Theories in Psychology – A Gigerenzian View

As I alluded in a prior post, I’m spending August convalescing, which is my excuse for why this post draws largely on quoting someone else’s work. With my right arm in a sling, typing is like putting sunscreen on your own back; it can be done, but it requires uncomfortable contortions.

So, with that, I’m writing today – or, really, mostly cutting and pasting – from a paper that I really like but am guessing most readers haven’t read, “Surrogates for Theories” by Gerd Gigerenzer, published fifteen years ago, in 1998. I kind of love this little paper, and commend it to everyone, especially students. I begin where he ended. Gigerenzer writes:

Several years ago, I spent a day and a night in a library reading through issues of the Journal of Experimental Psychology from the 1920s and 1930s. This was professionally a most depressing experience. Not because these articles were methodologically mediocre. On the contrary, many of them make today’s research pale in comparison to their diversity of methods and statistics, their detailed reporting of single-case data rather than mere averages, and their careful selection of trained subjects. And many topics—such as the influence of the gender of the experimenter on the performance of the participants—were of interest then as now. What depressed me was that almost all of this work is forgotten; it does not seem to have left a trace in the collective memory of our profession. It struck me that most of it involved collecting data without substantive theory. Data without theory are like a baby without a parent: their life expectancy is low.

The short paper takes a broad view of the field of psychology, focusing on what counts as theory in the field, with an emphasis on four strategies that Gigerenzer thinks stand as “surrogates” for real theories; surrogates, he says “are vague, imprecise, and/or practically unfalsifiable, that they often boil down to common sense.” I’ll discuss just two. In essence, Gigerenzer is reacting to the fact that, in psychology, “almost anything passes as a theory.” I leave it to the reader to judge if things have changed in the ensuing fifteen years.

The first surrogate Gigerenzer discusses are “one word explanations.” Of these, he says:

Such a word is a noun, broad in its meaning and chosen to relate to the phenomenon. At the same time, it specifies no underlying mechanism or theoretical structure. The one-word explanation is a label with the virtue of a Rorschach inkblot: a researcher can read into it whatever he or she wishes to see.

Working in the literature in judgment and decision making, Gigernezer has in mind terms like “availability” and “similarity,” words used in the heuristics and biases tradition. A central difficulty is that because they are single words instead of well-specified models, nearly any result can be viewed as consistent with one (or more) of these “explanations.” In this sense, they are not scientific explanations at all. My view is that it remains good practice to be vigilant about putative explanations that are single words, such as “culture,” “learning,” or “plasticity.”

A second issue that Gigerenzer raises is “muddy dichotomies.” He begins by emphasizing that “There is nothing wrong with making distinctions in terms of dichotomies per se,” but rather the issue is “situations in which theoretical thinking gets stuck in binary oppositions beyond which it never seems to move.” Again begging the reader’s indulgence, here is a lengthy quotation from the paper:

Let us consider a case in which false dichotomies have hindered precise theorizing. Some arguments against evolutionary psychology are based on the presumed dichotomy between biology and culture, or genes and environment (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992). One such argument goes: Since cognition is bound to culture, evolution must be irrelevant. But biology and culture are not opposites. For instance, our ability to cooperate with conspecifics to whom we are genetically unrelated— which distinguishes us humans from most other species—is based on mechanisms of both biological and cultural origin. Simply to ask about the relative importance of each in terms of explained variance, such as that 80 percent of intelligence is genetically inherited, is, however, not always an interesting question. The real theoretical question concerns the mechanism that combines what is termed the “biological” and the “cultural.” For biologists, the nature/nurture or biological/cultural dichotomy is a non-starter: genes are influenced by their environment, which can include other genes.

Part of Gigerenzer’s agenda is explaining why surrogates for theories are a particular problem in psychology. He discusses null hypothesis testing as one source of the problem; my perception is that psychology is moving – not as fast as many would like – away from the sorts of practices Gigerenzer is pointing to. I’m not as sure about the second culprit Gigerenzer identifies, the isolation of sub-disciplines within psychology.

Each subdiscipline has its own journals, reviewers, and grant programs, and one can have a career in one of them without ever reading the journals of neighboring subdisciplines. In addition, job searches are often organized according to these categories. This territorial organization of psychology discourages researchers from engaging with psychological knowledge and colleagues outside of their territory… [and] blocks the flow of metaphors and the development of new theories. Distrust and disinterest in anything outside one’s subdiscipline supports surrogates for theory.

Gigerenzer suggests that surrogates for theory “flourish like weeds.” Of course, that was fifteen years ago. Surely things have improved with the passage of time. Right?


Gigerenzer, G. (1998). Surrogates for theories. Theory and Psychology8, 195-204.

08. August 2013 by kurzbanepblog
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