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Armchair Psychology Damages Mental Health Profession and Democracy, Says Professor


While the cacophony of voices weighing in on the newly inaugurated U.S. president may be a testament to the vibrant culture of our country’s discourse, members of the mental health field would do well to restrain themselves from engaging in “armchair psychology,” said Celia Fisher, Ph.D., the Marie Ward Doty University Chair in Ethics, professor of psychology, and director of Fordham’s Center for Ethics Education.

The center’s staff wrote about the ethics of diagnosing from afar on March 7 and Aug. 16 of last year, and again on Jan. 30 of this year. To find out why it’s such a big deal, we sat down with Fisher. Listen below:

Full transcript below

Patrick Verel: This is Patrick Verel, and today I’m speaking with Celia Fisher, the Marie Ward Doty University Chair and Ethics, Professor of Psychology, Director of the Center for Ethics Education, and author of the book, Decoding the Ethics Code: A Practical Guide for Psychologists.

The issue of diagnosing someone from afar is something that the ethics blog addressed. Why does this keep coming up?

Celia Fisher: I think it keeps coming up for a number of reasons. Obviously this year we’ve had a presidential candidate and now a president who has a style that is clearly very different from what we’ve ever seen before. There’s a lot of attention to the why’s and reasons for his proclamations and for his behavior, so I think there’s media attention that’s being drawn to this. I think there’s a social interest that’s being drawn to this, and the extent to which some of the unusual comments and behaviors reflect some kind of psychological probably or whether it’s just a very interesting idiosyncratic type of character that we now have in the public sphere.

Patrick Verel: Now you argue that people who are attempting to attribute mental problems like narcissism to political figures that they disagree with are actually, they’re doing a disservice to themselves, right? Can you explain that a little bit more?

Celia Fisher: Well I think they’re doing a disservice to both the professions of psychology and psychiatry, as well as to the public and the political spheres. People go to mental health professionals for a formal evaluation based upon not only the professional’s training, but also measures that have been validated, that are known to be able to predict and understand somebody’s mental health.

One can only assess somebody’s mental health in a one on one interview using these type of valid and reliable measures. When somebody is attempting to diagnose from afar, they are actually performing nonpsychology, nonpsychiatry. They can be diminishing the trust that individuals who do need some kind of mental health assessment can have in such professionals who are providing these offhanded kinds of diagnoses.

Patrick Verel: I feel like there’s a term I’ve heard, is this arm chair psychology?

Celia Fisher: Arm chair psychology has a history of when psychology broke away from philosophy, and in fact psychologists wanted to be legitimate in their own right because they used the scientific method to develop ways of assessing people. So right now, that term I think is very appropriate for people who are sitting and saying, “My views of the world, my reading of what President Trump says or anybody else says, I can now without applying any type of diagnostic instrument, figure out what category they’re in.”

Patrick Verel: Americans are obviously more polarized now than we have been in probably a good generation or two. Is it fair to say that they’re also more likely to attribute the differences of other people that they disagree with to mental deficiencies?

Celia Fisher: I don’t know if there’s a newer trend to do that just because of the politicization and the polarization of our society right now, but I think that what has happened is, is that rather than look at intent and looking at whether or not somebody is strategic in what they’re doing, there’s a tendency to say, “If somebody is voicing something that I find so inconsistent with my own values, they must be crazy.”

I think that that’s very harmful, but what it does is is it takes us away from looking at somebody as a full person who may actually be very rational in their impulsive, or seemingly irrational statements. A mental disorder is something that people do not have control of. In fact, it takes away from their autonomy to make decisions. Whereas sometimes, very dramatic, unconventional statements can be very strategic in terms of turning public attention to certain issues, and turning public attention away from certain issues.

In that way I think it’s very dangerous for mental help professionals to come out with these kind of, as you call them, arm chair psychology diagnoses, which really turn the public’s attention away from what the intent and the ramifications are of some types of extreme political statements that may really be incredibly strategic, and then simply say, “Well, it’s the result of a disorder.”

Patrick Verel: I guess it’s just sort of like a crutch to just say, “Well they’re crazy.”

Celia Fisher: Exactly. I think if you look at the way that both the people that voted for Trump, and some of the people who didn’t vote for Trump, well many of them said, “Well he doesn’t mean that.” Now we’re seeing that he did mean what he was saying, and so to off handedly just dismiss somebody’s language, what they say are their intentions either because you don’t want to believe that that’s what’s true, or you’re trying to say, “Well, it’s just some impulsive behavior that can be controlled,” I think is very damaging to both sides of the political spectrum.

Patrick Verel: How can the field of ethics help bridge these kinds of divides?

Celia Fisher: What I think is that ethics is incredibly important in terms of integrity right now, because what we’re hearing about this term fake news, and the fact that lies and fake incidences are being promulgated across the social media is very dangerous. I think also the term fake news is dangerous because many of the untrue information that’s coming across is actually propaganda, and there’s an intention behind it.

Fake news makes it sound like it’s comedic, or it’s not important, or it’s a cartoon, but actually propaganda has a very specific intention, and that is to undermine the truth, and I think that ethics is now more important than ever to really come out and say, “When is something untrue. When is something intentionally untrue,” which we must call a lie and a falsehood when that exists.


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