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A Checklist to Define the Psychological Processes*

Una Lista de Control Para Definir los Procesos Psicológicos

Um Check-list para Definir os Processos Psicológicos

Ricardo Tamayo
Jacobs University Bremen, Germany

Abstract Resumen Resumo

This essay explores a conceptual definition of El ensayo tiene como objetivo explorar una de- Neste ensaio exploro uma definição conceitual
psychological processes. Previous researchers finición conceptual de los procesos psicológicos. de processos psicológicos. Pesquisadores prece-
from the fields of psychology and neuroscience Investigadores contemporáneos en psicología y dentes da psicologia e neurociência notaram que
have noted that improving the definition of psy- neurociencia han observado que mejorar la defi- melhorando a definição de processos psicológi-
chological processes may be extremely useful to nición de los procesos psicológicos puede ser ex- cos poderia ser extremamente útil para contri-
help current efforts to map the neurobiological tremadamente útil para contribuir a los intentos buir com os esforços atuais para mapear a base
basis of psychological phenomena. In this essay I actuales de localizar las bases neurobiológicas neurobiológica do fenômeno psicológico. Sugiro
suggest a conceptual path in which psychological de los fenómenos psicológicos. En este ensayo uma via conceitual na qual os processos psicoló-
processes might be characterized by their mate- sugiero una alternativa conceptual en la que los gicos possam ser caracterizados pelas suas causas
rial, efficient, formal, and final causes. I briefly procesos psicológicos podrían ser caracterizados materiais, causas eficazes, causas formais e cau-
explore the potential use of this way of defining por sus causas materiales, formales, eficientes y sas finais. Brevemente exploro o uso potencial
psychological processes for neuroscience and finales. Brevemente exploro el potencial de esta deste modo de definir os processos psicológicos
psychology, and also comment on the effect it forma de definir los procesos psicológicos en para a neurociência e psicologia, e suas possíveis
may have for the traditional distinction between neurociencias y en psicología, así como sus po- implicações para a distinção tradicional entre
basic and higher-order processes. sibles implicaciones en la distinción tradicional processos básicos e processos superiores.
entre procesos básicos y procesos superiores.

Keywords: Aristotle, psychological processes, Palabras clave: Aristóteles, procesos psicológi- Palavras-chave: Aristóteles, processos psicológi-
definition, material cause, efficient cause, formal cos, definición, causa material, causa eficiente, cos, definição, causa material, causa eficaz, causa
cause, final cause, neuroscience. causa formal, causa final, neurociencia. formal, causa final, neurociência.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Ricardo Tamayo, e-mail: tamayor@gmail.com. Akademie Schloss Solitude, Solitude 3,
70197, Stuttgart, Germany.

R ECIBIDO: 4 de ag osto del 2011 - ACEPTA DO: 7 de octu br e del 2011

* I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their comments and corrections.

