A Closer Look

When Albert Einstein challenged Sir Isaac Newton's theory of absolute time and space with his own theory of relativity, his ideas overturned long-held traditional views and laid the foundation for modern physics.

Does psychology need a similar overhaul? Does every field, now and then?

Absolutely, say Div. 24 (Society for Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology) members Brent D. Slife, PhD, Jeffrey S. Reber, PhD, and Frank C. Richardson, PhD, the editors of the new book, "Critical Thinking about Psychology: Hidden Assumptions and Plausible Alternatives" (APA, 2004). In it, they and more than a dozen authors argue for psychologists to think critically not just about human behavior, but about their own research and practice methods: to question whether, for example, using traditional methodology to study behavior such as love and social life is the best approach, or whether it's realistic for psychotherapists to keep their values out of the therapy room.

By thinking more critically about psychology's foundations and assumptions, they argue, psychologists would consider some alternative approaches to research and practice that could constructively improve the field, as Einstein did with his.

Their goal is not to tear down psychology's foundations, they explain, but rather to inspire dialogue about psychology's grayer areas, big questions and underlying presuppositions. For example, a common thread throughout the book is whether materialism--or the notion that "only matter matters," says Slife--should be so prevalent in psychology. Another is whether psychology tends to focus too much on individuals rather than on shared phenomena and relationships.

"Psychologists care a great deal about critical thinking," says Reber, a psychology professor at the State University of West Georgia. "But what has been lacking is critical thinking about our own discipline."

Psychology under the microscope

The editors introduce the book with a discussion on how--and why--psychology has been lax in turning a critical eye inward. For instance, many "mainstream" psychologists want to consider the field "settled," says Slife, a practitioner and psychology professor at Brigham Young University.

"We want to be respected and have a legitimate discipline," says Slife. "If we question our methods, that might make it look like we aren't 'all there,' and that is a fearful thing for some people."

The book points out underlying theories that could be re-examined in six major subdisciplines of psychology: social psychology, clinical and counseling psychology, neuroscience and experimental psychology, and statistics and methodology. The book devotes two chapters to each area: one that describes current assumptions of that subdiscipline and one that proposes and discusses alternative approaches to those theories. In the social psychology chapter, for example, lead author Reber questions using the scientific method to research topics such as love and relationships. Too many researchers, he argues, study individual feelings about love rather than love as a shared social phenomenon.

"Relationships aren't material things," Reber points out. "They do matter and can be studied and understood in their own right by using the appropriate method," such as by observing and studying a conversation about love rather than one person's reported feelings.

Similarly, the methodology section questions psychology's reliance on what researchers can observe and measure. "The idea that something observable can stand for something not, always leaves researchers at least one step removed from the thing they want to study," Reber says. The clinical and counseling chapter dissects the debate on whether psychotherapy is--or should be--value-free.

Future philosophers

Members of APA's Div. 24 are excited about the book's debut because it lays out many of the questions and ideas the division has tackled through discussions and paper sessions at APA's Annual Convention and other activities, says Suzanne Kirschner, PhD, the division's president and author of the book's concluding chapter.

She hopes the book speaks in particular to psychology graduate students--who often ponder the sort of multilayered questions outlined in the book early in their psychology careers. Too often these young critical-thinkers let go of these musings as they move from student to professional, Kirschner says. "I also think that the issues raised in this book will strike a chord with a great many others in this profession," adds Kirschner, a professor of psychology at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. "The kinds of questions and challenges posed in this book are present in the minds of many psychologists, even those who don't necessarily think of themselves as critical or philosophical in their orientation."

Further Reading

Those interested may order the book at http://www.apa.org/books/4316048.html.

Div. 24 at a glance

Members of APA's Div. 24 (Society for Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology) hail from numerous psychology subdisciplines and are bound by a common interest in the philosophy of science and psychology. The division was formed in 1962 and has more than 500 members. The division's Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology is published twice a year. The division sponsors a listserv and an online discussion group for networking and collaboration, and annually awards a prize for the best student paper presented to the division for inclusion at APA's Annual Convention. To join, visit http://soe.indstate.edu/div24.