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Sorry State of Psychology: NOTHING AGREED! (38th Global Psychiatry & Mental Health Conference)

Uploaded 2/27/2021, approx. 18 minute read

Okay, so my name is Sam Vaknin, I am a professor of psychology in several universities in a few countries around the world, most recently in Southern Federal University in Rostov-on-Donand in CIAPS, the Outreach Program.

I'm obliged to say this, so forgive me.


Today I would like to discuss psychological theories. Every professor of psychology, when he sufficiently inebriated or intoxicated, will tell you that we have our doubts as to psychology. How much of a science is it? How rigorous is it? Is it actually merely a form of literature rather than science?

We have doubts, grave doubts, and we have grave doubts for five reasons, and I will start with the first one.

We can't agree on anything, and this creates enormous clashes between competing schools in psychology.

Now, I'm also a physicist, I have another degree in physics, and I can tell you this is not the case in physics. In physics we have a common platform, a foundation upon which we construct derivative theories. Now, these derivative theories can compete, but no one undermines the foundation. That's not the case in psychology.


Let's start with dualism versus monism.

There is the belief that the mind and the body are two separate entities. Though in constant interaction via various mechanisms and pathways, they're still separate. That's dualism.

And then we have monism. They believe that the mind is nothing but an emergent phenomenon, a manifestation of emanation from or mislabeling physiological processes, qualities, and organs.

So psychology should be a branch of neuroscience, or psychology should be a branch of medicine. That's the medicalization of psychology.

Then you have the debate between innate and stimuli-driven psychologists. There's the belief that all psychological traits, all psychological processes are innate. They are autonomous. They are self-generated.

And then you have other schools in psychology that say the psychological processes are triggered by, and psychological traits are shaped and conditioned by stimuli emanating from the environment.

So one group of psychological theories says that everything comes from the inside. And another group of theories says that everything comes from the outside.

Then you have the nature versus nurture debate.

One group of theories says that genes, a more comprehensively evolution, determine one's psychological makeup and modus operandi.

And there's another group of psychological theories that say that one's psychology is decided and determined by one's upbringing, by one's human milieu, by one's personal psychohistory.

Then there is reductionism versus holism.

There's a group of psychological theories that say that psychology can be analytically reduced to a set of interacting distinct atom-like components or constructs, the elementary particles of psychology.

And then there's another group of psychological theories that say that psychology is a complex, irreducible outcome of shape-shifting networks of ceaseless interactions and the synergy of extensive and intensive qualities, parameters of actions, action and boundary qualities.

And then there's a debate about fixed versus plastic, childhood versus lifespan, determined versus mutable.

So once one group of psychological theories say that at a certain age, one's psychology becomes an immutable, unchangeable fixture.

Psychology after this age does not change. It is subject only to minor, almost imperceptible modifications.

And there's a whole group of psychological theories that say exactly the opposite. They say that the brain is plastic, neuroplastic, that the brain is reprogrammable from cradle to grave, that development is lifelong, Erickson, and that therefore one's psychological settings and proceedings are constantly evolving, constantly being revised, constantly changing throughout life.

And then there's a whole group of psychological theories which are static and another group which is dynamic, objective versus subjective.

The first group says that psychological reactions, psychological processes are rigid, they are set, allowing for well-demarcated diagnosis, categorical, sharply delineated clinical entities which are subject to the scientific method, brain studies, for example.

There's one group of theories and there's another group of psychological theories that say exactly the opposite. They say that psychology is a narrative, it's fuzzy, it's impressionistic, it's ever-evolving, it's somewhat artistic.

Diagnosis and treatment require human contact and interaction and it's mostly subjective and it's very often emotional.

You have process theories in psychology versus behavior theories. Process theories say that psychological processes constantly occur in the mind, they underlie behaviors, cognitions and choices, they can be subject to meaningful and informed introspection.

The other group of theories say that since we can never in principle observe or measure internal processes in the mind, we should only monitor, observe and analyze observable behaviors. We should not be concerned with what's happening in the mind because we don't even know if the mind exists, we should just observe behavior.

Then you have categorical versus dimensional theories.

Categorical theories say that human behaviors, normal behaviors, morphological behaviors, aberrant behaviors, normal behaviors can be categorized, can be classified, can be distinguished, can be subject to a taxonomy, can be demarcated with a minimum of ambiguity and a minimum of overlap or minimum of comorbidity.

The other group of psychological theories poo-poo this notion. They mock this approach.

They believe that human behaviors constitute a spectrum, can be described only by using interacting multi-purpose dimensions.

This debate has been going on within the committee of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for at least 40 years.


And then there is statistical normal versus descriptive spectrum theories.

Statistical normal theories say that human behaviors cluster around a statistical mean, around an average and this average is what we call normalcy. To be normal is to be statistically average.

Then there is a whole group of other theories that say that human behaviors, human preferences, drives, urges, traits, orientations are normal, though they may be socially unacceptable, they may even be illegal, but they are normal. All behaviors are normal. No such thing as abnormal behavior.

