Monday 12 April 2010

It's not just us, honest

I need to put together posts on Heft and a couple of other points, but we've been noticing more and more examples of people expressing the same worry we have - that psychology is no longer a field with theories, merely phenomena. A couple of links that came our way this week:

The APS Observer has an article interviewing several intro textbook authors, asking them how they think the field has changed. Many commented on the lack of a single theoretical structure, and the way psychologists define themselves with respect to phenomena: 'I study memory' vs. 'I'm a behaviourist'. No one really noted that this was a bad thing: in fact, the multiplicity of 'perspectives' is broadly seen as a strength; these perspectives include evolutionary psychology, positive psychology, etc. (My thought: none of these are theories in the Kuhnian sense.)

Second - I haven't had a chance to read this Glenberg article yet, but the opening paragraph reads
Why is progress slow in psychology? Perhaps it is because there is so little agreement among the content areas (e.g., cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, social, and so on), or perhaps, as Mischel speculates, the drive for individual recognition and theory development precludes a cumulative advance. A third, but related, possibility is that areas do not talk the same language; they do not have the same organizing principles and metaphors, and hence it is difficult to ascertain commonalities in approach, data, and theory.
That's about it: no single theory, everyone desperate to have a theory named after them, and Kuhnian incommensurability. Glenberg is going to suggest embodied cognition is the way to unite psychology. but ironically this field is just as fractured and in the same way as psychology in general. New Scientist had an article about embodied cognition just recently but it's about research I wouldn't rate that highly: research showing that things we think about have measurable consequences on our bodies (eg random number generation influencing eye movements, or this rubbish suggesting mental time travel influences posture). I tend to think embodied cognition should entail ecological ideas: consequences for cognition from the type of organism that we are, not the other way round.

Glenberg, A. M. (2010). Embodiment as a unifying perspective for psychology. Cognitive Science. DOI: 10.1002/wcs.55.


  1. I think it's really interesting that most people don't identify the lack of theory as a weakness in psychology. Without theory, it seems to me, psychology isn't a science (in the capital S sense), it's a collection of phenomena that we study using scientific methods.

  2. You'll need to expand on your dislike of embodied cognition - I don't understand what you think is rubbish? In Lynden's experiment is it the method you dislike, or only the Psych Science-esque spin put on the results? I mean, the bottom line of embodied cognition is that we can interpret what the brain is doing by examining behavior, no?

  3. No. The bottom line of embodied cognition is not that behaviour reflects cognition, as evidenced by the fact that even non-embodiment people think this, because it's trivially the case that this is true. Embodied cognition is actually the hypothesis that the types of bodies we have have non-trivial consequences for the types of cognition we do.

    An example: The architecture of the arm 'processes' information required for control, not via computation but just by being built the way it is rather than any other way. It therefore only looks like its processing, and it changes what's required from a cognitive control system.

    I'm actually all for embodied cognition. But Lynden's experiment (besides having methodological flaws coming out of everywhere: I mean, one marker on the knee? Which bends forward when you sway back? And therefore is moving in the opposite direction their interpretation says? etc) is conceptually flawed too. Why on earth would a system sway forward when thinking about the future? If they were right and the sway was a linear function of how far forward you were thinking about, at what point do you fall over?

    The problem is that there is no naturalised reason to think that postural sway would reflect thinking about the past or future, because that's not the kind of thing postural sway is 'for' or 'about'. These effects, in which a movement supposedly reflects some metaphor embedded in the task, have the embodiment question completely backwards: it's not 'what does cognition do to bodies?', it's 'what do bodies do for cognition?'

    And while I do firmly believe 'embodied cognition' is going to form part of any overall theory of psychology, I was just identifying the problem that even the concept of embodied cognition suffers from the phenomena-based, investigator-ego problems Glenberg notes about psychology.