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How computational modeling can force theory building in psychological science

posted on 11.07.2020 by Olivia Guest, Andrea E. Martin

Psychology endeavors to develop theories of human capacities and behaviors based on a variety of methodologies and dependent measures. We argue that one of the most divisive factors in our field is whether researchers choose to employ computational modeling of theories (over and above data) during the scientific inference process. Modeling is undervalued, yet holds promise for advancing psychological science. The inherent demands of computational modeling guide us towards better science by forcing us to conceptually analyze, specify, and formalise intuitions which otherwise remain unexamined — what we dub “open theory”. Constraining our inference process through modeling enables us to build explanatory and predictive theories. Herein, we present scientific inference in psychology as a path function, where each step shapes the next. Computational modeling can constrain these steps, thus advancing scientific inference over and above stewardship of experimental practice (e.g., preregistration). If psychology continues to eschew computational modeling, we predict more replicability “crises” and persistent failure at coherent theory-building. This is because without formal modelling we lack open and transparent theorising. We also explain how to formalise, specify, and implement a computational model, emphasizing that the advantages of modeling can be achieved by anyone with benefit to all.