Psychology Made Its Bed and We’re the Ones Who Have to Lie In It
Twenty years ago, Fred Newman and I wrote a book in which we called psychology a scam. For 200 pages, we took apart psychology and its conceptions of the individual, mental illness and mental health, and human development. We stripped away the layers of deception that keep the philosophical conceptions with which psychology created its subject matter hidden from the public’s view. We told the seamy stories of psychology’s beginning collusion in the early 20th century with industry, politics and the military. We called psychology out for its “science envy”— and were delighted that our title, Unscientific Psychology, provoked as much outrage as curiosity. Although permeated with academic scholarship and intellectual sophistication, the book was, admittedly, a bit of a rant.
Our impassioned exposé of psychology grew up side by side with all the activities and programs we were creating for people to transform existing forms of life, create development, grow, become, perform a new world. In therapy rooms and seminar rooms, on stages at talent shows for inner-city kids and off-off-Broadway theatres, and in conversations with strangers on street corners, we saw development happening right before our eyes. In doing something other than psychology, we saw the dozens of ways psychology got it wrong. At the same time, dozens of others were offering new kinds of critiques of psychology and its premises and methods. It was exciting to us that many of these critiques resonated with ours; they related to human life and its study as non-dualistic, non-objective, social, cultural and relational.
Psychology fought back against these new kinds of understandings and practices—fortifying its self-proclaimed truths about behavior, mind, personality, identity, normality and abnormality, self and other with some new “weaponry” from medicine and neuroscience, which allowed psychology to impose (the tyranny of) evidence-based practice on helping professionals. Here in the 21st century, it remains to be seen if psychology will maintain its status in the face of the growing popularity of cognitive science, the learning sciences and brain research (and of course, what are called medications for mental disorders). For now, it is cozying up to neuroscience and trying to “co-claim the brain.” As both academic field and applied practice, psychology is in the process of trying to remake itself. But its fundamental tenets remain unchanged. They still live within, between and around us and are embedded in our every thought and feeling, experience and action.
I’m convinced that psychology is no small part of what keeps us stuck. And that we need to get it out of our lives. In this chapter I’ll share some of how psychology created itself and sold itself, how our obsession with knowing plays such a big role in our buying it, and the damage it’s done to our humanity. (And I might rant a bit!)
A Psychology By Any Other Name
Psychology is an academic discipline that you can study and make a career of as a researcher and/or professor. It’s also a practice field, a way of working with people on their “psychological problems.” And it’s also a way that a culture, nation or civilization views and moves through history—a way to “make sense” of things. Throughout the last century and into the current one, a psychological worldview has become dominant in the US especially, and continues to spread globally. I’ll be talking about all three of these, sometimes one at a time and sometimes all together.
To understand psychology as an academic discipline, the first thing you need to be aware of is that it’s considered a science. In academia, the world is divided into the sciences—which includes social sciences like psychology—and the humanities—art, literature, history, etc. Strictly speaking, science is a systematic knowledge-gathering approach to the natural world, and the humanities are historical and comparative approaches to the human cultural world. (You might be wondering how psychology wound up in the science camp and we’ll get to that story soon.)
Next, you need to appreciate its approach to its subject matter, which is human beings. The “unit” psychology chose to explore, dissect, peer into, experiment on and explain is the individual, with a special focus on the “individual mind.” As individuals, how psychology thinks of and relates to us is as if we are made up of separate systems and ways of operating in the world—and it divided itself into dozens and dozens of psychologies that study these separate aspects of human beings and human life. Maybe you’ve heard of some of these—personality psychology, clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, organizational psychology, social psychology, or developmental psychology. It’s the graduate school level version of the artificial boundaries created by the academic subjects of our educational system (that I described in Chapter 5)—only this time what’s distorted beyond recognition is us.
