The Problem with Psychologists

OK, time for a sweeping generalization: the problem with psychologists is that they always want to count things.

For example, during one of my hospitalizations, I believed the other patients were receiving more attention from staff than I was. Now, I am quite willing to concede that my thinking was distorted, but the psychologist responded to my statement by saying: “I’ve just spent 22 minutes with you.” Yes, I wanted to say, and each of those 22 minutes I knew you wanted to be elsewhere!

Another example: I had a friend who was a psychologist by trade. We’d fallen out of touch; things were a bit strained between us. I mentioned this during a phone conversation, and she said, “Don’t you remember me calling you twice a day?” Yes, I do remember that, but it was months ago.

What has happened to the profession of psychology, to make its practitioners so obsessed with numbers, to the detriment of their care of people? How has the discipline which one might imagine would be most concerned with nurturing the spirit of patients become more interested in counting than caring?

To see the root cause of the problem, pick up an undergraduate psychology text. The example I’ll use is the second edition of “Psychology: From Inquiry to Understanding” by Lilienfeld, Lynn, Namy and Woolf. The first chapter is 41 pages long. The first three pages discuss the definition and nature of psychology. The rest of the chapter discusses the scientific method.

In some ways, this is quite reasonable in an introductory textbook: perhaps the majority of its readers don’t have a good grasp of the scientific method yet (oh, the state of our secondary education system!). However, it reads as though psychology is the little kid on the block of academic subjects, jumping up and down at the edge of the crowd, crying: “I’m a science too! Take me seriously!”

Another issue is the emphasis on clinical psychology, which is becoming the most respected and highly paid sub-discipline. According to Lilienfeld et al, clinical psychologists:

  • Perform assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental disorders
  • Conduct research on people with mental disorders
  • Work in colleges and universities, mental health centres, or private practice (p. 33).

You can see how this definition emphasizes research and diagnosis – putting things into categories, dealing with measurements and numbers.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of wonderful psychologists out there; but my gut is telling me that, in an attempt to legitimize the profession in the eyes of the academic community, psychology has lost its way. It’s become more about counting than caring.

To all those individual psychologists who bless us through their work: I am not talking about you; I’m making a general statement about the direction psychology is taking as a discipline. To all the patients who are helped profoundly by competent, caring psychologists: I’m not talking about your psychologist, I’m making a general statement, and a sweeping one at that … and we all know  how much weight to place on sweeping generalizations!

7 Comments

Filed under Out, Up

7 responses to “The Problem with Psychologists

  1. Interesting point. I’ve often noted my therapist checking the clock during our sessions and find it annoying. But having socially met with others in the field, I know as well that there is an element of self-care that needs to take place. As much as they want to help, sometimes it takes a toll on their own health, stress levels and family life if they invest too much into each patient. I imagine that they need to create firm boundaries or otherwise they would be taking everyone’s problems home with them. Definitely not a field that I could enter. I think I would always be stressed and upset.

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    • Yes, I must admit I was in “shit-stirrer” mode when I typed this post 🙂 I know there are many, many good psychologists out there; I know it must be difficult work to do; I know there are pressures placed on all professions to be legitimized, these days. It just seems that there’s a fundamental disconnect between a caring profession and the cult of counting. Of course, the obvious response to this is: well, psychology isn’t a “cult of caring” – it’s the discipline which studies mind, brain and behaviour, and tries to find ways to rectify maladaptive practices! So *poof* my argument disappears in a puff of logic, as Douglas Adams might say 🙂

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  2. Is this necessarily a critique of psychologists of our culture. Check out this TED talk. http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html It’s probably the best I have ever seen. In it, the speaker, Social Worker Brene Brown, mentions that one of her profs told her that if you can not measure it, it does not exist. I like her statement that stories are data with souls.

    Look at any nonprofit or company’s annual report. It’s about numbers and metrics. We evaluate everything with numbers. Numbers are nice because you can throw them into a computer and make pie charts, graphs, and pretty pictures with them.

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    • Thank you, Mr. John, for your clarity if thought; I think you’re right – it is more a critique of our culture than of one particular discipline.
      This is where I get a little conflicted, because my undergraduate work was in maths/theoretical physics/experimental physics, so I am in one sense deeply steeped in that post-Enlightenment way of thought – that if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist. Yet I do know that you can’t put a price on everything: I’ve believed that for ages!!! So I guess my attachment to numbers only relates to the physical world. There are so many things we cannot enumerate.

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  3. Yes, yes, yes, THANK you. I say this as someone who’s studying psychology and is planning to go on to be a counselor, too. I am tired of hearing intelligent people in my discipline trying to reduce people down to their component parts. A certain amount of that can be useful for learning more effective ways to help, but everyone we deal with is an individual and ever individual is different.

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    • Phew! I got to the phrase “as someone who’s studying psychology” and despite your resounding positive “Yes, yes, yes” that part of me which needs to be approved of sank into my toes! Ah, I make myself laugh sometimes.
      But back to your comment … I once aspired to be a psychologist, but no longer. I’d rather be a well-trained counselor, obviously with a very good knowledge of psychology, but more focussed on building skills to help the whole person before me.
      Sounds like you’re on the same wavelength 🙂

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