper modularity theory. We should be wary of falling for the simplifying rhetoric of evolutionary psychologists, which implies that psychologists who don’t agree with Pinker et al are anti evolutionary theory. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take home point. Don’t believe the hype of any psychologist, and look closely at the actual data.

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