A General Theory of Obesity

Inside every one us there exists a tension between comfort and discontent. When we assuage the discontent, we find comfort. When we resist comfort, the discontent builds stronger. This eternal struggle is an aspect of the human condition that creates a vicious and unforgiving circle. Within it lies a significant key to human nature, and to the nature of all sentient beings, the ‘Yin and Yang’ of life…it helps to explain the human struggle with overweight, obesity and the addictions.

Once the causes of obesity are fully understood, the obesity epidemic can be stopped. My book on obesity takes a step towards that goal. I propose an explanatory theory of an objective issue of undeniable importance to human beings – the obesity epidemic. The ideas are drawn from a range of disciplines including economics, endocrinology, epidemiology, neurobiology, nutrition, physiology, policy studies and psychology. The theory focuses on a universal feature of living beings, homeostasis, and the potential for its disruption, dyshomeostasis.


The evidence points to ‘Obesity Dyshomeostasis’ as a problematic human response to contemporary conditions of living. Similar to racism, sexism and ageism, the current trend towards ‘blaming and shaming’ individual sufferers of obesity and overweight contributes to the problem. Only by reversing this form of prejudice, and the associated environmental conditions, will the obesity epidemic have any chance of being resolved (Marks, 2015a, 2016).

Summary of argument:

Health is regulated by homeostasis, a property of all living things. Homeostasis maintains equilibrium using feedback loops for optimum functioning of the organism. Dyshomeostasis, a disturbance of homeostasis, causes overweight and obesity, is estimated to be present today in more than two billion people world-wide.

Obesity Dyshomeostasis is associated with a ‘Circle of Discontent’, a system of feedback loops connecting weight gain, body dissatisfaction, negative affect and over-consumption. The Circle of Discontent is consistent with an extensive evidence-base.

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Obesity Dyshomeostasis occurs when homeostatic control of eating is overridden by hedonic reward. Appetitive hedonic reward is a natural response to an obesogenic environment containing endemic stress and easily accessible, high-energy foods and beverages. In a time of plentiful and cheap food, people eat more to comfort their discontents than purely for hunger. The comfort foods and beverages that are snacked on almost limitlessly are nutritionally deleterious to the health.

The objectives are: (i) To define, describe and discuss the concepts of psychological homeostasis and dyshomeostasis and their relevance to overweight, obesity, the addictions and chronic stress; (ii) To propose a General Theory of Well-Being founded on the construct of psychological homeostasis; (iii) Within the general theory, to specify the Obesity Dyshomeostasis Theory (ODT) of overweight and obesity; (iv) To summarize the body of evidence that is supportive of the general theory and the ODT; (v) To describe interventions for preventing overweight and obesity based on the ODT.

Obesity dyshomeostasis is mediated by the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and HPA axis with ghrelin providing the signalling for feeding dyshomeostasis, affect control and hedonic reward. Dyshomeostasis plays a causal role in obesity, the addictions and chronic conditions and is fueled by negative affect and chronic stress. Prevention and treatment efforts that target dyshomeostasis provide strategies for reducing adiposity, ameliorating the health impacts of addiction, and raising the quality of life in people suffering from chronic conditions and stress.

A four-armed strategy to halt the obesity epidemic consists of eliminating the causes of overweight and obesity: (1) Resisting and putting a stop to a culture of victim-blaming, stigma and discrimination; (2) Resisting and devalorizing the thin-ideal; (3) Resisting and reducing consumption of energy-dense, low nutrient foods and drinks; (4) Improving access to plant-based diets. If fully implemented, these interventions should be competent to restore the conditions for homeostasis in billions of people and the obesity epidemic could be halted.

Extracted from Obesity. Comfort vs Discontent

Psychology as a Natural Science. Part II: Theory

Psychology begins by identifying, observing and taking measures of natural phenomena that can be investigated experimentally and then modelling the findings using theories. Identification of natural phenomena requires terminology and definitions to refer to the same set of psychological processes. Unfortunately, as noted by others, scholars often use such terms in diverse and idiosyncratic ways which has led to a state of “conceptual and definitional chaos” (Buck, 1990, p. 330). Different phenomena and different schools working from different foundations share little or no common theoretical concepts, experimental techniques, or phenomenal entities to work on. This lack of consensus has led to a multitude of empirical papers reporting data as ‘facts’ and near-random fact-gathering has becomes a mainstream activity in Psychology.

Theories, such as Reference Point Theory (Marks, 1972, described in the previous article) provide models for understanding basic processes in thinking, emotion, and behaviour. No theory exists in a vacuum. Theories are like plants grown from seed in a well-designed, ornamental garden. The garden has a structure, a harmonious pattern of colours, textures and patterns, replicated over years of planning and pruning, pleasing to the eye and lasting through all seasons and weather. Illuminated by theory, information is beautiful. Examples of such ‘scientific gardens’ abound in other natural sciences: Evolutionary theory and Mendelian genetics in Biology; Uniformitarianism in Geology; bonding, reaction, valence, molecular orbitals, orbital interactions and molecule activation in Chemistry; Newtonian mechanics, conservation of energy, dynamics, electromagnetism, general relativity and quantum theory in physics. These theories are evidenced by millions of corroborating observations by scientists in these disciplines. To date, Psychology has produced many disparate findings, but few generally accepted theories or laws, and there is consequently hardly any accretion of knowledge.

Psychology has been considered a natural science since the eighteenth century (Hatfield, 1995). Yet in the twentieth century, there was a ‘fall from grace’, for reasons that remain obscure. Perhaps it was the rapid progress of all of the other sciences leaving Psychology to pale in comparison. Philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, did not consider that his concept of a scientific ‘paradigm’ as a standard, perspective, or set of ideas, could be applied to any existing social science including Psychology.

A necessary condition for Psychology to be considered a natural science is the existence of an explanatory principle for psychological phenomena across the board that is capable of unifying the discipline.


