Open Journal of Philosophy
2012. Vol.2, No.2, 143-152
Published Online May 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 143
Psychology as an Associational Science:
A Methodological Viewpoint
Sam S. Rakover
Department of Psychology, University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel
Received March 20th, 2012; revised April 17th, 2012; accepted April 30th, 2012
Unlike the sciences (physics), psychology has not developed in any of its areas (such as perception,
learning, cognition) a top-theory like Newtonian theory, the theory of relativity, or quantum theory in
physics. This difference is explained by a methodological discrepancy between the sciences and psychol-
ogy, which centers on the measurement procedure: in psychology, measurement units similar to those in
physics have not been discovered. Based on the arguments supporting this claim, a methodological dis-
tinction is made between the sciences and psychology as an associational science. It is suggested that that
these two kinds of science generate two different classes of technologies. The possibility that in psychol-
ogy there is a connection between the issue of measurement and the unsolved consciousness/brain prob-
lem is discussed.
Keywords: Philosophy of Psychology; Methodology; Philosophy of Science and Mind
Since 1879, the year in which Wilhelm Wundt, whom many
psychologists consider as a leading figure in founding psy-
chology as a science, established the first laboratory for psy-
chology in Leipzig, 132 years have passed (In view of the com-
plexity of the history of psychology and its interpretations, I
attempt to briefly describe its main changes in as factual manner
as I can (e.g., Leahey, 1992, 2004)). 132 years is a considerable
stretch, and calls for a comparison of the achievements of psy-
chology with the achievements of the natural sciences. True,
the latter are older (e.g., Newton published his Principia in
1687, namely 324 years ago, and Levoisier published his work
on the elements of chemistry in 1789, namely 222 years ago)
(e.g., Gribbin, 2004; Leahey, 2004). These time differences not-
withstanding, one salient difference between the natural sci-
ences and psychology may be pointed out: psychology has not
developed in any of its areas (such as perception, learning, cog-
nition) a top-theory like Newtonian theory, the theory of rela-
tivity, or quantum theory in physics.
Since its founding, psychology has undergone enormous
changes in its research programs. Three major changes are these:
from the science of mental life, consciousness, to the science of
behavior; and then to the science of cognition, information
processing. At first psychology defined itself as research into
conscious experience, when the main research instrument was
introspection (that is, an internal observation by the individual
of her consciousness for the purpose of breaking it down to its
basic components). In parallel a development occurred in the
research of behavior, and in 1913, in an article published in the
Psychological Review, Watson heralded the behaviorist ap-
proach: research into consciousness was to be cast aside, and
attention was to be concentrated on controlled observations of
behavior, because while the previous approach was subjective,
the behaviorist approach was objective. The late 1950s was a
period of rapid development of cognitive psychology; this ap-
proach maintained that cognitive processes (conscious and un-
conscious) had to be investigated, based on an analogy with the
model of the computer as a mechanism that processes informa-
tion, that is, a mechanism that represents reality in physical
symbols and performs computational operations on them (e.g.,
Neisser, 1967; Sternberg, 2009).
Although this approach predominates still today (about 50
years on) in psychology, it too has caused unease. In the 1980s
several other approaches appeared that highlight a number of
aspects in psychological research that were neglected by the
cognitive approach (which is essentially mechanistic): study of
the personality in its entirety, importance of free will, and phe-
nomenology (e.g., Gross, 2009). In approximately the last 20
years psychology has begun to emphasize research on neuron-
physiological mechanisms in the brain and their relation to
behavior and consciousness. These topics have been investi-
gated with one of the most popular technique in neuroimaging,
functional magnetic imaging (fMRI). Diener (2010) believes
that “The perception seems to be that the proponents of imaging
are saying that most of what went before in psychology was
rather worthless, and we now finally have the effective tool to
truly understand psychology in a scientific way” (p. 714). And
Shimamura (2010) has proposed “ I am convinced that the
1990s will be viewed as the beginning of the cognitive neuron-
science revolution” (p. 722).
What I wish to stress in this short historical account is the
changes in the development of psychology, its instability, a
state having to do with the failure to develop a top-theory in
any domain at all. Psychologists are liable to recoil from this
depiction, to say that it is too cutting, and to pull out as counter
examples several broad psychological theories, for example,
Freud’s psychoanalytic theory or Hull’s theory of learning (e.g.,
Hilgard & Bower, 1966; Marx & Cronan-Hillix, 1987). True,
these theories won great popularity in their day, but within
about two decades it transpired that they had failed empirically
and theoretically. Today it is hard to find researchers who be-
lieve in them (The great influence of psychoanalysis on litera-
ture and on everyday discourse is a different story altogether,
because this influence is in no way an empirical test of psy-
choanalytic theory by the methodology of science.). Even
learning theory that Pavlov developed in his day has been re-
futed—although his experiments are still today the cornerstone
in the field of animal learning (see Kimble, 1961). Several re-
cent attempts to propose a general theory, such as Newell’s
(1992) SOAR, were developed on the basis of the AI approach
to cognition. Although SOAR has made significant contribu-
tions to understanding cognition, it has received much criticism
and has aroused controversies (see, e.g., Cooper & Shallice,
1995; Garcia-Marques & Ferreira, 2011; Lewis, 2001). Re-
cently, De Houwer, Fiedler, & Moors (2011) have suggested
that the era of gathering empirical findings has ended and the
time has come to focus on developing theoretical explanations.
