Psychology is more popular than ever, but it has been criticized for scandals involving fraud, failed replications, and assisting torture. Many people believe psychology is in crisis. Some even question whether it can legitimately be called a science. Before he became Pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger expressed concern that psychology posed a threat to religion, was responsible for empty monasteries, and had superseded theology. Tomasz Witkowski’s new book Shaping Psychology: Perspectives on Legacy, Controversy and the Future of the Field provides an intriguing look at the current state of psychology, its problems and possible solutions, and hopes for the future.

The format of the book is unprecedented. Witkowski interviewed sixteen of the most outstanding scholars and thinkers in psychology. If you click on the link, you can see the list of contributors. He included three women who have been prominent in the skeptic movement: Elizabeth Loftus, Susan Blackmore, and Carol Tavris. He only managed to include one interviewee from the third world: Vikram Patel, a tireless advocate for global mental health. He precedes each interview with a brief summary of the person’s life and work. Then he asks everyone a series of probing questions about their achievements and struggles, whether psychology is in crisis, how strong are the scientific foundations, what problems remain to be solved, advice for psychologists who are just getting started, and more. Finally, he provides a list of selected readings and references for each interviewee.

The interview transcripts read like an ordinary conversation. It’s easy to imagine we are sitting in the same room just listening to two people talking. There is a lively back-and-forth, with disagreements and clarifications. There is a personal touch. We learn details about their lives and how they dealt with obstacles such as criticism, lawsuits, hate mail, death threats, and difficulties obtaining grants or other funding. Some interviewees didn’t think there was any crisis. Many refused to answer some questions when they didn’t feel they were qualified to comment. They were usually very willing to self-criticize and admit their mistakes.

Elizabeth Loftus is an expert on memory. Repressed memory is a myth. Eyewitness testimony is unreliable. False memories can be implanted. She is currently studying memory engineering, trying to determine how implanting false memories might be used to modify behavior and produce positive effects.

Susan Blackmore studied parapsychology until she realized there was no real evidence there. She has written about memes, out-of-body experiences, meditation, and consciousness.

Scott Lilienfield is known for “cleaning up other people’s messes”. He belatedly realized that much of psychology is underpinned by questionable science. He has debunked many myths about psychology, neuroimaging, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), Rorschach tests, lie detectors, etc.

Other experts question commonly accepted ideas like attachment theory, ADHD, separation anxiety as an index of maternal attachment, and the idea that lack of stimulation in the first year of life will cause permanent damage.

There are many recurrent themes. No one likes the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual: the diagnostic categories are not useful to patients or clinicians. Many conditions exist on a spectrum and don’t fit into diagnostic boxes. Dyslexia and depression are normal variants, not diseases. Everyone hopes that artificial intelligence will benefit psychology. Few experts are willing to predict future developments. Research that is socially relevant is preferable. The shift from observing behavior to introspection and questionnaires is seen as a mistake. P values don’t mean much; it would be better to report effect size.

Genetics holds great promise for psychology, but it hasn’t delivered yet. The genes that cause schizophrenia are the same genes that cause bipolar manic depression. Schizophrenia and bipolar are not really separate disorders: they’re mostly the same thing. Michael Posner thinks epigenetics is misunderstood: it affects gene expression, but he sees no evidence of it modifying the genes that are transmitted to future generations. Robert Sternberg thinks the biggest crisis in psychology is that researchers are focusing more and more carefully on smaller and smaller problems that are less and less relevant to people’s lives. IQs increased by 30 points during the 20th century, but it doesn’t seem to have had any practical results; people are not acting smarter. Sternberg says all scientific theories are wrong; science exists to make them better.

Other revelations: the amygdala is not a “fear” center but a threat center. Self-esteem doesn’t make people better; it just makes them feel better. Self-esteem benefits only the individual, while self-control benefits everyone. Individual differences are far more important than gender. There’s no such thing as the authentic self. Free will is a matter of semantics; it really means the ability to act differently in situations, which nobody denies. Improvements with psychotherapy don’t depend on the type of therapy. They seem to be a matter of perfectly normal human interactions of sitting and listening to people. When Roy Baumeister asked Richard Wiseman to name psychology’s biggest advance in the last ten years, he said “We’ve learned how little difference the brain makes.” All our new knowledge from studying the brain has done little or nothing to change our psychological theories.

I was intrigued by Daniel Kahneman’s idea of adversarial collaboration. When two researchers disagree, they should work together to devise experiments that would help them reach an agreement.

Vikram Patel thinks we should be pursuing global mental health instead of treating mental illness. He thinks mental health problems are part of the human experience and exist on a spectrum. Psychoses benefit from medication, but for most people with mental health issues, the psychosocial model is more appropriate than the biomedical model. It’s reassuring that unskilled people can help others by just listening.

I have met several of the people Witkowski interviewed, but now I feel as if I have spent more time with them and know them better. And I have learned a lot from them. If you want to meet these psychologists and learn about the current state of psychology, this book is a great way to do it. Witkowski’s unique approach has resulted in a very readable, entertaining, and very informative book. I highly recommend it.


Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.