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Social Sci LibreTexts

7.5: What is the dominant meta-theory in the field today?

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  • Since the 1980s, “cognitivism” is one of the guiding meta-theories in the field of psychology. “Cognitivism” is the assumption that all the causal factors that shape human behavior and development are inside the mind or belief system of the person. You can hear the assumptions in the theories of the field: self-efficacy, self-esteem, attributions, perceived social support, values, sense of purpose, goal orientations, internal working model, identity, and so on.

    Some cognitivist theories (e.g., health beliefs) are Maturational, in that they only include constructs from the individual’s belief system, whereas others (e.g., self-efficacy theory) are more Contextual in that they include a large role for the environment. Some theories that started out focusing on the environment (e.g., theories of stress or social support) have “disappeared into the head” as the study of these phenomena has relied more and more on people’s opinions about their occurrence (i.e., stress appraisals and perceptions of social support).

    Starting in the 1990s (with the introduction of the fMRI), the paradigm that is currently taking over the field of psychology is neuroscience. At its most extreme, this view assumes that the brain is solely in charge of behavior, and neurophysiology is destiny (which would be a Maturational meta-theory). However, many researchers studying the brain see it as a crucial piece of the puzzle, but also incorporate assumptions about agentic individuals and active environments—which puts them in more contextual or systems camps. In the final section of this book, we include a chapter on neuroplasticity, which focuses on neuroscience research that examines the role of experience in the development of the brain itself, most of this research relies on a systems perspective.

    News flash: In the field of psychology outside developmental, most researchers assume that people don’t develop. In personality, social, cognitive, and industrial-organizational psychology, researchers largely examine individual differences as indicators of people’s permanent characteristics. These snapshots, taken at a single point in time, are assumed to contain all the information needed to understand a phenomenon. For developmentalists, it is as if these areas rely on meta-theories that posit a view of reality as a “still-life” whereas developmentalists assume that reality is more akin to a movie, and such snapshots only reflect single frames.