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Is psychology a science?

As a psychologist – I received my PhD in clinical psychology – I have long been concerned by the problematic reputation of psychology in the public eye. Our besieged public standing has made it difficult…

Critics contend that psychology amounts to scant more than “common sense”. h.koppdelaney

As a psychologist – I received my PhD in clinical psychology – I have long been concerned by the problematic reputation of psychology in the public eye.

Our besieged public standing has made it difficult for psychologists to obtain much-needed funding to carry out research, and it may make would-be mental health consumers less likely to approach us for help.

Psychology’s already embattled status as a science has taken several recent hits in the public eye – not least in the US, where I do my research.

Last year, US Senator Thomas Coburn released a report arguing we should strip social science funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and to eliminate NSF’s Social, Behavioral, and Economics Directorate.

The report read, in part, that:

The social sciences should not be the focus of our premier basic scientific research agency.

One of the prime fields of study that would be adversely affected by these draconian cuts is – you guessed it – psychology.

In July this year, prominent Science 2.0 blogger Hank Campbell insisted in a posting that psychology is “not a science".

He cited the recent musings of Washington Post blogger Charles Lane, who wrote that:

Though quantitative methods may rule economics, political science and psychology, these disciplines can never achieve the objectivity of the natural sciences.

Such statements are troubling, because well-controlled studies demonstrate that certain psychotherapies, especially those that target problematic behaviours and irrational thoughts, can alleviate clinical depression, anxiety disorders, bulimia, insomnia, and other afflictions.

In all fairness, some of psychology’s wounds have been self-inflicted. In the United States and most other countries, psychology’s public face is represented not by psychological researchers, but by “pop” psychologists, such as Dr. Phil McGraw (“Dr. Phil”), whose claims are based much more on anecdotes and intuition than on science.

Indeed, on his award-winning television show, Dr. Phil has featured self-proclaimed psychics with nary a hint of criticism, and has advocated the use of the highly fallible polygraph test – popularly misnamed the “lie detector” – as a means of identifying which partner in a relationship is lying.

About 3,500 self-help books are published each year on such topics as love, addiction, grief, and narcissism. Yet fewer than 5% have received any scientific scrutiny, so there’s no way to know whether any help, or for that matter, harm.

Last year, psychology’s bona fides received a further blow with the publication of an article by Cornell University psychologist Daryl Bem in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which purported to find evidence for extrasensory perception (ESP).

Not long after the article’s publication, numerous critics identified serious flaws with the article’s methods, and others failed to replicate its results.

Adding insult to injury, over the last few years, several prominent psychologists, including Harvard University’s Marc Hauser and Tilburg University’s Diederik Stapel, were discovered to have either cooked or exaggerated their findings.

Tim Sheerman-Chase

Many other criticisms of psychology’s scientific status are largely misguided. Although surveys demonstrate that most laypeople doubt that psychology is useful in everyday life, psychology has made myriad contributions to society that most of us take for granted.

Psychologists have been on the forefront of advances in advertising, education, achievement testing, political polling, psychotherapy, animal training, airplane cockpit safety, and scores of other domains.

To take one example, psychological research has shown that lime-yellow objects are more easily detected in the dark than are red objects, leading to a gradual change in the colour of fire engines.

To take another, basic principles of operant conditioning (learning by reinforcement) discovered by psychologists have been immensely useful in teaching language to children with autism spectrum disorders and other developmental disabilities.

Other critics contend that psychology amounts to scant more than “common sense”; yet dozens of intuitive propositions, such as the beliefs that opposites attract in relationships, that we use only 10% of our brain power, that memory operates like a video camera or that we should always stick with our first answer on multiple choice tests have been roundly discredited by psychological research.

Moreover, although some critics question whether psychology uses scientific methods, much of modern psychology relies on well-honed and mathematically sophisticated safeguards against error.

Randomised controlled designs, which minimise a host of sources of subtle bias, are de rigueur in studies of psychological treatment.

Indeed, systematic controls against bias are often more routine in psychological research than in research in physics and chemistry, probably because psychologists must remain cognisant of the fact that their prime objects of study – human beings – are aware that they are being investigated.

