Trends in Culture

The Toxicity of Fad Psychology

Patrick Keeney
October 23, 2021
Emotions and motivations are everything in current culture, facts and actions secondary at best. The most flamboyant unveilings of inner anguish are seen as understandable if not downright heroic. But how did we get to a state where restraint and privacy are considered not merely cold but signs of actual disorder? Drawing on his extensive experience in academia and long observation of cultural trends, Patrick Keeney finds a kindred spirit in Jesse Singal, who mercilessly but cheerfully lays bare the conceptual confusion, scientific pretensions and damaging effects of what he terms “fad” psychology.
Trends in Culture

The Toxicity of Fad Psychology

Patrick Keeney
October 23, 2021
Emotions and motivations are everything in current culture, facts and actions secondary at best. The most flamboyant unveilings of inner anguish are seen as understandable if not downright heroic. But how did we get to a state where restraint and privacy are considered not merely cold but signs of actual disorder? Drawing on his extensive experience in academia and long observation of cultural trends, Patrick Keeney finds a kindred spirit in Jesse Singal, who mercilessly but cheerfully lays bare the conceptual confusion, scientific pretensions and damaging effects of what he terms “fad” psychology.
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Our culture has seemingly devolved into a sinuous caravan of tortured psyches paraded before us by the social, entertainment and news media, all apparently on an endless inward journey they’ve invited us to join. Who amongst us has been spared, for example, the sentimental display of self-regard, whining and bitterness emanating from Harry and Meghan, aka The World’s Most Annoying Couple™. They suffer in splendour, the world is cruel, and they want us to know how unfairly life has treated them.

Closer to home, Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, was excoriated for patiently explaining that the death of a 14-year-old originally listed as the province’s first Covid fatality under 19 years of age turned out to have been a terminal cancer patient. The person’s “complex pre-existing medical conditions” meant their passing could not be classified as a “Covid fatality,” she stated. Immediately, the Twitterverse lit up with overwrought condemnations of Hinshaw’s alleged lack of compassion. She had failed some unwritten but unsparing empathy test which apparently forbids clarity in summarizing sad events.

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Obsession with appearances over substance and feelings over actions: Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw got into more trouble over how she explained the revised cause of death of a 14-year-old than that Alberta Health and the news media had incorrectly attributed it to Covid-19 rather than cancer.

How to account for the ubiquity of such emotional incontinence? Surely among the prime contenders is pop psychology’s colonization of our psyches.

In The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills, American journalist Jesse Singal contends that our world is prone to treating complicated social problems as if they were amenable to timely and cost-effective intervention by psychologists. Singal attempts to unravel why fad psychology has such a strong allure for individuals and organizations alike. We gullibly attribute genuine insights to various fashionable psychological studies when, more often than not, the field’s “discoveries” turn out to be incoherent minefields of conceptual oddities and factual inaccuracies amplified by credulous and ignorant media.

A calm sage for our times: In The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills, journalist Jesse Singal criticizes contemporary pop psychology for its deceiving, ignorant and oversimplified portrayal of the world’s complex psychosocial issues.

An infamous recent example is the “implicit association test” (IAT) which sells itself as a reliable guide for diagnosing unconscious racism. Developed at Harvard University by people with impressive credentials, the IAT gauges a subject’s reaction time to combinations of words and symbols, such as a black face next to the word “danger.” Psychologists can then measure your unconscious – or “implicit” – bias against various groups. The test has been (and continues to be) used on millions of subjects as a cutting-edge tool to fight racism.

Yet it has been convincingly demonstrated that the IAT measures absolutely nothing of real-world import. After a critical examination of the IAT’s audacious claims, Singal writes, “I realized that I had simply assumed that the test did what its most enthusiastic proponents said it did.”  He goes on to confess that, “‘I believe this because a lot of people say it is true’ is not a great stance for a science writer and editor.”

