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Unempirical Psychobabble Bugs the Living Excrement Out of Me

Few things give me the heebie jeebies more than the use of unempirical psychobabble. The “psychobabble” part of it is the assignment of dark psychological motives to someone. The “unempirical” part of it is that it is impossible to establish whether or not the psychobabble claim is actually true or not, since psychological motives are not observable. This is the weakness of unempirical psychobabble that unempirical psychobabblers use as a rhetorical defense: although you can’t empirically show that a psychobabbly claim about motives is true, you can’t show it’s false either. All the psychobabbler has to do is toss up enough contentions and hope one sticks, and they never go away since they can never be proven wrong.

My first encounter with unempirical psychobabble was back in college, when my very depressed girlfriend at the time was engaged in what seemed to me to be textbook examples of suicidal ideation: mentioning a very specific plan for how to kill herself, giving away precious things, stuff like that. So I called up CAPS: Counseling And Psychological Services, and I said, “look, I think that my girlfriend may try to kill herself.” You know, hey, heads up there! But no, the helpful CAPS psychologist told me that I was being “co-dependent” and needed to ask myself why I felt it necessary to involve myself in an issue that was really my girlfriend’s concern. In other words, the issue wasn’t the empirical behavior of someone killing themselves, the issue was how I felt about it and what motivated me to want to call people about it. We went ’round and ’round on this one: “Um, I, like, don’t want someone to, like, KILL herself. Can you do something here?” “No, no, let’s talk about YOU. How does that make you feel?” Yaaaaaaaagh. I could never get beyond this first issue to what I later learned as a hall director was considered the appropriate next step of intervention by residence life and professional staff, because the counselor was trained to always pay more attention to lurking psychological motivations than issues of empirical personal behavior.

My next encounter was in college too, in a course on gender that I found to be otherwise pretty darned neat. But there was this one day when we read an essay about how men’s sexism toward women is just everywhere you look. Why, golly, the author wrote (OK, she didn’t write “golly”), look at men opening doors for women! It just goes to show that men feel women are inferior to them, as if they must be dependent upon a man to open a door, as if women can’t do it for themselves…. I asked the professor what it would mean if men didn’t open doors for women, or if women actually opened doors for men. Couldn’t you say that men failing to open doors for women would be a sign of disrespect and disdain of women (failure to do a favor), and couldn’t you say that women having to open doors for men is a sign of men feeling they have the right to be taken care of and women feeling they have to do things for men all the time? If a motivation of sexism can be assigned to any of this set of exhaustive and mutually exclusive behaviors, if there’s no possibility at all that sexism doesn’t exist, then doesn’t that say there’s a problem with the system by which motivations of sexism are claimed to exist? The professor’s response: “we’re not talking about logic; we’re talking about oppression.”

My most recent encounter with unempirical psychobabble is with a person giving me shit for smoking a legal herb for the first time one evening and making a podcast out of the experience. After telling me I might not reach my 40th birthday, which is a weird but helpfully empirical claim, he went on to refer to me as an “addict” for engaging in this one-time, not repeated and probably not to be repeated experience. If I assert I am not one, I am “defensive” — the classic retort for people who deny being what someone else says they are. Or maybe, gosh, I’m in “denial,” which is a classic sign, isn’t it? This is a nice little conceptual trap: if someone says you’re an addict and you agree, then you’re an addict. If, on the other hand, someone says you’re an addict and you disagree with that statement, then you’re suspiciously defensive or in denial, which is an indication that you are an addict after all. You can’t disprove it, because it’s unempirical psychobabble: people saying they see what cannot be seen. [This sort of addiction psychobabble is distinct, of course, from directly observable phenomena related to the action of the brain in psychological and physiological addiction. I have a great deal of interest in and respect for research into the empirical, observable aspects of addiction.]

It’s personally frustrating to have unempirical psychobabble lobbed at me, because there’s no way to get it off my clothes or skin. Even lemon juice doesn’t really help. It just sticks there, and the more I try to get it off me, the more the unempirical psychobabblers will crow that it’s sticking to me.

But beyond the personal aspect of it, it’s a shame that all this unempirical psychobabble is out there because it’s really not necessary. Focusing on empirical behavior is ever so much more helpful. If there are reliable behavioral indicators of possible impending suicide, then by golly people should do something about it when they see that behavior. Why spend your time talking about hypothetical sexist motivations behind door-related behavior when it’s clear from actual empirical studies that real behavioral patterns of sex-based discrimination exist in the world? And instead of playing dramatic psychobabble games all loaded with guilt, shame and moral dudgeon about who’s an admitted addict, addict in disguise, or addict in denial, how about we treat addiction as the neurological and physiological health problem that it is? How about we stop turning policy approaches on some elusive category of things called “drugs” (no, not drugs, drugs) into a moral war about people’s motivational failings and instead work from the basis of what empiricists actually know and don’t know about these things?

