Updating Theories Introduction - Freud, Tuckman, & Zombies, oh my!

Author(s): Brandy Perkl, Ph.D.

Originally posted: February 22, 2015

"There's a kernel of truth in all outdated theories." - Dr. Fred Switzer, Clemson University (personal communication, 2009)

I am coming at this from the perspective of someone whose job (and passion) it is to (1) understand, (2) explain, (3) predict, and to (4) direct human behavior in work-related situations (Cherry, n.d.).

Humans are extremely complex, especially in groups, and are highly influenced by their situation (more than they like to admit or may even be aware of). So really what I-O Psychology ends up trying to do is tell us what most people are more likely than not to do given certain conditions or situations.

Predicting Behavior at Work

"Anyone who’s ever had a temperamental friend or relative may be skeptical that human behavior is predictable. But upon evaluating a larger dataset, a different picture emerges: by using the right analytical tools and approaches, you can actually predict human behavior with exceptional accuracy." (Bailey, Srinivas, & Fisher, 2013).

While that particular quote is more about Big Data than I-O psychology, the same principles hold true. With a large enough dataset we can at least say something like this:

  • If Person X is in Situation Y then they will engage in Behavior Z (Mendoza-Denton, Ayduk, Mischel, Shoda, & Testa, 2001; Mischel & Shoda, 1995; Mischel, Shoda, & Mendoza-Denton, 2002; Shoda, Tiernan, & Mischel, 2002 - as referenced in Kihlstrom, in press)

The problem with early psych science

A lot of early psychological science was based primarily on an outdated method of studying people - case studies - which meant theories may have been based on the specific issues and analysis of only one person.

One single data point to create a theory that is supposed to explain the majority of people's behavior? Yikes. Hopefully, I don't need to explain why that gives me hives.

Freud - Father of Psychoanalysis (+ Cocaine Addict)

Back in Freud's day it was very common for doctors to experiment on themselves to determine the potential helpfulness of drugs. There were a couple of years where Frued believed cocaine was a wonder drug and was prescribing it to everyone right and left - though he did eventually come to his senses and give it up. His brief love affair with cocaine is an excellent example of the flaws in this method (Epstein, 2014).

Freud's Kernel of Truth

Psychoanalytic/psychodyamics were founded much like medical theory was, focused on treating the symptoms of an individual's problems... but one thing Freud theorized over the years has stood the test of truly scientific empirical research:

Behavior is affected by unconscious motives.

Note: If you follow that link on unconscious motives remember to ignore the stuff that has no empirical basis - but reading it all may help you appreciate the process of psychological study shown in the image for this post. Scientific understanding takes time, study, refinement of ideas, and then more of all of those things to get to the truth of things... Plus, when you're studying people as we are, all during that time you're taking to study properly the culture is changing and the people you're studying may be changing with it, adding a whole new wrinkle to the process.

Aside: When are 'Case Studies' ok?

Luckily, when I say 'case study' these days most people assume I am not talking about using them to even attempt to study human behavior. Now they usually refer to a story or example of a scenario we can use to learn from the experience of others. I use case studies in my classes all the time, because they are a wonderful way to share important information in a way that maintains attention. They're a story that we can use to learn the things that science has to teach us (at least in my classes those are the types I choose). For those purposes I highly recommend them.

Theories + Models

"Theories tell you what something is. Models tell you only what something is more or less like. Unless you constantly remember that, therein lies their danger... Theories are deep and inexplicable, difficult to find; they require verification; they are right when they are right. Models are shallow and somewhat easier to invent; they require explanation. We need models as well as theories." - Derman, 2010

In my own words, this boils down to: All theories are models, but not all models are theories. Theories have propositions we need to prove/disprove. Models are a tool for organizing ideas (and I like to use ones based in a good theory).

Given all that junk I wrote above this spot - the points I'm slowly making are:

  1. Psychological theories need to be revisited over time to ensure they still prove true, because social context changes.

  2. Models need to be carefully reviewed to see if they have an underlying theory that is valid and proven before you use them to try to predict behavior.

  3. If theories/models have no relatively current basis in research they may do more harm than good in predicting behavior. (Because our brains love patterns and will create them where they don't exist; psychology is not just common sense. That means we might believe a model is true just because it feels right, even if it isn't.

