Friday, April 12, 2013


I don't think that the response of Nicholas Epley, Professor of Behavioral Science, University of Chicago, Booth School of Business to this Edge Symposium question was intended to irritate me, but it does.

Dr. Epley's response follows (with original typos), with my comments:

I am willing to bet that every psychologist, no matter what aspect of the human mind he or she studies, has experienced something like the following more than once. You meet a stranger, mention that you work as a psychologist, and then the strangers asks, "Are you analyzing me?"
In my experience, the exchange usually goes more like this: You meet a stranger, converse amiably, he or she finds out that you are a psychologist, and then they begin to tell you about their personal problems or about the problems of family members with mental illness. No one has asked me if I was analyzing them -- they simply assume that I am. So usually what I hear instead is, "Don't analyze, or rather over-analyze, what I'm about to say, because I'm aware that it probably sounds half nuts." It's an entreaty, not a question.
I dread this question because it reflects both a superficial misunderstanding of what many psychologists do for a living, but it also highlights a deeper limitation in psychological science. The superficial misunderstanding comes from the long shadow that Sigmund Freud still casts on our field. Although many psychologists working as clinicians and therapists do indeed analyze individuals, trying carefully to understand their problems, many work as scientists trying to understand how the mind works just as a chemist tries to understand how chemical bonds work. I, and every other psychologist you'll see on the Edge site, is of the latter type.
Not sure why he divides "clinicians" and "therapists"; he might be making a distinction between psychologists who treat patients with serious mental illness (e.g., PTSD, Major Depressive Disorder, OCD) and those who treat the "worried well" (i.e., people without a diagnosable mental disorder). Like many academic/research psychologists, he seems to have a partial understanding of Freud's work and influence. Freud did indeed pioneer new methods for treating mental disorders but he also engaged in a the same type of work that Dr. Epley does -- "trying to understand how the mind works". Epley seems to be drawing a (false) distinction between "clinicians" on the one hand, and "scientists" on the other. At the doctoral level of clinical psychology, all clinicians are scientists. However, it is not also true that all scientists are clinicians.
This misconception is easy to fix, and the great popular writing of many authors from this very site is shortening Freud's shadow. But I dread this question more because of the deeper issue it raises. "Are you analyzing me?" implies that I, as a psychologist, could indeed analyze you. The problem is that psychological science has, and always will be, a group-based enterprise. We randomly assign volunteers in our experiments to one condition or another and then analyze the average differences between our conditions relative to the variability within those conditions. We do not analyze individuals in our experiments, nor we do know why some people within a given condition in an experiment behavior differently than others. Our understanding of our own research participants is relatively course. [I believe he meant "coarse."]
Now I am frankly quite lost here. Not all psychological science involves random assignment or even experimentation. To insist that this is the definition of science is to exclude biology and chemistry and geology etc. from "science." It also appears ignorant of the single case series approach to the scientific understanding of human beings. I do agree with Dr. Epley that experimental psychologists usually do not do enough to account for individual differences among research participants, preferring instead to treat trait-based variations as measurement error. The great experimental psychologist Hans Eysenck did more than anymore to attempt to integrate the two great traditions in psychology: the experimental tradition (Wundt, Ebbinghaus) and the individual differences tradition (Galton, Spearman, Cattell).

All sciences work this way. In medicine, for instance, doctors prescribe drugs because the average outcome of those in the treatment group of a drug trial were better than the outcome of those in the placebo group. Not everyone in the treatment group improved and some improved more than others, but enough got better that doctors think it's likely that you'll get better if you take this drug as well. But as a psychologist, I often field questions that call on me to offer more individualized answers than our science can warrant. I'm asked to give precise advice and recommend exact solutions when what we can offer is general advice and broad solutions that may or may not apply exactly to your particular problem. I dread having to explain all of this to people. In fact, I dreaded trying to explain it in this little essay.
I am not sure what Dr. Epley thinks it is that clinicians do. If he thinks that they spend their days giving "precise advice" and recommending "exact solutions," I would recommend that he try a course of psychotherapy to see just how wrong he is. The idea that clinicians "give advice" is a popular misconception in itself, and one that would be corrected with the merest exposure to actual clinical work (or by reading Freud's case studies, by the way -- off the top of my head, I can't recall a single instance of Freud engaging in "advice giving").

So if you should happen to sit next to me on a train or a plane, I'll happily start up a conversation with you and explain that I'm a psychologist. Just rest assured that I am not, in fact, analyzing you.
This little essay disturbs me because it seems to reflect a common attitude among research psychologists: I am interested in neural networks, or cognitions, or memory functions, but I am steadfastly not interested in individual human beings. If by "analyzing" another person, Dr. Epley means "using careful observation to attempt to develop a theory of who this individual is, how is he similiar to and different from other people, and what he might do in the future," it is absurd to suggest that it is impossible to do so. Dr. Epley might not be very good at it, but most of us (I mean human beings, not clinicians) are quite good at making appraisals of other people. We come from a long line of expert people-readers. If you are sitting next to someone on a plane and you are NOT analyzing them, then you are displaying a troubling disinterest in your fellow human beings.

Now, Dr. Epley might avoid analyzing others not out of disinterest, but because he realizes, as I mentioned, that he is not very good at it and therefore the exercise is pointless for him. Clinicians are better than most people at "analyzing" others because 1) we engage in the practice regularly; 2) we have the opportunity to check the accuracy of our initial assessments, which can improve performance; 3) we have much larger personal databases of people from which to compare others to (our interpersonal relations are not limited to fellow academics but include people from incredibly varied backgrounds and circumstances; and, 4) we possess the scientific skills necessary to challenge the cognitive distortions common to such assessments. But even clinicians vary in their ability to arrive at an accurate understanding of another person (i.e., "analyze" them).

To end this post, I've been trying to think about a question about my field that I dread being asked. When I think of one, I will let you know.

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