It is important to emphasis that even cognitive psychology
has not developed a top-theory. In 1973 Newell wrote a famous
article following a conference on processing visual information,
in which he expressed pessimistic views on the condition of
psychology. He summarized the presentations and concluded
that cognitive psychology could be regarded as a collection of
interesting phenomena that were not explained by a uniform
cognitive theory. Each phenomenon was explained by local
hypotheses, namely those linked directly to the given phe-
nomenon, where these ultimately came down to two contrasting
hypotheses, for example, memory based on one mechanism as
opposed to two mechanisms. This state of affairs, Newell sug-
gested, was likely to continue for many years. And sure enough,
as it turns out, it continues to characterize cognitive psychology
to this day: psychological research is fractionated (e.g., Gar-
cia-Marques & Ferreira, 2011; Meiser, 2011).
The question is how may this difference—the lack of top-
theory in psychology—between psychology and the natural
sciences be explained? The answer, I believe, lies in the wide
methodological difference between the sciences and psychol-
ogy, which centers on the procedure of measurement. So first I
shall consider this difference, which separates two kinds of
science: one that characterizes physics, chemistry, and the other
fields of the natural sciences, and the other a science that I call
“associational science”, which is characteristic of psychology.
Then I shall consider the implications of this science for tech-
nology. At the end I briefly speculate on the possible connec-
tion between this difference and the mind/body (conscious-
ness/brain) problem.
The Measurement Problem: In Psychology
Measurement Units Similar to Those in Physics
Have Not Been Discovered
To fathom the difference between these two kinds of science
I have first to briefly outline a theory in the sciences on whose
structure a psychological theory has been developed (e.g.,
Rakover, 1990, 2007; Suppe, 1977, 1979). One may roughly
sketch the structure of a theory in physics (for simplicity I will
refer in the present paper to classical physics) as based on two
levels of analysis, the theoretical and the observational, where
the theoretical level represents and explains certain aspects of
the observational level, the phenomenon under study. For ex-
ample, Galileo’s law accounts for a free-falling body by ap-
pealing to the force of gravity and by representing time and
distance of the falling body (see below). Similarly, a psycho-
logical theory may be seen as based on these two levels of
Theoretical level: {Stimuli & Processes} Behavior
On the theoretical level we try to predict the INDIVIDUAL’s
BEHAVIOR (Behavior) by means of representation of the
STIMULI (Stimuli) and certain hypothesized Processes (cogni-
tive, neurophysiological), that is, Behavior = f(Stimuli, Proc-
esses). The theoretical level, therefore, represents certain as-
pects of the observational level and attempts to reflect the
processes taking place in the individual, which are responsible
for her behavior in a given state of stimuli. (Note that by this
formulation of the structure of a theory as based on two levels
of analysis—theoretical and observational, it is not obligatory
to distinguish sharply theoretical from observational concepts, a
distinction that has been criticized severely. Despite this criti-
cism, in psychology this distinction is customarily made be-
tween theoretical concepts such as information, processing
information, perception, and short-term memory, and observa-
tional concepts such as reaction-time, response strength, and
correct response, see Rakover, 1990.)
The major difference between psychology and the sciences
resides in the attempts to connect the concepts on the theoretic-
cal level to the concepts on the observational level (to bridge
the theory-observation gap). The difference is expressed in an
important measurement property. While in physics the bridge
over the theory-observation gap is based on the use of real
measurement units (e.g., a ruler to measure distance and a bal-
ance to measure weight), in psychology the bridge is based on
the use of hypothetical measurement units that are indexed by
one’s responses (e.g., a just noticeable difference in psycho-
physics is indexed by one’s decisional responses). So while in
physics one develops a theory that uses theoretical concepts
connected to observations through the use of real measurement
units, in psychology theoretical concepts are connected to ob-
servations (behavior) through the assumption of hypothetical
measurement units. This measurement property (real/hypo-
thetical) is associated with several other interesting measure-
ment properties, which are discussed below. To clarify the dif-
ference, I exemplify first the way physics measures its basic
concepts that appear in its laws and theories; then I will con-
sider psychology.
Let us look as an example at Galileo’s law, the law of free-
falling bodies: S = 1/2GT2, where S stands for distance, T for
time, and G acceleration of the body due to the force of gravity.
The important point I wish to stress in this example is the way
in which concepts are measured, that is, the empirical meas-
urement: S distance and T time (G is a theoretical concept that
cannot be measured in the same way as distance and time).3
Without entering into the ongoing debate about the various
theoretical approaches to such basic terms as property, number,
and measurement, here I describe measurement as a process in
which the relation between a certain quantitative property of a
given object and a unit of measurement of this property is re-
vealed empirically (e.g., Coombs, Dawes, & Tversky, 1970;
Hand, 2004; Michell, 1999). For example, if we have a straight
stick of length A, and we find that another stick of length M
(which we arbitrarily determine as our unit of measurement,
e.g., the meter), goes into A ten times from end to end, we have
discovered that length A is ten lengths M (i.e., A/M = 10). Al-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
though what we have found here seems trivial at a glance, this
procedure carries huge significance, on which physics rests.
The essential point in this measuring is that scientists found
an empirical operation (counting how many times M goes into
the length of the measured object), which upholds mathematical
properties that define the world of numbers on which the
mathematical signs in physical theory are based. To illustrate
this, let us look at the following two properties: transitivity and
additivity. The transitive relation states, for example, that if (20
> 10) and (10 > 5), then (20 > 5); and the additive relation pro-
poses that (5 + 15) = 20. These relations exist in the group of
sticks A, B, C:
B| ---------------|
As a first step, we define a natural and arbitrary unit of meas-
urement of length by means of the section (-); as a second step
we count how many times this unit goes into A (20 times), into
B (15 times), and into C (5 times); and as a third step, we see
that indeed the lengths of the three sticks uphold the transitive
relation, because A is greater than B, B is greater than C, and A
is greater than C; and also the additive relation, because A = B
+ C (20 = 15 + 5). In other words, measuring the length allows
scaling the group of sticks not only on the ordinal scale (whose
values are arranged according to the relation X is greater than Y
without knowing by how much, as, for example, in military
ranks), but also on the interval scale (whose values are arranged
according to the relation X is greater than Y by a certain quan-
tity, for example, A is longer than B by 5 units of length).
