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In 1903 Cornell University’s first Professor of Psychology, Edward Titchener, founded a by-invitation association known as the Society of Experimental Psychologists (SEP). According to Titchener the SEP meetings would be characterized by three things. Gentlemen interested in using the experimental method to reveal thought would come together, in the pleasure of the smoking room, to discuss their ideas. The SEP held its 100th meeting at Cornell early this year. In attendance were, among others, Karen de Valois, Carol Krumhansl, and Molly Potter. (More could be named, but you get my drift.) At least two papers relied on correlational rather than experimental methods, and the room featured a prominent NO SMOKING sign. Times change.
Will there ever be a 200th meeting of the SEP. My bet is ‘probably not.’ There is a good chance that experimental psychology, as we think of it today, is simply going to disappear. In itself, that is all right, providing that the important issues we deal with today are either resolved or someone else is dealing with them.
Staggering developments in biophysics, molecular genetics, imaging, and related fields have made it possible to obtain data about what goes on inside the skull. Our own field has developed very sophisticated methods for isolating elementary behavioral functions (e.g. separating long term and short term memory). The union of these developments has and will lead to tremendous developments in our knowledge of how the brain dictates behavior. We can justly be proud of the abstract information processing models and paradigms that are central to this effort. The credit will probably be assigned to cognitive neuroscience rather than experimental psychology, but so what?
The future is not so clear for another aspect of our field. Experimental psychology is, for the most part, the business of developing abstract models of how people perceive, remember, make decisions, and solve problems. If we do our work correctly, when people think about something they ought to be instantiating one of our models with a particular content. Unfortunately, though, this is too often a statement of faith rather than an established fact. There is room for doubt.
Let me take three examples. In the eyewitness memory field it is well established that when people view an event under controlled conditions confidence in testimony is only marginally related to accuracy. But what is the relevance to actual testimony in the courts? Quite possibly very little. In actual cases people do not view crimes and accidents under controlled conditions. As a result confidence is confounded with viewing condition and, as Steven Lindsay has pointed out, may indeed be a cue to accuracy. Moving to another field, Kahneman and Tversky’s brilliant analyses of human behavior in decision making is one of the triumphs of our field. This work is based upon observations of how people behave in controlled conditions roughly paralleling the Von Neumann and Morgenstern model of decision making as a choice between lotteries. Observations of actual decision makers has shown, again and again, that decision makers reject the lottery model itself. They behave much more as if they were guided by analogy and pattern recognition. Finally, a similar thing happens in the study of logic. Experimental psychologists have amply documented the sorts of errors that people make when they are faced with problems analyzable by the restrictive models of logical or probability calculi, or for that matter, Newtonian physics. But ...
These laboratory phenomena may not mirror the sort of reasoning people do in everyday life. To illustrate, I once asked a high school student to explain a physics problem, one of the classic ones that psychologists have used to exemplify naive reasoning. I pointed out that his answer violated Newton’s first law. He retorted that I was asking him to be a Moon Child, reasoning about how bodies fall in a vacuum. His answer, which the psychological literature treated as a naive error, was roughly correct if you were interested in how bodies would actually move down here on our friction-filled Earth. I have seen similar phenomena with respect to memory, logical reasoning, and decision making.
Why is this important? Abstract information processing models have, indeed, been useful in understanding the biological basis of thought. That is one of the goals of experimental psychology. The other one is (I hope) to increase our understanding of how thought functions in society. To do this we have to do bridging studies to connect the laboratory to the world. Just asserting that our models mirror what people do in giving court testimony, purchasing stock, or understanding the news is not enough. If we are going to be scientists we have to provide empirical evidence that these models do indeed link to everyday cognition. Such evidence is sadly lacking.
Will we rise to this challenge? I am not so sure. The modeling -> neuroscience approach will probably be swallowed by the neurosciences. Will the modeling -> social behavior approach be swallowed by education, anthropology, and industrial-organizational psychology? This could happen. And if it does Titchener’s ghost will not be happy. Like the Chesire Cat, the only thing left of SEP (and Division 3) will be our grins.