Thursday 10 November 2011

Theory, and Why It's Time Psychology Got One

Psychology has a problem. We have no core theory to guide our research; no analogue to the theories of evolution or relativity. When particle physicists recently found that some neutrinos had apparently travelled faster than light, it never actually occurred to them that this is what had happened. On the basis of the extraordinarily well supported theory of relativity, everyone went 'huh, that's weird - I wonder what we did wrong?', and proceeded to use that theory to generate hypotheses they could then test. It would take a lot of fast neutrinos to disprove relativity.

Psychology, though, when faced with an empirical result that violates the laws of physics, can't find any principled reason to reject the result and instead spends a lot of time squabbling about whether Bem's result might possibly be true because 'quantum'. Worse, when people do replicate the experiment and fail to support the original result, they can't get their 'null result' published. It's a bit embarrassing, really.

One of the problems of having no core theory is that you can't simply rule things out as options. Psychologists almost all consider this a strength: we can pick and choose from a variety of mechanisms which enables us to cope with our messy and erratic subject matter. Can't imagine how perception can explain a result? Just hypothesise a mental representation to fill the gap. After all, no single theory is going to account for the opportunistic and idiosyncratic behaviour of people, so why limit ourselves? We tried that with behaviourism, and it got us nowhere. Let's stay flexible.

The problem with this approach is that psychology has gotten lazy; when you can't come up with a simple solution to your complex problem, you suggest a complex solution that fills all those pesky gaps, and never notice the gaps were a bit weird to begin with (Costall, 1984). Representations can solve everything if they contain the solution, and thus they explain nothing at all. An example of this comes from the prehension literature: when reaching, people accelerate their hands to a peak speed that occurs ~70% of the way through the reach. To explain this stable timing, researchers like Jeannerod postulated motor programmes that simply instructed the system to reach this way; they just took the structure of the reach and placed it in a representation. This explains nothing: the structure in the reach is caused by the structure in the representation, but what caused the structure in the representation? This question got more complicated as it became clear that the details of the temporal structure of prehension emerge in real time as a function of the task; suddenly you needed a different programme for every different situation! The answer actually requires a careful analysis of the affordances of the task (e.g. Mon-Williams & Bingham, 2011). This, however, is hard.

This laziness and lack of discipline leads people to try and combine arguments and mechanisms that simply aren't compatible with one another. Do you like embodiment, but can't see how cognition can occur without representation? Let's have embodied representations! As Louise Barrett's book makes clear, however, this type of approach does nothing but make you miss the actual embodied solution. Her account of the wonderfully sophisticated behaviour of the Portia spider talks about how people first explained their ability to navigate via detours in terms of 'insight'; they sit and scan their environment and then suddenly move off in the right direction as if they had planned their route. The form of the scanning behaviour itself, however, is critical, and careful experiments that break the information they are looking for have shown that Portia scans and moves according to simple rules that lead to the right solution (like the 'linear optical trajectory' solution to the outfielder problem). Tony Chemero also lays out the fact that embodiment and representations come from irreconcilable schools of thought quite clearly; so not only is it bad science, it's incoherent to begin with. We simply can't keep picking and choosing the easiest explanations; it's time to invest the time and effort required to uncover what's actually going on. It's time to spend some time working within the confines of a real theory.

Theory in Science
As I try to teach my students, the role of theory in science is to provide structure to your data. A good theory rules explanations in and out, and if it rules out the wrong explanation that will become clear over time as you pursue your theory guided research. Good science means a) restricting your explanatory mechanisms to include things your theory allows, and b) keeping an eye on how well that's working out for you, while c) allowing yourself to rest on your well supported theory to resist breaking the rules as long as you can. When creationists say 'we can't see how the chambered eye could possibly have evolved, it's far too complex', biologists are entitled to say 'well, we have evidence that lots and lots of other things have evolved, let's see if we can figure out how the eye did it, and in the meantime, we're going to operate on the assumption that it did evolve until we have strong evidence to the contrary'. No-one except creationists complain about this; it's perfectly healthy science.

In psychology, when Bem publishes a paper that rests on the assumption of information travelling backwards in time, I get told off for simply ruling out his explanation for his data on the basis that a) it's physically impossible and b) 'quantum' isn't a get out of jail free card for (a). According to my anonymous debater, it's bad science to rule things out that don't fit my theories of how things work, because I might be wrong. Yes, I might be wrong: but good hypothesis driven science will eventually reveal this if it is, indeed, the case, and that's what the scientific method is for. I am actually allowed to rest on the well supported theory of relativity that describes why Bem's explanation is is impossible and simply reject the explanation out of hand. This doesn't make me close minded, this makes me a scientist. If neutrino research actually manages to break relativity, then I will reconsider; in the meantime, Bem is simply cheating and I'm calling him out for it. 

Ecological Psychology
I think the closest psychology has to a decent actual theory of behaviour is Gibson's ecological psychology; this is Chemero's bet too. It proposes very specific hypotheses to explain behaviour; these hypotheses contain suggested mechanisms (specifically, information and affordances) to support behaviour, and suggests ways to empirically test these hypotheses. These tests have been very successful (e.g. my work in coordinated rhythmic movement, and the success of the three key predictions of the perception-action model, not to mention affordance research coming out of everywhere).

Because of these successes, I am able to use this theory to generate predictions about other behaviours like catching a fly ball). There are two ways to achieve a goal related to the future state of things: prediction, and prospective control. The former entails taking the current conditions and using these to predict future conditions, then acting on the basis of that prediction. The latter entails coupling your behaviour to specific aspects of current conditions, and letting the future solution emerge as you engage in perceptually controlled behaviour. The ecological approach rules out the former as an option, and goes looking for evidence of the latter. My work based on this theory will either work or it won't; but at least I'll be able to tell the difference, if my empirical work is theoretically constrained.

