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The New Psychology: Explanation & Paradigm Shift

By: , Posted on: February 25, 2016

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This is the first of my four-part blog series about The New Psychology. Old Psychology began in 1879 when Wilhelm Wundt opened the Institute for Experimental Psychology at the University of Leipzig in Germany. This is what you typically encounter when you read about psychology. Unfortunately, Old Psychology cannot provide adequate natural science explanations for the reasons discussed below. The only real remedy for this problem is a paradigm shift to the New Psychology that began in 1986 when McClelland and Rumelhart published their two volume work entitled Parallel Distributed Processing: Explorations in the Microstructure of Cognition.

My book (Tryon, 2014) Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory, this four-part blog series, and related blogs seek to explain why a New Psychology is needed and to present principles that can be used to provide natural science explanations of psychology and behavior.

The need to explain is as old as the human race. Explanation is the main goal of natural science. Many, but not all, psychologists see psychology as a natural science. Other psychologists view psychology as a social or human science in which case explanation takes a different form than it does in natural science. This splitting of psychology into three types/kinds of science is a major reason why psychological science offers such varied explanations.

Pennington (2014) asked and answered the question of what is required to provide a natural science explanation as follows: “What does it mean to explain something? Basically, it means that we identify the cause of that thing in terms of relevant mechanisms” (p. 3). Psychologists like to think that they have mechanism information. Teo (2012) pointed out that psychologists offer interpretations rather than explanations because they do not have mechanism information and therefore cannot provide natural science explanations. A search of the PsycINFO data base on February 13, 2016 using the term “psychological mechanism” returned 483 citations. However, an examination of these articles reveals that the following flawed explanations are provided instead of natural science mechanism information.

Flawed Explanations in Old Psychology

BioPsychoSocial Model

The BioPsychoSocial (BPS) model correctly recognizes that biological, psychological, and social factors all influence psychology and behavior. The comprehensive nature of this approach to explanation is its one and only positive characteristic. The fatal flaw here is that the BPS model is merely a list of possible causes. Listing is no substitute for providing mechanism information. The BPS model explains as little about psychology and behavior as the GlassMetalPetroleum (GMP) model explains about how automobiles work. Listing is not explaining.

Statistical Models

The Pearson Product Moment correlation coefficient is commonly calculated by psychologists because causal factors are correlated with their effects. Failure to find a predicted correlation between a presumed cause and its effect can falsify an explanatory hypothesis. However, observing the predicted correlation does not prove that a causal connection exists. Correlation is not proof of causation. But wishing that this was the case has too often made it appear to be so. Psychologists frequently incorrectly interpret the square of the correlation coefficient to be the proportion of variation in the effect that can be explained by variation in the putative cause. The correct interpretation is that the squared correlation specifies the proportion of variation in the effect that can be accounted for by variation in the putative cause. Accounting is not explaining.

This wishful confusion of accounting and explaining extends to statistical models including regression and structural equation models. Part of the problem with statistical models is that they are based on observations that do not involve manipulation and random assignment. Only by manipulating presumed causes under controlled conditions can one demonstrate cause and effect relationships. Even then, identifying a cause is not the same as explaining it. One must be able to specify a causal sequence that shows how and why the cause works as it does. The required mechanism information for a natural science explanation is almost always missing from psychological explanations. Identification is not explanation.

Psychologists frequently mistake mediators for mechanisms. Lynch, Chapman, Rosenthal, Kuo, and Linehan (2006) claimed that “Mechanisms of change are mediators (p. 460, italics in the original). The word mechanism implies causation, whereas the term mediator does not. Mediators are established by correlational methods that cannot prove causation. Mechanism information is required to show how mediators work. Mediation is not explanation.

Box and Arrow Models

Psychologists frequently place variable names in boxes and draw arrows among those boxes to indicate hypothesized causal relations. This practice is fine in so far as it is used to present hypotheses. Unfortunately, these box and arrow models are used to explain how and why things happen. Explanation is limited to drawing arrows. This practice is another case where wishing it was so seems to make it so. But drawing arrows to claim that causal relationships exist is not the same as providing plausible mechanism information that actually explains how and why these relationships occur. Drawing arrows is not explanation.

