Investment and Justification

Psychology's two central organizing constructs

Posted Dec 04, 2012

I have spent my career attempting to develop a clear answer the question, "What is psychology?" The question fascinated me because the field seemed to touch on so many different areas of life and because there was no broad conceptual or philosophical framework that allowed one to say exactly what it is that defines the field. The meta-psychology I have developed claims that psychology is actually was three fields in one. It consists of two related but also separable domains of science (basic v. human), and it is also, simultaneously, a health profession.

In regards to the science, my investigation led me to realize that to effectively understand the discipline it was imperative to realize that the field of psychology seeks to understand two fundamentally different subject matters. The first and most basic question that psychology deals with is the “problem” of animal behavior. Look around and observe objects in your environment and you will see that animals behave very differently than either inanimate objects like rocks or animate objects like plants. Animals, often made up of millions or billions of cells, act as a singular, coordinated unit in a way that produces a functional effect on the environment. Although it is true that plants do this to a degree, animals do it qualitatively faster, and with much more variation and complexity. The task of basic psychology is to develop explanatory systems that can account for the uniqueness of animal behavior.

Now take a look at the articles and blogs in Psychology Today. Although animals are certainly represented to a degree, the vast majority deal with human behavior, mostly at the individual level. That is psychology’s second question: why do individual people do what they do? (And, relatedly, what is the nature of the human mind?). Answering this question is the task of human psychology.

With the difference in subject matters between basic and human psychology clarified, we can now wonder if there are central concepts that can organize and guide our thinking about these two different questions. To serve as a model of what I mean, consider how Darwin’s theory of natural selection (especially when joined with the modern conception of genetics in the modern synthesis), provides a central organizing frame for life. Much of biology can be effectively framed by realizing that life evolved via natural selection operating on genetic combinations through time.

So, the question arises: Are there foundational frames that allow us to understand animal behavior and the human mind at the level of the individual? Yes. The concept of investment frames animal behavior and the concept of justification frames the unique elements of the human mind.

I just asked my 11 year old son the question: Why do animals behave so differently than plants? He gave the answer that I hoped…“Because they have brains”. So let us ask why do animals have brains? The answer is evolution has conferred upon animals the adaptive advantage of free range behavior which enables them to forage for resources, escape threats, and otherwise manage the flow of resources for survival and reproduction. But while the capacity to move obviously is advantageous, it also creates problems. An animal can move into a threatening situation, its movement might be futile, and the movement itself is costly in terms of metabolic energy. The result of this is that animals evolved intelligence systems that compute the investment of action on a cost-to-benefit ratio. This insight is foundational and leads to the ability to integrate many different perspectives on animal behavior, including operant theory, computational neuroscience, and behavioral ecology. (For an excellent video and the evolution of animal behavior, see here).

But let’s keep the focus on stuff most readers are likely interested in, things like money and emotions. Starting with emotions, our emotional system is organized into two broad affective systems, positive and negative. Why? The answer from the investment perspective is simple. Positive affect (pleasure, joy, desire) signals a benefit to move toward and invest in. Negative affect (pain, fear, distress) signals costs to move away from.

Now, think about your money. What is money? Money is the symbol humans have generated to represent potential energy that can be invested to effect change. The ease with which humans can be socialized to manage financial investment is a function of the fact that the core of the nervous system parallels economic investment. Spend as little as possible to get as much as possible in return is a foundational organizing principle of behavior. And although it is certainly true that the investment perspective doesn’t answer all of our important questions (for example, how does the brain give rise to mental experience?), it is the central concept that can frame our understanding of animal behavior.

But what about the human mind and behavior of people? Humans took a qualitative jump because their intelligence systems for investment gave rise to a whole new system of information processing—human language. Human language, in turn, gave rise to the problem of justification. The result was the emergence of justification systems, language based, meaning making systems that coordinated people and legitimized action. Blogs, political platforms, laws, religions, and even the various sciences itself are all justification systems. At the individual level, we can also use the concept of justification to understand why people filter information from their self-conscious awareness. As Freud observed, unjustifiable impulses and feelings are often filtered out of conscious experience. And, of course, we often filter the private thoughts we have from the public—again because of the problem of being socially unjustified.

So, next time someone asks you what is psychology, tell them that it is really three fields in one, and that the science of psychology needs to be divided up into two basic domains, each of which has its own central concept. The first is basic psychology, which explores the question of animal behavior and studies how animals compute action on an investment value system. The second is human psychology, which concerns itself with human investment and the unique human capacity of self-conscious justification.