Failing to escape the tyranny of twentieth century thinking – the junk science of psychology

There is a wonderful aphorism credited to Albert Einstein – ‘Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing it is stupid’.

1206563615670858090johnny_automatic_soldiers_heads_svg_medHe didn’t necessarily say it, but it’s something he could have said. And it sums up one of the main conceptual tyrannies of the human condition – the tendency to regard something different as ‘wrong’ or ‘inferior’ rather than simply ‘different’. I suspect it’s hard-wired into us, and it was turned into an art form in the early twentieth century when ‘different’ became not just ‘wrong’ but ‘demanding correction’.

That led to a whole raft of issues, including eugenics. ‘Normal’ was narrowly defined. Anything ‘not normal’ – meaning something that didn’t conform to a very narrow definition framed by immediate period and national-cultural values – had to be either ‘fixed’ or got rid of. And conformity was the name of the game: regimented, consistent obedience. In part it was a function of the social exhaustion provoked by the First World War: people welcomed a safe, well-defined world.

In the early twentieth century conformity to a narrowly defined ‘normal’ was – inevitably – a keystone of the new field of ‘psychology’, which styled itself a ‘science’ although in reality it was at best pseudo-science, at worst dangerous woo woo. Into the mix was infused period demand for categorisation into hard-edged boxes. Once it reached full flower in the early-mid twentieth century at the hands of Carl Jung, B. F. Skinner, and others, everyday people suddenly found themselves targeted and labelled ‘psychologically wrong’ – for no better reason, often, than being left-handed, or dyslexic, or because some arbitrary and personally irrelevant test ‘identified’ them as thinking in ways different from the test-writer.

Everything about ordinary people was game for being defined as ‘abnormal’. Introversion, for instance, which the APA actually attempted to include in their DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for psychological disorder as recently as 2010. Hey – some people need space. It varies with individuals. What did the APA think it was doing?

To me, the reality of ‘normal’ – in the usual sense we have of everyday and ordinary people who have a thoughtful acceptance of their own self-worth – is still a spectrum. I have a faith in the goodness of humanity – if we do not blind ourselves to that quality. As we so often do, alas – and that is the problem I have with ‘psychology’.

Irrespective of the conceits around which ‘psychologists’ wrap their view of everyday folk, the ‘science’ behind their field has always been pure junk – based on subjective judgements which, by nature, fail the falsifiability test that defines science. I recall, for instance, one ‘psychological test’ I did, where the human condition was reduced to a carbon isomer (!) in which I  got different results each time I took it. Why? Because it was mindlessly trivial to reverse-engineer the ‘scientific’ conceit that underpinned it and I could ‘game’ any result I wanted. How trivial? Well, that was 5 minutes of my life I won’t get back. Kiddie stuff. It confused the hell out of the psychologist running it, who kept pushing me to confess that I was ‘really’ like the first result. You know…really. See what I mean? Epic falsifiability fail. Junk science.

Screen shot from Id's classic 1992 shooter Wolfenstein 3D. Which wasnt, actually, in 3D, but hey...
Conform! Conform to what I SAY is NORMAL! I am a PSYCHOLOGIST and I know BEST! Bwahahahaha!

The main problem, I think, is the way the subjective pronouncements of ‘psychologists’ have been used to justify efforts to force conformity to the pseudo-scientific claims of their field, whatever the cost. By the mid-twentieth century the so-called ‘science’ of ‘psychology’was being extended to using lobotomy as a device to ‘normalise’ ordinary people who ‘psychologists’ had defined as ‘wrong’. A great deal of suffering followed – all of it under the double-think guise of ‘helping’ people. Anybody read Ken Kesey?

It’s important to distinguish ‘psychology’ from the proper medical science of ‘psychiatry’, which is about people who have genuine medical issues affecting their minds, who genuinely stand outside normal, who need help – and who can be genuinely helped.

By contrast, by definition from its first practitioners – Freud, Jung, Reich and Skinner among them – ‘psychology’ identified everybody as problematic and so was always about power and powerlessness, bullying and victims. Because of that early twentieth century concept of conformity, coupled with the human need for validation, the way ‘psychologists’ imagined they were being beneficient was basically:

  1. I define climbing trees as normal and intelligent.
  2. Fish cannot climb trees.
  3. Therefore fish are abnormal and stupid.
  4. I am a kind and good person, and I want to help fish, therefore I will make them climb trees better.
  5. If fish cannot achieve this, it proves they are abnormal and stupid and I am a better and more valid person.

