Psychology and the Paranormal

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“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Thanks for the visit!

I approach this blog site with a sense of anticipation, wondering where it may lead…

I hope it might lead towards light, new treasure, in the form of new knowledge and theory.  

How can that be, you might well ask ?  Surely, a so-called ‘expert’ must already have an opinion one way or the other about the paranormal? Wrong!

The truth is that I have no fixed ideas about which direction the evidence will lead. 

One thing I do know – it is necessary to step beyond old assumptions, seek new objects of knowledge. 

If we already KNOW the answer, the TRUTH, why would we bother to read, write or even THINK for that matter, because the truth must already be determined, already out there, written by somebody, somewhere and all that would be left to do would be to pick up dead learning.

Believers vs. Disbelievers

It is quickly apparent to any observer that the paranormal field is heavily divided between two armies of believers (so-called ‘sheep’) and skeptics (so-called ‘goats’ who are actually dis-believers) battling it out with no holds barred.

The stakes are high. The fight is not about empirical studies, observations and anecdotes.  The very nature of science, life and reality are being contested.  

There are ‘dead bodies’ and ‘unexploded land mines’ all over the place and one would be lucky to leave the field in one piece. One can surmise that there can only be losers, never winners, in this futile type of war. In the end every soldier in the affray is a loser. It’s an intellectual version of World War I with permanent trenches and barbed wire fences that has been waging for over a century.  

I know this because I have been there on the battle field.  I entered the field and did several tours of duty. Then, battle-weary with the affray, I walked away.

Recently I returned to see if anything has changed.

As I stuck my head over the trench top waving a white flag of peace, a few warning shots were fired. The same old battle is raging but with the difference that many new foot soldiers have been recruited and there have been scores of  new studies over the last 20 years. These studies have been weaponised to provide increased power, precision and impact.

The army of non-believers now possesses a stockpile of findings consistent with scientific explanations of the paranormal. The believer army, meanwhile, has accrued an equally large stockpile supportive of paranormal interpretations.  

White Flag of Neutrality

Offering the white flag of peace and neutrality causes no small amount of trepidation.  Am I now to be a target for both sides – because, in the battle of the paranormal, nobody is permitted to be neutral?  It’s a ‘do or die’ scenario like no other in science.

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The blog posts here are written from a dispassionate point of view. If I am passionate about anything, it is about the importance of neutrality. My purpose is to create a balanced and even-handed review based on the best contemporary evidence on paranormal claims in science and medicine.

I present here the evidence, both pro and con, explain the relevant psychological processes, present scientific arguments, and produce a final balance sheet at the end.

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Out soon:

“Psychology and the Paranormal

Exploring Anomalous Experience”


June 2020 | 400 pages | SAGE Publications Ltd

 

 

 

Food, Diets and Dieting

Inequities

The world is full of contradictions, inconsistencies and inequities. On the one hand, it has been reported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO, 2015) that 805million people are estimated to be chronically undernourished. Yet, it has been estimated that the volume of food produced is more than one and a half times what is needed to provide everybody on the planet with a nutritious diet (Weis, 2007). It is not about lack, it is about inequity. While 805 million starve, we also know that 1460 million are overweight or obese, and that number is increasing.

There is also water scarcity with 1.2 billion people lacking access to clean drinking water and 2.5 billion people having no access to a toilet, less than the number of people with a mobile phone (United Nations, 2015). As the world population increases from 7.3 billion today to around 9.6 billion in 2050 (+31.5%), the supply of fresh drinking water available will remain about the same. Yet, around 70 per cent of the world’s water is used in agriculture. Annual grain crops are planted on about 70 per cent of the world’s cropland and provide 80per cent of the world’s food (Pimentel et al., 2012), 70 per cent of which is stock feed for farm animals, which in turn produce dairy and meat.

Over the next 25 years, a lot more food will be needed for the extra 31.5 per cent and the only way it can be produced is through agriculture, creating a vicious circle. The FAO (2015) predicts that the global demand for livestock products will increase by 70 per cent by 2050 with an estimated 1 billion poor depending on livestock for food and income. The livestock sector contributes to human-induced Greenhouse Gas emissions for 14.5 per cent and is a large user of natural resources, especially water.

