Two psychologists bump into each other in the street. The first one says,

“You’re fine, how am I?”

How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but only if the light bulb really wants to change.

All very amusing and useful examples of how psychology has slipped into everyday life to the point where familiarity has perhaps bred contempt. Lots of people are dismayed by the amount of psychology that has creapt into everyday life. Whether this is the launch of latest two-part psychological thriller on television or the reports of football managers engaged in ‘psychological’ mind-games, the view is that psychology is in some ways frivolous and certainly not as important as ‘proper’ science.

Can we challenge this view? Can we look at the effect psychology has had on the study of say, personality disorder and discover a legitimate and meaningful contribution?

To begin with let’s examine what we actually mean by psychology. Psychology has been defined as ‘the scientific study of behaviour and experience’ (Hardy & Heyes, 1979). The use of the word scientific in that definition implies that psychologists do more than simply think about behaviour and its causes. Psychologists observe behaviour and make hypotheses about what causes or affects it. They then test those guesses by undertaking further observation, asking questions or performing experiments. Where this kind of scientific rigour is apparent in the field, we might expect some useful insight into so called abnormal behaviour in others.

Consider firstly the condition known as Multiple Personality; Sufferers of which have been known to develop as many as seventeen separate personalities. Thigpen & Cleckley (1954) were one of the first to recognise the unique dynamics of this disorderin their treatment of Eve White; who also encompassed Eve Black and Eve Grey.Further work by other psychologists has uncovered that the origins of this condition seem to lie in the experience of some emotional trauma at around the age of five. The theory is that suffers create a kind of fugue state in order to withstand the trauma and may continue to use this tactic until the alternative personality actually takes root. Treatment is slow and difficult,but without the psychological perspective we can expect that sufferers of this condition would have been incarcerated, outcast or submitted for endless exorcisms.

Much work has also been done around the possible causes of Antisocial Personality; sufferers of which condition are more commonly known as psychopaths or sociopaths. Chrisianses (1977) proposes a genetic cause. He looked at over 400 pairs of twins and found concordance in 69% of the MZ ones compared with only 33% for the DZ twins. Lykken (1957) created a mental maze, where subjects learn to press a correct sequence of levers, receiving shocks when the wrong one is selected. He found that sociopaths made more errors leading to shocks than ‘normals’ suggesting a Neurochemical cause, i.e. an inability to learn from painful experience. There are many other examples and many other possible causes but each presents an opportunity for treatment. Without these insights there would be no possibility for treatment and imprisonment would be the only option.

There is little doubt that we need to be wary of the cult of pop psychology. But real psychology is different. It is scientific in approach and rigorous in execution. It seeks to deal with effect as well as cause and, certainly in the case of personality disorder, offers genuine hope to sufferers and their families that their condition might be treated sympathetically even if not cured.

Leave a reply