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Vol. IV • 1981

Psychology as a Humble Discipline
Paul D. Ackerman

The science of psychology (and, of course, all science) is an ordinary and totally human enterprise. This is a fact which often escapes the notice of the average person. Nevertheless it is this "ordinariness" that needs to be appreciated if one is to understand what psychology and psychologists are all about. Psychologists are people and their research activities, interpretations, conclusions and counsel are governed by the same human foibles and peculiarities as beset all people. Sometimes their close and special interest in human thought and behavior leads to wise insights and understandings that escape the notice of the average person. Thus, psychologists can often offer the hope of concrete benefit and blessing to their fellows. Mentally handicapped children, for example, are being taught important life skills through techniques perfected in the psychological laboratory. Just as often, however, as with all specialists, their preoccupation and narrow focus on one aspect of life can be a source of distortion and error.

For one thing, experts tend to emphasize those factors they are knowledgeable about at the expense of other equally important ones they are not. Thus the chiropractor recommends chiropractic; the surgeon recommends surgery; and the psychologist recommends psychotheraphy. But this is not really different from the tendencies of people in general. A friend is convinced that vitamins and health food have benefited her greatly so she recommends the same for anyone who will listen. Another is into jogging or special diets and so forth. Each of us in small ways or large tends to be a nuisance to others as we push our pet treatments, movies, books, or whatever The actions of the expert are not really different from those of ordinary people.

But the limitations of psychological specialists go beyond a mere problem of selective focus. Research suggests, for example, that psychologists in comparison to non-psychologists are quite possibly less accurate in their judgements or people's personalities and traits.1

At first this might seem surprising and yet the explanation is quite simple. When understood it will be seen that the problem applies to all specialists within the domain of their own specialty. The specialist has a natural tendency to notice and emphasize factors within his or her own sphere of specialization. Basically, persons engaged in complex judgement tasks can either have a tendency to "sharpen" or "level" the various factors and components. As defined in the classic work on rumor by Allport and Postman, to "sharpen" means to exaggerate details and nuances, while to "level" means to minimize or omit them.2 In the light of Allport and Postman's work a very plausible hypothesis would be that specialists have a tendency to sharpen within their own areas of specialty and level in surrounding pertinent areas. An ordinary person having no judgement-related specialty would be expected to show a greater balance of these two tendencies leading to judgements which are in an overall sense more accurate. The psychologist, though perhaps providing an excellent source of important information, will have a natural tendency to exaggerate detected distinctions as well as their likely impact upon the focal situation.

To understand this tendency of psychologists to be less accurate in their judgements about people, let us consider a hypothetical example. Assume one is concerned with the general degree of anxiety experienced by a particular subject. The investigator could perhaps follow him around through several days' routine, asking in the various situations that arise how anxious he is feeling on a scale of 1 to 10. This information could be supplemented with data regarding heart rate, respiration, etc. For purposes of comparison, the investigator might then select about 50 other people to follow around in order to obtain the same information. This would give a basis for knowing the general amount of anxiety for the particular subject in relation to that experienced by people in general. On the basis of general research experience it can be predicted that the anxiety scores will tend to cluster around the average (the so called normal curve), and the chances are high that the particular subject's anxiety level will not be far off the average for the group. If the average rating is about five on the ten-point scale then the subject's score, even if he is more anxious than any of the 50 people chosen for comparison, will likely still be fairly close to five.

Now it is time to have the subject's anxiety judged by a psychologist and a non-psychologist. The non-psychologist will interview the subject and in assessing his overall comments, including statements about various anxieties, will tend tojudge the subject's anxiety level as being close to the average, which in fact, according to our measures, he is. The psychologist, on the other hand, will have a tendency to notice and emphasize the subject's statements about being anxious in various situations and give him a very high rating. (This because of the stress placed upon the factor of anxiety by the discipline of psychology). This very high rating say a nine on the ten point scale - will be further off the criterion measurement than that given by the non-expert. Thus the expert in a sense is less accurate.

