Psychology Science and Accountability

Vic Napier

My research interests are risk homeostasis and organizational development, both of which lend themselves to social psychology.  Risk homeostasis is the study of why people engage in dangerous behaviors – why some people scrupulously avoid anything remotely dangerous, while others embrace risk sports like skydiving and motorcycle racing.  Organizational development focuses on how groups of people manage themselves in order to achieve a goal.  It concerns itself with group dynamics, decision-making, person-organization fit, and traits and values entrepreneurs need for success.

Since its inception, psychology has had to struggle to be taken seriously as a science.  Sad to say, much of the criticism of psychology comes at the invitation of people in the field.  In the 80’s and early 90’s the myth of repressed memory sent innocent people to jail and along with the introduction of effective psychotropic drugs, helped to drive insurance companies away from talk therapy.  (Sommers & Satel,2005; Loftus & Ketcham1996). As a result, many therapists expanded their practices into “life coaching” as a way to reinvent themselves to meet pragmatic market needs (Williams & Davis 2002). 

This should be a lesson about the importance of science and logic to all of us who plan to enter the field.  Unless there is clear scientific evidence that a treatment works, or that a condition actually exists, we should be very cautious about endorsing it.  The public looks to us for expert guidance, and deviating from scientifically supported facts can eventually put people in great danger.  It happened in the 80’s with repressed memories, in the 90’s with the false Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) epidemic, and it is happening now with Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). (Stein 1999; Loftis & Ketcham 1996; Davidson & Parker 2001, Pope 1998).

People in the “caring professions” tend to forget that they are offering the public a service in exchange for money, and are no different from any other businessperson.  This is true even for professionals who work in government-funded settings; in that case, taxpayers are the customer. A moral and ethical obligation exists to deliver services equal in value to the money paid for them.  To do otherwise is nothing less than stealing, in the much same way the stereotypical used car salesman takes advantage of customers.  The thing that makes pseudo science therapy so loathsome is not only that most people do not know enough about therapy to tell when they are being cheated, but that the victims of pseudo science therapy are often vulnerable, easily manipulated, and frequently unable to articulate the crime done to them.

This is why it is so important to maintain a firm grip on the science supporting what we purport to be fact.  We need to be able to point to a body of research – not just a single paper – to support our assertions.  If we cannot do that, we must be sure not to put forth our opinions, emotions, or wishful thinking as fact.  Further, it is our responsibility to make sure that we are accurately understood.  If our listeners or readers do not understand what we try to convey it is out responsibility to put things right.  Too often mental health professionals engage in condescending rhetoric in order to silence critics, rather than respectfully listening and accepting the possibility that they may be wrong. 

 

References

Davidson, P. R., & Parker, K. C. H. (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): A meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 69(2), 305-316. 

Loftus, E. F., & Ketcham, K. (1996). The myth of repressed memory : False memories and allegations of sexual abuse (1st St. Martin's Griffin ed.). New York: St. Martin's Griffin. 

Pope, K. S. (1998). Pseudoscience, cross-examination, and scientific evidence in the recovered memory controversy. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 4(4), 1160-1181. 

Sommers, C. H., & Satel, S. L. (2005). One nation under therapy : How the helping culture is eroding self-reliance (1st U.S. ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press. 

Stein, D. B. (1999). Ritalin is not the answer : A drug-free, practical program for children diagnosed with ADD or ADHD (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Williams, P. & Davis, D (2002). Therapist as Life Coach. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. 

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