Scott Beale

Others charge that psychology cannot generate accurate real-world predictions. Of course, psychology can rarely make “point predictions” – forecasts regarding the exact value of a statistic (e.g. “The number of people who will experience post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] following this earthquake is 25.6%”).

Yet such imprecision is to be expected, because virtually all psychological phenomena hinge on unknown contextual variables. The percentage of people who develop post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of a natural disaster depends on the severity of the disaster, the personality traits of the people afflicted, the level of social support in the event’s aftermath, and so on.

At the same time, studies demonstrate that psychology’s predictions in many domains are surprisingly robust.

Carefully measured personality traits such as conscientiousness are moderately good predictors of performance in just about every occupation; and pathological traits such as psychopathy (a constellation of features that comprises charm, guiltlessness, callousness, and poor impulse control) are consistent predictors of violence and criminal recidivism.

Admittedly, asking whether psychology is a science is a bit like asking whether movies are good, restaurants serve tasty food, or people are nice.

It is not one field, but a sprawling confederation of dozens of subdisciplines that examine mental processes.

Within its vast confines lie researchers who study brain functioning, thinking, memory, emotions, social influence, prejudice, romance, sleep, personality, athletic performance, work behaviour, psychopathology, psychotherapy, and a plethora of other topics.

Moreover, even within each of these domains, there is variability in rigor.

Yet the level of scientific precision within psychology continues to improve, and the everyday life pay-off in such diverse areas as eyewitness testimony, high-stakes cognitive testing, economic behaviour, work satisfaction, vehicular safety, and the treatment of mental illness is increasingly evident.

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38 Comments sorted by

  1. Aden Date

    Service Learning Coordinator at University of Western Australia

    Cheers for your thoughts, Scott.

    I'm a disillusioned Psychologist myself, having unenrolled from a Clinical Masters qualification to pursue work in the non-profit sector. My reasons were myriad, but the criticisms you respond to reflect a number of them.

    The point you make about "unknown contextual variables," is the interesting one that I think makes psychological science a difficult enterprise. In the case of studying, say, latency in orientation to different coloured stimuli in a dark room…

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    1. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Aden Date

      The old "you learn more by living than through reading about it in a book" argument. Very true, however, when you combine sufficient qualities of both, the understanding increases. Perhaps resulting in coming up with something better than Sternberg or Maslow or whomever you want to poke a stick at.

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  2. Rohan Kaye

    logged in via Facebook

    "Psychologists have been on the forefront of advances in advertising, education, achievement testing, political polling, psychotherapy, animal training, airplane cockpit safety, and scores of other domains."

    Really? How about Mental Health and Prevention, making the processes doctors employ in treating patients more effective, understanding juries and decision making (thus, ideally, preventing wrongful imprisonment), and guiding/measuring social policy to determine if it works, how it works, and how it should be fixed....?

    A disappointing article. At the very list you should have demarcated clinical and experimental psychology and illustrated how each, uniquely, benefits society.

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    1. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Rohan Kaye

      It could be said that psychology has done more helpful things for mental health than psychiatry. And it would likely be true. But it comes with a big fat caveat...

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  3. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Just read "How Risky is it really?" David Ropeik- applied psychology at its best. He's not a psychologist but ....
    In time when the MRI can spot every blip in the brain they will discover why "man made" threats- nuclear power stations are felt to be more threatening than natural threats - radon in the home.
    Just one of a hundred psychological conundrums to be solved.

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  4. Gavriil Michas

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I think we have still a lot to learn for psychology as it has been originally framed in Plato republic masterpiece.

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  5. Roy Niles

    logged in via Facebook

    Psychology (which I majored in at UC, Berkeley long ago) is more of a scientific philosophy than a science. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But the door has remained open for coocoos of many stripes to set up a psychologistic practice.

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  6. Paul OORTMAN GERLINGS

    HSE scientist

    I wouldn't be negative about the scientific value of Psychology. Psychology has a strong tradition in research and has produced many great and useful insights. Crooks like dr.Phil or prof. Stapel can be found in any discipline.
    Talking about pseudo-science: Imho economy is 100% pseudo and indoctrinated with paradigmatic dogma's.
    I fully subscribe to the conclusion.

