A Brewing Storm in Psychology

For several months now, I’ve been noticing a distinct pattern in psychology-beat reporting in major sources of commentary like the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times. I sense that something really big is brewing in psychology. Big enough to deserve the overused phrase “paradigm shift.” Some of the more obvious elements are a renewed focus on longitudinal studies, narrative analysis, and the impact of social network approaches. But overall, I haven’t been able to put the whole picture together, so I thought I’d share a bunch of (excellent) articles that highlight important aspects of what is going on, as well as my preliminary conclusions. This should make for good weekend reading: many of the pieces I am linking to below are in-depth multi-page pieces.  It’ll take me probably another 3-4 months of simmering before I can figure this picture out, but maybe you can beat me to it or help me get there faster.

The Exhibits

I am assuming you have a basic general-undergraduate understanding of major classical ideas in psychology, at a 101 level. If not, the Wikipedia History of Psychology article is a good starting point for a crash-course/refresher. Let’s skip immediately to the latest developments, which I think constitute evidence of something big brewing.

  1. What Makes Us Happy? (June 2009): A retrospective, in the Atlantic, on the work of George Vaillant and the Harvard Study of Adult Development. The study is unusual for its deeply interpretive/narrative approach to its subject, a throwback to Freudian attitudes, but done with much more sophistication, and married to careful longitudinal experimental analysis.
  2. Don’t: The Secret of Self-Control (May 2009) : An after-40-years look, in the New Yorker, at the classic marshmallow experiment that made Walter Mischel famous.  Read alongside this piece in the NYT: Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control? (Sept 2009)
  3. Depression’s Evolutionary Roots (August 2009): If there is a major paradigm shift brewing in psychology, this is probably the opening shot in the war to come. A study suggesting that “depression” is possibly adaptive, and helps us think deeply about difficult problems. This isn’t a very new idea. The idea of depressive realism has been around for a while. What is unusual is the explicit acknowledgment that maybe depression isn’t a disease after all. That’s just a hop away from a major retreat; psychology ceding territory it originally grabbed from philosophy and literature: the study and interpretation of Purpose of Life types of questions. This is staggeringly important.
  4. Guilt and Atonmenent on the Path to Adulthood (August 2009): An NYT piece on another longitudinal study on… well, read it to find out. It is hard to describe.
  5. Are Your Friends Making You Fat? (Sept 2009) A deceptively simple-sounding exploration that gets at the heart of the sorts of things that social psychology really is (or ought to be) about.
  6. The Holy Grail of the Unconscious (Sept 2009): Another long piece in the NYT, about a recently discovered unknown work by Carl Jung. I haven’t finished digesting this piece or absorbing its relevance, if any. But it does seem to fit somehow into the pattern of things that are grabbing my attention.
  7. Understanding the Anxious Mind (Sept 2009): Yet more coverage of interesting longitudinal research in the NYT, this time on the nature of anxiety, and its roots in early childhood.