Brain Imaging

An increasing number of psychologists have turned to brain imaging for explanation. We now have cognitive neuroscience, social neuroscience, social, cognitive, and affective neuroscience, and cultural neuroscience. The basic research design is the same in all cases. People are presented with stimuli while in an fMRI scanner or other brain imaging device. Brain areas that become activated are identified and presented as causal mediators. Sometimes it can be shown that certain psychological functions are causally dependent upon particular brain structures. These accomplishments are important initial steps but they do not constitute a complete explanation because they do not specify how those brain structures produce the effects that are ascribed to them. Identifying is not explaining. Depending is not explaining.

The ability of psychologists to explain behavior based on the brain structure has not advanced since the days of phrenology. I am not alone in this view. Dobbs (2005) and Uttal (2001) characterized this use of brain imaging as modern phrenology. But is this characterization of contemporary brain imaging overly harsh? Let’s take a closer look at this claim. Phrenologists were primarily interested in the brain and its relationship to psychology and behavior. They drew brain maps attributing various psychological and behavioral traits to brain lobes. Their methods included post-mortem examinations of actual brains. But they could not study the living brain. Their response to this situation was to assume that the skull fit over the brain like a fine leather glove fits over the hand and reveals the knuckles. This assumption authorized them to examine skull bumps as a way to indirectly study brain lobes. We now know that this assumption and method are fatally flawed. Phrenology was rejected because of its flawed methods, not because of its flawed explanations. The explanations provided by modern brain imaging psychologists are fundamentally the same as those provided by phrenologists. In both cases certain brain regions are said to mediate particular psychological and behavioral phenomena but without providing any mechanism information that can actually explain how those brain regions do what they are said to do. In both cases we have causal claims without mechanism information that can explain those claims.


Operant and respondent conditioning are two well-known, empirically supported, predictable methods for modifying behavior. Unfortunately, they are also functional explanations that lack mechanism information. For example, behaviorism cannot answer the basic question of why reinforcers work and that means that behaviorism cannot explain why any of their findings work as they do. Operant and respondent conditioning methods are prescriptions for how to change behavior that support an effective technology of behavior modification but behaviorism lacks the necessary mechanism information to provide a natural science explanation of how and why this technology works.

Two Anomalies

Old Psychology continues to offer flawed explanations rather than recognize the two anomalies identified in this section because recognizing these anomalies requires the paradigm shift to the New Psychology that they do not want to make. Resistance to recognizing these anomalies is motivated and reinforced by all of the rewards and opportunities provided by Old Psychology. Paradigm changes are therefore more attractive to younger investigators who are in the process of developing their careers compared to older investigators who are motivated to defend their established careers. Another factor is that older investigators may not have read the basic New Psychology literature and therefore are not conversant with it. They may not have acquired many of the skills necessary to succeed with the New Psychology. Hence, older established investigators are motivated to not see either of the following two anomalies as problematic and certainly not sufficiently so as to require a paradigm shift.

Functional Theories Lack Mechanism Information

Psychological theories entail functional explanations that describe relationships. Operant and respondent conditioning are good examples of this. Functional theories can identify causal relationships as well as correlational facts. For example, the functional analysis of behavior has identified multiple causal connections between stimuli and responses. Functional analysis is what behaviorism provides by way of explanation. These explanations were, and are still, criticized as black box explanations because stimuli go in and responses come out without any understanding of what happens in between. No mechanism information is provided regarding how stimuli are transformed into responses. Behaviorism simply claims that stimulus-response connections are formed and they have the data to prove cause and effect relationships. The problem is that they cannot explain how and why any of their functional relationships work as they do.