If it is human, it's normal and everything is on a spectrum and when there is only anecdotal evidence for existence, it's still normal. Even when statistically it's rare, it's still normal.

Okay, and then you have analogous versus stand-alone theories.

Analogous theories say that modeling human psychology should be done by using analogies.

For example, to various technologies, so we can compare the human mind to a computer and this provides real testable insights into the human mind.

The other group of theories say that the human mind and the products of the human mind are unique. Sui Genegis cannot be studied by an analogy, cannot be compared to anything.

Getting to know the mind requires its own models, its own language, its own theories independent of models and theories and technologies in other fields of science and knowledge.

There are occult, multi-partite theories in psychology versus overt monolithic theories.

The multi-partite theories believe that the human mind is comprised of several interacting parts.

Some of these parts are accessible trivially while the awareness tool and the knowledge of other parts require special efforts and special training and special knowledge.

So these are multi-part theories.

And then you have one-part theories, the belief that the mind is a monolithic, indivisible black box which can be observed and analyzed only via its effects on the world, via interactions with reality and via observable behaviors.

You have mechanical versus stochastic or emergent theories.

The belief that the mind is a machine which like other machines is subject to the laws of nature, can be deciphered, can be contextualized objectively and even mathematically.

And then there's a whole group of psychological theories that negate this approach.

They say this approach is one of the pseudoscience.

And these theories, these competing theories say that the mind is cloud, the emergent outcome of numerous intertwined and fuzzy processes in constantly self-assembling and reassembling and redundant networks, that the underlying mathematics is stochastic, not deterministic.

They are theoretical versus experimental psychologists. Theoretical psychologists believe that psychology is a philosophy of the mind, not a rigorous science, and that consequently psychology cannot be falsified and the results of its experiments cannot be repeated and cannot be replicated.

And then there are experimental psychologists and they believe that psychology is a science exactly like physics and the theories of psychology can yield falsifiable predictions and the experiments of psychology are repeatable, are replicable, can be repeated.

Then you have reactive versus teleological theories.

Reactive theories in psychology believe that behaviors are reactions to external stimuli. Teleological theories believe that behaviors are goal-oriented, behaviors are selected or deselected by familiar or anticipated consequences.

So we select behaviors because of their consequences.

Then you have nomothetic versus ideographic theories.

Nomothetic theories are theories that study populations based on analysis of test results. So they study populations and they derive lessons about individuals from the study of the population to which the individual belongs.

And there are ideographic theories. These theories study individuals in depth. They use structured interviews, they use psychological tests, and then they create a composite of all the individuals to reach conclusions about collectives like society.


You see, there is vast disagreement, a gulf, an abyss on every important point in psychology. We disagree among us about literally every conceivable thing.

Additionally, there's the issue of culture and culture-bound syndromes. And many of the diagnosis and clinical entities are actually heavily influenced by cultural and social biases and period-specific biases.

I don't need to remind you that homosexuality had been included as a mental illness, mental health diagnosis, clinical entity in the diagnostic and statistical manual until 1973. So until the end of 1973, if you were homosexual, you were mentally ill. And in 1974, you were suddenly a very healthy person.

Same thing happened with BDSM, with certain sexual practices.

Psychological theories have problems and these are not minor problems. I believe that these problems falsify, make it impossible for psychology to be actually a science. I believe that these problems are underlying all possible psychological theories, regardless of which side of the divide you are.

And I will enumerate four of these, four of the reasons that I think render psychology essentially a pseudo science.


And mind you, I'm a professor of psychology. I have been teaching psychology for many years. I've been in the field for 26 years. And I'm using the word pseudoscience or quasi science very judiciously and very carefully, having delved deeply into the philosophy of psychology.

Another academic degree I have is in philosophy. So scientific theories and psychological theories, do they have anything in common?

Thus, psychological theories are not scientific theories and can never ever be scientific theories.

I'll try to explain why from the philosophical point of view.

Problem number one, ethics. Ethics, experiments would have to be conducted involving the patient and other people. To achieve the necessary result, subjects, human subjects will have to be ignorant of the reasons for the experiments and the aims of the experiments.

Sometimes even the very performance of the experiment will have to be kept and to remain a secret, double blind experiments. Some experiments may involve unpleasant or even traumatic or mini traumatic experiences. And this is ethically unacceptable. Psychology or psychological experimentation is heavily limited, ethically speaking.

That's not the case when you study the sun or when you study neutrinos in a laboratory or when you isolate the Higgs boson.

Number two, the psychological uncertainty principle. The initial state of a human subject in an experiment is fully established. But the treatment, the very experimentation, anything you do to and anything you do with a human subject, influence the human subject, change the human subject and render any knowledge you had gathered about that human subject irrelevant.

The very processes of measurement and observation alter, change the human subject, transform him or her to a different entity.

Even if you don't do anything to a human subject, internal processes, interactions with interjects, internal objects, everything, the environment, information, cues, smells, everything changes awareness and consciousness.

And given sufficient time, for example, one day, the change is so considerable that it can render the outcomes of a previous day's experiments all but irrelevant.

