25. Psychology I – A Science?

“Psychology is a crock”, Bob Newhart show, Season 4 Episode 8


Let me start out with a detail I don’t publicize much.  My PhD was in Quantitative Psychology or Psychometrics.  Like Biometrics, it is the mathematical end of the discipline, in this case psychology.  For those who haven’t taken a Psych 101 class, Psychology is divided into two parts: clinical and experimental.  Their relationship is like Painting (Art) and Physics, respectively.  In other words, there is almost no overlap.  I’ll be talking primarily about the ‘scientific’ part – experimental psychology.

My first two years in graduate school at CUNY were in Cognitive Psychology, an experimental branch of Psych.  I completely discarded this education, and went to the University of Illinois, for reasons discussed below.  I realized that in order to study the mind, I needed tools, far beyond comparing two means – the predominant experimental approach.  I chose the U of I as it had a large number of former presidents of the Psychometric Society among its faculty.  My U of I education was almost exclusively in quantitative methods, I took only two non-quantitative course, one of which was a required course, on paradigms of psychology.  My U of I interests focused on a) Monte Carlo studies, which you might have observed in previous blogs; b) Multivariate statistics, particularly factor analysis; and c) Time series, which I picked up from an econometric course.

My masters and doctoral theses were both Monte Carlo studies.  Neither were psychologically oriented.  At the U of I, I ran one and only one human study.  It used one and only one subject – my wife.  I humorously called it, “Asking my Wife What She Thinks”.   It was an N of 1 study, using factor analysis, with a very structured set of data, but the parameters were mostly unique (idiosyncratic) to my wife.  But more of that in my next blog.

My opinion of scientific psychology after getting a PhD over thirty years ago?  It still is wrong.  100% wrong.

Psychology: The Study of Herd Behavior

My original graduate school experimental design focused on the following research paradigm: Get a group of subjects, randomize them into groups, treat the groups differently, and compare the means.  This is almost identical to the gold standard used in biomedical research.  What can be wrong?  For medical research or sociology, nothing.  Except for the people studying genomics, medical research tacitly assumes that all subjects are equivalent and interchangeable (prior to treatment).  One often would test for interactions among subgroups (e.g., gender, site).  Almost every statistician and medical director hope they can ignore the subgroups.  In statistics, our tests assume that the data (per treatment group) come from a distribution with a single mean, a single variance, and the data are identically and independently distributed.  In other words, except for noise (error), the subjects are all identical to one another.  In biology, one lab rat or patient is the same as another.  I’m cool with that.

Sociology is supposed to look at group behavior.

However, Psychology is supposed to look at people, individuals.  While most psych studies are run on a shoe-string budget, the ideal is to run a large study.  What is the impact of a single subject?  As N approaches infinity, the impact of a single subject on the mean approaches zero.  The typical analysis of means of a group of subjects, would ideally ignore the individual.

The methodology used in experimental psychology ignores the person, the individual, and only studies the group.  I remember one study which asked ‘which x would you think most people would like the most’.  This could be quite different from ‘which x would you like the most’.  I think it was pictures of women.  I chose the sleepy, vapid, well-endowed, blue-eyed blond.  The picture looked nothing like my wife, except for the sleepy part <grin>.

Psychology: Explains almost nothing

Having preformed or reviewed the analyses of many, many psych studies, I’ve looked at the effect sizes.  The majority have an effect size of 0.3, or less.  Let me convert it to 1 – R², or the proportion of unexplained variance (see blog 4 and the correlation ratio).  The typical amount of unexplained behavior is over 90% [i.e., 100%*(1.0 – 0.3²)].  With ninety percent of what is error or noise, I have a hard time accepting any psychological study as describing a meaningful amount of behavior.  Prediction of any single person is very close to pure guesswork – noise.  This lack of ability to explain anything is typically obfuscated by focusing on ‘statistically significant’ findings.  Hopefully, if you have read Blogs 1 to 4, you will realize that ‘statistically significant’ and ‘effect size’ are two completely independent concepts.  Statistically significant is not clinically significant!  One might as well do a blind tea leaf or tarot or entrail reading.  From what I’ve heard, a ‘blind reading’ should be capable of explaining more than 10% of an individual’s thoughts.

Perhaps I’m being overly harsh.  One could say that study x found a factor, which might be useful in the future.  Unfortunately no one attempts to come up with a ‘General Unified Theory of People’ by assimilating all the ‘factors’.

It is only by prediction, that any science could be judged.  I saw a TV program where the hero left a psychologist’s office.  The clinical psychologist intuited that his father left him (something he had not mentioned) after a five minute interview.  All clinical psychologists would laugh at that line.  It was a non-realistic sit-com, a silly fantasy, which few realize is a fantasy.

Are such predictions possible?  Yes, all the time.  I often fill in words for my wife.  I know ahead of time what her reaction will be given most situations.  But that has nothing to do with any theory of psychology, despite my PhD.  The negative side is also true.  My kids know ‘which buttons to push’.  They learned them at a young age, and they never read Freud, Adler or watched Dr. Phil.  One criticism of strict Freudian Psychoanalysis is that it requires a decade (or decades) of one hour sessions five times a week for insights to be made.  Perhaps they were right.

So, prediction is definitely possible, but not by the science of psychology.

Psychology: Whose theory is it?

Different people and cultures assign different importances to different concepts. I can only think of all the different names for snow among the Inuit people.  The Sami language of Norway, Sweden and Finland has around 180 snow- and ice-related words and as many as 1000 different words for reindeer.  Snow is of great importance to them but just something to be shoveled by most of us.

I have read a number of books on psychology.  Let me just mention Freud’s Oedipal complex.  Simplistically it is the traumatic event resolving the desire for a boy to ‘have’ his mother and replace his father.  Is it true?  Perhaps for Sigmund Freud, perhaps it was true for “Little Hans”, a patient of Freud.  Is it universally true?  The Freudians say so; I doubt it.

Are the three independent factors of Osgood (evaluation, potency, and activity) true?  Yes for Osgood.  For all people? I doubt it.

In sum, any theory or factor exposed by a psychologist is likely true for them or someone they know well, but is unlikely to be universally true or equally important for all people.  Or if applicable to person x, then it is likely to take a unique twist.

Any theory derived from a Bushmen, or a 18th century noblemen, or my wife, is unlikely to be true or be as useful to everyone else.  Perhaps useful to some, but not as useful.

In sum, scientific Psychology:

  • Uses crude tools and inappropriate methodology to understand behavior/thoughts.
  • Rather than focus on people, it focuses on groups.
  • The utility (squared effect size) of their studies is near zero (≤ 10%).
  • Many theories are more descriptive of their author, than for people in general.

You probably see where I’m leading, but more about it in 26. Psychology II: A Totally Different Paradigm.  I will have a partial solution to how to make Psychology a science.

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