The Dream of “Disconnected Psychology”

A thought-provoking paper proposes a way to advance psychology: by encouraging researchers to ignore previous work in the field.

The piece is called Unburdening the Shoulders of Giants: A Quest for Disconnected Academic Psychology and it appeared in Perspectives on Psychological Science.

According to author Dario Krpan, academic psychology is failing to fully explore the space of possible theories. In other words, it is stuck in an intellectual rut (or ruts).

The field of psychology (this also applies to other sciences) currently operates in such a way that the focus is on a relatively narrow subset of [theories] (compared with all possibilities of [theories] that could eventually exist) enforced by various conventions, trends, and politics pertaining to either the field more generally or to various research domains within the field (see Medin, Ojalehto, Marin, & Bang, 2017; Rozin, 2001, 2009)

Psychology has become increasingly blinkered over time, Krpan says. This is because psychologists are expected to base their work on existing psychology, or at least must be able to link it to prior work in some way. Early psychologists did not have this problem, and were hence more creative:

In the early days of the discipline, before the onset of the information age spawned by technological advancements, psychologists were generally forced to work more independently because they did not have access to an extensive “knowledge” network consisting of many psychological sources. Independently developing new methodologies, theories, approaches, and so forth, was therefore a necessity.

This leads Krpan to his proposal, that we should rekindle the spirit of early psychologists, in the form of ‘disconnected psychology’. A disconnected psychologist would be one who engages in the empirical study of human behaviour, but who doesn’t draw on (or possibly even know about) the rest of psychology.

Krpan argues that today’s conventional, ‘connected’ psychology still has value, but that disconnected psychology should also exist, and that the two would complement each other.

Connected psychology would be responsible for generating knowledge-producing events that involve testing explanations of psychological phenomena produced by many different disconnected and connected psychologists.

Disconnected psychology is an attractive idea – everyone likes a maverick. Unfortunately, I found it hard to grasp what exactly a disconnected psychologist would be.

Krpan says that “there are few if any examples” of disconnected psychologists so far, although he does point to Julian Jaynes. I was hoping that Krpan would at least sketch out a hypothetical picture of a 21st century disconnected psychologist, but none is provided.

As such, it’s hard to know what to make of this proposal, and I fear that disconnected psychology may wither on the vine, at least until we can work out what the vine actually looks like.

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