Sunday 30 October 2011

Psychology and folk psychology

How closely should a theory of thought and behaviour reflect the perceptions of those who are its objects? We would have no qualms if a theory of canine psychology wandered very far from how dogs perceived themselves and the world. We suppose that dogs have no theoretical conception of themselves or of the world at all, so the question would barely arise. But if a psychologist theorizes about our minds, in psychological terms rather than in neurological terms, it seems that the theory ought to keep reasonably close to our own perception of ourselves. We think that we are formed and driven by experiences, thoughts and emotions. We expect the psychologist to draw on the vocabulary that we use in our folk psychology, and to use it in the same way, so that the conclusions make sense to the rest of us. New connections may be made. Trends of previously unnoticed significance may be highlighted, as when Stephen Pinker, in The Better Angels of our Nature, assembles a range of economic and social factors that help to explain the diminution in our level of violence. But there still seems to be an expectation that the theory will stay close to everyday understanding. Furthermore, this expectation is often met. Articles in Psychological Review, for all their talk of cognitive architecture and their reconceptualizations of phenomena, are still written in a language that is adjacent to the language of folk psychology.

What support does this expectation have? We should not impose any such constraint on the sciences in general. If we imposed it on physics and chemistry, expecting them to use languages that were adjacent to the language in which we describe the everyday objects around us, most of the progress that has been made in the past century would not have been made. It is hard to see how we could justify imposing it on psychology by saying that the discipline is about our minds, and that we know our own minds from the inside. The data we get from the inside may be distorted in all sorts of ways. Moreover, we can imagine aliens, without a sense of our own minds from the inside, devising a human psychology that would be very effective in predicting or explaining thought and behaviour, but to which we could not relate in the way that we can relate to folk psychology, because the aliens had not drawn on that folk psychology. One option seems to be left. Our discipline of psychology is still too immature to construct a full enough set of robust, contentful, concepts, using its internal resources. It still needs to piggy-back on the content that is supplied by folk psychology. So long as it needs to do that, a requirement to stay close to the language of folk psychology imposes a useful control, ensuring that theorizing does not go off on an undisciplined frolic. But any such dependence on folk psychology is not guaranteed to continue.


  1. There might be a difference in the application:

    If you sell a radio to someone you do not need to explain to the consumder how the radio is constructed, you only need to explain to him how to use it. You can use a radio without understanding the physics behind it.

    In case of psychology therapists often need to explain to the patient the therapeutic model they are using and this requires simple everyday language. If the patient is supposed to cooperate properly and recover.

    That´s why psychologic theories and concepts must be forumulated in a way easily accessible to laypersons.

    (I have never studied psychology or undergone a psychotherapy.)

  2. You are right about the therapeutic use of psychology. It will only work if the client can understand what the therapist is talking about. I had not thought about the therapeutic context. I was thinking of the theorizing that psychologists may do among themselves, in an effort to understand people rather than to help anyone to change.

  3. L´art pour l´art donc.
    Pour le simple plaisir de comprendre.
    Pour satisfaire sa soif de savoir.

    Oder vielleicht Grundlagenforschung.
    Die Anwendung kann sich später noch ergeben, wenn die theoretischen Modelle reif dafür sind.

  4. Theoretical physics relies on the abstract language of mathematics, whereas, no matter how vocabulary multiplies, most human beings still have 2 legs, 2 arms, 10 toes, 1 head, a nervous system, emotions, thoughts, and are still based at that awkward evolutionary stage of needing food, love and shelter as base requirements for survival. All other needs are derivative of these, no matter how many theories abound in the realm of psychology and psychiatry. Theories change, new words and concepts will continue to fill the shelves of academia, as they do the minds of academics, however bread and water, and variations of these are still our basic diet. One stomach, one liver, one tongue, one heart ... need I continue? Someone with hands and feet, and, yes, we are still here!

  5. It's people like you who are creating a larger gulf between the reality of the many and those of the few. As your language becomes increasingly arcane, you, and people like you, can hide away in your ivory towers, with concepts evolving like endless staircases into higher and higher realms of abstraction. There are many people down here on earth who worry that, with all these abstractions, your body might just fall away from your brain, disintegrate in the fall, and then earth based humans will wonder what that dust is, falling on their heads whilst also causing an epidemic of nasal catarrh! Folk, folk music, folk songs, ... I am folk dear, you are folk, we are all folk! And, believe it or not, all, yes all of our ancestors were folk, too. Even our descendants are folk! And, God forbid that these folk, to which you refer so diparagingly should actually 'think', and even have fine ideas, hopes, ideals, which enliven, even enlighten, other 'folk', as you call them, us!
    Be careful, sir, in your citadel: theories are fine, but, in their place. If you throw these theories and concepts into the folk arena, you may find yourself-theories fall on hard times! Fare thee well, sir!

  6. Please don't think that "folk psychology" is a term of disparagement (although some think it is). It simply refers to the psychology that we apply in our everyday understanding of other people, before we get deep into theory. It may even turn out to be the best theory we have.

  7. Human beings with 2 legs etc. are described in a complicated medical language. Patients do not need to know all about their bodily functions. A layman version is enough for them.

    Similar applies to pharmacology and maybe also to psychiatry.

    Mr. Baron was arguing in favor of specialized languages, which are a sort of short-cut in thinking, nothing more.

    You can go into high realms of abstraction and then come down again and enjoy a good drink or two with friends.