Is Psychology Making Us Sick?

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Scapegoating, Stereotyping, & Projecting Won’t Make Us Safer

Reflections on Connecticut horror and trauma

This morning I read more, listened more, and watched more video about the murders and murderer in Newtown, Connecticut. There were many calls for improved mental health.  I understand. We want answers. We want to prevent and protect. We want to throw our arms around those we love. We hope that psychology will help us with this hunger.

However, I grew concerned as I witnessed the media going down the path of finding a reason that allows us to go back to sleep with a false sense of security—as if we can identify the reason one person hurts another and rest easier knowing that is not me or those around me. I grew concerned when people focused so much on the story and “psychology” of one individual, Adam Lanza, the killer, as if we all don’t have work to do, as if we all don’t have a certain culpability—even if that is to care for ourselves, to notice the hurt, pain, and rage around us. I grew concerned when people threw around labels that too easily could lead the public to marginalize and even demonize a group of people that most of the public know little about.

I grew concerned because in moments of violence and trauma (be they hours, days, or even generations) an un-psychological eye can easily project onto a person or group all the qualities it wants to split off and thereby scapegoat those people and groups. This happens when some folks project onto our gay brothers and sisters that they are more dangerous to the precious children; this happens when some project hostility onto our black brothers and sisters as if violence is not epidemic amongst all racial groups and in too many homes of people of all colors.

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Examples are too numerous to enumerate here. The point is this: stereotyping and projecting can give a momentary feeling of security when we feel we have caught the beast, but projecting onto others is a form of violence not to be taken lightly. It harms. Psychology should not be used to feed our hunger for security in this way; psychology should make us more aware of the very tendency to project and stereotype and help us do no harm.

Consider the example of how some people are using the label “autism.” Some programs have claimed that Adam Lanza, the killer, was autistic. Last night CNN interviewed Dr. Sanjay Gupta, chief medical correspondent for the network. The CNN interviewer spoke about autism as a mental disorder and raised concerns about whether autism could lead to violence. Dr. Gupta quickly corrected the interviewer saying that autism is not a mental disorder but rather a neurodevelopmental disorder and disabused the audience of the idea that autism leads to this kind of violence.

But this morning, on Meet the Press, moderator David Gregory asked Pete Williams, NBC’s Justice Correspondent, “Do we know why this happened?...What do we know about Adam Lanza?” Mr. Williams responded by saying, among other things, “He had a mild form of autism.” Unlike with Sanjay Gupta, nothing more was said leaving open the possibility that the public would connect autism with this kind of violence.

I don’t think either David Gregory or Mr. Williams had any ill intent or were aware of the possibility of misleading people, and, if this was simply a conversation between two people I could let the ethical implications and misunderstanding go. But this conversation was meant to “educate” millions of people and thus, I believe, there is an ethical obligation to protect groups from potential scapegoating.

So, for the record, let me reiterate the words of the Autism Research Institute, "Autism is not a mental health disorder—it is a neurodevelopmental disorder. The eyes of the world are on this wrenching tragedy—with 1 in 88 now diagnosed, misinformation could easily trigger increased prejudice and misunderstanding."

In times of trauma we all need to be careful, compassionate, and understanding. In the days, weeks, and months ahead, I suspect many people will need us to keep our eyes on potential scapegoating, projecting, and stereotyping. That is one way we can make the world a little safer.

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David Bedrick, J.D., Dipl. PW is the author of the book Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @lovebasedpsych for regular updates on dieting, dreams, relationships, sex, addictions, and more. Feel free to join his Facebook page and post your comments and questions.

David Bedrick, J.D., Dipl. PW, graduated from Lewis and Clark’s Northwestern School of Law. He is the author of Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology. more...

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