June 30, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

For Shame, Psychologists

A psychologist points out the flaws in his field, including useless tropes that have utterly failed for decades.

Dr. Thomas Scheff is ashamed of psychology for not understanding shame. Therein lies a conundrum. In his article for the UC Santa Barbara Current, “The Shame of Psychology,” Scheff vents his feelings about why “the inability to address emotion is holding back the field of psychology.”

Scheff lists some examples of pop-psych failures that were accepted truths not long ago. In a recent paper in the Review of General Psychology, he identified “Three Scandals in Psychology” that morphed into tropes (common knowledge) in the public mind.

Aggression catharsis: This is the idea that venting your anger is good for you. Wrong.

Scheff recalled that venting was an accepted therapy for many years, despite its evident failure. Working as a marriage counselor decades ago, he was encouraged to use venting in his practice. “My teachers told me that the way to deal with angry people was to have them beat on a pillow with a tennis racquet and yell at the pillow,” he said. “It never worked. I never had one client who was helped by that.

Stigma: Psychologists are clueless about shame, Scheff says. Curiously, he points out that psychologists and the public have a “shame about shame” as if it is a bad thing, without even knowing what it is:

Stigma, which has been studied extensively, is another area that most psychologists get wrong, according to Scheff. The problem, he explained, is that stigma usually is defined as a mark of disgrace as a result of some humiliation. However, he argued, stigma is a certain kind of shame that is actually an emotion — something science poorly understands. “Scholars are just as confused by emotions as the public,” he said. “They’re studying an emotion, but they don’t know it, because it’s hidden in modern societies.”

Self-esteem:  Another false trope is that self-esteem is good for you. Psychologists even have scales to measure it; how useful are they?

Scheff has a harsh assessment of the study of self-esteem. He noted that over the past 50 years more than 20,000 studies have used some 200 self-esteem scales. Their failure, he said, is clear; the scales’ ability to predict behavior is less than 5 percent.

Scheff points to the case of Tycho Brahe, who was extremely meticulous in his measurement of planetary positions, but never saw the big picture: that the planets orbit the sun. He was captive to the trope of his day that everything orbited the earth. Psychologists are committing the Brahe error today, he thinks, because they are similarly trapped in false pictures of human behavior. “[P]sychology and the public will progress only after the meaning and ramifications of emotions are addressed,” he advises. But with a track record as bad as what he just described, what confidence can anyone have that his suggestion is not a new false lead?

As you can see, psychology joins cosmology and paleoanthropology as two of the most wrong-headed fields of human endeavor whitewashed by the good name of “science.” Remember how cosmologists were so wrong that they had to work hard at it? (6/20/15) Remember Tattersall’s lambasting of the “contingencies, false starts and diversity of opinions” in his field that are so unreliable, Science Magazine said that if they were to start over without any preconceptions, the field would look entirely different? (6/24/15).

Now this UC Santa Barbara psychologist has exposed the wrongness in his field (not news; see past articles). Did you get this? 20,000 studies on self-esteem over five decades have all failed! They were utterly useless. Did you catch the fact that all of Scheff’s teachers all told him to get people to vent their anger, yell, and beat pillows with tennis racquets? Not a single person was helped by it!  Not one!  Why would anyone pay money to these charlatans? The field is wracked by scandals, too (5/22/14).  The public needs to vent all right; vent against the phonies until they are ashamed and stigmatized out of business.

“So take my advice and we’ll do better,” Scheff thinks. Look, Tom, thanks for the exposé, but why don’t you and all your fellow know-nothings quit while you’re behind and do something really useful for people. Preach the word.

 

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