philosophical psychology philosophy of science Writing

Re: Brad Jesness’s Review

Here is a link to Brad Jesness’s review of my book, which I read with interest. The review is posted on ResearchGate as a “comment”, and I decided to respond to it here for the sake of convenience. Brad (and others) could continue the thread either here or on RG.

I wasn’t expecting much of a reaction to my book, so I am grateful to have received Brad’s thoughts. He is very generous in his assessment, despite his general antipathy toward philosophy and qualitative analysis. More importantly, he has correctly identified important themes that emerge as the result of my analyses: certain lines of research being tautological, uninformative, unsurprising, trivial, ambiguous; certain concepts being misused and misrepresented in experimental research; psychologists’ self-serving framing about (marketing of) their own research findings; so on and so forth.

Brad is also right in recognizing that one of the goals of my work is to identify the agency of the researcher. The phrase “human agency” in the book title fills two placeholders. On one hand, it refers to the agency that is at times distorted by a particular method of research/discourse (agency of the participant). On the other hand, it refers to the agency that distorts the former agency (agency of the researcher).

Levels of Control

There is a point I should clarify with regard to the levels of control (Chapter 3). This should already be clear in the chapter, but I’d like to emphasize it here in response to Brad’s commentary.

The three levels (superordinate, basic-level, and subordinate) aren’t fixed, objective categories. One person’s subordinate goal is another person’s basic-level goal (depending on their focus, experience, expertise, etc.). The reason behind identifying the levels of control, therefore, isn’t to answer questions like, “what is the basic-level goal in this behavior?” Instead, the discussion of levels comes after a particular goal has already been picked–identified as basic-level–which anchors the rest of our analysis: Given that goal G is identified (either by researcher or by the participant), what is the goal within which G is embedded (superordinate goal) and what are the set of goals which enact G and ‘bring it to life’ (subordinate goals)?

No Prescription

Let us now move to the question of “fixing scientific psychology”, as Brad puts it. The book is not intended as an advice-giving vehicle. Rather than telling researchers how they ought to conduct their research (this is not the type of relationship I’d like to have with my readers), I offer a description of the states of affairs within an organized conceptual framework. The next step, if there is any, regarding how experimental research in various fields can/should change, isn’t up to me. As my friend, Johannes Niederhauser, likes to say: Philosophers do not tell others what to do. And neither do I.

Needless to say, I cannot summarize the book here. It is written to be read in its original form, from beginning to end. Let me just say this. My goal was to represent experimental psychology in its current state, to analyze the scope of “successful” (i.e., published in prestigious journals) research, to ask whether they live up to their promises, to ask whether they are as clear and unambiguous as the researchers claim, and so forth. As such, my primary aim was to understand, rather than to change. The reader who follows along carefully will, I hope, have a sharper and deeper view of experimental psychology, but s/he will not be pushed in any particular direction. I wrote the book as a thinking tool, not as a tool for “converting” others to my path.

Wouldn’t trying to “convert” others to my style of research be a performative contradiction? A theme in the book is about noticing situations where the research participant becomes subordinate to the goal of the researcher, and how researchers themselves become subordinate to taken-for-granted norms of the academic culture. Standing outside this pattern–as I’d like to do–means refusing to take up superordinate position in relation to others, encouraging them make their own decisions.

Brad offers an interesting alternative to the contemporary experimental psychology, based on studying spontaneous patterns of behavior. If I understand him correctly, he sees the task of an empirical psychologist to be identifying patterns of situated goal-directed action, which are hierarchically organized, and tracking those patterns—and how they change—through the development of the organism-situation relationship (with special reference to Piaget). I am sympathetic to such a project, and I might engage with it later on. For now, however, the armchair beckons, and my attachment to the proverbial armchair (the seat of rebellion against contemporary psychology) prevents me from such a commitment.

4 thoughts on “Re: Brad Jesness’s Review”

  1. Dear Daavood
    While I do not like philosophy, except some rare exceptions in analytic philosophy, it is incorrect to say that I have an “antipathy … [toward] qualitative analysis”. In fact the research I love most is observational research, using reasonable standards and that also shows high inter-rater reliabilities. [(Such work (which is basic ethology) seems more qualitative than quantitative (to at least some, I believe, since few numbers must be involved (and often essentially just number(s) indicating agreement)). But on the other hand, maybe that IS considered quantitative; it certainly is relatively more quantitative than studies just subject to statistical analysis. )]
    Regards, Brad Jesness

  2. Here (mainly, below) is a message I have been tempted to post, addressing experimental psychology. It really is a question of how to hone-in on a set of circumstances as really seen by a human subject, other than just starting with premises one conjures up or has simply thought up, based on SOME pattern, but really not based on behavior patterns seen in careful, replicatable observations. To me, a basic requirement is to show that one validly sees (in situ, so to speak) some real reliable and shown-meaningful behavior PATTERNS.

