There’s no unifying theory…..?

Do you need a unifying theory?

Recently, in July 2021, I had an opportunity to look at a training video. In the video, 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 as an example of a unified theory!

Apparently, that ‘limitation’ was psychology’s greatest weakness.  I was reminded of another similar event in which it was asserted that psychology does insufficient research. Again, the clear reference here is to ‘gold standard’ research using randomised control trials (RCT); an approach, was first proposed in 1662 by a Flemish medicinal chemist, Jan Baptistvan Helmont, when he challenged the conventional wisdom held by practitioners of his day. 

Sadly, he was so ahead of his time that 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 current, but long-established research ‘lines’ (that were, once, heretical!).

I assert that it is a category error [putting something in the wrong box] to require psychology to follow only ‘scientific’ principles of research. Either it is a category error or ‘science’ is a poorly defined term.

I would mind less were it not for the fact that this point was made by others many decades ago. As long ago as 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’ 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. It is the other person –  in which ‘common factors’ are interacting; oh, and then they interact with you and your ‘common factors’! 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).  They are built up from scientific fact and theory,  They make meaning from theories, often when there is none.


You can be forgiven for saying that that is not enough. Several billion walking theories, is even more theories that presently exist in respectable science.

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

Theories are well tested by experiments. However, there are experiments, and experiments.  I encourage you to design small, safe experiments. The smaller, the safer, in my experience, but few experiments need to be life threatening. If any on this website seem to be so to you – then please do not do them. You can modify them.

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. It takes time to build on the small victories and meet small defeats in a different way. Although that is generally true, anyway, trail-and-error can add miles to your journey.
  3. Have an end-point in mind. Having an aim helps some people; not all but, again, it can help me keep focus on a some point, ahead.
  4. Consider carefully how you would prefer things to be. Transactional Analysis and Acceptance 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 in: this page and that page. Oh, and lots of others including swotting up 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 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?

Let me know how you evolve your own safe experiment.

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

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