Finding Your Passion in Psychology: A Method of Study

Admont Abbey Library, Austria

It is common for senior undergrads or post-grads in Psychology to lose their interest. They forget why they had decided to enter into Psychology in the first place. Even when (or perhaps especially because) they get involved in a line of research, they might become cynical, practical, confused, mirroring the attitude of many of their professors (who, if their conference-drinking habits are any indication, have become maximally practical, cynical, and nihilistic).

If you have talked with me about this before, you know how I think about this problem. And you know why I am not surprised by it. We don’t need to get into the problem now. Yes, academic Psychology, as it is currently going on in most places, is not about the lives of real people. It is about made-up constructs, pretend-play at “measurement” and “statistically inference”, laboratory artifacts (usually called “effects”), hijacking common-sense concepts and depriving them of all meaning, etc., etc. When I push my colleagues on this issue, their response falls back on “Well, we need to be practical, we need to publish, we need to get that promotion, … Once you get tenured, then,… maybe then…”.

We have heard all of this. It’s not new. And it’s not my central concern at the moment. Let’s move on to a possible solution. A small-scale solution. Something you and I can do with our limited resources and time.

I’d like to propose a method of psychological study. My proposal is for honest students of psychology, possibly including some researchers and teachers, whose soul isn’t yet fully corrupted by the logic of the academic marketplace, who like to find their interest, be driven by genuine interest, to re-discover some sense of a passion in the subject-matter, to rekindle their curiosity. Here is a plan of study for you to experiment with.

Assumptions

First, here are some of my assumptions behind the current proposal:

  • You should have loyalty to your own experience. This loyalty should be stronger than your loyalty to a theory, to a lab, to a supervisor, or to a research team
  • The domain of human experience is richer than any psychological laboratory. What do we do in our labs, anyway? We don’t add anything. We remove. We systematically deprive human experience of its ambiguities and complexities, and we make it simple and manageable. Keep this in mind: Laboratory research in psychology is about removal, simplification, idealization, and artificial construction. The domain of experience–though messy and ambiguous–is accessible to all of us, and it is accessible to each of us in a unique way
  • We tend to under-estimate our own experience as a source of insight. We are trained to under-value our own perspective. We have been trained to trust the authority of teachers, rather than trust our own point of view. This is particularly fatal in psychology. Therefore, we need to de-school ourselves (and each other), to learn to value our experience again
  • Psychology is the study of persons. You are a person, among other persons. Therefore, what you experience, and what you have to say, is directly relevant to Psychology. Psychology should be distinguished in this way from chemistry, quantum mechanics, genetics, and other “hard” sciences. In those fields, the objects of study are typically and understandably foreign to us at first. Psychology shouldn’t be completely foreign to you from the beginning. If it is, then it is not psychology

A Method

After laying out my guiding assumption, let’s move on to the proposed method. Here is what I’d like you to try:

Sit and write about 5 significant events in your life. You could pick these 5 from your life events, your “turning points”, significant encounters with people, romantic interests/relationships, places you visited, important works of art, your travels, your jobs, or books that you read. Pick just 5!

If I do this exercise at different times, I might write the list differently, but that’s fine. At this moment, my list might look like this:

  • Meeting my calculus teacher in high-school Mr. Javid
  • Meeting my first guitar teacher, Mr. Zahedi
  • Reading Promise at Dawn (by Romain Gary) at 19 and then finding all of other Gary’s books, as many as I could find
  • Meeting my friends Siavash and Peter in Toronto
  • Meeting my wife and getting married

So, you first make a short list that includes 5 items, like the ones I wrote above. Then write a short paragraph about each item. Elaborate on each event as much as you can. Write about why it is meaningful, why it is still memorable, why it is still on your mind. Write about the reasons behind the selection. If you’re not sure, guess (trying to “read your own mind”).

You can write and leave aside the list for the rest of the day. On the next day, come back and read your paragraphs. See if you can find some themes that run through several of the paragraphs. Do they share something in common? Can you bring all the paragraphs together and give them all a single title? You’re ONE person, and it is likely that there is one or two ideas that run through the selected events. Perhaps you can find it. If there are multiple themes, that’s also fine!

Now, and only now, once you are connected with your life history, once you have affirmed your loyalty to your own experience, you can move to “literature review” phase, if you want. I suggest that at this point you seek conversation partners that are a bit wiser, a bit more well-read, who can guide your reflections, talk with you, and suggest reading material. These could be among your professors. You should, however, be careful to avoid careerist professors, which mostly offer traps. If your professor says, “That sounds interesting, BUT… MY research is X,Y,Z,… and you should come and join MY team, and get involved in MY research… blah blah”, then your professor is probably encouraging you to let go of your own questions and serve his/her research instead. Of course, you can do that, but I suggest you don’t do it. Even if you join the careerist professor, do something like this (something like my proposed method) on the side and in your own time.

