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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2020

Eye on Psi Chi

Fall 2020 | Volume 25 | Number 1

A Problem in the Study of Psychology: An Interview With Antonio Puente, PhD

Bradley Cannon
Psi Chi Central Office

Is psychology limited by the framework of behaviorism? Dr. Antonio Puente thinks so and that opening up the “status quo” to different methods could lead to new discoveries that will help psychology become more applicable for all!

Dr. Antonio Puente sees a problem in the study of psychology. Specifically, he believes that the scientific method that was so important to the development of psychology has become confused.

This behavioral methodology, initiated by John Watson and expanded upon and codified by the likes of B. F. Skinner and others, is the foundation for experimental psychology and is widely used today. However, this is not the same as behaviorism, which was also initiated by Watson and expanded upon by Skinner and others. This approach is a theoretical framework most recently applied to behavior analysis.

Dr. Puente says, “Behaviorism takes a perspective of how to understand psychological processes. It is, in some ways, one of the most important theories in the history of psychology, and maybe the most important one, certainly along the lines of the cognitive movement and even the psychanalytic movement, as well as the humanistic and others.”

Unfortunately, as Dr. Puente points out, confusion between behavioral methodology and behaviorism has resulted in behaviorism becoming the primary philosophical and theoretical foundation for behavioral methodology. “All things being equal,” he says, “We have taught one with the other, which I think needs to be backtracked. Specifically, we should make sure that the ideas of behaviorism do not get confounded with the methodology of behaviorism, which in some ways is now viewed as the methodology of psychological science, or at least the most important measure.”

Psychology’s Roots

Dr. Antonio Puente specializes in neuropsychology, having edited a journal and a 33-book series on the topic. To show how some of psychology’s roots have been poorly acknowledged or misremembered over time, he uses the field of neuropsychology as an example.

He says, “Not to confound with countries, but Russia, Germany, and the United States were the most important in the development of psychology in its early days. The origins of psychology started with the founding of the laboratories

  • in Leipzig, Germany, in 1879;
  • in Russia in the early 1900s; and
  • in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1874.”

“All of those events,” he explains, “were basically the outgrowth of the work of ‘physicians’ psychologists,’ if you will, who had MDs and PhDs.”

Dr. Puente believes that probably the most interesting story about psychology’s beginnings was that of Wundt. “Wundt couldn’t find a job in medicine, so his first and only job turned out to be as a faculty of philosophy where he started merging the ideas of physiology and medicine, though in those days, medicine was closer to physiology than it is to the practice of medicine as we know it today.” His first journal, Philosophical Studies, was where he, his students, and some Americans published a lot of their introspective research. “As a consequence,” Dr. Puente says, “This became the very early roots of psychology in the three big areas of Russia, Germany, and the United States—all focused in this particular area.”

Across all three groups, what Dr. Puente found in their respective textbooks was a deep dive into how it is that the brain and the mind come together. For example, he says, “In William James’s book, Principles of Psychology among others, you will see as early as Chapter 3 a discussion about the cerebral hemispheres. Right from the start, there’s the question of how the brain and the mind come together to produce things like consciousness.”

However, what fascinated Dr. Puente about this particular situation was how some of this work has been misconstrued over time. He exclaims, “We’ve sort of forgotten! One of the best examples comes from the work of Pavlov. Specifically, as a young undergraduate, I was taught that Pavlov was one of the great learning theorists of the history of psychology and that we owe a great deal of homage to him for his classical conditioning or, as we sometimes call it, Pavlonian conditioning.”

But here’s the kicker. “If you read his book, Conditional Reflexes, or essentially 25 years of studying the cerebral processes according to Pavlov, there is nothing in the index regarding classical or Pavlonian conditioning. Instead, it is all about reflex. So, what we’ve done is we’ve taken a tiny portion of his treatise out of context and, in doing so, we’ve bought the concept that Pavlov is a great learning theorist.”

However, according to one of Pavlov’s intellectual grandchildren, Professor Meerson this view is inaccurate. In fact, the Russian professor explained to Dr. Puente that Pavlov didn’t even allow the word learning to be used in his laboratory!