Science Envy in Practice
I learned from a wonderful historian of psychology, Kurt Danziger, how this boundary-making mania relates to psychology taking the science rather than the humanities route. In his 1997 book, Naming the Mind: How Psychology Found its Language, he tells us that psychology has a “profound disinterest” in its own history. He believes that this stems from its “wishful identification with the natural sciences,” in which the objects of study are taken to be natural, not historical. What this means is that cognition, motivation, intelligence and all the other psychological objects are taken to be invariant phenomena of nature (like stars and atoms) and not historically determined social phenomena. Danziger relates this ahistoricity of psychology to its dozens of divisions—and their unquestioned acceptance (as ”natural”). He says: “It is assumed that these divisions truly reflect the actual structure of a timeless human nature. … If changes in these categories are recognized at all, it is their present-day form that is held to define their true nature, so that the older work is interesting only insofar as it ‘anticipates’ what we now know to be true.” [See Note 1]
On to psychology as a practice field, where it’s considered an “applied science”—implying that when psychotherapists, school psychologists and other practicing psychologists meet with people to help them (and, more often, assess them), they are applying the scientific knowledge of academic psychology. In order to practice in the US, psychologists must be licensed in their specialization by the specific state in which they work. (An interesting note—only licensed practitioners can use the title “psychologist”—the academics and researchers can’t). And while there are an estimated 85,00-90,000 licensed psychologists in the US, the vast majority of mental health workers (more on that misguided term later) in the US are not psychologists, but licensed social workers (estimated 310,000) and licensed mental health counselors (estimated 552,000). Their professional training, in large part, is based on psychology, so they too are assumed to be applying scientific knowledge.
How deeply embedded in our culture is the belief that psychology produces knowledge of a scientific kind analogous to biology and chemistry? Very!! Is there anyone in the public eye who doesn’t believe in mental disorders? (No doubt you do also.) How about abnormal behavior? Addictive personality? The unconscious? By “believe in” I don’t mean that we speak these words. Surely we all do. I don’t even mean that we think these words refer to something that exists. Surely, most of us do. And that’s unfortunate. As I wrote in Chapter 3, Wittgenstein was brilliant in showing how this understanding of our language—that words correspond to objects and entities—leads us into a maze of confusions. But to make matters worse, most of us believe that these words (psychological terms) not only refer and correspond to something, but that the something has been scientifically proven. We’ve been so indoctrinated with the psychology is a science mantra that the existence of mental disorders, abnormal behavior, addictive personality, the unconscious and the like is believed to have been scientifically discovered, verified, understood and agreed upon through scientific methods.
But it hasn’t. The things psychology claims to have discovered weren’t discovered at all. They were invented. Unlike Saturn and the spleen, which were discovered through scientific methods and tools (that were invented), most psychological “objects” are made up, and the made up thing is then measured and proclaimed to be proven to exist. Some psychological inventions are made up new terms, like attribution theory, sensory-motor stage of development and ego ideal. Others are terms taken from everyday talk and defined into existence as something pinpoint-able such that it’s possible to discover something about, it. Think here of reasoning, memory, emotion and depression….
…and intelligence—a psychological construct with profound impact on our culture. The word itself was around for centuries in some religious and philosophical discourse before it was taken up by evolutionists, biologist and psychologists. With the invention of the intelligence quotient (IQ), psychology placed intelligence on the scientific map and in its purview. Even though there was no consensus on what intelligence is, psychologists declared it was a measurable natural phenomenon and that they had the tools to measure it! They made up IQ tests—comprised of a series of specific tasks in things like verbal comprehension, spatial recognition and memory (which they also operationally defined). They came up with many variations of the tests, including ones you could give to toddlers before they could speak, tested ages of people of all ages and gave each a score on the intelligence scale. With this sleight of hand, psychology created what constitutes intelligence. Just like that, we now supposedly had a new kind of scientific knowledge—about human intelligence.
Of course, we didn’t. And still don’t to this day. We couldn’t and we can’t. Despite efforts to root out the most obvious race, class, gender and other cultural biases of earlier IQ tests, the “science bias” is intact. What we have is an early and classic example of psychology’s ability to pull the wool over our eyes and have us believe it to be a producer of legitimate scientific knowledge. It does this with its circular reasoning—setting out to prove something by starting out with the very thing you want to prove, so that you logically have to wind up where you want (where you started from). Here’s how it goes in our example. Intelligence is a natural phenomenon, a characteristic of human beings, and, therefore, like all natural phenomena, it must be amenable to scientific inquiry. This means it must be measurable. But since it’s not measurable as it exists in life, we have to define it in such a way that lets us measure it. (Once we do that, we’ll forget that we defined it so that we could measure it.) We come up with tools to measure according to our definition. We use the tools and our measurements to “scientifically prove” that intelligence is measurable. Note that everything I’m saying about intelligence can be easily applied to personality (and personality tests), to so-called mental disorders (and their so-called diagnoses), and dozens of other psychological objects and findings.
