How Wilhelm Reich showed that ‘psychology’ is scientific woo woo

I posted a while back on the fact that ‘psychology’ isn’t proper science, still less a valid way of understanding the human condition.

monkey_readingTo me, the problem is summed up by where ‘psychology’ was taken by one of its pioneers, Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957). Reich, like his teacher Sigsmund Freud, thought everybody was psychologically defective – it was only a matter of degree – and he believed the whole problem flowed from repressed sex-drive.

This may have been true of the late nineteenth century bourgeoise European society in which Freud and his disciples lived. But human reality is more complex, and many societies around the world were not framed by the ‘hangups’ on which these early ‘psychologists’ pivoted, still less by their idea of a universal human ‘normal’ defined by their own European period socio-cultural values.

That was made clear when these ‘psychologists’ discovered other societies, filtering what they observed through those same culture-specific prejudices. Reich, for instance, discovered Trobriand island culture in 1929, after their society was popularised in European intellectual circles because they didn’t have Western period-specific prejudices towards sex. The Trobrianders – apparently – transcended the ‘inhibitions’ that ‘psychologists’ insisted were a universal human problem. The fact that the Trobrianders had their own socio-cultural frameworks which provoked issues in their own terms never emerged to these early researchers.

Reich decided to cure the ‘sex repression’ he diagnosed in all his patients by getting them to strip, then handling them during the – er – ‘consultation’ and so, he insisted, ‘breaking down’ what he called their sexually-driven ‘psychological armour’.

This tells us more about Reich’s tactics for getting his own jollies at others’ expense than anything else. And it was pseudo-science of the worst kind, because it involved power and victims. But it was only the beginning. Reich’s next ‘psychological’ discovery was that human sexual activity produced an invisible force, like electromagnetic energy. Naturally his force trumped all the rest – indeed, Reich believed his ‘sex energy’ was so fundamental to the fabric of reality that the entire universe was created by it.

Why the entire 46 billion light-year diameter universe containing 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars was produced wholly by the ‘sex energy’ of a single species on a small and rather insignificant planet was never explained. But by any measure, Reich’s astonishing display of egocentric onanism – sorry, I mean psychological discovery – was absurd.

Naturally this was only the beginning. By 1939 Reich was in the United States, and because psychology was such an advanced science, it didn’t take Reich long to invent a device to capture his ‘sex energy’, which he called an ‘orgone accumulator’. This was a box the size and shape of a toilet cubicle in which somebody could sit alone in total privacy so as to indulge in – er – well anyway, it was meant to collect and focus ‘sex energy’ on the occupant. And there was more. Reich also insisted that when enhanced with a series of rather phallic-looking barrels, his – um – ‘appliance’ could spurt the collected ‘sex energy’ into the clouds and make it rain. He also claimed his ‘device’ could cure every disease from the common cold to cancer.

Artwork by Plognark Creative Commons license
Artwork by Plognark Creative Commons license

The whole thing was woo of the worst order – underscored in 1941 when Reich tried to get Albert Einstein to endorse the ‘accumulator’. It was trivial for Einstein to show that Reich’s ideas were nonsense, but that merely caused Reich to decide Einstein was part of a conspiracy against him. Reich then fell foul of the FDA over his medical claims about his ‘orgone accumulator’. He refused to accept their authority, and his ‘device’ was subject to injunction in 1954, preventing inter-state shipment even of ‘accumulator’ parts.

Frustrated by real science, Reich went back to psychology, where his next major psychological break-through – from his house, which he named Orgonon – was that evil UFOs were distributing ‘black’ Orgone energy.

Now, I know ‘psychology’ has moved on from the hang-ups, ego-driven power games and creepy personal gratification of early twentieth century Germanic woo-merchants. But when I look at the way Reich, Freud, Jung and the rest intellectualised their hangups and period mind-set into the field, I wonder about the fundamentals.

When I look at the way Jung’s attempt to classify the human psyche into tight categories – mediated by his own prejudices and culture – led to the ‘psychometric’ woo on which modern corporate practises pivot, and when I look at the ease with which those classifications misrepresent real people and are used as devices for bullying, I wonder about the ethics.

As humans, we have a colossal capacity to intellectualise ourselves down blind alleys, with a conviction that captures generations at the expense of reason. It seems to me that ‘psychology’ is one of them.


 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


13 thoughts on “How Wilhelm Reich showed that ‘psychology’ is scientific woo woo

  1. A very fine entry.

    Working with and against psychologist over the years has pretty much convinced me that psychological theories de jure are highly suspect. To some degree, and perhaps not an insignificant degree, psychologist on the cutting edge, so to speak, define normal and abnormal based on their own obsessions or concerns, which isn’t particularly useful for the species as a whole. So genuine disorder are defined as non disorders, and disorders that exist and could be addressed are ignored, while behavior that just fits on some scale of human behavior will suddenly get defined as a disorder. Shyness, for example was starting to be defined as a disorder several years back, when it’s probably just. . . well. . . shyness.

