Saturday, January 18, 2020

Some Random Thoughts on Weaknesses in Foundational Psychology

Sigmund Freud

I am far from an expert in psychology.

In fact, I would say that I know very little about the various schools of thought in the science but I have been having an extended email discussion on the topic with Dr. Michael Edelstein and Thomas Bateman, LPC.

To the degree I can get a sense of what goes on in the field, it appears that there is no strong foundational methodology in psychology along the lines that has developed in economics.

My inclination is to think that all of the psychology could be developed in a manner similar to the way Ludwig von Mises developed economics. That is a few basic principles that include very broad empirical observations followed by spinning out theory by deduction.

Most of what I see in psychology seems to take the empirical route through studies that tend to mimic the physical sciences. The very thing F.A. Hayek warned about in The Counter-Revolution of Science when he discussed the proper methodology for the social sciences. On top of it all, many of the popular empirical studies are extremely shallow and poorly constructed.

It seems to me you could draw out the entire foundation of psychology using the Misesian style with such basic principles as

1. Man has emotions

2. Man's emotions are triggered by

 a. things in the real world a person observes


b. things a person thinks he observes.

3. All people have emotions that they would want to live with and other emotions that they would like to stop feeling/experiencing.

I haven't thought enough about the subject to consider this an exhaustive foundational list. It is just to provide a sense for the type of foundation that could be used, from which all psychology could be developed.

Since Edelstein and Bateman are practitioners of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy which is anti the treatment methods of Sigmund Freud, I want to comment briefly on what I consider to be the differences between the two methods.

To best understand the difference between the two schools of thought, it can be useful to think of a house on fire.

The house is blazing away. In terms of treatment methods, Edelstein and Bateman upon arriving at the fire would want to start putting out the fire immediately and not care where the fire started.

Freud would arrive on the scene with the house blazing and want to determine where the fire started. He would then discover, say, it was the basement and want to start putting out the fire from that location.

That is, Freud would want to delve into a patient's full childhood and relationship with parents and start from there.

In other words, Edelstein and Bateman would not find value in studying a person's childhood and would rather tweak current thinking.

So looking at it from this perspective, I consider the Edelstein and Bateman method of treatment is in most cases more efficient.

Although, to the degree that Edelstein and Bateman hold the view that childhood doesn't have a significant impact (and they both may have different views on this) it is probably incorrect. It is just not necessary for proper treatment to delve into childhood in most cases.

Freud's insistence on delving into a patient's childhood may not be necessary but it may be ok treatment in some cases. (Though it appears that in addition to going back to childhood, he did hold a number of wacky theories as to how childhood and emotional development occurs)

To bring this back to the house on fire example,  Edelstein and Bateman are essentially saying, "Let's just put this fire out" and not care about where it started. Freud is saying, "No we must find out where the fire started and begin by putting the fire out at that location."

Clearly, Edelstein and Bateman have a much sounder approach if the goal is to solve a person's current emotional problems rapidly and efficiently. The  Freudian method would get there in some cases, but it will be a much longer route. And it would have to be only certain types of Freudian techniques which may not be currently used by all Freudian psychologists.

Neither school of thought, though, appears to begin with the foundational themes I have mentioned above.

And I do hasten to add that there probably is more room for some empirical studies in psychology that go far beyond the value of empirical studies in economics but the Misesian approach needs to be developed first at the foundational level. The empirical studies would be significantly different from most of the studies that occur today because of methodological weaknesses in current studies.



  1. Great and interesting post. To expand on your analogy, I think that many people's psychological problems may be likened to a recurrent temporary problem such as a furnace that keeps breaking or a car that often won't start, rather than an intense and terminal problem like a house on fire. It's likely possible to get the car to start on any given day by fiddling with the engine or adding a fuel enhancer but that isn't fixing the root cause of the unreliable car. I purchased and read Dr. Edelstein's book 'Three Minute Therapy' and found it very useful but it focuses more on teaching one to cope with irrational or destructive emotions rather than solving their root cause, which must eventually be addressed.

    1. Chad, I'm pleased you found Three Minute Therapy (www.TheREBT.Life) very useful. Emotional disturbed thinking consists of demands (musts, should, have tos, gottas, etc.). The root cause is our genetic proclivity to escalate our strong preferences into demands.

  2. I agree with ChadT and his comment on RW's analogy. Particularly as it relates to Dr. Edelstein. I am not an expert on psychology but do find the subject both intriguing and incredibly complex. RW's suggestion that the study of psychology needs a proper methodology seems timely. Most sources define psychology as the study of mental illness and/or mental health. I agree that most studies are empirical resulting in a great variety of somewhat chaotic observations. Assuming RW is referring to human psychology I would only suggest that his search begin with the observation that humans have rational thought. Many living organisms appear to have emotions but only humans have the ability for rational thought. It is this ability that makes them uniquely human.

    1. Thanks, Brian. "Psychology" has many branches including neuropsychology, forensic psychology, psycholinguistics, experimental psychology, social psychology, and more. Clinical psychology is the branch focusing on the treatment of emotional disturbance (e.g., depression, anxiety, anger, guilt). MIchael, www.TheREBT.Life

  3. Very interesting post.

    I've been dating a mental health professional with fancy degrees from big name schools for over a decade. Most of her work has been with foster kids.

    The most messed up people out there all have these horror stories from childhood. The worst ones all involve severe, ongoing early childhood sexual trauma.

    People with no exposure to this shit simply cannot fathom how evil some people are to children, and how easily they can hide their activities from the unsuspecting adults who simply don't want to see it.

    I grew up in an affluent corner of California Wine Country. Lots of money. Parents were present, loving, educated and paying attention. Good times, noodle salad. I had some fairly public problems with substance abuse when I was younger, and as a result a lot of random people from my past have reached out to me to talk about their troubles. I have been absolutely horrified by the stories these people told me of what was going on in our community. Systematic and organized sexual abuse of children. This community is now ravished with opioid abuse. Everyone has a good friend who died way too young. No one is comfortable talking about what was really going on when we were growing up. People will talk to me one on one about it fairly openly, but I can't even get them to talk to each other. These are I intelligent, competent people with resources and support, and they are crippled. I can't imagine what sort of dangers the kids in the hood have to navigate.

    I used to look around at all these broken people on the street shooting up heroin and wonder what went wrong, but I dont anymore. Oblivion becomes appealing when reality has become overwhelming.

  4. I am convinced that all psychology is pseudo science since the human mind cannot be studied. We may each have a mind and with that mind we can study reality including the physical feelings of our own body, but we cannot study "the mind" itself since the mind is that which studies and can no more study itself than a camera can photograph itself.

    And certainly no mind can study any other mind. All it can study is behavior. Mind is axiomatic and unknowable. Claiming to study the mind when merely listening to another person speak or watching them act is claiming too much. Psychology, far from being a science, is merely a guessing game. What is often presented as psychological wisdom is usually just good philosophy which does not rely on mind-reading at all.

    1. High level pool players aren't actually solving complex differential equations in their heads, but we can make reasonable predictions about the future as though they were.

    2. I agree with John, psychological wisdom is usually just good philosophy. Albert Ellis built Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) on the wisdom of ancient philosophers including Lao-tzu, Gautama Buddha, and Epictetus. Michael, www. TheREBT.Life