The physician, poet, and essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that if the whole of the pharmacopeia were thrown into the sea, it would be the better for mankind and the worse for the fishes. I have a similar thought about all the psychology and self-help books ever written (the two categories have a tendency to slide imperceptibly into one another). If they were withdrawn from the shelves and destroyed, what would be the loss to humanity? Would anyone be the worse for it, would human self-understanding be one jot or tittle the less? I think the answer is no, and insofar as genuine self-reflection might be encouraged thereby, self-understanding might actually increase—without, of course, finding a final answer to the mysteries of human existence, which in my opinion are insoluble.
The difference between the pharmacopeia and psychology is that the pharmacopeia has improved since the time of Oliver Wendell Holmes, which nevertheless is not quite the same as saying that all prescriptions are necessary or that they all save lives.
In his spirited new book, The Quick Fix, the journalist Jesse Singal analyzes both the prevalence and the causes of the over-selling to commercial companies, governmental organizations, and the general public of the findings of recent psychological research. This is particularly the case in America, but also in the other parts of Anglo-Saxonia. (In a very large bookshop in Sydney, for example, I found that the section on psychology and self-help was far larger than that on the whole of world history, including that of Australia itself.) Nowadays in France things are slightly different: there, they prefer books by psychoanalysts, who are richly rewarded for writing in impenetrable and incomprehensible jargon. Which is worse (or better) is a moot point. There is something to be said on both sides of this question.
The first chapter of this book cataloguing the bogus or at least overvalued notions of recent psychology is about my personal bête noire (or should I now say bête blanche, just to be on the safe side?) of shallow psychologizing, namely lack of self-esteem. This deficit was thought to be responsible for all the woes of the world: deep down, Hitler suffered from it, which even the Nuremberg rallies were unable fully to assuage, hence the Second World War. There was a time—I’m talking of the 1990s, so almost of prehistory—when every bad decision that people made was attributed to lack of self-esteem, rather than to such human phenomena as, say, weakness, folly, cowardice, laziness, or even fear or duress, the first four of which were dismissed as being incurably judgmental and therefore useless as scientific explanation.
Singal points out the feebleness of the empirical foundations of what might be called the self-esteem movement, which bore a striking resemblance to the movement of optimistic autosuggestion founded by the French pharmacist-turned-psychologist Émile Coué(1857–1926), whose famous, supposedly self-fulfilling chant was “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” No doubt a positive attitude is helpful in many circumstances, but no such chant will make a man immortal.
From the standpoint of only two or three decades after the apogee of self-esteem as a desideratum, it seems astonishing that anyone could have thought that any good would come of getting children to chant “I am loveable! I am loveable! I am loveable!,” or that schoolwork would improve if bad work were given good marks. While the author pours well-merited scorn on the supposed science behind self-esteem, he does not remark on the moral monstrosity of the concept in the first place.
No doubt a positive attitude is helpful in many circumstances, but no such chant will make a man immortal.
The problem with self-esteem is that it is entirely egotistical and self-regarding, unlike self-respect, which is a social virtue and imposes discipline and obligations upon the person who has, or wishes to have, it. By contrast, self-esteem is like a medal that one pins to one’s own chest merely by virtue of existing. I am, therefore I esteem myself, and I demand that you esteem me too. Curiously enough, at the height of self-esteem’s popularity most people knew, or at least had some inkling, that the whole idea was completely bogus. Sometimes when patients would say to me, “I have low self-esteem, doctor,” I would reply (admittedly not in every last case), “Well, at least you’ve got one thing right, then.” Far from becoming angry, they started to laugh, as if they had been caught out in a naughty game that they had been playing. It came to them almost as a relief: they didn’t have to pretend to believe an evident absurdity any more, and then they could begin to examine the real causes of the devastation of their lives, some internal and some external.
We hardly need the so-called science of psychology to tell us that we don’t want people to be like cabbage leaves squashed under the wheels of an ox-cart, or conversely to be preening, self-satisfied popinjays. The fact is that once you start thinking about whether you esteem yourself too little, you are lost (people rarely wonder whether they esteem themselves too much). Throw self-esteem to the dogs; I’ll none of it.
The author runs through a series of fashionable psychological concepts that, on the basis of flimsy evidence, have for a time become nostra for intractable and complex social problems. There is a kind of cycle to psychological ideas that I remember from my pharmacology textbook: when a new drug is discovered, it is first hailed as a miracle cure, then discovered to be a deadly poison, then found, finally, to be useful in some cases. Only is the last phase usually missing in the career of new psychological ideas—which, moreover, are often not as new as they’re painted. This is hardly surprising: man has been thinking about himself for several millennia.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book is that which deals with the so-called reproducibility crisis in psychology, particularly social psychology. When experiments are repeated, more or less, first results are often, or even usually, not confirmed. Of course, the problem is complex, for experiments are rarely copied exactly, perhaps because experimenters are like modern architects: they don’t like pastiche, and therefore they add their own twists to the experimental design out of mere pride. This always leaves open the possibility that the difference in design was what produced the difference in result, and it is always wrong to compare apples with oranges.
