In Sync The Emergence of Function in Minds, Groups and Societies

Psychology is a fascinating discipline because of the diversity and richness of its subject matter—how people function at multiple levels of analysis, ranging from the brain to society. Psychology is also a frustrating discipline, and for the same reason.

The diversity and richness of human experience poses a formidable challenge for identifying common principles with which a comprehensive theory can be generated. Yet the quest for unification is basic to science, one that has met with varying degrees of success in other disciplines. Psychologists are aware of this obstacle to achieving status as a mature discipline, and over the years, several “big ideas” have been forwarded. None, however, have inspired widespread acceptance for long, let alone generated an agreed-upon paradigm with which to generate testable hypotheses concerning processes that underlie all manner of psychological functioning. It is important to recognize a problem, as psychologists have done, but the real challenge is finding a solution, which psychologists have not done. This book aims to identify a set of simple processes, all stemming from a common principle, that are manifest at all levels of human experience, from the inner workings of the brain to the collective workings of groups and society.

These unifying processes, moreover, are testable and thus subject to verification and falsification—a feature that has been lacking in other attempts at unification, but one that is critical to fulfilling the promissory note of theoretical synthesis. This is a tall order that understandably smacks of pretension, if not arrogance. However, the thesis we present has the backing of principles that have been identified, tested, and found widespread acceptance in the natural sciences in recent decades. These sciences span a wide range of phenomena, from subatomic physics to ecology, so the problem they experience is not unlike that associated with theory construction in psychology. It is thus encouraging that scientists in these diverse fields have established cross-disciplinary commonalities by framing each phenomenon as a complex system that operates in accordance with principles of nonlinear dynamical systems. The success of the complex systems approach in the so-called hard sciences has inspired the current generation of psychologists to adapt this approach to the diverse subject matter of human experience.