I’m not the only psychologist to point out that psychologists are especially prone to this kind of reasoning because their subject matter (that’s us humans!) is so complex they have no other way to agree on what they’re talking about than this. But that’s no excuse for circling back from their “simplification” to proclaim they discovered something important about the complex thing they agreed they couldn’t get a handle on in the first place.
Even without this disease, psychology doesn’t fit the bill for a bona fide science. A science’s methods need to be appropriate to its object of study. What you have to do to study something shouldn’t violate the integrity or so distort the object of study such that what you’re studying is no longer what you thought you were studying! But that’s what psychology does. And that’s how the methods of psychology are inappropriate for human life and, thereby, unscientific. These methods came from the natural and physical sciences and were developed in efforts to understand the stars and the rocks and the seas and the organs of the human body and so much more. And for the most part, they do pretty well with those things.
Which leads us to the most serious repercussion of psychology’s science envy. It’s not merely that psychology is bad science, that its obsession with knowing makes it come up with claims that are ludicrous even by the most minimal of natural science standards. It’s that in doing so, psychology is saying what and who we are and do. And given that what and who we are and do includes that we are capable of understanding and acting on that understanding, we can hear what psychology is saying and it impacts on our understanding and our activity. (Rocks, presumably, don’t hear, much less understand, what geologists say about them.) This capacity of ours to experience (be aware of, reflect on, remember, share, act in accordance with, etc.) our experience makes the methods of natural science inappropriate for studying us.
This capacity of ours also makes us really, really interesting! People are so much more interesting than the ways psychology sees us. This is something I discovered over decades of doing something other than psychology. In my case, that other has involved creating organizations, programs and activities that invite people to experiment, play around with and generate ways to be and become. It’s in that process of creating together without knowing what we’re creating or how to create it—non-knowing growing—that together we discover that psychology’s understanding of who we are and what we’re capable of has been such a conservatizing factor.
The Hedging of Psychology
Let’s now look more closely at the what and how of knowing—especially dualism and causality—as they are manifest in psychology. You might want to take a look back at Chapter 4 for some basics of how these two shape us into seeing things, products and states and blind us to relationality, process and activity.
Dualisms and dichotomies run rampant in psychology. No surprise there—since psychology wants so desperately to be seen as a science and what it means to see and think scientifically is to do so dualistically. You might recall the “nature-nurture” dualism (“Is it innate or learned? Genes or environment?”). It’s a big one is psychology. Nowadays it’s not so often the direct “this or that?” but “how much of this and how much of that?” Supposedly, we’ve moved “beyond versus.”
That’s actually the title of one of the books I’ve been reading to learn what others who think about these things have to say. As the author of Beyond Versus: The Struggle to Understand the Interaction of Nature and Nurture, philosopher James Tabery puts it, “Whether it is medical traits like clinical depression, behavioral traits like criminality, or cognitive traits like intelligence, it is now widely recognized that ‘nature vs. nurture’ does not apply.” Did you notice the assumptions he makes in the first sentence? 1. that clinical depression, criminality and intelligence are traits, that is, part of an individual’s makeup; and 2. that each trait is different in kind and separate from the others—one being medical, another behavioral and another cognitive.
Tabery continues, “It is a truism that these complex human traits arise from both nature and nurture, and differences in those traits arise from both differences in nature and differences in nurture.” Given that it’s a “truism” (obviously true, self-evident) that differences in these traits arise from both nature and nurture, he concludes that, “any explanation or accounting must involve understanding the interaction of nature and nurture.” [See Note 2]
Tabery’s book is his attempt to make sense of the fact that despite us being beyond either-or, the nature-nurture debate still rages. If everyone agrees nature and nurture interact, what’s the problems? The problem, it turns out, is interaction itself! What is it? How should it be studied? What counts as empirical evidence for it? Different scientists have different answers to these questions, stemming from what Tabery calls a broader “explanatory divide”—a disagreement about what counts as scientific explanation and how you get it. On one side of the divide are those who take a statistical measure to be explanatory. On the other side of the divide are those who take a causal interaction to be explanatory. The two pass each other by and keep the debate alive.
