Beware of psychological advice


Beware of psychological advice

  • By Ian Bradley
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There’s an old joke applied to many disciplines, certainly to my field of psychology: Why does the university routinely amputate the right hand of each newly graduated doctoral student? -Because then the newly minted psychologist will never be able to say: “on the one hand and on the other…” I was reminded of some our profession’s more ignoble moments just this week through a series of random events.


The first involved a meeting at a hospital for which I misjudged the time arriving one hour earlier than required. Not wanting to sample the hospital’s coffee, I wandered into their library that housed some very old but classic journals. Leafing through the American Journal of Psychiatry in the 1800s I stumbled upon a case study of a farmer who had slaughtered several members of his family. The case description described his crime, his upbringing and life prior to the crime to

conclude that it was probably excessive masturbation that sparked the farmer’s killing spree. The change in professional thought was rather remarkable. As Chief Psychologist on a large university-based department with an active clinic in sexual dysfunctions, we stockpiled various videotapes on how to masturbate effectively. The cause for insanity has become the cure.


That same week, in a fit of old journal house keeping I came across an interesting article by Dr Lisa Held in APA’s Monitor in Psychology, Psychoanalysis shapes consumer culture, December 2009, vol. 40, #11. The article outlines the work of an advertising pioneer, Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud. Although not a psychologist, Bernays consulting with the leading lights of psychoanalytic thought in the 1920s to develop publicity campaigns that touched unconscious drives. One of his most “successful” campaigns was the orchestration of the Torches of Freedom parade where New York debutantes were paid to walk in the Easter Parade smoking Lucky Strikes. Prior to his publicity campaigns, recruiting female smokers was an uphill climb for marketing types who were up against both established norms against the habit as well as untipped and unfiltered cigarettes. Bernays and his utilizing of psychological principles helped overcome these obstacles. My own university, McGill, for a period in the 1930s got on the bandwagon by promoting their own university brand of cigarettes marketed with vibrant young skiing women to promote a healthy lifestyle.


The over-riding message; psychological theories unlike gravitational theory are embedded in culture –both are constantly changing.