Pop psychology packages familiar psychological concepts and delivers them to the public like a priest dispensing Holy Communion. I recently came across a psychology article which claimed that all positive human bonds (familial, romantic, parental) originate solely from fear of death. The desire of mothers to bond with their newborns is apparently a deeply selfish urge and should be viewed with suspicion, even discouraged when possible.
Both the tone and the content seemed to reflect the writer’s own nihilistic beliefs. It also ignored additional factors (genetic, social, neurological) behind human beings’ social needs. At no time did this expert’s masterpiece offer anything in the way of proof, other than a tiny survey contacted by the good doctor himself.
His article exemplifies one of the issues with psychology – a tendency to present a supposition as fact without much evidence to back it up apart from theory and psycho-babble. Now I’m not a psychologist and many of my articles are opinion pieces. However, I do not present them as anything else. I am not claiming that they are scientific fact. Broad claims of psychology need to come under scrutiny, especially in light of the 2020 replication crisis. For the unaware, this is a methodological crisis; it’s recently come to light that many key studies (particularly in soft sciences like psychology) are impossible to replicate or reproduce.
Psychology has largely replaced religion and superstition in the West. Many of its foundations – as nebulous and unsubstantiated as belief in say, pixies – are accepted by the public without question. Psychologists have taken the place of confessors and are accorded the same spiritual authority.
However, we must not forget the past damage done in the name of this new religion. For example, intersex children routinely underwent “corrective” operations and hormonal manipulation without consent thanks to the Hopkins model. The inclusion of homosexuality in early publications of DSM (American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) helped to pathologize queerness. Psychological theories regarding binary gender/ sexual orientation put unnecessary gatekeeping in place for transgender individuals, including denying them treatment if they were deemed too unattractive to “pass” as a certain gender.
In the past, when we were more ignorant of biomedical causes, psychology helped to pathologize anything that deviated from what was classified as normal. For many decades, the parents of autistic children were held responsible for their children’s unusual behaviour. This condemned autistic children to ineffective (and sometimes harmful) treatment and their parents to a personal hell where they were blamed for child’s “abnormality.” Nowadays, the “refrigerator mother” theory is rightly condemned and autism is associated with neurological, genetic and possibly environmental factors. A shift in modern sensibilities means that queer individuals, the neurologically atypical and those with intersex conditions are now seen as a variations on the basic human template rather than abnormalities.
This is not to say that past psychologists acted with intent to harm; some caused damage – often irreparable damage – with the best of intentions. Many of them operated under the belief that they were helping patients and the families of patients. However, this belief was frequently based on faulty theory.
We’ve been conditioned to trust psychologists implicitly, just as in the past, we were taught to trust those employed by religious institutions. But it’s dangerous to place authority figures on a pedestal. Doing so means that we forget that they are human, they are flawed, they are like us.