Recently, in the USA, more than 70,000 psychologists and other “mental health practitioners” signed a petition claiming President Trump is psychologically unfit to serve and should be removed from office, as per the 25th amendment of the constitution. This strikes me as a repeat of history: psychologists unwilling to admit the limitations of their claims to knowledge, yet seeking roles as ‘experts’ entitled to override the will of the people, and direct society in a more ‘rational’ manner … and, in this case, all on the basis of their ‘armchair diagnoses’!
Let’s not forget that psychology, among other sciences, is experiencing a reproducibility crisis. Starting in 2011, a large- scale replication of 100 experiments from three major psychological journals managed to reproduce statistically significant results for only 36 per cent of the experiments. The dubious theoretical and empirical basis of modern psychology has, however, never prevented psychologists from making great claims about their ability to diagnose social ills and define the desired end state of society.
While the different schools of psychology have waged devastating intellectual wars on each other, based on their contending claims to superior rationalist credentials, the most important critiques come from different directions. From within, maverick psychologists such as Jordan Peterson demonstrate deeper understandings of human nature and deeper suspicion of ‘scientific’ claims to knowledge. And from without, there is the devastating critique from the perspective of individualism and free will made by the Austrian-born Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich A. Hayek (1899-1992).
A classic example of the flaws of psychology is provided by behaviourism: the field within psychology heralded most prominently by B.F Skinner (1904-1990). Skinner sought an explanation for human behaviour which did not reference mental states, emotions or thoughts: behaviour was repeated in response to external reinforcement. This school of psychology construed man as a function which received stimulus from sensory information and would output a behaviour, which could be predicted based on whether the stimulus was appetitive or aversive. This conception of man was necessary to the behaviourists in order for psychology to be treated as a science, but it was also a gross oversimplification.
Perhaps more to the point, behaviourism shared the same ideological underpinnings as the Russian communist regime, as the father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, later pointed out. Behaviourism paints a picture of human beings responding to appetitive and aversive stimuli which determines the likelihood of repeating the behaviour. In Russia in the 20th century the State believed it could—with sufficient technological prowess and political power—use rewards and punishment to force the people to act in accordance with the ‘common good’ defined by those in power. An omnipresent police state monitoring the actions of Russia’s people was of such a size that it could punish or reward virtually every behaviour of its citizens, while simultaneously crushing their free will and moulding their conscience to believe in the common good.
The Russian experiment failed at the practical level, even while Behaviourism was being dismantled as an intellectual enterprise. Noam Chomsky wrote a devastating critique of Skinner’s seminal book, Verbal Behaviour. A landmark paper by EC Tolman and CH Honzik in the 1930s demonstrated the efficacy of latent (unrewarded) learning, as opposed to the explicit and immediate reinforcement of desired behaviour through food rewards (as per Skinner’s experiments). The indisputable flaws ultimately led to a backlash and the so-called cognitive revolution, dating from the 1950s. Martin Seligman, the doyen of Cognitive Psychology, pointed out behaviourism relied upon:
“An enormously optimistic view of the human organism … all you have to do to change the person is to change the environment. People commit crimes because they are poor … prejudice is caused by ignorance … stupidity is cause by deprivation of education and can be overcome by universal schooling”
But what behaviourism and Seligman’s now-dominant school share is the view that mankind’s mental processes can be rationally understood, and then that interventions can be rationally made at the individual and societal levels. Hubris of this kind undergirds the mental model of Jacinda Adern in New Zealand, who feels qualified to frame budgets on the basis of a construct of “Gross National Happiness”. In contrast, Hayek argues in Law Legislation and Liberty that human institutions and practices can arise from human action but not necessarily human design. Institutions can arise in the absence of a grand or rationally understood purpose, but are preserved if they enable those adopting them to flourish. The institution of family arising by evolutionary pressures, for example, as a family unit served to best enable the tribe’s survival. Though we may now be able to give reasons why the family has proven a successful institution, it’s success is not necessarily because of reason.