Life, circumstances and vicissitudes conspire against the possibility of objective experimentation in psychology.

There's a problem of uniqueness.

Psychological experiments are bound to be unique, unrepeatable, non-replicable.

Psychological experiments cannot be replicated as a matter of principle.

It's not a matter of logistics or arranging the equipment.

In principle, you cannot replicate psychological experiments because they involve a highly specific set of, specific and unique subjects.

At other times and elsewhere with other subjects, this is not a replication of the original experiment.

Even when you use the same subjects in the same setting but at a different time, that's not a replication of the experiment.

Psychological experiments can never, ever, in principle, ever be replicated.

The subjects are never the same because of the aforementioned psychological uncertainty principle.

And if you use different subjects, obviously, it obviates the validity of your testing.

Repeating the experiments with other subjects adversely affects the scientific value of the results.


And finally, there is what we call undergeneration of testable hypotheses.

Psychology does not generate a sufficient number of hypotheses which can be subjected to scientific testing and to falsifiability.

This has to do with the fabulous narrative storytelling nature of psychology.

Psychology has affinity with literature, maybe. It's a kind of private language, if you wish. It is a form of art. And like every other form of art, it is self-sufficient and self-contained.

If it is structural, if it is structured, internal constraints are met. A statement is deemed true even if it does not satisfy external scientific requirements.

In other words, one could say that psychology is somewhat autistic.

What it tests is itself. It is self-referential. It's recursive, as distinct from other disciplines like physics and chemistry.

And because psychology cannot generate hypotheses that can be falsified in any valid and rigorous manner, no psychological theory is a scientific theory.

I am not disputing the possible validity of psychological theories as a form of art.

The greatest psychologist to have ever lived was Dostoevsky. Not Freud. Not Jung. Not Skinner. None of these, the greatest psychologist to have ever inhabited the earth was Dostoevsky.

So we can construct narrative theories which would have applicability and validity.

We just should not pretend that they are science because that's a grandiose statement.

The constant state of mind of psychologists, when I grow up, I want to be a scientist.

Well, kid, this is never going to happen.


And that concludes the defence.

I'm really intrigued by this one. I really want to be a student of profit because I'm a statistician.

During my time at the university, doing my master's, I thought I was special at being a mathematician. And I had to do a course in psychology.

At the end of the course, my lecturer asked me, he said, Paul, your purpose in life to come to the university, do you know what? And I said, meet myself, a better person. And he said, no, that you have completed master's.

How do you feel?

And I said, sir, about the same life before. And he said, that's my point. Wasting two or three additional years, thinking that you don't want to accomplish something and you've accomplished nothing. And I smiled to myself.

I said, so what is all of this for? And he said, that's the point.

That's the point.

I really like your presentation because what I'm seeing here is that a number of persons think that because you're able to use some statistics or some mathematical jargons and concepts in the sciences. And that gets back into the whole discussion that Thomas Kuhn did.

So this is like yourself when he went into the whole thing about scientific revolution, normal science and all of that. And I'm saying you are really some perspective here for us today to see a number of things that we are doing, even within the concept of thinking that you take from science some principles that you might not be doing science after all.

And I really appreciate that presentation. Thank you.

Thank you for your kind words.

I want to make two comments. As a fellow mathematician, my other doctorate is in mathematical physics.

So I want to make a generalized comment here. And I'm able to compare the disciplines.

One is very rigorous, most exact science, and one is fuzzy, wannabe science.

People confuse language with content, statistics or more precisely mathematics or more precisely arithmetics and logic.

Wannabe go bad. That's a language. It's a language. It's simply a language that we use to describe the world.

It does not, this language, using this language, does not confer on you, does not make you a scientist. Using this language does not make the discipline that is using this language a science. Using this language actually, if you go deep into the logic of mathematics, using this language actually is not a statement about the world.

Mathematics is a statement about mathematics. It's not a statement about the world. Mathematical statements are concerned with other mathematical statements.

So it's very nice that disciplines like economics, like sociology, like psychology, they are using equations and they think naively that having adopted a specific language renders them scientists and the whole discipline of science.

It's like you would say, well, from now on in psychology, we are going to use only Russian and now that we are using Russian, it's science. Russian is mathematics. It's a language and I agree with you. It's a confusion between language and content or essence, language and essence, but this confusion is very common and it's happening regrettably also in physics nowadays where we are beginning to confuse language elements with statements about reality, whatever reality may be.

So it's a generalised problem in the sciences nowadays.

I'm really pleased to come to this seminar that my brother put in earlier this morning and I was wondering what I was going to face and on the road I had a puncture and I was saying, wow, it's going to be a bad day, but it is not a bad day at all.

It's language again.

I mean, thanks for your presentation, eye opening and something that I've always accepted as is.

Thank you. I regret that I have to go because I was supposed to be the first presenter and I have other obligations. I apologize, but it's been a great experience. Thank you very much.

If there are no other questions, I will say goodbye to all of you and Godspeed to you, Gary.

Thank you.

Thank you. Thank you.

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