It matters that people have a way to use the latest findings in psychology beyond buying a pill for depression. It matters that people have a way of looking at their lives that lets them ask the big questions and determine how they want to live – and that this is supported by therapists and mental health professionals.

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The silly futurism of market oriented psychologists

Posted on 12 Sep | 0 comments
Psychology can do better than this
Psychology can do better than this

The problem with psychology is that it doesn’t keep up with the latest fads. 

That was the conclusion of a panel discussion covered by the APA Monitor.  Recommendations for the future of psychology included the inevitable “pay more attention to key markets,” “embrace technology” like Twitter (maybe you’ve heard of it?), and “be more efficient,” which is always such useful advice.

All this is necessary, a panelist explained, because “the market is in flux.” 

Look, “the market” may very well be in flux, but can we all agree that any panel discussion in which “use social media” counts as a bullet point has run out of useful things to say?

Much of this discussion (as reported by the Monitor) was just silly, but some of it crossed the line into “dangerous” when it suggested that psychological treatment should be revamped so that it involves more "scans" of people and less talking to them.

According to panelist Nancy Gordon Moore, brain mapping and designer drugs are likely to replace everything we thought we knew about people in the next 10 years.  “I could see that if we are not careful, talk therapy could look like bloodletting in terms of an effective intervention,” she said.

We’ve heard that before, of course.  Every new technical advance, from Electro-convulsive therapy to Prozac, has been heralded as “the advance that will change psychology forever.”  It’s never worked.  Aristotle still has more useful things to say about human nature than psychopharmacology – and Rollo May remains a far more insightful read than the latest best-seller on how neuroscience determines whether you’re a cat person. 

The assumption that just because a technique is newer it must be better is ill-suited to any serious intellectual pursuit – but it’s especially problematic when it could be used as an excuse by insurance companies to deny patients effective treatment.

“We need to watch what our business colleagues are doing,” said J. Paul Burney, a member of APA’s Committee for the Advancement of Professional Practice. “If they are doing the same thing they did six months ago, they are out of business. We’re doing the same thing we did 15 years ago.”

The idea that "the business of psychology is business" is exactly the wrong attitude, one that – if taken seriously – will be used to send patients who need to talk to someone about the search for a meaningful life into an fMRI machine to see if we can develop a drug to numb their sense of purpose.  Why?  Because market forces want psychology to be the opium of the masses.  Is that really a flag we want to rally behind? 

In this month’s APA Monitor, New Existentialists Tom Greening and David Elkins, along side other colleagues, wrote a letter objecting to the naïve futurism supported by the panel discussion.

“We appreciate the exciting advances in the neurosciences, but the thousands of scientific studies showing psychotherapy to be robustly effective are also impressive,” their letter states.

“In contrast, much of the data supporting the effectiveness of psychiatric drugs has come under scrutiny in recent years. ... Therefore, we see no reason, scientific or otherwise, to anticipate that in 10 years psychotherapy will be replaced by neuroscience and designer drugs. Instead, we may look back and be shocked at the rampant abuse and overuse of psychiatric drugs in our day. Perhaps what needs to be shaken up is not the future prospects for psychotherapy, but our current overreliance on biological interventions for emotional problems that are amenable to psychological solutions.”

-- Benjamin Wachs

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