WTF, Psychology?!

Yo, you, psychologist! Yes, I’m talking to you! When did you start not giving a rat’s ass about people? Or rather: when did you start treating humanity like a petri dish?

I rahahaheally don’t like how my field presents itself in public at the moment. Every newspaper I open, every blog I read, every show I watch on TV has some sort of psychological pseudo-scientific stuff in it and the common thread of that stuff seems to be: being normal isn’t normal. And normal is good, so most people are not good. Don’t ask for tips how to be good, though. We won’t give them to you, because they’re not as sexy as pointing out humanity’s abnormalities.

Let me start a little earlier in my train of thought to make myself clear: My wonderful mom regularly sends me newspaper articles and chocolate to New Zealand. This is how I came to read a long reportage on psychological disorders and professional success in one of the biggest German newspapers, Die Zeit. The article opens with the questions

“Does one have to be exceptional to achieve exceptional things? And does exceptional simply mean peculiar, or does it mean disordered?”

The answer is given on several pages by many expert voices, who barf up sweet, sweet evidence from their MRTs, diagnostic catalogues and questionnaires: “Yup. Most people who are exceptionally successful, are also totally cray cray! Coocoo! Bonkers! Nuts! Some are psychopaths, some are narcissists, some have ADHD or autism, and even some of the depressive bring something special to the table. But they are all well-functioning psychopaths, narcissists, obsessives, depressives, maniacs, lunatics, frenetics, anals, benals, cenals and mammals! At least compared to those loser weirdos in the psychiatry wards and prisons.”

While all those expert opinions may be super-duper valid in the paradigm that dominates contemporary psychological research – which is a paradigm of bell curves, numbers, pixels, voxels and Null-Hypothesis-Testing – I still have to ask you, dear fellow psychologists:


And by mind, I don’t mean the part that those incredibly clever researchers have been using when coming to their conclusions. Because, you know, mind doesn’t only mean the rational. There’s a lot more to being human than what we understand rationally and that part of my mind felt deep discomfort and angst when reading this article.

This is why: psychology wants to be a natural science. Since we figured out that dreaming of cigars doesn’t always mean that you want to smoke your daddy’s penis (that’s what Freud said, right?), psychology is trying desperately to be objective in order to be rigorous and logical. These two latter words are often used as synonymous with the word ‘objective’.

Yet, they are not! There are rigorous and logical approaches to knowledge that aren’t objective at all. In fact, there are quite a few respectable people who’d argue that there is no such thing as objectivity, most famously my favourite Frenchies Bourdieu and Foucault. Western science assumes that there is one single truth to reality and tries to capture it with measurement after measurement. Yet, we never quite get there, eh?  Never!

So what is the merit of stuffing people into drawers of anomaly using ill-defined categories which predict people’s behaviour just a tad more accurately than horoscopes?

In order to answer that question I have to go a bit over the top with the sharing. Have you ever been diagnosed with a mental disorder? Well, I have. Apparently, I’m an impulsive borderline-helper’s syndrome-depressive-maniac with several different eating disorders, a deficient attention span, daddy issues and no idea how to tell left from right.psycho

Giving me all those labels made sense at some point. They gave me comfort and stability, because they told me exactly in which way I didn’t fit in with what was normal and desirable in the system I grew up in. They seemed to make so much sense compared to what I had come up with on my own. I had been confused and frustrated about myself for long enough to embrace those labels gratefully. Plus, the labels on my patient folder obviously gave my therapists indications which coping strategies to teach me, so that I would get along with the world and myself better. So: all good. Only for a little while, though.

Now that I’ve been feeling healthy as a horse for quite some time, those labels piss me off. Fortunately, I studied that shit and know what ‘personality’, ‘intelligence’ and ‘identity’ mean: NOT THAT MUCH TO NOTHING AT ALL. But what about all the people who’ve been given similar labels and don’t have an insight behind the public façade of Freud’s angels aka psychotherapists?

The “knowledge” psychologists communicate to the world based on their findings is simplified beyond recognition. To give a few examples:

1)   Identity lies within the individual!

2)   We can measure your personality!

3)   Intelligence is a thing!

This is all bullshit. All of it, and not just a little bit:

1)   More than half of the world defines identity as something that lies between people, not within individuals.

2)   Psychometric tests simply ignore any aspect of personality that can’t be described with words.

3)   Ugh, don’t even get me started on the publicly proclaimed concept of intelligence! We psychologists have to deal with the ambivalence (multivalence!) of that term on a daily basis, yet when we talk to the public, we make it sound as if we could predict an entire life span by simple looking at your IQ. Argh! This is sooo wrong!

Though most lay people might not tackle psychology’s assumptions, I think they still feel that something’s wrong with them and that’s why they distrust us. Whenever I’m forced to identify as a psychologist, I get reactions like “Oooh, not gonna talk to you anymore now!” or “Phew, gotta watch what I’m saying around you…” My favourite one was the guy who pointed his finger at me and cried “Witch!” when he found out I studied psychology.

So, we have already hurt our discipline by communicating our findings in a matter-of-factly way. ‘Normal’ people don’t want to talk to us anymore, because they fear what we might tell them about themselves! That’s just nifty, isn’t it?

