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The Real Reason for the Failure of Psychology

by Izzy Kalman (April 2007)Why is psychology’s track record in dealing with bullying so dismal? It’s happening because when it comes to bullying, psychology is no longer practicing science. Allow me to explain.

I recently discovered the philosophical term to describe what I have been talking about for years: “category mistake. I encountered this term in the latest (March/April 2007) issue of Psychotherapy Networker. Jay Efron explains in a marvelous, eye-opening article, Defining Psychotherapy, that philosophers talk about making “category mistakes.” Efran claims that one reason it is so difficult to define and evaluate psychotherapy is that we have made the category mistake of calling psychotherapy a medical treatment when it is really something very different. While this was the first time I came across the concept of “category mistake,” the debate on the nature of psychotherapy is not new. I remember it even from my days as a student three and a half decades ago.

However, there is another category mistake that no one seems to be aware of. “Bullying prevention ” is being treated like it is a field of psychology. But it’s not. It is a branch of law enforcement. When you think you are doing one thing but are doing something else – especially something you are not qualified for – it will be difficult to succeed and you are likely to make matters worse. And that is why so many school mental health professionals are becoming miserable. They are acting as law enforcement officers. They are performing roles of security officers, detectives and judges – and to their chagrin the bullying is increasing.

The truth is that some mental health professionals love the role of law enforcement officer and are excited by the constant pursuit and prosecution (and frequently persecution) of bullies. I believe it gives them a great sense of power (something that is said to be sought by bullies), and I suspect they may be enjoying vicarious revenge against the bullies in their own lives. However, most science-oriented mental health professionals detest playing the role of law enforcement agent. It is not why we went into the field.

Virtually all the psychological organizations assert that children have “a right to go to school without being bullied.” The belief that democracy gives people the right to be free from bullying by other people is the foundation of the work of Prof. Dan Olweus, the father of the anti-bullying “psychology” and has been enthusiastically reiterated by everyone else, including Dr. Garbarino.

When did “rights” become a scientific concept? It is strictly a legal or political concept. Rights only exist once there is a government of people, and the government decides what rights its people will have. When did psychologists become experts in law and politics? Is it part of their training? Philosophers have always known that morality can’t be legislated, but our psychologists, who don’t receive academic training in philosophy, law, politics or morality, don’t realize this. It seems as though they believe all you need to do is declare that kids have a “right” to be free from bullying in school and the government will magically transform the school into a place where children are always nice to each other. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get rid of psychological problems by making their causes illegal! Unfortunately, making schools legally responsible for getting rid of bullying does not make bullying magically disappear. It only makes it easier for parents to sue schools for failing to make the bullying disappear!

Defining an issue in terms of “victims” and “bullies” is not a scientific approach. It is a legal one, in which the “victims” are considered innocent, with no responsibility for what happens to them, and the “bullies” are the guilty ones who are to blame for the victims’ misery and need to change. Scientific psychology does not see human interactions in terms of guilt and innocence. It is about understanding what really goes on between people and how they affect each other. It recognizes that whatever an individual does will affect the way s/he is treated. Today, about the worst thing one can do is suggest that a “victim” has anything to do with being abused/bullied. The idea that victims have nothing to do with the way they are treated is not a psychological idea. It is a legal one. Scientifically it is nonsense. But if you want to stay out of trouble, you had better not challenge it.

“Bully” is not a scientific diagnosis. It is an insult. It is on the order of jerk, wimp, slut and loser. We wouldn’t dare insult kids by referring to them in such terms. Scientists have no business calling people bullies, either.

Psychology teaches us not to judge people but to understand them. “Bully” is not a diagnosis but a judgment. Once you call someone a bully, you have passed a verdict on that person – a guilty verdict. This is a legal justice function, not a scientific one.

Psychologists are trying to protect victims from bullies, and make students safe from bullying in school. Since when is “school safety” a function of psychology? It is a law enforcement role. Psychology is supposed to promote the development of traits like wisdom, resilience, emotional maturity, self-confidence and self-esteem. These qualities can only be acquired through the experience of adversity and learning how to handle it. Creating an environment is which children are “safe” from bullying prevents them from developing these traits.

Science doesn’t look at a universal phenomenon and simply decide, “This is bad; let’s get rid of it.” If bullying goes on in all groups of living creatures, human and otherwise, both in nature and in civilization, the scientific approach should be, “This goes on in all social groups. It must serve a positive biological purpose. Let’s try to understand it better,” not “There is something wrong when kids do this in school; let’s make a policy against it.” This is a law enforcement mentality.

Scientists propose hypotheses and then do research to test them. They are not supposed to be married to their hypotheses. If the results of the research do not support their hypothesis, they are supposed to reject their hypothesis. But when it comes to bullying, psychologists become decidedly unscientific. They present the hypothesis that bullying happens in school because the school “lets” it happen, and that if the school implements an anti-bullying program, bullying will decrease. Despite the scientific evidence showing that the overwhelming majority of whole-school anti-bullying programs are ineffective and likely to make the bullying increase, psychologists refuse to divorce themselves from this hypothesis and continue stubbornly insisting that schools need to do more to make bullying stop.

Whatever happened to the idea that counseling/therapy is supposed to teach people how they are causing their own problems and to lead them to a solution? Now it is about blaming someone else. The nature of the bullying psychology is that someone else – the bully – is responsible for your misery. This is a legal idea, not a psychological one.

