Over the last hundred years or so, psychology has become a mainstream academic pursuit and today clinical psychologists treat people in a medical capacity.
But the study of psychology has consistently been marred by claims of pseudoscience and its efficacy and effectiveness has been called into question by plenty of critics.
So, what is psychology? Is it pseudoscience and what can it do to improve its image?
Brief Overview of Psychology
Psychology is often thought to be the brainchild of Sigmund Freud who was a neurologist that developed theories about why people behave the way they do.
Although largely regarded as the father of psychology, it is erroneous to believe he came up with the concept. Behaviour patterns and traits have been observed and written about since ancient times.
Freud might be better described as the father of modern psychological thought and his work influenced a great many other psychologists like Carl Jung and more recently Jordan Peterson.
Psychology became a way of studying behaviours, understanding them and identifying causal factors. Freud developed what’s known as the psychoanalysis approach which is essential a branch of theory under the ‘psychology’ umbrella.
Psychology A House Built on Sand
Understanding that Freud influenced so much of modern psychology is important. Theories have been developed since he was alive, and research has been conducted across the field.
This has led to many competing theories and approaches which all have their merits and flaws.
The key thing to understand here is that in the field of psychology, there is no empirical truth.
For example, a psychologist will quite often theorise something is occurring based on observation and then try to create an experiment that can demonstrate that theory.
There are two problems with this approach in the field of psychology. The first is that the psychologist is almost always going into any experiment with a confirmation bias.
They will construct experiments that they think will demonstrate their theory and then lo-and-behold the results do. But if an experiment doesn’t show the desired results psychologists won’t publish those findings – instead believing the experiment parameters were wrong and creating new tests to get the desired results.
It is extremely rare in the field of psychology to find research that fails to demonstrate the theory of the researchers. Unlike in physics for example where negative findings are constantly published and reviewed, it simply doesn’t happen (often or at all) in psychology.
In this respect, there is no truth seeking in the field of psychology and truth seeking is the core of any scientific practice.
Instead, we get experiments and findings that support the hypothesis of the researchers. This is especially problematic when you consider that one erroneous study can lead to a chain of subsequent erroneous studies that branch out from the original findings.
At the end you’re left with a mess of understanding and frankly chaos that is common in modern psychology.
Despite psychologists creating experiments that are very restrictive in most cases, there are many experiments that have been conducted across the psychology field that can’t be replicated.
Worse still, because experiments are set up in such controlled environments it is very difficult to apply any findings to a real-life situation.
An example of this is the theory of ego (willpower) depletion which gained tremendous traction in the psychological community – to the point there was consensus it was occurring.
When a study failed to replicate the initial results, it threw the whole theory into question and the Association for Psychological Science decided they would conduct the same experiment across 24 different labs to see whether there was a problem with replication.
You’ve probably guessed where this is going but the results were pretty convincing – 2 labs were able to replicate the results, while 21 labs were unable to – and worse still the remaining lab had results proving the opposite.
What Can We Conclude from This?
Well, psychologists tend to conduct meta-analysis of data to show a theory is sound. But the data they rely on is inherently flawed as these meta-analyses comprise mostly positive findings (remember researchers are loath to publish negative findings).
Secondly, when studies are conducted in a way that negative results are included such as the example above, the original study’s conclusions are just wrong.
Why is This Important?
The reasons I decided to write this article were threefold. And it is probably best to explain these to explain why it is important that psychologists address this significant problem.
I am actually a fan to some extend of Jordan Peterson and I enjoy his lectures and find them interesting to listen to.
But oftentimes I listen to his thoughts, and I am left with a very big question – what is the substance here? Where is the empirical evidence that these theories are based on and how valid is that evidence?
When questioned about whether psychology was a pseudoscience, he answered something to the effect of ‘well if you class psychology as a pseudo-science then you might as well dismiss all of the social sciences like sociology etc’.
And my thoughts to that were – well yes, those fields of study suffer from exactly the same problem as psychology so we should dismiss those if you can’t demonstrate the scientific validity of your field. Crucially, he failed to even give any kind of reasoning as to how psychology can be considered a science – and that is very telling.
What made the exchange even more problematic is Jordan clearly felt he was being attacked from an ideological perspective and instead of taking the question at face value, he went on a tirade about leftists, Marxists, post-modernists etc.
Now, I am not a fan of any of those groups and I don’t even pretend to know what they say about psychology as a field of study. What I would say is that bias played a tremendous part in how he framed his answer to the question which should have simply been addressing the legitimate concerns of people wondering how scientific psychology is.
Which goes back to my point, when you take away the layers of bias and ideology, what is the substance of what Jordan is actually saying and does it have anything that can be considered even remotely empirical to back it up?
Problem 1 – Psychologists like Jordan Peterson have huge influence, and if people are mislead in a world where we should ALL be striving for truth, this is a big issue.