As Father Time waves his sickle over the remaining decades of this century, there will be a worsening water scarcity. Thanks in part to a ready supply of beef burgers, fried chicken, milk, eggs and cola. Many recent editorials in medical and scientific journals have addressed issues relating to food, diets and dieting (e.g. Drewnowski, 2014; Edmonds and Templeton, 2013; Fitzgerald, 2014; Gold and Graham, 2011; Ndisang et al., 2014; Pagadala and McCullough, 2012; Potenza, 2014; Sniehotta et al., 2014; Stuckler and Basu, 2013; The PLoS Medicine Editors, 2012; Yanovski, 2011).

Special Issue

The Special Issue on ‘Food, Diets and Dieting’ provides a state-of-the-art overview of psychological studies by international researchers on this topic area. The Call for Papers for a Special Issue on ‘Food, Diets and Dieting’ was timely; we received unprecedented interest with many high-quality submissions. Following peer review, the number of accepted papers finally reached the total of 42. The contributions have been divided into two sets for publication in the May and June 2015 issues of Special Issue: Food, diets and dieting. These publications in Journal of Health Psychology are complemented in our companion, open access journal, Health Psychology Open, by a theoretical review paper and a series of commentary papers (Marks, 2015).

According to the McKinsey Global Institute (2014) obesity is responsible for around 5 per cent of global deaths and the global economic impact is US$2.0trillion, or 2.8per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP), roughly equivalent to the impact from smoking or armed violence, war and terrorism. In the United States, in 2004, direct and indirect health costs associated with obesity were US$98 billion. That figure probably has doubled by now.

Depending on the source, it is reported that the direct medical cost of overweight and obesity combined has been estimated to be 5–10per cent of the US health care spend. 42million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2013. Prevalence of overweight or obesity in adults doubled from 6 per cent in 1980 to 12 per cent in 2008. By 2050, it is predicted that obesity will affect 60 per cent of adult men, 50 per cent of adult women and 25per cent of children making the United States, Britain and much of Europe a mainly obese society.

Globalization is Driver

The main driver of the obesity epidemic and increased prevalence of other non-communicable diseases is unregulated corporate globalization (Swinburn et al., 2011). From the point of view of human health, globalization flies a banner of progress and freedom yet brings illness and an early death to millions of people with non-communicable ‘diseases of affluence’. Transnational corporations are scaling up their promotion of tobacco, alcohol, cola and other sugary beverages, ultra-processed food and unhealthy commodities generally throughout low- and middle-income countries. Moodie et al. (2013) have observed that sales of unhealthy commodities across 80 low- and middle-income countries are strongly interrelated. They argue that wherever there are high rates of tobacco and alcohol consumption, there are also a high intake of snacks, soft drinks, processed foods and other unhealthy food commodities. Moodie et al. (2013) argued that the alcohol and ultra-processed food and drink industries are using similar strategies to the tobacco industry to undermine effective public health policies and programmes. Furthermore, it is suggested that unhealthy commodity industries should have no role in the formation of national or international policy for non-communicable disease policy. Therefore, it follows that the only evidence-based mechanisms that can prevent harm caused by unhealthy commodity industries are public regulation and market intervention.

Food Affordability

The work of Drewnowski and others has demonstrated a strong relationship between affordability of food and beverages and their energy density measured in terms of fat and sugar (Drewnowski, 2014; Drewnowski and Specter, 2004). A systematic review of 27 studies across 10 countries showed that a healthful diet costs around US$550 per year more than an unhealthy one (Rao et al., 2013). In England, another study suggested that the healthiest dietary pattern costs double the price of the least healthy, costing £6.63/day and £3.29/day, respectively (Morris et al., 2014). That is a difference of £1219 per annum.

The inverse relationship between income and prevalence of overweight and obesity follows from two related facts: (a) cheaper foods and drinks are energy-dense and (b) a healthful diet is unaffordable for the majority of people. In 2008, an estimated 1.46 billion adults worldwide had a body mass index (BMI) of 25kg/m2 or greater, and of these, 205million men and 297million women were obese. Taking into account, the rate of increase in obesity, this half-billion figure is projected to increase at least 30 per cent by 2050. The World Health Organization (WHO) (2014) estimates that around 3.4million adults die each year as a result of overweight or obesity. The WHO (2013) published a plan to halt the rise in diabetes and obesity as a part of a vision: ‘A world free of the avoidable burden of noncommunicable diseases’. WHO interventions revolve around ‘mobilizing sustained resources Marks 471 … in coordination with the relevant organizations and ministries’ which consists of high-level meetings between governmental representatives and publishing position statements.