The Cost of No Theory
Psychologists hate ruling things out - they just love leaving the door open to 'both solutions are probably used', because they have no particular reason to rule anything out. But this has a huge cost: psychology becomes a mere collection of empirical results, with nothing tying them together. Results from the different disciplines can't inform each other, because they aren't testing the same things. This is currently most clear to me in the gulf between embodied cognition and cognitive neuroscience. Neuroscience finds computation and representation only because it's looking for computation and representation: no-one is asking non-computational, non-representational questions or interpreting data in that light, so there's nothing in the neuroscience literature that informs my science.

This fragmentation means psychology is doing nothing but running in empirical circles: there's nothing resembling progress. All you get are individuals with their own collection of hunches running their own experiments on their own little experimental phenomena. Psychology needs to pick a side, suck it up and get on with some normal science for a change. Taking embodiment seriously is the first step. Taking perception seriously is the second. Using dynamical systems to describe these things is not a bad idea either. Our empirical successes are mounting, whenever anyone bothers to go looking - Gibson and embodied cognition seem a healthy place to start, because representational approaches simply don't rule anything out and thus can't help.

And the beauty of a period of serious normal science is that if we invest some serious time pushing the theory, looking for cracks, and resisting the temptation to jump ship at the first sign of trouble, we will end up in a better place no matter how it pans out. If the theory breaks, it will have been broken honestly, and for good reasons. If the theory holds up, we will have achieved a lot of progress and begun to act like a real science for a change. This is why the scientific method is awesome: because it works, bitches.

Costall, A. P. (1984). Are theories of perception necessary? A review of Gibson's 'The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception'. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 41(1), 109-115. Download

Mon-Williams, M. & Bingham, G.P. (2011). Discovering affordances that determine the spatial structure of reach-to-grasp movements. Experimental Brain Research, 211(1), 145-160.  Download


  1. "Tony Chemero also lays out the fact that embodiment and representations come from irreconcilable schools of thought quite clearly; so not only is it bad science, it's incoherent to begin with."

    Not trying to be annoying though but couldn't you argue along these lines: the brain is far too complex for us to understand, we can however come up with models that work some of the time. Representations work some of the time and embodied cognition works some of the time, sometimes they even interact, even though they're irreconcilable, like wave-partical duality in physics.

    I just made that up and it's completely hand-wavey. But I'm sure some people do agree with it. And after all the brain is very complex...

  2. P.S I meant wave-particle obviously. I can spell. Except when I can't. Wave-particles again.

  3. You might enjoy some remarks by Sydney Lamb, a linguist, from an old post of mine on so-called pleasure centers in the brain:

    Sydney Lamb begins Pathways of the Brain with a story about his daughter (p. 1):

    Some years ago I asked one of my daughters, as she sat at the piano, "When you hit that piano key with your finger, how does your mind tell your finger what to do?" She thought for a moment, her face brightening with the intellectual challenge, and said, "Well, my brain writes a little note and sends it down my arm to my hand, then my hand reads the note and knows what to do." Not too bad for a five-year old.

    Lamb goes on to suggest that an awful lot of professional thinking about the brain takes place in such terms (p. 2):

    This mode of theorizing is seen in ... statements about such things as lexical semantic retrieval, and in descriptions of mental processes like that of naming what is in a picture, to the effect that the visual information is transmitted from the visual area to a language area where it gets transformed into a phonological representation so that a spoken description of the picture may be produced....It is the theory of the five-year-old expressed in only slightly more sophisticated terms. This mode of talking about operations in the brain is obscuring just those operations we are most intent in understanding, the fundamental processes of the mind.

    I agree with Lamb whole-heartedly. My impression is that most of the neuroscientific effort goes into getting observations – using some really cool technology too – but when it comes to thinking about what's going on, the inner child just takes over – and a rather dim one at that.

    1. I wouldn't suggest that "most of the neuroscientific effort" ends up that way. Perhaps that is the case with cognitive neuroscience, and I know that is frequently the case with cognitive psychology, but it has been my view when I have read these things that the people simply have no clue what they're talking about and can't really be considered neuroscientists. There are neuroscientists who've studied vision and established at least one mechanism by which different firing patterns code visual information, and specified the code used in their animals for basic positional and orientational information. There are neuroscientists that study the specific gene expression that results from te process of conditioning - many of those details have already been explained. I think that statements like "phonological representation" are either used so that the authors don't have to go into a ridiculously long explanation of a more appropriate hypothesis of coding, especially as it isn't their area of expertise, or it is an indication that they don't actually know anything about brain and neural network research (I would hope the former). I dislike that they use such phrasing, rather than simply stating things in a more direct and testable manner, but I don't think it can be attributed to "most of the neuroscientific effort."

  4. Great post. I agree generally with this

    "This fragmentation means psychology is doing nothing but running in empirical circles: there's nothing resembling progress. All you get are individuals with their own collection of hunches running their own experiments on their own little experimental phenomena"

    I don't know about the specifics wrt embodied cognition. I'll have to take it on consideration.

  5. @Neuroskeptic
    Not to get too hooked up on the analogy, but quantum gets to be weird like that because it's about stuff our notions of 'weird' and 'normal' can't handle. Psychology doesn't have that luxury, and incompatibility like this matters.

