What is it about?

Currently, no systematic method for constructing theories of mental disorder (i.e. how we think they occur, how they are maintained) has been described in the academic literature and it is not generally expected that researchers who come up with theories of mental disorder should follow any kind of systematic method. This is very different to other kinds of research - i.e. empirical - where researchers are expected to pay detailed attention to methodology and describe it specifically in their publications. This lack of attention to method in the construction of mental disorder theories means we are currently 1) ignorant of the processes by which our theories are being generated, and 2) uncertain if it is being done in a manner that is effective and not producing error and oversight. In order to ensure the theoretical explanations we have for mental disorders are of a high quality therefore, we believe it is vital to build them using a rigorous systematic method that is explicitly denoted by the researcher. The use of a systematic method can help to counteract cognitive biases and human error and, when made explicit in published work, holds researchers accountable to the wider academic community. We therefore present the Phenomena Detection Method of Theory Construction (PDM-TC), a three-phase, explicit, systematic method that can guide researchers through the task of explanatory theory construction and thereby, we hope, lead to the generation of more valid and detailed theories of mental disorder.

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Why is it important?

As no systematic methods for constructing theories of mental disorder have yet been described within the academic literature, there is an implicit understanding that theory construction is somehow exempt from the use of scientific method; that it is okay to just pull theories out of thin air in haphazard ways. However, using unstructured reasoning processes can easily produce bias, error, or oversight, which lead the resulting theories to be significantly flawed (e.g. omitting useful information, proposing factors and processes that are false). These theories form the basis of our treatment in disciplines such as clinical psychology and psychiatry. Therefore, it is important to our ability to treat mental disorder that these theories be accurate and provide all the information we need. When they are not, they can lead clinicians to target the wrong problems, or the right problems but in the wrong ways. A systematic method, such as the PDM-TC, can help with this significantly by guiding the researcher through a logical reasoning process for the construction of explanatory theory. This systematic reasoning process helps to produce theories, and therefore downstream treatments, that are of better quality and more useful in the fight against mental disorder.

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This page is a summary of: Theory construction in the psychopathology domain: A multiphase approach, Theory & Psychology, December 2019, SAGE Publications, DOI: 10.1177/0959354319893026.
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