My 20-Year Journey Toward a Unified Framework

A narrative account of my journey toward a unified framework.

Posted Jun 11, 2017

I just served as a blind peer reviewer for two papers that had some notable parallels. Each paper proposed a new model of a central concept in psychology (one of the mind, the other of the self) and then went on to offer recommendations for how to treat important clinical phenomena based on the new model (one on chronic pain, the other on PTSD). The papers were generally well-written, but I could not recommend either for publication. Why? Because each paper “dropped” in on these huge concepts without any real background (or back drop) about how they were framing or defining them relative to existing knowledge systems. That is, neither paper even tried to address the basic conceptual issues or disputes in the field regarding these concepts. Now the authors knew their approach was novel and conceptual and had appropriately sent it to journals that operated as such. And I thought the papers did indeed offer something of value. But to see that value, they needed to be contextually embedded in a larger system of understanding, and that was completely missing.

From my perspective, the submissions were diagnostic of what I refer to as the problem of psychology. I suspect that there are very few papers submitted to journals in biology that outline a largely novel and conceptual model of “life”, followed by some medicinal treatment recommendations, all in 25 pages with no empirical research. The reason that this is still “OK” in psychology is that the field lacks a clear subject matter and definitional language system, which prevents the development of a coherent, core body of knowledge. This is what I mean by the problem of psychology. Here is a quote from the wonderful scholar, Paul Meehl, on this issue:

It is simply a sad fact that in soft psychology theories rise and decline, come and go, more as a function of baffled boredom than anything else; and the enterprise shows a disturbing absence of that cumulative character that is so impressive in disciplines like astronomy, molecular biology and genetics.

It is the absence of the cumulative character of knowledge in psychology that drove me to develop my “unified” framework over the past 20 years. I put unified in scare quotes because I want to be clear about what I have meant in using this term over the years. Specifically, unified means a shared definitional system and conceptual understanding that leads to knowledge that has a cumulative character. Biological, chemical, and physical science knowledge systems, despite all the disagreements within them, are qualitatively more unified than psychological knowledge systems are. The question is whether psychological knowledge systems can achieve this kind of knowledge (or is the nature of psychological knowledge inherently more diffuse and pluralistic?).

My journey started in the early in the 1990s. It emerged in the context of taking a class on psychotherapy integration, where I became deeply aware of the fragmentation in the field of psychotherapy. I tried but initially failed to develop a more integrative perspective on doing therapy. I called it the R-F-S-B approach because it blended across the works of Rogers, Freud, Skinner, and Beck. The model was that first you formed a good, deep, trusting relationship (ala Rogers), then developed an understanding of both psychodynamics (Freud) and contingencies reinforcing the current pattern (Skinner) and then worked with the individual to develop adaptive interpretations of one’s life (Beck).

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

The reason it did not work is because it was incoherent—one just cannot blend these approaches together willy-nilly. Instead, they each are embedded in conceptual paradigms (i.e., humanism, psychoanalysis, radical behaviorism, and cognitivism) that have different epistemologies, ontologies, and moral visions for humanity. Although I do believe it makes sense to draw from each in dealing with the practicalities of clinical work, there is no deep coherence to be found in just blending these different paradigms together. Something different—and more foundational—is needed.

It was also dawning on me at this point in my journey that empirical research had to be embedded in a paradigm. That is, a la Kuhn, the data and information gathered from specific empirical studies is always interpreted through a particular frame of understanding. Thus, the debates between the paradigms could not be settled via empirical research alone. Instead, conceptual work, work that I now realize should fall under the label “metaphysics”, was needed.

In the mid 1990s I realized that trying to integrate or unify psychotherapy would be impossible unless one could at least specify what is meant by the field of psychology. As such, my attention shifted from questions about psychotherapy to questions about the science of psychology. It was a good time to do so because a new paradigm was emerging that had lots of potential—evolutionary psychology. The Adapted Mind, the evolutionary psychology bible, had been published in 1992 and the perspective was starting to get widespread attention (Robert Wright’s popular book, The Moral Animal, published in 1994, was my first introduction). Evolutionary psychology, which combines the modern evolutionary synthesis (especially sociobiology) with the cognitive science revolution, was a significant theoretical advance. And, for a few years, I was convinced that it afforded the field the needed meta-paradigm for unifying it. However, after my initial excitement, it became clear to me that evolutionary psychology, as framed by the founders, did not have the full answer. It missed some key puzzle pieces and was too much defined against learning and cultural psychological perspectives.