If you find a true mentor, someone who listens to you and helps you with your reflections, then continue talking with that person. It would be especially good if you get relevant reading recommendation from your mentor and discuss with him/her what you read. If a theme came out of your list of “5 events” (a theme like depression, anxiety, loneliness, etc.), then it would be helpful to read what other, more mature thinkers who have given that topic a lot of thought, have to say about it. Needless to say, you should be respectful and be mindful of the demands you place on your mentor. Generally speaking, I believe a mentor would also find such an interaction intrinsically rewarding.

Yes, you read to understand your own experience better. But it’s not ALL about you. You’re reading and reflecting to understand something about humanity, something about being a person among other persons, something that is a possibility for all humans (that is potentially available to everyone).

Summary

Let me summarize the basics of this method of study:

  • You begin by reflecting on your personal history and the events in your life that have been significant (something like the “5 event” writing exercise)
  • Extract psychological themes from your reflections. You will most likely note that these themes can take the form of a question. Don’t stop at saying “Loneliness has been a major theme in my life”. Instead, ask, “What is the meaning of my loneliness?” What are the best ways of thinking about it, and responding to it?
  • Find conversation partners (mentors, professors, books) and search for resources–including books and articles–that help you better understand the themes that you have identified
  • Doing the above will provide a solid ground for your writing in psychology. When you write something, you will remain connected to the truth (of your experience), guided by questions that keep you curious, and guided by the wisdom of others
  • Your inquiry and thinking finds a place in conversations, and in those conversations, you (and your questions) are honored, respected, and are given breathing space

Can you imagine this being a way out of disillusionment? Can you imagine this being a way to reconnect with your passion in psychology? A way of becoming interested again? Curious again?

Psychology as Counter-Discipline: On Introducing Oneself

What is a good way to introduce yourself to someone? I hadn’t given this question much thought. But I started asking it when I received Rachel Haywire‘s tweet, “Where can I get an introduction to your work?” Is there an introductory place in my work? A place appropriate for new friends and interlocutors? I can search for such a place now, or ex post facto put the label “start here” on an article. But I think the very fact that such a place hasn’t yet organically presented itself is an indication of something. It might indicate my rather over-generalized aversion to academic manner and nicety. Alternatively, it might indicate my suspicion that pure beginnings do not exist. My introduction, if there is to be one, should acknowledge my inability (and disinclination) to point to an introductory place in what I have done so far. That says something about me, my history, and the types of relations I have had.

Growing up in my childhood home, we didn’t often have guests. When we did, things deviated from the normal in an obvious way. My mother would get anxious and uncomfortable before the guests would arrive. She would run around cleaning and organizing. I sometimes had to run out for a last-minute trip to the store, when she suddenly remembered we didn’t have fresh fruits, biscuits, or some other essential item. The sense of deviating from the normal course of events was partly because the host-guest relation in Iranian culture is not a casual affair. It was also partly because, as I would later realize, we were not a very sociable family. As a consequence, when we had guests, they would enter a place that was no longer familiar to me. Our home would transform to receive the guests. It became brighter than usual, more organized, and more presentable. There were more snacks on the coffee table. My parents would become more energetic and polite. We (the kids) had to do the same. There was a discipline involved in acting as hosts, a pretense, and the distance I felt between my usual self and my self-as-host prevented me from taking the latter seriously.

The host-guest theme came to me while trying to understand why introducing myself and my work doesn’t come easily. Being a host requires training. To connect it with the rest of my life and identity, it has to become familiar. More importantly, if something provokes anxiety and discomfort, it is probably not part of your home. If you’re running around, tidying up, organizing, sending the kids to buy biscuits, then you might be covering up your home with an extra layer of etiquette. In playing the part of a host, I must be undisciplined or maybe counter-discipline. Can we introduce ourselves without the typical good manners of the academic, social media, or corporate culture? Can we get to know each other without transforming home into non-home, without generating the distance between self and self-as-host?

Pieces of the Puzzle

While writing this, I am discovering a lesson in being a host. If you want to receive guests at your home, then don’t transform your home into a foreign place for them. Don’t tidy up! The manner in which I am a host should acknowledge that my home isn’t a very tidy place. I believe that says something about me, my history, and the types of relations I have had. Refusing a tidy beginning, a tidy introduction, means we can begin in an arbitrary point somewhere along the road. This isn’t a beginning. It’s a meeting, an encounter.