12 thoughts on “Unempirical Psychobabble Bugs the Living Excrement Out of Me”

  1. Alan says:

    Psychology: the study of the obvious by the incompetent.

  2. Iroquois Honky says:

    But Jim, how do you REALLY feel?

  3. HareTrinity says:

    “The professor’s response: “we’re not talking about logic; we’re talking about oppression.””

    Yeah, my Sociology class was better than your one. Was your girlfriend okay?

    And thanks Alan, but it’s a tad more complex than that.

  4. Jim says:

    I agree with HT (and yes, my girlfriend was eventually ok): psychology is more than that. Actually, psychology is not a unified field. There are popular psychologists who use unempirical psychobabble. There are neuropsychologists who study the physical processes and structures of the brain. And there are social psychologists who engage in empirical studies of interactions of people in dyads and groups.

    Hallinan and Kubitschek’s work on Intransitive Friendship is just one example of empirical work by social psychologists that is neither obvious nor incompetent.

  5. Iroquois Honky says:

    So the door opening thing made it into a sociology textbook. That sounds like more fun than reading Berger’s “Invitation fo Sociology” (I was the only person in my class of 150 people that didn’t hate it.) I first heard the door-opening thing at a NOW convention in 1972. I’m old enough to remember many of those charming customs, so maybe I can explain it.

    First of all, a gesture can have a meaning in a particular culture or no meaning at all depending on whether there is cultural agreement about the meaning of the gesture. For example, we nod our heads up and down for ‘yes’ and back and forth for ‘no’. Everyone agrees on the meaning of the gesture and if you use the gesture there is no possiblity for misunderstanding. But this is an arbibrary meaning for our culture only. If you stay with bedouins, you will see them move their heads up and down for ‘no’.

    At one time, men were expected to open doors for women, tip their hats when being introduced to a woman (a hand gesture touching the brim of the hat), and stand up when a woman entered the room. Oh, yes, people really did these things, even out in the boonies. I wore white gloves to church every Sunday too. (The gloves do stay white longer if you don’t touch doors.) I remember being about 12 years old and going into the farmhouse of some great uncles and they stood up. Someone whispered to me that I had to sit down so they could sit down too. So you see how the custom is passed on.

    The correct female behaviour for walking up to a door was to “stand there like you had no arms” (in the words of the speaker at the NOW convention) and wait for someone male to open it. It was definately NOT correct female behviour to open a door for a man, no matter how feeble or burdened with packages. All of these things were proper only for women, to ‘protect’ women because they were women, to single them out as a group needing different treatment, and not becasue they were necessary or made any sense.

    The door-opening ‘protection’ took place within a larger cultural context of ‘protection’ that resulted real economic disadvantages for women. In 1971, married women were not allowed to own property. The second she got married, anything a woman inherited from her family became the property of her husband, and she was not entitled to dispose of it herself without the signature of her husband. Any wages she earned likewise belonged to her husband, and an alcoholic husband could legally take the paycheck she needed to feed the children. The newpaper want ads had separate sections for “help wanted-male” and “help wanted-female”. Higher paying jobs had lifting restrictions–women in many states were ‘protected’ by law from lifting anything over 25 pounds–although when investigators tried to find out exactly what had to be lifted in these higher paying jobs, no one could say exactly what it was. Women in many states were ‘protected’ from working certain evening hours, which meant they were not allowed to take the higher paying jobs with a shift differential even if it meant they could better provide for their children and be available when the children came home from school.

    So women saw all of these ‘protections’ that resulted in them losing money and being treated as second class citizens, and they said, okay, we want the right to keep our own paychecks, sell our own property, and work at jobs that pay real money, and in exchange we are willing to give up being ‘protected’ by having someone open doors for us.

    So yes, it’s about oppression, exactly, spot on. And it was such a stupid custom that nobody even remembers now exactly how it went. If you watch how people act around doors these days, you will see anyone holding a door for anyone as a gesture of courtesy. Hey, I keep my own paycheck now, don’t I? Do what you want with the stupid door.

  6. Iroquois Honky says:

    While on a church trip years ago, my boyfriend started talking about suicide and showed me his suitcase full of prescriptions; the counselors reassured me and did nothing. Then he took an overdose in the middle of the night and called me. You can believe I got action with one very short phone call.

    My husband’s sister attempted suicide with prescription drugs, then called her sister, very groggy. The sister told her “stop trying to manipulate me” and hung up the phone. My sister-in-law then called a friend from church, said she didn’t want to die alone, and could the friend stay on the line until she was unconscious. The friend called paramedics from a different phone, then stayed on the line until they arrived.

    Talk about “prohibiting others from doing as they themselves see fit, even when there is no empirical evidence to support their prohibitionist zeal”!

  7. HareTrinity says:

    Wow, Iroq said something I agree with.