  4. Despite 1-3, model thinking is amazing and you should do it.

Updating Theories

Psychological science is meant to help others. Most of us that do this type of research want it to be practical and helpful to those who actually work in the fields we study. We love that many I-O theories and models end up used in companies... Except when zombie theories that have long since been buried by researchers are still being fed the flesh of current employees. Ew.

Example: Tuckman's Stages of Group Development

An example of a useful model that many assume is based on an established theory, is Tuckman's Stages of Group Development (1965). In fact, it's so popular Google has a standard explanation for it before it gives you search results:

Google Search Results for Tuckman Group Development on Feb. 22, 2015

Why this particular zombie is still alive... (Bonebright, 2009)

  • Tuckman's model is easy to understand and therefore share, teach, work with, etc. (This is how bad business fads get started and stick around - they're easy to understand and explain, and those who use them in their work just assume that they're good. It's not like they come with an official expiration date! )

  • His model feels right. We all know that some of these things do seem to happen when we get assigned to a work team, so it seems correct to us, like common sense. There are kernels of truth spattered through it, my favorite being that constructive conflict is an essential process in effective teamwork. Again, because part of it is correct, it feels even more right, but that doesn't make it ALL correct.

  • Finally, there's been a lack of anything else coming in to take its place... No one has offered a better alternative to those who need to work with group/team development, so they'll work with what's available.

The main reason that this model cannot be considered a theory is that teams/groups don't usually develop in specific stages, it's just not that neat and clean. Teams research is still relatively young and teams are very complex things to study, which makes it harder to bury the zombie for good. There's nothing else for me to give an HR manager to help them quickly and easily introduce this topic, yet, but we're close.

If you're looking for more up to date ideas for teams and practical options for working in or with them, try these:

  • The CATME System

  • Salas, E., Shuffler, M. L., Thayer, A. L., Bedwell, W. L., & Lazzara, E. H. (2014). Understanding and improving teamwork in organizations: A scientifically based practical guide. Human Resource Management. doi:10.1002/hrm.21628

Images sourced from the author and from Jhangiani, R. S., Chiang, I. A., Cuttler, C. & Leighton, D. C. (2020, August 16). Developing a Hypothesis. Retrieved December 29, 2020, from https://chem.libretexts.org/@go/page/19633 <-- Great resources in this open book on this topic!


Bailey, E., Srinivas, N., & Fisher, B. (2013, June 6). Want to predict human behavior? Use these 6 lessons based on data from 10 million households. Retrieved from http://blog.opower.com/2013/06/want-to-predict-human-behavior-use-these-6-lessons-based-on-data-from-10-million-households/

Bonebright, D. A. (2010). 40 years of storming: A historical review of Tuckman’s model of small group development. Human Resource Development International, 13(1), 111–120. doi:10.1080/13678861003589099

Cherry, K. (n.d.). What are the four goals of psychology? Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/psychology101/f/four-goals-of-psychology.htm

Derman, E. (2010, November 30). Metaphors, models & theories. Retrieved from http://edge.org/conversation/metaphors-models-amp-theories

Epstein, J. (2014, April 3). How a young Sigmund Freud researched & got addicted to cocaine, the new “miracle drug,” in 1894 [Open Culture]. Retrieved from http://www.openculture.com/2014/04/igmund-freud-researched-got-addicted-to-cocaine.html

Kihlstrom, J. F. (in press). Person-Situation Interaction. In D. Carlston (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Social Cognition. New York: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~kihlstrm/PxSInteraction.htm

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Psychodynamic approach. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/psychodynamic.html

McLeod, S. A. (2008). Psychology as a science. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/science-psychology.html

Price, P. (2012). Figure 4.5 Hypothetico-deductive method combined with the general model of scientific research in psychology [Figure Image] in Research methods in psychology: Core concepts and skills (1.0 ed.). Flat World Knowledge. Retrieved from http://catalog.flatworldknowledge.com/bookhub/18?e=price_1.0-ch04_s03
from http://catalog.flatworldknowledge.com/bookhub/18?e=price_1.0-ch04_s03

Science of psychology. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/action/science/index.aspx