The construct of ‘scientific paradigms’ was introduced by Thomas Kuhn (1968). The General Theory of Behaviour (Marks, 2018) is based on the classical ideas of balance and equilibrium. Galen (CE 129–200), the early Roman physician, followed the Hippocratic tradition with hygieia (health) or euexia (soundness) as a balance between the four bodily humours of black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. Galen believed that the body’s ‘constitution’, ‘temperament’ or ‘state’ could be put out of equilibrium by excessive heat, cold, dryness or wetness. Such imbalances might be caused by fatigue, insomnia, distress, anxiety, or by food residues resulting from eating the wrong quantity or quality of food. Human moods are viewed as a consequence of imbalances in one of the four bodily fluids. Imbalances of humour corresponded to particular temperaments (blood—sanguine, black bile—melancholic, yellow bile—choleric, and phlegm—phlegmatic). The Theory of Humours was related to the four elements: earth, fire, water and air. It is remarkable that some common beliefs and expressions today are linked to Greek and Roman thought of 2,000-plus years ago.

The idea that there are universal processes of body and mind to restore balance remains as much a principle in contemporary thought as in Classical times. We talk of a person ‘losing equilibrium’, being ‘well balanced’, ‘stable’, or ‘unbalanced’ or ‘unstable’ and so forth, all of which hark back to the idea of keeping oneself in balance. When applied to behaviour, the terms ‘equilibrium’ and ‘balance’ are analogous to the same terms used in mechanics. An object is said to be in a state of mechanical equilibrium when it is stable with equal forces on top and underneath, and when two objects are weighed against each other are said to be ‘in balance’ when the weights on the two sides of the balance are equal.

The related concepts of balance, equilibrium and homeostasis are occasionally used in personality theory (e.g. Stagner, 1951) and in work psychology (e.g. the family/work balance; Aryee, Srinivas & Tan, 2005) but only rarely found in other areas of Psychology. Maslow’s (1943) ‘hierarchy of needs’ assumed a foundation of basic biological needs for air, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis and excretion. As need satisfaction moves upwards towards the top of the pyramid, a person becomes more ‘satisfied’, eventually reaching a pinnacle of ‘self-actualization’, which Maslow defined as the epitome of need satisfaction. In asserting that homeostasis is a need, Maslow makes an insightful discovery. We can assume that the need for equilibrium, balance and stability is as fundamental a human need as any other. Internal or external conditions that change the state of an individual, group or population away from equilibrium or balance are normally described as ‘stress’. The concepts of equilibrium, homeostasis and stress are important for the Reset Equilibrium Function proposed in the General Theory.

In Physiology homeostasis is a regulating property wherein the stability of the internal environment is actively maintained. The term was coined by Walter B. Cannon in 1932 in his classic text, The Wisdom of the Body:

“The constant conditions which are maintained in the body might be termed equilibria. That word, however, has come to have fairly exact meaning as applied to relatively simple physico-chemical states, in closed systems, where known forces are balanced. The coordinated physiological processes which maintain most of the steady states in the organism are so complex and so peculiar to living beings – involving, as they may, the brain and nerves, the heart, lungs, kidneys and spleen, all working cooperatively – that I have suggested a special designation for these states, homeostasis. The word does not imply something set and immobile, a stagnation. It means a condition – a condition which may vary, but which is relatively constant.” (Cannon, 1932/1963, p. 24).

“The constant conditions which are maintained in the body might be termed equilibria. That word, however, has come to have fairly exact meaning as applied to relatively simple physico-chemical states, in closed systems, where known forces are balanced. The coordinated physiological processes which maintain most of the steady states in the organism are so complex and so peculiar to living beings – involving, as they may, the brain and nerves, the heart, lungs, kidneys and spleen, all working cooperatively – that I have suggested a special designation for these states, homeostasis. The word does not imply something set and immobile, a stagnation. It means a condition – a condition which may vary, but which is relatively constant.” (Cannon, 1932/1963, p. 24).


Homeostasis regulates the function of cells, tissues and organs using organised negative feedback systems. Examples at an organismic level include regulation of core body temperature and the levels of pH, sodium, potassium and calcium, glucose, water, carbon dioxide and oxygen in the body. This core principle of Physiology is of equal importance, I wish to argue, for Psychology. Moreover, if a path towards unity across sciences is to be found, then homeostasis provides one valuable stepping stone.

It is argued that a healthy and happy person is a person who is functioning in equilibrium across internal and external domains. To use a colloquial expression, they are a person who ‘has their act together’. A condition of near-perfect well-being, balance and equilibrium is only rarely and momentarily achieved. Many sources of chronic stress including poor work-life balance, social jet lag caused by chronobiological asynchronies, relative poverty, and perceived or real imbalances in wealth, justice and equality, or what has been termed “The Spirit Level’ (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009)all continuously conspire to make dyshomeostasis a new norm.

When dyshomeostasis occurs, people suffer negative affect, unmet needs such as hunger, thirst, insomnia, and possibly cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome or diabetes (Marks, 2015, 2016). Homeostasis, or its lack, is an organizing principle of broad generality throughout the psychological universe of thought, feeling and action. Improved understanding of ‘Psychological homeostasis’ will contribute towards the prevention and treatments of ill-health and dis-ease.

Psychology as a Natural Science. Part I: Measurement

I wished, by treating Psychology like a natural science, to help her to become one.

William James

The Problem

For more than a century, Psychologists have struggled to make their discipline a ‘proper science’.  From introspection, to behaviorism and then to cognitivism, Psychology has fallen somewhat awkwardly between the biological and social sciences. Suffering existential doubt, and always looking over their shoulders, Psychologists never quite found a place of comfort at the high table of Science. Contributing to this liminal status have been three issues, measurement, theory, and paradigm.

In this article, I discuss measurement in Academic Psychology. The branch of Academic Psychology that is usually held up to be the most ‘scientific’ is Psychometrics, otherwise known as ‘Psychological Measurement’. Bizarrely, it is also the largest thorn in the side of Academic Psychology considered as a science. I explain some of the reasons for this curious state of affairs below.