Measurement of length of an object by means of a natural,
real and arbitrary unit of measurement maintains all the mathe-
matical properties of numbers, so it transpires that what we say
by means of numbers will also be said by means of the lengths
of the sticks. And this, to my mind, is the strongest tie that may
be made between theory and observation. The same may be
said of several quantitative properties of this kind, for example,
weight and time. (Measurement of weights is based on the use
of scales, and measurement of time is based on the use of a
periodic phenomenon, such as the earth revolving around the
sun. Physics utilizes other quantitative measures that I shall not
deal with, because the measurement theory that underlies them
is not simple, and is not presentable easily and intuitively like
measurement of length.)
And now let us pass on to psychology: in psychology, is the
connection between theory and observation based on the pro-
cedures outlined above? It is not. Psychologists connect con-
cepts to observations by utilizing an “operational definition,”
which holds that the meaning of a concept is obtained by de-
tailing the processes of observation. For example, learning is
defined by means of counting the correctly solved problems;
aggression is defined by the number of words or motor move-
ments deemed threatening in a certain culture; fear is defined
by distance of flight; time is defined by subjective estimate of
the physical time lapse between two events; and the cognitive
effort required to solve a given problem is defined as the length
of time—latency—it takes to solve this problem. Do these ex-
amples substantiate that in psychology the theory-observation
relation is as close as in physics? In my view they do not, prin-
cipally because of the above-mentioned difference: for the
physical dimensions, real units of measurement have been dis-
covered (e.g., of length, weight, time); but for the psychological
dimensions (e.g., sensation, perception, memory, i.e., the indi-
vidual’s inner world) no such units have been revealed. Three
important measurement properties are associated with this dif-
Objectivity: like physicists, who attribute numbers to physic-
cal properties, for example, the length of this rod is five meters
(i.e., the unit of a meter goes five times into the rod from end to
end), psychologists attribute numbers to psychological proper-
ties, for example, on a scale that measures interest from one to
ten, David’s lecture is graded eight; the number of David’s
correct answers in the task of face recognition is seventy out of
a hundred; and so on. Is assigning numbers in psychology en-
dowed with the same measuring properties as it is in physics?
Again, it is not.
In physics, scientists ascribe numbers to physical properties
existing in the world, outside the human cognitive system; but
in psychology numbers are ascribed not to behavioral properties
existing in the world outside the human cognitive system, but to
stimuli as the human perceives them. As an example, we may
look at the famous Müller-Lyer illusion:
The physicist finds that the length of the right-hand line is
identical to that of the left-hand line, but the participant in the
psychology experiment ascribes a smaller numerical value to
the left-hand line than to the right-hand one. The reason is this:
while the physicist assigns numbers to physical properties lo-
cated outside the cognitive system, that is, he finds that the unit
of measurement of length goes precisely the same number of
times into the right-hand and into the left-hand line, the person
in the psychology experiment responds to the right-hand and
the left-hand stimuli according to the information processing
that is taking place in her perceptual system and finds signify-
cant expression in her consciousness: the left-hand line is short-
er than the right-hand one.
A researcher who believes that measurement in psychology
equals the measurement in physics may propose that the size of
this illusion can be measured by the following procedure: move
the right-hand line to the left until it looks the same as the
left-hand line. The difference between the subjectively adjusted
length and the objective length is considered an index reflecting
the size of the illusion. However, the index is no more than an
expression of the information processing taking place in one’s
perceptual system. In fact, this procedure results in what is
called the “point of subjective equality”, which is different from
the “point of objective equality” measured by a ruler.
The logic behind this comment is relevant to other indexes
used by psychologists, such as reaction time (latency) and per-
cent of correct responses. As an example, let us consider recog-
nition of faces, which is researched by employing the popular
procedure of yes/no recognition. In the study stage the partici-
pants view 20 different faces, and in the test stage they are
shown 40 faces (20 old and 20 new) and are asked to decide for
each face whether it is old or new. Face recognition is indexed
by percent correct recognition (100x number of correct recog-
nitions/40). This index is based on the participant’s old/new
response resulting from a certain hypothetical cognitive mecha-
nism that processes facial information. Face recognition is not
based on the physical visual form of the face per se. If it were,
one would predict that recognition of an upright face equaled
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 145
recognition of an inverted face—a prediction that contradicts
the face inversion effect (where recognition of inverted faces is
much lower than that of upright faces (e.g., Rakover, 2002a).
Given this, percent correct cannot be viewed as an objective
index in the sense described by the measurement of length. As a
behavioral index of recognition, percent correct can be biased
by several factors, for example, motivation. These biases can be
reduced by employing the Signal Detection Theory, which
proposes an improved index for recognition (the parametric d’
or the non-parametric A’) that is based on the participant’s
responses classified as hits and false-alarms (e.g., Macmillan &
Creelman, 2005). Still, the connection between the improved
index and the theoretical cognitive mechanism is hypothetical
and therefore measurement in this case is different from that
conducted in physics.
Separability: in physics, measurement of length, done with a
real measuring device (ruler, yardstick), is separable from the
phenomenon measured, whereas in psychology the measuring
is a part of the psychological phenomenon, of the individual’s
response to the state of stimulus, and they are inseparable. We
may illustrate this difference by a comparison of two experi-
ments: one in physics, the other in psychology.
