Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Explaining the Explanations

I recently started reading Zero-Variable Theories and the Psychology of the Explainer by Robert Wicklund. I'm only on the first chapter, so I can't give any brilliant insights yet, but I think the preface may be one of the most succinct and well delivered I've read. Psychology has so much potential, and many successes, but in so many ways it is just fundamentally crippled. Many of the journal articles, particularly in personality/organizational psych, are just sad; they just do not "get" what psychology is about. And to me, saddest of all is that for most people, this is the only "professional" psychology they come into contact with, often through the distorting simplification of popular print media. Preface is below:

The reader should not suppose that this is a book about the philosophy of social science, or about moral pronouncements on what is good and bad in ancient and current psychological theorizing. Instead, the reader is invited to consider the psychological side of the explainer. What brings individuals, whether they carry the label scientist in psychology or not, to neglect the psychological perspective of those who are being explained? What is responsible for the explainer reducing complex behavioural patterns to “The person is a demagogue type” or “All people from hot climates do that”? And still another question: Are such oversimplifications part of the explainer’s attempt to bring a quick, indelible order to the universe of human behaviour?

The opening chapter introduces the explainer as someone whose directions of explaining are affected by control threats, incompetencies, and lack of experience. Such threats and incompetencies bring the explainer to account for others’ actions by simplifying others, treating them as static entities, with the result that deciding factors in the psychological background are neglected.

Psychology has characteristically limited its explaining of the explainer to the “everyday explainer,” that is, to the so-called naïve scientist. But why not extend our understanding of the explainer to all of those who try to come to terms with complex behaviour including those who carry the label scientist? This book assumes, without reservation, that the principles used to understand “naïve explainers” can be applied just as well to “professional” explainers. Its chapters follow the course of development of the modern theory, as promulgated by scientifically working psychologists, and devote special attention to the narrow thinking that is so evident in recent efforts to capture and explain complex human action. It is shown that modern, widely published explanations manifest a style of theorizing that carries the following characteristics:

  1. The humans who are being explained are first placed into fixed categories.
  2. The explainer implements a single, home-grow categorizing instrument for this purpose.
  3. These categories consist of lists of behaviours that appear to belong together (e.g., “honest,” “loyal,” “consistent”).
  4. The behaviours of category members, thus respondents in research projects, are then explained fully by those respondents’ membership in one or the other category.
  5. The explainer defends the categories as one would defend territory, misusing statistical devices to demonstrate that other explainers cannot account for the behaviours of category members.
  6. This direction of theory development, referred to here as the zero-variable theory, neglects the perspective of the person whose behaviours are being accounted for and also hinders integration among psychological explanations.
These fourteen chapters attempt to understand this development in explaining/theorizing, using the broad concepts of the explainer’s commitment to a fixed portrait of the human, the explainer’s control needs with respect to complex human behaviour, and the competition that stems from a field loaded with professional explainers. The final chapter addresses the cultural side of these progressive simplifications and downfalls in theorizing and explanation and comes to the conclusion that a competitive, highly technical society produces the directions that are now explicit in the modern zero-variable theory.

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