Without meaning to be too flippant – it is all well and good telling people that the tyrannical mother represents chaos in some mythological way – but what does that actually mean? What scientific studies would even lend credibility to such a fantastical claim?
Which brings me nicely onto my next point. There are now a great number of clinical psychologists that find it difficult to obtain work (especially in the US) from the healthcare system. Essentially insurers find there are cheaper (as effective, if not more so) treatments to clinical therapy.
That means there have been an increasing number of clinical psychologists who have started social media channels – not least YouTube channels.
I was watching one such channel and the clinical psychologist attributed the fact that some men choose younger partners to sexism, misogyny and societal expectations.
This immediately struck me – because from the outset there is a clear ideological bias there. But disregarding the bias, let’s examine that statement.
If men do in fact choose younger women, what evidence do we have that it is a societal expectation? Why wouldn’t it just be something evolutionary where men want to spread their seed and reproduce, and women have a timeframe in their lives when they are fertile?
In simplest terms, why assert it is societal when there are competing theories that suggest it is just genetic?
Problem 2 – Clinical psychologists carry their bias with them and will make a diagnosis based on bias and treat based on bias. In the above case, the psychologist might well decide that the behaviour of a man seeking a younger woman is toxic and then treat them for that.
If it is indeed a genetic causation which seems equally valid as an assumption in my mind, the clinical psychologist that disregards competing theories will always provide treatment that harms rather than helps.
And the real problem here is that with so many competing theories across the field, clinical psychologists have no choice but to pick a theory and then treat accordingly. If the theory, they pick turns out to be wrong then any treatment they have offered is without question going to be harmful on some level to the patient.
Non-Specific Symptoms in the Field
The last thing that drove me to write this article is that if you read the DSM-5 (used for diagnosing conditions) the symptoms are so broad that ANYONE can look at a diagnosis and identify symptoms that they have.
Let’s look at one of the most controversial disorders in psychology – narcissistic personality disorder. Below are the DSM-5 symptoms list for this disorder and to be diagnosed with the condition you need to meet 5 of the 9.
I will list each symptom and elaborate why it is a poor-quality definition.
1 – A grandiose sense of self-importance. There are two problems with this symptom. First the word grandiose is subjective, something perceived as grandiose to one person is not necessarily going to be grandiose to another. Second, almost ALL humans view the world from a place of self, we are genetically wired to have self-importance.
We act in ways that help self-preservation, we engage in activities and relationships that serve us in some way and we consider external actions in this way. ‘How does this affect me?’ ‘How does this benefit me?’
In short, we almost always view the world from a self-important perspective. The grandiosity element confuses matters because there are plenty of friends and relatives that I can say from my perception have a very grandiose (impressive or imposing) sense of self-importance.
I am also 100% sure that in certain situations I will have been perceived by others to have acted in a grandiose self-important way. Without specificity of how and to what exact empirical degree self-importance is a problem – the symptom is too ambiguous and subjective.
2 – Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love. This symptom is so broad it is almost laughable. The key word here is, ‘or’ which means that you only need to have a preoccupation with one of those things to meet the symptom criteria.
A normal human will have dreams, goals and aspirations. And more often than not they will fall into one of those categories. Without dreams or fantasies, we become stagnant, life loses its purpose, and the brain begins to function in a negative way (depression, anxiety).
It is perfectly normal for people in my opinion to continually strive towards greater levels of success. Personally, for me the power and beauty aspects aren’t my thing – but I can understand why people would want to attain those things – especially if they have felt unattractive or powerless in the past.
We all idealise love to some extent and brilliance seems a really odd inclusion – to me that would be a by-product of the other things. Such as becoming a successful actor and wanting to be recognised by critics as brilliant.
To me, these all seem respectable things to be preoccupied with, because without aspiration life becomes a sequence of events that happen to us.
3 – Believing that they are special and unique and can only be understood by or should associate with other special or high-status people (or institutions). Again, this symptom is far too broad.
Tying back to the self-importance aspect that I think is safe to say unless you’re dissociative we all have to some extent, we all naturally think we are special in some way or another.
Special aside, we almost certainly all believe we are ‘unique’. Science tells us this quite explicitly – our DNA is unique to us. We are verifiably ALL unique.
How many times have you heard someone say, ‘nobody understands me’ or ‘you wouldn’t understand’ or ‘you haven’t walked in my shoes’.
These statements come from a very organic place in my opinion. We believe that others won’t understand us and if someone could understand they would need to be of similar status to us (i.e. we perceive them as people we value almost as highly or as highly as our self-importance level).
4 – Requiring Excessive Admiration. This is probably the most specific of the symptoms on the list, but it is still not specific enough.
The problem is the word excessive which is again wholly subjective. It isn’t a definitive value.
Most of us require attention to some degree and almost all of us feel good when others admire us.
Arguably the word ‘require’ could be seen as a forceful demand, but it by definition could also mean ‘need’. And as mentioned most of us need and actively seek approval from our peers.