Let us test Galileo’s law. A simple way is to measure the dis-
tance that a body in free fall travels in the course of one second,
two seconds, and so on, and to compare these distances with the
predictions of the distances derived from this law. The method
of conducting this experiment is straightforward, for example,
by photographing an iron ball falling freely with a camera that
is activated each second. So now, all we have to do is measure
with a ruler the distances the ball has traveled in the photos,
match the size of the photo to reality, and make the required
comparisons. The point I want to emphasize with this example
is that the use of a device (a ruler) to measure the distance is
separate from the behavior of an iron ball in a state of free fall.
Does a distinction of this kind exist in psychology? It does not.
To check this answer we shall examine a standard experi-
ment in psychology to measure the difference threshold [known
also as “just noticeable difference” (JND)], which may be con-
sidered as connected to a unit of measurement of the psycho-
logical dimension (sensation and perception) (e.g., Baird &
Noma, 1978; Gescheider, 1997; Stevens, 1975). The threshold
was discovered in experiments testing this question: given a
certain stimulus, what is the minimal change in this stimulus for
us to sense a change? For example, if a room is lit at certain
intensity, what is the minimal change in the light for the indi-
vidual to feel a change? Weber was the first researcher to find
that the difference threshold increased in fixed relation to the
increase in intensity of the physical stimulus for a given sen-
sory dimension (an empirical generalization called Weber’s
law). For example, according to his law a stimulus of intensity
11 has to be presented for sensing a change in the stimulus of
intensity 10, but a stimulus of intensity 1100 has to be pre-
sented for sensing a change in the stimulus intensity of 1000.
And another example: if we have 10 dollars, the addition of 1
dollar is significant; but will the addition of 1 dollar have the
same significance if we have in our possession 10,000 dollars?
Given Weber’s law, Fechner assumed that the changes in the
difference threshold match particular changes in the sensory
dimension, i.e., increase in the physical dimension matches
increase in the number of sensory measurement units of equal
size. This theoretical assumption about the sensory measure-
ment unit led to the development of Fechner’s law, stating that
sensation equals the logarithm of the intensity of the physical
stimulus [that is, the geometric change in the physical dimen-
sion (large change) is translated into arithmetical change in the
psychological dimension (small change)].
However, the concept of a sensory measurement unit is no
more than a hypothesis, whose methodological status is not
parallel to the real unit of measurement of length (the meter)
and its use which is separable from the investigated phenome-
non. This hypothesis obtains its strength from empirical find-
ings that accord with the predictions derived from Fechner’s
law. But not only do some findings not support this law, alter-
native theories and laws have even been proposed. One of these
is Stevens’ power law, developed on the basis of a hypothesis
contrary to Fechner’s: not only the physical dimension behaves
according to Weber’s law, so does the psychological (sensa-
Conscious experience: in most cases in psychology partici-
pants’ responses to stimuli are not a kind of purely motor move-
ments, automatic reflexes, but are responses carrying meaning
and consciousness. I raise my hand not as a pointless motor
movement but to say hello. Our responses, our actions, and our
deeds are replete with intentions, wishes, desires, feeling of
awareness—that is, with conscious experiences.
Still, for the conscious experience no unit of measurement
has as yet been found as it has for length. For example, one
cannot take the conscious experience of a taste of lemon (not
the physical stimulus, the lemon juice, which can be measured
with great precision), define for it a measurement unit of the
sensation of lemon taste (the meter of the lemon, ML) and use it
to measure the sensation of lemon taste L, so that we would
obtain, for example, L/ML = 10, that is, the sensation of lemon
taste L is ten times ML (ten units of sensation of lemon taste). It
is not possible to take the emotion of love, define a measure-
ment unit of love (the meter of love, Mlove), and say that Jacob
loves Rachel ten and half units of love more than he loves Leah.
By this example I do not mean to suggest that one cannot say
that Jacob loves Rachel much more than Leah, only that a
measurement unit of love (Mlove) has not been discovered like
the natural unit of length (the meter) and in this respect it is not
possible to measure Jacob’s love for Leah, and say that it is 10
Mlove while his love for Rachel is 20.5 Mlove.
Here a qualification is needed. It may be said that use of a
measuring unit (e.g., the unit of a meter) is a sufficient condi-
tion for measurements to uphold properties of an interval scale
(like the scale of natural numbers), but this is not a necessary
condition. The reason is that although for psychological proper-
ties natural measurement units like the length unit have not yet
been discovered, findings have been obtained that show that in
certain cases a group of responses to several stimuli approaches
the properties characteristic of an interval scale. For example,
in the tone-bisection task a participant hear two tones, 1) high
loudness; and 2) low loudness, and is asked to produce subjec-
tively a tone whose loudness is halfway between these two
tones. Based on this task, a mathematical model has been de-
veloped that generates an interval scale on which it was possi-
ble to scale the tones produced by the participant, i.e., a good
match is revealed between the predictions derived from the
model and the participant’s behavior (e.g., Coombs, Dawes, &
Tversky, 1970).
Unit equivalency: the situation where psychology is not en-
dowed with measurement units as in physics is expressed in its
inability to fulfill the requirement I call “unit equivalency”
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
(based on dimensional analysis) (e.g., Rakover, 1997, 2002b).
According to unit equivalency, the combination of measure-
ment units on one side of the law’s or the theory’s equation
must be identical to the combination of the measurement units
on the other side of the equation. To explain this requirement,
let us look once more at Galileo’s law, that of free fall of bodies:
S = 1/2GT2. Now, since S is measured by the meter unit, the
expression GT2 must also be measured by the meter unit. And
indeed, a simple calculation shows that it is: meter = (meter/
time2) time2.
