Biological explanations better for change than psychological explanations

We’ve just finished the Cheltenham Science Festival here – an excellent event with dozens of talks, events, debates, mad experiments and other events.  One of my highlights this year was the session on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, featuring two scientists and a recovering OCD sufferer talking about what’s known and what’s being researched about OCD.  There was general agreement that cognitive behavioural therapy was well proved with such cases, and the lady who had suffered with OCD spoke very movingly about her journey to a better life.

Professor Paul M Salkovskis from Kings College London ( talked about his reseach programme.  He revealed a very interesting finding that I had not previously come across:  people who are given a biological explanation of their OCD do better at changing it that those given a psychological explanation.  Paul said that they had been allowed to carry out this part of their work with support from the ethics committee as the explanation had been given at a very early stage of treatment and there was plenty of time to sort things out afterwards, so none of the subjects’ recoveries was hindered by this.

This finding seems to divide people.  Some (including me) think it’s quite a logical conclusion, as biological changes can (perhaps) be effected with all kinds of methods these days.  Others (including my partner Jenny) think that a psychological route would be easier than a biological one.  Anyway, that’s what Prof Salkovskis said.  It chimes rather well in any case with my writing in The Solutions Focus about the power of explanations to get in the way of change, particularly if the explanation does not offer a way forwards.  We used the term ‘helpful explanation’ and unhelpful explanation’.

One other thing about Prof Salkovskis’ talk was the great ridicule he poured on brain scans.  The other researcher showed some brain images, which he dismissed as ‘the new phrenology’!  His view was that these things tell us very little that’s of any use, and yet a lot of time and money are being spent on obtaining them.  Hear hear say I.


7 responses

  1. Hi Mark!

    It fits well with this quote from Bargh:
    “We discovered a new vein of research — the relation between physical and social or psychological concepts — that we came to by taking evolutionary principles seriously and applying them to psychology. We weren’t using evolutionary psychology, which has largely been focused on mating and reproduction. Our focus, rather, was in terms of evolutionary biology and the basic principles of natural selection: and that field makes clear that humans must have had these kinds of mechanisms or these processes to guide our behavior prior to evolution or emergence of consciousness.”
    Found here: and brought to my attention by Coert Visser on his blog:

    It also fits well with the research on the power of explanation to defang the emotional impact of experiences (positive and negative) carried out by Gilbert and Wilson, and so enthusiastically followed by Michael Hjerth.

    This, however, is the first experimental result on that line of thinking that I am aware of. Thanks!!

  2. Hi Mark and Paolo,

    Very interesting

    I can imagine this sort of thing is important. I am convinced that how people frame or define their situation, their mindset and expectation usually makes all the difference for the likelihood of change. If they define it as something psychological (in the sense of as a personal attribute, a part of who they are) this can prompt them to believe it belongs to them and is hard to change, or not at all.

    Types of attribution of phenomena determine to a great extent the usefullness of explanations.

    I am reminded of Martin Seligman´s optimistic attribution styles in which three dimensions are distinguished: 1. permance (is it temporary or lasting), 2. pervasiveness (is the cause general or specific) and 3. personalization (is it internally or externally caused).

    I am curious about the details of what Paul Salkovski has found out and if there is an explicit link to attribution theory (about which Timothy Wilson, whom Paolo mentioned also has written a lot about)

  3. Hi Mark
    Just going to comment, and find Paolo here. I’m so suprised:)

    Yes, indeed interesting. I just wonder what “psychological explanations” mean. I have a hard time imagining any explanation of OCD that is not biological or neuropsychological. What Bargh is talking about, I think, is Darwinian psychology. Which I think it the real, stalled, revolution in psychology. We are biological organisms, and understanding of human beings that fail to take that into account will always be strangly distorted. My guess is that “psychological explantions” are lacking in biological/evolutionary grounding.

