For the Fall, 1998 Mellby lecture at St. Olaf College:

An Invitation to Psychology*

As a sophomore in South Georgia in 1975, I was stunned by the barrenness of my introduction to psychology. It was, no doubt, both current and correct; precise and clean. So clean, said my heart, that it was sterile. It stripped the psychological world of wonder.

I sat in a bolted down chair in rows of 20 students each, and watched like you might in a surgery auditorium while the professor dissected my wonder. I was told I should replace soul, meaning, the self, altruism, and evil with negative and positive reinforcement, punishment, control structures, and other such steely and scientifically pristine constructions. Like Danny Saunders in Chaim Potok's The Chosen I wanted to know "What does experimental psychology have to do with the human mind?" We got rats instead, in clean aluminum boxes with levers and a drinking bottle.

After lectures outlined on a rolling overhead, viewed from the silent ranking of seats, every day I escaped to watch ants run in and out of a small hole in the red Georgia clay. Watching REAL animals, doing real things seemed wonderful. It was a small ant hill; a conical mountain on their barren landscape, several feet from any thing deserving the name of grass. But they fascinated and comforted me with the scurrying, mysterious purpose they displayed. Here was real behavior, enfleshed in meaning and history. I was disappointed in the sterile picture my class gave me of these animals, and, when I got up the courage, I was astonished. The class was a success in at least one sense: I was convinced that psychology was a science, but I was also convinced that psychology was irretrievably boring.

I'd like to take this opportunity given in honor of Carl Mellby to revise that picture of psychology. Psychology is surely scientific, but it is far from boring, and it asks, or at least hints at, some of the enduring questions of the liberal arts. If approached correctly, I believe psychology is a liberal arts science. I think this claim would please Doc Mellby, though it likely would not have gotten my attention many years ago as a sophomore. It may be we can say this about all science, but for this talk I'll stick to psychology.

I want to deal with two main reasons for rejecting a scientific psychology as relevant to the concerns of the liberal arts: the claim that it denies human meaning and the claim that it eliminates personal choice and responsibility. These were certainly my complaints about my introduction to psychology. It was barren of human meaning. Tragedy and joy both evaporated into epiphenomena. It left us all looking like machines rather than people with souls. In humans, there was no room for soul, free will, personal choice, or responsibility.

As a sophomore, I was most disillusioned by the denial of meaning. It was not until I became a senior psychology major that the issue of choice and free will seemed central to me. My reaction to the scientific claims of psychology about free will eventually drove me into the arms of philosophy, as I tried to discover why psychologists like B. F. Skinner felt they had to say the odd things they did. I now think much of what Skinner said was not odd, though it was couched in a now-outmoded philosophy of science that required the dismissal of all mental states, and thereby all personal meaning.

Psychology denies human meaning.

The first objection, that psychology denies human meaning, can be stated in a variety of ways. One claim is that psychology takes no regard for the meaning of the individual human life - for the particular cares, concerns, and values of the individual. That its statistical and mathematical formulae obscure the nuance of personal motivation and meaning.

To some extent, psychology must plead guilty to this charge. But only to some extent. Psychologists do have a peculiar way of understanding the behavior of organisms. It involves making models of how they behave, think, and feel. This is a standard scientific approach, ranging from the precise mathematical models in Physics to models in Sociology that look more like traditional metaphors. In fact a metaphor is a useful model, if you will, of what a model is.

A scientist who builds a model does so by creating a description of the phenomenon that is suited to the purpose and that makes allusions to other, more detailed, descriptions. The purpose is finding patterns in how organisms behave, think, and feel. There is nothing essential about the patterns or metaphors that makes them scientific models, except what scientists do with them. We compare these patterns to data, and when the patterns can no longer be stretched to fit our understanding of the data, we modify the patterns. Making, testing, and modifying these models is what psychological science is about.

And since the patterns refer to the behavior, thoughts, and feelings of people within a particular context, the odd motivations or meanings of a single individual facing that context are usually passed over. When they are not passed over, it is because they suggest something about the model that does not fit people of that "type" or people with a particular motivation--and this is then incorporated into the model and tested against data collected from people of that type or with that motivation. In summary, since psychological science is about modifying models, it overlooks the individual motivation or meaning except when looking might help modify the model.

So you do not despair at the arrogance of psychologists, I hurry to mention that there is a therapeutic endeavor also called psychology that is based both in the science and in the concrete details and meaning of the individual life. Psychologists who do therapy, or case work, or applications in industry often care deeply about the individual meanings people bring with them. These people do biography with their clients in addition to using the scientific models of psychology. And this work with individuals or groups could not be done well without careful attention to the individual meanings and motivations. So here you have my hedge in my answer that psychology only partly ignores individual meaning.