Does a psychological theory meet the requirement of unit
equivalency? It does not. Let us look for example at the overall
structure of theory in psychology: Behavior = f (Stimuli, Neu-
rophysiological processes, Cognitive processes). Now we ask if
the measurement units of the behavior are identical to the
measurement units of the stimulus, the neurophysiology, and
the cognitive processes. They are not. For example, the number
of correct responses is not identical to the physical units of the
brain processes (differences of electrical potential), to the units
with which the stimulus is measured (loudness of the noise), or
to the measurement units of cognitive processes (information
Yet here too a qualification is needed. For simplicity, I shall
look at the following fictitious and amusing example. Assume
that an association has been found between shirt size and intel-
ligence size (IQ): up to a certain age (the teens), as the size of
the shirt grows, so does IQ. Now let’s assume, again for sim-
plicity and frivolity, that the researchers have expressed this
connection in a “law”, which I shall call “intelligence-shirt”: IQ
= aS, where S signifies the shirt’s size and IQ signifies intelli-
gence. Clearly, this law does not meet the requirement of unit
equivalency, because the right side of the equation is measured
in centimeters and the left side in number of correct answers in
an intelligence test. But if one interprets the coefficient a as
expressing the intelligence/centimeter relation she may say that
even this law fulfills the present requirement (the equation has
intelligence on either side). The problem is that this interpreta-
tion is ad hoc, namely it is a contrived solution tailored-made
especially for this particular coefficient, and in no way parallels
the interpretations of the coefficients common in the sciences,
which are stable and their estimates do not change in different
conditions, i.e., they are general. For example, if another con-
nection is discovered between Normativeness (behavior in
keeping with social norms) and intelligence, IQ = bN, it will be
possible to interpret the coefficient b in the new “intelligence-
normativeness” law as expressing the intelligence/normative-
ness relation, and so on, up to an infinity of “laws” of this kind.
An additional problem to do with the intelligence-shirt law is
that the intelligence scores cannot be arranged on an interval
scale (hence their values are not addable or multipliable) whereas
centimeters can be arranged. Hence, from a mathematical
viewpoint it makes no sense to divide the intelligence score by
the shirt’s size as required by coefficient a (intelligence/centi-
In many cases an odd situation seems to be created in which
psychology plays the math game correctly without reflecting
psychology itself. Consider the following intuitive examples.
Assuming that Einstein’s intelligence level was very high (IQ =
150), is it possible to argue that his intelligence level was equal
to the total intelligence level of three imbeciles each of whom
had IQ = 50? And another example: it makes sense to say that if
the height of the Rubinstein Tower is 100 meters, and the dis-
tance between town A and town B is 10 kilometers, then the
distance between these two towns is 100 Rubinstein Towers.
By contrast, it is hard to say that if success in a literature test is
20% and success in a math test is 80%, then the success in math
is 4 successes in literature.
Measurement properties: I sum up the present discussion by
suggesting four major measurement properties by whose means
the measurement units in physics (e.g., length, weight, time)
and their use may be characterized; these properties have no
parallel in measurements conducted in psychology:
1) Real unit: real and not hypothetical units are used and are
selected arbitrarily according to convenience of operation;
2) Objectivity: The units are not affected by factors operating
on the phenomenon under study or by the measuring process
itself (if this property did not hold, objective measurement
would not be obtained either);
3) Separability: The units and their use by means of a meas-
uring device (e.g., ruler, meter, weight) are separate from the
phenomenon being measured;
4) Mathematical representation: Measurement by means of
real units (e.g., length, weight, time) are represented by num-
bers (on interval or ratio scales), so that what is obtained in
numbers is obtained precisely in measurements in physics, and
the requirement of unit equivalency is fulfilled.
As can be seen from this list of measurement properties, the
methodological difference between physics and psychology is
much more than the mere declaration that IQ scores are not
scaled on an interval scale—a statement that students in psy-
chology learn in their first year. Since psychology does not
reveal these properties, one may propose that while the the-
ory-observation gap is tightly bridged in physics, it is loosely
bridged in psychology.
Science and Associational Science
This difference between physics and psychology in meas-
urement procedure and units brings me to the methodological
distinction between science (physics, chemistry, etc.) and an
associational science (psychology). According to this proposal,
not everything that can be realized methodologically in science
can be realized in psychology, but everything that can be real-
ized in psychology can be realized in science. First I shall try to
describe what can be realized methodologically in psychology
as an associational science.
In most research areas of associational science it is possible
to use methods such as conducting observations, proposing
explanations, constructing hypotheses and theories and testing
them empirically, constructing research and experimental de-
signs, analyzing results, and writing a scientific reports. How-
ever, contrary to science, the above measurement properties do
not characterize measurement in psychology: the measurement
unit is hypothetical, is not objective in the sense that it is af-
fected by the factors affecting behavior under study, is not
separable from behavior, and does not fulfill all the mathemati-
cal requirements of numbers.
Still, the research methods that can be utilized in psychology
allow an interesting and important accumulation of knowledge.
One may examine two kinds of association: stimulus and re-
sponse (response and stimulus), and response of one kind and
response of another kind. These associations can be investigated
by means of various research designs and statistical analysis.
