There’s no unifying theory…..?

Do you need a unifying theory?

Science, like truth and beauty, should be a ‘good guy’ in our world. Sometimes, however, it is hi-jacked in an unhelpful way.

For instance, in July 2021, I looked at a training video. In it, a clinical psychologist asserted that “there is no unifying theory” in psychology. I was cross about that. I may not seek a Grand Theory of Everything, as Professor Stephen Hawking sought, but I’d liked to have some respect for you, my reader, as an example of a unified theory!

Apparently, this ‘limitation’ – possessing an insufficiently robust theory – is psychology’s greatest weakness.  This incident reminded me of another event in which it was asserted that psychology does insufficient research. As rather a lot does go on, I assumed this was a clear reference here to ‘gold standard’ research using randomised control trials (RCT). This approach to research design was first proposed in 1662 by a Flemish medicinal chemist, Jan Baptistvan Helmont. He challenged the conventional wisdom held by practitioners of his day. 

Sadly, he was so ahead of his time and, for his sins, he was arrested, interrogated, condemned, and confined by authorities for his daring challenge (shades of Galileo!).  Over the centuries, this experimental model adopted an intricate design to minimise the possibility of mistakes. This excellent system saved many lives and proved its worth time and time again; mainly in the world of medicine.

Time to re-think?

After some 350 years it might be time to consider what alternatives exist in research processes – for different disciplines. It is a short-sighted and dismissive claim to assume that psychology is remiss in not following a current, but long-established research ‘line’ (that was once heretical!).

I assert that it is a category error [putting something in the wrong box] when psychology is asked to follow only the ‘scientific’ principles of research.

I would mind less about this but for the fact that the point was made by others many decades ago. More recvently (2010), Newnham and Page referred to the “potential to bridge the scientist-practitioner gap …… it is no longer the case that integrated science and practice refers only to the use of evidence-based treatments ….  The scientist-practitioner has the opportunity to utilize innovative methods for matching appropriate treatments, monitoring patient progress, the measurement of treatment outcomes and the management of services.”

Source:  Elizabeth A. Newnham & Andrew C. Page (2010) Bridging the gap between best evidence and best practice in mental health Clinical Psychology Review

Rather earlier, Saul Rosenzweig wrote a seminal paper in 1936: “Some Implicit Common Factors in Diverse Methods of Psychotherapy”. In this paper, he used Lewis Carroll’s story of the Dodo bird, as told in Alice in Wonderland, to cast scorn on the notion that there is a ‘right’ approach to assessing theory in the world of therapy. He went on to propose the interaction of common factors were a key issue for research to address.

Indeed I assert that there is a unifying entity in psychology; it is the one standing in front of you, if you are looking in a mirror! In you, and any other person, ‘common factors’ are interacting. That’s two sets of interactions each with ‘common factors’ and that can get complicated! I have an illustration to show how this works.

If you have not looked at it as yet, read the quote from Milton Erikson at the head of this page.

Human beings are unique walking theories. They make theories (create a story about themselves – the Script or narrative – as it sometimes called).  Humans are built from scientific fact and theory. Very often they make meanings, new theories, when there is none.


You can be forgiven for saying that’s enough. Several billion walking theories create even more theories that presently exist in respectable science.

So, I am being provocative here; but for a good reason.

Theories are well tested by experiments. That’s why I am sking you to design your own small, safe experiment. However, there are experiments, and experiments.

The smaller, the safer, in my experience. I do not want your experiments to be life threatening. If any on this website seem to be so to you – then please do not use them.

Alternatively, you can modify them and make them safer for yourself.

Some do-able research

So let me use this page to offer more do-able ‘research‘ to help you make changes you want – not what some-one else thinks is good for you!

Beware of setting out to help others.

  1. Do you want to ‘organise’ your small safe experiments? If so, does this list help or hinder your work?
  2. Do you prefer trial-and-error? If so, then you could be on the ‘scenic route’ longer but that may be no bad thing. At the best of times, it takes a while to build on the small victories and meet small defeats in a different way.
  3. Have an end-point in mind. Having an aim helps some people; not all. It can help us keep focus on a some point, ahead.
  4. Consider carefully how you would prefer things to be. Transactional Analysis and Acceptance (ACT)band Compassion (CFT) models are helpful here.  Also, I’d suggest consideration of Solution-focused work (SFT).
  5. Life Planning strategies might be worth a consideration.
  6. Where emotions are a key issue consider leads available on this page and that page. Oh, and lots of others including those requiring you to swot up on some of the neuro-biology – if you want a challenge. Try these practical pages and these informative pages.
  7. Be prepared to act and, indeed, appreciate the limitations of action. There is at least one more page on categories of action – rather an important element of small, safe experiments!
  8. Be prepared to meet limitations that are not within your gift to change. How might they be met differently.
  9. As you do research, plan your experiment from the start. Record things, Do not wait until the ‘right’ moment. it is not likely to come along.
  10. Do something; do anything, but be prepared to ‘just notice’ what happen. Just noticing is really safe experiment Number One in my own book.

There may be many more possibilities, but ten is enough for now, is it not?

Further links to consider

What is a nudge

Designing safe experiments

My letter to any-one wanting to change something in their life.

Obstacles to safe experiments

Actions in safe experiments

Limits to action in promoting change