Friday, July 15, 2011

Psychology's public image problem

By Carol Clark

We are all psychologists, at least in our own minds.

“In everyday life, in love, relationships and work, everyone deals with psychology, and most of us find it fascinating,” says Emory psychologist Scott Lilienfeld. “That’s great, but it’s a mixed blessing because people confuse familiarity with true understanding. Your mind is actually a lot more complex than you think.”

Lilienfeld hopes to rally his field to do a better job of educating the public and regulating itself. His paper, “Public Skepticism of Psychology: Why Many People Perceive the Study of Human Behavior as Unscientific,” will be published by American Psychologist.

“I hope that policymakers read it,” Lilienfeld says.

The paper counters what he describes as the widespread perception that psychology is “a soft, gooey science” based largely on common sense. The same rigorous, scientific methods applied to the “hard” sciences are used in psychology, Lilienfeld writes. He cites analyses showing psychology research can yield repeatable results comparable to the findings in particle physics.

U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) is calling for the National Science Foundation to defund its social and behavioral sciences division and focus on “truly transformative sciences with practical uses outside of academic circles and clear benefits to mankind and the world.”

In fact, basic psychology research has played a role in everything from reducing errors made by airplane pilots to helping law enforcement catch criminals, Lilienfeld says.

Related: Five myths about memory (and why they matter in court).

Lilienfeld notes that the powerful imaging tools of neuroscience, which are mapping biological responses in the brain, are immensely useful for some purposes but typically fall short of explaining behavior. “Neuroscience can tell me that when I get scared, my amygdala becomes active. But it can’t explain why I’m scared,” he says. “It can give you correlations, not causation.”

Behavioral research also benefits many aspects of well being beyond the mind. “Mental health issues are a vastly underestimated contributor to, if not cause of, physical health problems,” Lilienfeld says.

Clinical psychology faces some of the same lack of respect as the research realm. Drug companies advertise a quick visit to a psychiatrist for pills to treat disorders such as anxiety and depression. Clinical psychologists, however, offer long hours on the couch, spread over weeks or months.

“Psychotherapy is hard work,” Lilienfeld says. “For most disorders, people have to face some difficult things in order to get better. And yet data shows that, in many cases, psychotherapy works as least as well as medication, and probably better in the long term.”

“Media therapists” like Laura Schlessinger and Phillip McGraw are just adding to the confusion, he says. “Dr. Phil makes claims that go way beyond the scientific evidence, or in some cases, directly contradict the science.”

About 3,500 self-help books are published each year, but only about five percent of them are subjected to scientific testing, Lilienfeld adds. He supports a movement among professional psychologists to establish criteria lists for empirically supported therapies – treatments that have been demonstrated to work in replicated, controlled trials.

Test your behavioral IQ
The truth about hypnosis
The anger myth: Read this before blowing up


  1. I wish Lilienfeld's writings were required reading for every undergraduate student.

  2. Trust me, we learn psyche is a science after taking psychology courses here. Emory's psyche dept. designs its courses in a manner that makes this very clear. The undergrad. dept. seems much more adept at presenting how biology and behavioral science are intertwined than most institutions. This of course makes it harder. Many people won't view psyche here as an easy pseudo-science major after taking psyche 110/111 (especially 110 w/Edwards)here.

  3. I believe the "soft sciences" of psychology and sociology would be tremendously strengthened by bringing praxeology, or the science of human action, back into the fold. It's done wonders for economics, which is properly a study of human action in dealing with scarcity.