Like Hayek, the father of Anglo-American conservatism Edmund Burke (1729-1797) revered these principles and institutions, seeing them as incomprehensibly complex webs woven from the success and failure of human interactions. Hayek was very interested in knowledge and how it disperses across a society. As different academic pursuits develop, more knowledge is acquired within each field. The body of knowledge is increasing but at the same time, the individual, as a ratio to the body, knows increasingly less.
Central planning requires access to all the information regarding the effects of the intervention intended to ensure the desired outcome can be achieved. Once we understand the rationalist assumptions of behavioural and cognitive psychology, we can see why those schools of thought enmesh so well with the ambitions of central planners of whatever stripe. This is despite the fact that with the sheer complexity of human interaction, the practical task of central planning must be— at least—immense. Hayek, moreover, in the Use of Knowledge in Society, established that central planning is bound to fail because knowledge is necessarily dispersed and cannot be centralised:
The marvel is that in a case like that of a scarcity of one raw material, without an order being issued, without more than perhaps a handful of people knowing the cause, tens of thousands of people whose identity could not be ascertained by months of investigation, are made to use the material or its products more sparingly; that is, they move in the right direction.
Hayek in Law, Liberty and Legislation (1973- 1979) labels the view that human institutions can only serve humans if they are the product of human design as social constructivism. Born out of rationalism and the ‘Radical Doubt’ of René Descartes (1596–1650), social constructivists doubt the truth of anything which cannot be derived from self-evidently true premises. They applied the method to the institutions, principles, manners and customs of society, assessing their validity and almost always finding them wanting. Invariably, the recommendation was to replace existing patterns with new institutions designed by a more ‘scientific’ method. Hayek pointed to the false premise of constructivism: that human reason is responsible for the institutions which enabled men to go from tribal to civilised. Behaviourism’s oversimplification of human behaviour and the lack of consideration for all other relevant knowledge with regard to civilisation led to Russia’s central planners’ overestimation of their own ability. Central planning can be seen only as mans’ vain estimation of self as far more powerful and capable than he is.
Disentangling psychology from its application in constructivist/rationalist methods is difficult. The discipline and the worldview are so intertwined because the very nature of the field is predicting the behaviour of humans, creating the illusion of the ease and safety of social planning. Because this conflict goes to the heart of what it is to be human, and is essential to framing fundamental questions around the nature of free will, it has captured the attention of the leading lights of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web. Take the two-part debate between neuroscientist Sam Harris and psychologist Jordan Peterson in Vancouver, 2018, in which Harris referenced the 1966 University of Texas tower shooter, Charles Whitman, who had a brain tumour proposed as the cause of his actions. Harris believed such tumours could be identified and removed to prevent such things occurring.
Peterson expressed his presentiments with Sam’s willingness to disregard religion as superstitious, as equivalent to “throwing the baby out with the bath water”. It is on the grounds of uncertainty that his hesitance arises: he is aware he lacks the knowledge to make a claim like Harris did. The dichotomy between the two is a product of a fundamental difference in their approaches to truth: where Harris only concerns himself with building on objective truth, Peterson is inclined to favour what is pragmatic, in spite of it not necessarily being true or understood to be true. If he were to disregard religious scripture and practice as predicated on unfalsifiable claims, thus making them not objective, then he risks the loss of that which is pragmatic. In this context, Peterson is the pragmatic conservative: upholding tradition out of its usefulness and an unwillingness to make dire assumptions, in stark contrast to Sam’s empirical rationalism: building only from objectively verifiable claims or self-evident truths.
This is most prominent in their opinions on free will and determinism. Where Harris subscribes to a hard determinism—that everything is predetermined in a cause-and- effect chain—Peterson has stated words to the effect of, “I act as if I have free will”. It’s quite clear this is necessary for his argument for meaning or vocation in responsibility: if hard determinism is true, we have no control over our actions and therefore we are not responsible for our actions. However, if one is willing to assume away the issue of not having free will, then meaning can be derived from the illusion or experience of responsibility, irrespective of its truth. That emphasis on meaning is a long way from the rats in a maze that are the staple of experiments in psychology, and a better guide to life.
Matthew Murphy is in the second year of a Bachelor of Economics degree (with a major in psychology) at the University of Sydney. He is a campus coordinator in the IPA’s Generation Liberty program.