Psychology as the science of self-reports and finger movements: whatever happened to actual behavior?

Baumeister, Roy F., Vohs, Kathleen D. and Funder, David C. (2007) Psychology as the science of self-reports and finger movements: whatever happened to actual behavior?. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2 4: 396-403. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6916.2007.00051.x

Author Baumeister, Roy F.
Vohs, Kathleen D.
Funder, David C.
Title Psychology as the science of self-reports and finger movements: whatever happened to actual behavior?
Journal name Perspectives on Psychological Science   Check publisher's open access policy
ISSN 1745-6924
Publication date 2007-12-01
Year available 2007
Sub-type Article (original research)
DOI 10.1111/j.1745-6916.2007.00051.x
Open Access Status Not yet assessed
Volume 2
Issue 4
Start page 396
End page 403
Total pages 8
Place of publication Thousand Oaks, CA United States
Publisher Sage Publications
Language eng
Formatted abstract
Psychology calls itself the science of behavior, and the American Psychological Association's current “Decade of Behavior” was intended to increase awareness and appreciation of this aspect of the science. Yet some psychological subdisciplines have never directly studied behavior, and studies on behavior are dwindling rapidly in other subdisciplines. We discuss the eclipse of behavior in personality and social psychology, in which direct observation of behavior has been increasingly supplanted by introspective self-reports, hypothetical scenarios, and questionnaire ratings. We advocate a renewed commitment to including direct observation of behavior whenever possible and in at least a healthy minority of research projects.

For decades now, psychology students have been taught from the first day of class that psychology is the science of behavior and that its ultimate goal is to describe and explain what people do. Is that a fair description? The answer varies with the specific area of psychology. Neuroscience and cognitive psychology have never had much to say about the meaningful activities people perform in their daily lives, nor have they really intended to. These fields are more interested in understanding the internal workings of the mind and brain rather than behavioral outcomes. In contrast, animal learning and developmental psychology have consistently focused on behavior, perhaps because participants studied by these fields generally cannot fill out questionnaires or read prompts on a computer screen, and their studies have ranged from bar pressing as a function of rewards to behavioral coordination between small children and their parents.

The fields of social and personality psychology, however, offer a special and discouraging case. Both of these related fields have a mandate to study the important social behaviors that compose the very texture of human life, with personality psychology focusing on individual differences in those behaviors and social psychology exploring situational influences. But personality psychology has long relied heavily on questionnaires in lieu of behavioral observation, a state of affairs that has begun to change only recently and ever so slowly, at that. Even worse, social psychology has actually moved in the opposite direction. At one time focused on direct observations of behaviors that were both fascinating and important—a focus that attracted many researchers to the field in the first place—social psychology has turned in recent years to the study of reaction times and questionnaire responses. These techniques, which promised to help to explain behavior, appear instead to have largely supplanted it. The result is that current research in social and personality psychology pays remarkably little attention to the important things that people do.

The 1990s was named the “Decade of the Brain” by the American Psychological Association (APA). This widely-advertised rubric, promoted heavily by the APA, focused attention on the importance of and advances in research on brain processes. It was wildly successful, to the extent that many funding agencies jettisoned many other research priorities as they poured money into expensive brain research and articles and conference sessions on brain studies proliferated. Brain researchers have always been more interested in brain and nervous system functioning than in behavioral implications. Ironically, however, their research has benefited hugely from the conviction by funding agencies and the public at large that anything a neuron does must be behaviorally important. Such relevance has been demonstrated once in a great while (e.g., in the work by Damasio, 1994, on the interaction between emotional and cognitive systems in decision making), but more often it has merely been taken on faith. Meanwhile, the increase in study of the brain has helped erode interest in the actual observation of behavior.

It seemed an extremely wise move therefore when, impressed by the success of the brain decade, APA came up with the idea of making the first decade of the new century “The Decade of Behavior.” The goal was to focus attention on the contributions of psychology toward understanding and affecting important behaviors and consequent life outcomes, thereby adding relevance, credibility, and (one hoped) big research budgets to the enterprise. This emphasis was—or at least should have been—especially welcome to social and personality psychologists, whose research programs would seem to be in a position to benefit greatly from a renewed recognition of the importance of behavior.

It is now past halfway through the putative Decade of Behavior and is therefore a fair time to ask, “How's it going?” In particular, how are social and personality psychologists doing? To anticipate our answer, we think they are doing fine in many respects—but not in respect to studying behavior.
Keyword Psychology, Multidisciplinary
Q-Index Code C1
Q-Index Status Provisional Code
Institutional Status Non-UQ

Document type: Journal Article
Sub-type: Article (original research)
Collection: School of Psychology Publications
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Citation counts: TR Web of Science Citation Count  Cited 456 times in Thomson Reuters Web of Science Article | Citations
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Created: Mon, 08 May 2017, 08:11:13 EST by Caitlin Maskell on behalf of School of Psychology