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Two Psychologies: Objective Science and Subjective Folk

Differentiating objective science psychology from subjective folk psychology.

Key points

  • Subjective Folk Psychology (SFP) and Objective Science Psychology (OSP) differ from one another in several key ways.
  • Objective Science Psychology is much newer and involves framing the field via modern science.
  • The Unified Theory provides new ways to frame OSP that more effectively define it and bridge it with SFP.
  • According to the Unified Theory, SFP can be translated into dynamics of investment, influence, and justification.

The field of psychology is vast, and there are many ways to carve it up. For example, one possible difference is between animal and human psychology. Another division is between science and practice. Lately, I have been emphasizing the difference between “Objective Scientific Psychology” (OSP) and “Subjective Folk Psychology” (SFP). After clarifying the difference, this blog briefly explores both via the lens of the Unified Theory of Knowledge (UTOK).

SFP is something you are already intimately familiar with. It is your perspective on being in the world. This can be framed both in terms of your “basic awareness” and your “self." As this blog describes it, basic awareness refers to your raw experience of being in the world, without attaching thought or meaning. In contrast, your "self" refers to all your beliefs and desires and the meanings you attach to things in the world, and what you are trying to do with your life or activities. When you ask others what they believe or what they feel, you are checking in on their SFP. Aligning with this, when groups of people get together and share in a group activity, we can call this Inter-Subjective Folk Psychology or ISFP.

OSP is different. It is a field of study that is framed by an institutional identity. The institution of OSP consists of things like the American Psychological Association and its many different divisions, psychology majors granted by universities, and state licensing boards that confer licenses to practice. Whereas SFP has been around as long as folks have been able to be aware of their subjective experience of being and reflect on it with others, OSP has only been around for about 200 years. It was in the middle of the 19th century that it was genuinely picking up steam, and its official birthdate is 1879. The reason is that it is defined by the modern empirical natural science enterprise that arose during the Enlightenment. Indeed, OSP is defined by modern science, in that it obtains its identity by applying the methods and epistemology of science to the domain of behavior and mental processes.

There are, of course, many different schools of thought and ways to approach OSP. Indeed, I am teaching a class today that explores Gregory Kimble’s classic article, Psychology’s Two Cultures. Drawing from C. P. Snow’s work on the “two cultures" of the academy, Kimble empirically documents how “psychology” (i.e., the OSP version) can be argued to be split into two frames, one that leans more toward the natural sciences and the other more toward a humanistic sensibility. Kimble's article even raises the point that there is so much diversity that the field should be called "the psychological studies" rather than the science of psychology.

As readers of this blog know, I argue that mainstream OSP is essentially broken. The reason is that it commits to the methods and epistemology of science, but fails to effectively define the ontology of the mental (see here for a detailed argument). This dooms it to what is called “the sandcastle problem.” The problem is that the many programs of research are grounded in different definitional systems amounts to something akin to building sandcastles on the beach. Although the specific programs of research and the findings they produce are interesting (as are elaborate sandcastles), they are constructed out of an ephemeral ground of understanding. As such, like castles in the sand, each new tide of definitions will sweep the old findings out and clear the field for a new batch of researchers to build new programs of research in ways that are not cumulatively connected to research in the past.

The Unified Theory adopts a new approach to OSP. It starts with the Tree of Knowledge System and Periodic Table of Behavior, which provide "descriptive metaphysical systems" for scientific behavioral processes writ large. Via dividing the natural world up into the planes of existence of Matter, Life, Mind, and Culture, these frames afford us an opportunity to define OSP's proper subject matter. Specifically, OSP corresponds to both animal-mental behavioral patterns at the dimension of Mind and human mental behavioral patterns at the dimension of Culture. These necessary moves allow us to get the ontology of mental behavior correct.

The Unified Theory then moves to clarify the domain of mental processes (see here). The Map of Mind1,2,3 explicates the metaphysics of mental processes by specifying five different domains of human mental behavior. Mind1b is the domain of overt activity often errantly called “behavior,” Mind1a is the domain of neurocognition, Mind2 is the domain of subjective conscious experience, Mind3a is private inner speech, and Mind3b is public verbal behavior.

With the different domains of the mental specified via a clear metaphysical ontological picture, the Unified Theory then gives three metatheoretical frameworks that function both as explanatory systems and as frames that can assimilate and integrate major empirical findings and schools of thought. Behavioral Investment Theory assimilates and integrates the broad domains of the cognitive, behavioral, neuro, and ethological sciences. The Influence Matrix integrates work on human social motivations, emotions, and interactions. Justification Systems Theory frames how human primates became persons and the emergence of the Culture dimension of existence.

How does this relate to SFP? The cool thing is that UTOK provides a framework that affords much connection to SFP. For example, consider that SFP is normally framed in terms of “belief-desire-action” theory. That is, people assume actions are functionally tied to beliefs and desires. UTOK shifts the frame only slightly here. First, it defines the domain as human mental behavior. Then it frames human mental behavior dynamically in terms of justifications, investments, and influence processes. This is a “JII Dynamic” analysis (i.e., the dynamics of justification, investment, and influence).

To apply this, when you see an animal or person engaged in a functional activity, consider it a kind of “behavioral investment.” That is, if you ask yourself, “What is this animal doing?” you can almost always frame the answer in terms of work expenditure and effort toward some effect. Behavioral Investment Theory gives six principles that you can apply in framing the answer from a scientific perspective [i.e., 1) energy economics; 2) evolution; 3) behavioral genetics; 4) neuro-computational control; 5) learning; 6) developmental life history]. If you see two people engaged in an exchange, you can ask questions of influence. Specifically, who is trying to influence whom, and how? And, according to the Influence Matrix, you can track the processes in terms of relational value, power, love, and freedom. Finally, one can frame the verbal “question-answer” exchanges between people in terms of interfacing via propositional networks that function as justification systems that are structured to legitimize what is and ought to be. (For more details on connecting SFP with UTOK’s OSP, see this blog on translating belief-desire folk psychology into JII Dynamics, and see this blog that analyzes a specific scene from the excellent film Ordinary People based on the Influence Matrix and Justification System metatheoretical frameworks.)

The take-home point is the SFP is quite different from OSP. Mainstream OSP psychology is broken, in my view, because it overcommits to an empirical methodology devoid of a metaphysically specifiable ontology, leading to the sandcastle problem and a proliferation of fragmented findings that fail to produce cumulative knowledge. In contrast, Unified Theory operates from clear ontology of the mental and affords explanatory metatheoretical frameworks that can both coherently organize OSP and effectively bridge with SFP.