Psychology as Ideology

Much as the sociobiologists of the 1980’s provided the ‘neoliberal’ capitalists of their era with the naturalisation of selfishness, cognitive psychology’s conception of the mind makes it a suitable perspective for capitalist ideology: each person is isolated within their own head and must use a complex system of internal representations in order to mirror or recreate outside forces within their own mind. These representations arise from the brain alone, an organ that can be shaped by experience but, as Chomsky would argue, this shaping is itself constrained and conditioned by genetics (cognitivism is a nativist theory, as I have argued elsewhere). Together, this creates an image of humans as homo economicus: an inherently self-determined, rugged individualist, free of any social obligations, competing with other individuals in a marketplace.

To some degree, this congruence with capitalism is part of psychology’s Cartesianism and so has been around before the advent of cognitivism in the late 1960’s. As Will Davies notes in The Happiness Industry, early 20th century behaviourist psychology meshed neatly with the era’s Taylorist principles of scientific management to predict and control consumer and worker action, and in areas such as neuroscience and behavioural economics this model is still in use . But despite writing about the growing importance capitalism places on internal moods (such as the effect of unipolar depression on productivity), Davies’ focus on classic behaviourists like Watson misses the important developments that psychology has made since then in internalising social and political trends, by bringing the mind to the foreground and the environment to the background. This malignant development is easily identifiable in the area of mental health, where the intolerable stress of daily life in the production of mental illness is downplayed in favour of cognitive and biological theories. Perceptive writers such as Mark Fisher identify how:

“Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, weather is no longer a natural fact so much as a political economic effect)… Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill?” (Fisher, 2009, p.19. emphasis in original)

But this internalisation of political-economic effects is not isolated to psychiatry, but is evident across cognitive psychology, a trait which makes it a convenient way to explain social change without holding society to account. Recently, with the election Donald Trump in the USA, and the result of the EU referendum in the UK, this use of psychology to explain these choices has absorbed difficult questions that might otherwise be directed at political structures.

Both this Politico article and an article for the New Yorker invoke social psychology experiments in the abstract to explain specific political developments in the here and now, demonstrating that people are inherently foolish and irrational (technically termed a “cognitive bias”) and this purportedly explains why people vote for bigots and liars. The psychological experiments in these articles provide technocrats with the scientific justfication for their retreat away from democratically accountable institutions and into organs of the state, given that the people they govern are naturally incapable.

For example, the Politico article includes Harvard psychologists claiming that Trump’s success is due to his ability to lie with such obviousness and frequency that the brain’s apparent internal fact-checker is overwhelmed. This is a classically cognitivist view of hypothetical and invisible internal systems that deal with the world at one remove, processing statements to determine whether they are true or false. It is, importantly, also seamless with a technocratic politics that deems political decisions too important for the laity. Given the experimental evidence invoked, one might assume anyone could bamboozle anybody by simply vomiting forth a litany of nonsense. We are not informed what Trump lies about, or for whom: these questions would point outwards, to the society from which Trump came, and perhaps suggest ways of changing it. Instead, we are informed that the human brain is not equipped (due to its biology) to deal with a liar so deceitful. If this offers any potential for political transformation it is that society is easily duped and is best ignored.

The New Yorker article (entitled “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds”), while having a similar theme to the Politico article, reveals more of the congruence between cognitive psychology and technocratic politics. The author quotes Stanford psychologists Sloman and Fernbach, whose study reveals that, when asked to consider abstract scenarios or criticise pieces of writing, people rarely reconsider first impressions, prefer their beliefs to be confirmed than defied by evidence, and believe themselves to be more well-informed than they actually are:

“People believe that they know way more than they actually do… Where it gets us into trouble, according to Sloman and Fernbach, is in the political domain. It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about. Sloman and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also whether they could identify Ukraine on a map. The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention. (Respondents were so unsure of Ukraine’s location that the median guess was wrong by eighteen hundred miles, roughly the distance from Kiev to Madrid.)”

However, as the blogger David Timoney points out:

“This is a classic party trick, like asking people to estimate the population or point due north. Most people get this wrong simply because the information isn’t necessary to them in their daily lives… politics is not a natural science with observable laws but a social construct and therefore both contestable and malleable. The problem with the critique of ignorance is that what is considered consequential is politically determined.”

Again, cognitive psychology’s concepts prove useful in upholding the argument that laypersons are ignorant of the world around them and require guidance from experts. The ‘illusion of explanatory depth’, as Sloman and Fernbach dub this phenomenon, relies principally on the experimenter deciding what their participants should know. Cognitive psychology makes much out of the rare failures of human perception to make sense of an experience when placed in such a fixed scenario where the relevant information has been decided beforehand:

“The eye is easily deceived, and our faith in the reality of what we see is therefore precarious. For two milleniums we have been told so. The purveyors of this doctrine disregard certain facts. The deception is possible only for a single eye at a fixed point of observation with a constricted field of view, for what I call aperture vision. This is not genuine vision, not as conceived in this book. Only the eye considered as a fixed camera can be decieved. The actual binocular visual system cannot.” (Gibson, 1979, p.281)

Gibson noted how the control the psychologist has of the lab conditions makes artificial the object of study, and renders the result of the experiment inextricably bound to that specific context. The human subject, fixed into place and incapable of using their perceptual system as they would ordinarily (by actively exploring and investigating), cannot help but fall for the illusion. The experiment creates a passive, disembodied subject as much as it describes one. In just the same way, psychologists take university undergraduates, ask them abstract questions without relevance to their everyday lives, and the results confirm that people in such scenarios may rely on the impressions they discovered themselves rather than the evidence handed to them by the experimenter.


