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.
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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).