Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Warning: Psychology Can Be Bad For Your Mental Health

How to avoid the psychologist’s most dangerous vocational hazard.
Jeremy Sherman
This post is a response to The Key to Keeping Arguments From Becoming Fights by Jeremy E. Sherman, Ph.D.

I need to warn of a vocational and avocational hazard that threatens those who read and write here.  We psychology-oriented types specialize in seeking scientifically objective explanations for human behavior. We’re behavioral double-clickers, delving into the motivations that drive people.  By day the clinicians among us sit as neutrally as possible with clients encouraging them to probe a little deeper here or there exploring why they would do this or that. Why, really--not just the client’s rationalizations, but getting to the very bottom of it, the one true reason for what they do.

Though we try to probe neutrally, we can’t be neutral about what we probe.  We pick which this or that to probe, probing especially whatever we find aberrant, odd, wrong-headed, or inappropriate. 

We don’t ask our clients “Now really, why did you choose to brush your teeth again last night?” because we think tooth-brushing is normal and healthy. We focus our psychological inquiry on the deviations from norms as we see them, whether we see the deviations correctly or not.

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And that’s the hazard.  We tend to find abnormal whatever we don’t like, which means we’ll tend to probe what hurts, dissatisfies or disappoints us.  Yes we can say we are client centered enough to only probe what they find problematic, but we can’t and don’t take their word on it entirely, any more than we buy the first-response rationales they provide for why they do what they do. We in the supposedly neutral psychological profession have our moral standards, and they guide our analytical attention. Since like everyone else we tend to find amoral that which hurts offends or disappoints us, we can’t help but smuggle that bias into our supposedly “just-curious” analysis.

This hazard has been with us a long time.  For years people sought the real motivation for homosexuality..  Before psychology the clergy sought the real reasons why people deviate from religious laws, some of which we now look at as not deviations from normalcy at all. At its worst, such analysis becomes a witch hunt by other means.

The hazard spreads beyond the boundaries of psychology. Fox News is just curious about why liberals hate America so much. They’re just curious about why Global Warming scientists claim that there are real climate risks and are sure such devious behaviors are motivated by equally devious drives.

The vocational hazard spreads from the psychologist’s offices to their personal lives. As our coping strategy of first resort, we psychology-oriented folk will tend to probe for the true motives of anyone who hurts, offends or disappoints us. “I’m just curious why you would do that to me?” we’ll ask. 

There’s a few problems with this as a coping strategy. First, it’s subjectivity masquerading as objectivity.  Psychologists posture as the neutral party, just curious, when there’s nothing strictly neutral about what they have chosen to analyze.

Second, there’s the word “just.”  Of all the four letter words I know, there’s none more prone to profane abuse.  “Just” means “Ignore all other possibilities,” so “Just curious” means “I have no skin in the game, no bias, all I am or could possibly be is curious.” 

Third, the focus tends to be on negative reasons as though the just-curious question is “what bad motivation could make you do this objectively bad thing to me?” The analysis that such probing yields will often be framed by a “just” too, saying in so many words, “I have analyzed your possible motives. There’s just one and it’s not a good one.”

Speaking for myself (but I strongly suspect for everyone else too) I never do anything for just one reason, and the multiple reasons for my behaviors always include some motivations I’m proud of and motivations I’m ashamed of.  “You did that just for this reason” will tend therefore to be a very subjectively-motivated analysis. If you didn’t like what I did, you’ll say I did it just for a reason I’d be ashamed of.  If I like what I did, I say “No, I did it just for a reason I’d be proud of.” A conversation seeking the one true reason, when there are really many, will tend therefore to turn into an fool’s errand built for two.

 

Fourth, our vocational hazard coping strategy originates in the helping profession, so we’ll not just be framing our subjective criticism as objective, but as helpful objectivity. “Look I’m just trying to be helpful. When I tell you that your deviant behavior is motivated by one true and shameful motive I’m just trying to cure you.”

Here’s a simple thing to keep in mind if you want to protect against the hazard:  Being able to imagine a negative ulterior motivation for anything is a breeze.  It’s a breeze especially because there’s no behavior we could ever take that our egotistical inner-weasel couldn’t find a way to use for its own devices.  Things that hurt others, obviously could be ego driven. Things that help others could be motivated by egotistical pride.

That you can identify a shameful motivation that might be at play tells you nothing definitive about whether it is at play, or about whether the behavior itself is good or bad. Nor, does it hurting, offending or disappointing you. 

At its worst, the vocational hazard becomes a way to neutralize and discredit any behavior we don’t like, simply by naming a negative motivation that could be at play. Do that with a Ph.D. after your name and you become a real Teflon-coated bully

Don’t.

If you keep this in mind you’ll both be able to prevent the vocational hazard from becoming your coping strategy of first resort as it so often does, and on the receiving end, you’ll be better able to take with a grain of salt the “wise counsel” of the “helping professionals” who like so many have fallen for this coping strategy. 

Check out this wonderful Nichols and May comedy sketch from the 1960’s that captures the hazard exquisitely.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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