Fire Your Pshrink and Talk to a Friend Instead

Despite all those Polish jokes, Poland has its share of good scientists and critical thinkers. A superb new book psychiatristillustrates that fact in spades:

Psychology Gone Wrong: The Dark Side of Science and Therapy, by Tomasz Witkowski and Maciej Zatonski, Witkowski is a psychologist, science writer, and founder of the Polish Skeptics Club; Zatonski is a surgeon and researcher known for debunking unscientific therapies and claims in clinical medicine. Together, they turn a spotlight on research and treatment in the field of psychology. They uncover distressing flaws, show that many commonly accepted psychological principles are based on myths, argue that psychotherapy is a business and a kind of prostitution rather than an effective evidence-based medical treatment, and question whether psychotherapy should even exist, since in most cases it offers no advantage over talking to a friend about one’s problems, and in some cases can cause harm.


They describe how disasters of social control like forced sterilizations and uncritical application of questionable IQ tests were instigated by psychologists who relied on their own flawed thinking rather than on empirical evidence from scientific studies. They tell horror stories about researchers who lied, plagiarized, distorted, falsified or even fabricated data, and got away with committing outright fraud over and over again. In some cases fraudulent studies were accepted as gospel and became the basis for ill-advised treatments.

They argue for transparency in research and show how difficult it is for others to obtain the raw data from studies even when the researchers say they are willing to provide it. They offer proposed solutions to increase transparency and promote data sharing. They discuss problems with peer review, editorial policy, poor research design, non-publication of negative studies, and failure to replicate positive studies. They show how these have created a situation where psychological theories are virtually unkillable.

They show how study results can get distorted and changed in re-telling. Remember the Little Albert experiment? An infant was conditioned to develop a fear of white rats by exposing him simultaneously to a white rat and a loud noise. This confirmed a popular theory, so it was immediately accepted as evidence that early childhood experiences could create lasting phobias that would extend to similar objects (in this case, to anything white and furry). Most psychology textbooks have misrepresented the facts about that experiment. They get the child’s age wrong, say he was conditioned with a white rabbit, and make up other stimuli that he supposedly reacted to, like a puppy and a teddy bear. Some textbooks even described how the researchers later “deconditioned” Little Albert, but that never happened. The research was done while he was in the hospital; they knew he would soon be leaving the hospital and it would be impossible to continue the research, and they deliberately decided not to decondition him. He died of hydrocephalus at age 6, so there is no way to know whether he would have had a lifelong phobia.

They uncover social control problems in the scientific community. Scientists who observed misconduct in their peers failed to report it in 36% of cases, and 69% of whistleblowers experienced negative consequences after reporting fraud.

Common yet questionable ideas

Psychoanalysis is a castle built on sand (continue reading)

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