The cognitive revolution in psychology arose in response to black box behaviorism. The cognitive revolution recognized that functional analyses do not explain how or why the relationships identified by behaviorism work. The cognitive revolution was supposed to provide the missing mechanism information. Instead, the flawed explanations identified above were provided. A cognitive black box replaced the behavioral black box. Stimuli still go in and responses still come out without any understanding of how any of this works. The absence of mechanism information means that we still do not know what happens inside the box. Old Psychology continues to act as though the flawed explanations identified above actually provide mechanism information and therefore sees no anomaly and therefore no need for a paradigm change. Old Psychology calls these flawed explanations “psychological explanations” as though this label would make them fully acceptable. Put otherwise, calling them “psychological explanations” is supposed to remove their flaws and make them natural science explanations. Unfortunately, wishing that this was so does not make it so except in the mind of those who refuse to change. The following examples show how important real mechanism information is to natural science.

When Darwin initially published his theory of evolution it was just a functional theory. It was largely rejected by biologists as well as the general public but for different reasons. The general public reacted negatively to the absence of a creator and this omission contradicted the biblical story of creation. Biologists criticized the absence of mechanism information. Darwin had two major explanatory problems. He could not explain how/why variation occurred. Nor could he explain exactly what got selected. The reason for this double explanatory failure is that the field of population genetics was unknown at that time. Darwin was therefore left with extensive observational data for which he did not have mechanism information. His principles of variation and selection were functional principles. He could not explain how or why they worked as he claimed they did. Consequently, his theory was seriously marginalized by biologists for approximately 75 years until the all-important mechanism information was provided by population genetics that explained why creatures vary and what got selected. Darwin’s theory moved from the very edge of biology to its center once mechanism information became available.

Plate tectonics provides another example of a functional theory that was seriously marginalized and even ridiculed until mechanism information became available. It was obvious for a long time that if puzzle pieces were created with shapes like the continents that they would fit together. It seemed as if the continents were once all together, then broke up, and drifted apart to their present locations. This was just a functional theory for a long time. Physical evidence for continental drift piled up for decades but was not persuasive because no mechanism was provided for how continents could move. Only when the mechanism of sea floor spreading was identified was plate tectonics taken seriously. Plate tectonics then became and continues to be a central geological concept.

These two examples show that mechanism information is required to have an acceptable natural science explanation and to be taken seriously. Psychological science is limited to functional statements and therefore cannot provide the required natural science mechanism information on its own. Therefore Old Psychology is rightfully seen by the public as a second class science. (Lilienfeld, 2012). Only by making the genuine partnership with neuroscience that characterizes the New Psychology can the required mechanism be provided. But this mechanism information will not just be neuroscience information. It will be new information regarding how psychology emerges from biology.

No Psychological Substrate

Google defines substrate as ‘A substance or layer that underlies something, or on which some process occurs’ (bold emphasis added). There is absolutely no evidence that a purely psychological substrate exists for genuine psychological mechanisms to operate on. Hence, there are no, nor can there ever be, any real psychological mechanisms. Old Psychology has not yet accepted this fact nor are they likely to. It will mainly be students and young investigators who recognize this anomaly.

The fundamental problem here is that Old Psychology has not resolved the mind-body (brain) problem. Old Psychology cannot explain how the mind influences the body or how the body influences the mind. This is why Old Psychology cannot explain how placebo and nocebos work. Old Psychology is left with unexplainable hyphens in terms such as psycho-biology and bio-psychology. Old Psychology has a missing link problem that it cannot seem to solve. A related problem is that Old Psychology uses rules and other symbolic systems to explain psychology and behavior but they cannot say how rules regulate the brain or how the brain regulates rules. This issue is so important that I discuss it extensively in my next blog.

Old Psychology is in double denial over the fact that there is no psychological substrate upon which genuine psychological phenomena can operate. On the one hand they deny that psychological mechanisms are entirely mental in order to be taken seriously as a natural science. On the other hand, they deny that psychological mechanisms are entirely biological to avoid being completely replaced by neuroscience. So what is psychology? Old Psychology cannot say.

