What is Parsimony Psychology? Could It Be For Me?

Karen Doll, Author
November 15, 2020

Psychology can feel abstract and intangible for some to understand. Brain functioning is complex and much of it still remains a mystery. Scientists are committed to simplifying the study of psychology and human behavior to close this gap of understanding. Psychologists have simplified their research design, theories, hypotheses, diagnoses, and interventions. Scientists in varying disciplines have applied the concept of parsimony in their studies and research.


Here are a few definitions outlining parsimony:

Parsimony is a concept in which an explanation of a situation or thing is created with the fewest assumptions. 

The Law of Parsimony advocates choosing the simplest scientific explanation that fits the evidence.

The model of parsimony focuses on simplicity. According to the Law of Parsimony, we should not continue to complicate explanations when a simple approach will do. It involves focusing on the most impactful and effective evidence and data available without considering extraneous factors. While it sounds straightforward, there is a discipline in applying the model practically.

The term “parsimony” was derived from the Latin word parser, meaning to be sparing. The general meaning of the word is excessive thriftiness or frugality. In some contexts, it may have a negative connotation suggesting a lack of generosity or miserliness. However, when considered in a different context, there is value in the concept of parsimony. The Law of Parsimony suggests identifying the simplest, least complicated explanation of a situation or observation. The preference becomes seeking clarity through simplicity. Ancient philosophers supported the concept of parsimony. Aristotle stated, “the more limited, if accurate, is always preferable.”

The Law of Parsimony is often referred to as Occam’s Razor. It was named after theologian William of Ockham in the 1300’s. He authored the term “numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate,” meaning “Plurality must never be posited without necessity.” Years later, scientist Sir William Hamilton named the phrase “Occam’s razor” to describe the process of “shaving away” unnecessary or peripheral assumptions in logical reasoning. Subsequently, scientists in varying fields have applied the concept of parsimony to hone their studies. It involves using the fewest steps, with minimal resources, leading to the optimal conclusion. So, it does not propose taking the fastest route, but most efficient, comprehensive and effective path possible. If there is a more simple yet equally thorough solution, this is the desired choice. The simplicity also contributes to ease of communicating and maximizing the likelihood that the concepts will be understood.

According to critics, psychologists can violate the Law of Parsimony by overcomplicating things. There can be a broad gray area in the process of attributing complicated behaviors to cognitive processes. 

Supporters of parsimony in psychology assert that complicating our understanding of cognition and behavior is not necessary. They propose that the application in social science should be parallel to the application in physiological sciences such as biology and chemistry.

Parsimony in psychology entails identifying the simplest and most accurate explanation for brain processes and human behaviors. Parsimonious descriptions may include physical objectives, activities, facial expressions, test results, etc.

When Parsimony in Psychology is applied, the explanations will be classified as follows:

  • Simplest
  • Unnecessary complexities
  • Helpful
  • Involves least number of unsupported assumptions
  • Simplest solution that works- is effective
  • Refers to tangible observations – rely on data that is proven
  • Behavioral approach
  • Comprehensive and accurate
  • Practical and pragmatic
  • Easy to understand
  • Data that can be supported and proven
  • Generalizable to varying situations
  • Replicable results

Focusing on explanations and theories that are practical and applicable makes good common sense. Parsimony Psychology provides conclusions that are clear, easy to understand, and relatable. It is also essential that the explanations are accurate and valid.

Creating unnecessary complexity, especially when dealing with cognition and human behaviors can be overwhelming. Often individuals with mental health symptoms can feel hopeless, especially if there are not tangible and pragmatic explanations and treatments for their experience. Parsimony Psychology provides an applicable, efficient, and practical way to address mental health issues. A therapist or mental health professional can help provide this structure and scaffolding to help.

Karen Doll, Author

Karen Doll has been a Licensed Psychologist in the Twin Cities for 20 years, working in organizational consulting. She leverages her education in Clinical Psychology with her leadership assessment expertise in her practice. She is an executive coach focusing on helping people maximize their potential.

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