Evidence and logic suggest that economic prosperity is the enabler for obesity and, furthermore, leading authorities have concluded that Obesity is the result of people responding normally to the obesogenic environments they find themselves in. Support for individuals to counteract obesogenic environments will continue to be important, but the priority should be for policies to reverse the obesogenic nature of these environments. (Swinburn et al., 2011) Policy reversals to reduce obesogenicity by regulation face robust resistance from the food and drinks industry. Yet without regulation to change the price imbalance between unhealthful and healthful foods, the obesity epidemic is unlikely to go away. In the meantime, hundreds of millions of individuals continue inexorably along the path of overweight and obesity, with the associated unpleasant illnesses and an early death. It follows that health care systems must be competent to offer effective interventions to prevent, treat and ameliorate the impact of overweight or obesity. Authorities decree that a ‘balanced diet’ with regular physical activity is of crucial importance to a healthy body. Yet, in spite of thousands of studies, hundreds of campaigns and scores of dedicated institutes and journals based on this creed, there are currently no validated public health interventions able to achieve sustained long-term weight loss. Today, the muchtouted idea of the ‘balanced diet’ seems little more than worn out myth. Some basic questions require answers: What is causing the obesity epidemic? What can be done about it? and What is the role of health psychologists (if any)? (Marks et al., 2015; Marks, in press). The obesity epidemic is comparable in importance to the smoking epidemic. Arguably, it will prove to be even more significant in human history than smoking. It took 50 years of consolidated pressure to reduce the prevalence of smoking related diseases. Progress has been frustratingly slow. Still, in 2015, only one industrialized country in the world has plain or standard packaging of cigarettes (Australia) with a second one planning to follow next year (England). With no significant interventions on the horizon for obesity prevention, for example, unhealthful food taxation, the obesity epidemic can continue unabated to run its course, until food and water shortages have their ultimate impact on human society.

Enough Knowledge Now to Tackle Obesity

There is enough knowledge now to tackle the obesity epidemic. Unfortunately our political leaders lack the spine to do what is necessary. Our market-led governance is in the pocket of the paymasters who influence the election of our presidents and prime ministers. If the food chain could be rationally developed, the food and water crises could be curbed within two decades from now. This Special Issue contains a collection of in-depth psychological studies on food, diets and dieting. These studies are relevant to the issue of why certain foods are eaten or avoided by individual consumers and how the choices of consumers are influenced by family, social and economic conditions. Diets and dietary changes involve complex systems of variables which operate on a mass scale. Improved understanding of psychological functioning around food, diets and dieting holds one key to improving nutritional health. A better understanding of behaviour alone is not enough; changes to the food environment are also necessary. Our governmental leaders need to wake up, loosen their ties to their industrial paymasters and take effective action.

References

Drewnowski A (2014) Healthy diets for a healthy planet. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 99(6): 1284–1285.

Drewnowski A and Specter SE (2004) Poverty and obesity: The role of energy density and energy costs. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 79(1): 6–16.

Edmonds EW and Templeton KJ (2013) Childhood obesity and musculoskeletal problems: Editorial Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research 471(4): 1191–1192.

Fitzgerald DA (2014) Mini-symposium: Childhood obesity and its impact on respiratory wellbeing: Editorial title: Childhood obesity is the global warming of healthcare. Paediatric Respiratory Reviews 15(3): 209–284.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) (2014) The State of Food Insecurity in the World: Strengthening the Enabling Environment for Food Security and Nutrition. Rome: FAO. Available at: http:// http://www.fao.org/3/a-i4030e.pdf

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) (2015) Livestock and the environment. Available at: http://www.fao.org/ livestock-environment/en/

Gold MS and Graham NA (2011) Editorial: Hot topic: Food Addiction & Obesity Treatment Development (Executive Guest Editors: Mark S Gold and Noni A Graham). Current Pharmaceutical Design 17(12): 1126–1127.

McKinsey Global Institute (2014) Overcoming obesity: An initial economic analysis. Discussion paper. London. Available at: http://www. munideporte.com/imagenes/documentacion/ ficheros/025183D9.pdf

Marks DF (2015) Homeostatic theory of obesity. Health Psychology Open. Marks DF, Murray M, Evans B, et al. (2015) Health Psychology: Theory, Research and Application (4th edn). London: SAGE.

