Where is psychology's non-stick frying pan?

12 August 2015

If you were asked to list the top five achievements in psychology, what would you say? Be honest, you’d probably splutter for a bit and then try to divert the question. I’ve sprung this on colleagues and they have come up with suggestions like attachment theory, the multi-stage memory model or even CBT. I don’t consider this an impressive list. In fact, to me it suggests a horrible truth – for all the bluster about science, all the fancy equipment and million pound research grants, we haven’t discovered any great new understandings or technologies about our core subject – ourselves.

Yes, we have produced studies and papers that cite and excite our colleagues. When spun in the right way, psychology can light up the sofa of The One Show or the Today studio. But does any of it amount to any more than a hill of beans? A standard definition of psychology is ‘the scientific study of people, the mind and behaviour’. So what are the headline discoveries about people, mind and behaviour? And do these findings match up to the discoveries of the other sciences?

Look at physics. It has split the atom, it has gravity, it has quantum theory, the Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs boson. It has the Big Bang theory, which offers an explanation of how the universe was formed. Chemistry has the periodic table of elements, a classification of all substances in the universe. Biology has evolution, a robust theory of how we came to be here. I could go on.

‘Psychology is a young science’, we say by way of excuse for the lack of great findings. But 150 years is not that young. There are younger sciences that have more to show: electronics has the microchip, genetics has mapped out the human genome.

The central issue concerns how we develop knowledge in psychology. To start with, other sciences have testable theories; psychology has testable hypotheses. What’s the difference? Einstein’s theory of general relativity was first presented in 1915 and then spectacularly tested in 1919 when light was shown to bend round the sun during a solar eclipse to the amount predicted by the theory. The existence of the Higgs boson was predicted by theory in the 1960s, as a crucial test of the Standard Model of particle physics. It was finally confirmed to exist in 2013.

What psychological theory produces predictions that can be tested in this way? Or to be even more challenging, what collection of ideas in psychology have we got that we can call a testable theory? What is psychology’s Big Bang?

When it comes to knowledge in psychology we are not so much uncovering it as inventing it. We appear to use the basic methods of science by observing and categorising behaviour in much the same way as biologists or medics. But there’s a difference, and nowhere is this difference more obvious than in diagnosis. To diagnose chickenpox we look for three symptoms: fever, itchy spots and loss of appetite. That’s it. But if we want to diagnose PTSD we look for any of 19 symptoms arranged in four categories. To make the diagnosis of PTSD you have to judge the patient to have at least eight of these symptoms across the four categories. In other words two people might have not a single symptom in common but still be said to have the same condition. There are, in fact, 636,120 ways to get a diagnosis of PTSD (Galatzer-Levy & Bryant, 2013). We are not discovering disorders, we are inventing them, and this process gives us the various conduct disorders, phase of life problem, sibling relational problem and many others as we slowly but surely pathologise all human behaviour.

So, it’s not looking good for theory. Maybe we have transformational products: things that we have invented that have changed lives? If you search the internet for the greatest scientific inventions you get suggestions such as penicillin, telephones, batteries, frozen peas, lasers, pianos, radar, the internet itself and my favourite, the non-stick frying pan. In none of the lists did I find one invention that you could claim as psychological. I’m not asking for an invention with the impact of antibiotics, contraceptives, the aeroplane, the combustion engine… but surely we have something to match the non-stick frying pan?

This isn’t to say that psychologists have nothing to show for their efforts. But it is surely a concern that for every CBT we have a recovered memory therapy, for every attribution theory we have a mass IQ testing supporting eugenicist theories and actions.

This is not a treatise of despair, however, because I think that psychology does contribute to our everyday life – just not in the manner of the other sciences. In his challenging talk to the APA in 1969 George Miller seemed to come to the same conclusion. He argued that we are looking in the wrong place if we are waiting for the great discoveries and applications to appear. He suggested that the revolution will come in how we think of ourselves: ‘I believe that the real impact of psychology will be felt, not through the technological products it places in the hands of powerful men, but through its effects on the public at large, through a new and different public conception of what is humanly possible and humanly desirable’ (Miller, 1969, p.1066).

The brilliance of psychology is that it provides a secular explanation for our existence, our feelings, thoughts and behaviour. It is an extension of the Enlightenment, rolling back the fog of superstition, mysticism and religion to provide understandings about ourselves that do not rely on supernatural beings and events. And as the country becomes more and more psychologically literate these understandings have become part of the way we explain the world.

So it’s great that when there is an atrocity or a hate crime it is psychologists who are commonly asked to comment, rather than bishops. We might have very little to say or do, but at least we are looking to ourselves for answers. But I still call on you all: please, just show me our non-stick frying pan.

Phil Banyard
Reader in Psychology
Nottingham Trent University

Editor's note: So it's over to you, readers: what is psychology's non-stick frying pan? Members of the British Psychological Society can log in to leave comments below - others can Tweet us @psychmag using the hashtag #frychology
When Phil and I discussed this one night at the Society's Annual Conference, I came up with £1 coins and speed awareness signs; Vaughan Bell suggested Black Magic chocolates and crowd policing; and Tom Stafford came up with a space simulator for the moon landing. Phil said: "Apart from those".
Vaughan has since mentioned the Windows Start button. There must be other physical products which could find a place in a museum showcasing psychology's contribution to society… over to you!

Update: Further suggestions include electronic taggingWonder Woman, postcodes, the procedural design of ATMs, and telephone numbers

Galatzer-Levy, I.R. & Bryant, R.A. (2013). 636,120 ways to have posttraumatic stress disorder. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(6), 651–662.
Miller, G. (1969). Psychology as a means of promoting human welfare. American Psychologist, 24, 1063–1075.