For example, it is possible to investigate: the stimulus that ef-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 147
fects the individual’s response as compared with other stimuli;
the situation in which a behavior will be deemed rational (e.g.,
by maximization of profits); the nature of the connection be-
tween two responses such as that between neurophysiological
indexes (e.g., pulse, perspiration, and neuroimaging) and the
individual’s responses in tests of perception, learning and
memory. In all these instances, and their like, hypotheses may
be developed that explain the empirical link found in certain
conditions. In some special cases the link may be characterized
as a stable phenomenon which psychologists tend to take as an
empirical law (e.g., Weber’s, Fechner’s, and Stevens’ laws).
(However, Uttal, 2008, argued that these laws and others like
them may be artifacts, since their development involves the
process of averaging).
In science the methods practiced in associational science can
be operated, and it is also possible to operate fully the methods
based on the above measurement properties. These methods
become possible, as stated, because in the sciences (e.g., phys-
ics, chemistry) natural and real measurement units have been
discovered. By means of the measurements of length, weight,
time (and other measurement units) physics has succeeded in
developing complex concepts such as speed, acceleration, work,
and energy, based on combinations of these units of measure-
ment. The development of these concepts imparted to research-
ers the ability to develop equations that represent laws of con-
servation and conversion of energy, for example, the law of
conservation of energy, converting mechanical energy into heat,
converting magnetism into electricity and the reverse, turning
mass into energy, and explaining chemical properties by
chemical equations, where on either side the overall weight and
number of atoms are preserved. These achievements have made
it possible to develop general theories that explain a large col-
lection of empirical phenomena.
In psychology no such theoretical-empirical development has
occurred, because measurement units have not been discovered
and full use of the above measurement properties is impossible.
This situation is expressed in two important problems: validity
and multiplicity of dimensions.
To illustrate the validity problem we shall look at the term
“cognitive effort”, which is measured by latency (time of re-
sponse from the moment of presentation of the stimulus). Does
latency indeed measure solely the cognitive effort, in a way
similar to the theory-observation connection in physics? It does
not. Measuring the length of an object with a standard ruler
centers on this alone, and does not measure the color and kind
of material of which the object is made. Latency, by contrast, is
influenced by a large number of factors and various cognitive
processes, for example, tiredness, excitement, and interest,
which have no direct connection to the cognitive effort needed
to solve a problem. Furthermore, latency does not mirror only
the process connected to this effort, because it is not known
which cognitive processes go into action when the individual
tries to solve a problem. For example, does the individual need
more information located in her memory, and what is the speed
of retrieval of this information? Do these processes operate one
after the other or in parallel? A similar criticism may be leveled
against basic concepts in psychology: information and informa-
tion processing. In physics and the computer sciences these
concepts are defined as exact, but in psychology they form a
kind of catchall drawer in which one may place whatever there
is to be said about knowledge and the various ways in which
the brain treats knowledge, such as content, meanings, associa-
tions, ways of coding, and hypothetical storage and retrieval
(e.g., Pachella, 1974; Palmer & Kimchi, 1986).
The concepts of psychology are multi-dimensional, and in-
terpretable from different and varied viewpoints, but the con-
cepts of physics (length, weight, time) are one-dimensional.
Moreover, it is very hard to break down psychological concepts
into their one-dimensional components (try, for example, to
break down the concepts of love and envy, perception, memory,
or ego), but in physics the complex (multi-dimensional) con-
cepts are composed of one-dimensional concepts. For example,
speed is based on the relation between distance and time; ac-
celeration is based on the relation between distance and time
squared; and kinetic energy is based on the relation between
weight and speed squared. Furthermore, in psychology, because
the concepts are multi-dimensional, in many cases the transitive
relation is also broken: for example, our friend David believes
that Ruth is lovelier than Dana because of her green eyes; Dana
is better looking than Alisa because of her raven hair; but he
insists that actually Alisa is more beautiful than Ruth because
of her long fingers.
The conclusions that arise from the present discussion on the
situation of psychology are the following: its concepts are
vague and are loosely connected to observation—the concepts
are not anchored to measurements as in the sciences. As a result,
it is not easy to develop in psychology a top-theory under
which it would be possible to organize coherently various hy-
potheses, and to explain a large number of findings; this situa-
tion is instable, and allows dramatic changes in the conception
of psychology as a scientific discipline and in its research di-
rections—two conclusions in keeping with what was described
at the beginning of the article.
Implications for technology: The above discussion carries an
interesting implication for the kind of technology that psychol-
ogy is able to develop. If we take technology as a research field
concerned with applying scientific knowledge to realize practi-
cal goals, I propose the following two intuitive notions. First, if
one accepts that psychology is characterized as an associational
science, it will not be able to develop technologies based on a
higher level of knowledge than that about associations between
stimulus and response, between response and outcome, and
between responses. Second, psychology has not developed a
technology like that developed by the natural sciences, namely
a far-reaching technology that has transformed the face of the
entire world. That is, psychology has developed a secondary
First, I briefly discuss the first point—associational science.
Psychological scientific knowledge has been applied to diverse
areas of behaviors: clinical psychology, education, human fac-
tors, sport, communication and advertising, industrial/ogani-
zational psychology, eyewitness testimony—where each area is
divided into many sub-areas of application. Although this range
of technological applications is very impressive, it is based on
associational knowledge. For example, hearing impairment is
tested by psychophysical methods, in which the participant
responds to a series of stimuli by means of which it is possible
to obtain information about the area in which a decline in the
participant’s hearing has taken place; analysis of intelligence
tests facilitates giving a practical recommendation, for example,
an examinee who has passed the test with a high score has a
better chance of succeeding at other tasks sharing a common
denominator with this test; but an examinee who failed the test
has low chances of succeeding in those tasks. And another ex-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
ample: police technology of identifying a suspect by use of a
photo album of criminals or by a facial composite is based es-
sentially on empirical findings that face recognition is one of
the best methods for probing memory. It is easy to see that in
these examples the knowledge applied for practical goals is
based on the participant’s responses to a certain group of stim-
uli, i.e., the applied information is based on the methodology of
an associational science.
