Can Theory Change What it is a Theory About?

In Beyond Freedom and Dignity B.F. Skinner writes, “no theory changes what it is a theory about; man remains what he has always been.” By this Skinner means that the underlying rules or processes that guide human behavior are constant, and that knowledge of these processes does not change their nature. However, throughout the social psychological literature we see suggestions of just the opposite—knowledge of a psychological process can change the psychological process. For example, Schmader (2010) provides evidence that simply teaching people about stereotype threat may “inoculate them against its effects.” The theory of social identity threat postulates that people are sensitive to contexts that threaten their identity, and when such a situation is detected people engage in ruminative conflict that can distract them enough to undermine their performance in that setting. Schmader is claiming that giving people knowledge of psychological processes predicted by theory changes the processes that unfold. This point raises several important questions: what is a psychological theory? Does psychological theory describe stable processes in the Skinnerian sense? Can we think of psychological theory in the same way that we think about theories of say physics or biology? If we believe theory must have some element of stability (e.g., if we believe light traveled at the same speed in the middle ages as it does today), and that theories exist out side of and are independent from our knowledge of their existence (e.g. the theory of special and general relativity existed before Einstein identified them, and his discovery did not change their quality), then can we classify social psychological theories as theories? My sense is no. Or maybe we need to modify our definition of what qualifies as a theory. Or perhaps our definition of stability in the processes that underlie phenomena and our belief that observation is independent from underlying processes needs modification.


Schmader, T. (2010). Stereotype Threat Deconstructed. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19, 14–18. doi:10.1177/0963721409359292