The Demise of the “Big Picture Thinker” in Psychology?

The importance of retaining breadth in a research culture focused on depth

Posted Jul 31, 2017

In a recent Perspectives on Psychological Science forum on the future of psychology, many senior scholars wrote about their views on the direction of the field. One of the themes that appeared from a few of the scholars was the importance of being a generalist despite the current pressure to become more of a specialist. To slow down and be more thoughtful to improve the quality of psychological science.

Carol S. Dweck: “Unlike the old days, graduate school is no longer a time to simply immerse yourself in the field, read, think, and talk for a couple of years, as you come up with new ideas and perspectives. We need to remember that this is the time in a scientist’s life when, as a newcomer, you can have fresh insights on a field, question the established theories and paradigms, and offer truly field-changing ideas. Instead, with the press to publish early and often we may be implicitly encouraging our students to dive into the status quo and start churning out publications. I remember when it was considered to be in bad taste to over-publish as a graduate student. It was taken as a sign of not being sufficiently thoughtful. And I still ask on a regular basis: Does the field really benefit from the deluge of papers every year? Wouldn’t the field benefit from more reflection?”

Scott O. Lilienfeld: “In today’s academic environment, big picture thinkers may be at risk for extinction (Wolfe, 2016). Paul Meehl, the most influential clinical psychologist of the latter half of the 20th century, received a grand total of one federal grant in his career. I am hardly the first to observe that psychology’s great generalist thinkers of the past, such as Meehl, Lee J. Cronbach, Donald Campbell, Lloyd Humphreys, Jane Loevinger, and Robyn Dawes, are now few and far between. One has to wonder what would have come of those scholars had they experienced incessant pressure to apply for funding.”

Diane F. Halpern: “For early career psychologists, I offer advice that may go against the grain in a world in which academic psychologists are valued for their increasingly narrow slivers of expertise. If you want to prepare for a future with diverse teams addressing interesting topics from different angles, you will need to remain general in your knowledge. It is a sad sight when two psychologists find that they cannot communicate about their work because each person works in an area so specialized that few people can follow what she or he is doing. Of course, no one can have endless breadth, but there is a critical balance between depth and breadth of knowledge, and I am urging for a bigger push toward breadth.”

As Peter Higgs, the Nobel Prize winning physicist once said in an interview: "Today, I wouldn't get an academic job. It's as simple as that. I don't think I would be regarded as productive enough." When asked whether the push to publish has come at the expense of important space for deep thought he said "I was certainly uncomfortable with it. After I retired, it was quite a long time before I went back to my department. I thought I was well out of it. It wasn't my way of doing things any more. It's difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964."

References

Dweck, C. S. (2017). Is psychology headed in the right direction? Yes, no, and maybe. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12, 656-659.

Halpern, D. F. (2017). Whither psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12, 665-668.

Lilienfeld, S. O. (2017). Psychology's replication crisis and the grant culture: Righting the ship. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12, 660-664.