There is a universal and legitimate interest in psychology. We are fascinated by the mysteries of the conscious mind and the choices and predicaments intrinsic to the human condition. For millennia humanity largely channelled this need through the arts – songs and stories, poetry and (later) novels, painting, and drama from Greek Tragedy to Shakespeare. Though a fictional character, Hamlet’s anguished pondering – Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer, The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them – haunted millions because it opened a window into a tortured human mind.

These cultural ramparts held remarkably well until crumbling before the onslaught of the modern social sciences. Current conceptions of scientific psychology make it impossible to watch or listen to anything without encountering the psychologizing of – well, just about everything. We are no longer unhappy, sad or blue. We are “depressed,” a clinical diagnosis that makes our mental condition the responsibility of the psychological or medical community. 

The psychologizing of life is the ultimate offloading of responsibility to some external agency – the school, the state, our parents, my alcoholism, my ADHD, or society’s overall inequity and systemic injustice. Much of modern psychology proceeds from the understanding that we are victims of something exterior to ourselves. Our culture advances and amplifies the role of implacable external forces.

The news and social media habitually pounce on the latest psychological “findings,” frequently aided and abetted by social scientists themselves. Research that promises to ameliorate social ills brings with it the siren call of fame and fortune. Rather than advancing modest claims that one’s findings are “tentative” or “partial,” the temptation is to inflate the case, make impressive claims and state that “scientific evidence” establishes that “x” has been empirically demonstrated. But as Singal documents, modern behavioural science is frequently a stick-figure cartoon of rigorous empirical research.

Fad psychology routinely exploits psychological science, twisting and misrepresenting its true findings, providing a distorted and degraded picture of human mental and cognitive processes.

The social sciences have long tended to treat all substantive questions as if they were amenable to empirical and quantifiable investigation. Social scientists persist in such research even while underestimating if not ignoring the problematic nature of defining their key concepts of study. If the area of research is, say, the moral development of children, then the researcher had better establish the demarcations among moral, non-moral and immoral behaviour. In short, there are conceptual and normative aspects that attend on any piece of empirical study of the social world.

Sorting through these conceptual and normative aspects is no small task. If we want to research, say, “happiness,” then we first require a clear idea of what constitutes human happiness, how it differs from such related states as contentment, euphoria, serenity, satisfaction, and so on. Only then can we even know how we can assess happiness. Grappling with the concept of happiness has occupied some of the finest minds in philosophy, going back to Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics. One underestimates the enormity of this task at one’s peril.

Most people can grasp that if you are setting out to investigate phenomenon x, you’d better have a pretty good idea of what constitutes x. Yet our era’s obsessiveness with quantification means that researchers often start counting and enumerating without any coherent understanding of what they are looking for (or at). Defining the key terms in research isn’t easy. Yet social scientists frequently adopt the breeziest of definitions, attempting for example to measure children’s “happiness” by having them circle happy or sad faces on a Likert Scale. Such formulaic “research” does little but elevate fatuousness to an art form.

Among the problems in social sciences, including psychology, is the difficulty of properly defining many abstract concepts to be studied – and the botched results. Can a sketched happy face possibly encompass all the facets of one’s experience of happiness?

I was once part of a research team mandated to examine the “effectiveness” of schools in a particular district. I asked how we were defining this critical term. The principal investigator, a senior professor, responded, “Well, that’s what we’re here to find out.” I persisted. “But how can we determine whether or not a school is effective unless we have an understanding of what constitutes effectiveness?” He replied in a tone of exaggerated patience: “The point of the research is to determine what kind of practice is most effective in these schools.” My obvious conceptual point was falling on deaf ears. I bit my tongue and studied my shoelaces.

Failure to do this basic conceptual homework can have dire consequences – not only for the social science discipline in question, but for our culture. “Another feature of half-baked ideas is that they tend to spread outward, like a gas, filling up any empty space in the conversation,” Singal writes. “As an idea without a firm basis and clear conceptual boundaries gains more and more purchase in the public imagination, there’s less and less rhetorical precision in how it’s used.”

Not reducible to a machine: AI research is predicated on the idea that human intelligence can be duplicated through computation and problem-solving. Such models, however, fail to explain numerous characteristics intrinsic to the human mind.