    1. The main problem I have with psychology is that it doesn’t meet Popper’s criteria for falsifiability – making it not a science – and despite pretense otherwise, the judgements on which it pivots are subjective. It’s ripe for being used as a bullying technique. The fact that introversion was one of several aspects of the human normal that the APA tried to define as a psychological condition speaks volumes.

  2. Freud et al., were basically philosophers who attempted to do thought experiments in the real world. Skinner, on the other hand, looked only at behaviour, which could be observed and measured [almost] the same as other natural phenomenon.
    The results of behavioural science experimentation have fueled advertising gurus and ‘spin doctors’ for decades. Unfortunately, it works because behaviour is predictable. Not 100%, but close enough to be ‘valuable’. All psychology isn’t about smoke and mirrors.

    1. I think ‘psychiatry’ – the science of dealing with actual human problems – is a legitimate field and one that can help people. But ‘psychology’ is so filled up with subjectivity, wrapped around systems that are designed to slot people into arbitrary boxes, that it has no real validity to me. To me B F Skinner’s approach was thoroughly framed by twentieth century structuralism and the mind-set of conformity (‘operant conditioning’), rendering it questionable if a different reference frame is used. Ultimately the field, to me, has little to do with finding any real insights into the human condition, and a good deal to do with people attempting to jam complex humanity into conformity to the latest social fad – witness the way the APA tried to define introversion as a psychological illness. One way or another it’s little more than a bullying device, and Reich was – without question in my mind – the epitome of where that can go.

      1. Psychiatry does prescribe anti-psychotic drugs developed from research in neuro-science…but not necessarily to ‘fix’ a specific mental illness. Does that make it more of a ‘science’? Not sure, but I do believe that understanding the human condition is a legitimate area of study. The fact that some of it is based on self-assessments, which are by their very nature untrustworthy, does not mean that all of psychology is untrustworthy.
        It is neither legal nor ethical to test human subjects in ways that might do them harm, but within those constraints, some good research has been done. I guess this might be a grey area where subjective value judgements are inevitable.

        1. Understanding the human condition is one of the ESSENTIAL areas of study – the problem I have with ‘psychology’ is that it doesn’t. All it does is define a ‘normal’, usually based on whatever the latest social trends dictate, and then assert how wrong and defective everybody is when set against it. At individual level it’s designed to hammer people into feeling guilty for being what they are, because they don’t match the prescribed ‘normal’ (witness the attempt to make ‘introversion’ a ‘psychological weakness’). And, on my experience, ‘psychologists’ usually use their status and role as a bullying device, usually gaining a good deal of pleasure for themselves out being able to hurt others with their ‘psychological diagnoses’. It is not science by any measure; it is a junk intellectual device which, at best, misclassifies people and at worst enables the very lowest kind of bullying – using authority and power to hurt those who that same authority has defined as powerless. Reich was the archetype of the problem.

          1. I’m not familiar with either Reich or therapists who use those techniques, but I’d have to agree, any person in authority that uses manipulative behaviour against the vulnerable is a bastard. :/

            1. Absolutely. I had a doctor, as a kid, who was a master at the technique – if he couldn’t diagnose something, it was really ‘psychological’ and due to ‘psychological weakness’ on the part of the patient. The idea that patients were there to be genuinely helped was, somehow, intellectualised out of existence. My experience with ‘psychology’ since has involved psychometrics, which to me is the corporate intellectualisation of all that is wrong with the field – you answer arbitrary and senseless questions that you can’t actually precisely answer, then somebody who doesn’t know you from Adam informs you Who You Really Are. Quite.

  3. Great post. Difficult to imagine how events so tragic could be so funny in the retelling. I was laughing too hard at several points to read. Laughter aside, it is tragic. Let human beings help one another out of compassion and the genuine concern one flawed human being has for another. One you endow one of those flawed humans with power, control, and an inflated ego the other becomes a manipulated victim.

    1. Too true. Here in New Zealand a cult leader adopted Reich’s theories and practises in the 1970s. The outcome was dire: he led a commune basically to gratify his own relentless carnal appetites – using ‘psychology’ as a bullying and control device. Books were written by those who lived there which are simply horrifying – people would be confronted with demands to confess what was ‘really going on’ for them, you know, ‘really’. Finally he was prosecuted and imprisoned. He was eventually let out, under strict conditions. When he died, a few years ago, there were various comments in the media, including one that said – in effect – ‘good that he’s dead, it means he won’t offend again.’ That was how far off beam Reich’s ‘psychology’ had got things. Another act in the tragicomedy of this pseudo-science.

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