The Conceptual Unification of Psychology

A unified framework will benefit the field

Posted Feb 29, 2012

   Have you ever looked across the field of psychology, and noted with some dismay all the various approaches taken in the discipline? Have you ever found yourself wondering if psychology was really a coherent discipline, and if so, why was it so hard to clearly define? Or have you ever considered whether all those approaches could someday be unified, such that the key insights from the various branches and paradigms could coherently connected into one grand, metapsychology?  

   Questions like these awakened in me a deep intellectual curiosity that ultimately culminated in the development of the "unified theory". Trained as a clinical psychologist, I was fortunate in that early in my graduate education I gained a rich exposure to the psychotherapy integration movement, which is the idea that the best of the best approaches to psychotherapy should somehow be integrated. This led me to many important realizations about psychotherapy, including: a) many of the "single" schools were defined against one another both conceptually and politically; b) no single school had the depth and breadth in both the humanistic and scientific domains to offer a comprehensive solution; and c) much overlap between the schools becomes apparent as one becomes proficient in their language and concepts. However, despite these problems, there were significant difficulties in achieving a coherent integrative view.

   First, the competing schools clearly had different (although often implicit) moral emphases. Second, if one considers, as I do, psychotherapy to be the application of psychological principles in the service of promoting human well-being, then it follows that the disorganization of psychological science seriously hampers, if not completely prevents, the development of a coherent, general approach to psychotherapy.

  Although now obvious with the benefit of hindsight, I essentially backed into this second point. I was looking for basic, core conceptual commonalities that cut across the various perspectives in psychotherapy and started to explore a broad array of literatures. Fortunately, evolutionary psychology was just beginning to make a major impact on the field, and in it I found a major piece of the puzzle.  All the major perspectives were grounded in an evolutionary perspective, thus this could provide a shared point of departure from which to view each of the competing paradigms.

The Development of the Justification Hypothesis

  Learning about evolutionary theory set the stage for what I consider to this day to be a major theoretical break through-an idea I came to call the Justification Hypothesis. So, what, exactly is the Justification Hypothesis? Technically, it is the idea that the evolution of language created the adaptive problem of social justification and this adaptive problem shaped the design features of the human self-consciousness system. In more general terms, and more importantly for this context, it means that we can think about the organization of human reflective thought and human culture in terms of justification systems.

  Although it would take years to develop into a formal proposal, the proverbial "flash" of insight came on a drive home after completing a psychological evaluation on a woman hospitalized following a suicide attempt. In her late thirties, she was diagnosed with a double depression and an avoidant personality disorder. A woman with an above average intellect, she had graduated from high school, worked as a teacher's aide and lived in almost complete isolation on the brink of poverty. In a reasonably familiar story line, her father was an authoritarian, verbally abusive, alcoholic who dominated her timid, submissive mother. He would also be physically and violently abusive to her older brother, who was much more defiant of his power. She distinctly remembered several episodes of her father beating her brother, while yelling at him that he needed to be more like his obedient sister. Perhaps the most salient feature of this patient's character structure was her complete sense of inadequacy. She viewed herself as totally incompetent in almost every conceivable way and expressed an extreme dependency on the guidance of others. In presenting the case to my supervisor and classmates, I argued that the network of self-deprecating beliefs served an obvious function, given her developmental history. Namely, the beliefs she had about herself had justified submission and deference in a context where any form of defiance was severely punished. It was the first time I explicitly used the concept of justification to describe how language-based beliefs about self and others were functionally organized.

  I arrived home about a half an hour late following the discussion about the patient and found myself explaining to my wife that traffic was particularly bad. Traffic had been bad, but the reality also was that it only accounted for about ten minutes of my tardiness. I had left work twenty minutes later than anticipated because I was eagerly discussing the patient's dynamics with my fellow students. In a moment of heightened self-reflection, I became acutely aware that this reason for my tardiness was much less emphasized as I explained my actions to my wife. My mind had effortlessly accessed the traffic reason and just had effortlessly suppressed the reason that was significantly less justifiable, at least as far as my wife was concerned at the moment. It was upon reflecting on my own justifications and how they were selected that the broad generalization dawned on me. The patient was not the only individual whose "justification system" for why she was the way she was could be understood as arising out of her developmental history and social context.