    You’re right, the whole opening the door thing was a sort of “protecting the second class citizen/property” thing. A sign of women being a separate being from men, no matter what their strength or status.

    There are a few old contradictions to this (i.e. that if a man married a woman of a richer family, he would take her name, not the other way around), but mostly they’re politics, not respect for the people they included.

    Thankfully, it’s falling behind now, and although I notice older men are less thankful than older women when I hold the door open for them, it’s less of a gender-controlled action now.

    As for depression, it’s sad that some people still don’t take the people with the condition seriously enough. Still, more psychological studies are giving strength to it being a disease, not just a stage, and more people are these days aware that they need to do something about it.

    Pity one of its symptoms is making the sufferer believe that they’re not worth treating, but still. There are changes happening.

  8. Ralph says:

    IH recently tried to argue with me on another thread that the Crusades were not a Christian war against an Islamic enemy!

    Whether this person actually believes what she says, or is just making things up at random to push people’s buttons is something I’m not sure of. But she has a definite tendency to latch on, disagree and provoke. If you look carefully, though, you’ll see that her arguments are structured around trying to be as contrary as possible, rather than trying to actually articulate anything that makes sense.

    That’s really the only way to understand her.

  9. Iroquois Honky says:

    I love you too, Ralph.

    I’m sure you yourself, Ralph are so spiritual and devout in nature that it would be hard for you to imagine anyone who would do anything for money or power–like conquer the Christian lands of Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, Balkans, France, Africa, Spain…. Maybe you think the Inquisition was really about religion and not landgrab, or that Jerry Falwell wants the glory and the power for the Lord and not for himself. Pa-leez.

    Maybe you think Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins who wrote the 13 or 14 books of the ‘left behind’ series really believe they’re going to be ‘taken up’ and raptured into heaven. That’s why they gave up all their money from the books and gave it to the poor jerks who will be ‘left behind’ in an Christlike act of caring for the downtrodden…oh, wait, they didn’t give up their millions? Don’t they expect to be raptured up? Don’t they believe what they write?

    Shhhh…don’t tell Ralph, he thinks people routinely act on religious motives.

    And what’s this about ‘disagree and provoke’? I do believe Ralph is trying to argue with me. Not tonight dear, okay? I have a headache. Rain check?

  10. Iroquois Honky says:


    Thanks, I’m feeling really mellow towards you Brits at the moment on account of our little Independence celebration…

    In the U.S. I have never seen a man take the woman’s family name, but I did keep my name when I got married–and was there ever resistance to THAT.

    Jim brings up an interesting point about the psych field when he talks about being challenged when he wanted to intervene becasue of his friend’s suicide ideation. There seems to be a sort of blaming the victim mentality towards the healthliest person whenever there is some difficult situation. So when someone trusts you with their suicide plan or they become embroiled in some addiction or difficulty, suddenly you are an ‘enabler’ or ‘love too much’ or are viewed as somehow responsible for causing their behaviour, which of course you don’t have any control over at all. This person’s wierd behaviour prooves there is something wrong with you, if only you could figure out what it is, and why you were drawn to someone who ended up acting so badly. The message is that compassion is bad, and it’s a message that sells a lot of books.

    But I don’t agree with Jim’s pure empirical approach. Something like the twelve-step programs is where the rubber meets the road and it’s the proof of usefullness for any academic approach. It can take years to find out the smallest empirical fact, and build the facts into something coherent–in the meantime people must live their lives and struggle through their difficulties. The twelve step stuff was not invented by some moralistic do-gooder for someone else to follow. It was invented by people who were trying to make sense of their own pain and make their own lives work. When the academic stuff comes along, it’s great, but there is simply too much that is unknown and too many variables.

  11. Ralph says:

    See, IH always argues the person, not the issue.

    Statement: The Crusades were Christian wars against an Islamic enemy.

    Counterclaim: Oh, I guess YOU’RE so spiritual!

    Absolutely no point in arguing with her.

  12. Iroquois Honky says:

    First of all, Ralph, the subject we were discussing on another thread was the first crusade, a war of simple self-defense against an invading army. When I mentioned the pope didn’t actually have an army, Ralph got bored and thought of something else to do. For all I know he googled it and found out the anti-papist argument he was trying to make wasn’t there in the facts after all.

    And how does Ralph argue the issues? He says I’m “making things up at random”, “pushing people’s buttons”, and “being contrary”. Oh yes, I’m “arguing the person” too, ‘disagreeable’ and ‘provocative’ person that I must be. Sounds to me like Ralph is arguing the person, not the issues.

    Ralph, why don’t you own your own opinions. Instead of saying my argument doesn’t make sense, why don’t you say you don’t agree and why. Otherwise the people who think my argument makes perfect sense are just going to think you are being “contrary”.

    If you really think the first crusade was about religion, and not money, power, and land, go ahead and make your case, Ralph.

    I’m beginning to think you don’t love me anymore.

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