The explanation for these phenomena must be on the level of the political, though this does not discount the role that psychology, better conceived, could play in our understanding and creation of politics. What this requires, however, is a psychology that points inexorably outwards to the environment rather than inwards to a private realm. An embodied and environmental psychology would be capable of demonstrating concretely how the political is personal and the personal, political. Moreover, such a psychology, by virtue of explicitly rejecting Cartesianism, would have potential to lend support to anti-capitalist ideology. The link between Cartesian philosophy and capitalist ideology is illuminated by Federici (2004):

“The development of self-management… becomes an essential requirement in a capitalist socio-economic system in which self-ownership is assumed to be the fundamental social relation, and discipline no longer relies on external coercion. The social significance of Cartesian philosophy lies in part in the fact that it provides and intellectual justification for it.”  (Federici, 2004, p.149-150)

Heft (2001) investigated the intellectual roots of ecological psychology, which (though the author does not mention this) show the influence of Marxian philosophy. Heft demonstrated that the roots of Gibson stretch back to William James’ attempts to displace the Cartesian dualism at the heart of psychology. James replaced the individual knower with the relationship between the knower and the object known: from the outset, we are selecting one aspect from the existing (not imposed) structure of experience. James’ psychology begins with irreducible relations, rather than with static, separate elements, which immediately dispenses with the Cartesian separation between the individual and the world (the separation that requires representation in order to bridge the gap). Simultaneously, this emphasis on selecting a particular relation from the world of experience necessarily requires a purposive, active perceiver, more similar to a sculptor, selecting the statue from the existing constraints of the stone block, than to a camera, passively observing. Everyday experience is therefore ceaselessly active and directly connected to out context and to other people.

While James was a great admirer of liberal pragmatists like J.S. Mill and would go on to influence other liberals such as his contemporary John Dewey, by placing direct experience at the forefront, James put radical seeds in the soil Gibson and others would develop from. Many of James’ ideas have a Hegelian or Marxian quality, with its emphasis on part-whole relations that we may recognise as dialectical relations: they are not merely in reciprocity but mutually imply one another, acquire their properties as a function of their relation and their properties develop together as a consequence of the developing relation. The individual interpenetrating the environment (and vice versa) forms a person-environment system of mutual engagement. They are more than simply a passive receiver corresponding with the outside world (with separated ‘stimulus’ and ‘response’) but are always attuning to the environment, shifting engagement as the context changes and the context changing along with them.

As Heft identified, Gibson’s pedigree descends from James and through the overlooked Edwin Holt. He identified the pre-existing structure in the environment that James refers to as the ambient optic array, the structure of light in the world as it obeys the laws of physics. Moving through the world transforms your perspective as you travel across different vantage points in the array, and gives rise to invariants, the aspects of the environment that do not change, and can be used to guide behaviour. Again, the emphasis on action, materialism, and dialectical relations surfaces in Gibson, and these elements he shares with Marxism are made clearer by Gibson’s overlap with Marxist phenomenologists such as Merleau-Ponty.

All this is to say that ecological and embodied psychology has a strong relationship to Marxism which influences it in much the same way as the influence of Decartes can still be felt in orthodox psychology. Ecological psychology has as its subject ordinary people in their natural environment, in a state of active exploration of a changeable world. It trusts their perceptions are an accurate attunement to the world in which they live. This is not to say it is wholly incompatible with capitalism: there are concepts it uses that would certainly explain its growing popularity. To return to Mark Fisher, who noted that as work is decentralised in neoliberal capitalism, an emphasis is placed on flexibility:

“To function effectively as a component of just-in-time production you must develop a capacity to respond to unforeseen events, you must learn to live in conditions of total instability, or ‘precarity’, as the ugly neologism has it. Periods of work alternate with periods of unemployment. Typically, you find yourself employed in a series of short-term jobs, unable to plan for the future.” (Fisher, 2009, p.34)

This is one indication of how cognitive computer analogies, with pre-programmed algorithms built for a static world, have less intellectual value in an unstable economic climate. A psychology that makes use of the resources to-hand rather than those in ‘storage’ will find more purchase when the problems faced by modern capitalism are more to do with logistics: contracts may have no fixed hours, services are expected to perform ‘on-demand’ and ‘lean’ and ‘agile’ working are the keywords of the hour. The affordances of Gibsonian psychology itself are somewhat open: they have constraints, but one could imagine incorporating some isolated concepts into orthodox psychology, particularly as dissatisfaction with cognitive psychology grows.

Psychology can have concepts for political and social theorists to borrow, and vice versa. It is up to those of us with ambitions to turn the world upside down who must determine what concepts get used, for what function, and where they come from.

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