In the fall of 1996 the first major piece of the new paradigm I would develop fell into place. Deeply immersed in evolutionary theory, I had a reverse engineering insight into the nature of the human self-consciousness system. Specifically, I realized that the emergence of language resulted in a powerful and unique adaptive problem for our ancestors, a problem I came call the problem of social justification. The short of it is that, because language more directly connects humans minds and others can ask questions, evolutionary forces shaped the design of the human interpreter system to function to give explicit reasons that legitimized the individual’s place in the social context. This “justification theory”, as it is labeled in the diagram below, ultimately gave rise to a new tripartite model of human consciousness. It also clarified the relationship between human psychology and sociology because it allowed for the recognition that human cultures were organized into large-scale systems of justification. The idea was an advance over the standard evolutionary psychology formulation because it provided a clear narrative for how evolutionary forces gave rise to human self-consciousness and culture, and did so in a way that was congruent with many sociological and social constructionist insights.

Six months later, in the spring of 1997, a flash of insight emerged that was made possible by how the justification theory clearly delineated humans from other animals. Namely, I realized that, in the history of the universe at large, there had been three massive phase shifts in behavioral complexity that emerged because of the evolution of novel information processing systems. Specifically, following the emergence of Matter at the Big Bang, Life emerged as a function of genetic information processing ~4 billion years ago, then Mind emerged as a function of neuronal information processing approximately 700 mya, and (human) Culture as a function of language approximately 100,000 years ago (there is lots of debate about this exact time frame). Here is the diagram that “popped out” in the spring of 1997 that allowed me to conceptualize these phase shifts.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

This framework, which I would come to call the Tree of Knowledge System, completely changed how I viewed psychology (and the world/universe in general). I realized that the reason psychology had failed to achieve cumulative knowledge was because there was no genuine conceptual understanding about what the word referred to. Did it refer to behavior or the mind? If it referred to behavior, did it refer to just overt behavior or also physiological behavior, such as the behavior of the brain? If it referred to behavior that one can observe, what about private events like a toothache? If it referred to the mind, what did one mean by the mind? Was the mind equivalent to consciousness or cognition more broadly or something else entirely? And by consciousness did one mean having experiential awareness as in qualia or did one mean self-reflective consciousness (as in, here I am experiencing qualia)?

These questions set the stage for foundational questions about psychology’s subject matter. Did the field of psychology study the behavior of organisms (as Skinner argued in 1938)? Or was it about a subset of organisms, namely animals? Or was it just about some animals, like mammals? Or was it really just about humans (consider, for example, that evolutionary psychologists debate about whether that field is about all animals with a nervous system or if it is just about humans)? Also, I was asking questions such as: Where, in one’s system, did biology end and psychology begin and why? Likewise, where did psychology end and sociology begin and why?

The diagram that had "popped out" offered a new way to address these questions. For example, it suggested that “Mind” was a kind of behavior, as was Matter, Life, and Culture. Indeed, it suggested the universe itself was an unfolding wave of behavior that could be described as the flow of Energy-Information. Thus, it gave rise to a way to resolve the mentalist versus behaviorist divide via a new formulation of “mental behaviorism”.

It also pointed to the idea that nature was not just a single continuous, dimension of complexity, but emerged via punctuated points or phase shifts that corresponded to the development of new systems of information processing and new, emergent processes of self-organization. Furthermore, the diagram pointed toward a way to solve the problem of psychology. The basic science of psychology was fundamentally about the emergence of animal behavior, mediated by a nervous system. Broadly defined, cognition referred to the functional information instantiated within and processed by the nervous system. And experiential consciousness was an embodied, simulated “theater of experience” played out on a global neuronal workspace. This dimension of complexity, as the diagram suggested, could be clearly and crisply separated from the biological dimension of complexity. Thus, just as there is a clear conceptual difference between Life and inanimate Matter, I saw that there was indeed a clear conceptual difference between Mind and Life. As such, I now had a relatively clear understanding where biology “left off” and psychology began.

The diagram also pointed to a clear differentiation and “joint point” between Mind (animal mental behavior) and Culture (human). Via language and justification, human minds plug into cultural organizational systems, which is a new, emergent form of self-organizing behavior. This means that there is (or should be) a clear difference between the basic science of psychology (which can be thought of as the mind, brain, behavior sciences), and human psychology, which is an important but distinct sub-discipline, one that bridges the natural and social sciences.So the diagram makes a very important point about psychology as a science, and provides a frame for why the discipline has had such trouble with a clear definition.

But let’s take a step back and recall where I started on this journey. It was in the field of psychotherapy not psychology that my journey began. This is relevant because psychotherapy adds a whole separate layer of complicated problems. Why? Because psychotherapists must make judgments about what is valued. That is, in addition to ideas about the nature of human nature, therapy requires a value-based stance on what is good and how people should be and how psychologists should work to effect change.

In 1999, I was fortunate to be hired by A. T. Beck at the University of Pennsylvania. I learned an enormous amount from him and the people I worked with and from the research we were doing on developing an intervention for folks who had recently made a suicide attempt. It was also the case that, in process of doing that work, I became more convinced than ever that we needed a broad framework. Consider, for example, that I became convinced that what really made the difference in the treatment we offered was all the social work services we added to help maintain contact with our patients. There were good data to support this conclusion, but we did not really report much on it because our paradigm was “cognitive psychotherapy” and social work interventions were outside the paradigm. This was a clear example of how paradigms shape the way research asks and answers questions, and how limited paradigms will limit the kinds of answers that can be given.