One possible meeting point is my conversation with Peter Limberg (Nov 2018). In that conversation, we talk about my mixed feelings and my characteristic ambivalence toward my place in academia. We talk about culture wars and the marginal figure. Peter refers to something I had written prior to our conversation (Margins & Vitality), which could itself be used as a meeting point. In addition to the podcast episode, and the M&V piece, there is the very first post on my website, which is a book review. Beneath the surface, it is an indication of my growing separation from a conventional academic path. That post begins by stating that I was about to (at the time of writing the post) give a conference talk, but that my heart wasn’t in it. I was uneasy with the way I had been disciplined.

It was, by the way, the last time I attended that particular conference, after five years of regular attendance. I was told if I stopped attending those “major” conferences, it would end badly for my “career”. So be it. I am much happier now. That post is important because it marks a moment, at which I started listening to (and acting in accordance with) my heart. My heart wanted to stop being an academic salesman. Rather than wanting to do trendy research, I wanted to “inherit the past”, to feel a little more at home.

Veni

Everyone was puzzled when I declined the Veni grant. But by that time I had lots of practice in listening to my heart. I declined the grant and moved to Macao. I briefly explained this move in my conversation with Peter. I talked about it as “a move away from the hotspots of academia”. I moved to develop my voice. I wrote my articles, “Behavior versus Performance” and “Building Blocks of Psychology”, and–given the absence of feedback from others–I felt like I was essentially writing for myself. Let’s bring to mind the image of a home without guest. I kept working, mostly to clarify my own problems with experimental psychology, identifying places where “scientific” psychology over-promises and under-delivers and places where it distorts and impoverishes our everyday thinking. Identifying and exploring those instances culminated in the writing of my book, Experimental Psychology and Human Agency, which is a work in counter-disciplinary (critical) psychology.

As Peter mentioned in our podcast conversation, my book was originally titled The Fragmented Subject: Essays on Experimental Psychology. But my Editor didn’t like that, so I changed the title. The book continues to reflect my style of thinking, though it might not be the best introductory place. If you’re not being bothered by the problems that motivated the book, if you don’t have the same itch, for which the book lends a scratching hand, If you’re not trapped in the same “fly bottle” that I was finding my way out of, etc., then you don’t need to read it. A good introduction requires the right type of relationship, a complementary view. That may be the second lesson I have learned about making introductions. A good introduction arises out of a preference for the right kinds of relationships (which means a refusal of the wrong kinds of relationships)

Theory vs. Autobiography

One more piece in the puzzle, before closing this “introduction”. There is an anti-theoretical attitude that I am slowly settling into. I am beginning to value autobiography over theory. A theoretical formula owes its life to a personal life-history, which it might later repress. Theories are not as necessary as they are typically advertised.

I cannot, and I don’t want to, offer a general “antidote to chaos” that works for everyone. I cannot, and I don’t want to, offer a way “to awaken from the meaning crisis” that works for everyone. I would be happy to simply talk about my own (on-going and unresolved) struggles with crises of meaning. I will try to not generalize and not offer impersonal formulae. I am suspicious of theory without autobiography, as I am suspicious of a psychology without people. Theories are often not future-oriented the way life is. I want to learn to celebrate life better, rather than learning to celebrate a theory; I want to learn to live better, rather than theorize better. This is probably the essence of psychology as counter-discipline.

Maybe I am setting up a false dichotomy between theory and autobiography; maybe in doing so, I am offering a theoretical stance; maybe in setting up such a dichotomy I am sharing a piece of autobiography. Regardless, when I imagine being presented with such a dichotomy, being given a choice between expressing an idea in a personal and concrete form, on one hand, and offering theory, on the other hand, I favor of the personal and the concrete. That, I am afraid, indicates once again the impossibility of this introduction, because it is not sufficiently personal, because it could not completely escape from being a (well-mannered) starting point.

Reading ‘Pride & Prejudice’

My guest in the upcoming episode of the Three Books series will be Andrew Taggart. We have already had one conversation, which I immensely enjoyed. I am very much looking forward to talking with him again. Given my decision to read at least one of the three selected books of each guest, I have started reading Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. The book is divided into 61 chapters. I am currently on Chapter 30. Before I read further, I’d like to write a short (pre)review (or mid-reading review) in the spirit of someone who cannot wait until the end of a delicious meal to praise the chef or (in this case) praise the person who selected the chef. I am going to focus on fairly abstract descriptions of the novel, without going into detail. These are themes that I’d like to delve into before my impressions change with further reading.