    People do theorise like this in psychology; people love to pick and choose and they call it a strength because of all the flexibility it provides. This post is about what I think it's really a weakness because it provides so much flexibility you can never be wrong. That's bad science, in my book (and Karl Popper's :)

    Love it! I'm inclined to agree too, and it's nice to see I'm not the only person being rude about this :)

  6. I'm not so enamored of Lamb's derisive analogy of his daughter's analysis and that of supposedly naive professionals. The daughter's description seems to me to exhibit some pretty sophisticated thinking. She intuits that the essence of an intention is an action and hypothesizes that effecting the action requires communication between the intending brain and the executing muscles. That she describes the process as sending a pictographic representation of the note to the location of the relevant muscles in order to initiate execution seems merely wrong guesses about representational medium and neural topology.

    Lamb's description of verbal description of a picture by the naive professional:

    the visual information is transmitted from the visual area to a language area where it gets transformed into a phonological representation so that a spoken description of the picture may be produced

    strikes me as a arguably poorly worded - but not totally ridiculous - description of what the process may very well be like. My alternative description, something like:

    Conceptually, neural activity consequent to visual sensory input could be considered input to some (as yet not understood) mapping of immediate sensory input and recent contextual input to pre-determined (by genetics and conditioning) responsive actions, possibly verbal expressions.

    seems to me to capture the essence of the professionals' derided description. So, if it's obviously ridiculous, I'd very much appreciate a detailed explanation why.

    Where I do agree that the descriptions of the five year old, the supposedly naive professional, and me all go wrong is that contrary to what I think Andrew and presumably other eco-psych types are promoting, those descriptions are all essentially discrete. Eg, as applied to the fly ball they would involve assessing the scene at a point in time, predicting the ball's path, determining an intercept trajectory (based on sensory input, context, and history) and executing that trajectory (while praying for success). The seemingly obvious and better alternative is an adaptive control system which - like mechanical homing interceptors - updates continuously based on observations, thereby correcting errors in real time. Not being much of a musician (despite numerous attempts), I can't say for sure, but my guess is that even sounding a note (or more to the point, a sequence) involves a lot of adaptive control. Or in terms of my description, both the sensory input, the context (AKA, environment), and the execution are actually continuously time-varying.

  7. I left the field and a tenure-track job in 1994.

    Now I know why.

  8. I'd say evolutionary psychology is an attempted overarching theory of psychology, but it certainly needs a lot more time to develop, and unfortunately I don't see it ruling out problems like Bem's study (but I think that is better left to physics, anyway). I also don't see how ecological psychology would rule out Bem's study, either.

  9. Agreed with Saint Gasoline - I don't see how Eco Psych provides an any more principled reason to reject the Bem work than representational Psych. But more importantly, as far as I'm concerned, you misrepresent Jeannerod's work a bit here - representations aren't just postulated to be inherent or just a magic black box - they emerge through practice. The 70% value worked well last time (better than the 80%, or whatever you used when you used when you were learning to grasp in your infancy), so it has become the new default or stereotyped baseline. And, as pretty much all Psych is performed on practiced, fully grown adults, it is hard to say what the inherent solution to the problem is (and, if we generally learn to do it a certain way, should we even care...?)

  10. It would never occur to an ecological psychologist to run Bem's study, which is premised on the idea that cognitive content can arrive in the mind by bypassing perception. There's no informational mechanism, so the question would never come up. (This fact bugs people, like the commenter I linked too - stopping the question ahead of time rubs some people the wrong way. It's what theories do, though, and they are either right or wrong to do so. This then comes out over time).

    In addition, ecological psychology takes very seriously the idea that perception and cognitive content must be grounded in physical processes within the scope of ecological niches. The process of an affordance being specified in the optic array is firmly and explicitly grounded in the relevant physics.

    Gavin: of course the prehension motor programme idea entails learning. But the key point remains: the 'explanation' for the structure in the reach is to place that structure in the motor programme. But this is no explanation; it's just moved the structure. And the key is that the 70% actually isn't that stable; you can push it around in real time as a function of task demands.

    Oh, and should we care if we typically learn to do something a particular way? Hell yes! That's a hint as to how we're doing the learning; you can use that to test hypotheses.

  11. @Neuroskeptic
    The brain is NOT too hard for us to understand. If it seems that way, it is because we have not yet figured out the best way to understand it.
    I suppose that statement is made a bit on faith, but people have developed good ways of understanding very complex things (both through science and through other means). We can certainly expect that one day we will understand the brain as well as we understand molecular synthesis.

    As for mixing embodied and representative explanations... there are good reasons and bad reasons why we might do it. If we are mixing the two types because it got hard to do one, so we jumped ship to the other, then that is bad. However, if you are an embodied type, and you find that some aspects of your system can be clarified by explaining how it re-presents what is happening in other parts, that is not bad. Similarly, if you are a representative type who is starting to appreciate the role of embodiment, it is not bad to explore that further.

    Andrew and I would both hypothesize that the results the good kind of mixing would be ever more discussion of embodiment, and a very different looking discussion of "representation".

    I would think that the problem with Bem's study from an ecological perspective is not so much what he did, but how he interpreted it. Let us assume that he did the study the way he proposed and found what he found (and as he is an accomplished experimentalist, so this is not unreasonable). Even then, at best, he should have concluded that there was some means that participants were using to perceive correct answer, in the concrete, embodied, grounded way that we normally use the word "perceive". Even if the results held up, the scientific method would not demand that we abandon our notions of perception and start speculating about quantum BS. Instead, the scientific method would demand that we attack the methods of the experiment, identifying variables unaccounted for.

    This is the fundamental problem with all research on "extra-sensory" perception... at best it will lead us to identify new aspects of people's sensitivity, and at that point there will be nothing "extra" about it.

