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Psychological Science at the Crossroads

Richard Robins, Samuel Gosling, Kenneth Craik

As scientists, we're often asked what's "hot" in our field and what's not—what ideas are waxing or waning in prominence. Although this question may stimulate lively conversation, the answers are rarely informative and often misguided. Unfortunately, decisions about funding, hiring and so on are often based on decision-makers' personal views of trends in a given field. Clearly such important decisions should be guided by empirical evidence rather than by speculation.

Unfortunately this is often not the case. In our field, psychology, debates among established schools of thought maintain a continuing tug-of-war between prevailing and competing ideas, providing fertile ground for speculation. Since the birth of scientific psychology over 100 years ago, four major schools have competed to become the predominant model for understanding human behavior: the psychoanalytic, the behaviorial, the cognitive and the neuroscientific. If you ask a psychologist from one camp or another which is the prevailing school of thought, you are likely to get different answers. This raises troubling questions. Is psychology a splintered field, or one moving toward an overarching orientation that would tie together its diverse threads? If so, what orientation is that—is there an integrating scientific theory emerging?

Figure 1. Trends in psychologyClick to Enlarge Image

The question generally gets quickly rephrased in terms of the major schools. The psychoanalytic perspective, first, has recently come under fire. Time and other popular magazines have asked, "Is Freud dead?" Within scientific journals, however, debate continues over the prominence and relevance of Freudian ideas to contemporary psychological research.

Another popular contention is that the cognitive perspective now dominates psychological science, having prevailed over the Skinnerian behaviorist tradition. Nobel laureate Roger Sperry has claimed that this "cognitive revolution" is "widely recognized and well-documented . . . and appears to constitute a true shift of paradigm" (Sperry 1988). Others have come to the defense of the behaviorist school; in a 1994 American Psychologist article, Kurt Salzinger declared: "Although I have conducted no study, prepared no in-depth interview, nor even any shallow survey of opinions, I do contend that behavioral analysis is alive and kicking and that I for one knew it all along." Finally, psychologists are currently debating whether the emergence of the neuroscientific perspective (as we wrap up what Congress designated "The Decade of the Brain") will transform the field, perhaps turning psychology into a subfield of biology.

So what's really going on in psychological science? We decided to take a look at the evidence. We found that some widely held beliefs about trends in psychology stand up to empirical scrutiny, but others do not. We did not find clear movement toward a unifying idea, or toward integration of the new work in neuroscience with mainstream thought in psychology.

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