Psychological Illusions: Professionalism and the Abuse of Power

Dr. Tana Dineen

Presented at the Symposium: (Ab)Using Power: The Canadian Experience

Vancouver, B.C. May 7-9, 1998

We are all inclined, when we think of "power" and "abuse" within the context of "psychology," to focus on what we consider to be the abuse of power by individuals within the profession or to apply psychological concepts to identify individuals from other walks of life, such as politicians, celebrities, teachers and coaches, as abusing their power. For instance, when we hear of cases in which professors develop relationships with their students or therapists with their clients, we tend to view these as instances of something inherently immoral and coercive. And, when we think of any profession or any organization or institution, we tend to think in terms of an internal patriarchal power dynamic, citing evidence to support theories of male dominance and control.

While these may be issues to address, I want to suggest to you that each of these is like a "tree" that serves to obscure the view of the "forest." And that in staying focused on these issues, we are failing to notice, and to address, a much larger problem. As we express outrage about individual cases of alleged abuse, what we lose sight of is a pervasive and rampant abuse of power by the profession of psychology. It is this abuse of power committed in the name of professionalism that devalues, exploits, trivializes and victimizes people throughout society.

Recently I addressed a conference on professional ethics at Texas A&M University and, while there, I had several enjoyable private conversations with the organizer, a professor of Philosophy, a pleasant man who is close to retirement. Amongst the many topics we touched on, two are particularly relevant to today's topic. The first was the concern he expressed about the dramatic change in relating to students. He spoke sadly of how he and other professors now hesitate to interact with any student one-to-one and how painfully aware they have become of how a look can be misinterpreted, a word can be misunderstood, and any action can become a cause for complaint. And secondly, he talked of the impact of the "Americans with Disabilities Act," legislation which, when introduced, was intended to address problems encountered by those who were physically disabled. He saw it now as having become so psychologically stretched, through the use of such loosely applied labels as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), that virtually anyone could qualify for a disability certificate. And, since having a certificate meant holding the professor responsible for a passing grade, he was seeing academic achievement, pride and even honesty being eroded, and feeling quite helpless in the face of demands for special treatment.

These are only two examples from the professional life of one academic but they illustrate the noxious influence of psychology in our society and provide a glimpse of "the forest," that is the abuse of influence and power on a larger scale.

When we hear of the abuse of power by individuals, we need to look behind these claims to examine the role of psychology and to consider how it may be misusing its influence. It is the profession itself which is victimizing people, particularly women, as it turns them into powerless, dependent and stupid "adult children," unable to think for themselves, to take responsibility for their actions, to admit their mistakes, acknowledge their shortcomings, or even enjoy their romantic conquests. Psychology is responsible for the creation of most of the concepts employed in accusations involving the abuse of power, it is psychology that coined the terms and formed the notions, and it is psychology that benefits most from the contamination of society by the uncontested acceptance of psychological "expertise." How many times have you heard that the victims were referred for counseling, that the accused was ordered into treatment or that gender sensitivity training was made a condition of disciplinary action?

Five years ago, after more than two decades as a practicing psychologist, I forced myself to step back and take a cold hard look at my profession. I am still a psychologist by license in Ontario and in British Columbia, but what I see being done under the name of psychology is so seriously contaminated now by errors in logic, popular notions, personal beliefs, and political agendas, and it is doing so much harm to people, that I find myself in this strange role of working to curb the pervasive influence of my own chosen profession. Long ago I lost any expectation that the necessary corrective actions would come from within the profession; so, I find myself speaking most often now to people outside my profession, hoping to find among them skeptics who are willing to think critically about America’s love affair with psychology.

The result of my "cold hard look" is a book entitled: "Manufacturing Victims: What the Psychology Industry is Doing to People." In it, I identify, in explicit detail, what I have just been saying; that psychology has a vested interest in identifying abuses of power in the broadest psychological terms possible. It is through this that "victims" are manufactured and then converted into patients/clients for whom psychological services must be purchased. And it is through this that psychologists come to be retained to testify in human rights hearings, civil proceedings and criminal courts. To put it in a visual form:


In the short time allotted for this presentation I want to make several points which we can address further during the discussion period or in private conversation. I want you to know that as well as a renegade, I am a careful and critical researcher and an obsessive file keeper and that I will welcome you to challenge me to support any and all of my statements.

I should clarify two terms that I will use:

1) Psychologist refers not only to licensed psychologists but to psychiatrists, social workers, family & marriage counselors and to the whole array of certified or self-proclaimed "experts" who sell opinions, assessments, theories, therapies, counseling and advice.

