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ISSN: 2353-4192
Current Issues in Personality Psychology
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vol. 6

A unifying theoretical framework for clinical psychology

Liane Leedom

Current Issues in Personality Psychology, 6(4), 343–348
Online publish date: 2018/12/19
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In their editorial, Drs. Soroko and Górska (2018) state that there is a “lack of theory in a significant number of studies” in psychology. They also note that, “An important perspective, which we call a ‘theory-embedded’ stance, is to some extent disregarded in scientific research in clinical psychology”. I agree that the failure of psychology to adopt a unifying theory for human behavior has prevented the application of sound research to clinical practice. Lack of a coherent unified theory has also hindered public education regarding mental health and how best to achieve it. In this editorial, I describe one contender for a unifying theory of human behavior and examine the articles in this volume using a “theory-embedded” stance.
Although psychology has no accepted unifying theory, the ground work for such a theory was laid between 1865 and 1943, during the same years quantum mechanics was developed. The social forces of World War II that drove the acceptance of quantum mechanics and its application to the atom bomb led to the demise of the discipline that could have provided the unified theory of human behavior. Prior to World War II, the ethologists Lorenz and Tinbergen founded the discipline of ethology that sought unifying explanations for behavior (Burkhardt, 2005). The two important contributions of these ethologists were: 1) the behavioral systems framework (Bowlby, 1980); and 2) Tinbergen’s four questions (Tinbergen, 1963). Following the holocaust, Jewish scholars immigrated to the United States and discovered that Lorenz had been a Nazi. Although he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1974, his work and ideas were discredited and his discipline abolished by American psychology (Bateson, Bateson, & Klopfer, 1989; Burkhardt, 2005). Although there were good reasons for the demise of ethology, the baby was thrown out with the proverbial bath water such that many reading this work are likely unfamiliar with the meaning of behavioral systems and Tinbergen’s four questions. Nonetheless, the theoretical framework of ethology through behavioral systems and the four questions provides a foundation for interpreting the findings of the papers in this volume.


Early ethologists adopted an engineering model for the understanding of behavior; they conceived of behaviors as organized into cybernetic systems (Figure 1) (Hinde, 1982). All cybernetic systems have: 1) a superordinate goal or purpose; 2) a sensor...

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