The psychobabble of a mad world
Review in The Mail on Sunday - October 10, 1999
Shortly before the Gulf War there was a meeting of counsellors in our hospital to work out strategies for counselling the war-wounded who were expected to arrive in large numbers.
The counsellors talked with lugubrious satisfaction about the terrible psychological symptoms the soldiers were likely to display in the absence of counselling: I had the impression the counsellors needed their putative victims more than the victims would need counsellors.
This is the point of Manufacturing Victims, a well-written, abrasive and timely polemic by a Canadian psychologist who argues that psychology has changed from a respectable academic discipline into an industry eager to sell its products, almost all of them of dubious value and many of them positively harmful.
In the opinion of the author (whose opinion I share), the psychology industry is creating a population increasingly reliant on professional services to cope with life's normal ups and downs. Since psychologists are largely charlatans, and their promises of cure fraudulent, the outcome is more misery - which, of course, requires yet more assistance from psychologists.
Psychologists have turned every form of discontent into a syndrome or disease requiring treatment. They systematically underestimate the capacity of humans to overcome adversity.
All unpleasant events - such as a burglary or the death of a pet - are assumed to leave an emotional residue that, unless dealt with professionally, will cripple the sufferer.
Unfortunately, they have had considerable success in peddling this view to society. We are all victims of something, be it an alcoholic parent, sexual harassment, prejudice or an addiction to chocolate.
Thanks to psychologists, people have become victims of their own behaviour: for example, a man who beats his wife 'suffers' from battering man syndrome, and is not responsible for his actions. By definition, a victim cannot help himself; instead he needs professional help to emerge from his predicament. It all makes work for the counsellor. But once a person conceives of himself as a helpless victim, he excuses both his past and future conduct.
Since, as a matter of fact, psychology is powerless to alter people's bad behaviour, the false promise it holds out actually promotes that behaviour.
If a person concludes that professional psychologists cannot help him, he certainly cannot be expected to help himself.
Psychology thus contributes to the spread of antisocial behaviour.
The situation would be laughable if it were not so serious. I have been the victim of several minor crimes. The police have not tried to bring the perpetrators to justice but have, without fail, offered me victim support: as if there must, by definition, be something wrong with me.
As the author of this splendid book points out, by concentrating on the minor emotional fluctuations of supposed victims, instead of on external reality, we dissipate our energies on trifles and fail to make real improvements.
Instead of teaching children self-esteem, we should teach them to read; instead of giving victim support, we should catch criminals.
No expansion of psychological services will ever reduce the sum of human misery, rather the contrary: this is the message of Manufacturing Victims.
It is a message that our leaders (and we ourselves) would do well to heed.
Copyrigh t© 1998-2007 Tana Dineen,