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Psychological Science at the Crossroads

Richard Robins, Samuel Gosling, Kenneth Craik

Doing the Numbers: The Four Schools

We thought a statistical examination of literature in the discipline would allow us to examine trends over several decades in the prominence of the four major schools of psychology. Because prominence is a tricky construct to measure, we used three different approaches to take a snapshot of the period 1967–95. We looked at the subject matter of articles published in the most influential (or "flagship") psychology publications, the subject matter of dissertations and the degree to which the flagship publications cite articles from each school's core journals. These three approaches, as it turned out, paint strikingly similar portraits of the recent history of psychology, providing converging evidence for the following conclusions.

First, we learned that the psychoanalytic school has not fared well over the past few decades. Scientific psychologists have paid little attention to research published in the preeminent psychoanalytic journals, and a psychoanalytic focus has been virtually nonexistent in either flagship publications or dissertations. Thus, contemporary psychoanalytic research is not being assimilated directly into mainstream scientific psychology.

This does not mean that "Freud is dead," but rather that his presence is felt indirectly. Indeed, many of Sigmund Freud's basic ideas—for example, that unconscious processes influence behavior and that early-childhood experiences influence adult development—have become incorporated into the foundation of psychology as a science. More generally, psychoanalytic thought continues to be influential in the broader intellectual community, shaping scholarship in the humanities (dissertation titles such as "Kafka's Hunger artist and the psychoanalytic approach to literature" are not uncommon) and other social sciences.

Figure 3. Keyword analysis of dissertationsClick to Enlarge ImageFigure 2. Citations in four flagship journalsClick to Enlarge Image

Second, confirming another popular perception, we discovered that the past few decades have not been kind to the behaviorist school. Despite claims to the contrary, behavioral psychology, and its associated concepts of conditioning and reinforcement, has been on the decline in psychological science. (The one apparent exception to this decline was a flurry of attention to behaviorism in 1992, which closer inspection revealed was the result of articles commemorating B. F. Skinner upon his death.) During the 1970s, the prominence of the behavioral school gave way to the ascension of the cognitive school. However, as was the case for psychoanalysis, behavioral concepts and methods continue to be used by psychologists to describe and study human behavior.

Third, we found that the cognitive school has overtaken the behavioral school as the most prominent of the four, supporting the claim that there has been a "cognitive revolution." Our two subject-matter analyses place the ascension of cognitive psychology over behavioral psychology about a decade earlier (circa 1971) than our analysis of citation trends (circa 1979), suggesting that the citation index may take longer to detect scientific trends.

What accounts for the cognitive school's rise to prominence? The central driving force is probably the computer revolution. Computers provided scientists with a new metaphor for conceptualizing how the mind works, one based on information processing and associated concepts of storage, retrieval, computational operations and so on. Perhaps equally important, computers paved the way for the development of new methods for the scientific measurement of mental processes (for example, highly controlled presentation of stimuli, reaction times, dichotic listening, simulations of cognitive processes and brain-imaging techniques). However, the cognitive school's dramatic rise to prominence shows some sign of abating; its trajectory in two of the three indices had leveled off by 1990.

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