A perfect example of this tendency for experts to give relatively distorted judgements of others is found in an article by D.L. Rosenhan.3 A number of individuals, for purposes of a research study, pretended to be mentally disturbed in order to be admitted into a mental hospital. From the time of admission, the "pseudopatients" tried to behave in a completely normal manner. What Rosenhan wanted to discover was whether the professional staff of the hospital would be able to detect the pseudopatients' sanity. He found that they could not. However, it was found that the true patients in the hospital often recognized that there was nothing wrong with a pseudopatient. The true patients were in that very important context more accurate than the experts.

During a staff review one of the pseudopatients was asked to describe his background of family relationships. Rosenhan describes him as follows:

Rosenhan then goes on to quote from the case summary prepared by the therapist in chargeofthe pseudopatient's case. The "sharpening" tendency of the expert judgement is clearly evident.

As can be seen, the very source of distorted perception for the expert is the specialized background of experience that is brought to the problem. This is readily apparent in the above example from Rosenhan. On the one hand, specialized training prepares the expert to be sensitive to cues and indicators that the average person would miss or not recognize as significant. For the trained expert, however, these cues are not only detected but may be considered to the exclusion or neglect of other ordinary and readily apparent variables. For instance, anthropologists have frequently noted the inability of primitive peoples to recognize photographs of close relatives upon first exposure to them.4 The apparent reason for this is simplythat they have not hadthe experience of decoding two-dimensional pictures of our three-dimensional world. In that limited sense we have had "expert" training and consequently have an advantage. But the same "expert" experience with two-dimensional drawings also makes us susceptible to certain errors of perception. Two famous perceptual illusion are the Muller-Lyer and the Ponzo (Figure 1). Western peoples are quite susceptible to these illusions perceiving one line as longer when in fact both lines are equal in length. Ugandan villagers have, on the other hand, been found to perceive the relative line lengths in the Ponzo illusion accurately.5 Similarly, African Bushmen were found to perceive the lines of the Muller-Lyer illusion accurately.6 Expert perception is not always better perception.

The point is that in the Christian perspective the technical specialist and the nonspecialist need and complement one another. The nonspecialist cannot be made to feel inferior or somehow dispensable. In like manner, the expert cannot stand above the crowd as a member of an elite and privileged "priesthood".7 When confronted with difficult psychological situations, the wise individual will make full use of whatever expert opinon, specialist consultation or professional prescription is feasible and readily available. However, he or she will do well to keep in mind that sound decisions require a balanced consideration of many diverse factors. Specialists will often have a tendency to distort the matter in terms of their own focus and expertise. Psychologists may be very useful in the problem-solving process, but they should not be invested with the primary decision-making role. That ought to remain with appropriate and responsible persons who are closest to the real-life situation.

Ponzo Muller-Lyer

Figure 1.

The individual who consults with a psychologist regarding a personal or family difficulty ought never to feel guilty about retaining a personal sense of authority and responsibility regarding his or her own problem. The psychologist should respect and promote the individual's dominant role in the effort to understand and resolve the difficulty. In those severe instances where the person's responsibility and control are obviously absent, then the primary goal of the psychologist's efforts should be to restore that independence. Even in cases of intensive therapy, the ideal situation is one in which the fact of the psychologist's narrow expertise and specialization recedes into the background relative to a growing perception of the psychologist as an "ordinary" person and concerned friend. Good therapy invariably has this quality.  

A Militant Interjection

Having said this and having in effect put professional psychological counseling in an acceptable light, it is necessary to go a little deeper and sound a note of Christian militancy and separation. With respect to contemporary psychological counseling goals and methods it must be stated candidly that there are serious conflicts with a Biblical perspective and commitment. Many Christian writers have sounded the alarm regarding these anti-Christian elements,8 and though a reiteration of these warnings and admonitions is not the purpose of the present article, the basic point must be noted. Much of psychological theory and practice relating to counseling and therapy is seductively and perniciously unbiblical.