In 2003, I was hired into a new and unique “combined-integrated” program at JMU for training professional psychologists. The founders of the program recognized that the future of training professional psychologists was in transcending the traditional boundaries of clinical, counseling and school psychology to offer a more integrated/combined professional psychological identity. They were right about that, and it is now officially represented in what is currently called a “Health Service Psychologist” by the APA’s Commission on Accreditation. Indeed, the recent transition by the APA to labeling accredited programs Health Service Psychology programs is clearly traced to the movement spear-headed by the JMU program toward “Combined-Integrated” psychology.

In the advertisement I responded to for the JMU job in 2003, it was noted that one of the greatest obstacles to developing a “combined integrated” professional psychological identity was the fact that the fields of psychology and psychotherapy were so fragmented. They were literally seeking someone that had a more unified view! This was meaningful to me at several levels. When I was in my doctoral program, my advisor, Dr. Harold Leitenberg (whom I am very fond of and who mentored me very well), cautioned me that “big ideas” were not exactly celebrated in the field. There was no way I would be able to do my dissertation on my theory (I did an empirical research project on Beck’s concept of cognitive errors), and at one point he commented that “I would never get a job” based on some “unified theory” of psychology. Actually, JMU did hire me for my theory and I thus was happy to call him and share the news—and feel at least a bit vindicated (and I must admit I was super lucky; JMU’s program is very unusual!).

It was a good match, and in 2005 I became Director of this unique program. I have learned an enormous amount teaching doctoral students and directing the program. My tenure as Director ends soon, which is causing me to be in a bit of a reflective mood. In terms of teaching, fairly early on I realized that there was a rather enormous gap between the abstract theoretical framework I developed for organizing psychology and actually doing psychotherapy in the clinic. Although the framework helped me enormously, it did not readily translate for the students. It is fair to say that my early lectures on the unified theory were not always well-received. Too much time spent on abstraction, not enough on what it really means for how to treat folks in psychological distress.

Over the years, a much clearer picture began to emerge regarding how to translate the broad and general framework into a workable identity and clear guideposts for assessment, intervention, and consultation. Our program sought to train from the heart of professional psychology, via a lifespan developmental view that integrated the best of the best in a coherent way. We came to call this the Madison Model of training in professional psychology. In terms of identity, we developed the concept of “psychological doctors” as a clarifying what kind of professionals we were training. We also realized the main training division in the field is between those psychological doctors who work primarily with adults and those who worked with children, family and schools.

In terms of the basic conceptual framework, our students learn that they are professional practitioners who are grounded in the science of human psychology. They recognize the major therapy paradigms, but also are taught to transcend them and operate from a more general and less “siloed” view. I have spent much of my energy on using the unified theory of psychology as a broad conceptual lens from which to develop a unified approach to psychotherapy. It has given rise to a clear way to work from a theory of the person, of psychopathology, and of human change processes. The CAST formulation (see here, here, and here) and the Character Wheel provide ways to organize personality theory in a more wholistic way. The Nested Model provides a clear way to understand the domains that make up psychological well-being (and poor mental health). More recently, CALM MO provides a general framework for how to process conflicts and distressing events and how to undo some of the most common intrapsychic vicious cycles.

Over the past three years, we have been systematizing these insights into a Well-being Screen and Checkup System. This provides a comprehensive “psychological” exam that gives therapists and patients a clear map of functioning across key domains. It is a manual for how to develop a working, integrative/unified conceptualization of human functioning.

It has been 20 years, but I now feel confident that a unified theory (UT) of psychology is possible and from it, one can build a unified approach (UA) to psychotherapy. I now frequently refer to the combination of the two via the acronym “UTUA” (pronounced ə tü ä’).

I hope this narrative reveals why I had mixed feelings reviewing the papers I referred to at the beginning of this blog. At one level, I was very sympathetic to author’s desire to have clear conceptual linkages between our primary theoretical constructs (like mind, the self) and specific ways we intervene in the clinic room. When one knows to look at the field via this lens, one can only marvel at how disjointed our field is. As such, efforts are clearly needed to move the field toward a more coherent place, where the linkages between the core knowledge of the field and the core training we engage in regarding the therapy room is obvious. But the size of the task is enormous. Big picture frames are needed to address the most profound questions pertaining to mind and behavior, animal versus human, and visions of the good life that we are guiding folks towards as professionals. Then crucial details need to be filled in regarding training, identity and models for the therapy room. Then these models need to be consolidated and transferred to other programs. That is where we are now. I am curious as to what the next 20 years will bring.