Category Archives: Theory

The scientist as problem solver

Start the week with one of the founding fathers of cognitive science: in ‘The scientist as problem solver‘, Herb Simon (1916-2001) gives a short retrospective of his scientific career. To tell the story of the research he has done, he advances a thesis: “The Scientist is a problem solver. If the thesis is true, then […]

You can’t play 20 questions with nature and win

“You can’t play 20 questions with nature and win” is the title of Allen Newell‘s 1973 paper, a classic in cognitive science. In the paper he confesses that although he sees many excellent psychology experiments, all making undeniable scientific contributions, he can’t imagine them cohering into progress for the field as a whole. He describes […]

Towards a nuanced view of mental distress

In the latest edition of The Psychologist I’m involved in a debate with John Cromby about whether our understanding of mental illness is mired in the past. He thinks it is, I think it isn’t, and we kick off from there. The article is readable online with a free registration but I’ve put the unrestricted […]

The wrong sort of discussion

The Times Higher Education has an article on post-publication peer review, and whether it will survive legal challenges The legal action launched by a US scientist who claims that anonymous comments questioning his science cost him a lucrative job offer has raised further questions about the potential for post-publication peer review to replace pre-publication review. […]

Distraction effects

I’ve been puzzling over this tweet from Jeff Rouder: Surely, I thought, psychology is built out of effects. What could be wrong with focussing on testing which ones are reliable? But I think I’ve got it now. The thing about effects is that they show you – an experimental psychologist – can construct a situation […]

Social psychology has lost its balance

The New Yorker has an interesting article about a lack of political diversity in social psychology and how that may be leading to a climate of bias against conservative researchers, ideas and the evidence that might support them. Some of the evidence for a bias against conservative thinking in social psychology goes back some years, […]

Problems with Bargh’s definition of unconscious

I have a new paper out in Frontiers in Psychology: The perspectival shift: how experiments on unconscious processing don’t justify the claims made for them. There has been ongoing consternation about the reliability of some psychology research, particularly studies which make claims about unconscious (social) priming. However, even if we assume that the empirical results […]

Seeing ourselves through the eyes of the machine

I’ve got an article in The Observer about how our inventions have profoundly shaped how we view ourselves because we’ve traditionally looked to technology for metaphors of human nature. We tend to think that we understand ourselves and then create technologies to take advantage of that new knowledge but it usually happens the other way […]

Awaiting a theory of neural weather

In a recent New York Times editorial, psychologist Gary Marcus noted that neuroscience is still awaiting a ‘bridging’ theory that elegantly connects neuroscience with psychology. This reflects a common belief in cognitive science that there is a ‘missing law’ to be discovered that will tell us how mind and brain are linked – but it […]

Towards a scientifically unified therapy

Today’s edition of Nature has an excellent article on the need to apply cognitive science to understanding how psychological therapies work. Psychological therapies are often called ‘talking treatments’ but this is often a misleading name. Talking is essential, but it’s not where most of the change happens. Like seeing a personal trainer in the gym, […]

The concept of stress, sponsored by Big Tobacco

NPR has an excellent piece on how the scientific concept of stress was massively promoted by tobacco companies who wanted an angle to market ‘relaxing’ cigarettes and a way for them to argue that it was stress, not cigarettes, that was to blame for heart disease and cancer. They did this by funding, guiding and […]

Motherhood, apple pie and replication

Who could possibly be against replication of research results? Jason Mitchell of Harvard University is, under some conditions, for reasons described in his essay On the emptiness of failed replications. I wrote something for the Centre for Open Science which tries to draw out the sensible points in Mitchell’s essay – something I thought worth […]

A spook’s guide to the psychology of deception

Last February, a file from the Edward Snowden leaks was released from a 2012 GCHQ presentation called ‘The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations’. It describes the ‘Online Covert Action Accreditation’ course which draws heavily on the psychology of influence and persuasion. This post will look at how they’re piecing together the science […]

The biases of pop psychology

I just found this great piece at Scientific American that makes a fascinating point about how pop psychology books that inform us about our biases tend not to inform us about our most important bias – the effect of making things into stories – despite the fact that they rely on it to get their […]

A modern psychiatry

If you want to know how your average reasonable mainstream medical psychiatrist thinks about mental illness, Aeon magazine has a good piece that captures where many are coming from. Now before you (yes you) Dr average reasonable mainstream medical psychiatrist, says that you don’t agree with all of it, I’m not suggesting it’s a manifesto, […]

How to win wars by influencing people

I’ve got an article in The Observer about how behavioural science is being put at the centre of military operations and how an ‘influence-led’ view of warfare is causing a rethink in how armed conflict is managed. Techniques such as deception and propaganda have been the mainstay of warfare for thousands of years, but there […]


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