Psychology Will Eat Itself

You probably never heard of the obscure jangle band “Jamie Wednesday”. But you might know a quote, from an interview with the band in 1986, predicting that cannibalization will be the downfall of pop music due to the endless recycling of old songs.

Pop did, indeed, start to eat itself. The first course was a rebranding, briefly, as Britpop (Oasis rewrote the words for, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”). But after Britpop came Simon Cowell, chef for the main course, and pop was subjected to the indignity of a public vote. Pop music became Cheryl Cole removing last night’s bhuna from the microwave to check for hotspots before serving it to Louis Walsh: “Ooh, it’s even cheekier the second time around isn’t it, pet?”

Psychology, like pop, will eat itself… psychology, at least the scientific study of psychology, will eat itself because it has become so utterly fixated on justifying its status as a scientific discipline it has forgotten why it existed in the first place. I say this with sadness, as a psychologist. I believe psychology is a science. I believe the world needs scientific rigour in understanding behaviour and its causes. The world needs psychology, but psychology will eat itself.

The discipline has had a problem with identity, with self-worth, for a long time. Maybe it’s the origins in introspectionsim and Freudian approaches. Maybe it’s that public consciousness has never really understood what modern, scientific, experimental psychology is all about. If there is widespread misunderstanding of psychological science, that isn’t the public’s fault. If a date doesn’t get that I am really a full on alpha male rather than a beta, tailor-made for the friend zone, that’s down to the vibe I’m sending out!

And so, today, we talk of participants rather than subjects but never really get the significance of the change in language: I suspect many think it’s pseudo-legal terminology introduced for insurance purposes. Few researcher psychologists have truly been comfortable in their simultaneously scientific and human skin. Many shed the latter at the lab door, and the researcher skin is typically harder and less sensitive than the human one, and senses participants as objects in the world, data on a sheet, or red blobs on a scan. Psychology got so fixated on avowing itself as science it forgot what it was about: people.

In the fields of the sciences, psychology occupies a certain turf. Unlike other sciences, in psychology you don’t have the luxury of pointing to something – a planet, an atom, a cucumber with ears – and saying, “you don’t understand that thing there, that’s science, that’s what I do”. In psychology, the “things” talk back. That’s especially true for studies of cognitive processes like memory, attention, language because, whether low or high level, human beings are reflexive. People are complex, fascinating, and importantly they are self-aware. That should be a boon to the field, but it has become its curse because psychology has never really shaken off the baggage of behaviourism and its objectification of subjective experience.

That fixation on proving scientific credentials is the root cause of the malaise. The English version of the patient has been symptomatic for many years: wrangling over HEFCE banding, an appropriate REF panel… I don’t know a colleague who hasn’t got a story of hostility amongst colleagues based on sub-disciplinary allegiances, or of PhD students bullying one another, reproducing their supervisor’s anxieties and prejudices. But the symptom that indicates that the case is now terminal is the vitriolic and downright nasty open science debate.

Look, no one in their right mind wants inaccurate data. No one wants fraudsters in science. Academia has sat passively while a system has been created where publication and citation are valued over ideas, diligence and ingenuity. That isn’t science – that is politicians and policy makers screwing up science. That is the marketisation and metrication of ideas, innovation and intelligence. How Trump would laugh to see academics turning on one another for p-hacking a study on power posing, while he can get on with denying climate change, inciting racism and grabbing pussies!

Replication. Yes, a lot of classic studies in psychology don’t replicate. What’s the big deal? The science moved on and, in case you haven’t noticed, the world isn’t standing still. Lots of old studies in physics, chemistry… in any science don’t replicate. Chemistry grew out of alchemy; medicine out of quackery. False findings happened not because the scientists were dishonest (although some were), they happened because the norms and standards for evidence changed, because subsequent generations of scientists respectfully challenged their predecessors, and maybe because the initial research wasn’t great after all. The history of science, all science, demonstrates that it is an organic and continually developing process with discoveries and revelations, breakthroughs and setbacks. Science, like life, is messy.

Yet we find ourselves in a cycle where replication is required for almost any formative study, any idea, any hypothesis (yes, I mean hypothesis) in psychology. Researchers have to register their work and earn badges to prove their credentials. This is not happening in other fields. It is happening in psychology (and¬†particular virtiol is directed against social psychology, unfairly caricatured as the “soft end”) because of the discipline’s angst about its objectivist credentials. There is a veritable industry of Simon Cowells, Mr Nastys (steroidy, white men), mob-policing the discipline without any interrogation of the grounds for their authority.

The future will happen elsewhere: disciplinary boundaries are breaking down because real problems need thought (and thinkers) to solve them, and thought is not owned by any discipline, scientist, social scientist, artist or person. Thinking develops and is evaluated through respectful debate, discussion and argument. That is absolutely not to say we should be casual with the truth or the facts. No, it is to say the good science is about good ideas and honest research. Those who stick to a rigid and constrictive science are missing the trick.  Academic disciplines and the boundaries between them mutate and always have done. And change, innovation is good. But psychology never really had the self-confidence to contribute in its own right Рit will eat itself.

Not all of psychology will be consumed. Some will be transformed, some will be reconstituted into its constituent ingredients. Clinicians will retreat into medicine and health sciences, social psychologists into sociology, and cognitive psychology is already reinventing as cognitive neuroscience (which enticingly includes the word science in its name but doesn’t hand over the keys to the wet lab). Either way, the integrated study of psychology, of behaviour and of cognition, emotion and self, that will go. Psychology will survive as an undergraduate entry or a vocational degree, but it will not retain its disciplinary autonomy as an area of research…

Pop ate itself, and no one under thirty tunes in to the X-factor any more. Psychology will eat itself on a diet of futile replication and reproducability… like Cheryl Cole’s reheated bhuna.