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Psychology's GhostsReview - Psychology's Ghosts
The Crisis in the Profession and the Way Back
by Jerome Kagan
Yale University Press, 2012
Review by Gustav Jahoda, Ph.D.
Aug 14th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 33)

This book should be compulsory reading for all psychologists, even though many are likely to resist its message! In direct opposition the usual self-congratulatory encomiums, it elegantly but mercilessly uncovers the weaknesses of much of current psychology. The author is one of the most distinguished scientists and scholars in the field, who has made important contributions in developmental, cross-cultural and neuropsychological areas, and has rescued 'temperament' from neglect.

At the outset Kagan looks at psychology as compared with other sciences.  Physicists seek concepts and explanations that apply extremely widely; biologists are less able to generalize, since their concepts will vary with species and the expressions of genes will change according to local conditions. Psychologists are in an even more uncertain position but  tend to be unaware of that, not least because so much of the work is done by Americans with American participants. This is an old story, yet bears repeating since it is persistently ignored. Given the complexity of human life, It is crucial to consider the context in which behavior takes place. This includes culture, social class, gender, the setting, and the historical situation. American students, and even Americans in general,, are not representative of humanity at large. Hence many of the generalizations found in texts are bound to be questionable.

Kagan also points to shortcomings in theory, and writes:

Psychologists typically rely on three distinct kinds of evidence: motor responses, verbal descriptions . . . . and biological reactions. Unfortunately the meaning of these observations remains controversial because psychologists do not have a strong theory that explains most actions, verbal descriptions, or biological reactions.

Such a theory would be the holy grail, and his own discussion would seem to imply that it is doubtful whether such a grand theory would ever be attainable.

Existing theories employ such  supposedly explanatory concepts as  'reward', 'fear', or 'intelligence' , which are mistakenly  taken to be stable  across settings. All these points are illustrated with concrete examples, e.g. 'Most seven-month-old infants cry if an unfamiliar adult with a neutral face walks towards them quickly. But few cry if the same stranger is smiling while walking toward the infant slowly. Therefore, attributing a fear of  strangers to an infant depends on the context.'  Testing a hypothesis is rarely extended to different local contexts or types of situations, nor are the influences of social class or culture routinely considered. Attempts are often made to eliminate such 'noise' by covariance analysis. Kagan gives reasons why this may not achieve its purpose, e.g. it entails 'the assumption that the variation in the predictor or the outcome is due to only one cause.' Another topic treated extensively in this chapter concerns the effects of culture and language.

The second chapter may be said to deconstruct the current vogue for such practices as 'measuring' happiness, which is full of methodological pitfalls. Assessing 'wellbeing' or 'positive emotion' by means of questionnaires' not merely lumps together a host of potential causal elements but is also unsafe because the meaning of responses across cultures varies. The latter is partly a function of the varying range of emotion words in different languages. The author quotes Einstein's motto 'Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts'. Taking responses at face value ignores the lesson provided by the natural sciences 'that surface phenomena rarely reveal the invisible processes responsible for the observed events'. Among the determinants of behavior is the biological factor of temperament that should be taken into account. Generally, Kagan suggests that rather than relying exclusively on questionnaire responses, these need to be interpreted against the background of existing socio-economic conditions. In contemporary America, with increasing inequality,  these are in his opinion distinctly unfavorable.

The following two chapters deal with various aspects of mental illness, and start out with the problem of their categorization. Kagan is highly critical of DSM, arrived at by a committee composed  mainly of psychiatrists.  Its chief weakness identified  by him is that a  label is attached to conditions that may be the outcome of a whole range of different causes. An alternative categorization by McHugh is presented which postulates three main types of disorder, to which the author adds a further one. The first concerns deficits resulting usually from genetically based physiological abnormalities; the second relates to anxiety and depression; the third is defined by temperamental vulnerability to forms  of addiction, and the fourth refers back to the previous  ones, but caused by past experiences or 'current social conditions', connected to social class position. The role of fashion in diagnoses is also discussed. This last point is further elaborated in the following chapter on treatments, where the indiscriminate use of the multiplicity of drugs now available is criticized. As has been said before, the therapeutic effectiveness is likely to be to a considerable extent dependent on the patients' trust in the therapist. The ethical implications of the therapeutic relationship are also considered.

The message of the last, constructive chapter is first of all that psychologists should not rely on single variables, but instead look for patterns. This is a more sophisticated and extended version of the late Donald Campbell's advocacy of multi-method approaches. For Kagan this means not just relying on the conventional  psychological 'measures' or one-shot experiments, but using a combination that includes assessments of brain functions. The inadequacy of the usual practice of relying on 'the average of single measurements across a sample'  is demonstrated; it entails ambiguity, since 'most psychological and biological observations can be the result of more than one condition, the meanings of most average values . . .are ambiguous and their interpretation uncertain'. A large section provides ample evidence of the shortcomings of verbal reports, whose ease of administration makes them popular – regrettably even among cross-cultural psychologists.

This meagre sketch does not even begin to convey the richness of this book. The abundance of evidence provided had to be omitted, and so had the apt evocation of sayings by  poets, writers and philosophers as well as by scientists, which makes it as pleasure to read. This is not to say that it is all plain sailing, as some parts presuppose a certain amount of technical knowledge. One could also note some small flaws; for instance, one probability value is quite wrong, though that does not affect the argument; or  the fact that some cultures have few or no monoleximic color names should occasion no surprise, since Rivers discovered that more than a century ago; or again, when Kagan says that the Japanese attack on the US was a revenge for racist humiliation, he forgot his own warnings about causal oversimplification. Yet such minor blemishes are insignificant in a work of such depth and range, which constitutes   a brilliant achievement by a truly erudite author.

It is likely that some -- perhaps many -- psychologists will be infuriated by this book which undermines cherished articles of faith. All textbooks proclaim that psychology is a science. Although he does not spell it out directly, Kagan convincingly shows that it falls short of this aspiration in several respects. Psychology should seek to banish its ghosts -- but will it?

 

© 2012 Gustav Jahoda

 

Gustav Jahoda, Ph.D. is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. His main fields of interest are cross-cultural and social psychology, especially the development of social cognition. He is the author of A History of Social Psychology (Cambridge University Press).


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