So, everybody admit it from now on and forever: Psychology is not physics and it never will be!

Understanding human nature is as reliant on statistics as it is on listening to music, holding each other by the hand from time to time, and taking a walk in the forest. 

Every individual fits only one drawer and that drawer says “Person”. God damnit, if anybody should know that, then we as psychologists. No wait, anybody knows that, because we are all human! So stop handing out self-tests that are called “Am I a psychopath?”, stop pointing out what’s wrong with people (because you’re probably not right), and start giving out advice from the amazingly broad spectrum of knowledge you have on how to make things easier, better, more peaceful and less biased  in the world! If you’re wrong on those grounds, you’re at least not hurting anybody…

11 thoughts on “WTF, Psychology?!

  1. Surely a large part of this conversation is driven by ‘click bait’ rather than actual psychological positions. I freely admit I am more likely to read ‘ARE YOU A PSYCHOPATH WHO IS DESTINED FOR POWER AND WEALTH’ than ‘Explaining how a holistic approach to societal and institutional constructs alongside the study of personality and the brain is allowing psychologists to understand more about the underlying decision-making processes of individuals’. Hey, it’s the same in my field – no one in NZ wanted to read ‘the Court of Appeal has ruled that the Waitangi Tribunal has the jurisdiction to receive and consider a claim regarding the unextinguished customary title in the foreshore and seabed of the upper South Island’ but they sure as hell wanted to read ‘THE MAORIS ARE TAKING OUR BEACHES AND WHITE PEOPLE WILL NEVER SWIM AGAIN.’ Just a thought!

    • Absolutely! It’s probably the largest and most important part. I’m somewhat convinced that putting the responsibility for selecting information solely with the individual will always lead weak, weak humanity to choose the “sexiest” of information, regardless what it’s contributing to any greater good. So, simplified bullshit will be communicated.
      My core problem in this rather heated piece of writing was a different one, though. I’m not so much criticizing my poor fellow psychologists for giving out the wrong information, but the paradigm they’re working in in general. When do we ever hear of scientists admitting to the human-madeness of their research? Subjectivity is almost treated as a swearword amongst psychologist, yet I think it’s inevitable (in social science, and maybe even in the natural ones). The (Western?) discourse around science comes sometimes close to ideology, and that’s what scares me.

      • Ah, in which case, I have no experience. This is something that my field of study doesn’t have anything in common with, as the cornerstone of my legal education has always been ‘people think that the law is objective, but above all else, acknowledge that this will always be the work of individuals putting a black line in a grey space.’

        It surprises me that even in ‘proper’ science (i.e. not the mixed science-humanity field of psychology) this wouldn’t be ingrained, let alone in psychology. The sheer complexity of science and the sheer uncertainty of most scientific findings in almost all science must make people realise that speaking in ideologies or absolutes is unhelpful…?

      • My point exactly! You’d think it’s kinda obvious!! D’UH ego-trippin’ researchers who think they know everything! 🙂 YOU SAY SCIENCE I SAY D’UH!

  2. Generic labels and generalized sweeping statements about complex topics by scientists (social and natural sciences) is just a natural reaction with our limitations as human beings to communicate complex topics to others who are not specialized in said complex topics.

    I love history. Dear god would you believe how complex history is? This is what most people think about WWII: Germans attacked some countries -> There were concentration camps -> It was all so evil -> Then Japan bombed pearl harbour -> Then America came to the rescue -> Defeated Germany -> Dropped nuclear bombs on Japan -> Victory for all (except the Germans and Japanese).

    That is what people can comprehend. But there is so much information in the history WE DO KNOW about WWII that academics commit their whole lives to understanding WWII, but won’t ever understand everything about it. I remember learning about how complex FDR’s decision to join WWII was: the public opinion and mood in America, how he had to walk a fine line between a Congress and population who didn’t want war and how he saw America’s role… I could go on forever about that one topic.

    So when we have to process such complex topics and bodies of knowledge, it needs to be condensed down into bit size material that people can easily understand. Or else you’ll have them lose all interest in what you are saying and not process or learn anything.

    That’s why we create labels and box things, I think.

    • Thank you Steve, this was very reassuring. I hope a lot a lot a lot of people think like you and take popular science as what it is: a fraction of what is true. But just to be sure everybody heard me, I’ll say it one more time: some things clever psychologists believe are not. correct. They’re not even a fraction of what is right, but a complete misconception, very often distorted by the Western, capitalist forces that drive my beloved science. YOU HERE ME WORLD?! 😉

      • Oh boy, I had quite a couple of “never underestimate the intelligence and critical thinking skills of your average person”- moments in my life, though… But then again, who is the average person anyways? 🙂

      • Your average person may be a little different in a university environment. I was thinking more in the work world! Sadly, that is the world I reside in for the moment.

        I miss the university atmosphere, environment, and people.

        Also, don’t get me started on averages, means, medians, modes and how those concepts are regularly confused and misused! I apparently oversimplified a scientific concept after talking about the dangers of oversimplifying such concepts 😛

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