  12. Bravo! Bravo! Please, someone write an article just like this for education.


  13. I'm not sure I agree that the problems you identify are because of a lack of theory, they're really all problems due to one bad theory: the Representational Theory of Mind. It's been known since the beginning of representationalism that representationalism simply moves the problem "inside" the mind without offering any further insight, this was the point behind Kenny's "homunculus problem" and was never successfully addressed. Moreover, because the notion of an "internal" representation is incoherent to begin with (representations being dependent on human social conventions), representationalism has always been a moving target and has led to the proliferation of theories. Representationalism can always claim success because it has so little to say and I'm sure if ecological psychology did become the new mainstream theory, representationalists will just redefine representations to be compatible with ecological psychology (this is the problem Chemero dodges with his "dynamicist stance").

    You might say that something so incoherent doesn't deserve the name "theory" but this is just what bad theories look like and how they manage to persist for so long in the face of so much contrary evidence. Moreover, representationalism has had specific consequences that mere anarchy would not, such as the privileging of "covert" behaviour over overt behaviour (indeed, the bizarre desire to control overt behaviour and then examine whatever is unaccounted for because it's the "real" stuff of the mind; see, for example, covert attention studies).

  14. Gregory Bateson had a theory of psychology (and all biologically-based sciences). It's in his books, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, and Mind in Nature: A Necessary Unity.

    It's also laid out elegantly in his speech (and ten-page essay) 1977a The Thing of It Is. In Earth's Answer: Explorations of Planetary Culture at the Lindisfarne Conferences. Michael Katz, William P. Marsh, and Gail Gordon Thompson, eds. pp. 143-154. New York: Harper and Row.

    Unfortunately, Bateson seems to be too difficult for most people. But at least it's his ideas that are difficult rather than the language gymnastics found in post-modernism, feminist theory, and others.

  15. Terrific article.

    As for the obligatory nitpick, as an outsider with physics background I would note that there isn't anything inherently bad in ad hocs, even if they "contain the solution", or simplifications or what have you. They are at times useful while untestable "just so" stories aren't.

    However if they are all what there is, and no one works to replace them with better (more general) theories, I would be very wary indeed.

    @ Neuroskeptic:

    "wave-partical duality in physics".

    I hope I don't offend when I note that this went away with the advent of quantum field theory, from de Broglie's introduction of the wavefunction 1924 and onwards. The quantum field builds a field from particle interactions, so it displays local particle and non-local wave qualities both. The Standard Model of particles is such a QFT.

    It is very rarely discussed in physics, and I have seen sober suggestions that it is an outdated heuristics.

  16. D'oh. For "local", substitute "localized". (QM isn't non-local, it is compatible with relativity so a local theory.) [Need more coffee...]

  17. @Torbjörn
    I hope you do not mind my point out that, as is often the case, xkcd seems an ideal source of clarity. Here they treat the wave-particle problem in quite a nice way:

  18. I can't believe I only just got that XKCD cartoon.

  19. This is just plain silly. And unfortunately evidence that some psychologists are not as bright as they should be.

    There are a lot of sciences with no "core" theory. Can you name the "core" theory of archeology? chemistry? neurology? medicine?

    There is no reason why a branch of science that has a connecting theory is any better than one that does not.

  20. Rosemary....
    Each of those fields (except medicine, which is pretty much applied biology) have several candidates for core theories.

    Shooting from the hip:
    Archeology: Theory of stable sedimentary deposit over time. Theory of carbon dating.

    Chemistry: Atomic theory as embodied in the periodic table of the elements. (Seriously, go back and look at the crazy arguments chemists had back when this was coming into being... then note the tremendous progress since it stabilized.)

    Neurology: The theory of discrete neural pathways, composed of neurons with synaptic gaps between them, "communicating" within neurons by action potentials and between neurons via neurotransmitters. (Ditto the comment on chemistry above, and note that one problem in neurology right now is that all points of that core theory is fraying at the edges.)

    That said, you are correct. There is no reason why sciences with core theories are better than those without.

    But I suspect there is virtue in a science pursuing systematic work under a core theory when it is possible. That is, a science would be silly to eschew a core theory if a good one was available.


    (P.S. The elephant in the room, which no one has mentioned is: "Well heck, isn't that what cognitive psychology is? You know, the core theory that psychology has had since the late '50s?" I'll leave Andrew, Sabrina, and the other readers to deal with that, if they they see the need.)

  21. That said, you are correct. There is no reason why sciences with core theories are better than those without.
    Actually, I don't agree with this; hence this post. The reason is simple; with no organising theory, people can't communicate results because they aren't talking about the same thing. Net result: nothing resembling progress.

    Psychology is never going to find it's periodic table, of course. But we can do better than 'I ran an experiment, here is some data' which is all we do now.

    I discuss why theories of representation don't cut it here too; they can explain everything, and therefore they can actually explain nothing. If you can make a representation fit any data, you can never rule anything out and thus you have made no progress towards explaining how those data actually came to be.

  22. String Theory Invalidates Religion and Evolution. We know this because at Superposition all life would be the same life and thus one does not evolve into an alternate version of ones self - nor are we created by anything that isn't that super-positional entity.

    The difference is change in possibility and this is a fundamental rule of how everything functions.

    1. The Universe is Debris of Change in Possibility.
    2. Time is continuous change in possibility.
    3. The Singularity is the moment of change in Possibility.
    4. Only Life can create change in possibility and only from superposition.

    It means the Brain is a black box recording of super-positional event changes. Further out into superposition Subject A and Subject B are the same entity thinking the same group of thoughts.

    Psychology, Biology and pretty much all we hold to be true is a false belief system protecting us from the reality that we are alone.