2) Psychology Industry When people think of industries, they tend to think of automobiles, computers, cosmetics or entertainment; of easily identifiable products, with price-tags, warranties and trademarks. Such industries are visibly defined by their products and by their boundaries. The Psychology Industry, being much broader, less defined (or definable,) is harder to pin down. At its core, are psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, clinical social work, and psychotherapy. No longer can clear distinctions be made between them; so, what I call the Psychology Industry comprises the services of all five of these mental health professions and it encompasses, as well, the ever expanding array of therapists, counsellors and advisors of all persuasions, whether licensed, credentialed, proclaimed, or self-proclaimed. As well, this term acknowledges that around the edges of the industry are others whose work, whether it involves writing, consulting, lecturing, or even movie-making, relies on the Psychology Industry which, in turn, benefits from their promotion of all things psychological.

Points for discussion:

1) The illusion of power is maintained through the mystique of science and the symbols of professionalism.

Thirty years ago I was drawn to the discipline of psychology by the intriguing questions that it asked. I respected the ongoing efforts to apply the scientific method to understand human nature and human behaviour. For almost 3 decades I worked as a clinician and a consultant striving to apply that knowledge. But now there are too many answers and too few questions; the humble curiosity has given way to arrogant certainty.

Most of psychology can no longer legitimately claim recognition as a science. Too often now it exalts clinical experience, allowing subjective beliefs and psychological notions to be presented as if they were scientifically-based knowledge. Thus, science has become merely a marketing term, used to imply to consumers that the statements made, are valid. The mystique of science is used to sell a wide variety of products and clearly Science is the Gucci label of the Psychology Industry.

Licensing and Certification serve a similar marketing function, bestowing further credibility. While licensing boards and professional associations give the impression of protecting the public, they were actually established for the self-preservation of psychologists. Rollo May, shortly before his death, recounted how licensing was initiated to protect psychologists from the potential threat of M.D.s who wanted to have psychotherapy declared a restricted medical procedure. He described the mid 50's as "the dangerous years," when a conservative wing of the American Psychiatric Association threatened to outlaw non-medical psychotherapists. For several years, non-medical psychotherapists lived in fear that physicians would take ownership of psychotherapy. Then they organized a conference on training, practice and safeguards, out of which rose the idea of licensing psychologists. From then on, as various state legislatures enacted licensing laws, it became accepted that psychologists had the right to do psychotherapy. Thus, the profession was created and psychologists managed to extend the therapeutic monopoly to include them.

Rollo May went on to describe a conversation he had at that time, with Carl Rogers; "expecting his (Rogers') enthusiastic help, I was taken aback by his stating the he was not sure whether it would be good or not to have psychologists licensed... During the following years, I kept thinking of Carl Rogers' doubts about our campaign for licensing. I think he foresaw that we psychologists could be as rigid as any other group, and this certainly has been demonstrated... "

From a business perspective, terms like "licensed" and "certified" proved to be useful and others wanting to sell their services but without Ph.D.’s in psychology, began to form their own professional organizations. The result is a wide variety of mental health "professionals" hanging their own credentials on their office walls.

2) The Psychology Industry controls what it tells people.

The Psychology Industry decides want it does and doesn’t wants the public to know. It wants people to hear about new treatments, such as EMDR or ThoughtField Therapy, and about its successes. It doesn’t tell us when therapies prove uneffective or even harmful, such as the notorious "repressed memory therapy," or when treatment is unsuccessful and clients get worse or die.

Just one case in point involves the results of a consumer survey conducted by Consumer Reports, the organization that reports on how well people like their toasters and their VCRs. In 1994, it surveyed its subscribers about automobiles and psychotherapy. The response rate was an abysmal 1.6 %, but none the less, Consumer Reports (CR) and the American Psychological Association claimed that its results showed that "nine out of ten" people got better with therapy. Despite an abundance of shockingly obvious flaws in the survey, the APA continues to promote it in their "Public Education Program," a multi-million dollar effort designed to persuade the public that psychotherapy works!.

On the other hand, an $80,000,000 project funded by the U.S. government, is not included in their Public Education Program. This well designed and controlled study, which even the APA described as "state of the art," was intended to show that "a continuum of mental health and substance abuse services is more cost-effective than services delivered in the more typical fragmented system." However, what it found was that, despite better access, greater continuity of care, less restrictions on treatment and more client satisfaction, the cost was higher and the clinical results no better than those at the comparison site: not at all what the Psychology Industry had either expected or wanted! Even though users expressed satisfaction about their treatment just as in the CR survey, there was no concurrent evidence of effectiveness to support the idea that "satisfaction" is a measure of effectiveness. Leonard Bickman, the senior researcher, utterly surprised by the outcome, stated that "these results should raise serious doubts about some current clinical beliefs" about the effectiveness of psychological services.

This is just one of many instances, which I can’t for reasons of time address here, where the public will not be told the whole story but rather subjected to a propaganda program.

3) The Psychology Industry relies on "fear appeal" to promote its services.