Contrary to associational technology, science is able to offer
technologies based on laws of conservation and conversion of
energy. As the number of examples of technology of this kind
is very great and calls for in-depth understanding of sciences, I
shall describe in brief a simple example familiar to all. The
flashlight is an implement based on a chemical process (in the
battery) producing electricity (recorded on the battery is how
much current it supplies per hour), which passes through a re-
sistance (the filament in the bulb) and is converted into heat and
light. All these conversions are subject to calculations and pre-
cise measurement, so that with knowledge of the chemical
structure of the battery it is possible to calculate the intensity of
the electric current, and with additional information of the re-
sistance, it is possible to calculate the intensity of the light sup-
plied by the flashlight.
Now I discuss the second point—influence. The impacts of
the two groups of technologies (science vs. associational sci-
ence) may be evaluated by using several comparisons. The first
comparison is based on an if-thought game. What would be the
effects on our life, if various technologies (which we use rou-
tinely everyday) had not been developed by the sciences as
against psychology? The answer is clear: the nonexistence of
the sciences’ technologies would impact our lives much more
than the nonexistence of psychological technologies.
The second comparison concerns the realization of the same
goals. For example, the degree of efficiency of generating a
facial composite falls far short of the efficiency of identifying
the suspect by means of DNA. The use of medications for
treating of various severe mental disorders (e.g., schizophrenia)
is more efficient than a psychological therapy.
Finally, many applied developments in psychology depend
on the technological developments in the sciences. For example,
the technology of human-computer interaction developed after
the computer was invented and mass produced. Many psy-
chologists use in their research sophisticated instruments, such
as computers, polygraphs (perspiration, breathing rate, and
pulse), recording of brain cell activity, and neuroimaging.
These technologies were not developed in psychology but in
the sciences. Psychologists have used them to achieve their
goals, so as to present stimuli in a controlled manner and to
measure certain internal responses (e.g., neurophysiological
activity in the brain). These measures are of great importance
for advancing cognitive-neurological knowledge (e.g., to sup-
port/refute hypotheses about cognitive and neurophysiological
mechanisms). However, they are not a kind of a mirror of the
individual’s conscious experiences. Mental states are not iden-
tical to neurophysiological states. One may not propose that
fMRI photographs provide us with pictures of thoughts and
emotions, since they only measure physical changes taking
place in the brain based on changes in the blood flow (see
Miller, 2010). So in these cases too, psychology is not capable
of stepping beyond the associational level between stimulus and
response, response outcome or between response and response.
A Possible Reason for the Measurement
Problem in Psychology
The discussion so far has concentrated on the description of
the measurement problem in psychology as an associational
science: measurement units in psychology have not been dis-
covered as they have in physics. As mentioned above, meas-
urement units for the conscious sensation of the lemon taste or
for that wonderful feeling of love have yet not been found. How
may this problem be explained? For an answer, I speculate that
the measurement problem in psychology is linked to the
mind/body (consciousness/brain) problem. The main question
in this regard is this: what are the implications of solving the
mind/body problem for solving the measurement problem in
psychology? (Here I consider two important theories of mind/
body: identity theory and reduction, e.g., Kim, 1996; Polger,
2004; Rakover, 1990, 2007). To answer the question I will
examine all four possible relations between the mind/body
problem (solved-unsolved) and the measurement problem in
psychology (discovered-undiscovered measurement units): 1)
solved/discovered; 2) solved/undiscovered; 3) unsolved/dis-
covered; and 4) unsolved/undiscovered. As we shall see, the
most feasible relation is 4) unsolved/undiscovered.
Let us start with the suggestion that the mind/body problem
can be solved by identifying mental states (e.g., pain, hunger)
with neurophysiological states as suggested by identity theory.
If this suggestion holds, then mental states could be measured
like neurophysiological states, since they are identical. In this
case the measurement units used in the sciences will be used in
the psychological realm and there will be no methodological
difference between the sciences and psychology. A similar
argument can be made for reduction. Furthermore, if indeed it
were possible to reduce a psychological theory to a neurophysi-
ological theory, one could forgo psychological concepts alto-
gether since behavior would be explained through the theories
prevailing in the sciences. McCauley & Bechtel (2001) write
if psychological theories map neatly onto neuroscientific
theories along the lines that classical model specifies, then our
commitments to psychological states and events are, at very
least, dispensable in principle.” (p. 739). This line of reasoning
suggests that while relation 1) solved/discovered is possible,
relation 2) solved/undiscovered is not (since a mental state is or
reduces to a neurophysiological state).
But this is not how matters stand at present: the mind/body
problem, the consciousness/brain problem, has not been solved,
and as a result relation 1) solved/discovered does not seem
likely (e.g., Ludwig, 2003). There are two major obstacles in
the way of achieving a successful reduction of psychology to
neurophysiology: multiple realizations and consciousness (see,
e.g., Polger, 2004; McCauley, 2007; Rakover, 2007). Accord-
ing to the former, psychological states can be realized by multi-
ple neurophysiological states (e.g., fear is realized in different
animals). Hence, it is hard to propose a psycho-physiological
bridging law that will connect a psychological state with a neu-
rophysiological state (since the relation between these two is
one to many), and as a result reduction of psychology to neu-
rophysiology is blocked.