Moodie R, Stuckler D, Monteiro C, et al. (2013) Profits and pandemics: Prevention of harmful effects of tobacco, alcohol, and ultraprocessed food and drink industries. The Lancet 381(9867): 670–679.

Morris MA, Hulme C, Clarke GP, et al. (2014) What is the cost of a healthy diet? Using diet data from the UK Women’s Cohort Study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 68(11): 1043–1049.

Ndisang JF, Vannacci A and Rastogi S (2014) Oxidative stress and inflammation in obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and related cardiometabolic complications. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity 2014: 506948.

Pagadala MR and McCullough AJ (2012) Editorial: Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and obesity: Not all about BMI. The American Journal of Gastroenterology 107: 1859–1861.

Pimentel D, Cerasale D, Stanley RC, et al. (2012) Annual vs. perennial grain production. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 161: 1–9.

Potenza MN (2014) Obesity, food, and addiction: Emerging neuroscience and clinical and public health implications. Neuropsychopharmacology 39(1): 249–250.

Rao M, Afshin A, Singh G, et al. (2013) Do healthier foods and diet patterns cost more than less healthy options? A systematic review and metaanalysis. BMJ Open 3: e004277.

Sniehotta FF, Simpson SA and Greaves CJ (2014) Weight loss maintenance: An agenda for health psychology. British Journal of Health Psychology 19: 459–464.

Stuckler D and Basu S (2013) Getting serious about obesity. BMJ: British Medical Journal 346: f1300.

Swinburn BA, Sacks G, Hall KD, et al. (2011) The global obesity pandemic: Shaped by global drivers and local environments. The Lancet 378(9793): 804–814.

The PLoS Medicine Editors (2012) PLoS Medicine series on Big Food: The food industry is ripe for scrutiny. PLoS Medicine 9(6): e1001246.

United Nations (2015) Water Scarcity. Available at: http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/scarcity. shtml

Weis T (2007) The Global Food Economy. London: Zed Books. World Health Organisation (WHO) (2014) Obesity and overweight. Fact Sheet No 311. Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/ fs311/en/http://www.who.int/mediacentre/ factsheets/fs311/en/

World Health Organization (WHO) (2013) Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases 2013–2020. Geneva: WHO.

Yanovski SZ (2011) Obesity treatment in primary care – Are we there yet. New England Journal of Medicine 365(21): 2030–2031.

First published in the Journal of Health Psychology 2015

The Persistence of Error

There is an embarrassing, unanswered question about theories and models in Psychology that is screaming to be answered. If the evidence in support of Psychology’s models and theories is so meagre and feeble, how have they survived for such a long time?

The scientific method is intended to be a fail-safe procedure for abandoning disconfirmed hypotheses and progressing with hypotheses that appear not to be disconfirmed. The psychologists who dream up these theories and test them claim to be scientists, so what the heck is going on?

One reason that theories and models become semi-permanent features of textbooks and degree programmes is that simple rules at the very heart of science are persistently broken. If a theory is tested and found wanting, then one of two things happens: either (1) the theory is revised and retested or (2) the theory is abandoned. The history of science suggests that (1) is far more frequent than (2). Investigators become attached to the theories and models that they are working with, not to mention their careers, and they invest significant amounts of time, energy and funds in them, and are loath to give them up, a bit like a worn-out but comfortable armchair.

We’ve all been there – seen it, done it, even have the T-shirt:

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Nothing dishonest is happening in most such cases, simply an unwitting bias to confirm one’s theoretical predilections. This is the well-known confirmation bias studied by, yes, you guessed it, psychologists (e.g. Nickerson, 1988).

The process of theory or model testing is illustrated in the diagram. The diagram shows how the research process insulates theories and models against negative results, leading to the persistence of error over many decades. Continuous cycles of revisions and extensions following meagre or negative results protect the model from its ultimate abandonment until every possible amendment and extension has been tested and tried and found to be wanting.