But there is another way to put this complaint about individual meaning. My most personal reaction to my first class in psychology was that it stripped my world of meaning. It seemed not to care about the meaning in my life, nor to offer the help I expected in finding that meaning. I had hoped to find out about the deepest motivations of humans, about religious rapture, about evil and the struggle against it, about the nature of the human spirit and why I couldn't get a date. In short, the problem was that psychology didn't even attempt to ask the real questions about life.

I'm afraid my answer to this charge will be disappointing to you. Science doesn't attempt to find out things like the meaning of life, or the true nature of evil. It doesn't attempt this because it would undoubtedly fail. These questions are often about what a thing "really" is "in its essence." If you think back about what I have said about models, you can get a hint that these are questions we can't get scientific answers for. We can improve our models about the psychological processes that lead to behavior we call evil or altruistic. We can specify the situational pressures that are likely to modify these processes. We can call attention to the systematic individual differences in reaction to the pressures. But none of this allows us to conclude what evil or altruism "really" is. Most psychologists avoid those questions and attempt to get on with the process of modifying our models by systematic data collection.

We are right, I think, to keep our heads down and collect data when these sorts of questions come up. But we also over-generalize this reaction and remain silent when, instead, we ought to speak. With some notable exceptions, we usually shy away from important questions that involve thinking about values, ethics, and what might be called the "human condition."

Sometimes psychologists have had the temerity to speak on human issues, and the upshot of that effort has been, in fact, to confirm people's suspicions of us. In our arrogance at those times, we reduced the complexity of the individual and social world to a few principles and mechanistic causes, denying the richness of people's own awareness of their motivations and desires and ignoring the complexity of society and culture. The best excuse I can bring to bear for this arrogance is that we thought it was required of us. Sigmund Freud and B. F. Skinner are the two greatest transgressors in this arena, but some cognitive and evolutionary psychologists today are in danger of committing the same errors. The common assumption among these psychologists is that their theories, developed from a narrow domain, are ready for the totalitarian takeover of all human experience. This exuberance is usually the result of a narrow reductionism that really is willing to say that human behavior is "nothing but" disguised sexuality, or contingencies of reinforcement, or schema driven processing, or kin selection. There is much of value in the work of the folks I have just mentioned that we should keep. But we should reject the tendency to theoretical totalitarianism. It makes for bad models, and it either denies or distorts our place in the liberal arts.

Fortunately, we have fine examples of humility in theory construction in the work that has been going on down in the trenches of psychological research. Much of psychology now has broken down into mini-theories that attempt to deal with small bits of the immense complexity in a single area. These theories about pieces of the human experience keep a multitude of psychologists busy collecting data and off their soapboxes. For an example of a totalitarian theory and its demise, let's look at Lawrence Kohlberg and his theory of cognitive development in moral reasoning.

According to this approach, as children age and become more cognitively complex, they are able to think more complexly about moral issues too. And this complexity follows a clear set of stages from early childhood into the adult life, starting with concrete reasoning about punishment and gain, and ending, for the select few, in careful reasoning based on principled stands. It may surprise you to hear that this theoretical approach has been almost entirely dismantled by the legions of psychologists working in this area. Among the many things we have found out are that moral development does not flow smoothly across all domains of reasoning, nor is individual progress in moral reasoning or behavior necessarily based on cognitive development, nor are principled stands about justice and fairness the only basis on which complex moral thinkers make their decisions. The response to this data-rich wave of complexity has been the building of mini-theories in the area: theories about the effect of peers on altruism or aggression, about the development of understanding of intention in harmful and helpful acts, about the role of empathy in helping, about the distancing methods used to deny responsibility, about the relation of childhood temperament to the moral emotions, and about a host of other things all in this one area.

This recourse to mini-theories has occurred all across psychology and, in addition to providing a bracing reconsideration of old theories it has brought with it some modicum of humility. This retreat to mini-theories explains in part why psychologists are mostly keeping their heads down in the trenches these days, and also why psychology may seem a bit boring.

I'd like to offer one final, and not so charitable, reply to the charge that psychology has ignored the importance of personal meaning. Where psychologists have investigated people's understanding of their own behavior, they have often found them to be at least biased, if not simply wrong.