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  7. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    V.S Ramachandran, Sam Harris and others believe that psychology will soon be an extention of neuro science, I see this as the only way forward for pyschology

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    1. Roy Niles

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Sam Harris represents, unfortunately, what's wrong with neuroscience. But then again, a little bit of scientific philosophy might benefit him, if not his discipline.

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    2. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Michael Shand

      One of numerous problems with that argument is that we already know that the brain is plastic in response to cognitive and social, and not just chemical variables. Cross-discilipinary research is the way forward in general, not the subordination of one discipline into another.

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    3. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Michael Shand

      @Roy Niles @Emma Anderson

      Sounds like someone hasnt read V.S. Ramachandra, to state that the brain is more than just chemical reactions shows a great depth of mis-understanding of not only rama's work but of neuro science in general

      To Roy, I cant agree or disagree with your comment as its so vague - more of a "He's dumb" than anything else

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    4. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Michael Shand

      On the contrary, as we lack portable MRI technology that can be ethically used in double blind field studies, there will always be a place for researchers who specialise in social variables in their context to weigh in on the debates that occur about variables tested in laboratory settings by people who don't have the training in social variables. Social variables being things that may influence biological variables - i.e. social variables influence brain plasticity.

      Getting these folks to talk…

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    5. Roy Niles

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Michael, Emma is in my view correct about the brain being much more than chemical reactions. The brain is the physical seat of our emergent minds, and the mind performs the strategic tricks that cause our chemical contraptions to work - and not only work but do so in rather fantastic ways. And more than that the brain is not the only part of us that can "think." The mind has partners up and down our body's roads. (Gee I never wrote that before and I like it.)
      Sam Harris doesn't have a clue as to how the mind strategizes to control not only its brain but every other part of our being to at least some significant extent. It's a non-physical entity that defies his understanding. At least to the extent of what his writing has laid claim to in the regard.
      Good psychologists are philosophical scientists. Harris is a bad philosopher.

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    6. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Roy

      I should probably clarify at this point that I don't subscribe to dualism. Cognitive functions are a product of the brain/body (and not strictly chemical) but they can be worked with in the absence of brain imaging technology, blood tests and the like. We're doing that right now.

      FYI I'm not a material monist either ;) because....radiation is technically an immaterial product of chemical reactions ;)

      Don't you just love semantics?

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    7. Roy Niles

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Emma, I don't think I'm endorsing Cartesian dualism, however, because minds are nothing like our proposed souls. As to radiation, there are physical elements in the beams of energy, where there are no physical elements in our thoughts. And they will not emerge meaningfully from chemical substances without our brains structures somehow "magically" assembling something that we feel but we can't touch. And in addition they not only serve but help us to create our purposes, which the Harris crowd again has no clue about.

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  8. John Zigar

    Engineer, researcher

    Hi Scott,
    I studied psychology and then forensic psychology. I don’t believe that psychology as it stands today is a science. Although some components are based on ‘science’, the majority of knowledge was gained through observations, ‘common sense’ and personal experiences. As long as we peddle psychotherapy a la Freud et al, we will remain on the fringe of real science, where facts and figures should be paramount.

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    1. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to John Zigar

      Not everyone peddles Freud, and not everything is about personality...or...

      Ya mama!

      *takes tongue out of cheek*

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    2. John Zigar

      Engineer, researcher

      In reply to John Zigar

      Never the less, Sigi and Karl are still taught at uni as if their theories were fact. And especially in the US, where psychotherapy a la Freud is still a big hit, it makes psychologists look cheap (may I include Dr Phil in this group?). Although Freud was a psychiatrist (not a psychologist), most people don't know the difference.

      Essentially, if you become a psychologist, unless you end up in research, you will pick one of the many theories out there and build your career around it, including the various types of therapies available, whether scientifically proven or not.

      Like I said, some components of psychology are based on science, but the majority is still old hat. We need to rid ourselves of the stigma of the past century and reform what is learned in psychology courses to focus on the science - and not conjecture and vague theories.

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    3. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to John Zigar

      Yes it's a problem this "science of the mind" business.

