Sunday, July 7, 2013

Why I Love(d) Psychology: A Brief Overview of Our Folly

Almost two-thirds of my life ago I decided that I wanted to be a psychologist when I grew up. When I finally do grow up, I think I'll do something else.

Introductory psychology is a horrible course. Apparently, the intention of the course is to scare people away from the study of thoughts, behavior, and emotion. Coined the "ABC's" (Affect, Behavior, and Cognition), intro psych usually starts with Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and the boys. Freud, in particular, was fond of studying emotion. In fact, the man loved the study so much that he came to see emotion as having the potential to be used defensively. Siggy came up with terms like "projection", "reaction formation", "abreaction", etc., to needle people who didn't feel like admitting that they felt guilty about parking in the boss's carriage slot whenever they could get away with it. Ego defense mechanisms were all the rage in Victorian Vienna. At a time when table legs were considered suggestive and therefore needed floor-length covers, one wonders if the doc wasn't jabbing a little fun at the stuff shirts of the time with his charge that proper Viennese folks' social behavior was diametrically opposed to the shenanigans in the bedroom, and, therefore, that it was easy to ascertain such behavior simply by observing how hand-holding in public was enough to embarrass the bloomers right off of ol' Gladys.

This, of course, was the type of thing which put the good doctor on the map of a burgeoning field. It also contributed, surely, in promoting a great deal of neurosis among those who considered anything of a sexual nature to be utterly sinful and impure. Freud, meanwhile, continued chipping away at the people with an increasing number of newly named defense mechanisms. The doctor was a soft determinist, meaning that his view of life was as sour as Viennese were uptight. To his thinking, no matter how hard someone tried to find pleasure in life, life itself could only be so pleasurable and that our task was to make the best of a drab situation until we either die or go so crazy that we become neurotic as a result of being led from one emotional defense mechanism to another. The "cure" to this was simple: overcoming the emotional  resistance to undergo psychoanalysis twice per week for, um, seventeen years or so.

Tired of all of the dourness of Gen I of psychology, the Behaviorists decided that the best course of dealing with emotions was not to deal with them in the first place. To them, what mattered was focusing exclusively on behavior, since it could be observed, measured, and interpreted. Such couldn't be said of emotion or thought.

I've always been at odds with those who champion the behavioral school of thought. I've been known to get my digs in, chiding behaviorists for "not taking thought seriously". I backed up my assertion by reminding them that only a behaviorist would have subjected a child to a rat and induced fear of the animal by making loud noises behind him whenever he tried to play with it. There are those who chide me back, asserting that behaviorism became "cognitive behaviorism", but I remain somewhat unimpressed by "Behaviorism 2.0". That's probably because, as someone who has a Bipolar disorder (and therefore has a great deal of experience with emotions), I've been subjected to "Rational Emotive Therapy" (RET) - type of counseling which seriously downplays affect so much that one would think he's a newcomer to the planet Vulcan. About a year and a half ago I sought counseling with one of those folks. You know it's RET when the therapist's office is brightly lit, has no pictures on the walls, no box of tissue -none of the stage props normally associated with counseling. "Get better or else" won't guarantee that I'll become less resistant to opening up about whatever issues I may have. Just sayin'.

Well, the humanist movement -the good guys in the field- came along, looked at kids learning to fear lab rats, dour Viennese psychoanalysts, and said, "you know, Abraham, I bet if we play 'good cop' with these patients and tell them that man is actually good rather than a wretched sinner who only deserves to hate himself, they'll open right up and play ball with us."

Not to be unduly cynical, but it's rather easy to see a certain marketing strategy happening there.

The Humanist movement had many adherents and practitioners, none more famous than Maslow "Be all you can be even if you aren't in the Army") and Carl Rogers -a great guy, but annoyingly syrupy in his "unconditional positive regard" of people. That's another way of saying that no matter how dumb a thing someone says, it's okay. But there I go being cynical again. Maslow actually entered the field with every intention of adding to behaviorism, but after realizing that behavior itself is often unpredictable -especially with kids- he "rationalized"; the man concluded that since behavioral grapes are sour anyway, he'd join the latest psychotherapy fad instead.

The Humanist movement is still going fairly strong today, along with those who call themselves the aforementioned "Cognitive Behaviorists. Paradigm shifts don't occur often in the field. When they do, papers are written, debates are held, tempers flare, and those trained in conflicting schools of thought race to textbook publishers in a "publish or perish" fight to the academic death.

The latest occurrence of the profession's folly regards a questionably written book called the "Diagnostic And Statistical Manual of Mental disorders". Specifically, its main purpose -to define and classify several diagnostic criteria- is controlled substantially by whatever diagnoses the insurance industry is willing to pay for. Hebephrenic Schizophrenia was renamed "Disorganized Schizophrenia" after the health insurance industry decided it didn't think the former was a legitimate illness. That same health insurance industry, apparently, has no problem with shelling out a few bucks for the latter, even though it's the same illness!

I think it's this most recent dance between the health insurance industry and the mental health field -one in which both partners insist on leading -which finally drove me to go find other things to do.

Apparently, poking fun at intro psychology is one of those things.

Then again, so is writing.


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