Screen Shot 2018-09-07 at 08.51.32What textbooks don’t tell you: the persistence of error – the manner in which a model or theory is ‘insulated’ against negative results

Several protective measures are available to insulate investigators from ‘negative’ results:
(1) Amend the model and test it again, a process that can be repeated indefinitely.
(2) Test and retest the model ignoring the ‘bad’ results until some positive results appear that can happen purely by chance (a type 2 error).
(3) Carry out some ‘statistical wizardry’ to concoct a more favourable-looking outcome.
(4) Do nothing, i.e. do not publish the findings, and/or:
(5) Look for another theory or model to test and start all over again!

Beside all of these issues, there is increasing evidence of lack of replication, selective publication of positive findings, and outright fraud in psychological research, all of which militate against authentic separation of fact from fantasy (Yong, 2012).

Little attention has been paid to the cultural, socio-political and economic conditions that create the context for individual health experience and behaviour (Marks, 1996). Thousands of studies have accumulated to the evidence base that is showing that socio-cognitive approach provides inadequate theories of behaviour change. Any theory that neglects the complex cognitive, emotional and behavioural conditions that influence human choices is unlikely to be fit for purpose. Furthermore, health psychology theories are disconnected from the known cultural, socio-political, and community contexts of health behaviour (Marks, 2002). Slowly but surely these issues are becoming more widely recognized across the discipline and, at some point in the future, could become mainstream.

As we have seen, critics of the socio-cognitive approach have suggested that SCMs are tautological and irrefutable (Geir Smedslund, 2000). If this is true, then no matter how many studies are carried out to investigate a social cognitive theory, there will be no genuine progress in understanding.

Weinstein (1993: 324) summarized the state of health behaviour research as follows: ‘despite a large empirical literature, there is still no consensus that certain models of health behaviour are more accurate than others, that certain variables are more influential than others, or that certain behaviours or situations are understood better than others.’ Unfortunately, there has been little improvement since then. The individual-level approach to health interventions focuses on theoretical models, piloting, testing and running randomized controlled trials to demonstrate efficacy.

It has been estimated that the time from conception to funding and completing the process of demonstrated effectiveness can take at least 17 years (Clark, 2008). Meta-analyses, reviewed here, suggest that the ‘proof of the pudding’ in the form of truly effective individual-level interventions is yet to materialize.  Alternative approaches for the creation of interventions for at-risk communities and population groups are needed. A fresh approach requires a general theory of behaviour that encompasses human intentionality, desire and purpose within an ontology of change.

Psychology Bankrupt?

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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).

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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.

Unfalsifiable
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.

“Milestone text of the 21st century”

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In ‘A General Theory of Behaviour, David Marks has applied scientifically established theory to conceptualize disparate areas of Psychology in a manner that both unifies and brings greater insight, establishing this book as a milestone text of the 21st century.

Dr David A Holmes, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Founder of the Forensic Research Group, Manchester Metropolitan University

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“Inspiring book…compelling read”

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This inspiring book applies the seemingly simple biological concept of homeostasis to human behaviour.  There is beautiful historic detail about key researchers, whilst considering modern issues such as stress, lack of sleep and addiction. A compelling read, which feels like an engaging lecture, by a passionate and considered speaker.

Janine Crosbie, Psychology Lecturer, University of Salford,

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“Exceptional insights and a driving logic”

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‘In A General Theory of Behaviour, David Marks embarks on the rare journey of creating a central theory of human behaviour, the things that underpin how we think, what we do, how we affiliate with others, and who we become.  Marks brings exceptional insights and a driving logic to bear to navigate through many fragmented theories of behaviour that are by their nature partial and limited.  It is not that these more fragmented theories are not often important, but that we need the grander theory to hold disparate ideas together.  Marks does so convincingly and in a way that is testable, refutable, and often even entertaining.  He demands that the reader think, question, and grasp a broad framework, and doing so will require the kind of thought that our internet-based, 140 character thinking has been reversing.  His ideas are truly worth the effort to sit back with a cup of coffee, and if necessary even a scotch, and think through, ponder, go back over, and incorporate into our appreciation of the eternal question of “what drives human behaviour.”  In A General Theory of Behaviour Marks has made a true contribution to psychology that comes from his careful listening, watching, and thinking over a decades-long career. It is his major contribution and one everyone interested in grasping the essence of human behaviour should tackle.’

Stevan Hobfoll, Rush University Medical Centre

Thank you most kindly Stevan E. Hobfoll!

