On being wrong in psychology

For me critical psychology was a revelation. It explicitly verbalised what I had been thinking. I still remember my first steps in challenging the certainties of, shall I say, positivist psychology and coming across writings of psychologists who were thinking in similar terms was a revelation. It’s all changing now.

I suppose my relationship with psychology has always been tenuous. As a linguist, understanding and teaching about the role of context, positivist psychology has always been a problem. I remember taking part in a discussion on a PhD proposal in which the student sketched a project on perseverance. I made a point that, surely, perseverance is always contextual, depending not only on, for example, our personality, but also the stakes involved or social importance of the task. And so, your perseverance in getting a new T-shirt is extremely unlikely to be similar to that of trying to resuscitate your child.

In response, I heard that my point was well made, but psychology was interested in ‘pure perseverance’, only that was perseverance proper. And so, the student invented a fatuous procedure that, apparently, enabled them to measure this purity of perseverance and correlate it with all sorts of psychological stuff. Psychologists nodded, I shook my head.

And here come the critical psychologists. Their writings challenge the certainties of mainstream psychology, much as discursive psychology did. All of a sudden, statistics does not provide us with much comfort, while questionnaires are not magic tools harvesting psychological experiences. As I was reading more and more, I was smitten.

Time for a reservation, as I move to offer critique. I do realise that critical psychology is not a homogenous group of people and there are disagreements within such a varied group. I also understand that Twitter psychology might not be representative of its entirety, although it’s worth saying that very prominent psychologists have accounts on Twitter and they are vocal representatives of their subdiscipline, both in proclaiming themselves part of it and in sometimes loudly dismissing those who disagree. I also accept that for rhetorical effect what follows is likely to be somewhat exaggerated.

And so, to continue, misfortune befell me – I joined Twitter. Daily I started witnessing quarrels, skirmishes and veritable battles between critical psychology and the regular one. Arguments I knew and continue to know very well have been rehearsed right, left and centre…Except something else happened. At some point I realised that more often than not I was joining with the ‘bad guys’, with ‘regular’ psychologists (and psychiatrists, to be fair). I started crossing the floor more often than I would have thought possible. When I noticed it, reflected on it, I realised a paradox. I continued to agree with the criticals (at least for the most part), but I actually didn’t want to be seen to agree with them.

What I found extraordinary was that it was the ‘enemy’ who seemed more open and prepared to listen. It was the enemy who was falling back on evidence. It was the enemy who was prepared to question and reflect on their assumptions. Indeed, over the last months, I have written more blogs criticising ‘critical psychology’ than anything else. From PTM framework, through irrational insistence that changing a few words will introduce world peace (under the guise of ‘language matters’), all the way to the recent report called “Understanding depression”. What all those documents have in common is the assumption that they are the revealed truth and those who (dare) criticise them are fatally wrong. There is an intellectual dishonesty underpinning even the major documents which, you would hope, would carry the nuance and sensitivity to other perspectives.

I continue to be disappointed with critical psychology (mostly its British version, at least) which uses a sledgehammer in dealing with its ‘enemies’. There are no arguments, no attempts to understand an Other. No, if you disagree you are in fatal and ultimate error, possibly just stupid. Recently, I was shocked to see those who disagree with the #UnderstandingDepression report being dismissed in highly disparaging terms and with no counterarguments.

That’s not critical psychology I used to read. It doesn’t have even the shadow of its former intellectual depth and clout. Today, it doesn’t argue anymore. It shouts.

This post has been long coming, I am sure I will get a lot of stick for it. I also know that this will be one of those posts that will result in tens of blocks and as many unfollows. What spurred me to writing it was a recent Twitter exchange I took part in. Extraordinarily again, the only argument those progressive critical psychologists were able to offer was that those who disagreed just misunderstood ‘the real message’. And all from the position of delivering the truth to the minions.

But what really irritated me was this exchange:

I mean, really?! Like really?! If someone does not follow in your footsteps, there is no possibility of meaning or understanding? This is megalomania, this is psychological Trumpism, for pity’s sake.  This is no critical psychology – this is bombastic, grandiose psychology so full of itself that the solar system seems too small for it. This is psychology walking on water.

And so, to repeat my reservations. Of course, I understand that I look at a snapshot of psychology in a particular context. And yet “Understanding Depression” has the imprimatur (those familiar with Vatican’s censorship will appreciate the word) of the BPS. I am really not talking about a few rogue psychologists from a galaxy far far away.

As I walk away from critical psychology as it is (not that it cares about it at all, not only am I a nobody, I am also fatally wrong), I am still up for a fight with positivist psychology, with all those smitten by the alphas, r’s and whatever other letters psychology throws at you. But I would like to be seen as someone who can be persuaded with an argument. There are wonderful quantitative studies, there are zillions of people for whom their nosological diagnoses were a godsend, there are also so many bad qualitative/critical studies that they could blight global agriculture.

And, finally, for pity’s sake, let’s assume, once in a blue moon at least, that we can be bloody wrong!


  1. Philip Thomas

    Many thanks Darius, for your thought-provoking, slightly tongue-in-cheek blog. It was a pleasure to read. Reflecting on it it, the thought struck me your piece draws attention to the importance and value of a virtue that is in short supply these days – humility. The world is full of examples of humility’s antonyms – arrogance, egoism and self-importance – seen most clearly, perhaps, in your reference to Trumpism, and from a world lacking in humility it’s only a short step to hubris. There is a well-known clinical psychologist who told a well-known and respected survivor activist ”It’s not a good idea to disagree with me. I’m very powerful.”

    It seems to me that one of the main purposes of ‘being’ critical, whether psychologist or psychiatrist, is to speak truth to power. This is speaking power to the powerless. That a psychologist, (or psychiatrist for that matter), can call themselves ‘critical’ yet behave in such bombastic arrogant ways beggars belief and at the same time demonstrates that they simply don’t warrant the use of the label.

    Once again, thanks for your excellent blog.

  2. Mary Margaret Yelanati

    Excellent blog. I completely concur with your opinion. Instead of giving an evidence based explanations for their assumptions, critical psychologist make diatribe against someone who opposes them. I admire the way you make your point.

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