Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Can Psychology’s Two Tribes Reconcile Their Differences?

In some ways, researchers and therapists are like warring clans.

Key points

  • Research psychologists and clinicians often disagree with each other.
  • Gregory Kimble argued that psychology has two clans: tough-minded scientists and tender-minded humanists.
  • Students of psychology often initially lean in one direction or the other and choose different career paths.

Most Psychology Today readers know there are two kinds of psychologists—researchers who do scientific studies of behavior and mental processes, and clinicians who diagnose and treat mental and behavioral disorders.

In the United States and elsewhere, research psychologists and clinicians often disagree with each other. They tend to disagree about features of the human psyche. (Is there an unconscious like Freud described?) They may disagree about the value of certain psychological tests. (Is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator a reliable and valid measure?) They may also disagree about the authenticity of certain psychological disorders. (Do some individuals have multiple personalities?)

This conflict between researchers and mental health providers boiled over in the 1990s with the heated debate over the validity of recovered memories of childhood abuse. Were the memories accurate recollections of real events or something else? Many therapists believed they were real, that memories of traumatic events are often repressed, and that no one would create a false memory of abuse. Most research psychologists were skeptical. They believed recovered memories were created by misguided therapists working with suggestible clients eager to find an explanation for their psychological distress.

When research psychologists and clinicians met to talk about the authenticity of recovered memories—and such meetings were rare—the researchers said, “Look at what the science tells us about how memory works. There is no evidence for repression.” The therapists said, “Listen to what our clients are telling us and the intensity of their emotions. We have an obligation to believe our clients.”

Two Psychologies, Different Worlds

In some ways, research psychologists and clinicians live in different worlds. Researchers live in a world of laboratories, research grants, statistics, and journal articles. They live in the world of science, a world that values ideas more than people. Clinicians live in a world of clients, counseling sessions, psychiatric medications, and training workshops. They live in the world of practice, a world that values people more than ideas.

People who live in different worlds often see things in different ways. The late Gregory Kimble, a professor at Duke University, argued that the discipline we call psychology consists of two tribes or clans (Kimble, 1984).

Tough-minded scientists value hypothesis testing and believe human behavior follows certain laws. They trust numbers more than feelings. They believe observation is the basic source of knowledge and value laboratory experiments over case histories.

Tender-minded humanists value the understanding of individual persons and believe in free will. They trust feelings more than numbers. They believe intuition is a legitimate source of knowledge and value case histories over laboratory experiments.

Kimble’s descriptions map closely to the distinction between research psychologists and clinicians. The fit is not perfect, of course, but the two groups clearly have different orientations and value systems.

In the beginning, researchers and clinicians in the U.S. belonged to the same professional organization, the American Psychological Association. The APA was founded in 1892 by a small group of academic psychologists. Over the years, clinicians came to outnumber researchers and, as a result, numerically dominated APA’s governing committees. Many researchers became dissatisfied with APA’s direction so, in 1988, they broke away from APA and formed a new organization, the American Psychological Society (now called the Association for Psychological Science).

The 19th-Century European Roots of the Two Psychologies

Both psychologies were born in Western Europe in the 19th century, but their origin stories are actually very different. Psychological science was conceived largely in the physiology laboratories of German universities, while clinical psychology was conceived largely in the psychiatric hospitals and consulting rooms of Paris and Vienna.

The list of German scientists who collectively established the science of psychology is impressive, especially for history buffs:

  • Ernst Weber devised the concept of JND, the “just-noticeable difference” or smallest perceivable difference between two weights, for example.
  • Hermann von Helmholtz invented instruments used by psychologists in their laboratories. He believed all natural phenomena can be accounted for by the principles of physics and chemistry.
  • Gustav Fechner invented psychophysics, the scientific study of the quantitative relationship that exists between a physical stimulus and a psychological sensation.
  • At the University of Leipzig, Wilhelm Wundt established the first psychological laboratory, founded the first journal devoted to psychological research reports, and trained the first cohort of Ph.D. psychologists, many of whom established their own laboratories.
  • Hermann Ebbinghaus investigated learning and memory, the so-called higher mental processes. He invented nonsense syllables and famously discovered the forgetting curve.

The list of Austrian and French physicians who laid the foundation for clinical psychology is equally impressive.

  • Franz Anton Mesmer promoted animal magnetism, a precursor to hypnosis that was used to treat a wide variety of psychological and physical ailments.
  • Philippe Pinel, the superintendent of two asylums in Paris (Bicêtre and La Salpêtrière), questioned a solely organic explanation of mental illness.
  • Jean-Martin Charcot, a renowned neurologist at La Salpêtrière, used hypnosis to eliminate (temporarily) the bizarre symptoms of hysteria.
  • Sigmund Freud learned hypnosis from Charcot but preferred free association as his primary clinical method. He created psychoanalysis, which served as the prototype for many early psychotherapies.

Prospects for a Cultural Rapprochement

Remember Kimble’s tough-minded scientists and tender-minded humanists? What are the prospects for establishing communication and acceptance between psychology’s two tribal cultures? Kimble wrote, “Processes of self-selection into appropriate groups of psychologists and subsequent value enhancement are apparently responsible for the establishment of the two cultures. Prospects for achieving epistemological harmony between them are not bright.”

In plain English, students of psychology initially lean in one direction or the other—science or helping—and choose different career paths—researcher or therapist. These professions require different kinds of training. What the students learn in graduate school, explicitly and implicitly, exacerbates the differences between the two groups. As a result, cross-cultural communication is infrequent and strained. Each clan feels comfortable in its own place. Thus, the house remains divided, with two psychologies instead of one.


Kimble, G. A. (1984). Psychology’s two cultures. American Psychologist, 39(8), 833–839.

More from Lawrence T. White Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today