Psychology in a Vacuum

The best psychological research is inspired simultaneously by a quest for fundamental understanding and a consideration of use.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

As a discipline, psychology is a hard one to classify.  We are part social science, part natural science.  Our research is basic, but it is also applied.  Our methods embrace the experimental and mathematical, but also the observational and correlational.  Psychology is the study of behavior, cognition, mind, brain, emotion, personality, and social life – all at the same time.  Call it multifaceted, or even eclectic, this is what draws so many students, scholars, and practitioners to the field of psychology.

As a science, psychology struggles to be recognized as a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) discipline.  We insist that psychology is just as much a science as physics or chemistry, but we live with an identification that places the discipline more toward the “soft” side than the “hard” side of science.

In defense of psychology as a science, we often point to the rigor of our methods.  The quality and sophistication of experimental design in psychology rivals the hardest of the “hard” sciences.  Indeed, those who are trained in the science of psychology are often envied for their skill in the scientific method.

Yet, I often wonder whether the scientific approach of physics or chemistry is really the right one for psychology.  To develop a fundamental understanding of matter and molecules requires the sterile and controlled environment of a vacuum.  Is that what is most productive to achieve a fundamental understanding of mind and emotion?  Or is it possible that in our efforts to create the psychological equivalent of a vacuum, we become so disconnected from the phenomena we seek to explain that little real understanding can be achieved?

In thinking about these issues, Donald Stokes’ 1997 thesis on Pasteur’s Quadrant is relevant.  In considering the intersection of whether research is inspired by a quest for fundamental understanding and whether research is inspired by considerations of use, Stokes identifies the now-familiar quadrants:

Pasteur’s Quadrant


I have always considered psychological science at its best when it falls into Pasteur’s quadrant (inspired simultaneously by a quest for fundamental understanding and a consideration of use).  But in the effort to firmly establish the “hard” rigor of psychological science, much of what we do falls squarely into Bohr’s quadrant.  Even when a line of investigation in psychology begins in Pasteur’s quadrant, it often finds its way into Bohr’s.  In the end, it is all about creating the right vacuum, with the applications that initially inspired the work having been long forgotten.

I think psychology loses its value when it tries too hard to isolate itself from the outside world.  When we lose the connection to human beings acting, perceiving, thinking, and interacting in their natural environments, we may be losing the essence of the entire discipline.  Creating a vacuum in which to study the problems of psychology may be destroying the phenemona altogether.