  23. Hard sciences are based on reference. A theory posits entities that point to analogues in the physical world. These theoretical constructs if all added together would presumably form a complete picture and coherent explanatory and predictive picture of the world. Theories "soft sciences" do not always share this quality of referentiality (except in behaviorism, arguments can be made for a neuroscientific description of behavior but this doesn't bridge the gap into psychology we still have to make a move from brain activity to experience and that can't happen.) Lacking this referentialiality that makes scientific theories work from any perspective psychology is prone to theoretical overlaps and incongruities that are incommensurate.

  24. As a physicist with an interest in psychology for some decades, I have similarly been amazed by the theories and methods that just don't pass the 'common sense' test. I suggest psychology back up and try to find a simple, common sense model that any clear-headed person can productively understand and use. An example from physics would be basic Newtonian mechanics. This is taught in high schools and most people, with a bit of effort and interest, can test it and use it in daily life. It is also the fundamental framework for the way the human body interacts with it's environment. Much of our instinctive and learned physical behavior can be understood in terms of it.

    Psychology does not have a similar starting point for mental behavior yet, that I can see. Without it the creation of models left, right and center to explain bits of esoteric behavior is, at best, entertainment. Without some basic framework the practice is not going to go anywhere and can in the mean time cause a lot of damage.

    I really like the work that has been done on the APET model: It is simple, understandable, and organizes many commonly known basic behavior patterns into a coherent framework. Anyone that is a student of human nature can understand it and (I believe) validate it's value.

    Has any of the authors or readers of this blog encountered this model before? And what do you think of it?

  25. @Anonymous two posts up:
    This is certainly part of the problem, and it's something that has cropped up in psychology's recent past. Skinner's behaviourism was, in many ways, about trying to at least start with theories about things we could flat out point to: behaviour. Skinner used to be exceptionally rude about, say, Freud, because he just made things up to explain things that may or may not have needed explaining. Behaviourism was a response to this excess; and I admire Skinner greatly for his discipline and for being more right than people these days like to admit. He wasn't completely correct, but he was a damned good scientist.

    Gibson's theory actually rests on two very real things: affordances, and information about affordances in energy arrays. Lots of people who only initially brush against affordances think they sound too ghostly and weird, but they're actually fairly straight forward. The complicated question has always been about the information for affordances, and while we've made some progress, it's still exceptionally hard to nail down. We have numerous post on these two topics, and more in mind for the near future.

    So I don't think the 'softer' sciences are screwed; but I agree we have an uphill battle.

  26. @David
    I have a highly trained nervous twitch about the word 'common sense'; I think we need to be more disciplined than that. Otherwise I agree with the point - my very favourite thing about Gibson is that he did, in fact, take a step back and start over after 20 years or so trying to get existing theories of perception to handle the things he was finding people could do.

    I don't know anything about APET; we aren't that kind of psychologist (ie we do science, not clinical practice). At first glance it looks like the standard proliferation of theory you get in psychology - 'this is theory X, but with my unique spin on it!* - and I tend to think that's a symptom of the problem of no coherent theory, rather than a rebuttal. I may be wrong, though, I don't know this field well.

    *One of my favourite xkcd cartoons sums this up perfectly

  27. @Andrew
    I understand your nervous twitch about 'common sense'. But if I say common sense without the distorting effects of cultural prejudice and wishful thinking I think you might have less of an issue with it. I am thinking about an evidence based approach here.

    Also, I understand your desire to stick to 'science'. But it seems to me that the science being used does not unravel the mystery of perception all that well. It seems to ignore or not fully consider that emotion is a key element of perception and that emotions are attached to our perceptions before our conscious mind is aware of them. It deals similarly with the fact that most stimuli are ignored by the body but can later be learned and have a large effect. The APET model helps on both these fronts.

    It seems to me (and I'm not trying to be a flame here) that we are looking for science in terms of the science we are familiar with. Our experience with physical science distorts our view of mental behavior so that we only see parts that can be measured using the tools we are familiar with. At the end of the day science is based on evidence. And if a model produces drastically better and broader predictive results, regardless of it's form, it bares consideration.

    Looking forward to your thoughts.

  28. If emotion is affecting perception, then by al means work up a theory about how. But all I ask is that theory talks about perception in a rigorous manner, and about emotion in a rigorous manner, and about how they relate to one another. Perception is very much one of those words in psychology that means quite a few things; Gibson had to work hard to be very precise about what he meant, and the multiple meanings don't help with getting coherent theory going.

    I don't think psychology needs to be science of a fundamentally different kind to that of, say, physics. It can't be. Obviously we aren't physics, or chemistry. But any models we have should at least fit broadly within those disciplines, before being taken too seriously.

  29. @David
    I know you didn't ask, but my knee jerk reaction to claims such as the one you made is: "Are you sure they are different things?"

    For emotions to affect (effect?) perceptions or vice versa, they would need to be distinct things.

    Isn't being happy just seeing the world differently than someone who is sad?

    I mean this question to be taken in the most literal way possible: People who are happy have perceptual systems attuned in a way that produces certain types of relationships between their behavior and the environment around them - and that we can tell your system is attuned in that way is what we mean when we say "you are happy."

    If not, then what are the elements of the causal relationship?

  30. @David Robert

    Gibson's is really a 'common sense' model of psychology. He rejects the Empiricist notion that all we have to work with is the "image" projected on the retina by the lens of the eye and presents what is essentially a form of "naive realism." He discusses psychology in terms of the world we're all familiar with; one of objects, surfaces, etc. This is far closer to our common sense view of the world than the presently fashionable idea that the visual world is an illusion constructed in our computer-brains. Emotion can be incorporate into this model because it's an active model of perception; if emotion is expressed in our actions and perception is active then it follows that emotion can play a role in our perceptions too.

