Executive Director's Column

Humpty Dumpty Is Alive and Well, Living in the Psychological Literature

When we say "psychological analysis," the public assumes that we are talking about Freud, psychopathology, and symptoms when we are trying to describe the psychological motivation of an individual or individuals having a common behavioral trait or belonging to a particular group.

By Kurt Salzinger, PhD

Since the beginning of my time in the Science Directorate at the APA, I have been urging psychologists to communicate our findings and to explicate the principles of behavior that we have validated. Now that we are communicating, I realize that I forgot to mention that we have to communicate clearly. We often take words with everyday meaning and assign them specific, that is, limited meaning, overlooking the fact that laypeople respond to the surplus and not the restricted meaning. Although not slavishly adhering to Bridgman's concept of the operational definition, we nevertheless communicate in our own (let's face it) idiosyncratic manner whether we do so with our colleagues or the public at large.

Thus we use everyday words, following the Humpty Dumpty prescription in which he contends that the meaning of a given word is a question of "which is to be master . . . When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - - neither more nor less." The problem is that while this approach may be amusing in a children's book, it does not help in communicating with the wide world outside. There is another problem, of course, with common words. Lay people have well ingrained associations that often differ from those of the particular scientist employing the word in question. Thus, when we say "psychological analysis," the public assumes that we are talking about Freud, psychopathology, and symptoms when we are trying to describe the psychological motivation of an individual or individuals having a common behavioral trait or belonging to a particular group. Such problems are multiplied in effect when we encourage press releases that translate our findings into less technical language than the guarded statistically defended statements of our articles. Sometimes, when we discuss our findings in response to criticisms that we receive in our journals, we leave our precise words even there, to make a point more dramatically, assuming that our colleagues will better understand. We assume they will realize that we are exaggerating only to bring the point home, not that we literally mean what we say in our less than scientifically exact statement. In sum, as a result of succeeding to make public our work, we court the danger of arousing the ire of columnists and members of Congress who take a less than sympathetic view of our nonscientific statements.

When a physicist talks about quarks, nobody is offended because the associations of the laypersons do not impinge on their understanding of physics or perhaps more importantly most people do not believe that their associations to that term bear any relationship to physics. On the other hand, when psychologists use words such as "conservative" or "closed minded" every layperson "knows" their meaning no matter what nuanced meaning we have assigned to it. I suspect that I am a member of an ever-smaller number of psychologists who continues to eschew such four-letter words as "mind" even though I do understand (I think) what general area of functioning psychologists are referring to when they employ that word. I continue to believe that the use of such vague words pose a danger to our science but this may not be the place to argue that point. The now recognized greater danger is the fact that laypeople understand such words in ways that we psychologists often do not mean. As those of you who have been reading my columns know, I have been urging our members to write op ed pieces. (It's just that I now wish to caution us when interacting with the public that we do so as carefully as when we prepare our papers for a scientific audience.