Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Being a psychologist and Freud

I'm a business psychologist. The 'business' bit being as important as the 'psychologist' bit. But any time I tell people what I do, at least half the time, the only bit they hear is the word 'psychologist'.

Ask anyone to tell you what they think a psychologist looks like and they'll probably describe an older man with a white beard. Ask what a psychologist does and they'll probably say that we get people to lie on couches and tell us about their innermost thoughts.

At parties I'm constantly getting asked if I can analyse people's dreams or read their body language or tell them what I'm thinking. But as a business psychologist, I don't do any of that! (Actually, no psychologist can tell what a person is thinking - those people are called telepaths and only exist in the world of science fiction!)

It's all Sigmund Freud's fault of course.

The general public has been hugely influenced by Freud's theories. So we've heard of terms like the Oedipus complex or the notion of penis envy (allegedly something women experience) or castration anxiety (allegedly what motivates men to behave the way they do). But, in recent years, many psychologists have been coming to the conclusion that Freud was talking a load of old rubbish.

Basically, he wasn't a scientist. He didn't collect data from lots of patients before coming up with his theories. He used to interview just a small handful of patients and then come up with a label to apply to everyone. There are plenty of books on the subject, but a new one has just been reviewed and summarised quite nicely by a writer in the New York Sun.

I could go on about the flaws in his methods for ages, but I won't.

Anyway, the lesson is this. The next time you meet a psychologist, please don't ask him or her to analyse your dreams or read your body language. And don't ask if we ask people to lie on couches!