Why can't psychologists get respect?
A provocative article published recently in American Psychologist tackles that very question. Written by Emory University psychologist , Scott Lilienfeld (who is also one of the co-authors of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior), the article examines why psychology has become the "Rodney Dangerfield of the sciences" with a public reputation for being unscientific. While the science of psychology has often faced legitimate criticsm for overly depending on statistical significance testing, overly vague psychological models, and political correctness that limits legitimate scientific investigation into sensitive issues, most of those criticisms have been raised by psychologists on the inside seeking to strengthen the discipline as a whole. Most of these disputes are often invisible to people outside psychology itself and public skepticism concerning psychology typically focus on misunderstandings of what psychology is and the sorts of questions that psychologists attempt to answer. This pervasive misunderstanding can have far-reaching consequences. Not only do elected politicians voting on science funding often short-change psychological research projects for not being "real science" (including omitting psychology from some funding agencies lists for STEM disciplines), but potential mental health consumers who might otherwise benefit from psychological treatment may be reluctant to seek help due to misconceptions about what a psychologist actually does.
While psychologist advocacy groups (including the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science) have tried to fight back againt these misconceptions, public attitudes concerning psychology and psychological research have been slow to change. In 2006, the American Psychological Association Science Directorate released a pamphlet titled Prepare Now to Prevail If Your Research is Attacked: Self-Defense for the Psychological Scientist which basically advised researchers on how to defend themselves against political, media, and public attacks that misrepresent their findings. The pamphlet provides basic self-defense tips such as:
- Be aware that the grant application abstract from your research is accessible to and searchable by the public and Congress and should describe your research in lay terms.
- Create an easy-to-understand, one-page summary of your research that illustrates why it is important to the public.
- Request media training from your university. and
- Establish a relationship with your university’s public and legislative affairs office.
Unfortunately, as Dr. Lilienfeld points out, efforts by researchers to fight misconceptions about their research are only mildly effective since they overlook the underlying reasons for widespread skepticism about psychology. In addressing this skepticism, he focused on two basic questions: a) are the negative views of psychology's scientific status held by many outsiders warranted? and b) what are the principal sources of the views? Negative media views about psychology date to the very beginnings of psychology itself wth early psychologists such as William James who wrote uncritically about spiritualism and other pseudoscientific fads. While other psychologists including Hugo Munsterberg and Theodore Flournoy distinguished themselves as skeptical debunkers, their efforts tended not to be so well-publicized. Early attempts by forensic psychologists to prove the crediblity of psychological research in the courtroom also helped damage the credibility of psychologists as a whole. As one example, Harvard psychologist, Hugo Munsterberg, had a particularly troubling love-hate relationship with the media and his testimony during the 1907 Harry Orchard trial severely undermined the credibility of the fledgling science of forensic psychology for years afterward. Regardless of the scientific merits of the research, media controversies surrounding psychologists such as William Moulton Marston and his lie detector, B.F. Skinner' and his "Heir Conditioner", and Wilhelm Reich and orgone technology likely reinforced the view of mental health researchers as wooly-headed and unscientific.
Even in the the present day, numerous editorials and unflattering stories about psychological research are still common. A 1982 New York Times editorial by Nicholas Wade reported on a Psychology Today survey that asked eleven psychologists to identify the most significant finding in psychology for the previous fifteen years. The editorial, titled "If This is Consensus, Psychology Can't Be Much of a Science" used the lack of consensus among the polled psychologists and concluded that "The results are astonishing: it would seem that there have been none". The editorial's author added that the failed consensus "evinces a serious problem in their academic discipline". It was during this same period that David Stockman, President Reagan's then-Director of the Office of Management and Budget justified the decision to slash behavioural science funding by declaring that psychology was a pseudo-science.
Along with unflattering criticisms of psychology in the media, opinion surveys have indicated that large segments of society continue to view psychology as unscientific and that daily life experiences were often sufficient to provide most people with adequate exposure to make informed opinions about human behaviour. One 1998 survey study found that both the general population and college faculty rated psychology and sociology as being significant lower than five other disciplines (biology, chemistry, economics, medicine, and physics) in terms of their "contribution of the discipline to society". Psychologists were specifically identified as being lower in expertise than most other disciplines and that the general population was typically better off relying on "common sense".
