Cognitive psychology 2/5

Before I attempt a reasoned argument I want to sketch four broad points of general discomfort with cognitive psychology.

1. It is difficult to pay sustained attention to cognitive psychology without feeling that the point of many experiments is not the paper, but the press release. When we hear “science writer”, we imagine journalists trawling scientific publications for stories with headline appeal. But this is not how it works. Institutions (with what degree of involvement from researchers I do not know) push press releases to sites like EurekAlert!; journalists may check up on them to add human interest, but the transition between experiment and news item happens inside the institution. As a regime of incentives, this strikes me as perverse.

2. Cognitive psychology is based on the model of the brain as a computer; but this is a trivial statement, nearly a tautology. It implies that a computer is a kind of machine, another something like a clock or a car; a sophisticated machine, certainly, but just a machine; just a machine, and the brain just another example.

Cognitive psychology began when the psychologists of the 1960s saw computers and found in them an analogy for the mind. Unfortunately this is still true: cognitive psychology still understands the mind as a computer of the 1960s, complete with fMRI blinkenlights.

But this is not what a computer is. The history of computers is not a history of invention; it is a history of discovery. We did not invent computers; we discovered computation. Computation is an aspect of nature, something like heat or gravity, a property of all sufficiently complex systems. If something is not a computer, it is less than a computer. So of course the brain is a computer; and—?

3. Cognitive psychology and ethics in psychological research are roughly coeval. The obvious suspicion is to wonder whether we discovered cognitive psychology because it was the only psychology we could discover ethically? In ages when the human form was held sacred, even after death, anatomy without dissection went badly wrong. Medieval anatomy reflected not the body, but medieval ethics. Does psychology reflect the mind, or does it reflect the ethics that direct our examination of the mind? Psychologists cannot do harm, so they find no harm in the mind; psychologists cannot deceive, so they find biases, not gullibility; psychologists must have volunteer consent, so they find the mind sociable and cooperative.

4. Imagine you are an experimental subject in cognitive psychology. After the experiment, you will be paid, but only if you appear to have taken the experiment seriously. You need the money; why else would you be here?

You are given a series of tasks: information to evaluate, items to rate, decisions to make. What do you prefer? Do you agree strongly? Disagree strongly? Answering honestly is out of the question, because it would mean giving the same answer every time – whatever stands for “I don’t care.”

What you do care about is getting paid. You beware gotchas; you check and recheck the wording for clues about what you’re supposed to do; you ransack your psyche for reactions that you can exaggerate into preferences and ratings; and, failing all else, you guess. That’s what they used to tell you about tests, after all; better to guess than not to answer. And you have to answer, whatever the consent form says. It’s expected.

In the end you collect your money, leave, buy groceries. Meanwhile the experimenter gloats over the data, having once again demonstrated how irrational people are, how little they act in their own interest.