Rumpelstiltskin in Psychology

The magic of naming IT!

Posted Aug 03, 2013

Ach wie gut, daß niemand weiß, daß ich Rumpelstilzchen heiß!

You are an acrophobiac staring down the North Face of Switzerland’s Mt. Eiger (13,020 ft.). Never mind how you got there. Your analyst, who has miraculously materialized at your side, explains that your acrophobia is rooted in your imaginary childhood fear of losing your parents' love or the real trauma of falling out of the crib. Never mind which of these. Then, suppose you get it. Will you now be able to look down the legendary North Face without a shudder? Probably not. Insight therapies have a modest record of success, and what success they have must be won by behavioral experience, practice, further cognitive restructuring, emotional desensitization, and what not. Insight per se cannot be counted on to change a person instantly and deeply. There must be a process of which insight is but one link. And that is as it should be. Why

should one expect instant, deep, and lasting change to come with the aha! moment? Indeed, one should not. Not that it never happens, but it ain’t probable. Mostly, the magic of sudden knowledge and the expression thereof is the stuff of fairy tales. The girl gains power over Rumpelstiltskin by the act of saying his name. So told by the Grimm brothers.

The allure of the magical impact of insight (and of naming it) is a bane on psychology. Practicing psychologists often need to confront their clients’ high expectations. Clients yearning for the aha! moment and its presumed magical effects set themselves up for disappointment. Academic psychologists working in any area of the field that deals with human frailties, irrationalities, or socially-less-than-desirable tendencies feel the pinch of expectation on their own skin. Social psychology has created this pickle for itself by focusing so much on what is rotten in the State of Denmark (and elsewhere). People are easy prey for primes (Mr. Bargh), they comply too willingly (Mr. Cialdini), have racist hearts (Ms. Banaji), are inept decision makers (Mr. Ariely), all the while idiotically seeing these splinters in the eyes of others (Ms. Pronin).

A course in psychology is supposed to produce a lot of aha! moments, but then again, these moments are fleeting, and there’s another exam to cram for. Do not expect 19-year olds to become better people after a semester of social psychology. But what about their instructors? Aren’t the instructors, after so many ahas, supposed to be fully functioning autonomous individuals as society defines those (ironic, no?)? Shouldn’t they be free of biases, spinelessness, primability, and egocentrism? Experience teaches that they are not. Some may find this as surprising as seeing a convention of barbers with bad haircuts. Oh, Dr. Jones committed the fundamental attribution error! Help, Dr. Kahneman ignored base rates!

I submit that it is (virtually) impossible for things to be any different. Psychologists study human nature, which is part of, well, nature. If our findings say anything about nature, they per force also say something about our nature. Just knowing about this bias or that error does not eliminate them from happening, much as clinical insight, by itself, does not evaporate symptoms. The acrophobiac has, in fact, an edge (pardon the pun) over the psychologist. She is only concerned with heights and her fear thereof. If an insight comes, there’s an opportunity to tackle the run-away fear response with a rigorous process-oriented regimen to achieve behavioral and affective change. Social psychologists know about hundreds of human imperfections. To think they would fix them all and emerge as ÜberHumans is unrealistic, even unnatural. My colleagues and I are, and will remain, ordinary people. When you catch one of us (e.g.) conforming to the opinions of a majority of equally flawed human-beings, leave a complaint in the box.