S. S. Stevens – “Mass Delusion”

Attributes of the physical world are measured quantitatively. Attributes of the psychological world are more ‘sticky’ to deal with. For good reason, psychologists are unable to measure many of the most interesting psychological attributes in any direct and objective manner. Unfortunately, measurement in Psychology is an ‘Emperor’s clothes’ story.  The early years as an infant science were spent paddling at the shallow end of the pool with attempts to make psychophysics and ability testing the showcases of a new quantitative science. But it was all downhill from there on.

In spite of limited successes, Psychology’s ‘measurement problem’ has never been satisfactorily resolved. S.S. Stevens’ Handbook of Experimental Psychology (1951) invoked ‘operationism’ as a potential solution and, since that time, Psychologists have assumed as an act of faith that measurement is the assignment of numbers to attributes according to rules. Sadly, Stevens’ solution is a mass delusion, a sleight of mind.

Joel Michell: “Thought Disorder”

Among his many in-depth writings about Psychological measurement, Joel Michell (1997) summarized the situation thus: “…establishing quantitative science involves two research tasks: the scientific one of showing that the relevant attribute is quantitative; and the instrumental one of constructing procedures for numerically estimating magnitudes. From Fechner onwards, the dominant tradition in quantitative Psychology ignored this task. Stevens’ definition rationalized this neglect. The widespread acceptance of this definition within Psychology made this neglect systemic, with the consequence that the implications of contemporary research in measurement theory for undertaking the scientific task are not appreciated…when the ideological support structures of a science sustain serious blind spots like this, then that science is in the grip of some kind of thought disorder.” (Michell, 1997).

A ‘kind of thought disorder’ – strong terms but it is true.

It is apparent that numbers can be readily allocated to attributes using a non-random rule (the operational definition of measurement) that would generate ‘measurements’ that are not quantitatively meaningful. For example, numerals can be allocated to colours: red = 1, blue = 2, green = 3, etc. The rule used to allocate the numbers is clearly not random, and the allocation therefore counts as measurement, according to Stevens. However, it would be patent nonsense to assert that ‘green is 3 × red’ or that ‘blue is 2 × red’, or that ‘green minus blue equals red’. Intervals and ratios cannot be inferred from a simple ordering of scores along a scale. Yet this is how psychological measurement is usually carried out.

Stevens’ oxymoronic approach aimed to circumvent the requirement that only quantitative attributes can be measured in spite of the self-evident fact that psychological constructs such as subjective well-being are nothing like physical variables (Michell, 1999, Measurement in Psychology). However, positivist psychometricians blithely treat qualitative psychological constructs as if they are quantitative in nature and as amenable to measurement as physical characteristics without ever demonstrating so. For more than 60 years many psychologists have lived in a make-believe world where ‘measurement’ consists of numbers allocated to stimuli on ordinal or Likert-type scales. This feature alone cuts off at its roots the claim that Psychology is a quantitative science on a par with the natural sciences.

Measurement can be defined as the estimation of the magnitude of a quantitative attribute relative to a unit (Michell, 2003). Before quantification can happen, it is first necessary to obtain evidence that the relevant attribute is quantitative in structure. This has rarely, if ever, been carried out in Psychology. Unfortunately, it is arguably the case that the definition of measurement within Psychology since Stevens’ (1951) operationism is incorrect and Psychologists’ claims about being able to measure psychological attributes can be questioned (Michell, 1999, 2002). Contrary to common beliefs within the discipline, psychological attributes may not actually be quantitative at all, and hence not amenable to coherent numerical measurement and statistical analyses that make unwarranted assumptions about the numbers collected as data.

Psychometric Myth

Psychometricians often make the precarious assumption that ordinal scales constitute a valid description of underlying quantitative attributes, that psychological attributes are measurable on interval scales.  Otherwise there can be no basis for quantitative measurement across large domains of the discipline. Michell (2012) argued that: “the most plausible hypothesis is that the kinds of attributes psychometricians aspire to measure are merely ordinal attributes with impure differences of degree, a feature logically incompatible with quantitative structure. If so, psychometrics is built upon a myth (p. 255).

This view is supported by Klaas Sijtsma (2012) who argues that the real measurement problem in Psychology is the absence of well-developed theories about psychological attributes and a lack of any evidence to support the assumption that psychological attributes are continuous and quantitative in nature.

Scientific Psychosis

A person with delusions of grandeur can be labeled as suffering from psychosis. But what if a whole discipline has delusions of grandeur? In this case the term ‘Scientific Psychosis’ would not seem inappropriate.

Using ordinal data as if they are interval or ratio scale data leads to incorrect inferences and false conclusions. Using totals and averages requires data to be on an interval scale. Performing parametric analyses on ordinal data can produce biased estimates of variances, covariances, and correlations and spurious interaction effects.

Yet these practices are regular, everyday occurrences in Academic Psychology. I am not talking about first year undergraduate lab classes. I am talking about people at all levels from illustrious professors at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge.  They not only regularly break the basic rules of measurement themselves on a wholesale basis, they negligently train their students to do it also.

If the received wisdom about measurement in Academic Psychology is characterised as mass delusional, thought disordered and confused, we have a serious problem, a very serious problem. And the problem seems to be getting worse. We can quite justifiably call this syndrome: ‘Scientific Psychosis’.

Thurstone: Ratio Scaling

To be consistent with its claim to be a science, psychologists must use measures that preserve the requirements of a ratio scale, namely, that there are meaningful ratios between measurements. For example, if you have a cold and took three paracetamol tablets today and four yesterday, you could say that the frequency today was ¾ or .75 of what it was yesterday. Measuring objects by using a known scale and comparing the measurements works well for properties for which scales of measurement exist. L L Thurstone (1927) used the method of pair comparisons to derive scale values for any set of stimulus objects with the Law of Comparative Judgement which states:

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In his ‘Analytic Hierarchy Process’, Saaty (2008) also uses direct comparisons between pairs of objects to establish measurements for intangible properties that have no scales of measurement. The value derived for each element depends on what other elements are in the set.  Relative scales are derived by making pairwise comparisons using numerical judgments from an absolute scale of numbers (e.g. 0-9). Measurements to represent comparisons define a cardinal scale of absolute numbers that is stronger than a ratio scale.