   I came to see processes of justification as being ubiquitous in human affairs. Arguments, debates, moral dictates, rationalizations, and excuses, as well as many of the more core beliefs about the self, all involve the process of explaining why one's claims, thoughts, or actions are warranted. In virtually every form of social exchange, from blogging to warfare to politics to family struggles to science, humans are constantly justifying their behaviors to themselves and to others. Moreover, it was not only that one sees the process of justification everywhere one looks in human affairs that made the idea so intriguing. It became clear upon reflection that the process is a uniquely human phenomenon. Other animals communicate, struggle for dominance, and form alliances. But they don't justify why they do what they do. Indeed, if I had to boil the uniqueness of human nature down to one word, it would be justification. We are the justifying animal.

   The JH became an obsession for me because the idea seemed to cut across many different areas of thought. It was obviously congruent with basic insights from a psychodynamic perspective. It was also clearly consistent with many of the foremost concerns of the humanists. For example, Roger's argument that much psychopathology can be understood as a split between the social self and the true self could be easily understood through the lens of the JH. Consider how a judgmental, powerful other might force particular justifications in a manner that produces intrapsychic rifts between how a person "really" feels and how they must say they feel. The JH is also directly consistent with cognitive psychotherapy, which can be readily interpreted as a systematic approach to identifying and testing one's justification system. But the idea also pulled in psychological science. Cognitive dissonance, the self-serving bias, human reasoning biases, and the "interpreter function" of the left hemisphere all were readily accountable by the formulation of the JH. The JH also seamlessly incorporated insights from those who emphasize cultural levels of analysis.

The Tree of Knowledge System: The Second Key Insight

  By clearly delineating the dimension of human behavior from the behavior from other animals, a fascinating new formulation began to emerge, which I called the Tree of Knowledge System and depicted in the following graphic.

   The ToK System offers a vision emergent evolution as consisting of one level of pure information (Energy) and four levels or dimensions of complexity (Matter, Life, Mind, and Culture) that correspond to the behavior of four classes of objects (material objects, organisms, animals, and humans), and four classes of science (physical, biological, psychological, and social).

   Another key element of the system, is that each of the four dimensions is associated with a theoretical joint point that provides the causal explanatory framework for its emergence. As explained in the prior post, the modern evolutionary synthesis is the theoretical merger of Darwin's theory of natural selection and genetics, and provides for the conceptual unification of biology. Biology is a unified discipline precisely because it has a clear, well-established definition (the science of Life), an agreed upon subject matter (organisms), and a theoretical system that provides the causal explanatory framework for its emergence (natural selection operating on genetic combinations across the generations). It is this crisp conceptual organization that leaves scientifically minded psychologists with feelings of bio-envy.

   If the modern evolutionary synthesis represents the Matter-to-Life joint point, what about the Life-to-Mind and Mind-to-Culture joint-points? Here is where the unified theory does its best work. It shows that Skinner's ideas can be combined with cognitive neuroscience to provide the framework for the Life-to-Mind joint-point. This idea is called Behavioral Investment Theory. And the Justification Hypothesis connects Freud's key observations with modern social and cognitive psychology to provide the framework for the Mind-to-Culture joint-point. Together, these two theoretical joint-points "box in" psychology and provide a unified theoretical framework for the field.

     Not only does the system provide a way to theoretically integrate perspectives that have been very disparate, it also provides a powerful new tool in carving out the proper conception of the field at large. Consider that even a preliminary analysis corresponding the ToK System to the varying conceptions of the discipline suggests that the idea of what psychology is about has historically spanned two fundamentally separate problems: (1) the problem of animal behavior in general (Mind on the ToK System), and (2) the problem of human behavior at the individual level (Culture). Through the meta-level view afforded by the ToK System, we can now see that previous efforts to define the field have failed in part because they have attempted to force one solution onto a problem that consists of two fundamentally distinct dimensions.

    I teach my students that the science of psychology should be divided into two large scientific domains of (1) basic psychology and (2) human psychology. Basic psychology is defined as the science of Mind (mental behavior) and corresponds to the behavior of animals. Human psychology is considered to be a unique subset of psychological formalism that deals with human behavior at the level of the individual. Because human behavior is immersed in the larger socio-cultural context (dimension four in the ToK System), human psychology is considered a hybrid discipline that merges the pure science of psychology with the social sciences. The crisp boundary system that I am proposing is in contrast to others who have conceived of the science of psychology as existing in a vague, amorphous space between biology and the social sciences.

   The "critic" in the post that started this series claimed that psychology could not be conceptually unified because there are too many political forces that pull it apart. However, what many psychologists are now beginning to see is that with the right map, we can, in fact, rise above the political forces, and move toward a more coherent, accurate, integrative, and healthy vision of what the field is all about.