July| Vol. 22 No. 8.02 | Christian's Chronicles © 2015 – All rights reserved.
Oh, I know the title of this post will arouse some ‘criticism’ – which, of course, I welcome – but I wanted a short, attention-grabbing phrase to lure in the reader, and for the most part this one cuts to the core of the issue efficiently. The words are not random; they are in response to what appears to be a highly popular article with the dubious title: Mentally Strong People: The 13 Things They Avoid (Forbes). I am troubled by the eagerness with which popular sentiment has embraced the various myths of psychology without a second thought. ‘Garbage’ may be seen as too pejorative, possibly tainting an otherwise receptive audience with dogmatic aversion. So, with apologies to my friends who are studying or currently working in the field, allow me to rephrase:
Psychology is a pseudo-science that amounts to little more than ineffectual superstition.
Yes, the point of this post is to condemn virtually the entire discipline of psychology, or rather, more specifically the ‘therapeutic’ aspects of psychology. I think it is an important point, intended to counterbalance the prevalent myth of psychology as a science, and especially the myth of therapy as a clearly-defined, scientifically rigorous medical procedure that ‘cures’ mental ailments. ‘Garbage’ may be a strong word, but it is effective shorthand that serves to point out inadequacies and nudges toward a more critical analysis.
Psychology, on my view, is a field that can range in veracity from the slightly scientific to complete bunk. For the purposes of this post, I make a distinction between experimental/statistical psychology on the one hand, and clinical/counseling psychology on the other. Proper experiments and statistical analysis can yield reasonably reliable data and lend interesting insight to human behavior. At the other end of the spectrum, counseling psychology and the even more diluted appearances of popular psychology in mainstream culture are clothed in the veneer of science, but amount simply to unsupported myths propped up by a false faith that is not based on scientific proof, but which instead is the result of indoctrination.
Psychology not only lacks scientific rigor in methodology, it has inherent shortcomings due to the oft-encountered (though not as frequently recognized) issue of a lack of falsifiability. To anyone but the uninterested layperson, such critiques are nothing new. Yet academic criticism notwithstanding, psychology has been enshrined in our cultural lexicon as a scientific discipline on par with the precision of mathematics and the curative power of surgery. Indeed, the latter metaphor is actively promoted by practitioners who often like to compare the field of mental health to traditional medicine.
This is a false analogy, and it is problematic for a variety of other reasons.
The medical metaphor is worth exploring in greater detail. Although traditional medicine is also arguably more art than science, there are abundant examples of cause-and-effect relationships that can be objectively described as ‘cures,’ which restored the patient to health by eliminating some prior undesired condition. These are most easily identified in the physical restoration of corporeal injury, as in the case of surgery or resetting a broken bone. The benefit to the patient’s well-being is difficult to disprove when a bullet is removed from a leg, or a torn muscle is repaired, or a broken nose is reset by a doctor. I visualize the process as so:
Psychology as surgery: With surgical intervention, the efficacy of the process can usually be objectively evaluated relatively easily through each step of the process, even independent of the patient’s subjective experience. Certainly there are instances where the undesired condition is not as easily identified or where the results are not fully understood. One example may be gastric bypass surgery. One could argue that the ‘ailment’ has nothing to do with the patient’s physical characteristics, thus rendering the surgery superfluous in its entirety, or that the result fails to eliminate the ailment and perhaps also causes a host of other issues and complications. Such subtleties notwithstanding, the causal relationship between the prior state of the patient and the end result is a concrete and undeniable fact.
Psychology as internal medicine: It gets a little more complicated with your garden-variety ‘sickness.’ This usually occurs when a patient ‘feels ill’ and decides to go to the doctor. Neither patient nor doctor know what is causing the undesired condition. The doctor comes up with a diagnosis based on the patient’s reported symptoms as well as whatever tests are conducted during the visit, such as taking the patient’s temperature, blood tests, and so on. The tests may identify a condition with reasonable particularity, or the doctor will have to come up with a diagnosis based on the more murky patient-reporting-of-symptoms combined ‘professional analysis’ and expertise rooted in his or her education and experience with other patients. Often, neither the doctor nor the patient may have a clear idea of what, if anything, is causing the symptoms or even whether the ailment has been cured, and if the cure was the result of the doctor’s intervention or just the body’s natural processes. This, however, is not much of an issue as it tends to arise in less severe cases where ultimately it doesn’t matter what caused what, because the illness is not all that severe. This is why the little discussed focus by the medical profession on the treatment of symptoms, as opposed to the underlying cause itself, also arouses little suspicion in the public. A ‘diagnosis’ is often nothing more than a description of symptoms in Latin or Greek terms so as to mislead the public into believing in the magic power of the medical profession to identify with specificity the ailment in question and to offer the cure. In reality, often this is a simple description in arcane language of a condition that could be caused by a host of things. Take for example ‘hepatitis,’ which in itself only means inflammation of the liver, and can be caused by a number of different viruses or other causes. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of examples where the curative power of medicine can easily be demonstrated as objective fact, in cause-and-effect relationships that can be easily seen. Anti-fungal cream cures ringworm. Antibiotics cure bacterial infections.