I found Talbery’s book very informative and well argued. I certainly now have a better grasp of the history and current form of the complexity of the nature-nurture controversy and the philosophical underpinnings of debates about explanation in science. But in claiming that “interaction” gets rid of “either-or” he just invokes dualism on another level. Interaction may take us beyond versus, but it in no way dissolves the dualistic divide. After all, in order for nature and nurture to interact, don’t they have to be distinct and separate from each other?
Being an interactionist and thinking interactionally is now all the rage in psychology. It’s a lot what 21st century psychology is about. Psychology begins its investigations with the premise that things are apart and separate—the individual and the environment, the mental and the physical (mind and body), what we do (behavior) and what we think and feel (cognition and emotion), the self and the other—and it then has to figure out how all these separate things interact. What happens when they “meet?” How do they impact on each other? How does what’s “inside” get “out” and how does what’s “outside” get “in?”
You can see this at work just about everywhere if you’re looking for it. Take these headlines of research studies summarized in the July/August 2015 issues of the Monitor on Psychology (the magazine of the American Psychological Association): “Depression intensifies anger in veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder;” and “Squirming helps boys with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder learn.”
What’s your reaction to these “findings?” (You can guess at mine from the quotation marks I used.) If I told you how the studies were conducted and the assumptions and unfounded conclusions in them, I hope you’d be horrified that this is what counts as scientific research. My point here, however, is more basic—it’s that their starting point is misguided. Their starting point is not human life, but rather psychology’s endless stream of made up, dualistically divided, mental and behavioral traits. In the veterans study, these were the diagnoses of PTSD and Major Depressive Disorder in interaction with anger as defined and measured in the experiment. The squirming study looked at the interaction of an ADHD diagnosis, scores on an experimental task, and how much boys squirmed while doing the task.
This dualistically divided starting point is one of the “knowing” tools with which psychology has constructed its and our broader culture’s understanding of the process of human development. Or, more accurately, the products of human development (and human development as an uber product.) We are told that development happens to individuals. How it happens, according to the story psychology tells about us, is that stuff happens inside of us physically and mentally and when it “comes out” we see development. The stuff and its outward manifestation supposedly occur in a natural, some claim universal, progression—the “developmental milestones” parents look for in their babies and the stages of development teachers and counselors look for in children. We’re told that there’s “normal” development (measurable, of course) and everything else is “delayed” or “abnormal.”
Here are two milestones drawn from hundreds of websites for parents: at 6 months, babies may show signs of “stranger anxiety;” at 2 years they speak in 2 and 3 word sentences. Of course, every book, article and web site listing milestones like these does so with the caveat that each child is unique, but that’s usually followed by “See your doctor if your child is not doing …”—a mixed message for sure (Don’t worry and Do worry!).
What would happen if we had a different starting point? If psychology wasn’t powered by seeing and thinking dualistically and dichotomously? If we acknowledged that minds and bodies are together in persons, and that persons are always together with environments? If we were to begin with an understanding of development as what people create socially rather than it being something that happens to us individualistically? If we related to people as active creators of our worlds who are ourselves simultaneously created by what and how we create—rather than as static objects made up of smaller static parts that are impacted on by environments? Might we then wonder about different things, ask different kinds of questions, and do our “science” differently?
I think so. I do. My “starting point” is neither person nor environment nor how they interact. It is, instead, the inseparable relationality of person-environment as a unity, a totality—always simultaneously its being and its becoming. I wouldn’t have related to the veterans as objects with traits or with mental illness. I wouldn’t presume to know anything about them. And I wouldn’t presume to learn anything about them by diagnosing and testing them. I would want to help them develop their lives and for this task psychological labeling and conceptions and experimental testing methods are of use only when they are understood to be cultural phenomena—labeling and testing have profound impact on the vets and all with whom they relate.
And the squirming boys. Were we to begin with the mind and body as a unity— rather than two parts of a person that “interact”—we might not make kids sit still in the first place, let alone interpret their moving as evidence of a mental disorder.
The Disorder of Psychology
Speaking of mental disorders, they’re what most people associate with psychology and psychologists nowadays, even though “mental disorder” and its illness model derives from psychiatry (and therefore, medicine). It didn’t take psychology very long to adopt psychiatric conceptions, nomenclature and methods though. Ironically, for a field whose first ethical principle is “Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm,” the clinical practice branch of psychology got its start because of war. [See Note 3]
During World War I, clinical psychologists worked to develop, administer, score, and interpret psychological tests (remember IQ?) to help the Army with recruiting decisions, while it was psychiatrists who dealt with symptoms of psychological distress. But with World War II psychology got its chance to delve into the medical model and raise its standing as a science. So many men were returning from the war with “trauma-related psychological problems” that psychiatrists couldn’t handle the volume, and clinical psychologists were called upon to assist. Now they weren’t just giving intelligence and personality tests, but doing psychotherapy based in the belief that the cause of the war veterans’ psychological problems was an illness located inside each individual.
