There are a number of themes that are controversial (provoke debate, are unsettled, polarize opinion, or are reflected by a range of positions) in psychology. One example involves nature vs. nurture: some people think that much of our language ability is innate, while others think that very little is innate. I've fleshed this example out a little bit as an answer below.

I will eventually gathering data on just how controversial certain themes are, as a step towards investigating what the various factors are in such differences of opinion. Until then, or a starting point, I'm happy with opinions about what you think might be controversial.

Suggestions from various subfields of psychology are welcome, but I'm looking more for issues that most people with a psychology degree might be able to form an opinion on, rather than something that is highly controversial for a small group of specialists, which the broader community won't have much interest in.

Currently I have a list of themes that I think are controversial, but I was wondering what people in the field in general think. In other words, there might be something obvious that I've missed, and this seems to be a reasonable way to reduce the probability that there is.


3 Answers 3


Short answer: Representations are a noteworthy controversy in embodied or situated psychological theories. Can we explain behavior without reference to representations?

Long answer: Most modern theories presume that information is represented somewhere, such as the brain, and that behavior is organized because that somewhere is organized. Anti-representational theories, such as ecological psychology (e.g., Richardson et al., 2008) or radical embodied cognitive psychology (Chemero 2009; Chemero, 2013 for a brief review) explicitly reject this assumption and say there are no representations. Fink, Foo and Warren (2009) provided an apt, and ingenious, demonstration of how we may explain a behavior, namely catching flyballs, without reference to representations. Embodied cognitive theories, such as enclothed cognition (Adam and Galinsky, 2012), are examples of hybrid approaches incorporating both representational and nonrepresentational features.


  • Adam, H., & Galinsky, A. D. (2012). Enclothed cognition. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(4), 918-925.
  • Chemero, A. (2009). Radical embodied cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.
  • Chemero, A. (2013). Radical embodied cognitive science. Review of General Psychology, 17(2), 145.
  • Fink, P. W., Foo, P. S., & Warren, W. H. (2009). Catching fly balls in virtual reality: A critical test of the outfielder problem. Journal of Vision, 9(13), 14.
  • Richardson, M. J., Shockley, K., Fajen, B. R., Riley, M. A., & Turvey, M. T. (2008). Ecological psychology: Six principles for an embodied–embedded approach to behavior. Handbook of cognitive science: An embodied approach, 161-187.

Just to help, here's an illustration of the sort of answer I'm looking for, though personally I'd be happy with any suggestions, even if less detailed than the first below.

Long answer: On one hand, Pinker and Bloom (1990) argue that our language faculty is similar to our physical organs, in that they evolved as adaptations to evolutionary pressures. On the other hand, Tomasello (variously, see e.g. 2005) argues that the innateness of language is overestimated and shows that social learning plays a much larger role than previously thought. Further, Saffran et al. (1996) show that statistical learning aids in language acquisition. Neither of these require an innate language-learning organ of the sort described by Pinker and Bloom.

Short answer: one controversy in psychology is the extent to which complex cognition (such as language) is innate.

Ultimately, I'll be working with statements like the short answer, but StackExchange prefers answers like the long answer.


Pinker, S., & Bloom, P. (1990). Natural language and natural selection. Behavioral and brain sciences, 13(04), 707-727.

Saffran, J. R., Aslin, R. N., & Newport, E. L. (1996). Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants. Science, 274(5294), 1926-1928.

Tomasello, M. (2005). Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.


This is a very broad question, as indicated in the comments. There are many debates which theorists – and people in general – often disagree on. (Miller, 2010; Sigelman & Rider, 2012):

  1. Goodness vs Badness of Human Nature
    Humans are innately good, bad or neither

  2. Nature vs Nurture
    Genes, biology, and maturation vs experiences, learning and social influences

  3. Activity vs Passivity
    Humans shape their environments vs environmental forces shape humans

  4. Continuity vs Discontinuity
    Changes are gradual vs dramatically through life

  5. Universality vs Context Specificity
    Development is similar between people and cultures vs considerable differences between people and cultures

Any study, discussion or other debate touching these subject areas creates controversy because many people disagree.

You only have to look at the controversies surrounding the debate on what causes anyone to be murderous vs passive, homosexual vs heterosexual, high achievers vs low achievers...


Miller, P. H., 2010. Theories of developmental psychology. New York: Worth.

Sigelman, C. K. & Rider, E. A., 2012. Life-Span Human Development. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.


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