The habit of extrapolating from a somewhat arcane laboratory experiment—whose results may be ambiguous or consist of a weak statistical correlation between one thing and another—to the whole of human life is almost a built-in feature of the field of psychology. There are obviously perverse incentives to extrapolate thus: widespread notice is taken of ideas and results only if they are dramatic or dramatized, and it is attention, the equivalent of buzz in the world of restaurants, that leads to grants, best-sellerdom, and consulting contracts. A tiny gimcrack idea is magnified into a key to the understanding of the human universe, and of course debunking takes much longer, and is less thorough, than the original bunking. It is easier to insinuate an idea into the public mind than to get it out again. By then, however, fortunes have been made that are not repayable. Book-buyers and institutions have been had, but it is too late.
Many of the problems of psychological research are similar to those in medical research, though perhaps more pervasive and even more serious. Among them, for example, is data mining: if you examine a large enough number of variables, one or some of them will be correlated with the phenomenon that you are interested in, and there will be, by chance, correlations that, because of present statistical conventions, will appear to have occurred not by chance. This opens a royal road to useless research and preposterous policy suggestion.
In some respects, things are improving. Data mining of the type described above is obviated by the registration in advance of the designs of experiments, as well as the hypothesis upon which they are based, so that researchers cannot publish incidental findings as if they were in confirmation of a previously proposed hypothesis that in reality was retrospective and ad hoc. Publication bias—that is to say, the publication of positive but not of negative results of experiments—is also being reduced by a commitment of journals to publish results of experiments irrespective of what they turn out to be. By reducing the pressure on researchers to find at least some positive results by hook or by crook, intellectual rigor and honesty, so fragile in the field, will be increased.
The relevance of laboratory findings to the real world—or perhaps I should say to the world outside the laboratory, since all aspects of reality, including those in the laboratory, are equally real—is often doubtful. What is statistically significant may not be significant in any other way, while what is most significant in the ordinary sense may escape measurement altogether. Does implicit-bias testing give us anything other than the results of implicit-bias testing? Should whole institutions be turned upside down and inside out (and pay large sums to implicit-bias trainers who, in persons such as Robin DiAngelo, act as witchfinders-general) on the basis of dubious research?
Underlying the author’s criticism of much psychological research, at least from the point of view of solving large-scale social problems, is his opinion that psychologists often look down the wrong end of the telescope at those problems. For example, psychologists imagine or assume that America’s racial disparities can be reduced by uncovering, and then presumably by eliminating, the wrong thoughts and emotions that American whites allegedly have that lead them to discriminate unfairly against blacks.
In Singal’s opinion this is mistaken, perhaps even retrograde: what is needed are structural changes to structural injustices, not individual changes—even if they could be produced by psychology, which is doubtful. The emphasis on individual change is in accord with American traditions, no doubt, which are those of rugged individualism by means of which you can go from log cabin to White House (I omit for the sake of the argument the assassination that follows hard upon). But such individual striving, however successful in isolated cases, is not the way to change society as a whole. To alter the metaphor slightly, one swallow doesn’t make a summer.
Throughout the book, the author appears to veer somewhat towards the view that a good society will make good people, rather than that good people will make a good society, and that is why psychology will never solve the large problems. The author has faith, rather, in the ability of top-down political and economic reform (such as taxation) to effect the changes he desires. He sees no dangers in this approach and forgets that, half a century after Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, tensions are as bad as, if not worse than, before. It is not as if large-scale structural solutions have never been tried.
The truth is perhaps rather uninteresting. There is a dialectical relationship between good people on the one hand and good, or at least minimally decent, government on the other. Being personally good in a polity such as Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia was not only very difficult but also of minimal effect in the prevention of mass evil, of course. But in most conditions, being good improves the quality of lives of others, and qualities such as determination, self-control, dependability, honesty, fortitude, and so forth do indeed conduce to a better life, not only for self but for others.
At no time is morality as such mentioned in these pages, but it is a fact of human psychology, though often unacknowledged by psychologists, that we cannot do without moral judgment, and that such judgment affects the way we behave. Psychology and psychologists often remind me a little of Hoffnung’s cartoon of the oleaginous concert tenor, who has knobs on his waistcoat marked Fortissimo, Pianissimo, Sobs, and Wobble, which he turns at will for the desired emotional effect. I agree with the author that psychological technocracy is not the solution to our problems, and he explains very well its shortcomings, but I am not nearly as hopeful as he that technocracy on a large scale can achieve what it cannot achieve on a small.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 10, on page 71
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