The Psychology of Communication



knows he does not know
and sees that Jill
does not know she knows,
by telling Jack
what Jack knows that he does not know
Jill helps Jack to help Jill
to know she knows
what she does not know she knows

R. D. Laing
Knots, Page 62

1.1 Psychology is Difficult

A science is the study of a system. A system is a set of elements interrelated so that any change in one element leads to predictable changes in the other elements. If there is no system, then there is no prediction; if there is no prediction, then there is no science. A science is, therefore, I repeat, the study of a system. Physics is the study of the atom, astronomy is the study of the universe, psychology is the study of the person

Since the person is the system which studies all the other systems, psychology is the central science.1 Psychologists pay a price for this central role. The fact that the subject and the object are the same in our discipline (that is, one person is studying another person) leads to much conceptual confusion. Indeed, some philosophers of science have argued that our story will always be a to-be-continued story because it is no more possible for a system to fully understand itself than for a system to fully eat itself.

Further confusion arises when the process being studied is the same as the process by which it is studied (that is, one person is communicating about another person communicating). The issue is even further muddled by the fact that each person can study him/herself (that is, I can not only communicate about you communicating but I can communicate about me communicating). This can lead to an infinite regress, as I communicate about myself communicating about communicating about communicating, and so on, or it can lead to an eternal shuttle, as I communicate about you communicating about me communicating about you communicating, and so on. This results in the eternal shuttles and infinite regresses portrayed in Figure 1-1 and illustrated by the epigram at the beginning of this chapter.

Communicating is something which we all do naturally day by day. In this book, we will be communicating about communicating. There is a danger that we will be confused by this meta-communication. Like the legendary centipede which began to think about how it walked, we could find ourselves tripping over our own feet. However, it is more likely that it will raise our consciousness of our consciousness, and improve our communication.

A second difficulty is that the system studied by psychologists is the most complex of all systems. The human brain which is central control for the nervous system, which is, in turn, central control for the person, contains more than 10 billion cells. These cells (variously described as the great raveled knot, the cerebral jungle, a can of spaghetti, or a bowl of porridge) may be combined in an uncountable number of ways. Such a system is much more complex than the atom, which has challenged our greatest minds for centuries and still retains much of its mystery. This is not rocket science. Rocket science is easy. It merely requires that we understand the simple mechanism we have built ourselves, Psychology requires us to understand the complex organisms created by nature.

A third difficulty is that there are certain ethical limitations to the ways in which our system can be studied. Physicists smash atoms and no one complains. Psychologists can not smash people without a roar of anguish from them and a roar of protest from others. Physicists may remove an element from their system to observe the effect and thus determine its function. Psychologists may not remove an element from their system (e.g. cut off another person's cerebellum) to observe the effect and thus determine its function. Of course, such restrictions on the extent to which a person can tamper with another are commendable and essential. I am not advocating that they be removed (indeed, they should be even more rigorous) but merely pointing to yet one more difficulty confronting the scientist foolhardy enough to choose the person as the system to study.

Lauren Slater describes the great psychological experiments of the 20th century [SLATER]. One of those experiments demonstrated that we would administer severe electric shocks to another person if told to do so by an authority figure. Another demonstrated that we would become brutal if assigned the role of a guard in a simulated prison. Ethical constraints ensure that such experiments could not be conducted in the 21st century. They would have to be replaced by experiments in which subjects filled out questionnaires about how they would behave in those circumstance. Thus, we march into the future bewildered by the fact that "nice" people commit atrocities. Perhaps such constraints have less to do with our ethical concerns about the mistreatment of subjects and more to do with our prejudices about our selves.

This brings us to a fourth difficulty - prejudice. The study of the person by the person is often opposed by the person. Many people who accept the application of scientific thinking to the world around them refuse to accept the application of scientific thinking to themselves.

Perhaps this attitude is a residue of the same violent reaction to the theories of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, which offended - or seemed to offend - the dignity of the person. Copernicus plucked us from the centre of the universe, where the geocentric theory placed us, and put us on a broken-off fragment of one of a myriad of stars. Darwin plucked us from an exclusive niche in this little world, where the theory of special creation placed us, and put us where we belong with the other animals. Freud dealt our dignity a further blow by arguing that we are not even rational animals but are driven by instinctive forces of which we are not even aware. The reaction has become progressively less vicious. Things are getting better all the time. The contemporaries of Copernicus tried to burn his body; those of Darwin burned his books; those of Freud simply burned. There is still a whiff of burning in the air.

My personal prejudice is that it is not at all offensive to the dignity of the person to be studied. The beauty of the rainbow is not marred by passing it through the spectroscope. Indeed, it is yet more awesome when understood. It is refreshing that we have finally summoned up enough courage to look ourselves straight in the eye and accept as much truth as we can manage about ourselves rather than continuing to believe what we want to believe. I agree with Hans Selye, the brilliant medical researcher at the University of Montreal, that "the ugliest truth is more beautiful than the loveliest pretense ".

Whether we should or should not study ourselves is, however, a purely academic question. We have been turning the searchlight of science on ourselves for some time in the past, we are doing it now at present, and we will continue to do so in the future. Our curiosity will not be curbed by force or by fiat. I can only report to you what we are doing and leave to you the question of whether we should or should not be doing it. An informed public is the best insurance that the study of people by people will benefit people.

1   Every professor will, of course, tell you that their discipline is central. Whenever you hear this, you should activate your bullshit-detectors or bummer meters or whatever they are currently called. In this case, however, it is true. The other professors are wrong!