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Libel in Fact: Wild Analysis in the Fact Poll

Wild analysis in the Fact poll of psychiatrists

To update the concept a bit, one might say that wild analysis occurs when one person interprets another's mental life in a way that does not follow logically from observations of that person, or is based on an unsupportable theory, or makes claims that are too strong, or that is outlandish in some other way such as lacking tact.

Examples of wild analysis can be found in the 1964 Fact magazine poll concerning Senator Barry Goldwater's personality. (I have been describing the poll in recent posts). The poll by Fact asked members of the American Psychiatric Association to evaluate the character of the Senator, who was then running for President.

Although a number of the psychiatrists' comments were thoughtful and wise... a number included what I would consider wild analysis. One psychiatrist wrote of Goldwater:

"...Frequent temper outbursts and some profane utterances imply a defective ego that is unable to control primitive hostile emotional situations..."

I am not sure it is fair to speculate about a defective ego just on the basis of not-clearly-documented "frequent temper outbursts" and profane language.  After all, Mr. Goldwater also possessed enough self-control to become a Senator and win his party's nomination for president.

Another respondent wrote:

"One could speculate further that Goldwater had a rigid toilet-training period. He seems unalterably opposed to controls and authority (except in his own hands, of course). His theme is "freedom" - but from what? Unconsciously it appears to be from his mother's domination."

It is common for a child to desire freedom from his mother's control from time to time. That said, shouldn't we guess that, by middle age, the Senator possessed the maturity to have formed adult opinions of political power and its uses?

A final example:

"Consistent with Goldwater's paranoid traits is his sensitivity to questions about his "honesty and integrity" - obvious unconscious substitutes for his masculinity ...".

No business person or Senator (Goldwater was both) would take kindly to having his or her honesty and integrity questioned. Why are honesty and integrity "obvious substitutes" for masculinity?

"Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," Freud was said to have replied when asked about whether his own cigar was a phallic symbol.

Each of us has been misperceived, and each of us misperceives others.  These examples, which I regard as involving wild analysis, provide a useful reminder that professional training cannot always prevent such human error from cropping up.

It is possible to conduct reasoned analyses of others' personalities, even from a distance. That said, people may not always use the methods necessary; they may veer over into unsupported, irrational conclusions. "I think," wrote another psychiatrist who was concerned as to what his colleagues might say, that:

"...the names of psychiatrists and psychologists who answer this should be made public so we can see which ones use crystal balls."

Some psychiatrists signed their names, and others responded anonymously.  Some who wrote in acknowledged that their opinions were speculative, and others wrote with an air of certainty.  Looking at these letters from 45 years ago provides some clarity through hindsight as to what made sense and what did not.  It provides a reminder, too, that when we judge others (or fail to do so), our actions today may themselves be subject to judgments tomorrow.


All quotes are from Boroson, W. (1964, September/October). What psychiatrists say about Goldwater. Fact, 1, pp. 24-64. "Frequent temper outbursts...," p. 43; "One could speculate further that...," p. 61; "Consistent with Goldwater's paranoid traits," p. 50; "the names of psychiatrists," p. 29.

For contemporary views of Freud's "Wild Analysis," see Schafer, R. (1985). "Wild analysis." Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 33, 275-299. Or, Meltzer, D. (1978). Routine and inspired interpretations: Their relation to the weaning process in analysis. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 14, 210-225. Berman, E. (2007). Call of the wild. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 67, 211-220.

Corrections/edits: I added the last paragraph +12 hours after posting.

Copyright (c) 2009 by John D. Mayer