What's Behind the Research? Discovering Hidden Assumptions in the Behavioral Sciences


Brent D. Slife & Richard N. Williams

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  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Dedication

    To Joseph F. Rychlak, our mentor


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    Being involved on both the applied and theoretical ends of the behavioral sciences (as psychologists), we have been encouraged over the past decade by an increasing level of theoretical sophistication. This book is an attempt to extend this theoretical sophistication to the level of students. Theoretical work in the behavioral sciences has taken place at the professional level almost exclusively, making the work nearly inaccessible to most undergraduate and many graduate students. However, we believe these students can benefit greatly from an increased understanding of this theoretical work, particularly in developing their critical abilities. As Stephen Brookfield (1987) showed in Developing Critical Thinkers, two activities are necessary for critical thinking to occur:

    • Identifying and challenging the assumptions underlying a person's beliefs and actions
    • Conceiving and exploring alternatives to current ways of thinking and living

    The purpose of this book is to facilitate these activities in the behavioral sciences. We attempt to address the main assumptions on which theories in the behavioral sciences are based as well as provide alternatives to these assumptions, some of them little known. In increasing accessibility however, we may have oversimplified some complex issues. Where possible, we have provided footnotes and references to acknowledge the oversimplification and direct readers toward a more complete analysis.


    We want to acknowledge our debt to a host of individuals who assisted in the writing of this book. We begin with our God, whom we believe sustains us. We also wish to recognize our long-suffering wives, Karen and Camille, whose encouragement and help have been invaluable. Camille, particularly, was a wise and thorough editor of an earlier draft of this book. Our students are, in some sense, the main impetus for the book. We have wanted to provide them with a treatment of the issues contained herein that is readable and yet challenging. Still, we would single out four students: Amy Fisher, Kris Kristensen, and Stephen Yanchar for their conscientious work on the Glossary; and Holly Young for her diligence in putting the manuscript together. Our colleague Emily Reynolds also provided timely and insightful assistance in preparing the final draft.

    We are forever grateful to five conscientious reviewers: Constance Fischer of Duquesne University, Jeffrey Lindstrom of Ohio University, Allan Wicker of Claremont Graduate School, Thomas Schwandt of Indiana University, and Jean Maria Arrigo of Claremont Graduate School. In all our years in academia, we have never seen a more helpful set of reviews. The second author wishes to acknowledge the Psychology Department at Georgetown University for help and support during a semester's visiting professorship. The department provided resources and collegial discourse at a critical juncture. Finally, we want to express our gratitude to Brigham Young University for granting us the time to complete this book.

    Brent D. Slife
    Richard N. Williams
  • Glossary


    A priori factors. As expressed by Immanuel Kant, those mental factors that are prior to experience.

    Abstraction. The process by which, in making description, some aspects of a thing are noted and others are omitted. The term is also used to refer to a very general principle, a nonphysical entity

    Affirming the consequent. The logical fallacy that occurs when instead of demonstrating that the antecedent (i.e., the if portion of the if-then statement) of the argument is true and concluding that the consequence (i.e., the then portion of the if-then statement) follows, we claim that because the consequent is true, the antecedent must be true as well.

    AUTHORS’ NOTE: This glossary will not satisfy many readers because it is not precise. Our attempt is to provide a quick reference to important terms used in the book that will help readers see the main idea or issue under discussion. Scholars with backgrounds in theory and philosophy will likely find the definitions mundane. We have decided to accept the consequences of these informal definitions in the interest of helping readers with less formal training and more general interests. We hope the body of the text and the chapter notes will partially respond to the interests of the more critical reader.

    Antecedence. One of David Hume's necessary conditions for establishing causality (the others are contiguity, constant conjunction, and necessary conjunction), requiring that the cause must precede the effect for a causal relation to be inferred.

    Assumption. The historical roots of a theory and the ideas about the world necessary for the theory to be true.

    Autonomous. The state or condition in which action occurs in a self-governing way, free from external determining factors.

    Axiom. A statement held as a truth without being derived from another more fundamental truth.


    Behavioral sciences. Those scientific disciplines engaged in the study and explanation of a broad range of human behaviors.


    Classical conditioning. The process by which an organism learns to respond to a new stimulus because of its being associated with another stimulus that previously produced the response.

