Awareness Education

Towards an Interdisciplinary Approach to Psychology


Since recent times, research has been encouraged more within the paradigms of team science.  In team science, research is conducted by a group of scholars. It is labelled as interdisciplinary or multi-disciplinary research if the scholars are from diverse fields. Interdisciplinary research involves the amalgamation of perspectives, methods, and concepts from multiple disciplines (Porter et al., 2006).

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The National Academy of Sciences published a report on “Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research” in 2004. In the report, interdisciplinary research was defined as the mode of research in which a team or group of individuals integrate information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from different disciplines or areas of specialized knowledge to enhance understanding or to solve problems that cannot be achieved by a discipline or area of research practice alone. Interdisciplinary research is promoted in every discipline now.

But in psychology, it could be of more potential and application since psychology, in itself, is a broad and diverse field. Most of the research in psychology is extrapolated into other fields for ages. Psychology has its contributions across disciplines like quantum cognition, behavioural economics, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence.

Several examples of interdisciplinary research in psychology could be quoted from the recent past. In 2005 a research was conducted at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) on embodied communication in humans and machines. The research was directed by psychologist Gunther Knoblich and computer scientist Ipke Wachsmuth. The research was a collaboration of communication psychology, philosophy, linguistics, and psycholinguistics, along with theoretical biology and primatology, computer science, and robotics.

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Another research paper by Ebersole and Stephen (2016) on psychology as an evolving interdisciplinary science proposes a process for teaching sensation and perception to psychology students and to include it in the integrated science curriculum. It begins with foundational classes on Fourier decomposition and pattern formation phenomena from fluid dynamics. Several applications for these phenomena were observed from music, arts, and material science. Thus the researchers were able to prove that hard and soft sciences are interrelated and it is also associated with disciplines in arts.

Another emerging interdisciplinary field in psychology is quantum cognition. Wang and Busemeyer (2015) published a paper on quantum cognition. Quantum cognition deals with the probability theories based on which human beings make decisions during conflicts and judgments during times of uncertainty. The researchers distinguished the probabilistic models that are based on Bayesian or classical physics from that of quantum physics. Principles from quantum physics are proven to be the best explanation for cognitive phenomena (Wang and Busemeyer, 2015).

Interdisciplinary research in psychology doesn’t stop in science and extends to economics as well. Meta (2015) explored behavioural finance as the psychology of investing and mentioned in her paper that emotional and psychological influence can have a significant impact on financial decisions one makes and also can lead to irrational behaviour. These are only a few disciplines to mention. Psychology is emerging as a promising field that can have a profound impact on the future of interdisciplinary research.

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There could be innumerable advantages for engaging in interdisciplinary research. Raluca A. Briazu 2017 published a reflective paper on her experiences while doing research in psychology in collaboration with experts from science, arts, and humanities. She identified that doing interdisciplinary research broadens one’s perspectives about its own field. Exploring how other disciplines are conducting research enabled her to critically analyze the methodology of psychology and gave her insights about how research tools of different fields could be integrated with that of psychology. She also mentioned that interdisciplinary research enhances our transferable skills and encourages teamwork. It also enables deep learning and personal growth.

Moreover, since interdisciplinary research is diverse and broad, it may enable scholars to identify new questions in their own field which are never explored before. It alters our ideas, perspectives, and concepts, facilitates new learning, as well as enables us to give up our positions and think from others’ perspectives (Wachsmuth, 2016).

Although interdisciplinary research provides a phenomenal opportunity for researchers, it is also a very demanding task. The report on enhancing the effectiveness of team science published by the National Academy of Team Science points out certain challenges of conducting interdisciplinary research. One of the major challenges is the integration of knowledge. Different fields will have distinct research methodology, assumptions, and languages. Thus it is necessary to have a deep knowledge integration and coordination among team members.

Coordination is an added challenge as interdisciplinary research involves high task dependency. It is a joint effort of a group of individuals and since it often includes disciplines that one may not be an expert in, the support of team members becomes very vital. Thus it is highly inevitable to have cohesiveness among the team members and to ensure that their objectives and values don’t contradict each other.

Furthermore, there could be specific challenges psychologists face while engaging in interdisciplinary work. Raluca A. Briazu in 2017 mentioned some of the challenges she faced while working on a psy-art collaboration. She was working with CogNovo, a multidisciplinary doctoral program that combines science and humanities. One of the challenges she quoted while doing the research was the difficulty of getting away with her disciplinary ego. It was difficult for her to extend her comfort zone beyond strict adherence to APA guidelines which she was so used to with her experience in psychology. It was also challenging for her to focus on arts in the same depth as she approached psychology.

Furthermore, psychology often relies on empirical data whereas research in arts focuses more on theories and abstract images. Thus as an interdisciplinary researcher, she had to integrate the empirical or systematic writing style of psychology and theoretical perspectives of arts. Finally, it is also necessary to understand that multidisciplinary studies may not always be appropriate in psychology.  It depends on the nature of the research you are carrying out or the topic you’re handling. Also, it is important to study a subject in depth rather than just exploring the fundamentals.

Interdisciplinary studies sometimes end up in foundational research without investigating the nuances of a subject. That may not give us a lasting impression in our field. As Garth Fowler rightly said, if you don’t do your work precisely, people may assume you to be a jack of all trades, but master of none. And that may often be an underestimation of your abilities.

Psychology is a fascinating area of study that could contribute lots of insights into several other disciplines. But often psychology is neglected in the area of interdisciplinary research or scientists are sceptical of the expertise and efficiency of psychologists. To overcome this challenge, it is necessary to make interdisciplinary studies a part of the curriculum for psychology as well as to ensure that science is made a mandatory subject of discussion inside psychology classrooms (Ebersole and Stephen, 2016). It is our obligation, as psychologists, to come up with breakthrough discoveries in the field and to uplift ourselves to the heights where we can prove ourselves and stand out in the research fraternity.

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