Have we escaped that mind-set today? Not at all. I don’t think we ever will, wholly, as it’s always been part of the human condition. I see it around me today in many ways. Damn.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016

10 thoughts on “Failing to escape the tyranny of twentieth century thinking – the junk science of psychology

  1. The flip side of demanding narrowly defined normality is that it crushes diversity. Anyone care to exist as their average cell? Should be vote on the best tree and get rid of the rest? Give me diversity in all its messy, volatile splendor. Things happen. Worthwhile stuff gets done. A world of normal and average has no energy and eventually collapses in on itself. Sheep are fine, but we need some lions, tigers, and bears. And throw in a mischievous raccoon or two.

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    1. I agree. Luckily we’ve moved well past the worst excesses of twentieth century regimented social conformity! It gained its main strength in the 1920s after the First World War – here in New Zealand there was what one historian called a ‘tightening’ of society, but this was simply a general reflection of western trends. The problem I have with psychology is that its founding principles all emerged in the same period and from the same mind-set, and when I find myself confronted by stupid psychometric tests based on carbon isomers, as one example, I am not convinced things have changed all that much in the field…

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  2. The attitude toward introverts has changed in the 21st century, but only a little. Now it’s OK to be an introvert, and even to admit it, but only if you’re willing to make yourself into an extrovert look-alike, because the majority are extroverts. Books and the internet are full of advice as to how to do that, but if you insist on being your true, introverted self, be prepared for less success in life. Or to redefine what success is for you.

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    1. I agree. I was always pushed as a kid to get out and do stuff with other kids – which I enjoyed, but it always drained off my energy and I was never allowed time to recover it. It took me a very long time to discover that this was basically introversion. Actually it’s OK to be an introvert – but as you say, that expectation to be like an extrovert is still there.

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  3. Like all sciences, psychology has come a long way since its infancy during the early 20th century. Early psychologists did tend to think they had all the answers, which was most likely a product of the authoritarian attitudes of the time, and their tendency to strive for conformity, mid-century, was certainly a product of the attitudes you describe and attribute, rightly, to a post-war desire for a simple life with simple explanations (not sure we’ve outgrown that desire).

    Real psychology (as opposed to the pop psychology one all too often encounters on the Internet) is most definitely a science, one that rigorously follows the scientific method, but also one that is trying to understand a complex and extremely variable phenomenon, the human mind (which also cannot be seen or put under a microscope).

    Psychologists rarely state something as an arbitrary fact. Indeed, if you read the reports on research studies in a peer-reviewed psychology journal, they will be riddled with qualifying words such as “tendency,” “seems to be,” and “based on this data.” And research is replicated again and again before we begin to accept the results as scientifically proven.

    Also, the definition of psychopathology is behavior or mood that is disturbing to the individual, disruptive to their life and maladaptive (i.e., it doesn’t work). Nowhere, today, is “different” part of that definition.

    Indeed, most psychologists are the first to celebrate diversity, for we know better than anyone just how varied the human experience and inner life can be.


    1. I agree that psychology has moved on from its origins – the recent issues I have, though, flow from my own recent experience and are as described in the post. Aside from those experiences, I’ve always been at the receiving end of psychology being used as a bullying technique, typified by the way the GP I had as a teenager classified me as ‘psychologically weak’ because I had allergies he couldn’t diagnose. His ego wouldn’t let him say he didn’t know, therefore it had to be in my imagination, which meant it was ‘psychological’, and because I was suffering from them it had to be ‘weakness’. The guy, incidentally, had a deep interest in ‘psychology’ and has since been running a centre for the people he has diagnosed as having psychological faults.

      My main involvement since has involved sitting tests where no specific answer actually fits my position, but I have to select one anyway; and then being hammered to agree that this is what I ‘really’ am, and I can’t argue because the test never lies. My most recent encounter involved that silly ‘carbon metaphor’ test, just a few years ago and thus very much in keeping with the modern form of the field. The woman running the test – a qualified clinical psychologist – said she got into psychology because she liked helping people. But then she got utterly hung up on the fact that I kicked up a different result, never twigged that I might have gamed it, and began hammering me to confess that I was ‘really’ like the original result. You know, ‘really’. It was a case of the tail wagging the dog and to me suggested that the field had intellectualised itself into a position where it could create illusory truths.

      The issue of psychology being a ‘science’ is a philosophical one that is shared with a lot of the humanities and flows from attempts to ‘harden’ them into a science by the superficial adoption of ‘scientific method’. However, when set against actual hard science, the ‘social sciences’ inevitably fail basic litmus tests (per Popper’s falsifiability principles) and the objection I have to all of them – including history, sociology and psychology – is that a lot of it is subjective. I studied hard science (physics) and then the ‘social sciences’. Apart from the history jag that led me down the thesis route and to write a variety of books, one of my undergrad degrees is in anthropology, which is a genuine hybrid because it has to encompass true hard science as well as softer social analysis, which has given me an interesting insight into the differences.