A 2008 marketing study commissioned by the American Psychological Association reflected ongoing public misgivings about the scientific value of psychology. While 82 per cent of study respondents agreed that psychological research helped to improve people's lives, only a minority of participants had a clear idea of what psychologists actually did or the full range of research issues addressed by psychological research. The overwhelming consensus was that psychology is a "soft science" with less rigour than most other disciplines as well as requiring less time to develop expertise as opposed to other sciences. Other studies have shown widespread skepticism about psychology's value to society compared to other scientific disciplines seen as more important.
But why is this skepticism so widespread? According to Dr. Lilienfield, the skepticism often focuses on six common misconceptions about psychology that are often cited by critics:
- Psychology is merely "common sense"
- Psychology does not use scientific methods
- Psychology can not yield meaningful generalizations because everyone is unique
- Psychology does not yield repeatable results
- Psychology can not make precise predictions
- Psychology is not useful to society
While psychologists can respond to these misconceptions effectively, Dr. Lilienfield stresses that widespread skepticism is often reinforced by the slowness on the part of psychologist to weed out those questionable practice that often still thrive. These practices include the continuing use of treatments and tests that do not have adequate scientific support such as alternative medicine, "recovered memories" of past abuse using hypnosis or other suggestive techniques, as well as the failure of psychologists to use the best evidence-based treatments to treat emotional or behavioural problems. Of the thousands of self-help books (many of which prominently feature the authors as psychologists), only a small percentage actually off scientifically tested information. These books often feature oversimplified advice or make elaborate claims that go well beyond established scientific research. Also,there seems to be widespread resistance among psychologists to test established mental health treatments scientifically which can often feed into public skepticism.
In the end, this failure to police psychology as a whole means that media psychologists such as Dr Phil McGraw and Dr. Laura Schlessinger (whose Ph.D is in physiology) are free to present themselves as psychology's public face and to dispense unscientific advice freely. That the American Psychological Association invited "Dr. Phil" to speak at its 2006 annual convention to highlight the effective communication of psychology to the public reflects the problem that many psychologists face in being accepted as scientists. Even the very word "psychologist" is often a source of confusiondue to role diffusion between psychologists, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, social workers, and psychiatrists who often provide highly similar services. Surveys have consistently shown that large segments of the American general population are unable to distinguish between different mental health professionals.
Along with the general role confusion facing psychologists seeking acceptance, Dr.Lilienfeld also identified cognitive biases underlying public skepticism of psychological research. These include hindsight bias (regarding a research conclusion as seeming obvious in hindsight), that research questions addressed by psychologists are often perceived as less difficult to answer than questions addressed by scientists in other disciplines, the failure to distinguish basic from applied research, the popularity of reductionist explanations of human behaviour (including explanations based on neuroscience, biochemistry, and human evolution), as well as the refusal to accept that certain subjects can be tested empirically at all, a.k.a the scientific impotence excuse.
So where does this leave us? While large segments of the general population are still skeptical of psychology's value, survey data suggests some cause for optimism although there is considerably more that needs to be done. As Dr. Lilienfeld points out, psychologists cannot blame their continuing credibility problems exclusively on public misconceptions. The failure of psychologists to embrace evidence-based practices and to keep advocating treatments that have been shown not to work effectively is definitely part of the problem. As well, we shouldn't let flashy media psychologists continue to be seen as psychology's public face instead of the more legitimate research psychologists who can provide a more balanced view of what psychology is realy about. Since academics are often reluctant to confront pseudoscience, misconceptions continue to flourish.
In his conclusion, Dr. Lilienfeld makes the following recommendations: on the individual level, psychologists need to make a greater effort to make their work available to the public through popular writing (Daniel Kahnemann, Steven Pinker, Dan Ariely, Christoper Chabris and Daniel Simons are all examples of psychologists who have written bestselling books on psychology). On the institutional level, universities and psychology advocacy groups need to make a greater effort to integrate psychological research into psychology's public face instead of simply reacting blindly to controversies as they arise. He also stresses the need to debate the often legitimate objections that many people raise to questionable practices in psychology and to weed out those fads that are ultimately damaging to our reputations as psychologists. Psychologists should stop feeling threatened by public skepticism and learn to recognize that this skepticism can be a useful way of identifying potential problems in our profession and how we are seen by non-psychologists.
To close this post, I think Dr. Lilienfeld's closing words would probably work best:
Just as former New York City Mayor Ed Koch (1981) became famous for asking his constituents “How'm I doing?” as a means of gauging his performance, we as a field should continually be asking the general public “How are we doing?” and be prepared to take their critical feedback to heart if their answers are not to our liking