Six Preliminary Conclusions

  1. Positive psychology will take a hit: The foundational axiom of positive psychology, “to study happy people instead of screwed-up ones” has now become seriously suspect, because it is now becoming clear that being “well-adjusted” to a pathological environment isn’t necessarily a bright idea. As both the updated take on Mischel’s marshmallow experiments and Vaillant’s approach to life analysis show, human lives are more complicated, and the edge/outlier cases strongly suggest that the apparently screwed-up people are possibly the ones who are philosophically on the right track. I predict that we’ll converge on the idea that happiness as studied and promoted by Seligman and company is the manufactured-script happiness of the Organization Man era, predicated on ideas like lifetime employment and docile, groupthink-oriented agreeableness. Again, there are babies in this bathwater. The earlier, more philosophically oriented  pioneers of positive psychology, like Maslow, will still repay study, as will specific aspects of modern positive psychology like the strengths approach. But overall, this line of thought is doomed. Happiness is simply not that fundamental.
  2. There will be a Neo-Neo-Freudianism:  Freudian approaches ran into huge conceptual/ontological criticism early on (or to put it simply, Freud was criticized for just making stuff up).  While the action shifted to the Cognitive-Behavioral Chomsky/Skinner battle (now largely resolved), “neo-Freudian” approaches quietly continued to develop. Still, in their current form, they won’t quite do. Some new breakthroughs on narrative/philosophical approaches to psychology will be needed. I think the action will center around the study of defense mechanisms, pioneered by Anna Freud and other immediate successors of Freud. Defense mechanisms are curiously like the modern behavioral-economics study of decision-making biases. Yet the idea of defense mechanisms is far more sophisticated, and works with a much richer understanding of the context of entire human lives, instead of stupidly limited experiments around idealized economic transactions.
  3. Behavioral economics will suffer a serious backlash: I am as guilty as anyone of getting over-enthusiastic about behavioral-economics-inspired psychology. I wrote an enthusiastic piece called The Broken Brain Books which I now view with suspicion. I think the experimental data in the field is solid.  Kahnemann-Tversky are the Michaelson-Morley of psychology, but the field has yet to find its Einstein. The vast majority of writers working of the Kahnemann-Tversky results are using it in a “gotcha, you are irrational and economists are naive!” mode which illuminates very little beyond the bald results of the experiments.
  4. There will be a diversity of legitimate definitions of “psychologically healthy”:  This is related to the first point, which deified a single industrial age notion of “well-adjusted” and a naively utilitarian idea that life is about somehow maximizing “happiness.” This isn’t going to be replaced by another monotheistic religion. We are going to move to an era where the definition of “well-adjusted” will be broadened to allow for a huge variety of life scripts and subjective experiences, including quest-for-truth and will-to-power drives, as well as a better version of the seek-happiness drive. In fact anything that doesn’t harm others will be legitimate, which John Stuart Mill would have liked. Even life behaviors that harm others will be viewed as legitimate if they represent rebellion against a pathological society (i.e. “terrorism” isn’t a maladjusted life behavior pattern if it is rebellion against a dictatorship for instance; it becomes “freedom fighting”). Among the consequences will be that milder forms of depression, bipolar tendencies, and “social anxiety disorder” (SAD), will no longer be viewed as maladjusted behaviors, but behaviors well-adapted to different life-values/scripts.
  5. Network Psychology will displace classical social psychology: As the friends-make-me-fat article shows, social networks are going to become central to social psychology in the future, to the point where it would be better to call it Network Psychology. The primary conceptual foundations of the field will be based on behavioral economics V 2.0, and social network theory. It’s primary methods will be the study of social contagion and other group-influence dynamics.
  6. fMRI-happy empiricists will finally figure out what the hell they are about: By now, anybody with a brain has figured out that merely figuring out a map, even a dynamic one, of what that thing looks like, is completely useless. Yet, there is clearly significant value here, if only the damn down-in-the-synapses researchers would step back long enough to build a meaningful framework of interpretation that goes beyond Latin geography (aka “neural correlates of behavior”).

So there you have it. The discovery and opening arguments phases are done. The trial is underway (though it not yet clear who the accused is, or what the defense and prosecution are fighting for).

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Wow, it’s interesting to see how almost diametrically opposite we are on these positions:

    1. Positive psychology will take a hit: To say that happiness is an organizational man concept is, I think, naive and over simplistic. IMO, positive psychology is going to be the key driver in a paradigm shift in psychology because it breaks away from the deeply capitalistic roots of modern psychology (I can’t figure out a better way of putting this).

    2. There will be a Neo-Neo-Freudianism: Maybe, I have no opinion.

    3. Behavioral economics will suffer a serious backlash: Could not disagree more. Behavioral economics can and must cause a paradigm shift in economics. To invoke Kuhn though, paradigm shifts don’t come when there is sufficient criticism of the old model, it comes when a viable alternative arises. Currently, behavioral economics is largely concerned with gathering evidence of why the current system is broken and it’s easy to see why. Just the thought of reformulating the entirety of economics from a behavioral basis is so daunting it’s almost unthinkable. There needs to be an Einstein who is conversant in so many fields to such a deep level that he can tie together all the disparate strands into a systematic way of thinking.
    4. There will be a diversity of legitimate definitions of “psychologically healthy”: I feel like we’ve done this already, with the cultural fragmentation of the 60’s, the rise of sexual politics & sexual identification, the self esteem & self actualization movement, the death of the organizational man as a dream & the flowering of new age thinking. Then the pendulum swung the other way with the increasing medicalization of mental disorders, the PC movement & parenting nazism. I feel like the next stage is a melding of the two, optimistically taking the best parts of each but cynically, combining the most self-indulgent.

    5. Network Psychology will displace classical social psychology: Probably true but this field will go through the same pains that you’re bashing other fields about in your post.

