How do psychologists think?

I believe that the important thing about psychology is the habits of thought it teaches you, not the collection of facts you might learn. I teach on the psychology degree at the University of Sheffield and, sure, facts are important here — facts about experiments, about the theories which prompted them and about the conclusions which people draw from them — but more important are the skills which you acquire during the process of learning the particular set of facts. Skills like finding information and articulating yourself clearly in writing. Those two things are common to all degrees. But lately I’ve been wondering what skills are most emphasised on a psychology degree? And I’ve been thinking that the answer to this is the same as to the question ‘how do psychologists think?’. How does the typical psychologist[*] approach a problem? I’ve been making a list and this is what I’ve got so far:

1. Critical — Psychologists are skeptical, they need to be convinced by evidence that something is true. Their default is disbelief. This relates to…

2. Scholarly — Psychologists want to see references. By including references in your work you do two very important things. Firstly you acknowledge your debt to the community of scholars who have thought about the same things you are writing about, and, secondly, you allow anyone reading your work to go and check the facts for themselves.

3. Reductionist — Psychologists prefer simple explanations to complex ones. Obviously what counts as simple isn’t always straightforward, and depends on what you already believe, but in general psychologists don’t like to believe in new mental processes or phenomena if they can produce explanations using existing processes or phenomena.

I am sure there are others. One of the problems with habits of thought is that you don’t necessarily notice when you have them. Can anyone offer any suggested additions to my inchoate list?

* I’m using the label ‘psychologists’ here to refer to my kind of psychologists — academic psychologists. How and if what I say applies to the other kinds of psychologists (applied, clinical, etc) I’ll leave as an exercise to the reader.

6 thoughts on “How do psychologists think?”

  1. Billingist – Psychologists want to earn a living. By focusing on billable hours and serving a maximum number of patients they explore the phenomenon known as solvency.

  2. I like your timely idea of “making a list and checking it [via readers] twice”!
    In the “critical” section, maybe add the stipulation that psychologists should be critical of disbelief as well. When something is not proven one way or another, then coming to either believe or to disbelieve closes the case, so to speak, which might mean missing evidence that turns up later. Maybe make the default options be likely or unlikely. We are human and will have beliefs no matter what, but reminding ourselves of our limits may help us stay open to what experience can teach.
    Your question about skills particular to the discipline is a good one. Reading the list, I had several reactions. The first was that these were good guidelines for any scientist. The second reaction was there still might be something about psychology that made these guidelines easier to learn when studying psychology. We do study things like confirmation bias, for example. My third reaction was that maybe the typical scientist doesn’t really keep an open question folder but tends to file things under either “proven” or “not real.” While this doesn’t seem like a great idea, it does seem to be what many do.
    I tend to agree with your intuition that there are multiple questions, at least three, involved here: What is typical? What is optimal? What is taught?

  3. While your list does apply to scientists of positivist persuasion, I agree with rj that psychology students have the advantage of learning both about human cognitive biases, and of being able to consider ways to approach intangible constructs. This makes it a whole lot easier for psychologists to challenge a huge number of health-related myth and nonsense than either the general public, or even the medical fraternity. Often the medics can be rightly accused of not being aware of the whole picture (a la biopsychosocial model), while the skepticism that many in the general public have for anything scientific prevents cogent argument about ‘alternative’ health.
    Could you also add in that psychologists are used to drawing information in from a variety of viewpoints before making any definitive statement.
    I’m not entirely sure I agree with your statement about reductionist – and certainly not simple. I think one of the strengths of psychology is its appreciation of complexity and tolerance of the need to ‘have further research’ occur!

  4. Thanks for your comments, perhaps we can add this three items
    4. Curious — psychologists are eager to investigate new phenomena and new theories. This relates to…
    5. Iconoclasitc — we aim [should aim] to collect enough evidence to overthrow established theories, even our own. We should be open to evidence that contracdicts our beliefs.
    6. Kaleidoscopic — Psychologists know that they can [need to] bring a range of perspectives, from different levels of analysis, to bear on any problem
    Rj, Adiemus I hope those go some way to covering your points. An extra one of my own:
    7. Dissective — Psychologists are analytic, obsessed with definitions, categorisations and distinctions.

  5. I think psychologist think in a way that is simple so that they can make people see there point of view better by giving examples. For instance “love” people describe love as a feeling but its really just belief in the other person. That’s the religious aspect of things. A lot of people have trouble believe in God because of how there lives have been or because they can’t see him or touch him, which also leads to a problem with people loving him. It’s like a long distance relationship most of them fail because of the lack of physical incounters.

  6. I am a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Los Angeles so my perspective as a psychologist is somewhat different from the academic psychologist’s perspective. I wonder about adding the concept of introspective? It seems to me there must be a metaconcept to represent the overall humanistic orientation that must be present vis a vis the philo- sophical discipline of psychological thought. How can a psychologist gauge their own a priori assumptions to try to arrive at an objective sense of reality?Could it be conveyed by the word compassionate?

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