Modern Psychology: Illusions and Dogma

Psychology: Aspirations and Possibilities

Pick any university in the world, and you will almost certainly find that the undergraduate program with the highest enrollment is psychology. Psychology programs offer a major source of university funding, yet few students will ever continue on to graduate school or use their degrees in any direct way. There is something about psychology that provides an unquestionable draw. We all desire to have a better understanding of ourselves, other people, and the social worlds that we inhabit. It is this hunger for self-understanding that drives the enrollment at universities and the sales of self-help books and pop-psychology texts in local bookstores. The audience is clearly there – but what are we giving them?

I tend to have something of a love-hate relationship with my chosen field and profession. On the one hand, psychology claims the noble aspiration of wanting to better understand what it is to be human: how people think, feel, and act. It has the potential to use this knowledge in ways to develop insight and awareness about ourselves and others; to heal people through self-discovery; to help people live more vibrantly and with a greater sense of meaning, purpose, and with psychological equanimity. Applied on the sociocultural scale, it could be used to help uncover and expose psychological motives that play a role in the persistence of unhealthy delusions, such as those that cause us to repress awareness of imminent environmental threats to our human existence, those that cause us to rationally justify terror and war, or those that cause us to treat individuals from different cultural worldviews as ‘backward’ or ‘wrong.’ In short, psychology, if it were utilized appropriately and to its fullest potential, could help us create a better world for ourselves and for future generations. However it seems to me that mainstream psychology fails to measure up to its potential – for me, it continues to disappoint. Let me briefly outline my position.

A ‘Scientific’ Psychology?  

Psychology tenaciously asserts itself as a ‘science.’ However, a ‘scientific psychology’ may involve a contradiction in terms. A conservative definition of ‘science’ usually implies some kind of empiricism (which can be contrasted with the rationalism of philosophy). This typically involves objective empirical investigation by way of the physical senses… in short, what we can taste, smell, touch, see, and hear. Yet few psychologists would ever claim to have touched a thought or to have seen an emotion. And while we can often observe an individual’s behavior, the motives related to their actions are objectively hidden, and can only be obtained through theoretically-guided speculation, or by asking someone about their subjective intentions (which again, is anything but objective). Psychologists will often reason or assume that this approach is ‘good enough’ – but it seems to me that most psychologists fail to appreciate the severe limitations of our ‘scientific’ methods; we seem to be overly confident in what the research is capable of telling us, forgetting the theoretical concessions that were made.

Our best ‘evidence’ can only be interpreted by some theory that will be used to organize or make sense of the data. As I have argued before, we cannot objectively observe and measure the human mind, yet it remains the target of inquiry for psychology. The only way that we can study it is if we rationally construct some theory for how it works, and only then are we able to conduct empirical research, when we hope that the data will fit with our theory. Note that this process relies very heavily on conceptual ideas (or unquestioned assumptions). The evidence is only as good as the theory you construct, and the theory is created not by objective science, but by rational philosophical argument.

I do not have an issue with this process as a whole. What seems problematic to me is the fact that most psychologists fail to notice that this is indeed how our science works. Most instead prefer to talk as though our science were as tangibly objective as chemistry or biology, and speak as though their preferred theories were derived entirely from objective data (versus rational argument); consequently, they seldom consider the very real possibility that their theory could be wrong.

So the ‘evidence’ from psychological research is only as good as our theories, which unlike those in physics, chemistry, and mathematics, change all the time. We are bred into our conceptual communities or theoretical worldviews much like we are taught to think about religions or politics. We join with like-minded individuals who think like we do, talk like we do, and reason like we do. We rationalize those with opposing views as ‘uninteresting,’ ‘unimportant,’ or ‘ignorant.’ So our theoretical worldviews will be shaped by the universities we attend, the professors we are exposed to, the books we read, the jargon we are taught to use, and so on. Once we subscribe to a conceptual community, thinking becomes narrowed and it becomes extremely difficult to critique or challenge our assumptions or to communicate with others who think differently. A Cognitive-Behaviorist, for example, will seldom see eye-to-eye with a Psychodynamic theorist. Remember that if the data was indeed ‘objective,’ we would not have such disagreements about its interpretation or its relevance. But in the social sciences, such disagreements happen all the time, and the reason is because the data is always interpreted through our preferred theoretical lens. Once we become enraptured by a particular theoretical paradigm, it is hard to see our favored view as fallible, or to see other theories as capable of offering a credible alternative.