When it comes to psychology, however, the entire paradigm breaks down. Because psychology operates with concepts so nebulous as to allow for almost any proposed theory to be verified by evidence that is itself on equally weak footing, it is difficult to draw any causal links between the ailment, the intervention, and the ‘cure.’ Indeed, it is often difficult enough to define or identify each of these. The lack of agreement in diagnosing ‘disorders’ among contemporary practitioners, as well as over the course of time as some behaviors became more or less accepted within the same culture, and additionally, the different views of acceptability across diverse cultures, supports the view that psychology and the diagnosis of mental ‘disorders’ is heavily influenced by cultural norms and political considerations. Therapy, on this view, may boil down to nothing more than the subversive imposition of prevalent norms via a sleight-of-hand that clothes the process with the appearance of the medical profession.
Furthermore, these various shortcomings are inherent to psychology as a discipline precisely because it purports to operate on the mind itself, which is itself that which constitutes the processes we recognize as responsible for self-determination, and it is also responsible for experiencing, recognizing, and reporting the symptoms. This raises important and troubling issues regarding autonomy, both in the context of the therapist-patient relationship, as well as with regard to personal responsibility. Regarding the former, the troubling ‘recovered memories’ proven false, and various other examples of overreaching are abundant. As for the latter, criminal law and the various symptoms, syndromes, and other explanations of behavior that have been used to exonerate or convict an accused offer plenty of food for thought. While internal medicine has some questionable tactics related to describing symptoms in arcane language under the guise of a ‘diagnosis,’ this issue is magnified tenfold in psychology, where almost any behavior can be identified in almost anyone, and attached a convenient diagnostic label and – even more disturbingly, but that brings us into the field of psychiatry – treated with a drug.
These are interesting topics to explore at length, but for the purposes of this post, it is better to focus on the phenomenon of such lists as the aforementioned ’13 things’ avoided by ‘mentally strong people.’ The popularity of articles such as this reflects the esteem and respect with which such vague generalities devoid of all context and meaning have become accepted as truths, couched in the authority of the science of psychology.
To the average reader, this is a useful – and truthful – compilation of data from reliable authorities. No wonder it has been shared and read over 4.5 million times. Yet the slightly critical eye (and let’s remember that critical thinking is a good thing) will see flags even in the title.
Can such generalizations be made in the first place? How do we define ‘mentally strong people?’ After we have defined this group with a reasonable level of precision, how can we say whether they avoid any of the ‘things’ on the list of 13? Say for example, number one: Feeling sorry for themselves. How can we define when one is feeling sorry for oneself? When is it too much? When does justified indignation become ‘feeling sorry for oneself?’ Also, how do we know if these things are causes or effects of mental strength, whatever mental strength means?
This entire list needs only a few words replaced, and it may as well be the weekly horoscope. Sagittarius: you have learned to take responsibility for your actions and outcomes, and you have an inherent understanding of the fact that life is not fair. Leo: you know your strength is in your ability to manage the way you respond. And so on, with a multitude of repeated platitudes with which entire populations can identify as though the words were hand-crafted to describe them as individuals. Loose concepts and vague terms can encompass anything, anyone, and any theory; whether it is the horoscope, an arbitrary list of 13 things or a psychological ‘diagnosis.’
This is not limited to pop-culture-psychology and mass marketed articles. The problems of definition, and self-reported symptoms & cures also render counseling psychology highly suspect. Which therapies work? How do we know? Just what IS therapy? These questions do not have quite such scientific answers as the psychology community would have the public believe – and they do believe.
The essence of psychology is faith – faith that it is a medical science that can provide the cure to whatever ailment the patient believes himself to have, for which of course he needs the cure that only psychology can provide. It is a myth, no more or less useful than other superstitions, which can provide benefits to well-being if for no other reason than the placebo effect.
In short, there is no such thing as therapy.
There may well be ‘demonstrable benefits’ to certain methods, but not surprisingly, there is little agreement or understanding of which methods work when, and for whom. Yes, I am sure those in the profession will counter with hosts of statistics to disprove this claim of mine regarding the efficacy of whatever method. Nonetheless, all of the various approaches to therapy can be shown to provide SOME benefit, because just talking to someone is ‘therapeutic.’ So why put a bogus label on it such as ‘therapy?’ We might as well call it ‘hepatitis.’ It is just an arbitrary label that functions to perpetuate the myth that something scientific, even magical is going on through which the patient is cured. You can simply talk to someone if you want, and if you believe in the myth of psychology you will put the label ‘therapy’ on it, thereby perhaps rendering it more beneficial to you because of your faith in its therapeutic function. There is a psychological term for that: the placebo effect.
Alas, my mental strength is wearing thin as I am tired, and perhaps I have fallen into the trap described by number 9 on the list of things to avoid: resent other people’s success. Therefore, I must cut my tirade short. The flaws are far too many and too obvious for those who can see them, and I am not likely to convince the crowd that uncritically swallows such garbage whole.
With that, good night and good luck.