A guide to everyday psychology


What is Psychology – and how is it different from Psychiatry?

When I set off to Portsmouth to begin my degree in 1976, I had the same view about psychology as most other people have. I thought it was like a poor man’s version of psychiatry – all about sorting out mental illnesses.

And I quite liked that idea. True, I wouldn’t be able to prescribe pills like a proper doctor after I qualified… But I imagined myself hypnotising beautiful women in a few years time, causing them to confuse me with someone brilliant.

The reality came as a shock. Psychology, it turned out… was a proper science. It involved – literally – doing experiments on people to test things (like reaction times after drinking alcohol, for example). Psychology was not about hypnosis or curing mad people, as I had thought. Psychology was mostly about using scientific methods to study the causes of normal behaviour.

But as the months passed, I began to quite like this science stuff. It demanded that our theories about people must be tested – and proved to be true. Evidence is a compulsory start point for any worthwhile theory about people.

The objectives of Psychology?

In those days, the formal objectives of psychology were often given as: to understand, predict and control behaviour. Even back then, this sounded like the mission statement from a Soviet labour camp. Today, psychology’s formal aims are much softer: the promotion of happiness and mental well being. Psychology has become a science focused on our feelings as much as on our behaviour. That new focus must be good, right?

Well, there are two (main) problems. The first problem is a practical one. Unlike behaviour, we can’t see feelings. So, if we are to measure feelings, we must use questionnaires and interviews. This is a problem because, frankly, most of our questionnaires are dreadful.

The second problem? The change in formal objectives has led many people to think that the psychology carried out before 1980 (with its focus on behaviour) is mostly obsolete. And so, in the 21st century, most people who write about psychology, especially those who have never actually studied psychology, treat the discoveries of the past as irrelevant. All too often, they seem to be completely unaware of them.

This has left psychology in a unique position. Alone among the sciences, psychology can (and does) say many contradictory things at once.

The shortage of ‘agreed facts’ among psychologists is a problem

There is not even one agreed fact that binds everyone who calls themselves “a psychologist”.

This is not because there are no facts in psychology – there are plenty. The problem is that there is nothing to stop anyone who writes about psychology from presenting their theories as ‘their’ facts. Making up theories is fun; doing experiments is tedious hard work. So why bother? And when writers (Sir Peter Bazalgette; Sir Simon Baron Cohen, for example) come across evidence that tells them that their theory is wrong… they simply ignore it. Alone among the sciences, psychology is often written by people with no qualifications in it!

In the absence of any agreed scientific facts (or even agreement about what psychology is), psychology has become very susceptible to political and moral pressures.

This has led to some doubtful and conflicting social policies… Explanations for so-called ‘bad’ behaviour centre on mental disorders, especially in children and young adults. And even though there is little evidence that many modern disease entities (gaming disorder, for example) even exist, the pace of diagnosis has quickened.

In the last 20/30 years psychology has become far more like psychiatry.

Here I hope to explain how the life-problems that we (and our children) all face can often be much better understood by using simple psychological discoveries, all based in evidence, that were made decades ago.

And psychiatry itself? What’s that?

Psychiatry is an offshoot of medicine. Medically-trained doctors deal with mental illnesses and – sometimes – brain illnesses. Where psychologists use the discoveries about the psychology of ‘normal’ people to understand ‘abnormal’ feelings and behaviour (‘clinical psychology‘), psychiatrists use the model of ‘illness’ and ‘disease’. We will return to these different approaches frequently in the articles and posts. Unfortunately, clinical psychology has become very disease-focused in the last 30 years – and this has not been a good change.

I would admit to being rather psychiatry-sceptic at times, and for this reason: How can one ever understand the causes of abnormal feelings and behaviour if one has never studied the mechanisms that govern normal feelings and behaviour?

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