No Love in the Elevator

Why should one I read the book? My own prior prejudice against the book was grounded in the assumption that it is basically a simple love story about a young man and a young woman, who are initially hindered by… well, … some pride and some prejudice…, and who, nevertheless, manage to overcome the obstacles and be together happily. I would think to myself, “Sure, that sounds like a plausible story. I can imagine that. Well…”. It is in the nature of a prejudice that it closes us off to how things actually are. Being a relatively slow reader, it seemed like too much work to read something that I could summarize (before/without reading!) in two or three sentences. But I couldn’t have summarized it. I cannot. And I will not.

A sign of loving is the refusal to “summarize” the beloved.

You would not translate a beloved work of art into a so-called elevator pitch. Summarizing activities address the desire for efficiency. True appreciation requires slowing down and dwelling. There is no patience and no love in the elevator pitch. That is, by the way, why “speed dating” is a contradiction in terms. I cannot appreciate another person—someone who has been until this moment a stranger to me—and be speedy at the same time. With speed, I can only do what I have done before, see what I have seen before, and judge the way I have judged before. The speedy elevator doesn’t have room for what is strange, for what is new. Appreciation of what is new requires slowing down. It requires inefficiency. To know what happens in Pride & Prejudice requires reading Pride & Prejudice.

A Symphony of Perspectives

A simple event, like Elizabeth’s walk in the wet weather that morning, turns quickly into a basis for philosophical reflection. What is the meaning of her walk? Why is it a philosophically rich topic? The richness has to do with the multiplicity of interpretations that can be imposed on the walk. One person points out Elizabeth’s love for her sister, whom she is walking toward. But her dress is ruined in the mud! Another voice points out her disregard for good manners. Another voice insists that she is an odd character in general. Combined, the voices bring into our view the ambiguities that permeate the simplest events in human affairs.

Every event can be interpreted again, and every re-interpretation can push the course of actions into new directions, resulting in further events. By constructing a symphony of voices, Austen highlights the distance between the events themselves–which can be quite open-ended and ambiguous–and the processes–dialogue, negotiation, etc.–by which we settle on the meaning of events. She shows us, among other things, that an optimistic or a charitable interpretation is something we can enact when faced with ambiguity. Pessimism and despair are, similarly, performed and enacted by us–positions we actively construct in the face of difficult ambiguity.

The book is a symphony of perspectives. It goes well beyond telling the story of a family. It shows how perspectives interact, inform each other, shape each other, respond (or fail to respond) to each other. In one scene, Jane and Elizabeth are sitting together, discussing a letter. What does the letter mean? What can it mean? It can mean a lot of different things. What should we decide for it to mean, for the time being, until more is revealed to us? Some interpretations seem easier than others, some seem to require patience and good character. Some interpretations are difficult to maintain, in which case we would benefit from another voice who affirms for us the validity of that interpretation. Sometimes, to arrive at one interpretation, we have to slow down and dissect a bundle of entangled voices. The good sisters interpret the letter together, dissect the voices contained in it. They separate the voice that speaks from the voice that is silent. And they help each other hold on to the best possible meaning of the letter.

The symphony goes through periods of dissonance, too. One perspective can be oblivious to the voice of others, failing to find its way toward harmony. We hear a frustrating (and funny) dissonance when Mr. Collins fails to get out of his own interpretation of what Elizabeth is saying. This reminded me of a funny-frustrating passage I recently read in The Brothers Karamazov, where Dimitri Karamazov is asking to borrow money from Mrs. Khokhlakov. It is difficult to get on the same page with someone, if you are reading two different books.

We hear resolutions, and perhaps more importantly, how a voice manages to survive and persist despite obstacles. The quiet Mr. Bennet is foundational in the story. He provides, in both a literal and a metaphorical sense, a background for the story. Without him, the story could not take its form. Mr. Bennet is the slow line played by the double bass, though inaudible to the inattentive ears, providing a foundational tone of the symphony—preventing some of the wrong turns and enabling some of the right turns.

Attending

Pride & Prejudice is a story about our inter-connectedness. It is a story about how we depend on each other, how we create and resolve ambiguity together. It is a story about culture, norms, expectations (the forces against our individuation), and our striving to see things anew with our own eyes, and to arrive at our own decisions against the background of a force-ful culture. The book is, of course, also a story about love. But the love that is exposed in the book includes gentle, quiet, and barely visible dimensions, which most likely escape our grasp if we attempt to summarize the story for the benefit of our companions in a speedy elevator. It is a love we can appreciate with time, with slowing down, and with paying attention.

Now, 31 more chapters to go.