    Conditioning. A process by which organisms come to behave in certain ways under certain circumstances. It is a way of talking about learning without making reference to the mind or the will or mental processes.

    Constant conjunction. One of David Hume's necessary conditions for establishing causality (the others are antecedence, contiguity, and necessary conjunction), requiring that two events must always be associated with one another for a causal relation to be inferred. That is, if A causes B, then every time A occurs, B occurs.

    Contiguity. One of David Hume's necessary conditions for establishing causality (the others are antecedence, constant conjunction, and necessary conjunction), requiring that events must be in contact with each other in space or time for a causal relation to be inferred.

    Continuum. A series of events, phenomena, and so on, in which no discernible separations among parts can be detected.

    Control. The process of holding all circumstances or aspects of an environment constant, so that the phenomenon of interest can be observed without influence from extraneous sources.

    Convention. Belief, assumption, and so on that is upheld through tradition and consensual agreement.

    Correlational design. A research design that theoretically does not allow the scientist to establish causal relations among variables, because of the absence of careful control of possibly influential variables.

    Covering law. A law that explains a wide range of phenomena over a wide range of conditions.

    Crucial test. An experiment in which all possible variables or limiting conditions have been controlled or taken into account, so that there is no other possible explanation for the failure of the experiment except the falsity of the hypothesis.


    Deism. A theological position in which the universe is viewed as a machine, running in an order preestablished by God.

    Deity teleology. An account in which it is held that God or Deity acts for the sake of intended goals, purposes, and so on, and that this purposive action is manifest in the events of the world.

    Dependent variable. The variable we observe and in which we expect to see the effect of the treatment or independent variable.

    Descartes, René. A 17th-century philosopher considered to be the founder of modern rationalism.

    Determinant. A cause.

    Dualism. An account in which the phenomenon to be explained is considered in terms of two fundamental aspects (e.g., the human is composed of both mind and body).


    Eclecticism. A theoretical stance in which it is claimed that there is not one true theory governing human behavior—that all theories may be true, or at least, have some truth in them.

    Efficient causation. Aristotle's notion of cause, which is usually interpreted as requiring movement, or the sequence of events, over time. Whether this is what Aristotle intended is a matter of some debate.

    Empiricism. An epistemology in which it is assumed that learning, memory, and ideas are primarily derived from one's sensory experiences.

    Enlightenment. A period of European history (around the 18th century) characterized by an emphasis on learning, rationality, and science.

    Epiphenomenal. The idea that things are not as they appear, but rather manifestations of something else. The result of reductionism is to make certain things epiphenomenal.

    Epistemology. In philosophy, epistemology concerns the nature, origins, and limits of knowledge.

    Ethnocentrism. A prejudice in which one's ethnic group is considered to be the norm against which all other groups and practices are judged.

    Experimental design. A research design in which theoretically the scientist can establish causal relations among variables because other potentially influential variables are controlled.


    Falsificationism. The belief that the real power of science lies in its ability to falsify theories or hypotheses, as opposed to verifying them.

    Final causation. Aristotle's notion of cause, which depends on the goal or purpose for which anything may exist or any activity may be carried out.

    Formal causation. Aristotle's notion of cause, which depends on the form, essence, or pattern that a thing may take and allows for individual parts to combine into larger wholes.

    Free will. An account of human behavior in which goals or purposes are not rigidly determined by biology or the environment; rather, humans can always choose otherwise, all circumstances remaining the same.


    Gestalt. A German term that refers to the relationship of various parts of a pattern to the whole and implies that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


    Heidegger, Martin. A 20th-century philosopher who introduced, among other things, the notion of hermeneutical modes of engagement: present-at-hand and ready-to-hand. Heidegger is arguably the most influential figure in postmodern philosophy

    Hermeneutics. A method originally used by biblical scholars in their interpretation of biblical texts, which has also been extended in some of the behavioral science disciplines to study meaningful human phenomena on the basis of practical understanding. Hermeneuticists suggest that understanding human actions is similar to understanding written texts. Interpretation is fundamental to both.

    Human teleology. An account in which it is held that humans act for the sake of intended goals, purposes, etc.

    Humanism. A theory in psychology based on the autonomy of humans but allowing for the constraints of biology and social structures in which humans find themselves.