    6. fMRI-happy empiricists will finally figure out what the hell they are about: http://prefrontal.org/files/posters/Bennett-Salmon-2009.pdf . I’m hesitant to even link to this poster because it’s engaging in the type of gotcha journalism which I think hurts more than helps a field. Like evolutionary psychology (ps: why no mention of this in your post?) fMRI is filled with 95% attention grabbing bullshit and 5% serious, considered scholarship that advances the field. This makes it harder for an outsider to filter through the noise and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    • Heh! Looks like you and I are shaping up to be evil twins after all :).

      Positive psychology had me conflicted for a long time. Some of it I feel is feel-good Kumbaya nonsense. But OTOH, the “strengths” bit is genuinely a contribution. Vaillant’s work is revered by the PP people, but their work is not really in the spirit of his; it has much less skepticism.

      I think the big difference is that I think PP is only a rebellion against the organization man era of management in that it elevates employee empowerment virtues above middle-manager empowerment, but it is a rebellion the way a teenager’s is: still defined by the original. It is not a reframing.

      Beh. econ: I am being careful here: I like the original Kahnemann-Tversky raw data. But people are running amok with interpretations.

      Finally, evolutionary psych… I used to be a big fan (esp. of some of the oldest stuff before the field had a name, Desmond Morris’ work). I am still a fan, but I find it primarily stimulating but not central, because so much of it is speculative reconstruction via unfalsifiable stories. I am more of a stories-over-empiricism guy than you (you said Gladwell was your evil twin), but I take evol. psych. stories with a grain of salt.

      That said, the depression article is in the evol. psych mould, and I’d use that in my synthesis.

  2. Diane Foley says

    What do you think of Buddhist thought on happiness? I found
    http://www.amazon.com/Happiness-Guide-Developing-Lifes-Important/dp/0316167258/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1254515792&sr=1-1 had a very different perspective than the placid organizational cow concept.

    • Haven’t read this particular book (it seems good though), but my sense about Buddhism overall is that a good deal gets lost in translation. I don’t think any key word in any strain of Buddhism (Tibetan, Indian, SE Asian, Chinese or Japanese (Zen)) translates into “happiness” in the Western sense, so they are really talking about slightly different concepts I’d say. Maybe ‘serenity’ comes closer.

      Can’t comment on whatever version of Buddhism this author builds off of, but in the Indian tradition for instance, an anchor concept used by both Vedantic and Buddhist philosophers is “Satchitananda” (a compound of sat-chit-ananda — truth-consciousness-pleasure). In that, ‘ananda’ comes closest to ‘happiness’ but isn’t quite that… it is something in between sensual pleasure and existential happiness.


  3. I don’t know why you’re so down on empirical neurology. Have you looked at Ramachandran’s (“… VSR, neurologist and holder of the land speed record for hypothesis generation”) work?

    If you haven’t read Phantoms in the Brain, look at http://lesswrong.com/lw/20/the_apologist_and_the_revolutionary/ for a discussion of anosognosia.

    After reading this book, I became far more depressed (i.e. realistic) about the fragility of the mind. The human mind-pattern fractures and shards off in so many interesting ways – everything’s fine, except .

    VSR has breathed a lot of life and hard science into Freud’s defense mechanisms as well.

    Whatever else shakes out of this, one thing is for sure: the body image is so easy to play games with that OBE is not mysterious at all. Ditto mystical/religious ecstasy and the implication that something deeply meaningful is going on.

  4. Forgive the intrusion of an amateur but as an engineer I do have a systematic approach that may be of some value.

    I must disagree with you on your low opinion of “maximisation of happiness”. I think the research on the evolutionary roots of depression might well shed some light on this disagreement. It seems to be widely agreed that anxiousness has an evolutionary benefit to humans, but the general conclusion from this is that happiness is not good for the survival of the species and our “genes have no interest in our happiness”. So your conclusion that lots of behaviour, including anti-social, behaviour is normal and healthy is quite correct. That does not imply that it makes people happy. So as an engineer I need to know what our ‘objective function’ is -ie. what we are trying to maximise. Personally, I put my happiness and the happiness of people around me as more important than the survival of the species. If I must act in a way that reduces the survival chances of my set of genes, so be it. I don’t really care. (I always wondered since I read about eunuchs in my twenties if I would be happier if I was castrated – I never got up the courage to try it).