In short, I would argue that the field of psychology is full of individuals who develop an uncritical and religious-like adherence to their favored theories about human nature. In my opinion, there is more scientism than science going on within the field of psychology. This could be avoided if more psychologists were taught some basics about the philosophy of science or critical thinking in general. But too many psychologists fail to understand the important role of philosophical argumentation within the construction of our psychological theories; many have a negative view of philosophy and downplay its value.

The Scientist-Practitioner Therapist

Early in the development of this field, a small group of individuals got together to discuss education and training requirements as it related to clinical practice and the profession of psychology. The Boulder Conference effectively decided upon a ‘scientist-practitioner’ model, implicitly suggesting that ‘good scientists’ ought to make for ‘good clinicians.’ Leaving aside the aforementioned question about whether psychology can even produce a true ‘scientist,’ this seems to be a dubious position whose underlying assumptions have been severely critiqued in recent decades. Why should a good scientist possess clinical skills? How can that help them better understand the subjective realities of their clients? What does a ‘scientific psychology’ even mean? Aspiring to be a good scientist in any other field would be a worthy goal. But for reasons already discussed, a ‘good scientist’ as far as my field is concerned, typically involves a person who conducts research without much critical examination or questioning, who diagnoses according to the DSM (see here for more detailed discussion) without understanding the assumptions and methodological problems related to its composition and use, and who uses treatment methods that are ‘empirically supported’ (see here for more detailed discussion) by uncritical research and publications reviewed by peers who share our religious-like theoretical commitments. If there is rational thought or critical argumentation in any of this work, it tends to be of a low quality, or will otherwise only be found in the neglected theoretical journals that remain safely out-of-reach from mainstream psychology. And so again it seems to me that our field unknowingly advocates scientism, and not science.

I would even go so far as to argue that modern-day psychologists are perhaps worse clinicians than those of previous generations. How could that be? Have we not ‘progressed’ in our scientific knowledge? Don’t we know so much more than we did in decades prior? In many ways we have, but I think we have forgotten an awful lot as well. Since we think we are doing some kind of progressive science, we tend to minimize the necessity of reading about any of the great thinkers in our field – William James, Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank, Ernest Becker, and others. We are instead taught to dismiss them in favor of the current theoretical flavor of the year or decade.

Our continuing belief that psychology can be a ‘scientific’ discipline, akin to chemistry or physics, has arguably influenced the way we view our therapy clients as well. The self-conscious subjective experience of the unique human being and the underlying causes of said experiences take a back seat to our focus on crude categorizations based on a particular cluster of symptoms. Thanks to the DSM, we can now give people a diagnostic label to uniformly describe those symptoms – even if they might have arisen for very different reasons. We implicitly subscribe to the medical model of mental illness, where clusters of symptoms and their convenient labels are then treated as real physical things much like liver cancer or herpes. The subjective individual is almost forgotten; our goal as therapists is to now rid them of this label and the imaginary ‘mental disease’ it implies.

When we research different therapeutic methods of intervention, we are similarly concerned with the reduction in psychological symptoms, which can be very different from treating underlying causes. In my opinion, modern-day therapists often become ‘band-aid’ practitioners whose methods include superficial gimmicks and a ‘one-size fits all’ approach. This can be seen in the emergence of many ‘manualized’ treatments that have been shown effective for reducing symptoms related to certain diagnostic labels. Symptom reduction or alleviation is the primarily goal because as a profession we have seemingly ‘forgotten’ that subjective symptoms have idiosyncratic causes that vary from person to person. We have taken a short-list of subjective symptoms and turned them into diagnostic objects, such as ‘Major Depressive Disorder,’ ‘Generalized Anxiety Disorder,’ and so on. Potential consumers of psychological therapy have every reason to be suspicious of us.

