Pseudo-psychology refers to theories or practices that claim to be scientific and based on psychological principles, but lack empirical evidence or theoretical basis accepted by the mainstream psychology community.
A pseudo-psychology paradigm often contains statements and beliefs, or advocates certain practices, while claiming to have a scientific basis. However, those statements do not have a foundation in the scientific method.
Therefore, they are not regarded as valid in the scientific field of psychology and are not supported by professionals that have been trained or licensed to practice psychology.
Pseudo-Psychology Definition and Overview
Pseudo-psychology is an approach to psychology that does not involve the scientific method. The ideas and theories offered by pseudo-psychology are not grounded in science-based research.
The ideas presented in pseudo-psychology can come from any source. For instance, anyone can write a book or publish a blog and state claims about the causes of behavior and personality development without any evidence whatsoever.
If evidence is presented, it may be misinterpreted or intentionally misstated in a way that it appears to support the advocate’s contentions.
In some cases, this can be dangerous. For those that are uninformed, they may take advice that has not been supported by scientific research, which can then lead to negative health consequences and/or a delay in attaining treatment that has proven efficacy.
Pseudo-Psychology vs. Scientific Psychology
The main difference between pseudo-psychology and scientific psychology has to do with whether the theories and ideas postulated are supported by research or not.
Modern psychology relies on the scientific method to devise, test, modify, and reject theories about human behavior.
The scientific method utilizes a set of standard procedures that result in findings that can be verifiable and reproducible by other researchers.
In addition to following strict procedures that are accepted and followed by scientists, each study goes through a rigorous peer review process.
The Peer Review Process
Before a study is published in an academic journal, it is painstakingly reviewed by experts that specialize in that topic.
This is an example of the process:
- Editorial Reading: A study on bystander intervention that is submitted to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology will first be read by the editor.
- Double Blind Peer Review: The editor will then send copies to 3-5 experts in that subject. Each expert will analyze and critique the study’s degree of scientific rigor, and write a 3–5-page report detailing their criticisms. We call this a ‘double blind review’ because the reviewers don’t know who the writers are, and the writers don’t know the reviewers.
- Editorial Review: The editor will read each expert’s opinion and make a determination as to whether the study will be: accepted for publication, rejected, or need modifications.
- Revisions: Authors have to respond to the reviewers and make revisions based on the experts’ recommendations.
- Second Review: The blind reviewers check the edits to sign-off on them or reject them.
Because of this process, 80% of all articles submitted to journals are rejected! And in fact, rejecting articles is one indicator of an article’s prestige and respect in the literature.
Pseudo-psychology does not rely on the scientific method to test hypotheses and there is no peer review process for the publication of scientific studies.
Another important element of a science-based discipline has to do with the concept of falsifiability. This criterion was advocated by the philosopher Karl Popper (1959; 2004).
Popper argues that scientific knowledge is tentative. Scientific statements, hypotheses, and theories all have the quality of falsifiability; they can all be proven false.
The problem with pseudo-science is that the propositions usually cannot be proven false.
Defining Characteristics of Pseudo-Psychology
There are two defining characteristics of pseudo-psychology: 1. They do not evolve over time, and 2. They are hostile to criticism.
Thagard (1978; 1998) suggests that pseudo-science and scientific disciplines can be distinguished based on how they evolve over time. A pseudo-psychology will fail to acknowledge its failure and modify it basic principles.
Psychological theories derived scientifically, however, almost always undergo adjustments as evidence is accumulated, which may ultimately lead to a theory being rejected completely.
Novella (2018) points out that hostility to criticism is another defining characteristic of a pseudo-science. Advocates of the theory or belief often react to criticism not through logical rebuttals, but instead through emotion-driven denials or outright rejections.
- Sigmund Freud – Freud’s psychoanalysis aims to help people understand their unconscious thoughts and emotions. It often relies on bizarre and debunked ideas like the oedipus complex and the Freudian slip. While many of Freud’s ideas are still widely used in psychology, the hard sciences tend to critique most of Freud’s more bizarre ideas as unscientific.
- Learning Styles – While learning styles are widely used in educational psychology, the concept itself lacks scientific literature supporting the idea that people are naturally better at learning in one way or another. The concept of learning preferences, however, does have some scientific support (see: Coffield, 2013)
- Astrology: Astrology posits that the alignment of the stars when a person is born lead to certain personality characteristics. For example, those born within a certain period of time are supposed to be outgoing, or careful, wise or impulsive, or any combination of numerous other characteristics.