    An interesting test (if a little politically incorrect) of this is to see if happier people replicate less. Statistics show that educated people tend to be happier and have less children, so there is some indication there that is a correlation there.

    A lot of people don’t like some of the conclusions that you can draw from this, for instance that if ambition and desire make you unhappy then you just try to be happy with what you have and stop wishing for more (I’m not just referring to financial issues here – also creativity). When I am asked to choose between the being a ‘happy pig’ or an ‘unhappy human’ I’m afraid that I have to say ‘happy pig’. However, I’m stuck with being a human so I have to make the best of it.

    So where am I missing the point?


    Brian Mulligan

  5. @tubelite the VSR article is great :) Now THAT I like; focused and cleverly designed experiments to probe specific hypotheses. What tires me is “we scanned this guy when he was doing sudoku puzzles and this part of the brain lit up.” The particular example, btw, is very germane to what I am working on in my book right now, figuring out a way to show the value of our ability to act to maintain the coherence of internal narratives. In this example it leads to delusions, but in real life, it is actually a very valuable mode of thinking, since complex mental models, like “universal healthcare is good/bad,” can’t be falsified by single clever experiments, and internal coherence is actually an important part of truth-value, in the Hegelian dialectic sense (yeah, shoot me, I like that idea, which empiricists hate).

    Also, am obviously overstating my case a bit for dramatic effect.

    @Brian: curious that you preface your comments with “I am an engineer/amateur.” So am I actually. In fact none of the other commenters is a professional psychologist.

    That said, I don’t feel the need for either apology or qualification. Psychology is one discipline where I have no hesitation in offering up my opinions, and riding roughshod over academic boundaries, based solely on my privileged access to the only experimental subject that matters to me: myself.

    Now as to your actual point, I am not saying the drive towards happiness is an illegitimate one. Your choice to be a happy pig over a miserable human is a perfectly valid one. My only point is that lots of other people choose other options (including ‘miserable human’ which I would choose without a second thought). It is quite often the choice made by people who value some notion of ‘truth’ or ‘art’ more. The conflict has been playing out nicely in recent episodes of “House” where the idea that Van Gogh would have been happier, not insane, and in possession of 2 ears if he had chosen treatment and happiness. But then we wouldn’t have his art. His sanity and one ear were a price he was willing to pay, and the rest of us certainly gained as a result. The character of House has, in previous seasons, clearly chosen “truth” over “happiness” and the writers of the show have set up an interesting point in the character arc, where he is poised to change his mind.

    Your genetics angle is actually one I agree with. Our selfish genes have no stake in our happiness unless it helps them replicate.

    Reproduction levels certainly go down with education/income levels, as the aging of the West and Japan shows. I’d argue that the correlation with happiness probably goes the other way. It is well known that more money (and probably more education) does not translate into more happiness beyond a point, and that other factors matter more. The world happiness survey consistently puts poorer and more hedonistic countries at the top, while richer, better educated ones have middling ranks. Countries like Bangladesh and Nigeria often top the rankings, while countries like the US languish. Some of it is undoubtedly translation effects, patriotism and certain sorts of lack of self-awareness, but some of this is genuine.

    And yes, there is more baby-making in these self-reported happy countries.

    My own cynical explanation is that what is being measured is not “happiness” but a mixture of hedonistic live-in-the-moment myopia and illiteracy. Ask those Bangladeshis after a few riots, bombings and a couple of bad years of flooding.

  6. You’re being a bit harsh on the pioneers of positive psychology. After decades or more of “negative” psychology focusing on mental illnesses, they deserve credit for bringing a much needed balance in perspective, and doing what it takes to sustain it in the current era. While specific themes like the strengths approach (and the appreciative inquiry technique from the 70s) may sustain longer than some other areas, positive psychology as a whole is unlikely to fade away.

    Yes, both the fMRI-driven mappers and the rationality-demolishing experimenters somehow seem to be making jabs rather than deriving foundational insights.

    Am yet to explore all the links you have referred to.

  7. @Brian and Venkat
    I suspect your inverse correlation between the happy educated and reproduction reflects not a causal relationship but an incidental one. An educated person has put off having children in favor of education, and likely in favor of professional career as well– especially true for women. Women who give birth later in life also have fewer years in which to have many children. Also, by virtue of having pursued education in the first place, have shown a particular value of education over child-rearing.

    In other words, I’m saying the status of women in (developed vs undeveloped) has more direct bearing on fertility than happiness.