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I’m Not “That Kind” of Psychologist

The case for changing the name of a field

OpenClipartVectors / Pixabay
Source: OpenClipartVectors / Pixabay

“Psychologist.” It’s a loaded term. If you’re a psychologist, as I am, and you meet someone new and tell that person that you are a psychologist, here’s about how the conversation typically goes from that point:

Stranger: “Oh – do you have a private practice?”

Glenn: “No – I am not ‘that kind’ of psychologist.”

Stranger: “Oh, so you work in a hospital? That’s cool. I thought those people were called ‘psychiatrists.’”

Glenn: “No, I do not work at a hospital. I am not a psychiatrist. I work at the university.”

Stranger: “Oh, so you work at the Counseling Center at the university, got it. I hear the students nowadays need a lot of help. That’s great that you do that work.”

Glenn: “There are many students who need a lot of help – this is true. But I do not work at the Counseling Center on campus. I’m not ‘that kind’ of psychologist! I am a research psychologist. I scientifically study the nature of human behavior.”

Stranger: “I’m sorry, what was that?”

And so it goes. If you are someone who identifies with the field of psychology, but not as a therapist, I know that you know what I’m talking about!

In the minds of so many people, the term “psychologist” and “therapist” are conflated – erroneously seen as one-and-the-same. In fact, as I see it, there are two broad classes of “psychologist” – and there is very little overlap in the work of each kind.

Therapists

Some people who identify as “psychologists” are primarily “therapists” (including mental health counselors, clinical psychologists, psychotherapists, and so forth). These people work in the capacity that is most-often associated with the term “psychologist.” Perhaps the best umbrella term that includes all of the folks in these interrelated applied fields is “therapist.”

Behavioral Scientists

Some people who identify as “psychologists” are primarily “behavioral scientists” (including research psychologists, psychometricians, ethologists, many neuroscientists, and so forth). In their work, all behavioral scientists conduct and implement research designed to address questions of behavior – often across various species of animals.

B. F. Skinner Was Not a Therapist

One of the best-known psychologists to ever live was Harvard University’s B.F. Skinner. Skinner spent decades as a member of the psychology department at Harvard, where he ultimately documented many of the basic laws that govern behavior. Given the nature of his work, he’s also a pretty good exemplar of how a “psychologist” is not necessarily a “therapist.” Skinner was not a therapist. He did not have a “license to practice” psychology in a therapeutic capacity. And get this – as a researcher, he did not study humans (see Skinner, 1953)! He famously studied various non-human species, such as rats and pigeons. The stuff he studied was not even clearly connected with issues related to therapy. Skinner was interested in such processes as how various reinforcement schedules affect pecking behavior in pigeons, for instance. Try taking THAT to your therapeutic session!

No, Skinner was not a therapist – but he was behavioral scientist sine qua non. And he is probably the most prolific scholar to have ever been in the employ of the department of psychology at Harvard University. So was he a psychologist? Certainly not in the “therapist” sense – but I’d give a big “yes, of course!” in the “behavioral scientist” sense of the term.

A Call for Better Terms

Clearly I’m trying to make the case here that the term “psychologist” can be a bit confusing. I’ll go out on a limb, actually, and take it a step further. I think the term “psychologist” may have run its course (and I say this while sitting in my role as the chair of an academic “psychology” department!). The confusion associated with this term affects how young people think about the profession. College students often come into my office saying that they want to be “psychologists” when they grow up. When I ask them “what do you mean by the term ‘psychologist,’ the most common response I get is something like ‘gee, I don’t know!’”

There are therapists. They include clinical psychologists, mental health counselors, psychiatrists, clinical social workers, school counselors, and the like. Maybe we should start using the umbrella term “therapists” for such professionals so as to avoid confusion and clarify meaning.

There are behavioral scientists. They include research psychologists, psychometricians, social psychologists, developmental psychologists, and many kinds of neuroscientists. The work these folks do is qualitatively different from the work of therapists (although some of the work done on this front may help inform therapeutic processes). How about we call folks in these professions “behavioral scientists” to avoid confusion and clarify meaning?

An Apology to Psychology Today

In writing this post, I realize that I’m doing so under the auspices of “Psychology Today” – perhaps the greatest media source related to both “therapy” and the “behavioral sciences” that exists in our modern world. Given the prominent placement of the word “Psychology” in the title of this magazine, I almost feel like I need to apologize to my friends at PT! My post here seems to imply that the magazine divide into two – “Therapy Today” and “The Behavioral Sciences Today.” Sure, neither of them has quite the ring that “Psychology Today” does – and I’m sure that there would be a lot of logistics involved in such a change! But I guess that in a long-term, big-picture kind of sense, such a change actually does follow from my reasoning herein. For what it’s worth!

Bottom Line

The term “psychology” is so commonly misunderstood – to the point that the term itself is almost more confusing than it is useful in getting people to know what the work of a “psychologist” is. Some people who work under the label of “psychologist” are primarily therapists. While others who work under this label are primarily behavioral scientists. And since that’s the case, maybe using these more accurate terms would help people in general better understand these important fields that, ultimately, work toward the common good of helping the human condition.

Reference

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan.

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