  31. Interesting post. I generally agree with all your points about the problems with psychology. I myself have been working on a unified theoretical framework for the field for several years. You can check out a blog on it at

    I am not I agree with your point about embodied cognition and representation being diametrically opposed. Isn't language a represenntational system? Couldn't part of the system work via dynamical systems like Big Dog and others via symbolic syntactical information processing systems?


  32. Here is my attempt at a unified theory:

    Up for criticism of course.

  33. Isn't language a represenntational system? Couldn't part of the system work via dynamical systems like Big Dog and others via symbolic syntactical information processing systems?
    A common question. My theoretically based bet is 'no', although I could, of course be wrong.

    The bet is roughly this: the idea that language is fundamentally different from perception and action is grounded in the assumption of poverty of stimulus. In addition, no one's really pushed hard on ecological explanations of language (this special issue of Ecological Psychology aside). I think that until language people spend time discovering how much of language they can explain with real information and action, the jury is out on just how different it is.

    This topic is something Sabrina's especially interested in; she's been very busy recently but these are all topics lurking around :)

  34. @ Andrew, Eric , scientism

    I’m not saying Gibson is wrong. I’m just saying it leaves out some key elements toward ‘the theory of behaviour’. So it works well in some areas but not in others. I think Andrew would agree with that, although he does not appear to be liking my suggestion for additions.

    I like to consider perception because it’s a key element in ‘the theory of behaviour’. Instead of looking at it from a black box point of view (i.e. defining it closely and examining how it behaves under different inputs) consider what perception may be composed of. The APET model, as a model of how many aspects of the brain function, should have something to say about perception. If I apply it I get:
    A – activating agent: something in the environment that activates the pattern-matching function
    P – pattern-matching: the stimuli is analyzed to match known patterns, if identified now matches something that is ‘known’
    E – emotion: emotion is attached to the pattern based on past history, genetics, and similar patterns
    T – thought: if the emotion is strong enough the perception becomes conscious and it can now be thought about
    So, as a organizing model of brain function the APET model makes some definite statements about how perception occurs and what it is composed of. Many human behaviour patterns can fit into this model by considering how the perception could be properly or improperly dealt with by the brain as it goes through these stages. Studies of human behaviour can be matched against the above model to see how it fairs. Of particular interest is when the emotion attached to a pattern is so strong that it hijacks rational thought. It seems to me to provide a deeper understanding of what is going on in the process of perception – should it be found to perform well in these studies. It does not prove the Gibson theory wrong, it adds the key element of emotion which is a very powerful force in behaviour, and provides for more internal structure that can be used for a deeper understanding.

    I suspect that the above is not rigorous enough for many that have had training in the physical sciences. But I would not want to confuse rigor with a mathematical representation. If you review Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica you will find that he hardly uses mathematical notation at all and what he does use appears quite awkward. He does use geometry to good effect however. The reason is simple: geometry was well developed at that time and calculus was not. So I would not want to discard these ideas because they lack a rigorous mathematical representation. Nor would I want to discard them because they lack the concrete predictability of mechanics. The study of probability and quantum mechanics are branches of the physical sciences that lack this also.

    I find it interesting that the problem that is referenced above is the catching of a fly ball. That type of problem is iconic of the physical sciences. In the mental sciences I would think that the iconic problems would be more of the ‘attraction/repulsion/ignore’ type. For example, ‘why does this person also find themselves in a bad situation’, or ‘why can this person not stop (or not start) doing X’. Maybe I could get your feedback of what the ‘iconic’ problems in behaviour are? A number of people must have done this. I would be interested if someone could point me there.

  35. As far as I can tell, APET is just an implementation of a fairly standard, information processing account of behaviour. It has stages, etc that information passes through as it is transformed from perception to action. You can have this theory if you like, but it's not very ecological; if you wanted to include emotion in Gibsonian perception, APET is the wrong conceptual structure. If you want to use APET, you don't get much help from Gibson. As I say, you can take either approach, but they don't have a lot to say to each other.

    Catching a fly ball is such a classic in the perception-action literature because a) it's a task you can characterise in enough detail to identify potential sources of information, b) it's quite a complex, out-of-the-lab task, but then c) the theoretical approach has produced such robust and interesting results. I like it because it's a really strong road test of ecological principles and they pass with flying colours.

    Other classic tasks in my field include: coordinated rhythmic movement, locomotion (walking (Fajen & Warren) and driving (Wilkie & Wann)), prehension (eg Mon-Williams & Bingham), interception tasks like catching (time to contact stuff), and more recently throwing. I can't speak for other disciplines within psychology.

  36. @David
    E. C. Tolman once said that all important questions in psychology could be answered through careful study of a rat at the choice point in a T-maze. I'm sure that Tolman knew it was an exaggeration, but it is probably much closer to the truth than most people would like to think. The iconic questions in psychology are about behavior - why one person does a particular thing in a particular situation.

  37. I think you would find this lecture interesting:

  38. OK, that should be awesome :)

  39. @Eric
    Interesting. That does seem like the iconic question.

    In physics one could argue that all solutions are variants of linear or harmonic motion. It is a simplification of course, but all areas of physics I've worked in build on that - F=ma.

    Except Thermodynamics that is. Thermodynamics introduces the time arrow. But physics has not adequately dealt with that IMHO.

  40. This is a great blog and I'm very grateful for the work you folks are doing on it. Congratulation to Andrew & Sabrina (perhaps particularly Sabrina?) on their expanded editorial team, young Elliott Thomas. :-)

    Having said that, this conversation seems to point out a problem not yet addressed: Is a "GUT of Psychology" an ambition that's consonant with where the field is? That seems to me to need an answer to the question "What is the field?" The "iconic question" that @Eric mentions is a case in point. Yes we can generalise from rat at T-junction to Mickey Mantle/Willie Mays (age signal :) ) negotiating their various physical impediments, turf bumps and glare to successfully catch a fly-ball, but surely that generalisation obscures more than it reveals. If Mantle and Maris were both going for a ball in right-centre and had to negotiate (??!!) whose it was and what to do with the ball after catching, we've introduced at least two other layers of interesting and relevant analysis.

