Dead psychologists and how they change the way we think

John Maynard Keynes wrote that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

Replace economist with psychologist, and this still holds true. Many modern management practices are constructed on an architecture that was built thirty, fifty, even one hundred years ago. Unfortunately, the architecture is often shaky, sometimes rotten.

The granddaddy of all defunct psychologists is Freud – his fingernails are still stuck in our flesh a lifetime after his death. Freud claimed that we are driven by a need for sex, or pleasure. Since Freud, the drives have changed, but the idea that our behaviour is determined by the need to satisfy a handful of simple, universal, subconscious urges has stuck. In the latest Harvard Business Review, academics claim that “getting people to do their best work” requires satisfying four drives that are “hardwired into our brains”: the drive to acquire; the drive to bond; the drive to comprehend; and the drive to defend. The path back to Freud – the man who Newsweek called “History’s most debunked doctor” – is clear.

Freud isn’t the only dead psychologist who holds us in his thrall. The behaviourists – B.F. Skinner and John B. Watson are the most famous – viewed the mind as a black box. Its inner workings are unknowable, and irrelevant. There is no room for any internal mental states – no thoughts, no feelings, no free will. Given the inputs you can predict the outputs.

It follows that to control people’s behaviour, all you need to do is to control their environment. What’s more, you can correct behaviour using the simple mechanisms of rewarding, removing rewards and punishing. We are pigeons in boxes, pressing levers for pellets of food. If the pellets are correct – stock options, performance related pay, bonuses, regular praise – then we will learn to press the right levers – shipping software on time, being nice to customers, hitting sales targets.

The problem, of course, is that we aren’t pigeons in boxes. Our mental states are important. We can be happy, or sad. We can rebel against external factors. We can say screw the pellets and refuse to peck the lever.

I’ve described a couple of dead psychologists. But how about the ones who are still alive?

Just as it can take technology twenty or thirty years to get from the laboratory to the mainstream (think of the mouse, or multi-touch devices, or electronic ink), it can take decades for management ideas to percolate from theory to general practice. Some of the most interesting research over the past 20 years has been in cognitive psychology: the scientific study of how we learn, how we think and how we make decisions.

We can learn a lot from cognitive psychology. If you are late to work this morning it’s undoubtedly because you were held up in traffic. If Bob from marketing is late though, it’ll be because he’s lazy and a poor timekeeper. You attribute external factors (the traffic) when explaining your behaviour, but internal factors (personality) when explaining that of others. Similarly, you over-emphasize the role that your skill plays in your successes, but over-exaggerate the impact of the situation on your failures. If your software ships on time it’s because of your exceptional leadership. If it’s late, it’s because of buggy third party components.

These ideas are only now making it into the mainstream. Steven Pinker started popularising them a decade ago; Malcom Gladwell has brought them to an even wider audience since. Using the mouse analogy, if the founding fathers of cognitive psychology are Doug Engelbart and William English at Xerox PARC, then Steven Pinker is the first Apple Mac and Malcolm Gladwell is Windows 3.11. When we reach Windows 95 – a few years off still – these ideas will become ubiquitous.

John Maynard Keynes – himself now a defunct economist and enslaver of modern men – was right to warn us about the ghosts of dead intellectuals. But if we squint hard enough, we can just about discern their phantom forms, and choose to avoid them, or embrace them.

4 responses to “Dead psychologists and how they change the way we think”

  1. Evan Meagher says:

    Interesting article. As the son of a psychologist and one irritated by the sluggish pace society takes in accepting new ideas, your message is especially clear. Thanks for posting!

  2. reid derrick says:

    Dead psychologists and how they change the way we think it’s a nice topic which is raises by the blog owner i appriciate the why he thought about the society
    reid derrick
    Business Sales

  3. John says:

    Good info

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