Differential psychology and I

Differential psychology, as I know it, lays at a funny middle ground between basic and applied psychology. It has little to do with the former, for it hardly provides any insight about the nature of human cognition; and it is not closely related to the latter either, since it rarely leads to conclusions that help build tools to enhance people’s well-being. Paradoxically, it pertains matters that are relevant — nay, essential — to mankind, such as the ability of individuals to overcome intellectual difficulties.

With respect to the study of intelligence, most differential psychologists dream of finding physical — either physiological or environmental — causes for the development of high or low cognitive abilities. This, they claim, will allow them to implement some kind of genetic algorithm that will multiply the number of ‘intelligent’ individuals in each generation of our species, thus ensuring better chances of survival. Once you forget that each of those individuals is an equally valid human being with their own desires and beliefs, it sounds both reasonable and desirable. Not taking into consideration that we are reflecting on matters that can have a large impact on people’s lives is not a petty issue, but it is not the subject of the current rambling.

All of the differential psychologists I’ve met (which are very few, I must say) meet the criteria for being classified within the category of physiological reductionists. That is, they assert that every mental postulate can be translated into a physiological law. Thus, brain functioning and structure — or alternatively, people’s genetic composition — could successfully explain cognitive phenomena without the need to invoke abstract (mental) constructs. I get why this seems attractive. Modifying people’s brains or genetic blueprints and making them smarter seems like a sci-fi dream come true. That much power gives me goosebumps — probably because of both excitement and fear. The reality is: this is infeasible.

One of the key problems these studies face is purely methodological: they can’t run experiments on their subjects. This means that they will never find out whether some factor causes a given effect, so they will never get to explain anything related to human thinking. All they can get a grip on are correlational studies. And guess what? You cannot possibly draw causal conclusions from correlational studies.

‘But we can’t let research methods and statistical techniques get in the way of our dreams!’

Yeah, I get it, it is painfully unfair, but that’s the aim of logic and mathematics: getting in the way of science.

Physiological reductionism also carries serious issues inherent to its very definition (you’ll have to bear with me here because I’m in no sense of the word close to being a qualified expert on this). Individual differences with respect to brain functioning and structure are crazy huge — as mentioned by every psychobiologist and neuroscientist that has taught me anything about the brain. This means that the same mental process can be implemented in significantly different structures. Experience (not to mention brain damage) shapes all of our brains differently, and yet we can perform the very same cognitive tasks. I am sure why you can see this is a problem: you can study changes in the brain without observing any changes in cognitive functioning. It is clear that brain changes do not necessarily imply mental changes, so it seems very fucking impossible to develop sensible laws around such fuzzy observations.

However, imagine that somebody could identify very specific aspects of the brain that are enhancing some computational speed or whatever. What's the cause for these key features? Is it genetics that's shaping brain structure? Or maybe environmental factors? Maybe none? The good news is: you probably won't ever feel the need to dwell on these matters because the first step (i.e., conducting enough experiments on people) is already unobtainable.

Now, thanks to correlational studies and pretty fuzzy brain measures, all you have left is a couple of seemingly void statistical observations such as Alpha waves are mildly correlated to IQ scores (r = 0.23, p < 0.05)’. Have fun coming up with useful scientific conclusions out of those results, because they mean nothing. Listening to somebody pile up such phrases without being able to communicate what the hell they could possibly mean is slightly amusing, I have to admit. That’s not because the speaker is in any way dumb, but because those expressions literally mean nothing. To the speaker, to me, to anybody. It is indeed nuts to expect something other than emptiness to come up from questions that are already void and inherently unfathomable. At the end, their startling revelations always take the same form:

'We're all unique! We can't treat everybody the same because we're u n i q u e.'

If differential psychologists really wanted to find out what is it that makes each of us unique — beyond the whole obvious and imprecise ‘genetics plus experience’ discourse, that is — , physiological reductionism is definitely not the way to go.

It is sad that not only do these people spend so many resources on studies that will not lead anywhere, but they also seem blind with respect to many of the problems they are currently facing. What if they invested time and money in designing and implementing educational programs for people that have a very hard time learning stuff instead?

Hold on, that’s what educational psychology is for, isn’t it?