    So: I'd be interested to see a discussion on the scope of theories of psychology. Lakoff & Johnson's formulation of the philosophical position of Non-Eliminative Physicalism (wonderful acronym: NEPism) suggests that concepts and the models/theories in which they exist are/should be adequate to the way we (agree to) understand the phenomena in question.

    In my confused way, I'm asking if all the phenomena discussed in this post and on the blog in general actually *do* belong to a domain of understanding which is addressable by a single library of concepts?

  41. @David: You characterise APET "as a model of how many aspects of the brain function...." That seems to me another symptom of the confusions I allude to above: how is it a theory about the brain? It seems to me to talk about the relation of hypothesised, abstracted entities (Activating-Agent, Pattern-Matching, Emotion and Thought), whose conceptual separability @Eric challenged, rightly in my view.

    These (PET anyhow) may have discrete substrates in neuro-physiological processes, postulation of which would, IMO, constitute a theory about the functioning of aspects of the brain. As stated, however, it seems to be a theory at several levels of abstraction above the physiological. Somewhere perhaps in a domain, itself divisible, we could label "mind"?

  42. Simon:

    I'm asking if all the phenomena discussed in this post and on the blog in general actually *do* belong to a domain of understanding which is addressable by a single library of concepts?
    A good theory should be simple enough that it doesn't invoke unnecessary components but not so simple that it leaves things out. Skinner's behaviourism worked very hard on part one but (as much as I'm a huge Skinner fan) I do think he threw a little too much of the baby out with the bath water. So the right balance is hard. The thing I like about the ecological approach is that it's less a set of axioms and more an empirical programme constrained by the ecological-scale parts of physics and biology. Gibson was laying out a way of doing business that he came to after years of analysing the problem at hand.

    So, I think that a)ecological psych as it currently stands is too small a theory to account for everything we want to cover (eg language) but that b) the tools for expanding the programme to include such abilities are built right into the ecological approach (the concept of affordances, the insistence on identifying the information for those affordances, and the ecological laws that constrain the form of that information) and that, given some time, there will be nothing to stop an extended eco-psych from handling it all.

    This expansion is ongoing even now; embodiment (done properly) is a formalising of a lot of Gibsonian insight. Extended cognition is the same. Dynamical systems fits so well with the ecological approach that they are often mistaken for each other. So since Gibson there have been many developments, all grounded in the essential insights he laid out in '79 but moving beyond what he specifically studied.

    So I think yes, there will be something closer to a GUT but not yet, and not without a shit load of hard work. No bad thing, that, however, if we ever front up to the requirement of knuckling down to that work.

  43. Ah, Thanks for that Andrew: that leads me to attempt to fly off a cliff edge: the ecological paradigm, abstracted from particular content-worlds, provides a hypothesised framework of dialectical and interdependent relations between postulated entities (that sometimes seem "given", to our perceptions) and that which is deemed, for investigative purposes, "external" to those entities. It is, of course, fundamental to the concepts of bio evolution: the continuous conversation between genotype-phenotype-environment in which all three are co-conditioning or co-creating each other.

    It sounds to me like your "empirical programme constrained by the ecological-scale parts of physics and biology" is the extended beginning of an application of this paradigm to investigations of what we could call the "interior" of organisms, aka psychology, following its success in guiding investigations of their various "exteriors".

    The space into which I've jumped is that of nested, and sometimes parallel, sets of entity-environment definitions at various levels of abstraction. Each of these, coming back to my obsession with Lakoff, providing useful languages of shared understanding (and delineation) of particular aspects of biologically based behaviour.

    So might it be more useful to be thinking about a GUF (Framework), or GUP (Paradigm) rather than a GUT? Allowing the modelled particulars of detailed explanations to develop out of the nature of the empirical evidence around the phenomenon.

    I'm supposing that your vision is that eco-informed analysis of existing empirical material may provide a fertile organising principal for many areas of psych?

  44. Simon,
    Two thoughts:
    First, there are many people who have argued that there is not a 'coherent whole' that encapsulates the things we call psychology. Some of the best of this writing comes from history of psychology guys like Kurt Danzinger and Hendrikus Stam (Adrian Brock is preparing a short manifesto along these lines for a project of mine).

    Second, I am personally neutral on relative merits of a Grand Unified Framework vs Paradigm vs Theory. If those really mean something different, then we should have people thinking along all three lines, to see where it goes. I suspect that we might well find an ability to phrase the same useful insights in framework-language, paradigm-language, or theory-language. I'm pretty sure I could do this with Eco-Psych, though I would normally talk about it as a 'theory'.

    In any case, the more important point is that we don't want a Grand-not-Unified-Anything-Goes, where we agree to pretend that we are unified because we have similar words on our business cards. (This is not a slight at a straw-man; some very prominent psychologists have advocated such an approach.) We definitely need the ability to say that X fits the framework/paradigm/theory and Y does not.

  45. Hi Eric. Yes, my starting position is exactly that there is likely to be *no* coherent whole that *encapsulates* what we call psychology, in the same sense that there's no whole which encapsulates biology. What the evolutionary model (and this isn't a blurb for evo-psych), and particularly the evo-model when combined with the eco-model, provides biology is an organising principle without which, in Dobzhansky's words, it is impossible to make sense of (much of) biology.