Immediately after the war, in 1946, the US Congress passed the country’s first mental health legislation—the National Mental Health Act. The Act established the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to promote mental health through science. The National Science Foundation (NSF) was established four years later. These institutions were and remain the primary sources of funding for psychiatry and psychology, perpetuating the medical model of a diseased mind, a model that drowns out other understandings and “treatments” of emotional distress. [See Note 4 for ways to learn more about psychology’s history, in particular its ties to the military and business.]
And then, along came lithium and Thorazine in the 1950s. These early antipsychotics proved effective in reducing delusions and hallucinations. Over the next 70 years, dozens of other drugs were invented and marketed, including new antipsychotics, anti-depressants, mood stabilizers, and more. An estimated one in five Americans are currently taking a prescribed drug for a diagnosed psychiatric disorder. The vast number of these people are not making informed choices since they are unaware of alternatives to drug “treatment” or other ways to understand themselves. [See Note 5 for excellent sources on the history and current critical assessments of the illness model and drug “treatment.”]
Psychology is not doing very much to remedy the situation. On the contrary. Just as institutionally psychology adopted the psychiatric practice of diagnosing mental disorders in the last century, it has, in this century, been lobbying for psychologists to be able to prescribe psychotropic drugs the way psychiatrists do. To date, three US states have passed legislation granting clinical psychologists prescription privileges. Should this trend continue, psychology will follow in the steps of psychiatry and, as psychologist James Schroeder puts it, “morph from the practice of psychology to the practice of pharmacology.” [See Note 6]
As unfortunate as this would be, I don’t see it as a departure from the road psychology has built for itself and for us. It is, rather, a next step for a pseudo-science that claims to investigate and generate understandings of human life, when what it does instead is generate made up mental and behavioral objects, proclaim they are natural phenomena, and investigate them. When in trouble— as with the decline of psychotherapy that is accompanying the upsurge in psychotropic drugs—why not beg, borrow or steal additional made up objects from psychiatry, medicine and neuroscience?
In order to understand how well meaning practitioners and researchers (not to mention the rest of us) accept this situation, we need to understand more of how linearity and causality—those other big thought-shapers I discussed in Chapter 4—work in combination with the dualistically divided psychological world I’ve just discussed. Let’s stay with the concept of mental disorder to explore this.
As a neurologist, Sigmund Freud searched for the causes of strange, dysfunctional and often painful ways of being, and “found” them in the structure of the mind. He invented a complex web of intrapsychic objects—many of them, like id, ego, superego, libido, death wish, and the pleasure principle familiar to us through popular culture—and a method of treatment, psychoanalysis, to cure people of their illnesses. He believed that these illnesses are caused by our early childhood experiences and our adult repression of them—interpreted through the lens of the intrapsychic objects he made up. Many of his patients “got better” (meaning their symptoms lessened) with psychoanalysis,
Here’s the thing. The effectiveness of psychoanalysis in no way validates Freud’s causal theory or provides evidence that the id, ego, superego, etc. exist in nature. Perhaps what Freud thought was going on inside people’s heads had nothing to do with them getting better. Perhaps lying on a couch everyday and free-associating was what was helpful. Perhaps having someone’s undivided attention for 50 minutes a session (and paying a hefty sum) was what was helpful. Perhaps it was the aroma of Freud’s pipe! Perhaps it was all three—and more. There’s no way of knowing.