Intuitive measurement is something that we take for granted in everyday life. However the way intuitive measurement works may be far from intuitive.  Consider how we are able estimate and compare magnitudes of objects, even when we have never actually seen these objects. For example, how do we compare the sizes of animals such as lions and hippos and judge which is larger or which is smaller? One theory of this process that appears to be especially accurate is described below.

Reference Point Theory

One theory of the estimation and comparison of magnitudes assumes there are implicit minimal and maximal reference points at the extreme ends of the distribution. As a special case of the Law of Comparative Judgement, the theory assumes that stimulus objects are represented by distributions with variances that increase with distance from the reference point contained in the question (Marks, 1972).

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DM with JL PhDThis photo from 1969 shows the author and ‘subject’ with the basic apparatus and stimuli from Experiments 7 and 8 of the author’s doctoral research at Sheffield University, ‘An Investigation of Subjective Probability Judgements’.

Keith J Holyoak

In 2014, Reference Point Theory received strong empirical support from a team at UCLA under the leadership of Keith J Holyoak.  Keith is not only a Distinguished Professor but he is Editor of Psychological Review.  Chen, Lu and Holyoak (2014) present a model of how magnitudes can be acquired and compared based on BARTlet, a simpler version of ‘Bayesian Analogy with Relational Transformations’ (BART, Lu, Chen, & Holyoak, 2012). The authors concluded that Reference Point Theory provided the best fit to their data:

“BARTlet provides a computational realization of a qualitative hypothesis proposed four decades ago by Marks (1972)…The reference-point hypothesis implies that the congruity effect results from differences in the discriminability of magnitudes represented in working memory, rather than a bias in encoding (e.g., Marschark & Paivio, 1979) or a linguistic influence (Banks et al., 1975). BARTlet provides a well-specified mechanism by which reference points can alter discriminability in direct judgments of discriminability (Holyoak & Mah, 1982) as well as speeded tasks (p. 46).”


As well as being a Distinguished Professor at UCLA, and editing Psychological Review, Keith J Holyoak is also a poet and translator of classical Chinese poetry.  Kudos!

“The greatest scientists are artists as well.” (Albert Einstein).

“The greatest scientists are artists as well,” said Albert Einstein

Homeostasis, Balance, Stability

The fixity of the milieu supposes a perfection of the organism such that the external variations are at each instant compensated for and equilibrated…. All of the vital mechanisms, however varied they may be, have always one goal, to maintain the uniformity of the conditions of life in the internal environment…. The stability of the internal environment is the condition for the free and independent life. Claude Bernard

The central principle of the General Theory of Behaviour is the construct of ‘Psychological Homeostasis’. It was 61 years after Claude Bernard (1865) first wrote about the ‘internal milieu’ that Walter B. Cannon (1926) coined the term ‘homeostasis’. Then, 16 years later, psychobiologist Curt Richter (1942) expanded the homeostasis construct to include behavioural or ‘ total organism regulators’ in the context of feeding. From this viewpoint, ‘external’ behaviours that are responses to environmental stimuli lie on a continuum with ‘internal’ physiological events. For Richter, ‘behaviour’ includes all aspects of feeding necessary to maintain the internal environment. However Bernard, Cannon and Richter all focused on a purely physiological form of homeostasis, ‘H[Φ]’. In my new General Theory of Behaviour, I propose that the ‘external milieu’, the proximal world of socio-physical action, is equally important.

The General Theory extends homeostasis to all forms of behaviour. Psychological homeostasis can be explained in two stages, starting with the classic version of homeostasis in Physiology, H[Φ], followed by the operating features of its psychological sister, H[Ψ]. The essential features are illustrated in Figure 1.

Screen Shot 2018-08-17 at 15.09.57Figure  1: Upper panel: A representation of Physiological (Type I) Homeostasis (H[Φ]). Adapted from Modell et al. (2015). Lower panel: A representation of Psychological (Type II) Homeostasis (H[Ψ]).

To be counted as homeostasis, H[Φ], a system is required to have five features:
1. It must contain a sensor that measures the value of the regulated variable.
2. It must contain a mechanism for establishing the “normal range” of values for the regulated variable. In the model shown in Figure 2.1, this mechanism is represented by the “Set point Y”.
3. It must contain an “error detector” that compares the signal being transmitted by the sensor (representing the actual value of the regulated variable) with the set range. The result of this comparison is an error signal that is interpreted by the controller.
4. The controller interprets the error signal and determines the value of the outputs of the effectors.
5. The effectors are those elements that determine the value of the regulated variable. The effectors may not be the same for upward and downward changes in the regulated variable.

Identical principles apply to Psychological (Type II) Homeostasis (H[Ψ] with two notable differences (Figure 1, lower panel). In Psychological Homeostasis, there are two sets of effectors, inward and outward, and the conceptual boundary between the internal and external environments lies between the controller and the outward effectors of the somatic nervous system, i.e. the muscles that control speech and action. Furthermore, Psychological Homeostasis operates with intention, purpose, and desire.

The individual organism extends its ability to thrive in nature with Type II homeostasis. Self-extension by niche construction creates zones of safety, one of the primary goals of Type II homeostasis. Niche construction amplifies the organism’s ability to occupy and control the environment proximally and distally. The use of tools for hunting, weapons for aggression, fire for cooking, domestication of animals, the use of language, money, goods for trade and commodification, agriculture, science, technology, engineering, medicine, culture, music literature and social media are all methods of expanding and projecting niches of safety, well-being and control.

Individual ownership of assets such as land, buildings, companies, stocks and shares reflect a universal need to extend occupation, power and control but these possessions do not necessarily increase the subjective well-being of the owner [Auxiliary Proposition 007].

