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excerpts from: Stenstrom, D. M., & Iyer, R. (2007). An organizing framework for psychological research. Manuscript in preparation.
A jigsaw puzzle analogy
Psychological research measures and/or manipulates situational and person-related variables. Given the precise manner in which research must accurately assess the particular constructs of interest while simultaneously avoiding related constructs that may serve as unwanted potential confounds, an almost infinite set of variations results amongst the multitude of situations and individual differences composing the human experience. In this sense, psychological research can be seen as a discovery process to identify the unique set of circumstances under which the predicted relationships emerge or fail to emerge (see McGuire’s contextualist approach; McGuire, 1983). A useful way to understand and describe psychological research, therefore, is by using a jigsaw puzzle analogy.
Each individual research study can be conceptualized as turning over a jigsaw puzzle piece. Each researcher is standing on a particular section of the puzzle, and every time data is collected, the puzzle piece is turned over to reveal the description of that particular context. If the research is not disseminated, the puzzle piece is effectively turned back down. If the research is published, the introduction to the manuscript attempts to fit that individual piece within the larger framework. Qualitative and quantitative synthesis, such as literature reviews and meta-analyses, seek to “fit” different puzzle pieces together to encapsulate and describe a section of the jigsaw puzzle. Similar to the mechanisms of assembling an actual jigsaw puzzle, psychologists try to assemble coherent groupings of similar pieces into stand-alone complexes, which form the basis for contemporary theories, topic areas, and disciplines within psychology.
A framework for psychological research
The question, therefore, is what is the picture underneath the jigsaw puzzle? The ultimate purpose of research is to perceive the picture underneath the puzzle and understand, explain, and predict human nature. Many psychology books and textbooks are devoted to describing the current state of psychological research and the accumulating answer to that question. Below, I describe a more concise depiction that also serves as a research tool for integrating psychological research.
In psychology, what is the most fundamental way to explain the underlying processes and mechanisms that influence human nature? The literature on “Person x Situation” interactions emphasizes how human nature is best conceptualized as the result of an interaction between aspects of the person and aspects of the situation (see Funder, 2001, 2005; Mischel, 2004; Shoda, 2004). A logical extension of the theorizing behind the “Person x Situation” interaction is to articulate the components composing both situational and person-related variables.
For example, what are the most basic components of the Person? The definition of psychology is the science of behavior and the mind, with the “mind” referred to in one textbook as “an individual’s sensations, perceptions, memories, thoughts, motives, emotional feelings and other subjective experiences” (see Peter Gray’s Introduction to Psychology textbook, page 3). In the most basic sense, psychology is the study of people’s affect, behavior, and cognitions from a psychological and/or physiological perspective. As depicted in Figure 1, these basic units can be roughly organized into a framework of the Person (see also Figure 3 below for another way to articulate the “Person” side of the framework more closely suited to Personality and Social Psychology).
What are the most basic ways to categorize Situations? Considering the central role of situations in determining human nature, there is a surprising lack of research behind the basic components or taxonomic structure of situations (see Yang, Read & Miller, 2006). From a theoretical perspective, the principal distinction I see within the literature is between the social environment (e.g., presence of others) and the physical environment (e.g., environmental psychology). Social Psychology, in fact, is rooted in the premise that social factors are a principle determinant of an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. A further rudimentary distinction within the Social psychology is the presence of individuals or groups. Figure 1 only depicts the first few levels of the framework, but each of the basic units within both the Person and Situation can be subdivided even further into increasingly more specific and restricted classifications, such as in the Situation side of the framework where applied settings like Occupational and School psychology are more narrow contexts within the larger overall taxonomic structure.
How is this framework helpful?
How is this framework helpful? I describe below a few key benefits generated by the framework to both the lay person and psychological researchers. For example, in the first few chapters of textbooks for a Psychology course, there is customarily a definition of psychology, an introductory explanation of the field, descriptions of the various disciplines and sub-disciplines within psychology, and discussions of the relationship of psychology to related fields such as sociology and anthropology. The framework is a useful visual explanatory tool to illustrate these same concepts, to show the central topics in psychology, and to show the interrelationships amongst the various disciplines within psychology. As a brief illustration: (a) Cognitive psychology is represented as the study of the mind and mental processes within the “cognitive” component of the framework, (b) Social psychology can be seen as the branch of psychology concerned with assessing thoughts, feelings and behaviors (from the “Person” side) within all the situations falling under the “social” component of the situation side of the framework, (c) Social Cognition can be seen as Cognitive psychology (from the “Person” side) as applied to “social” situations, (d) Clinical psychology investigates the “Person” side components when those thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are non-normal, abnormal, or dysfunctional, and etc. The framework can even help explain the connections between basic and applied branches of psychology because applied disciplines like Forensic psychology, Occupational psychology, and School psychology are investigations of the mind (from the “Person” side) as applied to specific situations, such as the legal field, business environment, and school settings, respectively. All disciplines and sub-disciplines within psychology fall within the framework. In the same way, the framework is also an explanatory tool to illustrate the connections between psychology and related fields like sociology and anthropology because all three fields investigate the same components in the Person side and Situation side of the framework, but Anthropology focuses on the “Person” at the individual ethnographic level, Psychology focuses on the “Person” at the aggregate individual and group level, and Sociology focuses on the “Person” at the group or societal level.