    Hypothesis. The idea that guides a scientific experiment expressed in the form of a testable prediction.


    Implication. The consequences and ideas that logically follow from a theory.

    Implicit ideas. In relation to theories, hidden assumptions about the world that are crucial to a theory's formulation and use.

    Independent variable. In an empirical study, the treatment variable that we expect to have an effect on the variable we observe (the dependent variable).

    Instantaneous. A causal relation in which no time interval is required for the cause to have an effect.


    Kant, Immanuel. An 18th-century philosopher who asserted another form of rationalism based on innate categories of understanding for structuring and organizing experience.


    Learning theory. An explanation of the way the environment conditions and shapes one's behavior across time.

    Locke, John. A 17th-century British empiricist philosopher who asserted that knowledge originated from sensation and reflection.

    Logos. A Greek word meaning, among other things, discourse.


    Material causation. Aristotle's notion of cause, which depends on the material or substance of which a thing is composed.

    Materialists. People who believe that matter is the fundamental reality

    Metaphysics. The study/search for the fundamental thing(s) that make up reality The term is also used to refer to those fundamental things themselves.

    Metatheoretical. The idea that there are theories above or behind the theories used to describe human behavior. Theories are always based on other theories. A metatheory is a theory about theories.

    Method. The particular activities used to achieve research results, including experimental designs, sampling procedures, and statistical treatment of data. In general terms, a method is any procedure for investigating that we believe will yield knowledge or truth.

    Methodological pluralism. The idea that the choice of a particular method of study should be based on the nature of the problem we are investigating, the way in which the problem is framed, and the relevant strengths and weaknesses of possible methods.

    Models of memory. Cognitivist explanations of how and what we can remember.


    Natural teleology. An account in which it is held that nature itself acts for the sake of goals, or purposes, or that all of nature is moving toward some meaningful end.

    Naturalistic explanation. An account in which phenomena are explained in terms of things presumed to be part of the natural world. Often contrasted with supernatural explanation.

    Necessity. The idea that events must occur as they did, and things must be what they are. It is often contrasted with possibility.

    Negating (denying) the consequent. A valid syllogistic argument in which the consequent (i.e., the then portion of the if-then statement) of the syllogism is denied, or shown to be untrue, and therefore the antecedent (i.e., the if portion of the if-then statement) must also be rejected.

    Neuron. A specialized nerve cell that carries impulses.

    Neurotransmitters. Chemicals located in the nervous system that enable neural impulses to be passed from one nerve cell to another.

    Nihilism. The idea that there is no solid foundation for the behavioral sciences or anything else.

    Noumena. In rationalist epistemology the external world to which individuals never have direct access.


    Objectivity. In some usages objectivity refers to the outer world consisting of the world of public objects and things. In many treatments of science it refers to a particular way of making observations or judgments in which the person making them is presumably uninfluenced by biases or subjectivity It thus refers to a perspective from which it is thought to be unlikely that one could be wrong.

    Ockham's razor. A theory that phenomena ought to be explained in ways that invoke few unsupportable constructs or assertions.

    Operational definition. A translation of some theoretical construct into observable or measurable terms.

    Operationalization. The process of letting something we can observe represent something we cannot, for the purpose of scientific study The process of making operational definitions.


    Paradigm. Implicit view of the world that scientists hold, that communities of scientists share, and that influences the way science is done.

    Phenomena. In rationalist epistemology experience that is the result of a combination of the a priori structure of the mind and the world. In many postmodern theories, “phenomenon” is used as roughly equivalent to experience. In common usage, “phenomenon” is a fancy synonym for “thing.”

    Positivism. A philosophy in which it is held that the purpose of science is to help scientists formulate a coherent view or model of the world. There are many different versions of positivism, but common and important to most of them are the notions that scientific understanding takes the form of laws or propositions, and that these propositions must be closely tied to observations.

    Possibility. The idea that events could have occurred in a way other than the way they did.

    Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Latin phrase meaning “after that, hence because of that;” also a logical fallacy The fallacy is to claim that because A follows B, A must have been caused by B.

    Pragmatism. A philosophical position in which it is emphasized that the best way to decide questions of truth or reality is by examining the practical results of the ideas. If something successfully solves a problem, it can be taken as “true.” It should be noted that because so many different positions are claimed to be pragmatic, any definition will likely be unsatisfactory to someone.

