Thursday, March 12, 2015

On the Thought Experiment Method in Psychology

Thought experiments are a standard practice in physics, as they are in philosophy, but are curiously absent in academic psychology. Albert Einstein relied on thought experiments in developing the theories of specific and general relativity. In fact, most of the "hard" sciences are comfortable with entertaining thought experiments. However, academic psychology has a tradition of undervaluing the method in favor of quantifiable research. One would be hard-pressed to find a contemporary research paper in academic psychology that utilizes the method of thought experiment.

One criticism of research psychology that has gained considerable support recently is: there has been a lot of data collecting in psychology, but not a great deal of thinking about that data.  We tend to spend more time training our psychology students to use statistical packages for analyzing data, rather than to engage in penetrating and inspired thinking.

Neuroscientists often invoke thought experiments. This most recent discipline for studying the mind seems to operate without the historical baggage that many research psychologists carry with them; namely a preoccupation with being seen, and seeing themselves, as "real scientists". No one in science contests that neuroscience is not a "real science," if that sort of badge is important to you. If anything will lead to the death of academic research psychology, it is this paranoid preoccupation with being a legitimate science. Based on the trajectory of students who are applying to gradate school, my prediction is that within a decade, academic psychology departments will be replaced by neuroscience programs. What will remain of psychology will be a clinical and therapeutic discipline.

What is a thought experiment?
One of the most famous thought experiments in physics is the train and platform experiment, which is similar to the thought experiments used by Albert Einstein. The experiment involves a moving train in which all observers on board the train car see the the entire car light up the moment a light (in the center of the car) is switched on. From outside the train, on a platform, the onlookers clearly see that the the back of the train car illuminates before the front of the car. This is because the light is moving towards the back of the car and "catching up" to the front of the car. The thought experiment illustrates how light phenomenon functions relative to the position of the onlooker. It also opened up the odd quantum world, in which, it seems, every possibility is happening at once.


In psychology, a thought experiment looks something like this:
Yourself and another candidate have applied for the same position. In the first scenario you win the position and the other candidate loses. How do you make sense of your accomplishment? How do you explain the other person's failure? In a second scenario, your opponent wins the job, and you are not selected. How do you explain their success? How do you explain your failure? 
As it turns out, this is a classic area of research called attribution theory, carried out by the Gestalt psychologist Fritz Heider. What Heider found was that we tend to claim personal responsibility for our successes, and attribute our failures to the circumstances. It's a way of self-preserving, of protecting our own egos. In the above thought experiment, we might feel that we "earned" the success of winning the job, whereas our competitor, "just didn't work as hard as we did". When the tables are turned, we might attribute our loss to "having a bad day," or "being interviewed by someone who didn't like us". Subsequently we might see the other's success due to their "getting lucky" or "being unfairly favored" by the interviewer for reasons unrelated to ability. 

Why the thought experiment is risky business for the psychologists
Thought experiments are regarded with skepticism by most academic research psychologists. Introspection came under attack during the Watsonian witch hunts of the early 20th century and it was never fully left behind. Despite the fact that both Wundt and Titchener, as well as their opponents Brentano and James; used some sort of introspection, it was cast out by the behaviorists and held in contempt ever since. But why is the introspective thought experiment method so detested to this day?

I believe that the answer lies in the nature of introspection itself. When one engages in a thought experiment it is necessarily personal. Any guise of the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity is negated. The thought experiment, when conducted in psychology, requires that the researcher abandons the safe distance of objectivity, and directly confronts their own, personal, attitudes, emotions, and self-preserving armor. It also establishes the necessary conditions for empathy. The thought experiment requires that one come into full contact with not only an abstract idea of objectivity, but the intensely personal presence of the phenomenon as it exists within themselves. Is this something that the research psychologist is willing to risk?

Figures from Wikipedia.

Direct all comments, questions, & corrections to Matthew Giobbi.