Also note that we implicitly suggest that pathology lies within the individual person, and presumably their brain, while our assumptions tend to ignore societal or cultural contributions to psychological distress. Furthermore, it seems to me that while we are taught to be ‘culturally sensitive,’ we are not encouraged to question how culture can contribute to mental health or illness, and we especially avoid ways that our own culture may be at fault. We are implicitly encouraged to promote mainstream western culture and ways of helping our clients fit within its fold. In my more cynical moments, I wonder whether I am truly expected to be working for the individual, or if I am supposed to be the working hand of our modern Capitalistic culture, helping my client obtain their desire for a ‘quick-fix’ that will enable them to become ‘successful’ and ‘happy’ as defined by mainstream societal expectations. I should mention that I do not think I do that, though that would seem to be the expectation that my profession has for me.

Though we have the best intentions, I think that for all the reasons described, psychology – as a field and profession – has thus far failed to live up to its potential. We have so much more to offer our therapy clients and society in general. Most of the ‘scientific research’ that we produce is pseudoscientific junk that will be seen as such in 5-10 years, when we will believe in some other way of viewing human nature. I think that we can get past these issues, but it would involve getting back to the basics by re-introducing philosophy and deductive reasoning into mainstream psychology. As Popper suggested, we need to be more open to criticizing and challenging our pet theories about what makes a human being. In this day and age, we need to let go of this insane medical model of mental illness and stop aspiring to become physicians or psychiatrists. We need to see how culture plays a larger role in mental illness and mental health. In short, we need to start advocating for the kind of psychology that our society needs and deserves.

4 Responses to “Modern Psychology: Illusions and Dogma”

  1. Jason Tsukahara Says:

    Thanks for this post! You articulate these complex ideas with such clarity.

    I too have this love-hate relationship with psychology and continue to be dissapointed. Yet there seems to be much more momentum for it to start moving in the right direction and explore its potential. This is what keeps me dedicated to pursuing this field. Currently I am earning my Masters degree in General Experimental psychology.

    Although you are involved in a different field of psychology than what I am pursuing; any advice on how to swim against the stream?

    In other fields of science it seems utterely important to understand fundamental theories and empirical knowledge formulated and discovered by some of the greates scientists in that field. Yet in psychology there is no such foundation. It doesn’t matter what theories or knowledge William James (a personal hero of mine), Sigmund Freud, Jung and many others had discovered. What matters is that you understand the current theories and empirical data. This always seemed superficial to me and never really gave me a good fundamental perspective to view this from. All these current theories seemed to be isolated.

    Also check out my critique of how scientists commonly understand objectivity in science.

    Brad Reply:

    Yes, we tend to ignore our historical foundation as a field. I think the problem has to do with our belief that it is ‘progressive,’ but with each ‘paradigm shift’ you get not so much an ‘add-on’ from a previously established set of facts or ideas, but rather a new definition of what makes the ‘human mind.’ Defining the mind is a philosophical task, yet our field tends to be quite bad at rational argumentation, which is all the more worrisome because I think we need it more than those working in the so-called hard-sciences. My next post will involve a video exploring these issues in a bit more detail.

    My advice to you is for you to understand the limits of measuring a subjective psychology (how people think, act, and feel) using an objective science. Become a regular reader of some of the theoretical psychology journals and you will be well equipped to spot some of the logical assumptions that we often make in our experimental fields.

  2. Jae Says:

    Hi Brad, I’ve recently found your blog and have enjoyed your articles. I have a Masters degree in Anthropology, which included topics on social constructionism, readings by Ian Hacking, Nikolas Rose, etc. I’m currently working on a Masters in School/Educational Psychology, and have definitely noticed this significant lack in philosophical/critical thinking that you’ve been writing about; my current course definitely does does seem unnecessarily orthodox/dogmatic (including a few of its students & prof’s), especially since the course involves no critical thinking whatsoever. It’s been quite frustrating – so much so that I’ve often considered dropping out of the program and pursuing a PhD in Anthropology instead (although the job prospects arent all that great in that direction). Anyway, I appreciate the blog and will definitely keep reading, as it seems we share very similar views on the field of psychology.- Jae

    Brad Reply:

    Thanks Jae, I appreciate the positive feedback. I think no matter what field we end up in, there will be ideological dogma. It is hard to get around it, and those who try will likely find that they are more-or-less alone. It’s not easy challenging the status quo.