Imagine a textbook which uses the framework as an organizing principle to display and discuss the major subject areas in psychology. The first chapter would explain the emergent literature on Person x Situation interactions, and how psychological and physiological processes within the individual are activated by, and interact with, situations to influence human behavior. Each subsequent chapter is then devoted to a separate component of the diagram, with the conclusion of each chapter tying the material within that chapter to the larger framework. There would also be discussions of the interrelationships amongst the various components represented in the framework. Within the chapter on Affect, for example, would be a discussion of how stimuli (situations, such as a car driving towards you) can activate affective states (fear, surprise), accompanying neurochemical activity (e.g., Cognitive component of the framework) physiological arousal (e.g., pounding heart, faster breathing, etc), and behavioral responses (e.g., nonverbal and automatic facial expression of fear, movement away from the car, etc). By creating a common structure throughout the textbook, the framework is a useful learning tool to provide integration between topics within psychology. In this sense, the framework can be seen as organizing principle similar to Chemistry’s Periodic Table of Elements that creates an identifiable symbolic embodiment or “branding” of psychology that highlights the basic topics in psychology.
Benefits to those who conduct research
How is this framework helpful to psychological researchers? I describe below the benefits of the fully articulated framework, but it’s important to point out that simply filling in an uncompleted diagram can assist researchers. Figure 1 is by no means complete and only represents how I would organize the content. As each researcher, or the field as a whole, starts to fill in the diagram, you are forced to ask yourself tough questions about what concepts and subject areas are the most fundamental and have the farthest reaching impact. As each new subject area is added to the diagram, you are also forced to ask yourself questions about the relationship between those variables, similar to the jigsaw puzzle analogy in which turning over puzzle pieces is followed by decisions about how to fit the pieces together. For example, where would attitudes and stereotyping fall within the framework? Plus, the logical next step in this process is to articulate the structure within each topic area as the taxonomic structure is broken down into successively more finely grained distinctions. As an illustration, Figure 2 shows some of the possible components of the Intergroup situation, so the question is what are the important topics in the intergroup literature, and how do these variable interrelate? A central topic within the Intergroup component, for example, is the nature of the identification or attachment with your ingroup. With the recent finding by Lickel et al (2000) about four distinct types of groups (e.g., intimacy, task, social categories, loose associations), we can now ask whether other group-based variables such as social identification differ depending up the type of group under investigation (Stenstrom & Curtis, 2006). Social identity with a social category (such as gender or ethnicity) may be conceptually and operationally distinct from identification with a task group (such as coworkers) or intimacy group (such as family and friends). In other words, revealed from this process of filling in the diagram are those fundamental questions we have yet to explore. In this sense, the framework is a road map for researchers to travel that highlights important topics, new relationships, and unanswered research questions.
Where do ideas come from? Where do your research ideas come from? Philosophers like John Locke and Henri Poincare say that new ideas are an association or combination between two more simpler ideas. So we combine simpler parts into the formation of a new complex whole. Every time you add something new to the diagram, you can ask yourself how it relates to everything else in the diagram, and thus research ideas are borne as the new combination of two or more topics. For example, a basic question under the Cognitions component is “What occurs when two thoughts are incompatible?”, which is explained by cognitive dissonance theory and the literature on coherence. What if we ask the same question about the Affective component -- “What happens when two emotions are incompatible, such as the mixture of emotions following separation or divorce? Do the same principles apply? As new questions are asked and answered, the full articulation of the framework will contain the full combination of all concepts. In this sense, the framework reduces idea generation to a more objective discovery process.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that the framework provides theoretical synthesis to the field. Rather, the framework is a way to integrate psychological research because every research study involves some component from the person side and/or situation side of the framework, and thus every research study can be located within the fully articulated framework. The diagram is a common structure for researchers in all disciplines which allows unification, not at the theoretical level, but at the level of research projects.
The framework can similarly provide a type of unification for the fields of Personality and Social Psychology. Another way to depict the framework, for example, is by using established meta-theories of Personality psychology as the articulated components of the “Person”, and viewing human output -- Affect, Behavior, and Cognition -- as the joint product of personality theory and situational constraints (see Figure 3). This new framework more closely resembles the original conceptualization of Person x Situation interactions as jointly producing the “variations in the thoughts, feelings, and actions that occur across contexts and over time” (Mischel, 2004). Another unique change to Figure 3 is the list of moderating variables on the right-hand side of the framework. Common concepts and variables underlie our research projects and are applicable across different situational contexts. Status differences, for example, can be found in interpersonal contexts, intergroup contexts, applied contexts like the legal field, business settings, and so forth. Given the commonality and prevalence of these same variables, our field would greatly benefit from a comprehensive listing of potential moderators, and analysis of the circumstances under which the variables do or do not apply, and why.
At a more macro level, it is the natural evolution of any field to start creating an organizing framework for the voluminous amount of material continuously streaming in book chapters, journals articles, and conference proceedings. Anyone who has searched through PsycINFO or attended a conference can attest to the unrelenting array of jigsaw puzzle pieces being turned over by our ever-expanding discipline. Imagine the overwhelming density in 30 years or 50 years from now. The theme behind person x situation interactions arose from Kurt Lewin, who has been called the father of social psychology, and this next iteration of the person x situation theme may be helpful to the future of our field as well.