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322 R ica rd o Ta m ay o

Psychological Processes hand, and by the nature of hypothetical psycho-

Do you believe that you react similarly to logical processes, on the other. Today, many in-
equivalent situations? Despite the fact that there fluential psychologists and neuroscientists claim
are outstanding variations in human behavior, that contemporary progress in the available
this is of course, a fundamental point of depar- observation techniques will lead to an immi-
ture for psychological science: the assumption nent integration between the neurosciences and
that there are recurring patterns in behavior and psychological sciences (Poldrack, 2006; Posner
its concomitant emotions and thoughts. Nor- & Rothbart, 2007). The high number of publi-
mally, psychologists refer to these behavioral cations in the domain of cognitive neuroscience
patterns and their underlying mechanisms as and behavioral neuroscience clearly support this
psychological processes. claim. Psychological research has provided us
In a previous short essay, targeted at a with a great deal of empirical characterizations,
broader audience (Tamayo, 2010), I was inter- detailed models, and clever research techniques
ested in exploring the way in which psycholo- to tackle the study of basic and higher-order
gists customarily define psychological processes. psychological processes. Unfortunately, it is not
For instance, most text-books in psychology dis- equally clear whether psychological science has
tinguish between basic (perception, attention, contributed significantly to the improvement of
emotion, etc.) and higher-order psychological its conceptual elements, especially, to defining
processes (abstraction, thinking, language, etc.). and organizing the taxonomy of hypothetical
Similar classifications are implicitly assumed in psychological process under study. Maybe for
bachelor programs of psychology at universities this reason there are still hotly debated questions
and in research journals. What distinguishes regarding the future of psychology. For example,
basic from higher-order processes? Is this only is it possible to reduce all psychological prin-
a methodological distinction brought out to or- ciples to neurobiological characterizations? Or
ganize different fields of research? Or are there might psychology and neurosciences coexist as
actually reasons suggesting that our current independent sciences?
taxonomy corresponds to an ontological dis- I believe that the picture of the relation-
tinction among psychological processes? In the ship between psychology and neuroscience that
present essay, I address the definition of psycho- has emerged in recent years requires additional
logical processes, and I will try to identify some work to conceptually characterize psychological
of the critical questions that may help character- processes. For me, it has become increasingly
ize our current taxonomy of basic and higher- difficult to make sense of some approaches ad-
order psychological processes. opted in neuroscience. For instance Cacioppo
and Decety (2009) recently stated “that the hu-
Neuroscience and Psychology man brain is the organ of the mind is not in
One of the initial key reasons I had for dispute” (p. 10). They later suggested that “the
addressing this topic is related to the current identification of the brain mechanisms underly-
developments in behavioral and cognitive neu- ing specific psychological processes requires the
roscience. Seventy years ago, it seemed to be an accurate specification of psychological process-
open question whether or not the neural sub- es” (p. 12). I actually believe that many important
strates of psychological processes were suscep- reasons and empirical research indeed dispute
tible of direct observation (e.g., Lashley, 1930). the assumption that “the brain is the organ of
Research was mainly constrained by severe limi- the mind”. A strong argument, for instance, was
tations in observation techniques, on the one developed by Putnam (1973), who stated that

DEPARTAMENTO DE PSICOLOGÍA   Fa c u lta d d e C i e n c ia s H u m a n a s   U n i v e r s i d a d N a c i o n a l d e C o l o m b i a


“from the fact that the behavior of a system can –not necessarily a deterministic one- to attain
be deduced from its description as a system of changes in behavior, emotion, or thought.
elementary particles it does not follow that it can Psychological processes are a way to explain
be explained from that description” (p. 131). In changes in the behavior of individual organisms
consequence, Putnam’s analysis would invali- and are formulated as a series of organized
date Cacioppo and Decety’s assumption that the changes in the “state” of that organism and its
brain is the organ of the mind without one hav- environment. In traditional functionalist terms,
ing to accept Putnam’s thesis of multiple realiz- the state of an organism refers to a description
ability. Similarly, Killeen and Glenberg (2010) of the configuration of the internal components
have recently reviewed empirical evidence of the organism in relation to the role they play
showing that an extended notion of cognition in the system of which the organism is a part,
-in which not only the brain but also the whole this is, its environment. Moreover, I suggest
nervous system is taken into account- might that psychological processes should also be
do a better job than traditional reductionist ap- characterized by (a) their biological substrates,
proaches in integrating a broad range of empiri- (b) the adaptive function they fulfill, and (c) a
cal findings (ranging, for instance, from change formalized description of the changes in the states
blindness to the Simon effect) that would seem of the organism and the environment. The first
otherwise scattered, as if they were fundamen- part of the above definition is relatively standard.
tally different phenomena (for more detail see It understands a process as a series of changes in
Killeen & Glenberg, 2010). the states of an organism, and the environmental
However, noticing some shortcomings of conditions triggering those changes. In this
this received brain-centered approach does not sense, the environment is considered the efficient
mean in any way that neurobiology and brain cause for the psychological processes. The second
imaging techniques are irrelevant for under- part, however, adds to the standard definition
standing psychological processes; it simply em- the Aristotelian idea that an explanation also
phasizes the idea that psychological processes requires consideration of the material causes
may not exclusively be accounted for by reducing (the biological substrates), the final causes (the
them to an inferior (brain-based) level of expla- adaptive function), and the formal causes (the
nation. In this precise sense, I strongly agree with abstract description of the changes in the state
Caccioppo and Decety´s claim that psychology of the organism). In a nutshell, I suggest that a
needs to specify in more detail the psychologi- comprehensive conceptual characterization of a
cal processes it studies, which, of course, have psychological process would require formulating
to be consistent with neurobiological findings. its corresponding efficient, material, formal, and
This would not only help neuroscience increase final causes.
the battery of paradigms and concepts needed Consider, for example, defining the process
to study the biological mechanisms of cognitive of learning as a relatively permanent change in
and emotional processes, but also acknowledge behavior determined by previous experience.
the genuine role that psychology plays in formu- In this definition, the efficient cause of learning
lating and identifying its own object of study. would be equivalent to the specific environmen-
tal events that trigger, afford, and provide feed-
Characterizing Psychological back to the learning process. The material cause
Processes would correspond to the body; especially the
A psychological process is a series of steps central and the peripheral nervous system, but
or mechanisms that occur in a regular way also the genetic endowment and the endocrine

