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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Will Psychology Ever Have a Grand, Unifying Theory?


In a critical review of Warren W. Tryon’s book Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory, James Schmidt argues that “Global theories, like the end of the rainbow, are mirages: Although they appear very real and inviting at a distance, as you draw closer they pixelate into nothing” (last paragraph).  

When I was a graduate student, I spent considerable time studying the work of Yale psychologist Clark Hull who attempted to develop an overarching theory that would explain learning, motivation, and all of human behavior.  Hull expressed his ideas in complicated mathematical formulas like this one:

sEr = V x D x K x J x sHr - sIr - Ir - sOr - sLr

Graduate students today may learn about Hull in a History and Systems class, but his work is not taken seriously as an overarching theory of human behavior.

Many of my professors at the University of Hawaii went on to develop elaborate theories that attempted to unify psychology; these luminaries include Raymond Cattell (Dreger, 1982), Art Staats (Spiegler, 1998), Roland Tharp (Salzinger, 2012), and Ian Evans (Arnkoff, 2014).  However, we still don’t have a generally accepted unifying theory of human behavior or even of psychotherapy. Will we ever?



Arnkoff, D. B. (2014). A great foundation that needs a castle. [Review of the book How and why people change: Foundations of psychological therapy, by I. M. Evans]. PsycCRITIQUES, 59(1).

Dreger, R. M. (1982). Another magnum opus. [Review of the book Personality and learning theory, Vol. 2: A systems theory of maturation and structured learning, by R. B. Cattell]. PsycCRITIQUES, 27(1), 9-11.

Salzinger, K. (2012). Nietzsche, Sequoia, the Reichstag, contingency management, and tango therapy. [Review of the book Delta theory and psychosocial systems: The practice of influence and change, by R. G. Tharp]. PsycCRITIQUES, 57(22).

Spiegler, M. D. (1998). Another behaviorism, or a new psychology? [Review of the book Behavior and personality: Psychological behaviorism, by A. W. Staats]. PsycCRITIQUES, 43(5), 358-359.

Read the Review
ReviewDeveloping a Unified Theory of Psychotherapy: Mission Accomplished or a Bridge Too Far?
      By Warren W. Tryon
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2014 Vol 59(52)


John E. LaMuth

A GUT for psych has already been described w/ respect to the new multi-level model of ethical psychology, as schematically depicted in the diagram immediately above. The distinctive listings of vitues and values defined within this system all appear linked on an intuitive level, suggesting a clear sense of underlying cohesiveness. The key factor behind this innovation arises as a direct consequence of the fledgling field of Communications Theory, borrowing the crucial concept of the metaperspective, a higher-order perspective upon the viewpoint held by another: schematically defined as "this is how I see you-seeing me." Indeed, there does not appear to be any conceptual barrier limiting the degree to which reflection can serve as a basis for itself, ultimately extending to a 10th-order level of meta-abstraction. The higher virtues, values, and ideals collectively build as subsets within this hierarchy of metaperspectives, each more abstract listing building upon that which it supersedes.

Take, for example, the cardinal virtues (prudence-justice-temperance-fortitude), the theological virtues (faith-hope-charity-decency), and the classical Greek values (beauty-truth-goodness-wisdom). Each of these traditional ethical groupings is further subdivided into a complex of four subordinate terms, allowing for precise point-for-point stacking within the hierarchy of metaperspectives. When additional groupings of ethical terms are further added to the mix: namely, the civil liberties (providence-liberty-civility-austerity), the humanistic values (peace-love-tranquility-equality), the mystical values (ecstasy-bliss-joy-harmony), amongst others; the complete ten level hierarchy of metaperspectives emerges in full detail, partially reproduced in the table immediately below:







This cohesive hierarchy of virtues, values, and ideals proves exceedingly comprehensive in scope, accounting for virtually every major ethical term celebrated within the Western ethical tradition. Indeed, it proves easy to gain a sense of the trend towards increasing abstraction when scanning each of the individually depicted lines from top to bottom. These traditional, four-part groupings line up perfectly within this hierarchy of metaperspectives, making it exceedingly unlikely that such a hierarchy could have arisen solely by chance. Indeed, this ethical hierarchy mirrors the specialization of personal, group, spiritual, humanitarian, and transcendental realms within human society in general: which when further specialized into both authority and follower roles, accounts for the complete ten-level hierarchy of ethical terms.
This is further outlined in the

A Diagnostic Classification of the Emotions: A Three-Digit Coding System for Affective Language.