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Homeostasis Theory of Well-being

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Homeostasis is a singular unifying principle for all living beings. Homeostasis operates at all levels of nature in every living system: in molecules, cells, tissues, organs, organisms, societies, ecosystems and the planet as a whole (Lovelock, 2009). Tissue homeostasis regulates the birth (mitosis) and death of cells (apoptosis); many diseases are directly attributable to defective homeostasis leading to over production or under production of new cells relative to cell deletion (Fadeel & Orrenius, 2005).

Biochemical and physiological feedback loops regulate billions of cells and thousands of compounds and reactions in the human body to maintain body temperature, metabolism, blood pH, fluid levels, blood glucose and insulin concentrations inside the body (Matthews et al., 1985). A body in good physical health is in biochemical and physiological homeostasis. Severe disruptions of homeostasis cause illnesses or can be fatal.

The General Theory of Behaviour (GTB) extends the principle to behaviour, experience and psychological well-being.

ABCD tetrad
A basic structure for homeostasis of behaviour
[Illustration credit: Graham McPhee]

The General Theory proposes that all behaviour and experience follow the principle of homeostasis (Marks, 2015, 2016, 2018). The GTB distinguishes between Physiological or ‘Type I’ Homeostasis and Psychological or ‘Type II’ Homeostasis. Other types of homeostasis operate at higher levels of organisation including the social level (Type III Homeostasis) and the ecological level (Type IV Homeostasis).

A person in good health is in a state of homeostatic balance that operates across systems of biochemical/physiological, psychological, social and ecological homeostasis. Outward and inward stability in a living being is only possible with constant accommodation and adaptation. All living beings strive to maintain equilibrium and stability with the surrounding environment through millions of micro-adjustments and adaptations to the continuously changing circumstances. Adjustments and adaptations can be both conscious and unconscious. The majority of fine adjustments are occurring at an unconscious level, hidden from both external observers and the individual actor.

The Homeostasis Theory of Well-being utilises the fact that human beings are natural agents of change. Humans adapt, accommodate and ameliorate under continuously changing conditions, both external and internal, to maximise the stability of physical and mental well-being. The Homeostasis Theory of Well-being (HTW) is illustrated below.

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The Homeostasis Theory of Well-being (Marks, 2015)

Well-being is the outcome of a multiplex of continuously changing feedback loops in a system of psychological homeostasis with four main component processes: well-being; cognitive appraisal; emotion; and action. Homeostasis maintain both physical and psychological equilibrium with the ever-changing external and internal environments, courtesy of an infinitude of micro-feedback-systems that fall within four macrosystems.

Psychological homeostasis regulates through feedback loops that control thought, emotion and action. Continuously flexible micro-adjustments of activity within feedback loops maintain equilibrium from moment to moment. Psychological homeostasis occurs in response to the infinite variety of circumstances that can affect well-being, including both internal adjustments (e.g. emotional regulation) and external adjustments using deliberate behavioural regulation (e.g. communicating, working, eating and drinking). In synchrony and synergy with all of the body’s other homeostatic mechanisms, psychological homeostasis operates throughout life during both waking and sleep.

In prevention and treatment of clinical conditions, individuals can help themselves and be helped by external techno aids to monitor and maintain physiological variables using behavioural forms of homeostasis, e.g. in diabetes, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, thyroid problems, skin disorders such as urticaria, or obesity. Biochemical, physiological and psychological homeostasis are of similar complexity. Behavioural forms of homeostasis occur in actions designed to support neural systems of regulation. Social homeostasis in supportive actions by other humans, requested or volunteered, provides another way to support and protect an individual’s well-being.

Inputs to homeostasis include technological systems such as: (1) scales for measuring body weight; (2) thermometers to measure body temperature; (3) pulse measurements; (4) electro-mechanical homeostasis, developed by engineers to enhance human control systems such as heating (thermostat), driving (cruise control), navigation (automatic pilot), and space exploration (computer navigation systems); (5) life support systems (e.g. artificial respirators, drip feeding, kidney dialysis, intensive care units); (6) medical and surgical interventions; (7) pharmaceutics; (8) alternative and complementary therapies; (9) yoga and meditation.

People are social and emotional beings and these features need to be restored into theories of behaviour. The Homeostasis Theory of Well-being needs to be tested in randomised controlled trials and prospective studies to determine its scientific validity and applicability to health care.

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 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.

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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

A Redesign for Psychology

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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 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.

Fountain, chateau, blue sky

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?

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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.

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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 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.

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