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Pseudoscience: Why It Thrives In Psychology?

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Fighting pseudoscience is difficult and messy, even more so in Malaysian psychology. I have previously written about how to recognize pseudoscience in psychology. This is to help people without psychology degrees distinguish the quacks from the professionals so that they can avoid them.

Pseudoscience is basically empty, untested, and potentially harmful statements masquerading as science. Sometimes entire fields of studies, alongside groups and ideologies, are built on these statements. And they continue to exist because they are profitable and free of scientific scrutiny.

So in this article, I am going to address why this is the case, especially for the field of psychology in Malaysia.

PSEUDOSCIENCE: LACK OF CONTACT WITH SCIENTIFIC PSYCHOLOGY

pseudoscience

All in all, it is pretty safe to say that generally Malaysians simply do not have exposure to modern psychology. Collectively it would seem that we are still at the ‘psychology is about mind reading’ or ‘it’s about studying crazy people’ stage. I can’t even tell you how many times someone has asked me to read their minds.

Even less well-known is that psychology is studied and practiced as a scientific discipline. Many Malaysians don’t really have a good idea of what is ‘science’ to begin with. They don’t know that human thought, behavior, and experiences (aka psychology) can be studied, measured, and analyzed. Only through these can we understand psychological patterns and relationships, which in turn form new theories, hypotheses, and models.

The typical understanding of science has been molded by our primary and secondary education system, which confines the definition of science to physics, chemistry, and biology. Anything dissimilar is strictly speaking ‘arts’ and ‘humanities’, which unfortunately translates to ‘low bar of entry’ and ‘unverifiable’. This may have directly contributed to prospective clients not scrutinizing the qualifications of practitioners as they seek services, because it may not have occurred to them that there is are scientific underpinnings for human behaviour which turn requires rigorous quality assurance from educated authorities.

PSEUDOSCIENCE: HEURISTICS & BIASES

flat-lay photography of four person holding mobile devices

The human mind is riddled with heuristics and biases, especially when it comes to decision making and judgment. These are essentially features of our minds, which help us in other avenues of life, but they are detrimental to our scientific and objective judgment. Scientist Sian Townson listed four in her Guardian article.

  1. Sunk Cost Fallacy: Pseudopsychology practices are often expensive, ranging from quack training to quack therapy. Clients are motivated to persevere in their trust to such services to justify their initial hefty investment.
  2. Confirmation Bias: Clients have an innate disposition to seek out evidence which confirms their already held beliefs and resist contrary ideas. Without basic knowledge of modern psychology at earlier stages of education, clients are vulnerable to mistaken ideas of the human mind during development, which will later predispose them to resist legitimate psychological knowledge.
  3. Clustering Illusion: The human mind is an incredible meaning-making machine, capable of make meanings and connections out of entirely random and unrelated information. This means that clients themselves can easily arrive at inaccurate conclusions about human behaviour, even more so with priming from pseudopsychology sources.
  4. Dunning-Kruger Effect: The more educated one becomes, the less one claims to know. As a result of this, legitimate psychologists and therapists that are self-aware of their own limitations come across as unconfident, which is often unappealing. Meanwhile, pseudopsychology quack often have the market benefit of sounding confident.

MINIMAL ATTENTION SPAN OF THE NEEDY

click pen and magnifying glass on book pageLet’s put it this way: if you are a prospective client in need of some professional help, you are not very likely to scrutinize your helper’s credentials alongside the scientific aspect of the services. One is more likely to go by word of mouth, feedback, and branding (and other periphery route information) to determine if someone is suitable for their needs. This is especially relevant in human conditions that comes with acute crisis episodes. Otherwise, the pressure from friends, coworkers, and family may lead them to seek services without looking up.

While psychology students, regardless of specialty or concentration, have the privilege of being trained to dig into practitioner credentials before judging, it has to be noted that other members of society rarely do. It is unfair to expect every citizen to be able to research and scientifically understand the treatment or training they are about to get, especially when the problem lies in the systems we live and work in. If we can trust every physician at the local clinic, it is time to ask the question of ‘how do we recreate a similar level of integrity in the psychological professions’.

MENTAL HEALTH IS (STILL) STIGMATIZED

person outside the windowIt is depressing to write this, but the significant strides psychology made as a science and profession in Malaysia may not matter very much, especially if our cultural attitudes towards mental health do not improve. Unless Malaysians start to openly talk about mental health while staying serene and steadfast in the face of more ‘abnormal’ aspects of each other’s behaviors, our best efforts to refine the science of psychology and the art of psychotherapy may not have much meaning. It is not exactly the case of mental health literacy, but rather a more civilized attitude towards mental illnesses.

Why is this relevant? Because pseudoscience peddlers thrive when certain conversations can’t be openly held without personal and social repercussions. When our citizens are closing our minds and turning away from ‘abnormalities’, victims have to turn to these peddlers who make themselves accessible. Why would anyone care to be cautious and rational about their decisions to seek psychological help, when they feel that nobody genuinely cares and their employment might be under threat?

Legitimate practitioners and researchers are right to be angered when the integrity of their professions is compromised by profit-minded people who operate under the pretense of science, yet the core problem doesn’t go away simply by successful legal action or boycott. We can take down a couple of unaccredited ‘psychologists’ and ‘lay-counsellors’ at large, but what is stopping them from consulting other ‘experts’ that are more benign? After all, we all know someone that delights in doling out life advice and wisdom, what is stopping some of them from profiting of it under the guise of science?

You can read this article on the threat of pseudo-psychology in Malaysia.

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Jia Yue Tan
JY is a counselling trainee at Monash University Malaysia under the Master of Professional Counselling program and writes psychology articles to procrastinate from his counselling paperwork and assignments. His interests are in individual differences, psychotherapy, and helping the public understand psychology(s) as a profession. Occasionally reviews books and promote person-centered psychotherapy.

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