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324 R ica rd o Ta m ay o

system that play key modulating roles in the distinguish between the psychological process of
learning processes. The formal cause may be abstraction and its involvement as an underlying
represented by a negatively accelerated power process to account for everyday psychological
function typical of practice, commonly ob- phenomena like deception and lying (e.g., Ariely
served in extended patterns of learning. The fi- & Norton, 2007).
nal cause is an increase in the survival likelihood A related issue commonly found in today’s
of the organism and its genetic endowment. Let experimental research is the focus on a single
me provide an additional example from the field task or experimental paradigm without specify-
of decision-making under uncertainty. For in- ing the criteria to group together or to separate
stance, deciding between (a) a 70% chance of the different research programs using this task.
winning $100, or (b) a 35% chance of winning Consider, for instance, the vast amount of re-
$250. In this form of decision-making, the ef- search that has investigated the effects associated
ficient cause is the set of alternatives presented to the Stroop task. The usual relative increase
to the participant. The material cause is the in the reaction time to the name of the colors
prefrontal cortex, modulated by dopaminergic printed in an incongruent ink-color has been the
channels that modulate sensitivity to rewards. focus of research from the perspective of mul-
The formal cause may be Bernoulli´s utility tiple psychological processes, such as attention,
function, and the final cause is the maximiza- motor learning, working memory, language ac-
tion of utility. quisition, so on. For example, when the Stroop
I regard this characterization as a useful task is used to study motor learning, it would be
checklist in psychology and neuroscience to ex- useful to formulate the four hypothetical causes
plicitly formulate definitions of the psychologi- of the process in order to distinguish it from the
cal processes under study. However, I would like cases in which the task is used to study attention.
to emphasize that this definition is not meant to Particularly, this formulation in terms of the four
prescribe, in the sense that any characterization elements proposed above is especially helpful be-
of a psychological process has to fulfill these req- cause the hypothetical final causes of these two
uisites. Some philosophers of science like Paul processes might be quite different. In the case of
Feyerabend (1975) have made it clear that pre- attention, the final cause might be to select and
scriptions such as the scientific method cannot filter irrelevant information; in the case of motor
automatically ensure interesting and innovative learning, the final cause might be to prepare and
research results. In consequence, considering to program frequently required responses.
and formulating the efficient, material, formal,
and final causes of a psychological process is Consequences for a Taxonomy
only conceived as a guideline that may increase of Psychological Processes
the clarity of theories and models, the preci- In my previous essay on the topic of psy-
sion of the communication of research results, chological processes, I took the widely used
and the organization of the different levels of classification mainly popularized by Vygotski
explanation. in which basic processes are distinguished from
An additional advantage of formulating higher-order psychological processes. Unfortu-
psychological processes in terms of the four Ar- nately, I have not found in Vygotski or in other
istotelian causes is that it may also contribute to classical writings like James’s Principles of Psy-
distinguishing between the notion of psycho- chology (1890), further explanations about why
logical processes and the notion of plain psycho- this classification should be adopted. Which is
logical events. For example, it is very useful to the key criterion to take for granted this binary

DEPARTAMENTO DE PSICOLOGÍA   Fa c u lta d d e C i e n c ia s H u m a n a s   U n i v e r s i d a d N a c i o n a l d e C o l o m b i a


classification of psychological processes? And higher-order process? An alternative way to or-