For one thing the main goal of secular counseling and therapy is the alleviation of present suffering and emotional discomfort. Furthermore, this alleviation of distress is not approached from a moral context or at least not a qontext of Biblical morality. Concepts of duty and responsibility to others including family, church and God are not given proper weight. The basic tenet of secular psychotherapy is the Schlitz beer gospel, "You only go around once in life so grab for all the gusto you can." Many times the author has listened to the testimony of a marvelous individual who through long years of suffering and endurance finally gained by God's grace great spiritual victory. Often the thought has occurred as to how positively ruinous it would have been for that testimony if the person had received some "good professional counseling" during their darkest hour. The aim of the Christian life is not a life of painless ease and pleasure but a life that overcomes.

A second problem that needs emphasis is a certain "elitist" tendency on the part of psychology and psychological theorizing. This characteristic is, of course, the antithesis of the "ordinary" and "folksy" endeavor projected in the earlier portions of this article. The elitist vein in psychological theory poses a threat in the sense of suggesting that people should in effect bow down and submit to psychology.

An excellent example of this tendency can be found in what has occurred in the way human development is conceptualized and presented. Developmental psychology used to be virtually synomymous with child developmental psychology. University courses listed as "child psychology" and those listed as "developmental psychology" were identical and interchangable. The same was true for textbooks. This is no longer the case. Developmental psychology is more and more concerned with life-span development.

Whatever the merit of this change there is an important threat to the Biblical perspective which must be pointed out. Children by virtue of their tender years and immaturity are subject to the authority of their parents and society (i.e. adults collectively). They are natured and nurtured to full citizenship maturity fairly early in their life-span. Following this relatively brief socialization process he or she is "set free" to engage fully with fellow adults as "stewards of the planet."

This early full citizenship is in a sense threatened by the current development. The stage can be subtly set for a massive psychologically rationalized intrusion into the most basic rights of citizenship. Just as the child is now "protected to maturity" so will every adult be protected throughout life. And who is the "parent" that will guide and protect along the winding labyrinth from cradle to grave? The child of our own imagination psychology and its developmental theory. Sold on the message of their inadequacy and childish uncertainty, man will surrender his historical birthright as the creature in God's own image for the pottage of a life-long subservience to the doting tutelage of local "community health and actualization centers." God forbid it!  


Reiterating the central point of the essay, there is an essential interdependence between the specialist and the nonspecialist. We need each other. The very defense, by God's grace, against the danger noted in the previous section is a fuller humility and realization on the part of psychologists that they cannot stand alone. This greater exercise of humility in psychology can be facilitated by an increased awareness on the part of people both inside and outside the profession of the "ordinariness" of the activities of its practitioners. Through this recognition it may be possible in Christ to "have our cake and eat it too.~'

That is, we can enjoy the benefits of helpful and wise insights stemming from free scientific inquiry and research while at the same time having the necessary checks and balances that will safeguard against spiritually destructive overgeneralizations and speculative philosophical distortions. This is not the checks and balances of formal institutions and establishments but the informal checks and balances of free individuals (both specialist and nonspecialist alike) operating in grace and love directly under God. In this article an attempt has been made to point the way to such a state of grace for psychology and more importantly to make a concrete step in that direction. May God bless these efforts. Amen.

1 Taft, R. "The ability to judge people," Psychological Bulle fin. 1955, 52, 1-23.
2 AlIport, G.W. and Postman, L. The psychology of rumor New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1947, pp. 75-98.
3 Rosenhan, D.L. On being sane in insane places, Science, Vol.179, Jan.19, 1973, pp. 250-258.
4 Segall, M.H., Campbell, D.T. & Hershkovits, M.J. The influence of culture on visual perception. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966, p.32.
5 Leibowitz, H.W. & Pick, H.A. Jr. Cross-cultural and educational aspects of the Ponzo Perspective Illusion. Perception and Psychophysics, 12 (5), 1972, 430-432.
6 Segall, op. cit.
7 Though fallen, man is created in God's image. For fallen man there is only one priest and mediator between God and man. In the context of that truth there is the provision for a vibrant and dynamic equality.
8 For example see P.C. Vitz, Psychology as religion The cult of selfworship. Grand Rapids, Mich,: Eerdman Publishing Co., 1977.

"Psychology as a Humble Discipline"
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