Theory of Knowledge

A unified approach to psychology and philosophy

Psychology's Greatest Insights

The science of psychology does have something to offer our understanding.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.
This post is a response to Psychology’s Greatest Advice by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.

When I clicked on what was at the time the most popular PT blog, Susan Whitbourne’s Psychology’s Greatest Advice, I felt a bit, well, disheartened. Why? Because it made me concerned for the field. According to Susan’s blog, which was liked by over five thousand people on Facebook (!), the seven greatest pieces of psychology-based “advice” can be summed up as follows (slightly reworded by me with numbers to correspond to her list):

If you want to learn about people, (1) watch what they do. Keep in mind that (2) sometimes people are motivated by inner forces, and also that (6) human behavior is heavily influenced by situations. (4) People respond to rewards, (3) close relationships are important to well-being, (5) if you want to maintain a skill keep practicing it, and (7) intelligence is a complicated construct.

Compare this list of platitudes that we psychologists supposedly developed with the standard model of elementary particle physics or biology’s modern evolutionary synthesis and you will quickly see why psychology is often regarded by those in the "real" sciences as a joke. Every one of these statements could be derived by virtually any thinking person. If we further consider how brilliant authors like Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky provide compelling insights into the human condition, then if this really is a good summary of what psychology has to offer humankind, we should consider retiring the entire field.

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I do believe that psychology has much to offer humanity. But it does not come in the form of advice (key findings from professional psychologists might, but that is a different topic), but in the way it situates humans in the universe. Here are what I think are seven of the science of psychology’s greatest insights:

1. The felt experiences, thoughts, and actions of animals (AKA those things mental) are mediated by the nervous system in general and the brain in particular. In addition, the behavior-of-the-animal-as-a- whole can be generally understood to operate as a function of behavioral investment. Specifically, animals work (expend energy) to control the flow of resources and do so via processes that function as cost : benefit calculations. Such neuro-computational processes emerge as a consequence of the evolved history of the species (phylogeny) and the unique experiences of the particular animal (ontogeny). A full understanding of animal behavioral investment requires an analysis of 1) energy economics; 2) evolution; 3) behavioral genetics; 4) neuronal computational control; 5) learning; and 6) developmental life stage.  (See Pavlov, Skinner, Lorenz, Tinbergen, Hebb, Kandel, evolutionary psychology folks, etc)

2. Sentience or experiential consciousness (i.e., the first ‘person’ experience of seeing objects or feeling pain) is the product of a mental field that emerges as a function of (a) the integration of neuronal information in the brain and (b) the animal behaving in context. Mammals definitely have experiential consciousness, birds and even fish probably do. (see work on ethology and cognitive and neuroscience of consicousness).

3. Experiential consciousness in mammals can be understood functionally via a control systems view in which perceptions are referenced against goal states to be approached or avoided. The relationship between perceptions and goal states activates emotional states, the anchored roots of which are in pleasure and pain, which signal the animal to approach or avoid various situations. (see Jaak Panskepp in affective neuroscience)

 4. As social apes, humans have deep seated socio-emotional needs for attachment and belonging. Humans track this as their sense of relational value to others, which is crucial to their physical and mental health. Humans negotiate their relational value via complicated arrangements of cooperation, competition, connection and separation-individuation. (see Frans de Waal, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Diane Fossey, etc)

 5. Human beings are a special kind of ape; a particular uniqueness is that they build systems of justification, which are language-based networks of beliefs and values to provide frames of orientation and meaning-making that legitimize action and devotion. Human self-consciousness emerges as the reason-giving interpreter of experiential consciousness and action. Thus, human consciousness consists of two parallel streams, 1) the experiential stream shared with other animals and 2) the justifying stream, which is uniquely human. As Freud noted, there is filtering between these streams. (in addition to Freud, Gazzaniga, Festinger, my work on the Just Hypothesis) 

  6. Cultures are held together by shared frames of orientation and devotion that legitimize action which can fruitfully be called justification systems. The kinds of large scale justification systems that can emerge are very diverse, but humans need frames of justification and always build them. Religion reflects the human attempt to narrate where they came and way, so that they will have a “justification narrative” that allows for and frames action and devotion. The context in which people grow up thus greatly shapes and frames their identity and reason giving tendencies. (see work on feminism, social constructionism, etc).

 7. Although religions provide humans with a needed frame of orientation and devotion, a supernatural explanation for human behavior is scientifically superfluous.    

There is, of course, much more that could be said, but it is an outline our field's insights, which do provide a frame of orientation for us to make sense of our nature. 

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at James Madison University.

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