With the recent proliferation of a large volume of research in Neuroscience, Cognitive Neuropsychology and Psychology, referring to the neurological substratum of basic psychological processes, we find an epistemic imbalance where the more global, contextualized approaches to explaining behavior give way to approaches based on analysis and study of basic processes. Based on observation of this reality, the aim of the following theoretical analysis is: (1) to define the different levels that make up psychological research, as well as the scientific domain inherent to each, with their limitations and benefits; and (2) to apply this classification to a recent research topic of great academic, investigative, and professional impact: executive functions and self-regulation.
The development of human knowledge in an empirical scientific format, as we know it today, is relatively recent in human history, given its complexity and the cognitive repertoires and high-level technology that are required to produce it. It is not surprising, therefore, that the initial formats of knowledge were conceptual constructions taken from related facts, which were used to develop concepts (definitions, characteristics), and finally, patterns or probabilistic predictions in the form of principles. Fables, proverbs and parables are good examples of this kind of commonplace psychological knowledge. All such elaborations have a common denominator: they start from direct observation of reality, based on unfiltered samples of behavior, from which they propose probabilistic relations and common-sense predictions. This type of understanding, therefore, is a form of unscientific, untested, folk knowledge.
With the historical appearance of the scientific-positivist paradigm, production of human knowledge in a scientific format has greatly increased, both in quality and in quantity. This production, however, has clearly been conditioned by the resources or technological developments available at the moment. Commonplace human knowledge thus tends to increasingly match contributions of what we call scientific knowledge. Consequently, in today’s Knowledge Society heavily laden with this type of knowledge and the scientific-technological component any analysis of reality or of any issue is usually connected to some type of evidence or some scientific-technical grounding. This does not mean that scientific knowledge is infallible or unquestionable (the overtrust bias); instead, such knowledge is subject to being disproven, restricted or verified, to ensure that it attains a higher level of consistency than folk knowledge, which is elaborated unsystematically by a human cognitive system, with many inaccuracies, inconsistencies and biases. On the other hand, scientific knowledge would have been obtained using technological instruments and techniques that provide for greater accuracy in data collection, processing, and analysis. This fact has led to a perception of data obtained through high level techniques as being “more scientific” (the technology bias). As a result, recent scientific studies involving complex techniques (scanners, computed tomography, etc.) would seem to have more scientific value. Psychology as a science is not invulnerable to this scenario. In this line, McCabe and Castel (2008) demonstrated that, in the area of cognition, the inclusion of brain images in an article results in increased scores for its scientific reasoning. In this case, the authors argue that this might be explained by “people’s affinity for reductionistic explanations of cognitive phenomena” (p. 343).
In light of this, it seems appropriate to reflect on the different levels and formats of psychology research – to clarify their different theoretical and empirical domains, and so encourage a better connection and integration between them, in both conceptual and applied knowledge. In order to illustrate these concepts, examples related to executive functions, their associated behavioral and contextual variables/models and their relationship with ADHD will be discussed.