Invisible Hands and Fine Calipers: A Call to Use Formal Theory as a Toolkit for Theory Construction

Donald J. Robinaugh, Jonas Haslbeck, O. Ryan, Eiko I Fried, Lourens J. Waldorp

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


In recent years, a growing chorus of researchers has argued that psychological theory is in a state of crisis: Theories are rarely developed in a way that indicates an accumulation of knowledge. Paul Meehl raised this very concern more than 40 years ago. Yet in the ensuing decades, little has improved. We aim to chart a better path forward for psychological theory by revisiting Meehl’s criticisms, his proposed solution, and the reasons his solution failed to meaningfully change the status of psychological theory. We argue that Meehl identified serious shortcomings in our evaluation of psychological theories and that his proposed solution would substantially strengthen theory testing. However, we also argue that Meehl failed to provide researchers with the tools necessary to construct the kinds of rigorous theories his approach required. To advance psychological theory, we must equip researchers with tools that allow them to better generate, evaluate, and develop their theories. We argue that formal theories provide this much-needed set of tools, equipping researchers with tools for thinking, evaluating explanation, enhancing measurement, informing theory development, and promoting the collaborative construction of psychological theories.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)725-743
Number of pages28
JournalPerspectives on Psychological Science
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021


  • computational model
  • formal theory
  • mathematical model
  • theory construction


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