What Is Parsimony Psychology, And Could It Be For Me?

Updated December 18, 2018

Reviewer Tanya Harell

Do you ever get the feeling that psychology is just too complicated to understand? The brain is a complex structure, and human behavior covers such an enormous variety of actions. It only there was a way to simplify it all, psychology might be easier to understand. It may surprise you to know that many psychologists are strongly committed to simplifying their research, theories, diagnoses, and treatments. How do they do it? They use parsimony psychology.

What Is Parsimony?

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To understand parsimony psychology, it's important to have a good grasp of what parsimony is in ordinary language and all scientific endeavors.

Parsimony comes from the Latin word parser, meaning to be sparing. The word "parsimony" has been around since it was first used as such in the late Middle English language.

The simplest meaning of the word "parsimony" is excessive or extreme thriftiness, economy, or frugality. Other synonyms include penny-pinching, tightfistedness, ungenerousness, miserliness, and selfishness. Given these synonyms, it seems counterintuitive that parsimony would be a good thing.

Scientists recognize great value in the frugality of parsimony. They seek to follow the Law of Parsimony, especially when conducting and evaluating research or making diagnoses. The principle of parsimony states that the simplest explanation of an event or observation is the preferred one.

Why Is Parsimony Referred To As Occam's Razor?

Scientists refer to the Law of Parsimony as Occam's Razor. This name refers to a theologian and logician named William of Ockham, who, in the 1300s, wrote the words "numquampnenendaestplurality sine necessitate," meaning "Plurality must never be posited without necessity."

The ideas that gave rise to the Law of Parsimony have been around at least since the time of Aristotle, who said, "the more limited, if accurate, is always preferable." Ptolemy and later Isaac Newton also followed the principle of parsimony in explaining natural phenomena.

Still, perhaps because Ockham's name is so unusual, the name "Occam's Razor" stuck. A metaphysical scientist named Sir William Hamilton made Ockham famous by coining the term Occam's Razor in his 1852 writings. The razor was used as a metaphor for "shaving away" unnecessary assumptions in opposing theories.

What Is An Elegant Solution?

An elegant solution is an answer that adheres to the Law of Parsimony. It has the fewest steps, the least amount of materials needed, and the most satisfying conclusion, all with minimal effort required. An elegant solution in psychology would be one that explains theories or models of behavior in simplest terms.

What Is Parsimony In Psychology?

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So, what is parsimony in psychology? It's finding the simplest accurate explanation for cognitive processes and behaviors. While the brain is incredibly complex, that's not a justification to complicate our understanding of it further than is needed. The parsimony psychology definition is the same as for the parsimony definition in physiological sciences, except that parsimony is used in psychology to evaluate thoughts and behaviors.

Parsimony is especially helpful in psychology for that very reason. The mind is complex enough already. When scientists use overly complex explanations in studying it, it can become completely unintelligible. Unless a complex solution is the most accurate one, most scientists still prefer the simplest solution that works.

Which Explanations Are Simplest?

Scientists have come up with several criteria that set simple solutions apart from others. The most parsimonious solution has the following qualities.


The simplest explanation is also the briefest.

Makes The Fewest Unsupported Assumptions

All explanations rely on assumptions. An assumption is something that is accepted as true without proof. If there were no assumptions, people couldn't communicate at all. For example, if you don't agree on the meaning of simple words, there's no way you can explain anything. However, some solutions have way too many unsupported assumptions. As often as possible, it's best to only rely on data that you can prove.

Makes Assumptions That Can Be Dealt With Easily

If there are assumptions in the solution, which there certainly will be, it's important that they can be easily dealt with. That may mean doing more research to discover if the assumptions are true or not.

Refers To Things That Are Observable

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A parsimonious explanation sticks to things that are observable. They may be objects, motions, behaviors, facial expressions, or multiple-choice test results, for example. Scientists can also observe electrical changes in the brain through EEGs and chemical changes through lab tests. There are many ways to observe behaviors and even thoughts, but without some way to make these observations, it's hard to come to any accurate conclusions.

