LETTER TO THE EDITOR: To Be or Not to Be: The "Ghosts" of Psychological Science

Article excerpt

Dear Editor,

In a previous letter to your Journal, we (OG) have already discussed the issue of the "ghost concepts of cognitive science" but now we would like to particularize it on a specific case, which was recently published in an influential journal.

Thus, recently, Gray, Gray, & Wegner (2007) have published an interesting paper in "Science" (315) related to the "dimensions of mind perception". Basically, their aim was to study the "...structure of mind perception..." (p. 619). Their findings are interpreted to reveal two components of mind perception, namely "agency" and "experience". The study was correctly conducted, involving a very clever design. Such a study is useful if we resist the temptation of reification (i.e., transforming a mental model into a psychological reality) of its constructs (e.g., "mind perception", "mind agency"). However, the authors seem to not resist the temptation of reification, talking about "mind structure", "mind agency" rather than seeing these like pure psychological constructs etc.

Indeed, in a psychological/cognitive system, a set of inputs is associated with a set of outputs by several psychological models/constructs (some of them even described mathematically). These psychological constructs have several functions: (1) explain why a certain input is associated with a certain output; (2) predict the output given a certain input; (3) describe the input-output relations; and (4) organize and summarize various inputoutput relations. But are they any more "real" than a mathematical model [i.e., F(x)=2x], such as other scientific constructs like "gene" or "mass" are? Is it correct to understand these constructs as psychological realities (i.e., "mind perception"). For example, nobody would argue that F(x)=2x is a fundamental component of physical reality simply because it connects some mathematically quantified physical inputs and outputs. Why then shall we argue that a psychological construct is a part of a psychological reality simply because it connects some psychological inputs and outputs?

We must be aware that some psychological constructs are just functional models with no reality to them; they are similar to F(x)=2x. However, other psychological constructs might be not only functional models but also part of reality. Having said that, what is the difference - the boundary - between these two types of constructs? The main distinction is that for a psychological construct to be a part of reality, we need a clear-cut definition of the construct and a qualitative description of the psychological phenomenon, which should be fully grasped by the human brain (i.e., have an identified biological/brain counterpart; a description at the implementational level); thus, not only does it model various reality based input-output relations, but it also has a clear biological counterpart. The understanding of this distinction is fundamental for psychology and its relation with neurosciences; for example, a difficulty lies in separating the biological counterpart of an input and output from that of the psychological construct connecting/modeling them.

Confusing models/constructs of reality with reality is a serious error in science. Does this make the construct (e.g., "mind agency") not described at the implementational level (i.e., brain level) less important for psychology than those with a clear biological counterpart (e.g., "cognitive inhibition" based on the prefrontal lobe)? …