Initiated by the brain and other organs, homeostasis of either type can often act in anticipatory or predictive mode. One principal function of any conscious system is prediction of rewards and dangers. A simple example is the pre-prandial secretion of insulin, ghrelin and other hormones that enable the consumption of a larger nutrient load with minimal postprandial homeostatic consequences. When a meal containing carbohydrates is to be consumed, a variety of hormones is secreted by the gut that elicit the secretion of insulin from the pancreas before the blood sugar level has actually started to rise. The blood sugar level starts lowering in anticipation of the influx of glucose from the gut into the blood. This has the effect of blunting the blood glucose concentration spike that would otherwise occur. Daily variations in dietary potassium intake are compensated by anticipative adjustments of renal potassium excretion capacity. That urinary potassium excretion is rhythmic and largely independent on feeding and activity patterns indicates that this homeostatic mechanism behaves predictively.

Similar principles operate in Type II homeostasis acting together with the brain as a “prediction machine”. When we anticipate a pleasant event such as a birthday party, there is a preparatory ‘glow’ which can change one’s mood in a positive direction, or thinking about an impending visit to the dentist may be likely to produce feelings of anxiety, or the receipt of a prescription of medicines from one’s physician may lead to improvements in symptoms, even before the medicines are taken.

At societal level, anticipation enables rational mitigation, e.g. anticipation of demographic changes influences policy, threat from hostile countries influences expenditure on defence, and the threat of a new epidemic influences programmes of prevention. [Auxiliary Proposition 008].

Homeostasis involves several interacting processes in a causal network. A homeostatic adjustment in one process necessitates a compensatory adjustment in one or more of the other interacting processes. To illustrate this situation, consider what happens in phosphate homeostasis (Figure 2). Many REF-behaviours that we shall refer to are isomorphic with the 4-process structure in Figure 2. However, in nature there is no restriction on the number of interconnected processes and any process can belong to multiple homeostatic networks.

Screen Shot 2018-08-17 at 15.10.23Figure 2: Phosphate homeostasis. A decrease in the serum phosphorus level causes a decrease in FGF23 and parathyroid hormone (PTH) levels. Increase in serum phosphorus leads to opposite changes. Calcitriol increases serum phosphorus and FGF23, while it decreases PTH. Increase in FGF23 leads to decrease in PTH and calcitriol levels. PTH increases calcitriol and FGF23 levels. Reproduced from Jagtap et al. (2012) with permission.

Homeostasis never rests. It is continuous, comprehensive and thorough. With each round of the REF, all of the major processes in a network are reset to maintain stability of the whole system. The REF process goes through a continuous series of ‘reset’ cycles each of which stabilizes the system until the next occasion one of the processes falls outside its set range and another reset is required.
Processes in Type II homeostasis may vary along quantitative axes or they can have discrete categorical values. For example, values, beliefs, preferences and goals can have discrete values, as does the state of sleep or waking.

Any change in a categorical process involves change throughout the network to which is belongs. [Auxiliary Proposition 009].

Such changes may be rapid, in the millisecond range, e.g. a changed preference from chocolate chip cookie flavoured ice cream to Madagascar vanilla that may occurs an instant after arriving at the ice-cream kiosk. At the other end of the spectrum of importance, in buying a new apartment, the final choice might also occur in the instant the preferred option is first sighted. Or the decision could take months or years even though it is of precious little consequence, e.g. deciding that one is a republican rather than a monarchist, or it may never occur because we simply do not care one way or the other. These considerations lead to a surprising proposition that:

The speed of a decision is independent of its subjective utility [Auxiliary Proposition 010].

One objective of A General Theory of Behaviour is to explain the relevance of the REF system to Psychology. We know already that the regulation of action is guided by three fundamental systems: (i) the brain and central nervous system (CNS), (ii) the endocrine system (ES) and (iii) the immune system (IS). It is proposed that, as a ‘meta-system’ of homeostatic control, these systems collectively govern both physiology and behaviour using two types of homeostasis, H[Φ] and H[Ψ], respectively. We can understand how this might be possible in light of a recently discovered ‘central homeostatic network’.

An extract from: A General Theory of Behaviour.

A Dangerous Idea

“The stability of the internal environment is the condition for the free and independent life.” Claude Bernard’s statement about the ‘milieu intérior’.

The starting point for ‘A General Theory of Behaviour‘ is Claude Bernard’s ‘dangerous idea’, quoted above, the concept of the ‘milieu intérior‘. This idea was put on the back burner for several decades because nobody quite knew what to do with it. It looked too dangerous.

Then, in the early Twentieth Century it was taken up by J.S. Haldane, C.S Sherrington, J. Barcroft and a few others. In 1926 the concept gained currency when Harvard physiologist Walter B Cannon coined the term homeostasis for milieu intérior. In Cannon’s view, his book The Wisdom of the Body had presented a modern interpretation of vis medicatrix naturae, the healing power of nature posited by Hippocrates. Cannon also believed he had shown how the automatic function of homeostasis freed the brain for the more intellectual functions of intelligence, imagination and insight.

At this point, the homeostasis story picks up apace. Add to the mix of Bernard and Cannon, spice the pot with the work of Wiener (1948), Von Bertalanffy (1968) and season it with the work of biologist J Scott Turner (2017) and we have a ‘stew’ to die for. As the contents of the pot bubble and coalesce, we sense that homeostasis is not only advantageous for any living system, but it could even be  one of the defining characteristics of life itself.

At every level of existence, from the cell to the organism, from the individual to the population, and from the local ecosystem to the entire planet, homeostasis is a drive towards stability, security and adaptation to change. In an infinite variety of forms, omnipresent in living beings, is an inbuilt function with the sole purpose of striving for equilibrium, not only in the milieu intérieur but in the milieu extérieur also.

We take a gigantic leap…but that’s why we are here – even if we feel we are at the edge of a cliff – we must go for it…

Cliff edge

On the other side of Bernard’s scientific coin, we imagine we find the following:

“The stability of the external environment is the condition for the free and independent life.”

By changing a single word ‘internal’ to its antonym, a whole new theoretical perspective for the Science of Behaviour is created.

Voila! –  “A General Theory of Behaviour” is born.