We know that all psychology begins with consciousness. Old Psychology assumes consciousness. This assumption gives contemporary cognitive psychology it conscious-centric orientation. We reason from assumptions not to them. Hence, Old Psychology can never explain consciousness. Old Psychology therefore can never fully explain cognition or for that matter anything psychological because Old Psychology cannot explain how mind emerges from brain. Old Psychology has finally recognized unconscious processing (Dijksterhuis & Strick, 2016) but it has no way to explain how unconscious processing works let alone how unconscious processing generates behavior. These are serious explanatory failures that require a paradigm shift to the New Psychology to adequately answer.


Paradigm shifts occur when sciences face anomalies that they cannot fix (Kuhn, 2012). Old Psychology faces flawed explanations and two serious anomalies that they cannot fix. Old Psychology cannot provide genuine natural science explanations because it is limited to functional theories that lack mechanism information. This is because there is no psychological substrate on which psychological mechanisms can operate. Old Psychology seems stuck with the mind-body problem where the absence of mechanism information regarding how rules regulate brain activity and how brain activity regulates rules leaves Old Psychology isolated from neuroscience. Old Psychology compounds this isolation from neuroscience by declaring independence from neuroscience in order to avoid dealing with mind-brain issues. As a result, Old Psychology cannot explain placebo or nocebo effects. Old Psychology assumes consciousness, the core of psychology, and therefore can never explain it. Old Psychology is caught in a double denial that it cannot resolve. It denies that psychology is entirely mental and it denies that psychology is entirely physical. So what is psychology?

These problems and unanswered questions are each sufficient reasons to embrace the paradigm shift to the New Psychology which presently has good answers to all of these questions. Collectively these unanswered questions insist upon a paradigm shift. Tryon (2014) provided some of the missing mechanism information as did his extensive blogs that are archived here. The remaining three blogs in this series advances the case for the New Psychology.

Read more from Warren Tryon on SciTech Connect

Warren’s book, Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory is available for purchase on the Elsevier Store.

Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy cover

Use discount code “STC215” at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy.

About the Author

Warren ComputerWarren W. Tryon received his undergraduate degree from Ohio Northern University in 1966. He was enrolled in the APA approved Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology at Kent State University from 1966 – 1970. Upon graduation from Kent State, Dr. Tryon joined the Psychology Department faculty at Fordham University in 1970 as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1977 and to Full Professor in 1983. Licensed as a psychologist in New York State in 1973, he joined the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology in 1976, became a Diplomate in Clinical Psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) in 1984, was promoted to Fellow of Division 12 (Clinical) of the American Psychological Association in 1994 and a fellow of the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology in 1996. Also in 1996 he became a Founder of the Assembly of Behavior Analysis and Therapy.

In 2003 he joined The Academy of Clinical Psychology. He was Director of Clinical Psychology Training from 1997 to 2003, and presently is in the third and final year of phased retirement. He will become Emeritus Professor of Psychology in May 2015 after 45 years of service to Fordham University. Dr. Tryon has published 179 titles, including 3 books, 22 chapters, and 140 articles in peer reviewed journals covering statistics, neuropsychology, and clinical psychology. He has reviewed manuscripts for 45 journals and book publishers and has authored 145 papers/posters that were presented at major scientific meetings. Dr. Tryon has mentored 87 doctoral dissertations to completion. This is a record number of completed dissertations at the Fordham University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and likely elsewhere.

His academic lineage is as follows. His mentor was V. Edwin Bixenstein who studied with O. Hobart Mowrer at the University of Illinois who studied with Knight Dunlap at Johns Hopkins University who studied with Hugo Munsterberg at Harvard University who studied with Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig.

Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory is Dr. Tryon’s capstone publication. It is the product of more than a quarter of a century of scholarship. Additional material added after this book was printed is available at This includes chapter supplements, a color version of Figure 5.6, and a thirteenth “Final Evaluation” chapter. He is on LinkedIn and Facebook. His email address is

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