What happened when psychology tried to avoid studying consciousness?
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 03 May 2021

In itself, it is quite understandable that science is weary of subjectivity — subjective judgments tend to be arbitrary and are often simply wrong — but the result is that all those things that exist only subjectively, "inside of us" have been treated rather step-motherly. In fact, for most of the 20th century, consciousness was seriously taboo in science (Güzeldere, 1995). Even psychology, which tried to model itself on the physical sciences, kept it at a distance. Classical behaviourism, which went furthest in this direction, limited psychology strictly to what is immediately, objectively observable and banned all reference to consciousness, thoughts and feelings. For a while, it tried to predict human behaviour solely on the basis of externally visible stimulus-response loops. This may have worked, at least to some extent, for the rats they studied, but of course this didn’t work for humans.1 Human beings are far too complex, and the same outer behaviour can have completely different psychological causes and meanings. Even more serious is that almost everything that really matters to people went missing in the behaviourist's universe, because without consciousness there can be no love, no beauty, no meaning, no agency, no knowledge even, for all these things exist primarily in our consciousness.2 As a result, over the years, reference to inner mental states and processes was gradually allowed back in; new, post-reductionist approaches developed; some attempts at integrating spirituality and science were made; and by the end of the twentieth century even “consciousness” was rehabilitated as a valid subject of scientific enquiry.

But the shadow of physicalist behaviourism has not been lifted yet. The shift from "behaviour" to "behaviour and experience" or "behaviour and mind" has been only half-hearted, and in some ways has made things worse. The reason is that it is still not the subjective reality itself that is explored by mainstream psychology. What is studied instead are on the one hand the physical correlates of consciousness and on the other, even in so-called qualitative research, people's statements about what they experience, and this is far more strange than psychologists seem to realise. It is as if one would try to study astronomy by asking ordinary people about what they see in the evening sky or do chemistry by interviewing representative samples of the lay public about what they do in their kitchens. Astronomers use advanced maths that few can understand and telescopes of which there are only a few in the world. Chemistry makes progress because highly-trained chemists do their experiments in sophisticated, well-equipped labs. Both report on their own experiments and their colleagues rely on these reports to evaluate their findings. The rest of us simply believe the experts. Strangely enough, in psychology this is not how things go. It is not part of standard research procedures for psychologists to "go inside" and study directly what happens in their own consciousness. What psychologists have relied on instead is what other people, lay people, say about their experiences. This can be interesting, for example to find out what people think or feel about certain issues or what happens to people in special circumstances, but, in the end, all it does is to survey what those people already know (or think to know). It does not produce new knowledge about psychological states and processes and it is hard to imagine how this approach could ever lead to the quick cumulative progress we see in the hard sciences. In fact, one could argue that as a science psychology has not yet started: it is still busy surveying its field. 3

 

Endnotes

1.   In fact, classical behaviourism did not work that well for rats either. Sheldrake relates an experiment in which the amount of time taken for rats to find food in a maze was taken as a measure for their intelligence. After a while it became clear that the rats who had found the food in the minimum time where not good at other tasks that required intelligence. A closer scrutiny of what happened in the maze showed that the most intelligent rats found the food quickly, but then left it behind to explore the rest of the maze. Is it that far-fetched to think that their highest priority was to see if there was a way out of the maze? [REF]

2.   For a short description of what the four main schools of psychology have contributed and what they have missed in terms of basic epistemological territory, see Appendix 1-1-1.
 
For a possibly overcritical assessment of Classical Behaviourism one could have a look at Appendix 1-1-2.
 
For a comparison between the use of four basic research strategies in medicine and psychology, see Appendix a1-4.

3.   It may be noted that the increasing interest in neurological studies of consciousness is extremely unlikely to help psychology forward. Knowledge about the working of the brain is fascinating in itself, and at one stage or another it will almost certainly turn out to be useful for medicine, but it is unlikely to do much good for psychology and the study of consciousness. For those areas it is hard to understand how it could be more useful than the study of amplifiers would be for our understanding of music. For the study of psychology, brain studies simply look in the wrong direction, just as in the story of Nazruddin.