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What Contributions Can Humanism Make to Experimental Psychology?

By Aaron T. Beck, MD

Experimental psychology has focused on discrete functions or mechanisms in individuals and has used discrete stimuli to evoke responses. Following the traditional paradigm in experimental psychology, my colleagues and I initially sought to explore the popular model in schizophrenia, specifically, the theory of deficits in different domains, such as attention, memory, cognitive processing, and recognition of emotions. At first, we were very much taken with the deficit model. In essence, this model is based on the assumption that the various components, such as attention, are not working properly and that the therapeutic aim has to be on shaping up these individual functions.

We then reasoned that a difficulty with this model is that its emphasis is more on the effects of a problem rather than the causes. That is, the various deficits are not in themselves the cause of poor performance, but contribute to the poor performance because of a broader upstream component.

Interestingly, by looking at the broader causes for poor performance, we noted that a particular aspect, namely the individuals not applying effort to the various tasks, accounted for the poor performance. In other words, the basic problem was not a deficit in attention, but rather in drawing on the attentional resources which were inhibited or attenuated by higher level functions. This higher level of functioning involves the total person; indeed a holistic model fits very well into the psychopathology. The various tests do not involve the individual’s interests, values, or investments. Therefore, the individuals do not make an effort to perform well on the tests. Indeed, the poor test performance is a direct outgrowth of negative attitudes which are related to the lack of engagement. These negative attitudes (e.g. “If I try something, I will only fail.”) are continually activated. However, when faced with a challenge that engages the individual as a whole, the individual can perform at a normal level. This is the important point. Examples include being able to teach chess to other individuals or winning at a game of charades.

Our findings noted above speak to the rationale for developing a holistic model which aligns closely with humanistic psychology, which traditionally deals with very broad features of human nature not readily observable or measurable: aspirations, values, engagement, investment, etc.