The fact that something is deemed helpful doesn’t prove anything about cause. It’s only our insistence that there is a cause that makes it seem so. Here, I bring back Wittgenstein’s desire to shake up our commitment to causality:
I saw this man years ago: now I have seen him again, I recognize him, I remember his name. And why does there have to be a cause of this remembering in my nervous system? Why must something or other, whatever it may be, be stored-up there in any form? Why must a trace have been left behind? Why should there not be a psychological regularity to which no physiological regularity corresponds? If this upsets our concepts of causality then it is high time they were upset. [See Chapter 4, Note 4]
If we fast-forward to today, we can see the insistence on cause is fundamental to the near universal belief in mental disorder and the phenomenally successful selling of mental disorder diagnosis and drug treatment. As in Freudian times, strange, dysfunctional and often painful ways of being are assumed to have a cause. That cause is presumed to be located in the mental apparatus (mind or brain) of the individual. For Freud, the mental apparatus was the intrapsychic structure of the mind; for today’s clinicians, it is the brain. Said apparatus is presumed to be faulty (sick, ill, disordered). Today, people given certain chemicals are often observed to have fewer strange, dysfunctional and painful experiences (along with sometimes very serious “side effects). The leap is made from observing fewer symptoms to confirming that a mental disorder in the brain was the cause of the symptoms in the first place.
In Freud’s time and ours, there is no evidence of mental illness the way we have come to understand physical illness. We can see that arteries to the heart are blocked. We can see cancer cells. We can see muscle deterioration. We cannot see schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is the name given to a cluster of symptoms. Drugs that work on those symptoms by changing certain chemical interactions in the brain do just that. They no more prove that the symptoms were caused by a “sick brain” than having a diet of only snack foods is caused by a “sick stomach” (although the latter might well make one feel sick to one’s stomach!).
The renowned social psychologist Kenneth Gergen makes a similar point about causality’s pitfalls when it comes to brain studies that attempt to isolate a singular process from an ongoing stream:
Here, for example, researchers focus on the neural processes that are ‘responsible for’ memory, problem solving, trust, meditation, prayer, political preferences and the like. In all such cases, however, various experimental manipulations or instructions are required to bring the state of the brain into its condition. To create a brain state that is indicative of ‘distrust’, for example, requires that circumstances of distrust are established in the laboratory. Thus the circumstances, it may be said, bring the state into existence. It is not the brain condition that is the basis of distrust but the conditions of distrust that bring about the brain state. (p. 63)
In this same essay, Gergen supports and expands on what I had to say earlier about the invalidity of the explanatory and interpretive statements about those squirming boys:
Consider an eight-year-old boy walking about the classroom while the teacher is talking. We may account for the specific movements of his body neurologically. But these movements are not themselves significant in the diagnosis of ADHD. The boy could have walked slowly or rapidly, haltingly or smoothly, stamping his feet or not. The precise movements are not at all important. What is important in labelling the behaviour as a symptom of ADHD is that the movements are inappropriate in the classroom setting. In the same way, activities that are described as compulsive, phobic or masochistic have no determinate neural correlates. More broadly we may say that most of the behavioural descriptions employed in the DSM cannot be described in neural terms. The behaviours in question may be infinite in their variation; it is the cultural meaning that enables us to identify them, and it is by working within these systems of meaning that change may effectively be accomplished. (p. 67) [See Note 6 for more on Gergen’s work]
Yes, what people do and what we call the things we do are indeed cultural. There’s nothing objective or scientific about ADHD and its symptoms and treatments. Claiming there is does a grave disservice to us all. People suffer. In calling out how psychology distorts human life in the name of “doing science”, I am as well finding great fault in how it has chosen to relate to human suffering. We deserve better (treatment).
The Scandal of Psychology
A shock wave hit American psychology this past July when news surfaced in The New York Times that the American Psychological Association (APA) “engaged in activity that would constitute collusion with the Bush administration to promote, support or facilitate the use of “enhanced” interrogation techniques by the United States in the war on terror.” [See Note 8] This was the conclusion of the “Independent Review Relating to APA’s Ethic Guidelines, National Security Interrogations, and Torture” (known as the Hoffman Report, named for the lead author, attorney David Hoffman). Over 200 articles in the press covered the story including the sordid details of a decade-long cover-up by the APA—how it changed its ethical guidelines to support the administration, ignored the vote of its membership to prohibit psychologists’ involvement in such interrogations, and publically smeared those members who exposed the collusion year after year.
The APA quickly responded. At its annual convention the next month, the APA Council of Representatives did the right thing and voted to bar psychologists from participating in national security interrogations. There were lots of mea culpas, praise for the whistleblowers, and vows of future transparency and “never again.”