    Now we have such a wealth of intellectual muscle that wasn’t there a couple of decades ago, when anti-psychology was still a cool thing:

    •The darwinian evolutionary perspectives
    •The William James phenomological, experiencial perspective, revived by people like Damasio, Richard Davidson and Paul Ekman. Which also connects well with 2500 years of buddhist psychology.
    •We have the mathematics to think about complex adaptive systems
    •We have thrown out the mind/brain split which Descartes cut, and which Freud/Skinner/sociology/post-modernism have cut again and again, and tried to stop from healing. (Brain scans, however crude, remains a reminder that there is a physical, biological nature here)
    •We are taking back the study of good, well-being, happiness, eudamonics from the spiritualists and the ideologists.

    Things are different, and it seems that the research mention in the blog reflects that. I myself have gone from post-psychology to neo-psychology. I just love the psychology of the cross-roads. It’s like being a sceptic psychopomp of the science of life. Without religion, souls, or mystical dimensions.

    Call it….. psychopomp-punk: deny all tribes-believe nothing-question everything-learn everything-use it all- (The Dharma Punx of Noah Levine could be a “spiritual” equivalent adding, and I agree: strive to do no harm and wish all sentient beings, including yourself, happiness and freedom from suffering)

    On brain scanning bashing:
    I would go carefully on this. It is like the telescope bashing, that undeniably made sense in Galileos day. Don’t blame the low and crude resolution of fMRI images with the low level intelligence and crude simplifications of media hype

    You can argue, though, like Dan Gilbert does, that brain scans are taking resources from other fields in psychology (like his field, social psychology). This makes sense, A brain scan does not tell you what the shiny part *does*, psychology is needed for that. So far several of the best psychologists are not actually psychologists by trade Ramachandran, Damasio, Paul Ekman, Oliver Sachs. (This can be partly blamed on old bio-phobia hat has previosly keeps psychology from thinking about some things) The new generation of psychology is coming though, people who are not afraid of biology.

    Take care, and be well

    1. Hi Michael

      I liked Paul Salkovskis’s comment about brain scans – ‘the new phrenology’. A complete red-herring imho. Your brain does things… well, well, well, who would have thought it? Like trying to identify how the London Symphony Orchestra works by studying the magnetic fields from a transistor radio! 😉

      1. Hi mark,
        I think that knocking down brain scans is as chic as thinking they are the hot s**t. fMRI is put to very good use by Davidson, Ramachandran, Damasio and others, (Also Jeffrey Schwartz, who has what I understand quite good results with OCD, using “biological explanations” as a big part of it).

        Have you seen the Voodoo-correlations debate on scans, with good points form both sides?

        Be well

  4. Hi Mark, hi Michael!

    Interesting conversation!

    I am reading Alva Noe’s book (“out of our mind”) and he, too, talks about the “new phrenology” of brain scans.
    I like the metaphor he uses: neuroscience now is not in its infancy, rather it is in its adolescence – because it it so caught up with its new shiny toys, just like a teenager (well, I can go gaga in an Apple store, too… :).

    However, I would add, out of these explorations the teenager becomes an adult.

    SO I think a good dose of healthy skepticism is warranted – we need to constantly remind us of what exactly the brain scans are measuring, and what the assumptions are.
    However, for the first time we have something we can measure about living brains in action.
    So I would not throw away the baby with the bath water.

    When I was a student at the University of Milan, constructionism was very much the dogma in the philosophy of science. So I remember reading the book “inventing reality” and wholehartedly agreeing with what the author said, i.e. that even the reality of physics is a social construction.
    But, as Dawkins says, give me a postmodernism flying on a jet at 30,000 ft and I will show you an hypocrite 🙂
    In the same book, the reality of elementary particles was questioned, since we can only infer that – I guess that would sound like great reasoning to the survivors of Nagasaki or Hiroshima!

    There is one thing that I absolutely loved about Mark’s paper “in-between”: the stress on bringing back the focus to the actual interactions.
    That is where brains and culture meet.
    So that would be the level of psychology, I guess.
    Actually, I was always uneasy with the concept of culture, or organization, because I do not know what they mean other than the actual interactions between and among people.

    I think brain scans will give us more and more insights, once the technology improves, and if you use current results as stepping stones for a better understanding.

    Have a good one,
    and again thanks for the interesting conversation.

    1. Hi Paolo

      Thanks for all this – good stuff! I think there is no crucial difference between interactions and culture – except perhaps that ‘cultural’ interactions are accepted in a certain way within a certain context.

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