The Case for Theoretical Psychology

Kurt Lewin, one of the founders of social psychology, once stated that “there is nothing as practical as a good theory”. Yet today, many decades later, psychology appears to have all but forgotten about this advice: there is not much theory, and what little there is, is rarely good.

In fact, psychology is a profoundly experimentalist discipline: even those who do appreciate theory appear to do so mostly because it can inform future experimental research.

In contrast, I believe that abstraction is itself a fundamental goal of science, and as such psychologists should aim to construct theories that explain as much of the world as possible with as little as possible: broad in appeal, parsimonious in execution.

To achieve this, theories need to be both abstract (i.e., removed from the operational level) and formal (i.e., stated in mathematical, logical, or comparable terms). Today, few psychologists have the incentives, willingness, or ability to create such theories.

In fact, current structures incentivise the construction of overly narrow theories which can then be molken for experimental publications. Terror management theory, for example, describes a tiny sliver of the human experience and only one of many meaning maintance mechanisms; but there would have been little incentive for its founders to more on to a more abstract theory.

This leads to ideological-theoretical fragmentation of psychology, in which each theory has its adherents, mostly clustered around the institution of its founders, but many theories are outdated or redundant – and nobody is cleaning up.

To counteract this situation, I believe we need theoretical psychology as an independent subdiscipline. Instead of having experimenters dabble as occasional theorists, theory construction should be a specialised skill to be learned early on, then pursued as a career.

Creating a new subdiscipline is not an undertaking any one actor should engage in. Rather, I believe universities, through introducing explicit training in theory construction, funding agencies, through supporting research and outreach projects aimed at creating best practices for theory construction as well as work towards ‘cleaning out’, unifying, and integrating theories, and publishers and editors, through demanding theoretical publications to be formalised and making space for formal theorising, can all support the development of better theory construction in psychology.

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