A Marketing Dictionary defines fear appeal as "advertising purporting to develop anxiety within the consumer based on fear that can be overcome by purchasing a particular item or service." The Psychology Industry, to a large extent, relies on this form of advertising.

I give you just a quick example:

In July of last year, newspaper headlines read: "Abuse rate worse than thought, survey finds." The media reported that 31.2% of males and 21.8% of females reported physical abuse" during their lifetime, and concluded that "childhood maltreatment is common among Ontario residents."

But wait. Think about this for a moment. If this conclusion was applied to this group, it would mean that almost one in three of us here today have been a victim of physical abuse in childhood. These findings would make Canada a violent society. This was a large study but, as in most instances of this type of dramatic statistical reporting, no data is available, to be scrutinized. I have repeatedly asked but, as yet, have received no answers to questions as basic as: How many of those recorded as physically abused simply indicated that, in growing up, they were "SOMETIMES pushed grabbed or shoved." Without such answers it is impossible to know what "the results" actually mean. But their effect is to spread fear, and to increase funding in the areas of violence research and intervention; areas staffed by psychologists.

Data essential for evaluating whether the conclusions are accurate are too often not asked for and, when they are asked for, as I am prone to do, they are either not made available or, if they are, they are likely to show evidence of the abuse of data, or of what John Fekete has called "Data Rape."

Such abused statistics kindle fear and even panic from which the Psychology Industry can profit. ANXIOUS PARENTS; QUIVERING WOMEN; CANADA PORTRAYED AS A VIOLENT SOCIETY; these images translate into funding from both the public and the private sectors. Just as we'll buy earthquake insurance or burglar alarms when we are told of the threat to our safety; so too we'll buy what the Psychology Industry sells.

4) Psychology promotes genderism and is actually guilty of victimizing women.

It has become fashionable in the 90's to be a victim. While I readily acknowledge that there are real victims who have suffered degradation, brutality and violence, I also know that there are many "counterfeit victims" who manipulate the system, intentionally lying with motives of revenge or greed or excuse-finding, and also, that there are vast numbers of what I call "synthetic victims," those people who lie unintentionally, having been taught to think of themselves as victims and to make accusations and claims based on psychological interpretations of events.

As my Scottish colleague, Yvonne McEwen notes: "The victim-makers in today’s world are inevitably the lawyers, doctors, psychologists, therapists, social workers and the radical left of the feminist movement." By turning all of life into psychological events, then pathologizing normal feelings and behaviours and generalizing psychological concepts so that "trauma" can refer as easily to having a fling with the boss as to being brutally raped, people are being persuaded to see themselves as victims. Rather than being allowed to assume responsibility for their own actions, they come to believe that they must be protected, nurtured and guided by others more powerful than them. Each and every week, our papers carry articles describing victims of one type or another and many of these reports conclude that counseling should be provided, laws put in place, funds set aside for a healing process, or programs established to increase self-esteem, teach parenting skills, or combat violence.

Most of these reported victims are women and, interestingly, statistics show that 2 out of 3 psychotherapy consumers are women. It is women by and large who are being persuaded that they are weak, vulnerable, manipulated and fragile. And, contrary to common assumption, much of this persuasion is being done by women who themselves benefit from casting their fellow women in victim roles. It is largely female therapists, lawyers and advocates who encourage women to see themselves as victims and to complain, and to seek special consideration and compensation. It is also often female "experts" who use fear appeal to persuade women that they are victims. For instance, the report prepared by the Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women, employing a "feminist lens" (more commonly labelled as "bias",) presented finding which made it seem that women across Canada stand a good chance of becoming crime victims. And, while mentioning that 52% of women in their study attributed their decreased sense of safety to media reports on violence against women, they chose to ignore recent sociological studies which suggest that it is the fear of violence rather than violence itself which is harming women by creating fear and causing them to see themselves as victims.

I had the opportunity last year to be a key note speaker at the Annual Conference of the National Association of Provincial Court Judges and two of the points that I made then were that: (1) psychology is an industry masquerading as a scientifically-based profession, and (2) no matter how strongly psychological beliefs and theories are expressed as facts, there is little-to-no certainty in the field. My key point was that anything said by psychologists needs to be scrutinized carefully.

While undeniably, some individuals within the profession of psychology will violate current ethical codes; some will do their jobs poorly; some will make mistakes; and, some will even seduce or be seduced by their patients or by their students; please remember that these are only the "trees." My hope is that your attention will not be forever diverted by these individual, and often sensationalized, cases because they serve to obscure our view of the bigger issue. The "forest," in this instance, is the pervasive and socially sanctioned abuse of power, in the form of the profession's influence on the public, the media and the courts. If we remain focused on the trees, the Psychology Industry will go unchallenged. Take a look at the larger picture and ask yourself whether we can afford, any longer, to remain blinded by the trees.

Copyrigh t© 1998-2007 Tana Dineen,