- Numerology: The belief that there is a relationship between the numbers that appear in our lives and things that happen to us is called numerology. Numbers are viewed as symbols of life forces and energy which, if interpreted correctly, can give us insight into our behavior and future.
- Influencers: Some influencers specialize in offering advice about how to manage one’s life. They espouse words of wisdom and principles to follow about how to handle interpersonal conflicts, stress, and myriad other aspects of life. Unfortunately, their advice is primarily based on their personal views, and, they have no formal training or license in psychology.
- Phrenology: The idea that the shape of the skull and location of various bumps are indicative of personality characteristics dates back hundreds of years.
- Some Talk-Show Hosts: Getting advice about how to manage your life from a talk-show host is not recommended by trained professionals. Although they may be very charismatic and persuasive, many of their suggestions are based on their personal opinions and own life experiences. It’s best to view their words as a form of entertainment, not professional advice.
- Physiognomy: This refers to the belief that a person’s outward appearance, particularly facial features, indicate certain personality characteristics. Even da Vinci once wrote that a person with deep lines between their eyebrows was a person that is easily irritated.
- Psychic Abilities: An individual with psychic abilities can perceive forces and entities in the world that cannot be perceived through the basic five senses. They are often believed to be able to read minds, speak with ghosts and spirits, and predict the future.
- Palmistry: The practice of analyzing lines in an individual’s hand and then predicting their future or identifying their personality characteristics is known as palmistry. Various lines and bumps in the hand are said to indicate one’s probable lifespan, if they are passionate or cold-hearted, and if they will be rich or poor.
- Telekinesis: The ability to alter physical objects through concentrated cognitive forces is called telekinesis. The action of the mind can cause an object to move or change its shape. Feats of telekinesis are often found in magic shows, but have no scientific basis in cognitive psychology.
- The Fake TED Talk: If you look carefully, you can spot a fake TED Talk. The stage looks smaller than usual, the giant word TED may not be shown fully on the screen, and there may be no shots of the audience. The presenter may offer all kinds of advice about family or career that are solely based on their opinion. They try to create a façade of legitimacy by associating their presentation with an established forum.
Criticisms of Pseudo-Psychology
1. Lack of Peer Review
Ruscio (2002) identifies the lack of peer review as the most potent criticism of pseudo-psychology. The peer review process is critical to the acceptance of evidence as being valid.
However, advocates of a particular pseudo-psychology reject the idea of submitting their “research” to the peer review process. Various reasons include their belief that the process is biased against their ideas and therefore the process will not be fair and impartial.
Others argue that their assertions cannot be tested using the scientific method. Or, that the criteria from the scientific method are based on an established paradigm of thinking that does not match the fundamental principles of their beliefs.
Unfortunately, rejecting peer review means that those proposed principles can never be modified based on informed feedback from others.
2. Reliance on Anecdotal Accounts
Bunge (1982) identifies an over-reliance on personal testimonies and anecdotal evidence as supporting evidence as a key fault.
From a scientific perspective, especially in psychology, personal experience is not a form of evidence.
Although it can serve as the starting point of a hypothesis which is then subjected to testing, the experience in and of itself is not sufficient to conclude correctness of the stated belief.
Personal experience is subject to a wide range of biases that can distort perception and judgment. It is for this very reason that the scientific method exists.
3. Other Spurious Sources of Evidence
Advocates of a pseudo-psychology will often rely on myths or folklore as the foundation for their positions. Because a myth or particular folklore is well-known and has a long cultural history, it can create a spurious sense of validity.
People often have confidence in sayings that have been passed down through generations because they believe that if those words of wisdom have been around for a long time, there must be some truth to their reasoning.
Similarly, advocates will sometimes cite an unreputable publication as a source to support their claims. The citation of a source creates the illusion of legitimacy.
Followers of the advocate may not be familiar with that source or publication, and therefore they may be more likely to accept the stated claims by the advocate as being valid and even accepted by others.
Pseudo-psychology refers to beliefs and statements regarding human behavior that have not been validated through the scientific method.
Examples of pseudo-psychology include astrology, phrenology, and even palm reading. The beliefs associated with these subjects are sometimes accepted by individuals without knowledge or appreciation of scientific principles of data collection and analysis.
Individuals can also be presenters of their own pseudo-psychological beliefs. Popular influencers and talk-show hosts often offer their viewers advice on a wide range of life issues.
Their statements may be based on personal experience, various myths and folklores, or a misunderstanding of scientifically derived psychological theories.
Although in many cases pseudo-psychology is harmless and entertaining, there are situations in which following these beliefs can lead to severe negative consequences.
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