Psychobabble: Talking therapists
By Keir Liddle
Psychology seems to remain a much misunderstood subject by the public in many spheres. I suspect much of the public conflate psychiatry, psychoanalysis and psychology as being one and the same thing, which would not be a fair reflection of the marked differences between the three subjects. Psychiatry is a medical specialisation; psychoanalysis is a therapy that, while showing some benefits for some patients has had it’s theories largely discredited; and psychology is a very, very broad field that runs the gamut between quantitative and experimental work at one end, and qualitative and more social science-like work at the other.
Yet many people seem to think it is still all about reading minds or analysing people, a situation that isn’t helped by the lack of a protected term for “psychologist”, and is exacerbated by those psychologists who find themselves making pronouncements on the psychology of celebrities and individuals in the news– with utter disregard for their professional body, the BPS (British Psychological Society), and its code of ethics and conduct on the matter. Dr Petra provides an excellent overview of some of the issues that psychologists encounter when deciding whether or not to provide comment to the media here, and Martin Robbins provides this piece in the Guardian also.
The BPS code of conduct states the following principles:
Psychologists value the dignity and worth of all persons, with sensitivity to the dynamics of perceived authority or influence over clients, and with particular regard to people’s rights including those of privacy and self-determination.
Psychologists value the continuing development and maintenance of high standards of competence in their professional work, and the importance of preserving their ability to function optimally within the recognised limits of
their knowledge, skill, training, education, and experience.
Psychologists value their responsibilities to clients, to the general public, and to the profession and science of Psychology, including the avoidance of harm and the prevention of misuse or abuse of their contributions to society.
Psychologists value honesty, accuracy, clarity, and fairness in their interactions with all persons, and seek to promote integrity in all facets of their scientific and professional endeavours.
A recent article in the Independent, I believe, contravenes the ethical principle of respect. I contend the piece, like many others, contravenes the right to privacy of the individual concerned without due care and attention to the sensitivity of the psychologist’s perceived authority and expert status. It does this by directly mentioning the individuals involved, and making assumptions from a distance. While these assumptions are couched in hedged language, the article gives the impression that the psychologist concerned has correctly considered the dynamics of their position and expert status. While the individuals are only mentioned in relatively positive terms, this is still supposition made at a distance, and in reality, the opinion is no better than any layperson’s view. Yet given the mentioned expert status of the psychologist involved, it undoubtedly carries more weight with those reading the article and, despite being supposition, appears more credible as a result.
Another issue here comes in the mixing of the specific and the general. To my mind psychologists asked to comment on such things should be very, very careful not to directly mention specific individuals, whether positive or negative. I believe this violates their right to privacy, and then refers to general experiences of a similar nature. In this specific article, these experiences are of a highly negative nature, and they may give people the false impression that the individuals concerned were subjected to such treatment. Given that the article is in the public domain, then, were this article to be misconstrued, it could cause the individuals referred to some degree of unnecessary stress.
However, the final quote provided is the most pernicious, as it suggests that the individuals will feel guilt about events that will be beyond their control. This may well be accurate, but I feel it is an insensitive and unethical statement to make publicly. It has the potential to create an expectation in family and friends, as well as the general public, that these feelings of guilt exist, and this, again, could cause those individuals distress. This is not couched in the previous hedged language, and unless the journalist has misquoted the psychologist concerned, then this is a worrying situation. This is presented as a statement of fact, not a possible or likely outcome, and that, to my mind, borders on being grossly irresponsible.
The example above is by no means the worst abuse of the BPS ethical guidelines and principles, but it illustrates the problems facing psychologists and the media. We want to promote our science, research and its importance to the general public, and when a journalist contacts us to ask questions about our area of expertise, there is perhaps a natural tendency to bite their hand off. However, psychologists (and ideally non-psychjologists also) should be very, very mindful of their position, and the ethical guidelines that govern interactions with the media– lest they end up not promoting psychology and their research, but rather, damaging the reputation of the profession.