On Bullshit Psychology

The Bullshit Psychology Stamp of Disapproval I was going to write this post on ” pop psychology ” but decided that moniker just doesn’t cut it, and the scope is too limited and easy.  What we are referring to when we say “pop psychology” is 99% bullshit.  Not too hard to see that, if you read 50 of those books and your life still sucks .  But for that matter, what passes for “evidence-based” psychology is still probably at least 60% bullshit.  I’m going to go beyond bashing the obvious targets that lard up our bookshelves, the self-help books and so forth.  I want to target much of what clinical psychology that the public encounters eagerly defines itself as.  It’s not “popular” necessarily, but it is awfully self-important and mostly wrong and potentially damaging to the public.  Actually, So let’s call it what it is: Bullshit psychology.

The main premise of bullshit psychology is that there is something wrong with you, and you need psychology to fix what’s wrong with you.  This is the first premise of bullshit.  I want to highlight this premise because all else in bullshit psychology rests on it.  You are broken, we will fix you.  We, the experts, will provide you the information to fix yourself.  Bullshit.

The Universal, Ubiquitous Doctrine of Bullshit Psychology

One difficulty I run into as a therapist is that, by the time people get to my office, they are already inculcated with bullshit.  They believe bullshit ardently.  “I am broken.  I have something wrong with me.  You are an expert and you will fix me.”  It would probably be both rude and counterproductive for me to simply state that that is a load of unadulterated bullshit that you have been brainwashed to believe by the media, society, culture, and your own mind.  So I have to be more gentle in the service of being effective and kind.  This is pretty much the first task in almost all therapy I do: disabusing people of the Bullshit Doctrine.  There never was anything wrong with you, and you don’t need to be fixed.  You were never broken, and so if we try to fix you, we will just fuck you up some more.  Ever try to fix an apple?  How about a sunset?  Ever try to fix a flower?  Do you often bring your cherry blossoms in for repair?  Didn’t think so.

Bullshit Corollaries: Something is Broken About You

So once we accept the primary assumption that you’re broken and need fixing, the rest follows.  Since you are a machine that needs fixing, then we need to find what part of you is broken.  Usually, it’s your “self-esteem”, a concept which I’ve spoken about already as pernicious, false, unsupported, destructive, and ultimately meaningless.   But there are other, more sophisticated models of what’s supposedly broken about you, including the currently prevalent “evidence-based” model, mainstream “cognitive” therapies (for instance, Beck’s Cognitive Therapy ), which are based on clinical speculation followed by clinical trials that show that they “work”.  These therapies are better than most, and in fact I used to offer such therapy in my practice.  It’s highly logical and has some empirical support.  However it is not nearly as backed by behavioral science as its proponents claim.  Studies examining mechanism of action in Cognitive Therapy , for example, have failed to show that cognitive change is the factor that accounts for clinical improvement, which is a BIG PROBLEM for their theory.  Anyhow, the Bullshit Corollary in this case is, “What is broken is the way you think, and what has to be fixed is your thoughts.”  Bullshit.  You think the way we all think.  Human cognition is fundamentally flawed, but not broken and more importantly, not fixable.

Bullshit Method 1: We Will Convince You 

It’s nice for your friends to try to cheer you up by convincing you that you are worthwhile, or by the same token, that you are thinking wrong and need to think right.  It’s quite another matter for convincing people to be the basis of a therapist’s approach.  Basically the idea is that I will either sweet-talk you into thinking you’re great (instead of shitty, like you feel), or I will brow-beat you into accepting that your views are flawed and need to be changed to my views.  You take these two approaches, “support” and “disputation,” and you have much of the work that is being fobbed off on the public as good psychotherapy.  You may as well talk to a friend, it’s cheaper.

Bullshit Method 2: We Will Figure it All Out Together

A more traditional approach is that we’re going to sit and review ad nauseam your past, and figure out exactly what went “wrong” so we can “fix it” by talking about it a lot.  This is a great money-making proposal for therapists!  You sit for a few hundred sessions while I scratch myself and make small utterances like “hm” and “ah?” and “how did that make you feel?”  The remainder of therapy is probably covered by this, what isn’t Bullshit Method 1 is usually Bullshit Method 2.  Proponents of these methods by the way usually don’t even try to claim “empirical support,” and when they do, it’s the same kind of evidence base as the CBT, support-and-dispute body of literature, which is based less on behavior science and more on post-hoc clinical trials that show, well, it works well enough at making people say that they feel better.

An Alternative to Bullshit Psychology: A Modest Proposal

What I recommend as an alternative to bullshit is psychology that is based on behavior science from the bottom up.  This can be found in behavior analysis, and more specifically and more humanistically in Contextual Behavior Science , the only game in my business that seems worth playing.  What we are offering here is a combination of good scientific basis for what we are doing, and a Humanistic, compassionate stance that vigorously rejects the ideas that 1. We are more mentally healthy than you (we certainly are NOT), or that 2. We have special knowledge to impart to you that is what you are missing (we DON’T).  What I mean by expertise, when I say “I am an expert” is that I know that much of what I know is bullshit.  That is exactly what I mean by being an expert.  First, we are Human beings, perfect as we are, flawed yes, but not machines to be fixed.  My proposal is that by looking together at what our minds tell us, by contrasting that with our actual EXPERIENCE of life, and by contacting what is most important to us — our values — we can peel away from the pernicious agenda to perform an “anxiety-ectomy” or “depression-ectomy,” abandon this stupid and futile project of removing what you don’t like, and get to work on aligning your life with your values.  Get to work on changing behaviors to match what we are most deeply committed to in our lives, what we want to be able to write about in our memoirs.  That is NOT usually “She never was depressed” or “she defeated her anxiety.”  Those never make it into the top 3 bullet points people want in their memoirs.  Psychology needs to be about what we care about most: the people, principles and activities that are most worthwhile to us.  The rest is bullshit.

Do you agree? Have a slightly, or very, different view? I want to hear about it!

Would you like to work on life in a way that assumes you are NOT broken? How would that be for you?

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Joseph Rhinewine, PhD. People collaborate with me to live life fully: with principle, passion and vigor. My expertise is providing and teaching Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an evidence-based, experiential and relational behavior therapy. I also apply Acceptance and Commitment processes to coaching those who wish to take their lives to a new level.

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