The human confrontation with deep existential issues is now the focus of rigorous experimental methods in the discipline of Experimental Existential Psychology (or XXP for short). Experimental existentialism? Is this an oxymoron? Not according to psychologists from The Netherlands and the U.S. who published their "position paper" for this new approach in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.
Sander Koole, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, University of Arizona and University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, respectively), are leading a revival of sorts. They are calling attention back to five core existential concerns that they label The "Big Five" (not to be confused with the "Big Five" in personality psychology, but that's another issue).
Before I tell you more about eXperimental eXistential Psychology (XXP), I need to digress just a little. Back in the 1920's when social psychology was emerging as a discipline, this type of "position paper" was written to introduce the focus and scope of the emerging sub-discipline of psychology. In the case of social psychology, Floyd Allport was a champion of the cause arguing for a scientific study of social behavior. Now, nearly 100 years later, we see the same sort of "call to arms" for a rigorous scientific approach to the study of psychology, in this case "the psychology of the soul" no less, as these authors write in the title to the article (interesting play with dualism for an experimentally-oriented trio).
At the heart of articles like this is an epistemological issue. No one ever doubts the relevance of understanding the social world as Floyd Allport championed, or, in this case, the relevance of understanding the human condition in light of the "big five" - death, isolation, identity, freedom and meaning. What is doubted is what we can say with any confidence without the "rigor" of experimental empirical methods.
Before you accuse me of science-bashing, please recall that I am an active researcher, collecting and analyzing data from what many call (and some criticize as) a realist perspective. In fact, from what I've read about the substance of XXP, my students and I are already doing this research. My last blog posting about Allan Blunt's research on state-orientation and procrastination is a prime example. For dedicated "Don't Delay" readers out there, you will recall that Kuhl's theory of action control guided our understanding of the data, and falsely internalized goals was a key concept in our interpretation of the results. Julius Kuhl's work in the theory of action is held out as a prime example of the XXP paradigm (although the methods advocated are still more experimental in nature, not correlational as we used).
This position paper of the XXP group makes a few clear points. In the interest of a brief summary, I'll simply list the main ideas below.
1. Existential issues have traditionally been the purview of philosophy (with the exception of some existentially-oriented psychologists with an interest in psychotherapy such as Yalom).
2. Early research from an existential perspective relied on introspection to access the unconscious processes assumed to be important, and this is a deeply flawed method.
3. Fortunately (that's their word), recent advances in experimental psychology, particularly techniques like "priming" have provided the tools to analyze the unconscious sources of human behavior.
These are not uncontroversial statements (excuse the double negative please, but this is the best way to put this). However, the XXPers have made their start. I for one applaud them.
This is a position paper, and, although I think that the epistemological claims of "recent advances in experimental psychology" may be a bit over-played, it is still very good to see fundamental issues of existence at the forefront of psychological discussion among the members of this group.
Koole, Greenberg and Pyszczynski close their paper by addressing some challenges that face this "new science of the soul." Let me use their words, as they're brief and to the point.
"The human struggle with the givens of existence has captured the imagination of poets, prophets, and philosophers across the ages. Experimental psychologists are now studying people's existential concerns using the rigorous methods of psychological science. The first generation of research in XXP has produced incontrovertible evidence that the confrontation with existential issues exerts a pervasive - albeit often unconscious - influence on human behavior. One important challenge for the next generation of research is a further integration of existential psychology and cognitive neuroscience."
Interestingly, a past student of Carleton University and now faculty member at York University (Toronto, Canada), Ian McGregor is leading the way on this type of research as he explores the neuroscience of what he calls compensatory zeal after one has been reminded of death, personal uncertainty and the other scary things that existence holds for us.
Another challenge that Koole and his colleagues note is the application of insights from XXP to everyday life. This is a challenge I readily welcome, and I know you have seen this in my posts to date. I think that procrastination is one of many examples of how the existential issues of freedom, meaning and identity get played out daily. We'll be returning to this topic, this group and others like them in future posts.
Reading of Interest
Greenberg, J., Koole, S., & Pyszczynski, T. (2004). Handbook of experimental existential psychology. New York: Guilford Press.