Whilst being the best-defined symptom, the waters are still too muddy for my liking, and someone could easily identify with the symptom without something being wrong.
5 – A Sense of Entitlement. Again, laughable and especially so in modern western society and culture.
I think all of us to some extent have a sense of entitlement in at least one aspect of our lives. What’s more, if you accept that we perceive the world from a self-important perspective (which is a very reasonable assumption) then you must accept a by-product of that is we will feel entitled to things in some form or another.
6 – Being Interpersonally Exploitative. If you want a broad definition for a symptom, then here you go.
As humans we ALL have weaknesses and flaws that will undoubtedly occur from time to time. One common flaw in human behaviour is exploitation which sounds like a really nasty word, but its meaning is far more subtle.
Exploitation in this context means treating someone unfairly for your benefit. So, something as small as insisting that your significant other gets up and puts the kettle on would be interpersonally exploitative.
You’re unfairly requiring them to exert energy on your behalf and you benefit from a lovely cup of tea.
7 – Lacking Empathy. Depending on the situation we will ALL lack empathy across almost ALL situations. Let’s take a prominent political talking point of the moment, the changes to abortion law in the US.
Without coming down on either side of the argument it is clear that whichever side you fall on, you lack empathy for the opposite side.
If you’re Pro-Life, you will lack empathy for the mother’s feelings around choice.
If you’re Pro-Choice, you will lack empathy for the baby’s feelings/autonomy.
It is almost impossible to live your life and make choices without lacking empathy to some degree. Making a choice by its very nature is disregarding options in preference of one and if those choices involve people in ANY way, it will require you to lack empathy for any option you opt not to take.
To clarify and as is written in the DSM – empathy is classed as unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others. The problem is you can’t objectively measure empathy, so it is extremely easy to simply lack empathy across a broad spectrum of social and interpersonal situations.
8 – Often Being Envious of Others or Believing Others Are Envious of Them. Again, far too broad. Advertising wouldn’t be successful if people didn’t covet things they don’t have.
If we see others with the things that we covet it is completely normal to envy them. Envy is such a base human emotion and serves a practical evolutionary function.
The idea that envy would be in of itself a symptom of a condition is actually confusing to me. It is also perfectly natural to assume that if we have nice things that others might want them.
After all, you lock your car each night to stop others stealing it on the very assumption that others will want it.
9 – Showing Arrogant, Haughty Behaviours or Attitudes. Have you ever been confused between the fine line of confidence vs arrogance?
What makes someone appear confident to you? Is it by chance how you perceive their behaviour?
Have you ever felt someone was confident and someone else perceived them as arrogant?
Far too subjective a definition and again a symptom that absolutely can’t be objectively measured.
To obtain a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder you only need to have 5 of the symptoms listed above. I think that it is fairly clear by now that all symptoms are overly broad in both definition and interpretation.
Which begs the question – does the disorder exist at all?
The same can be said for almost all psychological disorders. Almost all conditions rely on a subjective diagnosis without any empirical way to measure them.
Is it any wonder that people are increasingly suffering from mental health conditions when symptoms are so broad? Is it a shock that with the advent of internet technology that people identify with all manner of psychological conditions now?
Psychology has very little scientific validity and other fields such as neurobiology are far more scientific and should be embraced when dealing with abnormalities of the brain and how those abnormalities present as behaviours.
Unfortunately, neurobiology is still in its early stages and any neurobiologist worth their salt will tell you they don’t fully understand how the brain works.
Psychology is a stop gap that will eventually die out completely when we gain more knowledge about the brain. In the same way that the Greek philosophy of ‘humor’ imbalance died out when we developed modern medical practices.
It is a combination of pseudo-science and philosophy that has somehow become prominent in society. With definitions of mental illness being so broad across many conditions it is easy to believe that there is something wrong with you and psychologists will often demonise normal human behaviour to evidence their diagnosis.
If you genuinely feel you have a mental illness it is best to source your diagnosis as widely as possible. You will find different psychologists will diagnose different conditions, especially if the symptoms you have fall into multiple categories of illness.
The most important thing is to find a treatment that helps you. That may well be therapy with a clinical psychologist – it can also be medication or other therapeutic treatments. It could be a combination of all of them.
But don’t go into the experience expecting scientific expertise from your psychologist – it categorically doesn’t exist. Most psychologists provide their expertise from their experience – things that have or haven’t worked for them before with patients presenting to them in a similar way.
If a psychologist diagnoses something or identifies a behaviour that they perceive negatively, and you think they’re biased/incorrect – call them out on it (respectfully). Ask them if bias has played a part in that assumption and after removing bias, what empirical evidence they actually have to make that diagnosis or statement.
I guess to summarise finally, it is very easy to naively think a psychologist has all of the answers to your problems, and this couldn’t be further from the truth – at absolute best they have an educated guess.
A prime example of psychologists coming to different conclusions has popped up in the Depp v Heard court case – read my thoughts on that next.