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What's up with people's attitude towards psychology?  @psychohistorian.org

What's up with people's attitude towards psychology?

posted: 4765 days ago, on Monday, 2005 Feb 07 at 12:49
tags: psychology, religion.

Don't get me started on the treatment psychologists get at the hands of Hollywood script writers, who invariably portray them as insane and twisted.

I'm ranting about the standard citizen, the "reasonable man" (of legal fame), the guy next door. Let's say his name is Cliff.

Cliff's car breaks down. He calls a mechanic. His computer crashes. He calls the local PC shop for help. His fridge goes on the blink and he dials the repair man. Sensibly, he seeks advice from qualified people. Yet, mysteriously, Cliff thinks he's an expert on human behaviour. He will gladly dispense advice to others on how to live, what to think, and how to deal with problems. This is the Illusion of Expertise, which has its roots partially in ignorance and the fear that follows naturally from this.

Of course - just like human nature - the situation is (deliciously) complicated. For one, in a real sense, Cliff is an expert. He is an expert on being Cliff, and is the best Cliff there will ever be. But is he the best Cliff he could be? I doubt it.

Take Jenny Mason's dog. He loves Jenny she is the centre of his universe. However, he is hyper-allergic to cat fur (Jenny also has two cats), which causes his skin to break out in sores and drives him crazy he spends so much time scratching himself against the wooden furniture that the bottoms of the chairs have been worn through, the varnish long removed from his frenzied attempts at relief. It is probably unthinkable to him that if he had a new owner, he would be much happier. For him, the world is simply a place where he loves Jenny, Jenny loves cats, and his body is scarred with half-healed sores.

A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, because it sometimes leads to a new awareness of the world, and a search for enlightenment. "Data is good," a friend of mine is fond of saying, suggesting that it is better to know, than not to know. However, the facts *never* speak for themselves.

But I am digressing. What's up with people's attitude towards psychology? In part, there's the Illusion of Human Immunity to contend with. This meme teaches that there is something fundamentally special about people that makes them somehow impossible to study. Cars, computers, fridges and galaxies can all be analysed and understood, but people - in principle - remain inscrutable. To the carriers of this meme, it is axiomatic that humans cannot be understood. Neither a high IQ nor years of advanced education guarantees immunity from it. This is a particularly seductive meme, and some relish the thought, nurturing it.

I know quite a few people like this. Perhaps I must cultivate more articulate friends, but no-one has been able to explain to me just why they believe people are impossible to study, but are happy to accept that economies, symbiotic stars and ear infections can in principle be understood.

Also consider for a moment the Illusion of Uniqueness. Also known as the "Barnum Effect", this describes the endoresment of generalized statements about human nature as being particular to the individual, and not applicable to the general population. For example, if i was to tell Cliff: "Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic", he is likely to see this as an insightful comment about himself (which it is) but not particularly applicable to others (which it is).

These two illusions, human immunity and uniqueness, are a powerful duo, and the frequent fruit of their union is God. The roots of the religion meme drink deeply from these a-perceptions, which accounts in part for why religion is so difficult to dispel.

A friend of mine, while still at university, used to be a member of Shofar, a fundamentalist Christian church. One day, I told him that I suppose that the Shofar power-elite would warn him against speaking to astronomers and physicists, because these scientists could pose a threat to their teachings. I was very surprised when he said no, they've never been cautioned against astronomers, but have been warned to steer well clear of psychologists. Indeed, what is up with people's attitude towards psychology?

nothing more to see. please move along.

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