      "Science of the brain" yep - no worries... fMRI's - wonderful tool... brain chemistry, you bet ... but is "brain function" the same as "thinking"?

      The mind stuff I'd be thinking of as an art myself ... requiring the sensitivity and comprehension of a Laing. A healing art at times.

      As evidenced here often enough - by climate change irrationalists - I'm not sure science has much to offer when it comes to correcting wrong thinking.

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    4. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to John Zigar

      John

      If people accept their theories as fact it's a matter of personal preference or interpretation. I don't recall ever being taught that any of the personality theories were fact, only that there's a suite of ideas about the subject.

      Behaviorism on the other hand, is taught as fact, because unlike colourful analogies about icebergs and greek myths, it has been tested in a laboratory and found useful as well as evidenced to have truth.

      The dominant therapeutic model officially these…

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  9. Peter Orpin

    Senior Research Fellow

    As a sociologist working in the health field, I am constantly fighting for the credibility of my work against the 'not a science' brigade. Putting aside the issue of the inability of the randomized controlled trial to say anything really sensible about issues that involve complex non-linear systems with multiple uncontrolled and unknown variables - such as we find whenever human behavior is a critical factor in the system - the basic building principles of science are both quite simple and fully…

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  10. Yoron Hamber

    Thinking

    Isn't behaviorism a try for making it measurable, and so more 'scientific'? My own view is that we are complex creatures :) And that you need intuition and compassion when dealing with people. Most of our guidelines isn't strictly scientific, as in logical. Because when you use logic you first define your system, and treating people as a 'closed' physical system will only lead to confusion. We're open ended :)

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  11. Simon Kerr

    observer

    I think this undervaluing of the contributions of social sciences (in which I include parts of psychology) is problematic. The best defense I have read (though as little dated now) is Paul Diesing's text 'How Does Social Science Work'. In it he argues that we need different types of insights to provide problem solving ability, and that the social sciences provides ways of seeing or critiquing the social world that can be helpful. It won't always, and often is unable, to provide the types of results that are prized in the hard sciences, but I wonder how society could be better off if this research was never funded.

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  12. Andrew Page

    Professor, Psychology, UWA

    To claim that it is hard to say that psychology is science because it is a "sprawling confederation of dozens of subdisciplines that examine mental processes" misses the point somewhat. I would contend that psychology is a sprawling confederation of subdisciplines that examine mental processes scientifically. Thus, psychology is a science by defintion. Not all disciplines that study mental processes are science (e.g., philosophy), not all that which is called "psychology" is (scientific) psychology, and if there are mental processes that prove intractable to empirical investigation, then these are not part of psychology. Science is the plumbline by which we evaluate claims about mental processes within the discipline of psychology.

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  13. Yoron Hamber

    Thinking

    Think there is a misunderstanding here about what science is. Science is a logical approach to some arbitrarily defined system, mostly closed ones, as you almost always define 'cutouts' for it, even when dealing with a open system. It works very well physically for closed systems but gets extremely difficult when dealing with open systems, as earth or us humans.

    When it comes to ethical system values and some 'human ethical base' then that is our human cutouts for defining whatever logic we will…

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  14. Suzy Gneist
    Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

    I see the problem posed as one of language only. In the German tradition the word for science would include all subjects worthy (<a personal value) of collecting knowledge on under its umbrella. This may be too wide a net for confined academic silos, but it allows for movement outward from fringes and overlapping fields as long as a systematic method is followed.
    "Wissenschaft is the German language term for any study or science that involves systematic research and teaching. Wissenschaft incorporates science, learning, knowledge, scholarship and implies that knowledge is a dynamic process discoverable for oneself, rather than something that is handed down.
    Wissenschaft was the official ideology of German Universities during the 19th century. It emphasised the unity of teaching and individual research or discovery for the student. It suggests that education is a process of growing and becoming." (wikipedia)

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  15. john mills

    artist

    Seems a bit strange to me, one is science of the body and mind, chemically physically, one is science of the emotions and the mind, two separate entities, one never traveling without the other, which is so much more scientific and clever-er than the psychiatrist,why- because every emotional action or thought effects a physical reaction , so to study one without the other is simply wrong, because its in the dark on emotion, and emotion is who, and how, and why we are, anything, up down , sad happy…