    So the eco-evo models does not encapsulate speciation, predator-prey relationships, flocking behaviour, eye-structures, neuro-structures, etc. It provides a ... what word would you choose? framework or paradigm which guides our modelling *in their own terms* of interesting and isolable aspects of the physical living world. Biologists certainly don't all carry "Evolutionist" on their business cards. ;-)

    I'm wondering if the very abstract eco model of an entity interacting with or co-creating an environment may provide a similar function for psychology. So perhaps, shooting from the hip and, as you say, to be investigated/evaluated for utility:
    1) entity= language, environment = ?social cooperation among humans
    2) entity = "attachment", environment = ?neonate/infant development, enculturation and safety.
    3) entity = "ultimate concerns" a la Robert Emmons, environment = ??self-construct/emotional needs/...??

    How does this fit with the objections you (rightly in my view) raise?

  46. Evolutionary biology provides a theoretical framework containing the rules for explaining individual phenomena. Evolution doesn't predict one specific outcome over another possibility, but allows you to explain what did in fact happen satisfactorily. Ecological psychology is the same; Gibson spends quite some time emphasising that this is an empirical game, where you don't predict that organisms will use this variable rather than that, but instead you identify the candidates that fit the rules and then look to see what people actually use.

  47. While I fear that this post will be rejected immediately, with the others posting here feeling I am too arrogant, I would very much like you all to consider my unification theory which I originally published in my book "The Therapist's Use of Self in Family Therapy" (Aronson, 2000). Currently it seems that explanations of mind have moved toward the biological. I personally believe that, while of course the two must go hand in hand, a biological model of the mind leaves much to be desired compared to a symbolic explanation of mind (the psychoanalytic, object relations, intersubjective, or systems theories) when it comes to describing the human experience. I also believe that these symbolic models have never been either systematic enough (all the psychoanalytic theories) or deep enough (the systems or cognitive theories) to satisfy the common urge to understand psychology thoroughly (from inside out, or vice versa). Anyway, all of this is to say, I would like to invite those interested to read my own psychoanalytic/systems theory that I have shortened and simplified (to make it more accessable) in my new book “The Emotional Toolbox: A Manual for Mental Health.” You will notice that the theory easily lends itself to evolutionary biology while also satisfying a sense of our experience of being. You can also take a look at my application of the theory to psychotic disorders and bipolar disorder and a wide variety of other topics. I have included the links to these articles below. I believe my theory is a much needed unifying theory that is largely overlooked due to the fact that I am a clinician and spend little to no time in academia.

    P.S. Please keep in mind that these articles are meant for lay people to understand and are not meant to be examples of scientific study.

    Article on The Relational Systems Theory

    Article on Bipolar Disorder

    Article on Psychotic Disorders

  48. If you are at all interested in the basics of the theory (I'd like to see if a very simple explanation here will prevent posters from ignoring my theory altogether), I believe it is the only functional systems model of intrapsychic and interpersonal psychodynamics, and it replaces drives with "drivenness" as the tensions of self-protection (fear vs. anger) and sustenance (hunger vs. sating one's self) play out and fuel the tension of relatedness (responsibility vs. isolation). These aspects of drivenness are contained by two intrapsychic boundaries, one that is governed primarily by repression and controls the extent to which we are aware of our animal selves, and a second that is more conscious and involves how we view ourselves and the impression we will allow others to have of us. How all of this is maintained involves how we interact with our world, and of course the world has at least an equally important part in the system as it impinges upon each of us differently. As a basic model, my theory can meet the requirements of ecological and evolutionary theories since it is based on those aspects of life that make us adapt. Please check it out.

  49. First of all, this blog and the conversations in the comments have been an absolute goldmine. As a layperson, (albeit quite well read) the intersection between different domains such as evo bio and neuroscience, or psychology and science in general can feel very muddled when you haven't gotten far enough upstream to see the different axiomatic structures.

    I first came to the ecological dynamics stuff from questions I had (lifelong athlete) about the nature of the interaction between two agents in a mutually opposed but non-interative structure like we see in the invasion games. From Gibson I got to Turvey, Kelso, Heft, Newell, Davids, etc. I have no qualms about the ecological paradigm for sport and will likely pursue further education in this field.

    I'm still really struggling with broader applications, though. I've found Piaget, Kuhn, and especially Michael Polanyi illuminating on these revolutions/paradigm shifts. Most of the theories that deal with heavy-duty, uniquely human phenomena seem to fall along a continuum. You have theories that dodge the problem by putting some ghost in the machine (soul, representations, etc.), and you have theories that don't solve the problem (but often claim to) by neglecting the obvious lived experiences such as consciousness and agency. I think that's why the phenomenologists popped up when they did. I think theories on the rigorous end need to take the lived experience more seriously. Explanations about our uniquely human traits should have some relationship to the experiences humans have. You can't just say "I've cured cancer. There is no cancer". That doesn't mean we should leave our experiences at face value either. I think this is what Piaget got right. Start from what's prevailing and unravel it in a way that explains why it seemed that way. So here's my question, Andrew. People have the experience of mental representations. That may or may not be the case. Why do we experience it this way, though?

    1. People have the experience of mental representations. That may or may not be the case. Why do we experience it this way, though?
      I don't think people do any such thing, actually. I think we experience our mental states, and we've come to think of those as representations, but that framing is wrong.

      To be fair, though, I don't have a good replacement!

  50. I have just discovered this blog. Please excuse me if I repeat something already covered. I discovered Gibson's theories as a young man and, as a philosopher, was completely fascinated by the vistas opened by it. Later on, I came across the work of William T. Powers. My question is whether there is any collaboration between them and you, or whether you consider the Powers school a less than serious endeavour.

    1. There is quite a bit of overlap, but for my money PCT doesn't add anything to the ecological approach; I lay out my reasons here.