Anyone who's read this blog before knows that Andrew and I are fairly opinionated about what we think is right and wrong with psychology research. This isn't about small effect sizes or falsified data, which are currently popular (and valid) concerns. It's about the the types of questions psychologists usually ask and whether they are useful and likely to move the discipline forward. These questions are dominated by constructs - self esteem, prejudice, working memory capacity, intelligence, motivation - to the point where an alien reading a psychology journal would be forgiven for assuming that the point of psychology was to understand constructs, not people.
Psychologists ask questions about constructs because the dominant theoretical paradigm (cognitive psychology) says that mental states play a causal role in behaviour and that, to understand how people work, you have to understand the content of these states and the nature of the cognitive processes that operate on them. This doesn't sound crazy. Even though I think cognitive psychology is a fatally flawed paradigm (see here, here, and here), I am enculterated enough in mainstream psychology that this doesn't automatically sound like a bad way of doing things. And anyway, I'm done doing active battle against cognitive psychology, so this post isn't to re-hash what I've written about elsewhere. Instead, I want to lay out what I think psychology should be doing. The idea is simple, but it's radically different from the mainstream.
Here's the claim:
Information is the primary external cause of behaviour. If psychology is going to make any real progress, it must be grounded in a thorough analysis of the types of information available and the mechanisms by which information is used to control or precipitate behaviour.
Here's the argument:
Let's say that a behaviour is any potentially observable activity that does not have a mechanical cause (e.g., raising my hand is a behaviour, having my arm raised by a robot is not).
And, let's say that the goal of psychology is to create models that explain behaviour. These models should enable us to predict behaviour, to understand why it has the form it has, and to provide the basis for predicting novel results and changing / manipulating behaviour. What's the best method for reaching this goal?
Answering this requires first identifying potential non-mechanical causes of behaviour. There are two main places to look for potential causes - things outside of an organism and things inside of an organism. Outside of an organism there is structure in energy and chemical arrays. Structure in light, sound, magnetic fields, molecules. For animals with the right kind of receptors (e.g. retinas), this structure is potentially informative about the world. Information is defined as structure in energy arrays that is used to control or precipitate behaviour.
Information is the primary external cause of behaviour*.
Understanding information is what psychologists should be doing. This is the right starting point for psychology because it includes most external causes of behaviour and clarifies the roles of internal contributors to behaviour. Brains and bodies are important because they define an organism's ability to detect and use information. Questions about brains and bodies should be about these problems. Comparisons between the brains and bodies of different organisms should be about these problems.
*External mechanical events can change our brains and bodies (e.g., via damage). Ingesting substances (e.g., via eating) can change our brains and bodies by virtue of the chemical properties of the substances, which may cause harm, be used by the body to carry out vital processes, or alter gene expression. So, external mechanical events can change the nature of the internal contributors, which can alter behaviour. Understanding these events will be useful in clarifying why brains and bodies are the way they are for a particular organism in a particular task. However, this is a step removed from the main goal of psychology.
The perception-action literature following on from Gibson's Ecological Psychology is one good example of psychologists taking information seriously. This literature is useful because it has already begun the work of investigating how one type of information - perceptual information - is used to control or precipitate behaviour and because it illustrates a research strategy that can be used to investigate other types of information. Andrew and I recently wrote a paper explaining how this research strategy could be applied to any area of psychology, not just perception-action (Embodied cognition is not what you think it is).
The field of possible information types, however, is much larger than just perceptual information. To begin getting a handle on this I have created an information taxonomy in which information types can be defined along a number of dimensions. The dimensions, themselves, are defined in terms of the relationship between the world (the structure in light, sound, etc) and the organism. Structure in energy or chemical arrays is classified as an information type by looking at the first person perspective of a particular organism in a particular task.
The major dimensions are: detection (does an organism have to learn to detect the information?), learning (does the organism have to learn to use the information?), and aboutness (is the information about the thing in the world that caused it or is it about something else?). There are some potential minor dimensions, most importantly, continuity (does the information precipitate an action or is it used in the continuous control of action?).
For more info see here and here.
This taxonomy provides, for example, a basis for distinguishing structure that precipitates reflexes from that used to pick up a coffee cup or to engage in a conversation. It also provides a basis for comparing animals in terms of their ability to use various information types.
One of the most appealing things about this new framework is that it is doable. The information taxonomy provides a principled basis for a large-scale project cataloging animal behaviour in terms of information types. A similar project needs to be done comparing structural brain differences between animals with access to different information types. Not to mention, the very large volume of empirical work (based on our four step research strategy) that needs to be done with people.
We also co-hosting a special topic in Frontiers in Human Cognition on Radical Embodied Cognitive Neuroscience. And, if you have any ideas about topics you'd like to see tackled, please leave a comment here.