The latter problem (consciousness) comes down to the in-
ability to understand, to explain, how neurophysiological activ-
ity in the brain (for which science is proposing ever better ex-
planations) gives rise to the conscious experience of each and
everyone, a subjective experience that only the individual is
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 149
able to observe and that makes her a unique personality (e.g.,
Bayne, 2009; Chalmers, 1996; Cosmelli, Lachaux, & Thompson,
2007; Koudier, 2009; Kriegel, 2007; Levine, 1983; Rakover,
2007; Rowlands, 2009). It is interesting to note in this context
that Fechner in his day thought that the law he discovered (i.e.,
that sensation is a logarithmic function of physical stimulus)
was a solution to the mind/body problem. He believed in the
double-aspect approach to this problem, that is, that physical
phenomena and psychological phenomena are nothing more
than two aspects, views, of the same entity, and that his law
expressed the connection between them—an approach for
which supporters are hard to find today (e.g., Gescheider, 1997;
Rakover, 1990).
Now let us consider the suggestion that the mind/body prob-
lem cannot be solved. Relation 3) unsolved/discovered raises an
interesting possibility: while the mind/body problem is not
solved, measurement units which are functionally similar but
not identical to those used in the sciences are discovered in
psychology. If this held, one would be able to develop complex
measurement indexes, psycho-neurophysiological compound
indexes, which would combine measurements in psychology
and in neurophysiology. This development may allow one to
develop a unified theory which would handle mind and body
under one theoretical umbrella (e.g., the theory would fulfill the
requirement for unit equivalency). However, this is not how
matters stand at present: as argued above, measurement units
similar to those used in the sciences have not been discovered
in psychology. Hence, it seems that the only relation that fits
the present state in psychology is relation 4) unsolved/undis-
In sum, one may propose that the measurement problem is an
expression of the mind/body problem: were the mind/body
problem solved, the measurement problem in psychology
would also be solved; but the mind/body problem has not been
solved and measurement units similar to those used in the sci-
ences have not been discovered.
In view of the above, what answer may be given to the old
and difficult question: is psychology a scientific discipline? The
answer is yes, psychology is a science, but a limited science in
methodological terms; an associational science, a science whose
methodological limitation seems to be connected to the problem
of measurement.
Can this conclusion be generalized to other areas in the social
sciences such as social psychology and sociology? My answer
is yes. The measurement problem cuts across various areas of
research in the social sciences. As long as researchers in these
areas measure human behavior by employing behavioral in-
dexes such as reaction time, correct responses, and evaluations,
whether collected in experiments or by questionnaires, these
indexes are susceptible to the critique developed here (the in-
dexes lack the measurement properties discussed above). Hence,
one may suggest that these areas of research exhibit character-
istics of an associational science.
1) The difference between psychology and the natural sci-
ences may be explained by other factors, such as the increase in
the number of empirical phenomena which have lives of their
own (e.g., Garcia-Marques & Ferreira, 2011). Even if one ac-
cepts that the number of important experiments in psychology
is increasing, this by itself cannot account for the difference,
since it seems reasonable to suggest that the number of impor-
tant experiments is increasing in the sciences also. For other
explanations of the differences between psychology and the
sciences suggested through the history of psychology see Lea-
hey, 2004. The major thesis of the paper is that this difference
can be explained by showing that psychology lacks particular
important methodological properties connected to the procedure
of measurement.
2) Lewin (1936) proposed the relation Behavior = f (Person,
Environment) to point out that behavior at a given moment
depends on the person and the situation.
3) G may be conceived as a theoretical term that is connected
to certain observational as well as other theoretical terms. Simi-
larly, psychologists have attempted to define theoretical terms
such as fear by connecting them to stimulus, response, and
other theoretical terms. However, while different measurements
of G in different situations resulted in the same value, meas-
urements of fear in different situations resulted in different
behavioral indexes, which aroused contradictory theoretical in-
terpretations (e.g., Rakover, 1975, 1980; Schwartz, 1989). Fur-
thermore, the attempt to grasp consciousness as a theoretical term
(that cannot be observed directly and is defined in terms of its
relations with stimuli, responses and other theoretical terms) is
problematic. This is because consciousness is a special obser-
vational term: everyone can observe directly her own con-
sciousness, but not that of another.
4) In a way similar to what is stated in note 1, here too one
may propose different explanations to the measurement prob-
lem in psychology. One may suggest that this problem can be
approached by applying the intriguing distinction made by
Hacking (1995) between “human kinds” (abused children and
unemployed people) and “natural kinds” (gold, particles and
cats). The former (but not the latter) are characterized by the
“looping effects”: feedbacks that change human kinds when
people become aware of being categorized and evaluated. If
this distinction holds, it is possible to suggest that the meas-
urement process affects the behavior under study and meas-
urement itself (see also Richards, 2010). Hence, the discovery
of measurement units similar to those discovered in physics
may be hindered by the looping effects. (For criticisms of
Hacking’s approach, see Cooper, 2004.)
5) In a review chapter, McCauley (2007) criticized the mul-
tiple realization and the consciousness arguments against re-
duction. Although the discussion of these topics is beyond the
scope of the present paper, it should be mentioned that the criti-
cisms do not seem to deliver these arguments the coup de grace.
For example, with regard to the consciousness argument, he
suggested the Heuristic Identity Theory (HIT) (developed by
him and Bechtel) as a methodological tool to enhance research
in the interaction between psychology and neurophysiology,
and not as an account of how consciousness emerges from the
neurophysiology of the brain.
I express heartfelt thanks to Shmuel Ahitov, Murray Gold-
schmidt, Maor Dvir, Yitshak Hadani, Meir Hamo, Adir Cohen,
Ilan Fischer, Aviva Rakover, and Guy Tamir, who read an ear-
lier version of the article and made important and useful com-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
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