Friday, 23 February 2007

A question about developmental theory

Questions are beginning to bubble up - a good sign!

Developmental psychology really isn't my forte, so I'd like to toss the following questions out for your consideration.

In the reading I've been doing, I have often encountered the idea that there is no way of subjecting Freud's theory of personality development to scientific testing. I can see this. To perform the appropriate series of experiments it would be necessary to study a control population (eg. one where potty training is a relaxed, timely affair) with populations where the variable under examination is manipulated by the experimenter (eg. early, strict potty training and in a third population a complete failure to potty train). Any ethics committee worth its salt would object to the kind of study where the end result might be an individual suffering from a crippling neurosis.

But it seems to me that it might be possible to find a relatively homogenous culture where potty training is done early and then carry out a longitudinal study on these individuals, measuring their 'anality' at regular intervals over a twenty year period. This could be compared with a culture less concerned with early anal mastery. After all, even though longitudinal studies are an epic undertaking, they have been done. They're a useful tool in the developmental psychologist's goody bag.

Why aren't accusations of untestability levelled at other developmental theories? Is it because they don't claim to be making a strong causal link, whereas Freud did make such a claim?

Am I being hopelessly naive?


Anonymous said...

I'm afraid the proposed potty training study wouldn't work. The idea was to compare anality of personality in two societies: one where potty training is strict and one where it is relaxed. If 3-year-old children in the first society were more anal than those in the second society, would it be reasonable to claim that this is due to the potty training differences? No. The family environments of the two groups would be different, for example, so the difference might be due to differences in personailities of parents in the two societies, for example.

There's no substitute for experimental control, even in longitudinal studies. That means randomly assigning children to two groups: strict vs relaxed. The random assignment means that the two groups of children will be comparable and so will the two groups of parents. The only difference between the two groups is the type of training. So if personality differences emerge, it is reasonable to conclude that they were caused by the training.

This would be a perfectly good test of the theory. So the theory is not untestable. The problem is just a practical one: no one would allow such a study to happen.

There's an important difference between a theory being untestable in principle (this isn't so here) and a theory being testable in principle but untestable in practice (as in this example). Societal change won't affect the first but can effect the second.

Max Coltheart

Anonymous said...

I'd have to say the longitudinal study wouldn't work because of ethnocentrism. The results of a study in one ethnic community can't necessarily be compared to that of another ethnic community. Further, it is necessary to remember that the cornerstone of the scientific method is the elimination of all extraneous variables. In such a study there are far too many extraneous variables such as parenting style and what-not.

Also, as part of considering whether Freud's psychoanalysis can be scientific, I think you should consider Karl Popper's view of science (sorry, I don't have a reference handy). He argued that to be scientific, a theory must be falsifiable (that is, it must contain a specific statement that will accurately predict something - if the results go against the prediction, the theory is falsified). Psychoanalysis doesn't allow for this. Even if a person's behaviour goes against what is expected, psychoanalysis would provide a retrospective explanation for the behaviour.


David said...

How about a quasi-experimental study in which we investigate age of initial potty training in identical twins raised in different adopted families? Freud's theory would predict that the twin exposed to earlier potty training would show greater anality than the other twin later in life.

We could also elaborate the study to include ordinary siblings, thus giving us the opportunity to measure the size of any heritability in anal personality.

Lynn said...

Thanks for these ideas - keep 'em coming, folks!

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