Dr. Puente chuckled. “Pavlov thought the word learning was inappropriate and that he was studying something much more complicated. So, it came as a surprise to me to understand that my original interpretation of Ivan Pavlov had been incorrect, so to speak, and that the truth was much more complex. Or, to put it in another way, if you really want to know, go to the primary source. In this case, I visited the laboratory, spent time there, and realized that my knowledge of Pavlov as a learning theorist was incomplete.”

How We Got Here

“One wonders why did we take this particular road?” Dr. Puente continues, “And, I think it’s very simple. The importance of making psychology a science was paramount to the early efforts of the development of our discipline. I think we’re all very happy that psychology is indeed now perceived as science—maybe not as strongly as we’d like, but certainly much stronger than it has been perceived historically.”

However, having made those efforts, Dr. Puente fears that we have unfortunately also forgotten about psychology’s origins. He says, “What we did early on in our history was to replace the concept of consciousness and mind with empiricism, and in doing so, we did injustice to how psychology should be considered. We sort of moved away from schools or theories of psychology, and we have become a methodology.”

Dr. Puente believes that methodology is critical. “No science can exist without a strong methodology, especially an empirical one.” But, in putting it on such a pedestal, he also believes that we have failed to remember that the reason we have the methodology is to ask questions of importance. He says, “Along the way, these questions of the mind, awareness, and consciousness have taken sidesteps, and we have not produced significant theories of psychology in maybe the last half century. We have gotten lots of meta-reviews of one thing or another. But, at this point, we still have a long way to go to produce a viable school of psychology that is considered to be as important as the psychanalytical, the behavioral, the humanistic, and to a degree, the cognitive.”

In response to this challenging perspective, Dr. Puente thinks that some people will say, “Well, we’ve got some good theories already. Why don’t we work with them?”

To this, Dr. Puente states, “Yes, no question about it. But, goodness gracious! It seems like half a century is long enough for us to produce some alternative to the existing rules that are present.”

Breaking the “Status Quo”

In order to change and grow new theories of psychological science, first one must ask an important question: What is science, anyway?

When Dr. Puente was a student, he asked this very question to none other than Dr. Roger Sperry, who many readers will recognize as the first psychologist to receive a Nobel Prize of Medicine.

Dr. Sperry responded without missing a beat, and Dr. Puente has remembered his answer ever since.

He said, “External verification.” Simply put. Nothing more.

With that straightforward definition in mind, Dr. Puente says, “The answer for how to break up the status quo of our perception of psychology boils down to how we go about external verification. So, if we can see it, we can measure it, we can test it, and we can manipulate it. But, we are not very good at measuring covert behavior. Things like feeling hate and so forth. How do we go about doing that? That, I think, is the challenge.”

Why Doesn’t Psychology Apply to Everyone?

Dr. Puente urges you to consider ways that you can begin to open up psychology such as implementing qualitative approaches. He asks, “Do we open up what we study to other areas such as the subjective or the unseen or certainly the lack of understanding? As the famous book Even the Rat Was White suggests, we have made psychology a very, very narrow science. But, when we talk about the application of this methodology, it has to be to all people and all questions.”

Years ago, Dr. Puente spent some time with the Maasai warriors in Kenya. There, he asked them if they knew about psychology, but they said that psychology did not apply to them.

Alarmed, he naturally asked, “Why is that?!”

And they replied, “Among other things, you measure things. But, here we don’t measure.”

This interested Dr. Puente. So, he said, “But, if you don’t measure, then how do you compare one thing with another?”

And this was their response: “There are different ways, but measurement and objective comparison really does not fit into the way that we live.”

According to Dr. Puente, we need to be thinking about how we can we expand the application of scientific methodology so that we can identify different sets of questions that will apply to larger groups of individuals. He says, “A psychological science that applies primarily to well-to-do White individuals from industrialized countries is not a science destined for longevity. We cannot have psychology grow only in North America or for that matter in Europe. Psychology has to be as important to us in the United States as it should be in Latin and South America where psychology shows, in my perspective, greater promise than the psychology that we have at the present time in the United States.”

Revising the Academic World

Dr. Puente believes that psychologists don’t value history as much as they should. He says, “Just as it’s important to emphasize methodology, we should also understand history.” But that is only the first step.

In addition, he feels that changes to the tenure system are also needed, which currently emphasizes publication. He explains, “In many ways, a publication adds one more rung to a ladder that we’re not entirely sure where it goes. Especially for the early stages of one’s career, we don’t give credit or sufficiently encourage people to bend the rules, search for new horizons, or take risks that might, in the long run, be very fruitful for our discipline.”

