Psychology’s top blunders, part one.

September 24, 2006 | By | 4 Replies More

I don’t like the magazine Psychology Today. Instead of presenting the latest psychological findings in a layman-friendly format, the monthly instead peddles relationship advice and thinly-veiled book advertisements. So while I wouldn’t recommend a subscription to anyone (you’d better serve yourself by subscribing to a division of the APA), the magazine did feature one article in February 2005 that piqued my interest: Psychology’s Top Ten Misguided Ideas.

Composed by the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies Director Dr. Robert Epstein, the ten-part list includes many psychological buzzwords and memes that the pop psych crowd (like most Psychology Today readers) still consider legitimate. I’d like to discuss a portion of Epstein’s list below:

1. Projective Tests

The popular images of psychology and psychiatry have a few iconic mainstays. You know the therapist cliché: a patient laid on a long couch, rambling about childhood trauma to a near-silent facilitator scribbling away. In nearly equal footing, many people associate projective tests, such as word association and Rorschach ink blots, with legitimate psychology.

The logic behind projective tests says that a therapist can quickly dig into a client’s preoccupations and mindset based on their knee-jerk responses to ambiguous things. This assumes that a patient would always see the same thing in the same ink blot; a sex addict would always recall lewd scenes; a veteran with Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder would always recognize carnage.

But projective tests neglect the effect of priming entirely. A wide variety of psychological studies have demonstrated that earlier access to a word or concept makes it more likely for that word or concept to recur. Thus, a patient who has just spent lunch chatting with a childhood friend about days long past have a much higher likelihood of “seeing” an image related to their childhood in an ink blot than they normally would.

Despite this flaw, projective tests do still occur in offices of psychology and psychiatry. Epstein writes:

“…it eventually became clear that responses on projective tests varied considerably with the situation, the instructions, and the scorer…but projective tests are still widely used by therapists—even in life changing situations like child-custody disputes.”

Epstein also notes that a 2005 review of research on projective tests concluded that they revealed no new information at all, and that a therapist could glean the same information by openly asking the client.

2. Catharsis

Stop me if you’ve heard these before. “Just let it all out.”; “I need to vent my anger”; “Watch out for the quiet ones, the have to explode eventually.” These common sound bites come from the psychological concept of catharsis. The catharsis idea says that we all have pent-up anger (and other emotions), and that we can only deal with them by expressing them openly, lest they “bottle up” and torment us.

Epstein writes that catharsis saw a boom in the 1960’s, when it became an acceptable psychological practice. Some psychologists encouraged “primal-scream therapy” (during which patients literally just screamed), and “implosive therapy” (where therapists attempted to frighten their clients into states of panic). Since then, many people have maintained that expressing anger or sadness helps to assuage the raw feelings. Check out The Catharsis Foundation, a nonprofit that presses victims to write about their child abuse in detail.

Yet again, the research doesn’t check out. A 1999 study on catharsis by Iowa State University called it “worse than useless”; in other words, detrimental. The study’s lead author writes, “Expressing anger produces harmful effects — it increases aggression.”

Furthermore, research has supported more calming methods of facing rage or sadness. Simple exercises like breathing slowly, counting, or walking away from an infuriating situation can calm a temper tantrum. Even a brief respite of two minutes can greatly diminish rage, while catharsis has the opposite effect.

Regardless of its ill effects, catharsis probably won’t disappear any time soon. Like a child or a poorly domesticated animal (a term you could certainly call humans), we have natural emotional triggers and outbursts. And like other animals, most of us will still choose to vent than to walk away and recollect.

3. Teen Angst

I couldn’t resist this one. The stereotype- no, the expectation- that adolescents will become moody and antisocial during their developing years has truly flourished in our culture. Countless movies, sitcoms, novels, and the like have figures of alienated teens in emotional havoc. The images range from Catcher in the Rye to The Breakfast Club to current programs and it shows no sign of stopping. It seems that no one examines this standard at all. As Epstein explains:

“The idea that adolescence is necessarily a time of emotional turmoil was introduced by pioneering psychologist G. Stanley Hall in 1904 and has been widely accepted ever since. It still provides the rationale for America’s massive and deeply troubled juvenile justice system.”

But Hall based the “teen angst theory” on a now defunct concept called Recapitulation Theory. Supposedly, the development of an average human reflects the way our evolution looked in its many stages—our primate ancestors looked like babies, then like toddlers, and so on. Hall said that the teenage years shows the “savagery” of early near-humans, “an ancient period of storm and stress.” Even though Recapitulation Theory fell out by the 1930’s, the teen angst idea stuck.

Epstein quotes a review of 186 contemporary societies, and notes that over half had no sign of teen angst in their population at all. It seems that sociology’s looking-glass-self theory comes into play: when society expects you to act moody and miserable, you much more likely will.

Epstein also thinks that the fear of teen angst has created a vicious cycle: to curb the acting out of rebellious teens, society places more harsh restrictions. Naturally, teens rebel against this encroachment, which makes them understandably seem disagreeable and wanton. And so it goes, on and on.

The breadth of ill-advised psychological concepts reminds us that nothing should go unexamined; things that sound perfectly natural or seem logically correct can prove entirely wrong and harmful.


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Category: American Culture, Culture, Psychology Cognition, Reading - Books and Magazines, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (4)

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  1. Ricky Koppel says:

    Do you have a link to the full article?

  2. Erika Price says:

    I plan on putting up the other seven eventually, but you can find Epstein's full list and his commentary here:

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Erika – I started writing a comment to your post on the topic of the focusing illusion and evaluations of happiness. I noticed a connection to your point regarding priming and projection testing. My comment grew too unwieldy, though, so I'm posting it separately.

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