For instance, our comparisons of ourselves with others are often wrong. If I were to ask every person in this room to fill out a scale indicating how you compared to "most other people" in terms of honesty, sincerity, kindness, intelligence, attractiveness, and general talent, we would find a curious thing. For each of these characteristics we would find that this fine group of people is, on average, better than most other people in all these areas. This effect (sometimes called the Lake Woebegone effect) is so robust I replicate it without fail in my classes every year. Here are a few other examples: 90% of business managers rate their performance as superior to other managers, and 86% rate themselves as more ethical than their peers. In one study, 94% of college professors believed they had above average work loads. In a study of nearly a million high school students, 70% rated themselves above the median in leadership ability, and 85% rated themselves above the median in getting along well with others. I have never seen a study asking people to rate themselves on modesty, but I have no doubt about what its outcome would be.

There are a variety of reasons to think this widespread effect is not merely a misunderstanding of the scales or of percentage rankings, but what is important to notice in this context is that we have a pervasive tendency to believe good news about ourselves. This tendency gets in the way of our ability to be accurate in our self perceptions. The conclusion here is that some of your cherished beliefs about yourself, and about your own experience, may in fact be wrong, and should be challenged.

So the tally in terms of denying personal meaning seems even. Psychology does indeed ignore or contradict personal meaning-sometimes when it shouldn't and sometimes when it should. But in the end, the task of a psychological science is not to confirm or enlighten personal meaning, but to modify and test models of behavior, models of thought and feeling, and even models of how people find personal meaning. Scientific psychology is not biography or personal therapy and we should not hold it to those standards.

Psychology denies free will

The second complaint about psychology that I want to discuss this evening is that it denies free will, and thus undermines personal responsibility. This accusation has been made variously and on several levels, but there are two that I want to deal with here. First, the complaint that psychology makes all our choices out to be predetermined by our prior physical and psychological states. And secondly that this assumption of determinism reduces personal responsibility by making it plain we could not have done anything other than what we in fact did-that in short our choices were not real choices-they were determined and we can be excused from responsibility for them.

There is one thing we need to have clarity on: psychology does indeed assume determinism, and it would be an odd science that did not. As a psychologist, I try to construct models of biological, psychological, social, and cultural processes that are empirically testable and that explain the particular psychological phenomenon I care about. Explanation is about discovering these processes, and this analysis does not stop at a decision or a choice by an individual. It looks beyond that decision to see its determinants.

Perhaps an example here will help. During WWII a variety of people risked their lives in a sometimes successful attempt to rescue European Jews from the Nazis' mass murder. The most celebrated of these has become the village of Le Chambon in France. But there were small groups of people all over Europe who participated in similar heroics. In my social psychology class, I ask my students to write an essay explaining the social and psychological processes that resulted in these heroic enterprises.

Two answers I often get are "They were courageous people" or "God gave them courage." I do not doubt these descriptions of the matter. In fact, I believe them in many cases to be true. But as a psychologist I must then ask the students how these people became courageous or how God gave them courage. And why did these people help and not some others, often equally brave? How did they get started helping? How did they choose the particular folks they helped or the way in which they helped? Why did they continue to help (if they did)? These are social psychological questions that go beyond and behind the decision of the person and attempt to explain that decision in terms borrowed from scientific models of conformity, social cognition, moral development, persuasion, cognitive dissonance, stereotyping and prejudice, attraction, and a host of other influences.

The crucial question is whether by explaining these people's decisions and choices in this manner we have explained their courage away, or simply made their courage more intelligible. What might we be explaining away? One thing we might be explaining away is the peculiar stories of each individual helper, and the meanings this had both for that person and for those who helped. These are important, even crucial, but scientific psychology does not do biography on this minute a scale. Nor does it deny the importance of the biography to the individual. It simply insists that the social and psychological process are still there, intertwined with the details of the individual story. I hope that by now I have convinced you that this is not an explaining away but is making models of behavior and choice on a level that ignores some of the individual detail.

Another thing we might be explaining away is the soul or the psyche or the self that makes these choices. This self or soul is conceived by many to be independent of the social and psychological processes, and to insert itself into the these processes with a decision to help. It is this self that we often call courageous or cowardly. Since it remains calm at the center of the psychological storm, its courage or cowardice is unsullied by any of the psychological processes I have been mentioning, and so the individual, or God, can truly claim the credit or take the blame. This self, not subject to our scientific models, contains the true springs of action. I readily admit that psychological science is interested in explaining away this part of what we value in our description of action.

On this account, the self or soul is crucial to the decision, is inseparable from the decision, and makes its decision "freely," that is, without influence from all the various influences on moral development I have been describing. And it is this "free decision" that makes it possible to say it is the person's decision rather than a decision that has happened to the person.

