January 2, 2013

Psychology unite! (decoder rings sold separately)

I've always had issues with personality as a scientific concept. Especially when it is taught by lecturers and professors as if it, and it's subconcepts, are naturally existing. I should already clarify that "naturally existing" is a classification saved for concepts tied to things that would exist even without a conscious/independent mind (it will depend on your choice of favourite philosophy which you prefer, and it is unfortunately beyond this post to go too far into the philosophy on which it is based, which is a reason for me to stick to three main realms of knowledge, social constructionism, critical realism and positivism). I should also mention that I find it non-productive to discuss the point of view that all concepts tied to human activity as wholly socially constructed. The reason being that under that definition we ignore both vast amounts of unconscious processes, most often those shared with other animals, as well as our biological ancestry. If we developed from animals without (or lesser) capacity for conscious and lingual processing into animals with a greater capacity for those, then it would be foolish to ignore that those capacities developed on top of structures that, under a social construction definition, most likely would not pass its criteria for what exists and not. Personality is such a concept that I very much doubt to exist other than in the socially constructive realm. The correlations found in support of its existence are not smoke screens but are solely held up by virtue of social interaction itself. You can talk about behaviours belonging to a concept called extroversion, but, in my opinion, they are called upon by situational factors more so than an internally set characteristic. I base this opinion much so on the fact that I can behave very extrovertly in some situations and very introvertly in others and a better prediction of my behaviour is going to be based on the actual situational factors rather than what a personality test would say I am (disregard the fact that I am not convinced that the self actually exists or not.. yet.. see Bruce Hood, The Self Illusion for a thought-provoking perspective). At best, tests of personality tell the tester that this is the image/properties that the testee thinks he/she has and/or wishes to project to others. Even under this charitable definition there are considerable validity issues. For example, at its most general level, the image we wish to project to others and/or think we are is not equal to how we actually behave. One instance of this comes from that we are far less congruent in cognition and behaviour than we like to think. It is thus a real issue with personality that it only lives in the realm of social constructionism, it has no existence, necessarily, in a critical realist or positivist sense. In other words, there is no reflection in the part of reality existent without a conscious/independent mind. Because this concept has no reference point existentially, it will never be verified beyond its self-defined mechanism (which is inherent in anything denoted as a "concept"). So, why care about the ramblings of a mere master student of psychology in a country far far away? Because it has consequences beyond the war-torn concept of personality. It says something incredibly important about everything psychology has ever produced. "Is psychology a science?" and "Which departments within psychology are sciences and which are not?" are questions belonging to the infancy of the debate. It is futile and non-productive. All it does is to divide and create unnecessary conflict within a subject area that will hold the most important discoveries in the near future.

It is a foundational issue for psychology that it is rather easy to construct concepts from collections of behaviours, emotions and cognitions. You just need a pragmatic reason to do so, it need not reflect naturally occurring collected/related items. This type of critique is not usually limited to psychology but other subject areas have more rigorous checks and easier-to-spot red flags. In physics or chemistry, there is most often other ideas and knowledge that the new information needs to fit within. Because the objects of study are less ambiguous and more concretely defined, it is easier to understand if an idea is worth pursuing or not. In psychology, concepts are not as specifically defined because, among other reasons, the same behaviour (for example) in different contexts mean different things but can still be difficult to separate. Or, if looking at emotions it may sometimes be more useful to look at antecedents or consequences than the emotion itself (this specific example depends on your definition of emotion however, and I will refrain to delve deeper into it here). Also, the parts of reality psychological concepts are trying to cover usually contain yet other concepts and their definitions or parts of other concepts. Imagining circles partly covering eachother, even for distinctly defined concepts, there will be empty space covered or wanted information excluded). We, or perhaps you (since I don't have a doctorate yet), need to be more careful, as scientists, when we posit things to exist. Because ultimately, coming from another discipline, even with the most rudimentary psychological knowledge, you are going to question the actual existence of some theories and concepts just by their face validity. Especially coming from disciplines where it is more natural to think of the concepts under study as naturally existing anyways. Psychology is the most difficult discipline to live within because it contains all the different types of existences that exists (ha!). At the moment, we don't have this perspective on psychological concepts, we don't have this perspective on everything psychological. I believe we will do ourselves and others a favour if  we begin defining (and accepting) the concepts as socially constructed or whatever else. Because here is another important point, noting something as belonging to social construction, critical realism and positivism says very little about the value these concepts have for our understanding of the world. Rather, we can be honest with what we are working with, come to terms with that it is not psychology or any subdiscipline within the subject which is at fault, rather, it is all the information that psychological researchers have as their pet theories and want to naturally exist. This just is not the case and we would do ourselves a grand gesture to be clear to everyone else not doing psychological research if we were clearer in what realm we posit something to exist. Because it doesn't matter for the information's value. Also, it doesn't safeguard the more positivist or critical realist existing concepts from falsehood. Intellectual honesty is a virtue, in the sense that we should not pretend about how things exist in the world, and the more we all stand up together for it, the greater understanding will come from others too. So what about the practical aspects?

Well, unfortunately, @GrahamCLDavey reminds me of all the consequences that comes with that the word scientific carries with it an unfortunate amount of credit (read his post). It is important for gaining economic means if we define something as scientific or not, for practically anything we wish to research. Maybe we would do ourselves a disservice if we start calling things by their names, since the consequence could be that socially constructed theories get less funding than more critical realist or positivist ones. Here, however, we could unite the psychological discipline, stand strong together and argue the value information has does not depend on which realm it exists in, but rather, what the theories actually can predict and not, their pragmatic value, their functional value. Also, even if it has the unfortunate consequence mentioned above, it will in the long run give ourselves a more solid platform to stand on. To know that I am not positing something to actually exist naturally in the world, gives us a framework to put those ideas in, it gains us information and understanding about the concept we otherwise would be ignorant of and lastly we will know how this knowledge will be affected by newer information once that comes along. It may just safeguard us from making the mistake of seeing our knowledge and pet theories as something static and it may just gain psychology the honest credibility it deserves in everyone's eyes -not just our own.

*Update 07:48 5/1-13, full name on author of The Self Illusion.

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