Wim Hofstee's Theory of Psychological Relativity

Psychology is a science that interprets a series of realities. This means that there's a certain influence of subjectivity. Hofstee's theory of relativity tells us that we must control this factor in order to follow the scientific method.
Wim Hofstee's Theory of Psychological Relativity

Last update: 17 May, 2022

The psychological theory of relativity reminds us that absolute truths don’t exist. It also claims that it’s often difficult to assess behavior and personality. For example, there are cases in which the evaluator reveals their biases when making a report. In turn, those being evaluated can also lie (intentionally or unintentionally) during tests and interviews.

In this world, as is often said, everything is relative depending on what lens we look through. The field of psychology is a discipline mediated by various schools and approaches. Here, human behavior is observed through different lenses.

A number of these currents (structuralism, functionalism, psychoanalysis, behaviorism, cognitivism, humanism, etc.) may hold opposing ideas about certain concepts. This means that many psychologists work from factual science and tend to believe that their perceptions are always correct. However, in reality, in science, we must work from probabilities, not certainties.

This was a problem raised by Wim Hofstee, a psychologist at the University of Groningen, back in the 1970s and 1980s. He claimed that we may never find the truth about things. Nonetheless, we can conduct science in a positive way, one that’s useful to everyone. Nevertheless, this requires all experts to agree, according to Hofstee.

Patient in clinical psychology representing the Theory of psychological relativity

Wim Hofstee’s theory of psychological relativity

The theory of psychological relativity is a concept much studied by the field of psychology. Wim Hofstee, an expert psychologist in the personality field, was the first to popularize the concept. However, a study on the topic had already been conducted in 2003 by Cambridge University in which they defined the phenomenon extremely clearly.

This study claimed that, when evaluating something, we apply relativity from the moment we allow ourselves to be led by an internal perspective, instead of following a more standardized and rigorous external approach. To understand this better, we’ll give a really simple example in the form of an event that Wim Hofstee experienced himself.

Hofstee was president of a committee created in 1990 by the National Office Against Racism. He was charged with analyzing the psychological tests that were applied in the immigration department. One thing he was able to observe was the number of cognitive biases that professionals used (unconsciously) in their evaluations. This was obviously a problem.

The problem of observations and evaluations in psychology

Often, the simple act of acting as an observer in a certain context causes the behavior of the observed to change. Another common phenomenon is having to evaluate an individual who lies. The theory of psychological relativity reminds us that it’s extremely difficult to obtain the absolute truth about human behavior.

This effect is something that every psychologist is aware of. In fact, it’s a variable that they always take into account. The question is, whether they’re aware that relativity is present in every area of the human being; including themselves.

We can’t ignore the fact that psychology, as a science, must interpret many human realities. Therefore, it’s inevitable that we occasionally get carried away by subjectivity.

The theory of psychological relativity and the various approaches and schools

The theory of psychological relativity also reminds us that psychology is a science that doesn’t have the same rigor as, for example, medicine. After all, depression isn’t a broken bone that shows up on an x-ray. Mental disorders don’t show in blood tests. Nor are the treatments in the psychological field as cut and dried as, for instance, antibiotics for infections.

In psychology, each school has its own practices, approaches, and strategies. For example, a psychoanalyst who follows the psychodynamic approach doesn’t evaluate or carry out the same type of therapy as the humanistic or cognitive-behavioral one. In addition, while practices in psychology are all relative, there are those that have more solid scientific support.

Mind with lights representing the Theory of psychological relativity

How to reduce subjectivity in psychology

To reduce biases and subjectivities in psychology, intellectual humility must be applied. What does this mean? It implies that we must remember something as simple as that there are no absolute truths and we don’t know everything. In addition, we’re not infallible.

In fact, common sense must be used and combined with professionalism and scientific rigor. Wim Hofstee insisted on the need to work together with other colleagues because science isn’t made by one person, it’s built by a community. Rigor comes when there are several views that evaluate, are rigorous, and that appease subjectivities in order to make use of scientific objectivity.

That’s the key and strategy with which everyone wins.

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  • Laming, D. (2003). Psychological relativity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 26(4), 416-417. doi:10.1017/S0140525X03300093
  • Willem K. Hofstee, Boele de Raad en Lewis R. Goldberg (1992). “Integration of the Big Five and circumplex approaches to trait structure”. Met In: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 63(1), Jul 1992, pp. 146-163