Includes The Fewest Number Of Entities

Some of the most outlandish explanations for ordinary physical phenomena have been given over the years. In most cases, there are many different entities involved in the explanation. The Law of Parsimony suggests that there should be no more different entities than necessary to explain the event.

Has The Greatest Generality

Another thing about parsimony psychology is that it favors explanations that can be generalized to the most different events. For example, if you're talking about winks, smiles, frowns, and furrowed brows, a more parsimonious explanation would use the phrase "facial expressions," because it's a more general word that covers more different events. However, if you found that only certain facial expressions made sense in the explanation, then that term wouldn't be parsimonious.

Is The Simplest Always Best?

There's more to parsimony than the aspect of simplicity. The explanation must also be accurate, too. Think of thriftiness. It isn't just about buying the cheapest car. If you buy a car that won't run and can't be fixed, you've simply wasted money. That isn't thrifty. You need a car that's both worth something and inexpensive to buy.

The same is true in science. In many instances, the first simple solution sounded promising but turned out to be false. Sometimes, more information is needed before a truly parsimonious solution can be found.

Can A Parsimonious Explanations Be Complex?

Although simplicity is preferred under Occam's Razor, accuracy is also demanded. Thus, in some cases, only complex answers are accurate. The one that is both accurate and least complex of the possibilities satisfies the Law of Parsimony.

Example Of Parsimony Psychology

To understand Occam's Razor better, it helps to have an explicit example of how the term is used. Here is an example of how parsimony is used in psychology.

Negative Symptoms Of Schizophrenia

In a 2010 research review, researchers used the law of parsimony to create a simpler way to think of the negative symptoms of schizophrenia.Negative symptoms are behaviors and thought patterns that are absent in disorder. This contrasts with positive symptoms that are present when someone has schizophrenia, such as hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions.

There is a wide range of negative symptoms for this mental illness. They include:

  • Flat affect
  • Inappropriate Affect
  • Nonresponsive affect
  • Unchanging expression
  • Decreased movement
  • Few gestures
  • Poor eye contact
  • Lack of vocal inflection
  • Alogia, which is a lack of new content in a conversation
  • Little speech
  • Asociality, which is a lack of interest in social interaction
  • Apathy
  • Poor grooming
  • Not persisting at work or school
  • Anergia, which is lack of physical energy
  • Few recreational activities
  • Decreased ability for personal closeness
  • Few friends
  • Attention problems

As you can see, the list is very long. There are even more items that could be put on this list, although they're less common. The researchers looked for a way to simplify diagnosis by using one word to describe all these different phenomena. The word they chose was avolition, which they suggested would essentially explain all the various negative symptoms. Avolition is defined asa decreased motivation to initiate or self-direct purposeful activities.

Should The Law Of Parsimony Be UseIn Psychology?

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Some researchers have suggested that the Law of Parsimony shouldn't be followed in psychology. However, Ressler suggests that the Law of Parsimony psychology uses just as important as it is in any other science.

The Law of Parsimony can be used in several ways to assist psychology researchers and clinical psychologists. First, if you can understand a problem more easily, you may feel better when it happens. Second, if you have a simple explanation of how it happens, you may be able to prevent it from happening again. Finally, if you have simple explanations for things that occur, that knowledge may point you to other possible things that could be true.

Is Parsimony Psychology For Me?

Parsimony psychology makes sense for nearly everyone. Because it combines the requirements of simplicity and accuracy, it offers explanations that are both true and easy to understand. If you feel your psychological issues have been explained to you in incomprehensible ways, you may have been talking to someone who doesn't believe in the usefulness of parsimony for psychology. If so, you may be wondering how you can understand your problems better.

A therapist can help you by giving you simple yet accurate explanations for the problems you're dealing with on a day to day basis. You can talk to a licensed counselor at BetterHelp.com to learn more about your mental health issues and how they can be explained using the Law of Parsimony. Understanding is a relief, but it may also be the key to dealing with your problems and preventing them from happening again.

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