This free self or soul is the center of the virtuous hero we find in many fairy tales, newspapers, and biographies, and in much moral advice today. She acts alone, and it is strength of will and courage that allow her to do good. Often she must act in the face of social disapproval of her good deeds or even threat of harm, and these threats are described in a way that makes it clear that they should constrain her decision, but her strength of will and moral integrity overcome them. We praise her both for the good she does and for the strength of will and courage she shows.

And here is the danger we sense in explaining her courage in the causal language of moral development. We fear that if there is no courageous self or soul standing outside these explanations, then neither the courage, nor the strength of will, nor even the good are really hers. The courage happened to her, the strength of will is merely a habit or temperament, perhaps inherited, and the good is simply behavior that we call good. And so, without the courageous self that stands outside of psychological explanation, we feel we lose the virtue along with the hero. Some claim we lose the ability to praise people for the good they do or to blame them for their evil. We will have undermined the motivation to do the good, and perhaps even the possibility to do anything we would recognize as "good."

Let's stop here for a moment and take a data break. When I discover myself in the midst of heavy philosophical slogging (particularly of this slippery slope kind), I often find it useful to look up from my armchair and ask "Could we possibly collect some data that might help clear the air here?" In this case I think some developmental psychologists have done so.

William Damon and Anne Colby are developmental psychologists who have spent a good deal of their time doing research on how we develop our moral stances. They too have been pursuing the question of why people are moral, and of how they become that sort of person. In a recent study they did in depth interviews with a set of what they call "moral exemplars" in order to find out how they became respected leaders in virtue. For this study to make sense, I will have to give you some background, so please bear with me.

Colby & Damon's first step in their study was to compile a set of criteria that would identify moral exemplars. They did several hour interviews with a panel of 22 moral philosophers, theologians, ethicists, historians, and social scientists to help them refine a set of criteria that might identify moral exemplars. This resulted in the following list of criteria:

  1. A sustained commitment to moral ideals or principles that include a generalized respect for humanity, or a sustained evidence of moral virtue.
  2. A disposition to act in accord with ones moral ideals or principles, implying also a consistency between one's actions and intentions and between the means and ends of one's actions.
  3. A willingness to risk one's self interest for the sake of one's moral values.
  4. A tendency to be inspiring to others and thereby to move them to moral action.
  5. A sense of realistic humility about one's own importance relative to the world at large, implying a relative lack of concern for one's own ego.

Then, beginning with their panel and moving out, they solicited nominations for people who excelled at these criteria. After a few rounds of nominations, they ended up with 84 nominees, a number too large to allow in depth interviews with all of them. Their final group of interviewees consisted of 23 individuals from all political spectra, ranging in age from 35 to 86, equally split among the genders, of varying or no religious background, and with formal education ranging from 8th grade to PhD. and MD. The main thing these people had in common were remarkable stories of lives of moral commitment. Their causes were various, though chief among them were poverty, peace, and health care (particularly for the poor or for children).

They then did extensive interviews with each of these, and used independent sources to check, as well as they could, biographical details revealed in these interviews. The resulting book contains in depth stories of 5 of these people, and the tentative theoretical conclusions Colby & Damon draw from the interviews. For my purposes here I would like to highlight some of the commonalties they found among their sample of moral exemplars.

  1. A self concept that was closely aligned with their vision of the good, so much so that there was no choice between the self and the good, but instead a unity.
  2. A constant examination of the self and its goals and an openness to change in these, influenced heavily by the communities in which they were embedded.
  3. A clear feeling that they could not have done otherwise than they did.

I am not surprised that these conclusions match in many respects those of psychologists who have studied people who helped rescue Jews during the Holocaust. I am particularly taken with the final point, that these moral exemplars often felt that they had become the kind of people who could not have done other than to help in the way they did. Their choices were constrained by their own, publicly made commitments, by the communities of caring in which they were embedded, by their own clear sense of what the good was, by their close identification of who they were with that good, and by their past history of following that sense of the good. To have done something other than help would have been not to be who-they-were in that situation. This feeling of constraint is often echoed by those who helped Jews during the Holocaust.

Now, let's trek back to the issue of free will, the self, and our virtuous hero. These real life moral exemplars do not sound much like the virtuous hero. The virtuous hero acts alone, while our moral exemplars are embedded in communities of concern. The virtuous hero makes a decision to do the moral thing, and it is this decision for which we praise her. Our moral exemplars live in a way that they feel constrained to do the moral thing-so that their moral action flows from their life and the demands of their surroundings.