furthermore, is this classification a plain meth- ganize psychological processes may be based on
odological distinction? Or does it also indicate a relative criterion instead of an absolute crite-
something substantially different in the nature rion. A relative criterion consists, for example,
of basic and higher-order processes? in the assumption that higher psychological
Before tackling these questions I should processes are those in which a combination of at
first distinguish between absolute and relative least two basic psychological processes underlies
criteria commonly used to tell apart different or subserves other higher-order process. Con-
types of psychological processes. An example versely, basic processes cannot be accounted for
of an absolute criterion is consciousness, in the by any combination or reduction to some other
sense that any process that requires conscious psychological processes.
effort may be classified as complex or belonging More precisely, I would like to advance
to the group of higher-order processes, whereas the idea that defining psychological processes
any process that does not require consciousness in terms of their material, efficient, formal, and
may be classified as a basic process. This abso- final causes may also help to distinguish be-
lute criterion does quite a good job in organiz- tween basic and higher-order processes. In other
ing many research fields. From this perspective, words, whenever another Psychological Process
for instance, most bottom-up processes involved A is invoked to account for the material, effi-
in perception, associative learning, or emotion cient, formal or final cause of a Process B, then
might be classified within the basic type of pro- Process B constitutes a higher-order process. For
cesses. Whereas top-down processes like rea- example, according to the relative criterion I en-
soning, judgment, or decision-making might dorsed above, memory processes may subserve
be sorted as higher-order processes. Another, most forms of learning because otherwise there
more classical, example of an absolute criterion would be no way to explain the retention of pre-
would be to ask whether a certain psychological viously acquired information or skills evident in
process is exclusive for humans or whether it is learning tasks. Interestingly, this use of a relative
shared by other species. In this sense, processes criterion may generate a more detailed taxono-
such as language would constitute an example of my of psychological processes that surpass the
higher processes, whereas associative learning current binary distinction between basic and
would be an instance of basic processes, mainly higher-order processes. In principle, the classifi-
because the first is only present in humans but cation cannot contain more than five degrees of
the latter is shared across various species. This is, freedom because any hypothetical higher-order
by the way, the classification approach presum- process cannot have more than the four different
ably adopted by Vygotski to distinguish between Aristotelian types of causes.
basic and higher-order processes. The landmark An additional advantage is that this kind of
of higher order processes for Vygotski lies in the definition in terms of the four causes may help
unique human ability of internalizing socially to further clarify circumstances in which psy-
constructed practices such as the use of signs chological processes are also used to describe
(Vygotski & Cole, 1978). fields of research. Note that this thesis only con-
One difficulty with absolute criteria is that cerns psychological processes but not to psycho-
it becomes hard to define them. For example, logical events. This is so because psychological
is consciousness a psychological process? Or events normally require the identification of the
is it simply a psychological state? Should con- primary and subsidiary psychological processes
sciousness itself be classified as a basic or as a that underlie them. For instance, to return to a

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326 R ica rd o Ta m ay o

previous example, the psychological event of ly- that lead to the formation of a set of conditioned
ing may be explained by appealing to a process responses. The material cause is the amygdala
of abstracting the costs and anticipating possible and the hippocampus. The formal cause may be
negative consequences for telling the truth. The described by the Rescorla-Wagner model. The
primary phenomenon of deception is, in turn, final cause is to improve the adaptation to his
subserved by other processes such as language, everyday environment.
abstraction, memory, emotion, and motivation.
In this case, because lying is a psychological Discussion
event but not a psychological process in itself I have suggested that the meaning of psy-
(despite the fact that it is accounted for in terms chological processes as explanatory tools in the
of different psychological processes) we cannot construction of theories may be clarified by us-
argue that lying is in itself an explanatory psy- ing the four Aristotelian causes. This implies
chological process. Therefore, different research- that research centered on the brain mechanisms
ers interested in the psychological phenomena of psychological processes covers mainly the
related to lying may actually be studying differ- material causes. I have also suggested that rela-
ent psychological processes. They might be even tive definitions of psychological processes may
studying sociological and biological processes. be based on the idea that basic psychological
Finally, for the sake of clarity, I would like processes do not have another psychological
to provide an everyday example to distinguish process lying in the core explanation of either
between psychological processes, psychological its material, efficient, formal, or final causes,
phenomena, psychological events, and states. A whereas higher-order psychological processes
friend of mine was always afraid of driving, af- invoke another subsidiary process as at least one
ter having an accident. When he knew he had to of its causes. Further conceptual research on this
drive he displayed some strong somatic markers topic could investigate specific research fields
of anxiety. I told him that Pavlovian condition- and attempt to find key explanatory causes usu-
ing may play a key role in the configuration of ally invoked within them to check whether a few
his phobia and I advised him to go to psycho- psychological processes and principles are ulti-
therapy. His therapist conducted a desensitiza- mately formulated within each field.
tion treatment and taught him a few relaxation
techniques. Now my friend can drive again. References
In this example, Pavlovian conditioning is the Ariely, D. & Norton, M. I. (2007). Psychology and
psychological process used to account for my experimental economics: A gap in abstraction.
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DEPARTAMENTO DE PSICOLOGÍA   Fa c u lta d d e C i e n c ia s H u m a n a s   U n i v e r s i d a d N a c i o n a l d e C o l o m b i a


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