golden-gate-bridge-picture

My friend and colleague Coert Visser recently asked on his blog: “how do you think psychology should further develop in the coming years?

The question was prompted by a special edition of the Journal Perspectives on Psychological Science that dealt with the theme: the Next Big Questions in Psychology.

Summing up the current situation in Psychology, Coert writes:

Psychology has been pursued as a natural science and as a social science. It has employed numerous qualitative and quantitative research methods. It has been regarded as a basic science, as an applied science, and sometimes as both. At present, psychology is expanding in two different but equally exciting directions – inward (where it joins forces with neuroscience) and outward (where it joins forces with anthropology and sociology).”

Here is what I wrote as a comment to his posting (edited):

Picture, if you will, the Golden Gate Bridge in your mind.

The 2 towers are neuroscience (and genetics, biology,…) i.e. the “inward” on the San Francisco side and sociology (and anthropology, ethology…) i.e. the “outward” on the Sausalito / Marin County side.
Psychology would be the actual bridge, i.e. where cars and pedestrians travel to and fro (Mark Kergow’s and Harry Korman’s in-between).

I see the body of psychological knowledge as a bunch of evidence-based “tricks” that allow people to move better, more efficiently, and where they want to go (for an example of what I mean by “tricks” see Richard Wiseman’s latest book).

These tricks would be simple behavioral protocols: how to be healthier, how to flourish,how to fight depression and OCD,… They would also be interactional protocols (see, for example, the algorithm for a Solution-Focused conversation). They would often be counter-intuitive, because they need to circumvent or trick the adaptive unconscious.

Going back to the Golden Gate Bridge metaphor: if the span of the bridge is not anchored to the two towers, or if it is not aligned to the two towers, it will fall. It won’t be able to sustain itself.
In the same way, Psychology needs to be anchored to the 2 towers of the “inside” (neuroscience, genetics…) and the “outside” (sociology,…). It also needs to be aligned with them (i.e. congruent – insights in psychology would seamlessly flow into neuroscience or sociology and viceversa, just like chemistry meshes into physics and viceversa).
If Psychology would then decide to dig deeper and to add a third tower… well, it is going to be useless, not necessary and it would just get in the way of moving around (e.g. see Freud’s psychodynamics).
The best Psychology can do is to strengthen the links and cables to the two towers by making the boundaries permeable and fuzzy (e.g. evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics…).

Sometimes Psychology strayed because it failed to connect to the two towers who share a common foundation: the scientific method. See for example the disasters of facilitated communication or memory retrieval (well told in the book “Mistakes were made (but not by me)” by Tavris and Aronson) – those shameful failures happened because some basic rules of science were not heeded. In the morning fog of the anecdotal, well-intentioned practitioners failed to orient themselves. And believe me, in the early morning fog, if you run that bridge, it feels you are in the middle of nowhere…

There is a Toll to pay to travel the span of the bridge: literacy in basic statistics and scientific inquiry, and I would say you need to pay it not only if you travel Southbound (as it is on the actual bridge) but in both directions!