This system of the virtues, however, can scarcely claim to be the total picture; for it further proves possible to base this ethical hierarchy entirely within an instinctual foundation: where the higher virtues and values are alternately seen as more advanced metaperspectives on the more basic complement of instinctual states (namely, rewards, leniency, appetite, aversion). According to this basic format, rewards properly follow appetitive types of behaviors, whereas leniency is similarly associated with aversive behaviors. When further expanded within the meta-perspectival format, the remaining higher groupings of virtues and values jump neatly into focus. Indeed, the characteristic four-part pattern of ethical terms is fully explainable in terms of such a behavioral tie-in with conditioning theory: in addition to the dual specialization of authority and follower roles across the board.
John E. LaMuth
Visiting Professor in Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution
Division of Biomedical Sciences
American University of Sovereign Nations
Scottsdale, Arizona USA

Kevin Arnold

Theories of any scientific discipline require an articulation of the philosophy of science one adopts to ground both the theory and the science that tests and refines it. One articulation of such issues can be found in the root metaphor concepts from Pepper (1942). In my own philosophy of science, which is grounded in the functional contextualist school, the notion of a grand, unifying theory flies in the face of contextual variability. More so, the notion that one can establish a core, unified theory based on the results of studies has always, to me, suggested that one must accept that all has been known so why continue to perform studies? For every theory there are exceptions discovered, data that represent outliers. For every outlier, there must be an explanation that begs to understand the context of that outlier and determine if the context of other data are the same or different from that outlier. And, of course, we haven't even scratched the surface of searching our own constructive processes (and their historical and present contexts) to determine what things that those constructive processes ignored or modified--thus altering our understanding of the data.....and thus distorting the theories upon which our constructions act.

John E. LaMuth

Those who insist IT (GUT) cannot be done should get out of the way of those of us who are doing IT ...

JLM ^_^

Kevin Arnold

Not to fan the flames (flaming perhaps), but I would not think JLM's comment to be a serious, scientific response--at least to my post. But it does prove my point that if you think you are "doing IT," then you likely forget to consider you might be mistakenly doing IT...that you've missed something because of your own root metaphors and constructions of what IT is. I would encourage folks to remember that Newton's theory was a grand theory; considered the end all-be all for a very long time....until Einstein came along. If one wishes to discard Kuhn's points in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I would argue that the disagreement with Kuhn or Pepper should address how psychology can ground itself in scientific realism the way critics of Kuhn did (or at least tried to do). Saying folks should get out of the way is not really a cogent argument in favor of the feasibility of (or even hypothetical existence of) a unifying theory.

John E. LaMuth

My approach is qualitative and theoretical - and there is also an appeal to elegance.

