Rhetoric, Debate, and Dialogue about EP

A defense of EP fails to satisfy.

Posted Oct 11, 2013

What happens when someone challenges your version of reality? That is, when someone argues that your justification system for why the world is the way it is wrong or bad? Well, most people get defensive and proceed to justify why their perspective is legitimate. The reason for this general pattern so often observed in human reasoning and arguing is, according to the unified theory, ultimately a function of natural selection. That is, by evolved design, the human self-consciousness system finds equilibrium in being coherent, consistent over time, and enhancing or legitimizing of one’s interests and actions. The pattern of rationalizing and the subconscious emotional forces that guide it were first systematically studied by the psychoanalysts. Later, social psychologists experimentally analyzed the process, which they called cognitive dissonance. Interestingly, neither of these angles provided a clear, ultimate explanation for why people defend their justifications the way they do. It took an evolutionary psychological analysis to give that answer. (See here for the details).

According to this perspective, the prediction is that PT blogger Jesse Marczyk’s initial response to reading the above paragraph—if he had randomly stumbled across it—would be positive. Why? Because it is basically consistent with his stated, explicit version of reality, which is that Evolutionary Psychology (EP) provides an integrative meta-theory for psychology. Because of this, his initial reaction to the idea that an evolutionary analysis helped explain and integrate key aspects of human reasoning from previously disparate fields should sound good to him.

Whether that is true or not, it clearly was true that when I claimed EP did not serve as a viable meta-theory for the field of psychology, his justification system became active and he wanted to restore equilibrium. Indeed, the very mission of his blog is to defend EP from pop psychological misconceptions and thus it was an issue of identity to take up the cause and invalidate a potentially threatening claim. As suggested by the Justification Hypothesis, such a response is a very natural one for people to have. Indeed, I believe it is one of the most basic ways evolutionary forces have “prepared us” to behave.

Jesse’s rhetorical style in responding to my blog was of a fairly common genre. In essence, he positions himself as one of the wearily Enlightened defending the truth (in this case, of EP) from the ignorant masses and their pop (mis)conceptions. Although he himself has repeatedly addressed such common misconceptions in the past, unfortunately people are either not reading or not understanding his analyses and, thus, seeing yet another misconception crossing his desk in the form of my blog, he was roused to once again educate the public about the truth of things.

If this sounds a tad condescending, it is. And, basically, that is because I experienced the tone of his blog to be, well, more than a tad condescending. That said, let me stop here and make a process comment. Contentious debates on blogs and listserves tend to take a fairly predictable form. Someone makes a claim that threatens or challenges someone’s position, then someone defends, egos get involved and before you know it people are talking past one another such that it becomes a competitive rhetorical exercise rather than a constructive exchange of ideas. (The rampant nature of this process is the norm in our current government and the essential cause of the dysfunction). As such, let's try to focus on issues in a way that is constructive.

Returning to the issues at hand, my position is that EP, as the founders framed it, does not offer a viable meta-theory for psychology. Although I could have offered more reasons, my initial blog articulates three important ones. First, the founders over-committed to an emphasis on evolved domain specificity in a way that was unnecessarily defined against traditional learning and cultural perspectives. I also argued that the founders overlooked or failed to understand the “dimensions of complexity” in nature, and in a related vein, they failed to offer an effective definition of psychology. Finally, I briefly pointed out that EP does very little for the profession, which at the very least is a big problem for perspective claiming to offer an integrative meta-theory for psychology. Keep in mind that there are far more applied/professional psychologists than basic psychological researchers, so if you are neglecting that arm of the field, by default your claim on being an integrative meta-theory is restricted.

What then was Jesse’s narrative in response? The vast majority of his response was to the first criticism. And it basically was centered on the issue of domain specific relative to domain general problems. This is a central aspect of EP and thus there has been a bunch written about it. He reminds readers that the EP approach is that even things that appear domain general actually have many specific elements. Indeed, I appreciate the fact that he took the time to examine a link on behavioral investment and his articulation of why, even though that might appear to be a “domain general problem”, the fact is there must indeed be many underlying specifics. And, according to him, what is it that gives form to those specifics? EP analyses.

The essential content of his argument is fine and there is only a little I disagree with. I certainly agree with the basic sentiment that when we start analyzing domain general problems, there are many specific underlying processes and, to quote Jesse, “things can get complicated quickly”. And I agree that evolutionary analyses are crucial to make predictions about design features. So, from a dialogue perspective, we can put these issues aside, since we agree. Is there more to be said?

Yes. The reason is the discussion has moved away from the central point that was being made. My claim was not whether or not there is much complication around the domain specific versus domain general problem. Of course that is true. Instead, my claim, which was made in the context of EP as an integrative meta-theory, is that EP founders overemphasized domain specificity in a way that was unnecessarily defined against traditional learning and cultural perspectives. So, Jesse’s response here can be seen as a rhetorical device, and it does not really address the criticism at all. To address it, he needs to explain why EP was not unnecessarily defined against traditional learning and cultural perspectives. To make that argument, he needs to show that EP founders did what they could assimilate and integrate the key/valid insights from those approaches. Why? Because that what an integrative meta-theory is supposed to do (as opposed to a separate new perspective defined against old perspectives-which is how I see EP).

Unfortunately, Jesse’s blog goes downhill after that somewhat reasonable, if somewhat misguided, initial reply. My advice to Jesse is some advice my mentor, Dr. A. T. Beck, gave me when I was first starting to publish my ideas. First, if you are in a contentious debate be very careful that you are making accurate claims. Second, don’t use cheap tricks to score points. Unfortunately, Jesse is guilty of both.

Following the domain general versus specific analysis, Jesse offers some selected quotes out of context from a chapter I wrote, puts them together, and then scratches his head over my lack of understanding. That is what I mean by a cheap debate trick, and the suggestion that I need to read a primer on evo psych adds an unhelpful rhetroical spin. 

Jesse commits an even graver error when he attributes a quote to me that I did not say. The quote about “the static model suggested by evolutionary psychologists” was cut and pasted from the back of Peggy La Cerra’s book. That fact was plainly stated in my original blog. The fact that he goes on to lecture me about the naïve content of the quote is, well, a bit embarrassing.

I see Jesse as a staunch defender of EP, and that is fine. I am certainly not against EP, no more than I am against social psychology. But the issue here is about frames that theoretically unify psychology. And, in that way, EP fails. How do I know that? Because my life’s work has been about trying to understand what psychology is and how might it be unified. It seemed pretty clear to me that Jesse has not read my work, which would be the likely the reason why he repeated said he did not understand the majority of the criticisms and points that were made. That is fine. I am happy to dialogue with him if he does read my work. I can assure Jesse that if he does read it, he will not find glib, pop psychological misconceptions about EP (or anything else for that matter) that lend themselves to easy dismissal.

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