Striving for balance and equilibrium is the guiding force in all that we – and all other conscious beings – do, think and feel. This newly defined type of  homeostasis deserves a descriptive name: “Reset Equilibrium Function” (REF). This term describes exactly what the process does: it is a function that resets every runaway process to equilibrium.

All organisms automatically regulate essential physiological functions by homeostasis and it is a matter of everyday observation that drives are maintained in equilibrium by comportment, e.g. eating, drinking, fornicating, sleeping, excreting, etc. This type of homeostasis has been established since the time of Bernard. Far more than this, and as a matter of routine, without any special reflection in most instances, all conscious beings reconcile discrepancies among their thoughts, behaviours, and feelings and in the differences with those with whom they have social relationships.

Conscious organisms strive to achieve their goals while maximizing cohesion and cooperation with both kith and kin and, at the same time, striving to take away or to minimize the suffering and pain of others. [Auxiliary Proposition (AP) 001].

The goal is to minimize all forms of eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation and tooth-and-claw competition and to live in a culture where the thriving of all is in the self-interest of every individual. The hypothesis has been described by Antonio Damasio thus: “cultural instruments first developed in relation to the homeostatic needs of individuals and of groups as small as nuclear families and tribes. The extension to wider human circles was not and could not have been contemplated. Within wider human circles, cultural groups, countries, even geopolitical blocs, often operate as individual organisms, not as parts of one larger organism, subject to a single homeostatic control. Each uses the respective homeostatic controls to defend the interests of its organism” (Damasio, 2018, p. 32).

Whether we are aware of it or not, the REF is omnipresent, wherever we go, whatever we are doing and whatever our feelings. The process is not something we need normally focus attention on, the process through which our behavioural systems are perpetually striving to maintain balance, safety and stability in our physical and social surroundings. Competing drives, conflicts, and inconsistencies all can pull the flow of events ‘off balance’, triggering this innate striving to restore equilibrium. The majority of people for the majority of time strive to calm and quieten local disturbances of equilibrium rather than to exacerbate them. [AP 002]. It is not a battle that we can always win; there is always the possibility of instability, error, calamity or catastrophe even.

There are abundant links to other theories inside and outside of Psychology. Piaget’s notion of equilibration was concerned with the attempt to balance psychological schemas when new information is encountered. In equilibration, children accommodate new information by changing their psychological schemas in a process of assimilation. This same idea applies to other psychological domains when there is a departure from a set range of equilibrium. Advocates of Buddhist philosophy, for example, the Dalai Lama, have identified a need for inner peace.

Body and mind continuously regulate and control many domains and levels simultaneously, with multiple adjustments to voluntary and involuntary behaviour guided by two types of homeostasis: Type I – inwardly striving or physiological homeostasis, H[Φ], and Type II – outwardly striving or psychological homeostasis, H[Ψ]. Physiological regulation involves drives such as hunger, thirst, sex, elimination and sleep. Influenced by Cannon, Clark Hull (1943) suggested a drive theory of regulatory mechanisms in which an organism can only rest when it is in a state of equilibrium. When a need such as hunger or thirst develops, the organism engages in need-satisfying behaviour. However, ‘drive’ can be mental as well as physical so that misery, fear and worry – often lumped together as ‘stress’ – create a state of unrest that prevents calmness, relaxation and sleep. Whenever we feel unrest, there is a need to ‘press the reset button’ and restore equilibrium. The ‘Reset Equilibrium Function’ (REF) operates across all behavioural systems and processes of relevance to the Science of Psychology.

A General Theory of Behaviour pivots on the Reset Equilibrium Function (or ‘REF’) by integrating the principle of homeostasis with our understanding of psychological processes and behaviour. We employ systems theory with cyclical negative feedback loops as a central feature. Feedback loops in Cybernetics and Control Theory mirror homeostasis within Biology and Neuroscience. Claude Bernard’s ‘milieu intérnal’, Cannon’s (1932) ‘homeostasis’, Wiener’s (1948) Cybernetics and von Bertalanffy’s (1968) general systems theory all converge toward the ubiquitous role of feedback in self-regulating systems. Psychologists have employed control theory as a conceptual tool for large areas of Psychology (e.g. Carver and Scheier, 1982) and, notably, one objective of control theory has been to provide a “Unified Theory of Human Behaviour”.

A General Theory of Behaviour employs systems of homeostasis in networks of interconnected processes with values that are reset by the REF. This hypothesis is founded on principles in Biology, Engineering and Cybenetics which have compelling isomorphisms with phenomena in Psychology.

The Reset Equilibrium Function extends the reach of homeostasis to a general control function that automatically restores psychological processes to equilibrium and stability. The REF is triggered when any processes within a system strays outside of its set range. The REF is innate and can exist only in conscious organisms, which all have Type I and II homeostasis. Non-conscious organisms have one type of homeostasis (Type I).

Figure 1 shows Type II homeostasis in a system of four processes, each with its own set range, making a series of resets. Any set of processes such as the four in Figure 1 is a sub-set of thousands of interconnected processes responsible for coding, communicating and controlling inside the body and the brain. Any process can be connected to hundreds or thousands of others in one huge lattice structure. Potentially any single one of these processes can push any other process out of its set range requiring it to reset. When any process resets, a ‘domino-effect’ is possible when other interconnected processes require a reset also. The two types of homeostasis work in synergy. Psychological and physiological processes operate in tandem to maximize equilibrium for each particular set of functions. [AP 003].

Many examples of the REF featured in this book have a similar structure to that shown in Figure 1. However, there is no restriction on the number of participating processes or interconnected networks.


Figure 1 The Reset Equilibrium Function (REF) in a system with four interconnected processes.

My main objective here is to demonstrate that the REF is relevant to numerous psychological functions. These include functions where frequent reset is a condition for stability, e.g. cognition, affect, chronic stress, and subjective well-being, and also where out-of-control behaviour, such as addiction or insomnia, is in need of correction. For all psychological functions, conscious awareness of the state of equilibrium being preserved is not necessary, e.g. subjective well-being. However, when there is goal to change behaviour, conscious awareness of the goal and full engagement of resources are necessary preconditions for purposeful striving, e.g. addiction to alcohol.