      To my mind, absolutely, ‘psychology’ is one of the humanities, because of the subjectivity, which operates on a variety of levels from the personal (the psychologist) to the nature of investigative thought which – like most of the humanities – is culturally framed. Freud, Jung, Skinner et al are archetypal in that way, as I argued in the post. The fact that any field is not a proper ‘science’ does not, of course, invalidate it. History is never going to be a science, despite conceits to that effect, but it still produces valid results. The problem is that we are conditioned in the west to be ‘rational’ and ‘scientific’ – creating the illusion of invalidity if the word ‘science’ is missing.

      Part of the problem for me is that our compartmentalisation of knowledge has led to a whole raft of fields, particularly in the humanities, all gaining only partial insight because the philosophical framework limits both the nature of investigation, and the perception of what is valid and expert. Sociology, economics, psychology, history and anthropology all overlap in very fundamental ways – yet seldom seem to come together with a really good synthesis.

      As you say, there are certainly psychologists out there who have a proper conceptual understanding of the breadth of the true human condition – which is a complex mix of innate wiring and culturally mediated factors among many others, a real ‘shades of grey’. And that’s great.


      1. Matthew, thank you for a more balanced reply. But you are still judging an entire field of study based on your specific experiences with a few of its practitioners. We humans tend to generalize from the specific (our own experiences) to the general. It’s the natural way we try to understand our world. But it has its flaws when our specific experiences do not jive with the broader phenomenon we are judging.

        Bottom line: there are idiots and bullies in every field. My former department chair (a history professor) was an idiot (and occasionally a bully) but I don’t judge all historians based on him.

        Wait, one of those individuals you encountered wasn’t even a psychologist nor a psychiatrist. I hate it when medical doctors assume that they know what they are talking about regarding psychology, and I particularly hate it when they use “it’s psychological” as an excuse when they can’t diagnose something accurately. But that is a flaw in the medical field, not the psychological one.

        I am a retired psychotherapist and psychology professor. I used to teach this stuff. Yes, the field was more rigid and judgemental in the past, reflecting the more rigid and judgemental attitudes of that era. But it is probably one of the least rigid and judgemental fields today.

        Also, you are judging a field from the outside looking in. Today there is a lot of rigorous research going on, with some extraordinary results. We call it a “soft” science because it is studying complex and difficult to study phenomena. But once upon a time the field that is now astrophysics was a bunch of stargazers using very crude telescopes to try to study the heavens, which were as unfathomable then as the human brain and psyche were until a few decades ago.

        There is today a tremendous overlap between the soft science of psychological research and the hard science of neurobiology. The day will come (not all that far in the future either) when we will understand the human brain at a level where we can offer biological explanations for every thought and behavior we humans experience and exhibit (not sure that will be a totally good thing, but it will happen). We already understand the mechanisms behind a lot of psychological phenomena. Just as we once had no concept how pneumonia made people sick but scientists studied it and figured out how to kill the bacteria causing the problem, we are now discovering what causes all kinds of psychological disorders and developing (or have developed) medications and very specific psychotherapy approaches.

        I am bothering to respond because you are doing others a disservice with this post. The belief that psychology is a bunch of subjective assumptions leads people with psychological disorders to not seek treatment. This means that they continue to suffer from depression or obsessive tendencies or a host of other issues that could be treated so they could lead healthier and happier lives.

        Again, I used to apply those treatments. I wasn’t always successful but I heard from quite a few clients that the work we had done together had changed their lives dramatically and for the better.


  4. Firstly, love that quote (or “quote” as the case may be) Secondly, I do agree that there is a huge issue with pushing people into classes of “normal” and “abnormal”- that said I do see a huge problem with the backlash against this and the push to the other end of the spectrum. I find that many people on the other end of the spectrum fail to recognise mental health issues as being issues at all- because while (obviously) introversion is not a disorder- mental health problems like depression and schizophrenia are serious conditions that need to be treated. Honestly, I find this excuse of not wanting to class people as “abnormal”, thereby ignoring mental health conditions, to be highly troubling- because it is not actually helping the individual to cope with their illness. Psychology isn’t simply about classing people as different- it’s just as much a medical and scientific way of comprehending the human mind. While I agree that psychology in its infancy had some huge issues, I have to agree with the comment from Kassandra Lamb- psychologists have come a long way since then. (I apologise if that was slightly tangential and rambly- as usual I blame the thought provoking post!)


    1. A lot seems to come down to what is ‘normal’ – in the twentieth century, for sure, it was closely defined to the point where quite normally functional people were regarded as faulty purely because they were dyslexic or talked loudly, or were left handed. I draw a distinction between ‘psychiatry’ – which is about helping genuinely ill people; and ‘psychology’, which is an attempt to understand the nature of the human mind from a broader perspective. The latter, on my experience, lends itself to bullying. Have a look at the comment I posted in response to Kassandra, whose views I certainly respect, and let me know what you think.


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