It is possible that Colby and Damon missed the real the virtuous heroes out there Perhaps the sampling strategy missed them. Perhaps the interview situation required self-deprecating comments about constraint. We will, of course, want to do more research. But perhaps too we have rediscovered something about virtue that Aristotle mentioned when he said that virtue was a learned habit and that one role of real friendships was to support the friends in their endeavors to be good. The friendship our moral exemplars found in community enabled them to practice and extend the other virtues they held dear. They did not always see the good, but when their friends pointed it out, they looked carefully, and took the advice seriously. Their openness to expanding their conception of the good over their lifetimes was an index both of their commitment to the good and to the seriousness with which they took their friends.

The free will that we so desperately desire can be found in this account of moral development, but it is not central. I, frankly, do not miss it. Our moral exemplars were constantly reexamining their understandings of the good, and constantly revising their behavior to accommodate their understanding. And so they were choosing, but they were choosing their constraints. To the extent that we are creatures whose self-examination, based on our friendships, causes us to redirect our thoughts, goals, and behaviors then we can say there is some choice or free will here. But it is an odd sort of free will, not really like our virtuous hero, and based on choice among constraints. Its exercise makes possible, real, genuine, human, and humane goodness, with all its shortsightedness and folly, and with all its glory.

The moral exemplars in Colby and Damon's study did not reach their lofty ethical heights in a flash of willpower, but by constant small choices. They took a path that often seemed the only one available, given their personal and situational constraints. Sometimes on the journey they found they had gotten up a path it was impossible to back down. But given their understanding of the good, given the communities they found themselves in, given their empathy for suffering, it was better to go on than to pause. They had chosen some of their constraints (the villagers of LeChambon chose their pastor knowing what he would preach). Other constraints were thrust upon them.

If this sounds restrictive and difficult, if it feels oppressive, remember the long Christian tradition of the "slave for Christ." Freedom, in this tradition, consists of perfect obedience to the constraints imposed by Christ's love for us and for others. Jewish and Muslim traditions also include this idea. This context is perhaps the right place to mention two other characteristics of the moral exemplars Colby and Damon studied.

4. Most, though not all, were grounded in some religious belief and community.
5. All, without exception, were optimistic about their life and genuinely happy.

Note that these are people who feel they could not have done other than what they did, and they seem genuinely happy about it. A Benedictine nun I know says that her practice is built out of doing the next thing. The goals are not lofty, the will is not central, what is central is "these people now who need help" or "this phone call I must make." If the constraints are correctly chosen, and if one has both luck and some skill, doing good is within our capacity regardless of our level of heroism.

I am currently working with a national panel of computer scientists, social scientists, and ethicists to design a curriculum for computer science that takes this idea seriously. An ethical computer scientist is one who is thoughtful about the small choices she makes in system design, and who is embedded in a community of other computer scientists who also care about those choices. We are working to design a computer science curriculum that makes this more likely to happen rather than less. And we are doing it not by urging students on to moral heroism, but by designing a curriculum and a community that encourages them to think ethically about the small design decisions they make every day.

And so my conclusion about free will is to doubt its centrality to moral reasoning and action. We need only an odd form of it, based on the choice of constraints, to be recognizably moral. This form is psychologically understandable enough that we might one day be able to model it in artificially intelligent systems. More central to our moral exemplars is constraint in the form of self-image, community influence, situational demands, past history, and public commitment. We should worry less about free will and more about appropriate constraint.

It was both a human and a scientific concern with the development of morality that led us, or at least led me, to this conclusion. This suggests that a scientific psychology can, in fact, lead us to talk about deeply meaningful issues, in a way that is respectful of our humanity. And so I invite you to consider psychology, and even a rigorously scientific psychology as a contributor to the deepest concerns of the humanities and as a partner in the liberal arts.

I promised that I would invite you into psychology's house, and in fact we have been inside together for some time now. You have been hearing all along about psychological research, and seeing, I hope, a psychologist think about what it means. The issues that led us here were moral, but they might easily have been about how the brain constructs pictures of the world through the eyes, how memory fades, how whales find their way in the ocean, or how ants cooperate to build homes in the Georgia clay. I invite you to come visit us more often, and I hope some of you might decide to stay.


*For those who care about such things, I would like to acknowledge my indebtedness to: the works of Daniel Dennett and Ted Honderich on the free will problem; to John Darley and Kelly Shaver for imparting an abiding interest in moral reasoning and behavior; to Ed Langerak for insisting that I defend my notion that I could do well (and even do good) without free will; to L. DeAne Lagerquist for taking my forays into religious studies with the appropriate amount of seriousness and patience; and to Teresa Tillson for her constant intellectual companionship and her steadfast interest in virtue. DeAne Lagerquist, Matt Rohn, Doug Schuurman, Gordon Marino, Rick Fairbanks, Ed Langerak, and Carol Scholz provided much needed feedback on an earlier version of this talk.

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