In Psychology, biological approaches automatically fall under the suspicion that material reductionism is required. This suspicion is widespread among psychologists who are anti-reductive. With good reason, mind and behaviour are viewed as having properties that extend beyond ‘cogs and flywheels’ or other physico-chemical energy exchanges. We do not doubt the basic ‘clockwork’ model of homeostasis is the dominant one; witness the frequent use of the domestic heating thermostat as the prototypical example of homeostasis in Biology, Physiology and Psychology textbooks. However, the ‘clockwork’ approach is a simplistic caricature and the hypothesis that all behaviour is reducible to physico-chemical reactions is robustly rejected:

Principle I (Agency): The voluntary behaviour of conscious organisms is guided by universal striving for equilibrium with purpose, desire and intentionality.

Following G.E.M. Anscombe, we assert that agents act intentionally if they know what they are doing, i.e. they are aware of the purpose of the act and the reasons for doing it. Type 2 homeostasis, which is associated with the REF, falls into this category. In arguing that homeostasis (Type II) is intentional and purposeful, we adopt two non-reductionist principles, holism and critical realism. In applying the General Theory it is never necessary to assume that mental processes and behaviours are reducible to physico-chemical reactions. We only require that the mind/body system as a whole can be studied using objective methods. Von Bertalanffy (1968) sums up the issue thus:

“We cannot reduce the biological, behavioural, and social levels to the lowest level, that of the constructs and laws of physics. We can, however, find constructs and possibly laws within the individual levels. The world is, as Aldous Huxley once put it, like a Neapolitan ice cream cake where the levels-the physical, the biological, the social and the moral universe-represent the chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla layers. We cannot reduce strawberry to chocolate – the most we can say is that possibly in the last resort, all is vanilla, all mind or spirit. The unifying principle is that we find organizational levels. The mechanistic world view, taking the play of physical particles as ultimate reality, found its expression in a civilization which glorifies physical technology that has led eventually to the catastrophes of our time. Possibly the model of the world as a great organization can help to reinforce the sense of reverence for the living which we have almost lost in the last sanguinary decades of human history.” Von Bertalanffy, 1968, p. 49.

Bene dictum.

There are connections and overlaps with other theories of motivation. For example, there is almost complete convergence between the General Theory and Stevan E Hobfoll’s Conservation of Resources (COR) theory, which holds the basic tenet that “Individuals (and groups) strive to obtain, retain, foster, and protect those things they centrally value.”. Principle I (Agency) concerning the universal striving for equilibrium requires the basic COR tenet to be true or equilibrium could never be attained.

An extract from: A General Theory of Behaviour.

Enjoying the Heat

My new book, A General Theory of Behaviour, begins with a story…

It is a hot summer’s day. A couple are on holiday at a hotel with an outdoor swimming pool. After breakfast, the couple decide to spend a lazy morning beside the pool sunning themselves, reading and swimming. They go to the far end of the pool, where they spot a quiet area about five metres from the only other couple by the pool. They align two recliners a few inches apart and place a small table on either side to mark ‘their’ area of occupation. They carve a niche for themselves by distributing towels and personal objects such as magazines, books, mobile phones, tablets, sun-cream, insecticide lotion, and bags on the tables. They discretely change into swimming costumes and place their clothes on the tables to avoid the ants that quickly gather around objects on the boardwalk. They apply sun-cream, helping each other at the more difficult-to-reach bodily regions. They apply an insecticide to deter any passing mosquitos. They wear sunglasses and sun hats. A large parasol is adjusted by a pool attendant to provide shade from the penetrating sun. As the angle of the sun changes, one of them rises to adjust the parasol so that their recliners remain in the shade.

The couple converse sparingly and rarely speak to the other couple. A ‘Good morning’ here and ‘The water’s nice’ there, but nothing else. They do not wish to invade the other couple’s ‘space’, nor do they wish ‘their’ space to be invaded. After half-an-hour acclimatizing, they take a leisurely 10-minute dip in the pool to ‘cool off’. They swim slowly and quietly, avoiding vigorous movements. After returning to their parasol, drying themselves off, re-applying the sun-cream and insecticide, they order iced cola drinks using a buzzer on one of the tables.


After a few minutes, they take another dip, splash around, tease and joke. They make a little more noise and splashing than on the first occasion, but remain within appropriate limits. They terminate this visit to the pool when the other couple enters the pool because the pool is not large and they wish to avoid ‘over-crowding’. After a few polite comments about the water temperature, they swim to the steps and climb out, walk back to ‘their’ parasol in a gingerly fashion, because the board walk has by then grown so hot that they must step only where there can find shadows or expose their feet to burningly hot boards.

Standing in the shade, they dry themselves, re-apply the sun-cream and insecticide, put on their sunglasses and hats, lie down on their recliners and, flicking away an occasional fly, push the buzzer to order another iced drink, this time two gins and tonic. As the hour turns towards midday, the ambient temperature is become too hot to bear even in the shade and, after finishing their drinks, they pack their things and return to the tranquillity of their air-conditioned, freshly cleaned hotel room. Thirty degrees outside – but not a single droplet of sweat the whole morning.

Exactly what is going on in this story? How can Enjoying the Heat help us to understand universal principles of behaviour? Let’s consider these issues:

We know a lot of intimate detail about the couple’s behaviour. The couple are close. They mark out a niche of territory using the tables and their belongings. They lie out in the sun to be tanned but not burned, to be warm, but not too warm, to be out in the open air and close to nature, but not to be bitten by insects or run over by ants, to be as peacefully relaxed as possible but not wishing to fall asleep, to be stimulated but not taxed, to exercise their bodies but gently and not strenuously, to be refreshed by a drink or two but not to be intoxicated by alcohol, to be polite to neighbours but not overly familiar, and so on and so forth – you are getting the drift. The couple are striving for a state of equilibrium, a state of ‘moderation in all things’, a ‘tiny piece of paradise’, as it says in the hotel brochure. The couple’s every action and reaction as individuals and as a couple are governed by one universal principle that guides all of behaviour. Their behaviour illustrates the power and truth of a single idea, the hypothesis that, at root, all behaviour is an expression of homeostasis. The couple have never been aware of the idea, never even heard of it, yet it is a process that affects every single thing that they, you and I say, think, feel and do.