Whatever happened to the “drama triangle“, or “triangulation”? It is well known in human dynamics that when a person plays “rescuer” to a victim/persecutor pair, it makes the situation worse. The victim acts more like a vicitm, the persecutor (or bully, in our discussion) becomes more abusive, and they are both prevented from figuring out how to solve their problem. The anti-bully psychologists are encouraging – even demanding – bystanders to become rescuers of victims. What is a cardinal psychological mistake has now become the recommended thing to do. It’s because we are practicing law, not psychology.

Whatever happened to the well-established psychological theory of “locus of control“? People who are happy and successful tend to have an internal locus of control, which means they believe that their own behavior influences what happens to them. People who are miserable and failures tend to have an external locus of control. They believe what happens to them is determined not by themselves but by external forces. So what are we teaching people today? “If you are a victim, it is because of bullies. Please don’t think it has anything to do with you or your behavior.” We are fostering an external locus of control. It’s because we are acting like lawyers.

Whatever happened to the concept of “learned helplessness“, which leads to depression? We are teaching kids today, “If you are a victim of bullying, you are helpless. The bullies are too powerful. You can’t deal with them by yourself. The school staff and the other students have to help you.” We are teaching helplessness today. It’s because we are practicing law, not psychology.

Whatever happened to self-confidence and self-esteem, those twin sacred personality traits that psychology has been trying to enhance in children for the past few decades? How are children supposed to develop self-confidence and self-esteem when we tell them that it is not in their power to stop bullies by themselves, but everyone in the environment has to help them? But this is what we get when we trade a scientific for a legal approach to interpersonal problems.

Why Did Psychology Trade Science for Law?

What has led to this development? Why has psychology abandoned the scientific approach for the legal?

The psychological helping professions have discovered over the years that it is not so easy to help victims. We counsel and do therapy with victims, and they continue to be victimized. So we figure, “But why should the victim have to change? The victim is the good one. Their problems are caused by abusers and bullies. Let’s promote mental health by fighting for laws against abuse and bullying.” In other words, our psychological approaches to reducing aggression don’t seem to be working very well, so let’s get the legal system to do it for us!

In the comfort of our offices, we get the impression that all emotional problems are caused by abuse, because just about everyone who comes to us for help presents themselves as a victim – they are abused by their parents, spouses, bosses, children, etc. But what we are not noticing in the comfort of our offices is that the people who don’t come to us for help – because they are functioning well and don’t need it – were also victims of abuse! How many people have spent a whole life only being treated nicely by people? Some of the happiest, most resilient people were victims of terrible abuse, but they learned how to handle it, stopped being abused, and became happy. And some people never learn how to handle abuse, so they stay miserable and come to us for help. But we get this lopsided idea that all psychological problems are caused by abuse, so we figure we’ll promote mental health by making abuse and bullying illegal.

But in case you didn’t notice, making abuse and bullying illegal does not make abuse and bullying disappear. It just changes whom we deal with and how we deal with them. So today, we are trying to do therapy with abusers and bullies. And what do we discover? It is not so easy to help abusers and bullies either! But rather than admit we’re failing because there is something wrong with our methods, we preserve our own self-esteem by declaring the reason it’s so hard to help bullies and abusers is that they are personality disordered and have no conscience. But our conscience sure feels a lot better failing to help evil abusers and bullies than failing to help poor, innocent victims!

The Difference between Psychology and Law

We are behaving as though the goals of the legal profession and the psychological profession are identical. But they are not. In fact, they are diametrically opposed. The psychological profession is supposed to get clients to take responsibility for their own problems and lead them to a solution. The legal profession is supposed to take responsibility away from the client and put it on someone else!

If I am your psychotherapist and I am holding someone else responsible for you problem, how can I help you? I should be working with the other person and trying to make them change. On the other hand, if I am your lawyer, my job is to hold someone else responsible for your problem, and let’s go sue them and make them pay! If I am your lawyer and I am holding you responsible for the problem, you should fire me and get yourself a good lawyer!

The psychological profession is supposed to teach people that they are not victims, and that their lives are in their control. The legal profession tries to convince people that they are victims so they’ll have someone to sue. Lawyers coach their clients to maximize their appearance of victimhood so they both make as much money as possible.

Law Trounces Psychology

When you combine the legal profession with the psychological profession (or any other profession, for that matter), there are two things that happen. One, the psychological profession loses scientific objectivity. It becomes less about understanding what’s really going on between people and more about who is the victim and who is the abuser or bully.

The second thing that happens is that the legal profession takes over. It makes the laws. It decides what we’re allowed to do and how we should do it. Remember, we are not talking about immutable laws of physics. We are dealing with man-made laws resulting from the lobbying efforts of victim advocacy groups. Even when a law makes the situation worse – and many laws do so – you still have to follow the law. If you need to decide between doing what you believe is psychologically correct and doing what’s legal, you had better do the legal thing or you are going to get in trouble.

The legal profession is the most reviled of all professions. There are worse jokes and insults about lawyers than even prostitutes. So we invite them to help us, making our profession less scientifically objective, and then they take over. And in case you haven’t noticed, lawyers tend to make more money than psychological professionals.

And that’s why the mental health sciences are so stuck today. We have tied ourselves to a legal approach to human relationships that thinks in terms of innocent victims and guilty abusers and bullies. We are forcing ourselves to abandon the psychological knowledge we have gained from decades of experience – as well as the wisdom of thousands of years – and turned ourselves into security officers, detectives and judges.

Psychology will never promote mental health as long as it continues advocating a “human rights” approach to problems. We will simply continue creating a society that encourages people to blame others (bullies and abusers) and to expect society to solve their problems for them. And our schools will spend more time and effort on anti-bullying activities and less on teaching academics. In the name of “human rights,” we will continue practicing zero-tolerance, which increases bullying. (But it will continue to be good for the people who make a living by fighting bullying.)

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