June 19, 2019

Mass media and pop psychology

Like many of my colleagues, I’ve become increasingly concerned with what the public believes about psychology. All too often these beliefs are incorrect. It’s important to set record straight because many people not only try to understand their own lives but also the lives of others using psychology.

Much of what the public believes about psychology comes from mass media, including self-improvement, books, tapes, news, and talk shows, all of which could be valuable sources of information in people’s busy lives — but typically are not. It’s “pop psychology.” Let me begin with a recent example.

On a local TV newscast recently, a couple of segments on the meaning of dreams were presented. It was largely pop psychology, attributing all manner of meaning and wisdom to dreams. While unlike many of my more hard-nosed colleages, I believe from my own research into dreaming that some dreams may indeed have meaning. The problem, however, is that there are as many possible interpretations of a dream as there are interpreters — so how do we know which meaning is “real?” The psychologists on the newscast were not researchers, but therapists.

Pop psychology is spread largely by such practitioners who frequently don’t know the research on issues (surveys show that most practitioners don’t read, let alone use, the relevant research.) Unfortunately, they use personal experiences from therapy sessions. Despite the popular notion that having a personal experience is the best way to understand human behavior and the mind, it’s not. Accordingly, they construct all manner of psycho babble and wild theories about human behavior and the mind.

Almost invariably, when the media interview a psychologist or psychiatrist, a therapist is selected. Just through sheer exposure, then, “psychologist” becomes equated by the public with being a “shrink.” It’s incorrect. This gets most psychologists very upset. Being a “shrink” is only one small part of the profession, with therapists typically not the most appropriate psychologists from whom to obtain valid information.

While it’s not generally known, the importance of the pop psychology issue is highlighted by the fact that about ten years ago, the American Psychological Association (APA) split into two organizations largely over the issue of therapists/practitioners spreading what, in effect, are psychological “rumors” instead of valid knowledge to the public and governmental policy makers.

This professional split in not really between therapists and researchers, but between psychologists who don’t base their knowledge on research and those who do. In fact, the new organization, The American Psychological Society (APS), was formed by many therapists who also are serious scientific researchers — and included 23 of the past 24 presidents of the APA. In everyday practice, however, it generally breaks down into a split between therapists and researchers.

Because the media powerfully shapes the public’s view of psychology, it needs to become more sophisticated about who to go to for answers to psychological questions. A final striking example of power of the media:

I had been teaching about repressed memory of sexual abuse (that’s when a person ostensibly forgets about being sexually abused as a child only to remember it years later as an adult), and showing that research strongly suggest memory doesn’t generally work that way. Most students sat there with incredulous looks on their faces thinking “How can Dr. Haskell say that repressed memory of sexual abuse may not be true, when I’ve seen and read so many media reports about it by therapists who have worked with repressed memory syndrome? This guy has to be an Ivory Tower nerd.”

When the media finally obtained valid research on the topic, a former student came up to me and said, “Oh, Dr. Haskell, you were right about that repressed memory syndrome, I saw it on “60 Minutes” the other night.” Think about this for a moment. The implications of the student’s comment are profound — the last I knew, researchers and scholars were supposed to validate what’s on the media, not the other way around.

Part of the problem of presenting correct information in the media is that it’s difficult to reduce the complexity of a subject into simple quotes, or catchy sound bytes. I suggest that the media and research-based psychologists join together in creating Psychology Watch for the public.

Robert Haskell is a professor of psychology at the University of New England.

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