Mind of a Psychologist

Can you turn off that inner psychologist?

Posted Sep 03, 2016

J. Krueger
Source: J. Krueger

This art loan was enthusiastically endorsed by Brown's Public Art Committee. ~Christina Paxson, President of Brown University, personal communication

Never mind the blue bear. I’ll get back to it below.

According to Plato – channeling Socrates – you can’t be a philosopher, that is to say a fully developed human being, before the age of 40, and really only after the age of 60, when the sexual instincts begin to weaken [1]. And of course you would have to be a free Greek man, but that is of little concern here. Psychology is for all intents and purposes the heiress of philosophy. We study how humans perceive, judge, and remember the world, and how rational and moral they are being when doing it. These are quintessentially philosophical questions. Psychologists have data, whereas philosophers have ‘thought experiments.’ If psychology is to have any value, it should offer a set of insights, discoveries, facts, and perspectives that lift those who know them above the base ignorance of the crowd. This has to be so, right? Otherwise the study of psychology would be a waste.

Many of those who haven’t studied psychology justifiably expect those who have studied it to have privileged perceptions and insights. Again, this has to be so. Would you not expect a lawyer to know something about the law, an engineer to know something about engineering? Then why does the question, when posed to a psychologist, feel so awkward? The other day, a young man (“Hannes”) asked me if I could or would “turn off the psychologist.” He then oriented his attention (a psychological event) to his child and her playmates while leaving me to ponder the problem. The next day, I told my friend W., young Hannes’s father-in-law, that the answer was ‘yes.’ I was trying to imagine (another psychological event) how Hannes would react to this answer and if he even remembered his own question (more psychological events).

What Hannes was getting at is that being a psychologist brings forth certain dialectics and paradoxes. As a human being, the psychologist is a creature like everyone else. As a professional of mind, he (add the “or she” from here on out) finds himself in that situation where the observer and the observed are the same, and at the same time are different as subject and object. This is, in effect, the general problem of self-consciousness, which is easily noticed and experienced by any sensitive person of adequate intelligence. For the psychologist, this dialectic/paradox goes on steroids.

Many psychologists take the view that their science is an objective one much like other sciences of nature. Indeed, it is difficult to find any articles in high-impact journals that do not rest on this assumption. Also, most empirical research is normative instead of idiographic. Case studies are rare; the knowledge resides in statistical trends over individuals. However probabilistic (i.e., messy) the data may be, empirically working psychologists like to believe that if their measures were more reliable and their theories more refined, then they would be able to understand, explain, and predict everything – at the limit. This notion of potential full knowledge reveals the underlying doctrine of determinism. Psychological events, much like other events in supra-atomic nature may be complexly determined, but the are determined. Neither quantum-mechanical ideas nor the fairy-tale notion of free will have done much damage to the idea of ultimate determinism.

With scientific findings in hand, the psychologist should be a little better at explaining and predicting behavior than the ordinary person. This is more easily said (and written) than done. Causal explanations may be true or false but it is hard to tell the difference. Why did Hannes turn away after asking his question: [a] his child was the salient stimulus and her well-being paramount, [b] he was afraid of the answer he might get, [c] he did not really care about the answer, or [d] an entirely different cause, unavailable to our analysis, affected his mind. Both Hannes and I might choose [a] but we will never know if we were right. Causal explanations are convincing to the extent that they make a good (coherent) story, flatter us, and are consistent with other knowledge obtained in the realm of prediction (e.g., the results of experimental research). But this convincingness is a poor proxy of truth. Experimental work is most valid when a prediction is corroborated under narrow, cleanly controlled conditions, and this is precisely the kind of context that limits its usefulness for causal interpretations. When you observe a behavior (Hannes turns away), the context is not fixed. Several plausible explanations suggest themselves. He may not care, he may be afraid, he may be concerned about his kid. Each explanation may be sufficient to yield a significant result in a prediction study, where all other causes are controlled. So when you look back in time to identify the critical cause and there is more than one on the table, your choice among them says more about you than about the reality you’re trying to explain.

When I told W. that my answer to Hannes’s question was ‘yes,’ I lobbed the ball back into his field. Let him figure out what I meant by it (assuming that he cares). I could have said, “Young man, your question is ill-posed,” or “Dear Hannes, the answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’ depending on what you mean.” But that would have been snarky. My answer of ‘yes’ means that the inner psychologist being off is the mental default. He can be turned on when there is a need or a challenge (like the one presented by Hannes himself). And once turned on, the psychologist comes to realize, much like Socrates, that while he understands the issue better now that he has thought about it, he realizes how little he knows when it comes to explaining a particular event. Is psychological research a waste then? Here, my answer is ‘no.’ We should make it clear that our realistic goal is to predict trends under well-specified conditions. This is, after all, the goal of all mature sciences. Why should psychology be held to a higher standard? For the rest, we can plead Socratic ignorance. And he Socrates was not impaired by it. In fact, he was reportedly quite happy. So why should we not be?   

Now back to the blue bear. Did you put it out of your mind? Did you try but it popped back in? Brown University’s blue bear is our answer to Dostoyevsky’s white elephant. Try not to think about a white elephant, and you find that it paradoxically reasserts itself in your thoughts. Now consider the implication for the psychologist (or anyone for that matter) who is being asked not to analyze everything to dea


[1] McKee, P., & Barber, C. (2001). Plato’s theory on aging. Journal of Aging and Identity, 6, 93-103.