I would further be remiss if I did not mention
my introduction of the first Periodic Table for the Human Forebrain; which enjoys similar advantages to the dramatic influence that the Periodic Table of the Elements has enjoyed with respect to Chemistry and Physics. This respective neural counterpart imparts a crucial sense of systematic order and purpose to the fragmented state of affairs currently prevailing within the neurosciences. The cerebral cortex represents the most logical initiation point for such an innovation, celebrated as the crowning culmination of human forebrain evolution. This radical expansion of the neocortex is observed to occur in a discrete pattern suggestively termed cortical growth rings. The general pattern of neural evolution specifies that older structures are periodically modified to create newer functional areas, with the precursor circuitry also preserved, all persisting side by side. The stepwise repetition of these processes over the course of mammalian evolution ultimately accounts for the six sequential age levels of cortical evolution, schematically depicted. The diagram shown to the left depicts the entire surface of the cortex folded flat so that the medial and sub-temporal surfaces are fully exposed.
The two fundamental variables defining forebrain evolution are the parameters of phylogenetic age and input specificity. Sanides (1972) proposed that the human cortex evolved as a sequence of five concentric growth rings comprising a medio-lateral hemisphere gradient. Furthermore, the interoceptive, exteroceptive and proprioceptive input categories each project to their own four-part complex of cortical bands that (when taken collectively) define an antero-posterior hemisphere gradient. The para-coronal variable of phylogenetic age is plotted as the ordinate and the para-sagittal parameter of input specificity charted as the abscissa in a Cartesian coordinate system. Each cortical area described by Broadman and von Economo corresponds to schematically unique age/input parameter coordinates. Furthermore, each affiliated thalamic nucleus of specific age and input coordinates projects principally to that cortical area comprising identical pair-coordinate values, implying that the evolution of both the dorsal thalamus and the cortex are similarly defined in terms of the specifics for the dual parameter grid.

I have been able to unify/synthesize the P-Table with the GUT for psych (w/ respect to the new multi-level model of ethical psychology), thru a common pivot point in behavioral reflexes/conditioning, as outlined at

I can supply more upon request

John E. LaMuth

John E. LaMuth

Even an incomplete GUT for psych is a step in the right direction in light of the current lack of any comparable serious contenders. I claim that mine may only be the first iteration(in an appeal to Ockam's Razor)but not necessarily the FINAL word (if that is even possible)

John E. LaMuth

My approach is qualitative and theoretical - and there is also an appeal to elegance and to Pattern Matching for Construct Validity - which Kuhn does not address...

according to

The Theory of Pattern Matching

A pattern is any arrangement of objects or entities. The term "arrangement" is used here to indicate that a pattern is by definition non-random and at least potentially describable. All theories imply some pattern, but theories and patterns are not the same thing. In general, a theory postulates structural relationships between key constructs. The theory can be used as the basis for generating patterns of predictions. For instance, E=MC2 can be considered a theoretical formulation. A pattern of expectations can be developed from this formula by generating predicted values for one of these variables given fixed values of the others. Not all theories are stated in mathematical form, especially in applied social research, but all theories provide information that enables the generation of patterns of predictions.

Pattern matching always involves an attempt to link two patterns where one is a theoretical pattern and the other is an observed or operational one. The top part of the figure shows the realm of theory. The theory might originate from a formal tradition of theorizing, might be the ideas or "hunches" of the investigator, or might arise from some combination of these. The conceptualization task involves the translation of these ideas into a specifiable theoretical pattern indicated by the top shape in the figure. The bottom part of the figure indicates the realm of observation. This is broadly meant to include direct observation in the form of impressions, field notes, and the like, as well as more formal objective measures. The collection or organization of relevant operationalizations (i.e., relevant to the theoretical pattern) is termed the observational pattern and is indicated by the lower shape in the figure. The inferential task involves the attempt to relate, link or match these two patterns as indicated by the double arrow in the center of the figure. To the extent that the patterns match, one can conclude that the theory and any other theories which might predict the same observed pattern receive support.

Carl E. Vincent

An overarching theory of behavior must take into account psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology (for the functionality of psychological process from the point of view of the genetic pool) as well as mathematics.

Hull's equations are very seductive (they surely were for me as an undergraduate!) but they are discarnate abstractions. A grand unifying theory will require either an unusually gifted polymath or a dream team/network of teams. Hopefully the result will be a mix of the extremely falsifiable with the eventually falsifiable--such as the idea of the dynamic unconscious was, which now is a falsifiable reality (to a point and not without reservations).

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College of Medicine,
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