I was at the annual convention. I attended the Town Hall meeting after the vote. There were several hundred people there (as many as the room could hold) and for over two hours people came to the mike and shared their opinions, experiences and emotional responses and asked questions of the meeting presiders (a past and the future 2016 APA presidents). The prevailing sentiment was that this was a horrible stain on the association and the profession of psychology, an aberration from its proud history, and that lots and lots of changes would have to take place in order for the APA to regain the trust of its members and the public.
After the first hour or so, members—graduate students and younger PhDs—raised the historical context of this scandal. One brought up race and the torture and abuse that African Americans are subject to every day. Another asked why they weren’t addressing the abuse done to those who have been tortured and to Muslims. Others noted the APA’s long-time cooperation with the military as shady at best. Another disagreed that APA and psychology has done so much good in the world and began to list ways it had done—and continues to do—harm.
In many other sessions I attended, speakers and audience made reference to the Hoffman Report, the Council’s vote, and APA ethics more broadly. While everyone applauded the Council’s vote, the philosophically and politically oriented psychologists placed the scandal and their response to it in a broader context. Those who knew the history of psychology were not surprised. Those who are critics of, or creators of alternatives to, the mainstream made connections between psychology’s underlying philosophical presuppositions and political motivations. Was psychology—in its totality—immoral? I was especially pleased to hear speakers call for a profession-wide examination of the “epistemological and material” violence that psychology inflicts on masses of people— by its insistence that everything it does is science, its absurdly narrow view of personhood, its reductionist methods, its refusal to look at its history, and its arrogant claim to be knowers and truthtellers.
Fred Newman and I called psychology a scam. It is, as well, a scandal.
Notes to Help You Go Deeper and Broader
- Danziger’s book traces the history of some of psychology’s concepts and categories, and how they shape and are shaped by the changing structure of psychological discourse within the broader cultural context. It’s a favorite book of mine. Danziger, K. (1997). Naming the mind: How psychology found its language. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage.
- The quote is on page 2 in Tabery, J. (2014). Beyond versus: The struggle to understand the interaction of nature and nurture. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press. Tabery is a professor of philosophy at the University of Utah.
- This is the first of five principles in the “Ethical Principles for Psychologists and Code of Conduct” of the American Psychological Association. The others are: Fidelity and Responsibility; Integrity; Justice; and Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity. http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/
- If you’re not a reader of materials that are critical of psychology, you wouldn’t even know it exists. There are hundreds of books, articles and videos available that address many of the issues I raise in this chapter. The news media don’t give anything but mainstream psychology the time of day; psychology departments, with the rare exception, don’t teach the history or politics of psychology; course books make no mention of philosophical underpinnings, the politic-economic context in which psychology lives, or alternative methodologies and practices. Rather than give you a list of books, here’s a few names for you to Google (or search for in Amazon) so you can make your own discoveries—Thomas Teo, Kenneth Gergen, Mary Gergen, John Shotter, Isaac Prilleltensky, Harlene Anderson. Another source is Eric Maisel’s The Future of Mental Health site (http://www.thefutureofmentalhealth.com) and an online symposium (https://www.entheos.com/The-Future-of-Mental-Health/entheos) he hosted with 15 leading experts (me included). You can also download an article of mine that gives a history of kinds of critical psychology, “Critical Psychology, Philosophy and Social Therapy” at http://loisholzman.org
- There’s no shortage of writings critical of the use and abuse of psychotropic drugs. One of the best is Robert Whitaker’s award-winning Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America. You can also find dozens of downloadable research articles, personal stories and essays at Mad in America (http://www.madinamerica.com/); there’s even a special section on Researching Psychiatric Drugs.
- The quote appears in a very informative article, “Prescription Privileges for Psychologists: Is Our Consent Fully Informed?” by James Schroeder on the Mad in America website (http://www.madinamerica.com/2014/07/prescription-privileges-psychologists-consent-fully-informed/).
- These quotes are taken from “The Neurobiological Turn in Therapeutic Treatment: Salvation or Devastation?” a chapter by Gergen in Loewenthal, D. (Ed.) (2015). Critical psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and counseling: Implications for practice. Hampshire UK: Palgrave Macmillan. Ken Gergen is a leading proponent of social constructionism. The Taos Institute he founded is a global hub for innovative practice (http://www.taosinstitute.net). Visit its website for news of events and writings of its associates. Visit Gergen’s website for books and dozens of articles to download (http://www.swarthmore.edu/kenneth-gergen).
- The full report and APA’s response can be found at http://www.apa.org/independent-review/