    By the way, I do think the setting of settings (circumstances) AS IS DONE TODAY is sufficient for some good research — for example, a lot of research on the basic characteristics of the Memories. The generality and time/space frame of the lab seems to work for that example (and, I wonder, what others).


    Dear Experimental Psychology:

    Do you really think the “reality”/environment right before your eyes is MUCH like every other real environment that is thought of by all humans?

    Do you really think the “reality”/environment directly before your eyes is MUCH like every other real set of circumstances that is dealt with thought of by all humans and, moreover, AS IT IS THOUGHT OF BY ALL HUMANS?

    Probably, you will realize, in many regards and for many purposes: NO !, it isn’t.

    But why, then, do we act as if this (the “apparent”) is based-TRUE and think that we can build/simulate/represent circumstances in the lab which are seen as the same (we believe to be essentially the same) as key circumstances AS actually seen, AS actually compared and AS actually thought-of functionally (for action or responses) in real life by real people?

  3. I have made these Comments on Researchgate ( where D. Gozli does not frequent ) and I have tried to get them to you (Davood) via email — with no clear success. I decided that this post is relevant here, along with my other posts:

    Episodic Memory and Experimental Psychology

    Though this Discussion may not make sense to some, I have shared the following view with some professional behavioral scientist (psychology) friends and feel it may be helpful to get this view (or sub-view) a little more exposure.:

    It is becoming obvious that Episodic Memory is a major crux of things (e.g. for much of the content and structure of the episodic buffer — the last “thing”/step before any working memory action (i.e. reinforcing or new processing of new or old)).

    I have very recently made many downloads (most in the last few days) of articles on Episodic Memory. This is a major faculty and a major crux of things going into the episodic buffer — and may account for much of whatever organization is there. To see what Publications/Articles I am reading, to get an idea of how BIG this topic is: You can check my “Following” link on my Profile page to find the list of what I selected. (Please do take a look: .)

    Took me a while to realize that this is an especially good area to read in AND STUDY. I believe this subject matter (and it is a true subject matter) is researchable in many ways, likely including in several realistic ways in the lab of experimental psychologists (even with the time/space constraints). This may be a ” go ‘ticket’ ” to realism and productivity for Experimental Psychology (as well as for other studies better spanning times and places). After one realizes a human, even largely unbeknownst to him/her self keeps track of partly related “things” (features and actions) across times and spaces (the very basis of abstract abilities), one also gets a perspective on the great and significant perspectives (templates) provided in/”for” reality by Episodic Memory.

    The growing number of articles show this is very much an up and coming research area — fits with my theory (Ethogram Theory), but provides other, more study opportunities. You MOST PROBABLY find it beneficial to read all 900 pages of writing on the theory (the clear basis for a true empirical science of Psychology) FIRST.

    If one appreciates the likely great sophistication of Episodic Memory, THEN there is NO NEED for any artificial setup in an Experimental Psychology Lab looking into that. Here’s why: You can have typical (though important), ecologically-sound, real set-ups that will literally naturally elicit adaptive response(s) (including centrally: episodic recall ); you just need to invent how to measure such recalls — BUT, you are (or would be) measuring real (non-set-up, non-artificial responses !)) Such adaptive responses have species-typical or species specific aspects. (I do not see measuring the episodic recalls would be hard; just see the relevant research.)

    Day-to-day important situations and settings are all the “stimuli” (situation/circumstances) are the ‘set-up”.

    Another way of saying most of this is to realize that in any important set of circumstances (INCLUDING REALISTIC ONES IN THE LAB) the Subject comes with much to bring to bring to bear and does bring it to bear (AND this, too, is real as real can be).

    I should make it clear that this point of view, above, is totally consistent and congruent with the Ethogram Theory I put forth (a true, thorough shift using only behavior patterns and strict empiricism — it is a true paradigm shift for Psychology (actually, it offer Psychology its first paradigm)). I basically consider the above sub-view to be part of Ethogram Theory.

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