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  16. Michael Bailes

    logged in via Facebook

    Well physicists probably get funding by talking about stuff that no one understands like time, space and Higgs bosons
    With a double major in social psychology I was a bit disappointed that the degree did not make me a better judge of character than my English Major wife; but C'est la vie.
    I would have thought that psychology has revolutionised how we study most science. The way we do clinical trials these days has been changed forever by the work of Milligram, Rosenthal and others. Studies done before their work are decidedly suspect given what we now know. Social/psychological variables are now addressed in most clinical trials Once they were not. The use of placebos in medical trials is now standard practice (Despite some drug companies saying that this is "unfair")
    Further, the work of Piaget, Binet, Skinner and others have given great insights into how we teach and learn (for those that want to listen). I could go on. . .

    Freud of course was not a psycologist

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  17. Roger Peters

    Psychologist

    Hey Scott,

    First well done on this article but also let me say how I enjoyed your podcast with Ginger on Brain Science, I forget which episode). It should be mandatory listening to anyone who sits on our Royal Commission that will shortly get underway.
    I started to write a reply but got myself tangled up, (like my profession) I am not sure I have done any better with this second attempt.

    I have been a psychologist for 32 years and in private practice for nearly 30. I often say I went out…

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  18. john mills

    artist

    Dear Emma the brain is much more than chemical reaction, chemical is a liquid, a brain is connected to a heart, an internal phenomena, so its not just chemicals reacting, governed only by a brain, it comes hand in hand with a feeling,an internal phenomena, so is it the feeling driving the chemical, or the brain, you dont know, neither do i, no one really knows,scientists think they might, or some think they do, so you cant really say that a thought is just a chemical reaction,especially when its…

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    1. Roy Niles

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to john mills

      I suppose this is evidence that thoughts can be meaningful yet meaningless and much less predictable (or consistently unpredictable) than the brain's physical chemistry would dictate.

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    2. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to john mills

      Hi John

      Thanks for putting in the effort so we could see your point of view in so much detail.

      I happen to agree that the pharmacological approach may be over-relied on and be causing damage, and that there are more effective ways to help people who are suffering than just 'doping' them up. However, it is probably a balancing act. Some minority of people may need a temporary boost to get into a position where talking therapy and such becomes effective. Others might not need that boost, and…

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  19. john mills

    artist

    Thanks Emma, nice response, very diplomatic and kind, I guess the only thing i didn't stress enough about , :) , stress is my name, was what you touched on, in that these conditions are temporary, like life itself, like the roller coaster of life, up and down, we all know that last week we felt some despair, and this week we were feeling so good, wed forgotten about how we felt last week, what was that, why was i so down and caught up, its like that our whole lives, a life is temporary, so is despair…

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  20. Chris Borthwick

    Writer

    In his attempts to prove that psychology is a science Scott works on the basis of the all to frequent syllogism
    Science is a good thing
    Psychology is a good thing
    Therefore psychology is a science.

    He says "Many other criticisms of psychology’s scientific status are largely misguided. ... psychology has made myriad contributions to society that most of us take for granted... Psychologists have been on the forefront of advances in advertising, education, achievement testing, political polling…

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    1. john mills

      artist

      In reply to Chris Borthwick

      Hi Chris, a decent bit of writing there, Science--- 1.
      a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths(( systematically arranged))) and showing the ((operation of general laws)): the mathematical sciences.
      2.
      (((systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.)))
      3.
      ((any of the branches of natural or physical science.)))
      4.
      ((systematized knowledge in general.)))
      5.
      knowledge, as of facts or principles; (((knowledge…

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    2. Bill Budd

      Lecturer, Researcher

      In reply to Chris Borthwick

      Hi Chris,

      Science is a method or process of gaining an understanding of the world. Psychology is the study of mental function and behaviour. To say psychology isnt a science is the same as saying you cannot use scientific methods to understand mental function and behaviour. If nothing else, more than a hundred years of psychological research proves that isnt true!

      Quote: "Over the past century psychology, after all, has had two grand theories -- Freudianism and behaviourism - sunk under it…

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