Psychology Bankrupt?

Is Psychology a bankrupt science? The majority of theories are wrong, the majority of methods do not work and the majority of studies cannot be replicated. In A General Theory of Behaviour I argue for a complete redesign of the discipline.

There are several reasons why the most popular techniques used by psychologists to help people change are ineffective. The evidence does not justify any confidence in the theories, in the methods used or in the explanations provided. Meta-analyses of theory testing studies paint a gloomy picture. The overall pattern of findings suggests that current psychological theories and models cannot provide a viable foundation for effective interventions.

One core limitation with many theories and therapies is their use of the ‘Social-Cognitive Model’ (SCM). The SCM holds that a person’s ability ‘get better’ or to change is a social-cognitive problem, i.e. the person is said to have the ‘wrong’ thoughts and beliefs. According to the theory, these ‘unhelpful’ cognitions must be changed to produce a change in behaviour. But what if the beliefs are correct, or are only a small part of the whole picture, and what if they have little relevance to the behaviour or symptoms that the person is wishing to change?

Other reasons for the failure of the SCM in real-world behaviour change are briefly described below.

Individualistic Bias
Choice and responsibility are internalized as processes within individuals similar to the operating system of a computer. The human ‘operating system’ is assumed to be universal and rational, following a fixed set of formulae that the models attempt to describe. Yet even within its own terms, the programme of model testing and confirmation is failing to meet the goals it has set.

Lack of Ecological Validity and Questionable Statistical Methods
Thousands of published studies have used null hypothesis testing with small samples of college students or patients. The power, ecological validity and generalizability of these studies is questionable. We do not really know their true merit because of uncertainties about representativeness, sampling, and statistical assumptions. Rarely are alternative approaches to theory testing utilized, for example, Bayesian statistics and power analyses, to assess the importance of the effects rather than their statistical significance (Cohen, 1994).


Self-report measures
Most studies use self-reported measures of intention and behaviour rather than objective measures. Always a huge problem! It means that the academic studies have little contact with the universe of real-world, objective behaviour.

Neglect of Culture, Religion and Gender
Religion, culture and gender are neglected by most socio-cognitive models. The models aim at universal application that is unachievable.

Some strident critics have suggested that the models are tautological and, therefore, unfalsifiable (Smedslund, 2000). A tautology is a statement that is necessarily true, e.g. ‘Jill will either stop or not stop smoking’ or “The earth is round (p<.05)” as one famous paper would have it (Cohen, 1995). Whatever data we obtain about Jill’s smoking, the statement will always be true – a very safe prediction. Smedslund (2000) deduced that, if tautological theories are disconfirmed or only partially supported by empirical studies, then the studies themselves must be flawed for not ‘discovering’ what must be the case!

Bad models can only be supported by bad research. Others have argued that behavioural beliefs (attitudes) and normative beliefs are basically the same thing. Ogden (2003) analysed empirical articles published between 1997 and 2001 from four health psychology journals that tested or applied one or more social cognition models (theory of reasoned action, theory of planned behaviour, health belief model, and protection motivation theory). Ogden concluded that the models do not enable the generation and testing of hypotheses because their constructs are unspecific. Echoing Smedslund (2000), she suggested that the models focus on analytic truths that must be true by definition.

Unsupported Assumptions
The transtheoretical model has received particular criticism. Sutton (2000b) argued that the stage definitions are logically flawed, and that the time periods assigned to each stage are arbitrary. Herzog (2008) suggested that, when applied to smoking cessation, the TTM does not satisfy the criteria required of a valid stage model and that the proposed stages of change ‘are not qualitatively distinct categories’.

Procedural Issues
Studies measuring social cognitions rely upon questionnaires which presuppose that cognitions are stable entities residing in people’s heads. They do not allow for contextual variables which may influence social cognitions. For example, an individual’s attitude towards condom use may well depend upon the sexual partner with whom they anticipate having sexual contact. It may depend upon the time, place, relationship and physiological state (e.g. intoxication) within which sex takes place.

French et al. (2007) investigated what people think about when they answer TPB questionnaires using the ‘think aloud’ technique. French et al. found problems relating to information retrieval and to participants answering different questions from those intended and they concluded that: ‘The standard procedure for developing TPB questionnaires may systematically produce problematic questions’ (p. 672).

Neglect of Motivation
Another problem with the SCMs is that they do not adequately address the motivational issues about risky behaviours. Surely it is their very riskiness that in part is responsible for their adoption. Willig (2008) questioned the assumption that lies behind behind much of health and sex education ‘that psychological health is commensurate with maintaining physical safety, and that risking one’s health and physical safety is necessarily a sign of psychopathology’ (p. 690).

Redesign of the Discipline
Many people love taking risks; they find taking risks enjoyable, exciting, and exhilarating. If you doubt this fact, take a stroll into any casino or race track, or wait at the bottom of Mount Everest for the body bags.

Until psychology addresses the causes of behaviour, it will never succeed in helping people to change. For this, we need a complete redesign of the discipline. For an in-depth analysis, see my book A General Theory of Behaviour.

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