Look at individuals who have done big things in psychology, Dr. Puente encourages. For example, consider two individuals who influenced him greatly and who have done well for themselves and the field: Dr. Roger Sperry in the United States and Alexander Luria in Moscow. He says, “These two have different views of psychology. Luria, for example, suggested that you should apply psychology in the way that he called romantic science such as qualitative approaches. Sperry applied psychology through issues of social importance. As a rule, we don’t worry about either of those two things, and yet both of these people broke boundaries.” It is for this reason that Dr. Puente has come to realize that taking risks, encouraging risks, and even rewarding risks will allow the field to have greater robustness and generalizability to the entire world.

Another thing psychologists might want to do is to reconsider who becomes a psychologist. Why is it, Dr. Puente asks, that we have a selection process that excludes certain groups of people by design?

As an example, he tells this brief story: “We built a beautiful psychology building in UNC Wilmington where I’m located. Outside that building, a young man once asked me if he could become a student someday. But he was a guy doing the landscaping. He didn’t speak English, and he didn’t have any money. The likelihood of him ever walking into our doors was beyond slim to none. How is it that we can have a psychology that really encapsulates all of us, not just those of us who are privileged enough to have bright intellects and enough resources to be able to pursue a career that never seems to end?”

Connecting the Dots (Or Rather, Separating Them)

Dr. Puente’s call to action is as follows.

“We need to make sure that the theory of behaviorism and the methodology of psychology are understood as two separate enterprises. They’re mutually exclusive. And yet, although they are both independent, they are interrelated and they need to stay related.”

For the longest time, he says, the people in his own department who have taught experimental psychology have been experimental psychologists, and many of them happen to behaviorists. “But why not have a clinician? Why not have a social psychologist? Why not have someone who has more of a qualitative rather than a quantitative focus? I think that we need to expand the methodology of psychology in ways that we have not considered in order to address the subjective areas that we have done such a poor job with over the years.”

“Maybe, just maybe, separating behaviorism from empirical methodology, and pushing experimental methodology in new directions that we have not historically attended to, might bring a robustness of psychology.” For the record, Dr. Puente adds, he thinks psychologists have done a great job of measuring the overt, but not a great job measuring the covert. He urges, “We need to expand our horizons!”

To do this, people will have to be willing and encouraged to take more risks, and this includes young people too. Personally, when Dr. Puente was first starting out, he took very little risk in his home life, but he took unbelievably large risk in his professional life. In fact, he says, “I don’t think I would have bet on myself. No chance in hell was I going to make it. But I didn’t have anything to lose. So, I pursued avenues and horizons that were not available at that time.”

His advice to readers now is simple: “Stick true to your roots, and don’t be conservative in that part of your life. This is not a time where we want people to act by the ‘status quo.’ If there was ever a time in our history that we need new ways of thinking, this is it. So, I hope readers of this article will say, ‘This is my time, this is my turn.’ ”

COVID-19 has uprooted countless people’s daily routines and ways of thinking. And the death of George Floyd has opened up new discussions and perspectives about social injustice across the country. If these events show anything, it is that many global challenges exist, and that people can work together to expose and correct these problems if they are willing to try different things.

Dr. Puente wishes you success beyond your wildest dreams. “Dream outside the boundaries of what you have been taught!” he says. “Because we are certainly in need of it. We need new theories of psychology to carry us forward, we need new findings, we need new solutions, and I hope that one of you will be the one to deliver those.”

Antonio Puente, PhD, is a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), and was elected 2017 president of the American Psychological Association. Born in La Habana, Cuba, Puente received his undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Florida and his master’s degree and PhD from the University of Georgia. He has lectured in more than a dozen foreign countries and holds appointments as a visiting professor at the Universidad de Granada (Spain) and University of California Los Angeles. Puente founded and edited the journals Neuropsychology Review and Journal of Interprofessional Education & Practice as well as a book series (33 books) in neuropsychology. He is the author of 8 books, 79 book chapters, and 106 journal articles (in English, Spanish, and Russian). In addition to activities at UNCW, Puente maintains a private practice in clinical neuropsychology, ranging from clinical to forensic assessments.

Copyright 2020 (Vol. 25, Iss. 1) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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