Interview with Jan Smedslund

Jan Smedslund is a Professor Emeritus at University of Oslo, Norway. He began his research career with experimental work on cognitive development. His collaborators include Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner. During 1967-8, he turned away from experimental work and began working on conceptual and foundational issues in psychology (Smedslund, 1991b). In 1988 he published Psycho-Logic, a later edition of which was published in 1997 as The Structure of Psychological Common-Sense. Psycho-Logic is the project of explicating and systematizing the structure of common-sense psychology in terms of a set of interconnected axioms. It has roots in the work of Fritz Heider. The justification and scope of the project is outlined in a target article in Psychological Inquiry (Smedslund, 1991a). Smedslund continues to write, in a clear and compelling manner, about the limits of experimental psychology and alternative ways of conceiving the task of psychologists (e.g., Smedslund, 2012, 2015, 2016). He is also a practicing clinical psychologist.

Davood Gozli: After reading your work, I began asking what would be the most minimal, most strongly defensible, way of describing experimental psychology, and what I have settled on is a view of it as a form of abstract art. I use the word abstract not in the sense of general or widely-applicable, but in the sense of removed or maybe deprived. This is because experimentation typically requires taking away what is present and relevant in everyday situations. The research outcome, therefore, takes the form of links between variables within an abstract situation. This seems like a defensible characterization, and anything beyond it cannot be taken for granted. What do you think of this view?

Jan Smedslund: In my publications I have tried to show that the domain of psychology is very inhospitable to experiments because of characteristics such as irreversibility, infinite numbers of determinants, social interactivity, and impossibility of impersonal objectivity. I cannot offhand give a simple comment to your formulation, due to the complexity of the issues involved. Given some interpretations it certainly seems to have merits.

DG: The meaning of words in psychological research is often very different from their meaning in ordinary language. For a student who is interested in a psychological topic, there is always the danger of falling prey to a bait-and-switch trick: the student’s interest leads him/her to a lab and after years of work s/he realizes that there is not much in common between his/her original interest and what goes on in the lab, except for a set of words. Why do you think this bait-and-switch happens so often and at such a wide disciplinary level?

JS: Contemporary research methods are the outcome of a prolonged effort to make psychology “scientific” (fulfilling requirements of objectivity, replicability, etc.). Since this does not really work, due to the characteristics of psychological phenomena, it is almost unavoidable that there will be a gap between a student’s personal and practical interests and the misguided work in a lab.

DG: Many departments of Psychology are now populated with neuroscientists, physiologists, health scientists, statisticians, and perhaps a few psychologists. Do you see this, in any way, as a failure of psychologists in protecting what is unique about psychology? Do you see this as a danger to the future of psychology?

JS: Yes, this trend seems to be a consequence of the misplaced aspiration to be “scientific”. The future is uncertain because of the widening gap between academic research and psychological practice, and because the latter needs a different kind of foundation. Today there are two kinds of psychologists – the researchers and the practitioners.

DG: Most experimental psychologists, myself included, begin our careers not with a study of clear thinking and argumentation, but as research assistants. The problem is that a research assistant does what s/he does uncritically. It is an instance of inheriting a tradition without fully understanding the tradition. And, I think part of that inherited tradition is the skill of neglecting, and maneuvering around, criticism. I am interested in educating students who are more critical of what is happening today in academic Psychology. What are your thoughts in this regard?

JS: The problem of how to train students has several aspects. In academic psychology, I have led many seminars with only one rule: The sessions were to have no preset agenda, the participants were free to introduce questions and problems that occupied them and that were then discussed in the group. This appears to be the only way of gradually improving the quality of arguments and establishing the attitude expressed in the sentence “it ain’t necessarily so.”

In training practitioners, the focus is on two closely related attitudes – the (motivational) commitment to the ethics of the professional role and the (cognitive) adoption of the not-knowing attitude. The practitioner must be “decentered” (Piaget’s term) and maintain a balanced view of own values and concepts and those of the client. It is impossible to describe these matters in a few words. However I envisage a training process without emphasis on statistics, design, methods and techniques. One must train to encounter new clients in a personal way with a thoroughly absorbed reflective background and in a clearly defined professional context. To be a psychologist is, in Yalom’s terms, encountering and trying to be of help to one’s “fellow travelers”.

DG: Please tell us about your experience and strategies in communicating your ideas (e.g., publishing articles, debates with colleagues, etc.).

JS: My strategy has been to engage in dialogues, preferably with those who disagree with my views. But, while trying to learn from others, I have still followed my own road.

DG: In my upcoming course on Systems & Theories in Psychology, I have planned a lecture on Psycho-Logic. I also considered including Peter G. Ossorio, and perhaps the Discursive movement (e.g., Edwards & Potter, 1992). Do you have any other recommendations for myself and the students for improving the course?

JS: A few names occur to me: Fritz Heider’s classic book, George Kelly’s books on “personal constructs”, Ken Gergen’s recent book “Relational Being”, Anna Wierzbicka’s books, my own (2004) book “Dialogues about a New Psychology”. There are so many! (It also depends on the background of the students and their aspirations).

DG: Are there psychology Journals that you would recommend for those who are critical of the mainstream?

JS: Theory & Psychology, Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, New Ideas in Psychology, etc.

DG: I am grateful for your work. And, thanks for this exchange.

References:

Smedslund, J. (1991a). The pseudoempirical in psychology and the case for psychologic. Psychological Inquiry2(4), 325-338.

Smedslund, J. (1991b). Psychologic: A technical language for psychology. Psychological Inquiry2(4), 376-382.

Smedslund, J. (2012). The bricoleur model of psychological practice. Theory & Psychology22(5), 643-657.

Smedslund, J. (2015). The value of experiments in psychology. In Sugarman, Martin, & Slaney (Eds.), The Wiley Handbook of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology: Methods, Approaches, and New Directions for Social Sciences, 359-373.

Smedslund, J. (2016). Why psychology cannot be an empirical science. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science50(2), 185-195.