    Present-at-hand. A hermeneutic mode of engagement characterized by reflection and detachment from ongoing practical involvement with the world.


    Qualitative methods. Procedures for investigating human action that do not involve measurement and quantification, but allow subjects to describe their own behavior and experience in the language native to their experience, and investigators to undertake the analysis of human phenomena in conversational language rather than numbers.


    Rationalism. An epistemology in which it is assumed that the source of knowledge is the mind and its capacity for reasoning.

    Ready-to-hand. A hermeneutic mode of engagement characterized by active involvement in practical activities in the world.

    Realism. A philosophy of science in which it is held that the scientific method allows an investigator direct access to the real world.

    Reductionism. A strategy for explaining phenomena by positing that when properly understood, seemingly complex phenomena are “really just” manifestations of seemingly simpler ones. Reductionism posits that X is “really just” Y.


    Simultaneity. A type of causality in which the cause is not required to occur before the effect, but instead must be present at the exact time of the effect.

    Skepticism. An approach to understanding in which one begins by doubting the truth of all theories or postulates. Doubting generally.

    Social constructionism. An alternative to traditional theories of human nature and behavior in which it is emphasized that people “construct” for themselves their identities and the meanings of their experiences. This is possible because each person is involved in one or more “societies” that provide meanings and definitions for use in the constructions.

    Soft sciences. Sciences, like most of the behavioral sciences, which deal with a subject matter not easily predicted, controlled, or quantified. In soft sciences, researchers have not achieved the same level of success as natural scientists in technology or ability to control and predict.

    Subjectivity. The inner world of private emotions and thoughts. This inner world is most often seen to be unique to each individual person. It is also often seen to be illogical and unreliable as a source of knowledge.

    Supernatural explanation. An explanation of the phenomena of the world in terms of gods, spirits, or other things that are not part of the natural world.

    Syllogism. The logical argument consisting of a major premise; a minor premise; and the conclusion, which is the logical consequence of the relation between the major and the minor premises.


    Technology. The products or practices that result from scientific knowledge applied to the solution of real-world problems. People may attempt to derive a technology not only from science, but from any theory.

    Teleology. Any explanation in which a final cause is invoked as explanation is a teleological explanation. Literally, the word can be taken as referring to the study of the telos, or end toward which things lead.

    Theory. In its most basic form a theory is an idea, a statement of relationship between two or more phenomena. Theories serve as explanations in that one phenomenon is believed to account for another.


    Unconscious. The area of the mind, postulated by psychodynamic theorists, to which people commonly have no direct access, or of which they have no direct awareness.


    Vilidity. The extent to which a measurement procedure faithfully represents the phenomenon it is intended to measure. The term is also used to refer to experiments. An experiment is said to be valid if we can be confident the results came about because of the variables and theories we were studying, and not other causes.

    Variable. Any aspect of the world of interest to a scientist that can be observed, manipulated, or measured. Observations or measurements may vary from time to time, place to place, subject to subject, or method to method.

    Verifìcationism. The belief that the role of science is confirming the truth of its theories or hypotheses. It is also assumed that scientific methods have the ability to do so. The term is often used in opposition to falsificationism.


    Weltanschauung. A German term that means “worldview.” As used in Chapter 6, it refers to the notion that scientific work is imbedded in the ideas and practices of the larger culture, and therefore not as objective and free from cultural influences as realists and positivists have thought (see Paradigm).

    Wittgenstein, Ludwig. An influential linguistic philosopher of the 20th century who noted the importance of social agreements as a foundation for language.


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    About the Authors

    Brent D. Slife is Professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University He is an active psychotherapist and was until recently Director of Clinical Training at Baylor University He is also editor of Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Psychological Issues (7th ed.), editor-in-chief of the Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, and a member of the editorial board for the Journal of Mind and Behavior. His most recent book is Time and Psychological Explanation (1993).

    Richard N. Williams is Professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University He is a Social Psychologist, but currently the Chair of the Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology Program at Brigham Young University He serves in editorial capacities on several journals and publishes empirical and theoretical work in the areas of human agency postmodern approaches, and stereotyping. He most recently coedited the book Reconsidering Psychology: Perspectives From Continental Philosophy (1990).

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