[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, February 2013]

In the 1950s, the academic discipline of psychology was struggling still to establish itself as a serious science.  It therefore held to the scientific goals of describing,understanding and predicting behavior.  However, psychologist George Kelly cleverly highlighted a disconnect between the goals of the scientist and the human behavior the scientist studied.  The theories of the day proposed that behavior either came from inherited “instincts” or from environmental rewards and punishments.  In grossly simplified terms, we’re either complex apes or knee-jerk automatons.

Okay, so where does the scientist fit with these models?

Kelly demonstrated the absurdity of the scientist, who says, “I am motivated to understand behavior, but the people I study are motivated by instincts and rewards.”  Given this scenario, we must either conclude that the scientist, exempt from the motives of human beings,is either not human at all, or that the theories need to be reworked a bit.  Kelly began with the assumption that the motives of science represent an advance in the human thinking, based as it is on skepticism and the need for unbiased evidence.  Ergo, it is a feature of the entire species, not a select few.  Scientists are human, and motivated by need for understanding behavior, and thus ALL humans are scientists of a sort.  Untrained and ranging in ability, but essentially, all of one species.

This isn’t such an alien view, is it?  Think about top television shows of the past twenty or thirty years.  Remember all those detective shows, murder mysteries, crime dramas and forensic science episodes?  What do venerable characters like Quincy in the 1970s, Angela Lansbury of 1980s “Murder She Wrote” and Horatio Cane and company in the 2000’s CSI franchise have in common?  All are fictionalized versions of intellects who make observations, formulate a theory and then gather evidence to support or refute their theory.  The truth out of the world around them.  The very endurance of these characters and their long-running programs suggests that their audiences are fascinated by what they do and why they do it.

From the principle of the “person-as-scientist,” Kelly reasoned that we all want to understand and control our environments.  When our methods for doing that are flawed methods, or we refuse to allow our thinking to be influenced by new evidence, the world doesn’t behave the way we predict and we perceive ourselves as out of control of our lives, and experience anxiety, guilt and hostility.  Kelly, and later the cognitive therapists influenced by his work, sought to make people’s thinking more “permeable” to observable and rational evidence.

We live today in an age of resistance to evidence, don’t we?  From intractable political ideologies that deadlock our government, to screaming matches on network news and television talk shows, rigidity and resistance to new information come marketed as “sticking to one’s guns,” while “no compromise” is touted as a virtue.  Is it not strange that we tolerate such behavior from real authority figures, but not from fictional characters?  Psychologists see this as a mass acceptance of a form of mental illness, one that can only be fixed by an appeal to observations of the world, not to how we’ve predetermined the way we’d rather see it.

    But all is not lost.  Whatever current circumstances, we all remain amateur scientists. That means we have the ability to turn ourselves back to a rational and flexible path.  We can negotiate with reality, broaden our perspectives and find a set of facts we can all agree upon.  Once we find the cold, hard facts, we’re better positioned to be warm, soft human beings to each another.