Bulletin of the Psychoanalytic Research Society, Volume V, Number 1, Spring, 1996

The Editor's Message

Psychoanalytic Research in the 1990s: Reclaiming What is Ours

Robert F. Bornstein, PhD
Gettysburg College

Last spring we were interviewing candidates for a one-year sabbatical replacement position at Gettysburg College. During my half-hour meeting with one of the job candidates, I directed the discussion to psychoanalytic theory, only to discover (as I often do) that this bright, ambitious young post-doc had little interest in -- and even less knowledge regarding -- psychoanalysis. Imagine my surprise when, during her job talk a couple of hours later, this same candidate proceeded to describe a research program that was based almost entirely on psychoanalytic theory. She did not acknowledge the psychoanalytic roots of her research program, and in fact she opened her presentation by ridiculing Freud's "naive" views on the issue that she was discussing. For the next forty-five minutes I listened to a lively talk about ego defenses and character style, all of which was presented in the language of contemporary social/cognitive psychology, but all of which was, in reality, psychoanalytic research pure and simple.

Needless to say, this got me thinking, and I realized that what I had just experienced was not at all unusual. A great deal of cutting-edge research in cognitive, social, personality, and developmental psychology today is based on psychoanalytic theory. However, more often than not the psychoanalytic roots of these research programs are never acknowledged.

In last year's Editorial Column (Bornstein, 1995), I suggested that one important task faced by psychoanalytic researchers in the 1990s was to bridge the gap between psychoanalytic theory and empirical research in other areas of psychology. I continue to believe that this is an important part of our research and teaching agenda, but there is another, equally important concern that we must also address at this time: We must become familiar with influential research programs in other areas of psychology so we can reclaim what is ours. It is certainly flattering to find one's ideas used by colleagues to develop and refine their own research programs. However, it is not so flattering when one's ideas are used but not acknowledged. Simply put, researchers in other areas of psychology are co-opting psychoanalytic constructs and claiming them as their own.

Consider, for example, the concept of the object representation, which has played a central role in psychoanalytic thinking for nearly a century (Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983). Variations on this concept have been "discovered" independently by developmental, cognitive and social psychologists, but rather than using the psychoanalytic term object representation, researchers in other areas have invented their own terms -- terms like schema, self-representation, and internalized working model, all of which describe similar (though not identical) theoretical constructs.

Again, this would be acceptable if our non-psychoanalytic colleagues acknowledged the psychodynamic roots of these ideas, but typically they do not. And who can blame them? Given the prevailing zeitgeist in academic psychology today, linking one's research program to psychoanalytic theory makes it less likely that one can receive external funding to support this research program. In many quarters, an inability to obtain federal funding to support one's research precludes tenure and hinders promotion to higher professorial rank.

To be sure, I am not suggesting that researchers in other areas of psychology deliberately plagiarize psychoanalytic work. Many of us remember when, two decades ago, George Harrison claimed that any resemblance between his hit song My Sweet Lord and the Chiffons' earlier hit He's So Fine was purely accidental. The courts agreed, concluding that Harrison "unconsciously plagiarized" the earlier recording.

What does Harrison's experience have to do with the reinvention of psychoanalytic concepts by nonpsychoanalytic researchers? Consider: Larry Jacoby and his colleagues have demonstrated how incidental exposure to various kinds of stimuli can cause people to become confused about the source of their familiarity with the stimuli (a phenomenon that Jacoby, Toth, Lindsay & Debner [1992] referred to as "source amnesia"). I suspect that this is precisely what has happened here: Researchers in other areas of psychology were exposed to psychoanalytic concepts during their undergraduate and graduate training, but they no longer remember having been exposed to these concepts. Consequently, they may unintentionally "reinvent" the same concepts several -- or even many -- years later.

How can we remedy this situation? There are several things that psychoanalytically-oriented researchers can do during the coming years to reclaim what is ours.

First, we must not let the psychoanalytic roots of non-psychoanalytic research programs go unacknowledged. In our role as manuscript reviewers (and hirers of job applicants), we are in a position to put our colleagues on the spot and force the issue. When reviewing a manuscript that is using -- but not citing -- psychoanalytic ideas and concepts, we should point out that omission in our review, calling the journal editor's attention to this lapse on the part of the manuscript author.

Second, we must be "squeaky wheels", making public statements regarding the unacknowledged influence of psychoanalytic theory on other areas of psychology. Several months ago, Michael Domjan and Jesse Purdy published an article in the American Psychologist detailing the many areas wherein Introductory Psychology textbooks have failed to acknowledge the impact of animal research (Domjan & Purdy, 1995). They were right, of course: Oftentimes infrahuman experiments have played an important -- but uncredited -- role in laying the groundwork for more widely-publicized research findings that came later. The same can be said for psychoanalytic theory, however, and we too should make explicit our displeasure at the lack of credit we have received from other researchers.

Finally, we can go a long way toward reclaiming what is ours by pointing out in our own research papers and convention presentations how a particular psychoanalytic idea has influenced thinking in other areas of psychology. An article on the psychodynamics of projection can mention how this topic has recently begun to influence research in social cognition. A paper on internalized mental representations of significant figures can point out how developmental psychologists are now utilizing (and extending) this important psychoanalytic concept. A review of the literature on perception, cognition or learning without awareness would be enhanced by some discussion of the ways that cognitive research in these areas has been influenced by psychoanalytic models of the unconscious.

One of the wonderful things about psychology, and science in general, is that once an idea or finding has been made public, no one "owns" that idea or finding -- it belongs to everyone in the discipline. Thus, each time one gives a talk or publishes a paper, one takes on some risk. It is possible that another researcher will see things in your work that even you do not see, and will take your work in directions that you would not have imagined or approved.

The flip side of this risk, however, is opportunity. The lack of ownership of ideas and findings allows the field to become more cohesive and integrated, as we all use each others' ideas to develop and refine our own. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and in that sense we should be pleased that our concepts and constructs are interesting enough to be co-opted by others. It isn't that we want other psychologists to stop using our ideas to further their own research programs. However, just as the psychoanalytic therapist aims to make the unconscious wish conscious, the psychoanalytic researcher must aim to make the unacknowledged influence acknowledged. Only then can the impact of psychoanalytic thinking on other areas in psychology be discussed in a forthright and rational manner.


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