3 Things People Say That Irritate Psychologists
3. "Psychology isn't a real science."
Posted June 28, 2021 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- TV and movies often propagate stereotypes about psychologists as weird or blundering at best, and unethical or even malevolent at worst.
- People often make assumptions about what psychologists do, including that all psychologists are therapists.
- Psychology is an expansive discipline, based in science, that involves studying the mind, brain, and behavior.
- Like professionals of most disciplines, psychologists do different things, have different perspectives, and take different career paths.
I often dread telling people I’m a psychologist, particularly outside of the office. Although I’m proud of my profession, I know that people often hold stereotypes and misgivings about what I do. These can be based on negative personal experiences with the field.
It’s certainly the case that not all therapists are good ones, sometimes committing errors, engaging in unethical practices, or lacking important skills. There’s no excuse for poorly done therapy, and my heart goes out to people who have had this experience. Other times, however, people’s stereotypes of psychologists are based on what they see in the media, which frequently depicts mental health professionals as weird or blundering at best, and unethical or even malevolent at worst.
As a result of these influences, people often say things to psychologists that I’ve heard many of my colleagues characterize as “annoying.” Personally, however, I’m glad they say them. It gives us a chance to address their questions and concerns. In that spirit, here are three things that people say that sometimes annoy psychologists and some facts about the field to go along with each one.
1. “Are you analyzing me?”
When I meet someone outside of a professional context, and they find out I’m a psychologist, they almost always react in one of two ways. Many people immediately tell me about their problems. I quickly learn about their estranged daughter or their cousin who always seemed depressed. I’m flattered by the trust they invest in me, of course, but I often feel obligated to let them know I can’t ethically give them a professional opinion while “off duty.”
In contrast, other people immediately clam up. Often their reluctance to speak is accompanied by the somewhat sheepish question, “Are you analyzing me right now?” A few years ago, I was asked exactly this question by an insurance salesman I struck up a conversation with while hiking in Big Trees State Park in Calaveras County, California. I used my go-to response: “No—are you trying to sell me insurance right now?”
Much to my surprise, his answer was, “I’m always trying to sell insurance!” We both laughed, and I hope the interaction helped him feel a bit more comfortable. But my response wasn’t meant merely as a joke.
The fact is that doing psychotherapy takes work! It’s exhausting to listen deeply and non-judgmentally to another person’s problems or attempt to conceptualize in a systematic and helpful way what’s behind their difficulties. It takes concentration and energy to mobilize the expertise that practitioners have often spent years developing. That’s why there’s so much writing about burnout among psychotherapists and the importance of self-care.
That’s not to say that being a therapist isn’t rewarding and meaningful. Of course, it is. Nonetheless, it’s something that most people don’t do casually.
2. Assuming all psychologists are therapists.
If someone asked you to explain what psychologists do, what would you say? If your first instinct would be to use words like “therapy” or “counseling,” you’re not alone. To understand the general public’s view of psychology, the American Psychological Association occasionally does national surveys. In one such poll, the words people used to describe the field were most often associated with illness and treatment.
That’s certainly compatible with my personal experience. Virtually every time a new acquaintance finds out I’m a psychologist, they ask about my practice. Although I’ve seen patients at various times in my career, there have also been long stretches of time when I haven’t, focusing instead on research and teaching. This sometimes strikes people as odd. And, who could blame them? Virtually every depiction of psychologists in movies, television, and literature involves psychotherapy.
But psychology is much more than the practice of therapy. It’s also an expansive research discipline. In fact, psychology is often defined as the study of the mind, brain, and behavior. There’s no question that, as part of this endeavor, psychologists study mental health conditions and treatment. But they also study lifespan development, relationships, leadership styles, learning, memory, perception, and neuroscience, among many other topics. In addition, input from psychologists helps design efficient work environments, ad campaigns, user interfaces on our phones, and airplane cockpits. In other words, people often miss the breadth of what psychologists do.
3. “Psychology isn’t a real science.”
Several years ago, I was seated on an airplane next to a middle-aged man wearing a gray suit, white shirt, and red tie. To pass the time, he asked what I did for a living. When I told him I was a psychologist, I was bowled over by his reply: “Oh. You’re a rent-a-friend!”
During the remainder of our short flight, I tried—with no luck—to convince him that psychologists were much more than friends for hire. First, I mentioned that we do many things besides therapy. But perhaps more importantly, I explained that even when we do therapy, it’s not simply about being friendly. We use techniques that are based on scientific research. That’s when he abruptly interrupted, “There’s no way psychology is a real science!”
But much of what psychologists do is based on science. Perhaps the clearest definition of science is any endeavor that uses the scientific method. Like all scientists, psychology researchers form hypotheses, devise experiments, and carefully analyze the results. Psychology journals are filled with such research.
Psychotherapy, for instance, is often studied in much the same way as medication, using experiments known as randomized controlled trials. Investigators recruit large numbers of people suffering from a particular condition—say, depression—and randomly assign some of them to participate in a particular talk therapy, while others receive one of several control conditions, sometimes including no treatment, a different therapy, or even medication. We can only conclude that treatment works if its outcomes are superior to those other conditions.
Although I’ll admit that the man’s comments annoyed me, I can hardly blame him for having the impression that psychology isn’t real science. As a science, psychology is far from perfect: Studies are sometimes poorly performed, and a number of famous findings have recently failed to replicate. Moreover, although most psychologists respect the field’s scientific core, some still prefer to present themselves as “sages” rather than practitioners of a science-based discipline, and there continues to be a debate about the value of evidence-based interventions. Nonetheless, even an imperfect science is still a science, and I certainly hope that science will continue to be an important foundation of what psychologists do long into the future.
Like professionals of most disciplines, psychologists do many different things, have different perspectives, and take different career paths. But all of us should strive to be clear about what we do. Although some psychologists may find the questions and statements just mentioned to be annoying, they’re nonetheless valuable. They encourage us to explain our profession as it actually is, rather than feeding stereotypes and media depictions. So, the next time someone tells you they’re a psychologist, feel free to ask questions. It’s an honor to answer.
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