A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

Critical Thinker's Dictionary

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Psychology is the science of mental processes and behavior.

One view of psychology sees the discipline much the way Neil Postman (1992) characterizes it: psychologists are capable of saying with a straight face, and no doubt thinking that they are contributing greatly to scientific knowledge, things like: "Depression is almost always a factor in the estimated 30,000 suicides in the United States each year." Or, "In two new major studies of depression, researchers have discovered that stressful events--death, divorce or other emotional crisis--may cause otherwise healthy people to develop symptoms of depression as early as a week later." These two "major" studies "Tracked the time between stressful events and depressive episodes and found that 60 percent of the first-time depressions were linked to a stressful event." "In those patients considered to be otherwise healthy, more than a quarter became depressed within a week of the event, and the majority reacted by four weeks on average" (National Institute of Mental Health, cited in "Everyday life may cause depression," by Trisha Gura, Chicago Tribune, printed in the Sacramento Bee, July 31, 1994, p. A8). To many people, it is not news that people get depressed when a loved one dies or when they go through a divorce. This seems to be a matter of "commonsense" and no scientific study is needed to verify it.

Another view of psychologists is that they are trained at accredited institutions of higher learning, and must be well-versed in statistics and the logic of scientific experimental methods. Much of the research done by psychologists is as rigorous as that done by anyone in any of the sciences. In fact, it is probably very disconcerting to many young psych majors to discover that they are expected to think logically, understand the manipulation of variables and concepts such as p = 0.05, the necessity of control groups, the placebo effect, standards of deviation, etc. Many of them no doubt got their idea of psychology from the mass media. They think Dr. Joyce Brothers, Dr. Ruth, Shere Hite and the hosts of author/social workers or parapsychologists making the talk show circuit are the "real" psychologists. Or they think of speculative philosophers like Freud or Jung as their archetype of The Psychologist. It must be very disappointing to many would-be shrinks to discover that their teachers expect them to think like scientists rather than philosophers or creative writers.

It must be even more disheartening for research psychologists than for their students to see their field dominated in the public eye by incompetents and frauds. The public is treated to a continuous feast of wild-eyed and dangerous New Age therapies, illogical alien abduction therapists, incompetent and fraudulent parapsychologists, inept facilitated communication advocates, overzealous repressed memory & child abuse therapists, bogus self-esteem studies, etc.

Why doesn't the mass media pay more attention to the psychologists who are conducting properly controlled studies? Where is the hype spreading the news that there is no evidence that highly religious people are more altruistic and honest than less religious people? [R. F. Paloutzian's Invitation to the Psychology of Religion (Scott Foresman; 1983) or "Faith Without Works," in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, (1975)]. Where is the mass media spreading the word about studies which have shown that the full moon does not stimulate people to commit crimes or that blind people have especially acute hearing? Who gets all the attention when a competent research psychologist challenges some commonsense notion about childhood memory or testimony put forth as truth by some New Age therapist testifying in a court of law?

Finally, it must be shocking for many young students, contemplating a career of helping people and the human race through psychology, to discover that most academic psychologists don't think psi exists and that most standard psych textbooks do not consider parapsychology worthy of even an honorable mention. According to Wagner and Monnet, in a 1979 study of 1,100 college professors in the United States, only 34% of psychologists surveyed believe that ESP is either an established fact or a likely possibility. The comparable figures for other disciplines are: natural scientists (55%), social scientists [excluding psychologists] (66%) and for academics in the arts, humanities, and education (77%). However, less encouraging was the report that 34% of the psychologists surveyed believe psi is an impossibility. Only 2% of the other respondents maintained this strong position ("Attitudes of College Professors toward Extra-sensory perception," Zetetic Scholar, 5, 7-17, 1979). Some very good work by psychologists and other social scientists, however, focuses on trying to understand why people believe in the paranormal, e.g., the work of David Marks, George P. Hansen, Andrew Neher, Graham Reed, Leonard Zusne and Warren Jones, and Stuart A. Vyse.

See also codependency, facilitated communication, hypnosis, memory, multiple personality disorder, New Age therapies, repressed memory, repressed memory therapy, substance abuse treatment, and penile plethysmograph.

further reading

books and articles

Baker, Robert A. They Call It Hypnosis (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990).

Dawes, Robyn M. House of Cards - Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth, (New York: The Free Press, 1994).

Dineen, Tana. Manufacturing Victims: What the Psychology Industry is Doing to People (Montreal: Robert Davies Multimedia Publishing, 1998).

Dineen, Tana. "Psychotherapy: The Snake Oil of the 90's?" in Skeptic, vol. 6 no. 3, 1998.

Hansen, George P. (2001). The Trickster and the Paranormal. Xlibris Corporation.

Marks, David. (2000). The Psychology of the Psychic. Prometheus Books.

Neher, Andrew The Psychology of Transcendence (1980). This Prentice-Hall book is out of print. Used copies may be available from Amazon.com. It was reissued in 1990 by Dover Books as Paranormal and Transcendental Experience.

Postman, Neil. Technopoly (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).

Reed, Graham. The Psychology of Anomalous Experience : A Cognitive Approach (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988).

Spanos, Nicholas P. Multiple Identities and False Memories: A Sociocognitive Perspective (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1996).

Stanovich, Keith E., How to Think Straight About Psychology, 5th edition (Addison-Wesley, 1997).

Storr, Anthony. Feet of Clay - saints, sinners, and madmen: a study of gurus (New York: The Free Press, 1996).

Singer, Margaret Thaler and Janja Lalich. Crazy Therapies (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1996). Review.

Vyse, Stuart A. Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition (Oxford University Press 2000).

Zusne,  Leonard and Warren Jones. Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking 2nd edition. (Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. 1990).


Review of "Crazy" Therapies by Singer and Lalich

False Memory Syndrome Foundation and Moving Forward (the other side) A site called False Memory Syndrome Facts (with the same acronym as False Memory Syndrome Foundation) has been set up apparently to confuse those looking for the FMS Foundation

The British False Memory Society



Psychology: a reality check "...an alarmingly high proportion of practitioners consider scientific evidence to be less important than their personal — that is, subjective—clinical experience....There is a moral imperative to turn the craft of psychology—in danger of falling, Freud-like, out of fashion—into a robust and valued science informed by the best available research and economic evidence." For more on "the widening gulf between clinical practice and scientific progress in psychology" click here.


Top Ten Myths of Popular Psychology Many popular psychology sources are rife with misconceptions. Here are the top ten, selected by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein.

Last updated 22-Jan-2014

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