In his long and distinguished career, Jerome Kagan, now emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard, has written numerous books for general audiences on major discoveries and controversies in his field, particularly in his specialty of child development. In works such as “Three Seductive Ideas” (1998), he developed a style of discussing three or four different topics in a series of essays, interweaving each with data and observations across psychology, history and culture, and tying them together with an overarching theme. Or not.
Mr. Kagan’s latest effort, “Psychology’s Ghosts,” might be called “Four Seductive Ideas,” since it consists of his assessment of four problems in psychological theory and clinical practice. The first problem is laid out in the chapter “Missing Contexts”: the fact that many researchers fail to consider that their measurements of brains, behavior and self-reported experience are profoundly influenced by their subjects’ culture, class and experience, as well as by the situation in which the research is conducted. This is not a new concern, but it takes on a special urgency in this era of high-tech inspired biological reductionism.
If we can find which area of the brain lights up when we think about love or chocolate or politics, we assume we know something. But what, exactly, do we know? Sometimes less than we think. “An adolescent’s feeling of shame because a parent is uneducated, unemployed, and alcoholic,” Mr. Kagan writes, “cannot be translated into words or phrases that name only the properties of genes, proteins, neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones, receptors, and circuits without losing a substantial amount of meaning”—and meaning is as fundamental to psychology as genes are to biology. Many psychological concepts, he notes, including fear, self-regulation, well-being and agreeableness, are studied without regard to the context in which they occur—with the resulting implication that they mean the same thing across time, cultures and content. They do not.