How can this possibly be so? A joke? A feat of magic? Or, worse yet, the author, publisher and reviewers are all living in la-la land?

None, some or even all of these ideas may be incorrect, but please bear with me and hear me out. This is the story of one particular hypothesis, a dangerous idea –a story with a plot, characters and an unexpected twist. I build the case as we go along, all I ask of you is that you ‘hang in there’…

An extract from: A General Theory of Behaviour

To be continued…

A Redesign for Psychology


Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations.

Stephen Hawking

It has been said that advances in science come not from empiricism but from new theories. With this thought in mind, A General Theory of Behaviour has the potential – or so I aim to convince the reader – to advance understanding of human nature and to integrate the discipline of Psychology. In A General Theory of Behaviour (link to an introductory video) I explain why this is (a) necessary, and (b) possible.

I think the majority of psychologists agree that integration is necessary. Fragmentation has been a longstanding and difficult problem for Psychology. Over more than a century, fragmentation has been called a ‘crisis’. The problem has been described thus: “a nexus of philosophical tensions, which divide individuals, departments, and psychological organizations, and which are therefore primarily responsible for the fragmentation of Psychology.” In many years’ experience as a student, researcher and professor of Psychology, I can testify to persistent and intractable tensions in every quarter of the discipline, worse in some places than others, but the fragmentation is evident everywhere.

The discipline can sometimes feel like a medieval country split into fiefdoms by moats, walls and a haphazard set of paltry roads, odd rules and customs (Figure P1, left panel). As the visitor approaches the border of the country, a smart road sign reads: “Welcome to the Science of Psychology”. Full of expectation, one passes through the guarded gates at border control (sniffer dogs, disinfectant spray guns, x-ray machines and millimetre wave scanners).

After screening by unsmiling officers in peaked caps, the traveller explores what excitement exists inside this guarded place. Each fiefdom provides glossy brochures, catalogues, and travel guides in which skies are always blue, buildings chateaux, and fountains high reaching with crystal waters.

Each area invites the visitor to drive over the draw bridge and take a detailed look. However, on close inspection, one senses a deep-seated problem. Something strange and slightly sinister appears to be going on. The locals appear defensive and ill at ease when one makes inquiries and asks even the simplest of questions such as “What does X mean?” As we travel around the country, barbed wire fences of ‘no-man’s land’ are everywhere and the few connecting roads are potholed and ill-made.

No man's land

In each sub-area, there is evidence of industrialisation with companies of artisans ploughing long straight furrows, planting pest-resistant seeds, spraying fields with Roundup®, harvesting their crops and filling rodent-proof silos with carefully sifted data, e.g. long-eared corn tastes better that short-eared, short-eared corn tasted better than oats, oats tastes better that long-eared corn (!) in cycles of planting, harvesting, testing and analysing.

Ploughed fields

Producers with the largest silos rule. In spite of all of the graft, one senses tension, disharmony and technical disputes is causing ill-feeling. If somebody breaks the famine with a bold new idea, s/he risks being pilloried, dunked or quarantined in the cut-off region called “Critical Psychology”. One wonders if Psychology really were a Science, would there be so many sub-regions, stretches of ‘no-mans-land’ and unrewarding customs?

Screen Shot 2018-08-17 at 12.00.57

Figure P1.The Science of Psychology. In its fragmented state (left panel), each sub-field acts as a defended niche with its own specific theories and data. In a unified state (right panel) the discipline would consist of a single General Theory that encompasses the entire field with a minimum number of assumptions, a large set of falsifiable hypotheses, and a body of empirical studies aimed at falsification of the General Theory.

Most commentators agree that a major redesign is long overdue to re-engineer the discipline. Travel between sub-areas needs to be made more navigable, moats emptied, walls razed and bridges built. It’s an Isambard Kingdom Brunel the science needs as much as another Charles Darwin.


The objectives of A General Theory of Behaviour are to take a few measured steps towards advancing Psychology as a natural science and, in so doing, to unify it (Figure P1, right panel). This brief introduction of 40,000 words offers twenty principles and eighty auxiliary propositions, 100 empirically falsifiable propositions. The principles and multiple auxiliary propositions make the General Theory fully and transparently capable of falsification. In embracing intentionality, purpose and desire, the General Theory is non-reductive while, at the same time, drawing upon principles from other sciences, in particular, Biology and Physiology. Following in the footsteps of Claude Bernard, Walter B Cannon and others, I try to convince the reader of the usefulness of the metamorphosed concept of behavioural homeostasis (link to video) and, in so doing, explain the implications for the Science of Behaviour.

My thesis is that organisms are not adapted to each other and the environment because natural selection made them that way, but they are made that way owing to an inbuilt striving towards stability and equilibrium. A General Theory of Behaviour is an introductory ‘User’s Guide’ aiming towards a reconfigured Science of Psychology – the target in the right-hand panel of Figure P1. In Chapters One and Two I describe the core elements of the theory. Chapters Three, Four and Five contain additional parts of the theory concerning biological rhythms, concepts of behaviour, Consciousness and the central Behaviour Control System. The remaining five chapters each cover three core topics from the perspective of the theory. These 15 topics indicate the ability of the theory to cover a broad cross-section of the discipline.

Heavy traffic

In building roads and bridges, one must neither over-design nor under-design. Nobody knows how sturdy the structure is until it is tested with a fleet of trucks. Should cracks occur (or worse), other ‘engineers’ might be persuaded to renovate the project. Surely it should be worth the effort. However long it takes, our broken discipline needs to be put together into one beautiful whole.

Book cover

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