Psychology and Fascism
"[Fascism] takes responsibility for all aspects of life, including our health and well being, and seeks to impose uniformity of thought and action, whether by force or through regulation and social pressure.... Any rival identity is part of the 'problem' and therefore defined as the enemy." From Jonah Goldberg's definition of fascism in Liberal Fascism.
As much as I love my work, there is a stream of thought in psychology that serves to prepare the ground for fascism. A move by the American Psychological Association several years ago serves to illustrate this. But first, some background.
I've always had something of a complicated relationship with my profession. On the one hand, I think there has been tremendous good achieved in terms of identifying and treating psychological troubles, and I am especially happy about the more recent wealth of research regarding what makes for a happy and satisfying life.
These are great and fundamental problems to solve and horizons to expand and I'm happy and proud to be a part of it.
On the other hand, psychology can inspire an illusion of a sort of mystical insight and a seductive draw toward using what we think we know about human thought and emotion to manipulate other people toward questionable ends.
To the extent that psychology teaches people to be suspicious or fearful of a deeply mysterious inner world, while also implying or outright claiming that there are people with secret knowledge of our own personal mysteries it is undermining of people's trust in themselves, and in their own practical knowledge and problem solving skills.
Such undermining of the individual's sense of autonomy and effectiveness can prepare the way for fascism.
Psychotherapy as a profession has been fertile ground for what is called confirmation bias – the tendency to see what you want to see and to confirm your own preconceived beliefs or hopes. I have studied countless therapeutic techniques over the years (okay I could probably count them, but I'd rather not), and many have suffered from a hefty dose of this.
Beginning with Freud, who used his analytic technique to attribute to his patients lots of strange experiences and internal dynamics, psychotherapy has been rife with all manner of grandiose claims of deep understanding regarding human psychology, motivation and emotion while putting forth techniques that have promised to bring profound and/or instant healing.
There are effective interventions in psychotherapy, most of which have come from cognitive/behavioral approaches. And there can be benefit to a trusting therapeutic or coaching relationship in and of itself.
But there are hundreds of psychological techniques and theories out there, most of which suffer from a severe case of confirmation bias, and because of this people attribute to these techniques a sort of mystical effectiveness to describe results that have probably come more often from a hard won, natural process of human growth and relationship.
So when we are looking at the field of psychology, while we can appreciate that there is much good there it is important to begin from a stance of skepticism when it comes to how psychologists talk about what they think they know to be true.
If you read Freud, this skepticism is entirely justified – because he attempted to convince people that he could somehow interpret what was going on in their deep unconscious, magically seeing into the dark recesses of their soul, and in oracular fashion bring those mysteries up from the unconscious abyss and expose them to the patient.
Of course, he was basically making all this stuff up and seeing what he wanted to see based upon whatever his current theory happened to be (for some concise examples, see this interesting book review by Allen Esterson in The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, Fall-Winter 2003).
So when a group of psychologists claim to want to champion some truth or cause, this is the context from which we must view their claims.
A few years ago, the American Psychological Association embarked on a project that only serves to affirm this perception. At their annual meeting in 2008, climate change was a big item on their agenda.
A press release from the APA about this meeting included the following:
In a session Friday looking at ways psychology can contribute internationally to address climate change, Ellen Matthies, PhD, of Ruhr-University in Bochum, Germany, David Uzzell, PhD, of the University of Surrey, England, and Paul Stern, PhD, of the National Research Council, spoke about how psychology can help people understand the potential for energy conservation and other behaviors that mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.
"Psychologists need to examine the attitudes and behaviors in the wider context of beliefs about environmental and social change," said Uzzell. Stern encouraged developing an international agenda for psychology and climate change. Matthies provided an overview of studies in Europe that examined how to change problematic behaviors associated with energy use, consumption and driving.
From a USA Today article about the APA's 2008 annual meeting, titled "Psychologists determine what it means to think 'green'" we get a bit more:
Those who make human behavior their business aim to make living "green" your business.
Armed with new research into what makes some people environmentally conscious and others less so, the 148,000-member American Psychological Association is stepping up efforts to foster a broader sense of eco-sensitivity that the group believes will translate into more public action to protect the planet.
"We know how to change behavior and attitudes. That is what we do," says Yale University psychologist Alan Kazdin, association president. "We know what messages will work and what will not."
So now the leadership of The American Psychological Association not only thinks that they understand climate science with enough depth and certainty to draw scientific conclusions, but they believe that they should use the full power of what they think they know about how to manipulate people in order to drive the behavior of an entire country toward their beliefs.
This is an example of the worst of my profession. This is akin to Freud claiming that all children somehow desire to have sexual relations with one of their parents and do away with the other parent (the very bizarre "Oedipal complex," which he made up).
This is like B.F. Skinner claiming that we must use his behavioral manipulation to mold society into his preferred vision, since in his view we are all just automatons anyway.
This is the left-wing throng of do-gooder therapists longing to change the world into their John Lennon "Imagine" utopia so that they can feel that their own life has great meaning and purpose.
This is the emotional foundation of fascism – the desire to move masses of people toward a perceived great end through the use of manipulation and force. And the progressive temperament of the vast majority of psychologists makes fertile soil for such self-righteous grandiosity.
I do wish that we could focus instead on how to help people who wish to suffer less and flourish more psychologically and emotionally and in their own personal and work relationships. But, of course, the idea that people can voluntarily and personally help other people without coercion or manipulation by some elite know-it-alls is a classical liberal position – antithetical to the modern liberal/progressive agenda.
The old definition of a Marxist applies to such psychological fascists as well: Someone who loves humanity, but only in groups of one million or more.
Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is a Life Coach who works with people around the world via phone and e-mail. He can be reached for life coaching service at email@example.com or through his website, www.drjoelwade.com. He is the author of Mastering Happiness and A Pocket Guide to Mastering Happiness.
"A highly skilled clinician, trained in a variety of psychological disciplines, Joel Wade is a man of immense sensitivity and compassion who has a wide repertoire of problem-solving strategies to bring to the practice of Coaching." ~ Nathaniel Branden, Ph.D., author of The Art of Living Consciously.