DSM5 in Distress

The DSM's impact on mental health practice and research

Don't Blame Everything On Psychology

David Brooks misses the policy boat with his pop psychology.

I have an offer for David Brooks: if he promises to stop being an amateur psychologist, I promise to stop being an amateur columnist. 

What Brooks doesn't know about psychology is a lot. Everything he says about it has a shallow ring, is misinformed, and displays the same bias and ulterior motive. Brooks is a complacent apologist for the status quo. Whenever events scream out that there is an obvious defect in one of his cherished social policies, Brooks comes to its defense with a muddled pop psychological explanation- hoping in the process to deflect attention away from any serious policy discussion of what has gone wrong and what can be done to correct it. The consistent tactic is to rationalize a failing public policy by putting all the blame on messed up individual psychology. 

After the recent mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, Brooks used his banal analysis of the psychology of killers to provide much needed camouflage for the NRA. Declare that it is all in the killer's mind and perhaps we won't notice that our gun non-control policy results in amazingly high murder rates and frequent mass murders. When deranged people have such remarkably easy access to arsenals of weapons, every so often one of them will go ballistic. We can't eliminate political or religious extremism or mental illness, but we can prevent people from having access to automatic weapons and thousands of rounds of ammo. The Brits have one sixth our murder rate, not because they are psychologically nicer than we are—they just don't have the hardware to do as much damage.

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In an op-ed piece in the September 28 New York Times, Brooks the armchair psychologist is back once again in his best apologist form. He describes studies showing that having more bad childhood experiences (like abuse or parental divorce, imprisonment, or mental illness) predicts having more adult psychological, medical, and addiction problems.

He then focuses on school performance. Kids without traumatic childhoods rarely have learning or behavioral problems; while half the kids with them do. Brooks' conclusion, "stress can have long lasting neural effects, making it harder to exercise self-control, focus attention, delay gratification and do many of the other things that contribute to a happy life."

Brooks goes on to celebrate what he calls the psychologizing of domestic policy. "In the past several decades, policy makers have focused on the material and bureaucratic things that correlate to school failure, like poor neighborhoods, bad nutrition, schools that are too big or too small. But, more recently, attention has shifted to the psychological reactions that impede learning — the ones that flow from insecure relationships, constant movement and economic anxiety."

What's wrong with this picture? First off, correlation doesn't mean causality. The kids with traumatic childhoods are also independently likely to have many other obstacles — economic, environmental, and genetic — to achieving good school performance. 

But the real problem. In Brooks' proposed solution, the kids need somehow to be made more psychologically healthy so that they can cope resiliently with the their difficult school and life situations. This call for government psychological engineering is surprisingly discrepant with Brooks' usual conservative ideology, but it does serve his larger purpose of distracting attention from the enormous and unprecedented societal and economic inequalities that confront our children and are also ripping apart our civil fabric. Improving our kids performance in school won't come from some vague, quixotic psychological fix. It requires they have better lives and better schools and that means us becoming a fairer society. How about the Romneys of the world paying a historically reasonable tax rate (say 35 percent; not 14 percent) with the proceeds going to paying off the deficit and to infrastructure that would even life's starting line and reduce our social fragmentation.

Allen Frances, M.D., was chair of the DSM-IV Task Force and is currently professor emeritus at Duke.

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