Storytelling has been with us since the days of campfire and besieging wild animals. It served a number of important functions: amelioration of fears, communication of vital information (regarding survival tactics and the characteristics of animals, for instance), the satisfaction of a sense of order (predictability and justice), the development of the ability to hypothesize, predict and introduce theories and so on.
We are all endowed with a sense of wonder. The world around us in inexplicable, baffling in its diversity and myriad forms. We experience an urge to organize it, to “explain the wonder away”, to order it so that we know what to expect next (predict). These are the essentials of survival. But while we have been successful at imposing our mind on the outside world – we have been much less successful when we tried to explain and comprehend our internal universe and our behaviour.
Economics is not an exact science, nor can it ever be. This is because its “raw material” (humans and their behaviour as individuals and en masse) is not exact. It will never yield natural laws or universal constants (like physics). Rather, it is a branch of the psychology of masses. It deals with the decisions humans make. Richard Thaler, the prominent economist, argues that a model of human cognition should lie at the heart of every economic theory. In other words he regards economics to be an extension of psychology.
II. Philosophical Considerations – The Issue of Mind (Psychology)
The relationships between the structure and functioning of our (ephemeral) mind, the structure and modes of operation of our (physical) bodies and the structure and conduct of social collectives have been the matter of heated debate for millennia.
There are those who, for all practical purposes, identify the mind with its product (mass behaviour). Some of them postulate the existence of a lattice of preconceived, born, categorical knowledge about the universe – the vessels into which we pour our experience and which mould it. Others have regarded the mind as a black box. While it is possible in principle to know its input and output, it is impossible, again in principle, to understand its internal functioning and management of information.
The other camp is more “scientific” and “positivist”. It speculated that the mind (whether a physical entity, an epiphenomenon, a non-physical principle of organization, or the result of introspection) – has a structure and a limited set of functions. They argue that a “user’s manual” can be composed, replete with engineering and maintenance instructions. The most prominent of these “psychodynamists” was, of course, Freud. Though his disciples (Jung, Adler, Horney, the object-relations lot) diverged wildly from his initial theories – they all shared his belief in the need to “scientify” and objectify psychology. Freud – a medical doctor by profession (Neurologist) and Josef Breuer before him – came with a theory regarding the structure of the mind and its mechanics: (suppressed) energies and (reactive) forces. Flow charts were provided together with a method of analysis, a mathematical physics of the mind.
Yet, dismal reality is that psychological theories of the mind are metaphors of the mind. They are fables and myths, narratives, stories, hypotheses, conjunctures. They play (exceedingly) important roles in the psychotherapeutic setting – but not in the laboratory. Their form is artistic, not rigorous, not testable, less structured than theories in the natural sciences. The language used is polyvalent, rich, effusive, and fuzzy – in short, metaphorical. They are suffused with value judgements, preferences, fears, post facto and ad hoc constructions. None of this has methodological, systematic, analytic and predictive merits.
Still, the theories in psychology are powerful instruments, admirable constructs of the mind. As such, they probably satisfy some needs. Their very existence proves it.
The attainment of peace of mind, for instance, is a need, which was neglected by Maslow in his famous model. People often sacrifice material wealth and welfare, forgo temptations, ignore opportunities and put their lives in danger – just to reach this bliss of tranquility. There is, in other words, a preference of inner equilibrium over homeostasis. It is the fulfilment of this overriding need that psychological treatment modalities cater to. In this, they are no different to other collective narratives (myths, for instance).
But, psychology is desperately trying to link up to reality and to scientific discipline by employing observation and measurement and by organizing the results and presenting them using the language of mathematics (rather, statistics). This does not atone for its primordial “sin”: that its subject matter (humans) is ever-changing and its internal states are inaccessible and incommunicable. Still, it lends an air of credibility and rigorousness to it.