Singal references the Character Education Curriculum, which sought to instill in children 12 universal values such as honesty, kindness, justice and respect. Yet the authors of this program failed even to fully define these terms, nor provided a theoretical rationale for their program, resulting in what Singal calls “culture war brawling.” He notes that, “While everyone agrees kids should have character, the question of which type of character seems to consistently invite cacophony.”

An allied difficulty to conceptual fuzziness is modern psychology’s scientific pretension. The field’s reductive theories of mind based on natural science torque and twist how we speak about central ideas. Activities of the mind once considered explicable only through philosophical reflection – consciousness, thought, creativity, will, imagination and agency – are reformulated as mathematized cognitive functions that can be measured and manipulated by computation. However convenient such a view of mind might be for social science investigation, it limits and skews our understanding of consciousness and our insights into the human condition.

Singal cites research into Artificial Intelligence (AI), which has redefined “intelligence” to fit more easily with automated systems. Simply put, a great deal of AI research is predicated on the idea that human intelligence can be reduced to calculation and problem-solving. This calculative model not only warps our common-sense understanding but wipes away thousands of years of human reflection. As the author notes, it ultimately reveals more about AI’s infectious hype than human consciousness.

Suppose we adopt the calculative model of the mind. How do we comprehend concepts like love, guilt, grief, longing, shame, homecoming, courage, vanity, selflessness, dedication, lust, envy and so forth? Such concepts and their roles in the mind’s workings form the warp and woof of human existence. There can be no “human-level” conception of AI worthy of the name that does not adequately account for them. But AI embraces a model of the mind holding that “rationality” alone can solve all problems unimpeded by superstition, myth, fantasy, imaginative longings and the like. This is at best a truncated and partial understanding failing to account for the roles of emotion, imagination and intuition or “gut instinct.” The human mind almost certainly precludes pure mathematization.

Fundamental questions about life and its meaning cannot be answered through scientific inquiry but are best explored in literature, art, history and philosophy. Yet contemporary psychology pretends to provide the answers.

Singal’s themes are clearly profound but his language remains accessible and often informal, and The Quick Fix’s 330 pages are wonderfully free from jargon. His concluding chapter suggests why the allure of fad psychology is so strong: “The simplest reason that half-baked ideas tend to prevail is that all else being equal, the human brain has an easier time latching onto simple and monocausal accounts than to complicated and multicausal ones.”

Although the title refers to “fad psychology,” the author’s target encompasses the whole social sciences. That would call for deeper appreciation of the complex philosophical problems that the modern behavioural sciences glibly skate over. There is much to draw on, like this summary of psychology’s pretensions from Austrian-English philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s 1953 book Philosophical Investigations: “The confusion and barrenness of psychology is not to be explained by calling it a ‘young science’; its state is not comparable with that of physics, for example, in its beginnings. For in psychology, there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion.”

No book can do everything, of course. Singal provides a much-needed discussion of how modern behavioural science has sold a credulous public a bill of goods. One of his central arguments is that social scientists too frequently overlook the kinds of crucial understandings of the human condition that can only arise through literature, philosophy, history and humanistic inquiry, condemning such insights as “unscientific.”

It’s important to note that the psychological fads Singal documents go far beyond harmless fluff like urging expectant mothers to sing to their babies in utero. They frequently result in the twisting and torquing of the law and have warped much of society itself, not to mention damaging countless individuals who gullibly embrace erroneous and specious understandings of the world. For the minority who remain skeptical, faddish social science debases and undermines overall trust in scientific inquiry.

Psychology and all the social sciences need to somehow account for the inherent complexity and untidiness of human affairs in a world that cannot be reduced to mechanical calculation and does not, alas, allow for any “quick fix.” There may be hope for, as Singal notes, “In April 2020, a group of [psychologists] did something that would have been unthinkable not long ago: they publicly argued that people should not be listening to psychologists…because their field was not ready for prime time.”

Patrick Keeney writes on education, politics, culture and media and lives in Kelowna, B.C. and Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he is a visiting scholar in Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Education.

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