Diagnosing problems with `new' psychology

January 11, 2000|By Ronald Dworkin

IN THE family of science, psychology has always been treated like the poor relative. Psychology can measure events but not reliably predict them, and this makes the whole enterprise seem a bit suspect when compared with the amazingly accurate physical sciences.

Physics, for example, can estimate the future course of a missile by measuring the path it has already taken. But psychology cannot look at a person's past and reliably predict his future emotional state.

Over the past decade, though, a popular form of psychology has grabbed hold of the public mind and convinced many that the future is predictable. People who believe in this new psychology fear that being a witness to violence, even just on television, or the victim of some emotional trauma will reset the circuitry of their minds and cause them psychological problems.

Young people, in particular, are seen to be desperately fragile. Unless their lives are totally cleansed of bad events, their futures are expected be a minefield of neuroses and syndromes. This is why the presence of psychologists at plane crashes, natural disasters and domestic disturbances is now considered almost indispensable, second only to that of the police and the paramedics.

The psychologists "need" to be there to help manage suffering and advise the authorities and affected individuals of what to expect. What the new psychology tries to do is look at a formative event in a person's life -- a divorce, the loss of a loved one, a mugging -- and make a prediction as to what that person's future mental state will be.

Is this new belief in psychology justified? Can the psychologists really study the present and give an accurate description of the future the way doctors and engineers do?

The answer is no. On the contrary, by flirting with prophecy, psychology is dangerously close to becoming the astrology of our time.

Those psychologists who embrace the new school believe that they have the power to divine the future. They see in intense but momentary experiences of psychic trauma important predictors of a person's mental health. A child who is laughed at in class, for example, is said to be "at risk" for low self-esteem and dysfunctional relationships.

Such painful experiences are taken to be a kind of imaginary sign, the way peculiar star arrangements were once looked upon as signs by ancient astrologers. They are seen to be dangerous omens.

Centuries ago, when Jupiter was in Libra, astrologers might have warned the king that his next child would try to steal the throne. It made the king look at this child with suspicion. Now, when a person has a bad relationship with his parents, the psychologists tell him that one day his performance as a father might be similarly affected.

The warning causes him to be ever cautious when his children are born, so that the prediction of the psychologists does not come true. How certain events in the present exert an effect on the future is never made clear by astrologists or psychologists. In part, when people believe the authorities who say these things, the prophesy simply becomes self-fulfilling.

In the case of astrology, the error was not in the stars but in the minds that studied them. There is a logic to the movement of the stars that is rational and predictable, only the ancient astrologers did not know this logic and so they superimposed on the stars their own fears and fantasies.

They even gave the stars names, as if this would somehow more closely unite the movement of the stars in heaven to the experience of man on earth.

The error in psychology is similar. Our mental state is like the stars in the sky. It is regulated by its own confusing logic, and the feelings we have move along in ways that we cannot predict. A single intense experience in the present does not have a logical or predictable consequence on how we might think or feel in the future.

Sometimes, of course, the guesswork of psychologists is vindicated, which they are more than happy to take credit for. Thus, when a person who suffers abuse as a child grows up and becomes a murderer, the trajectory of events is plotted and explained by them as if it were as clear-cut as the path of a missile. The abuse of the child is the cause; the criminal behavior is the effect. But for those cases when the predicted outcome does not occur, the psychologists fall silent or scurry around to find evidence that in hindsight supports the countervailing conclusion.

Pop psychologists try to give legitimacy to their prophesies by using the language of science. They attach scientific names to our negative emotions, such as "toxic shame" and "incongruence," just as the astrologers gave the stars names to connect these short-lived miseries to our psychological destinies.

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