Monday, 18 March 2013

Freud and fairness – a reply to Marc Smith’s ‘Teaching Psychology isn't about Freud’, profiling serial killers or reading body language

Freud tends to receive in large doses both extremes of criticism; he is loved by some, notably by his ‘followers’ – the Freudians - and hated by others.  Hated so much so that there is a Facebook group dedicated to anyone willing to ‘like’ the ‘I hate Freud’ page.  Though it is clear that the majority of those deciding to ‘hate’ someone they don’t even know are college students, and for that reason are largely ignorant of the man’s work, there are others – those more academically and/or professionally qualified – who also choose to disparage Freud’s work without giving the man a fair assessment of his place in history and that of his contributions to the field of psychology.

One such person, an A-level Psychology teacher and chartered Psychologist, Marc Smith, who wrote a short article in the Guardian entitled: Teaching Psychology isn't about Freud, profiling serial killers or reading body language, argues that the general population do not understand what academic psychology entails and as a result tend to approach the subject with misconceptions.  As a teacher in the field, he says that many students expect to learn how to read people and interpret body language or profile a serial killer, and that he already knows that the first week of class will be spent dispelling the many myths that surround my discipline.

One such myth, according to Smith, is the widely held belief that Sigmund Freud was a psychologist.  As a result of people’s knee jerk reaction in answering ‘Freud’ to the question: name a famous psychologist? Smith believes that [T]his perhaps exemplifies some of the main problems with psychology today, in that the public has been raised on a sugary diet of pop psychology and self-help manuals. The reason for this, Smith believes, is that Freud wasn’t really a scientist because he didn’t gather and analyse evidence in an objective or scientific manner.  And that most of his theories were based on a small sample of middle-class Austrian women.  He then ends the article by suggesting that although Freud might come up in one’s study of psychology, this will probably be due to an attempt to compare his unscientific methods to those of the more evidenced-based cognitive and biological ones. 

As a psychology graduate myself, it is true that people hold misconceptions about what psychology is and more often than not, in my experience, they confused it with psychiatry.  However, I do not see, or have yet to come across, angry psychiatrists who feel the need to point this out.  Not everyone should understand a subject before they study it, especially at A-level.  True, misconceptions exist.  They exist everywhere.  But based on Smith’s article, it is clear that he too shares a common, be it lay, misconception about Freud, his ideas and his rightful place in the history of psychology as an influential psychological thinker. 

So the aim of this essay is to give Freud a fair, indeed, a more balanced assessment in the light of Smith’s rather dogmatic, and rather typical, college style arguments. 

Smith clearly draws a line between what he sees as a ‘proper’ psychology – i.e. the psychology of his own profession – and that of the less intellectually stimulating pop or quasi-psychology – such as the numerous ‘self-help’ books that fill book stores – with which he also associates Freud’s works as sharing this common unscientific category.  It is certainly not hard to sense intellectual prejudice being exercised here.  Psychology, for Smith, exists on a higher intelligence plain than does Freud’s fifty or so years of work in psychoanalysis.  And he disparages him by alleging in the name of science that his work is clearly of a lower standard, and hence should only be seen in comparison with how psychology is really researched and conducted academically.

Though Freud was no chartered psychologist and certainly not accredited or endorsed by any organization such as the BPS, it is ridiculous to judge the man by the standard of contemporary academic psychology.  Freud, if Smith had been bothered to read him, throughout his twenty-three volumes or so of work, was, though a trained neurologist, always concerned that his work be regarded as being a psychology.  His chief concern was with that of psychical reality and its development throughout one’s life.  Thus he was always questioning the role of external reality, hereditary factors, and perhaps most importantly, early infantile experiences, which all have the capacity to influence our psyche – such problems that to this day still plague contemporary psychology.  He was clearly one of the pioneers in elucidating the notion that early childhood experiences contribute to the shaping of the mind in later adulthood, an idea that seems universally taken for granted today – even by ‘professional’ psychologists.  Indeed, his contribution has had huge implications, especially in the growth of developmental psychology in which Attachment Theory plays an important rôle – as devised by John Bowlby (a psychoanalyst by training) and later by the work of Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation.  This in itself shows the influence Freud has had.

But Smith goes on to say that many in the profession would dispute and even reject outright his [Freud’s] psychological credentials.  Smith here is not talking about Freud’s theories, but is casting doubt on Freud’s authority as a psychological thinker and professional.  He is wrong to say so.  Freud was doing psychological work based on the method of psychoanalysis he devised in 1895 and constantly revised throughout his lifetime.  Though it must be said that it isn’t a perfect method – Freud himself  became sceptical of the notion of achieving a psychoanalytic cure for example – this method was used to investigate the intricacies of the mind – namely the unconscious and its connection with consciousness – in which he claimed to have discovered within the unconscious the inherent driving forces of pleasure (as well as aggression), forces that originate so far back in our early childhood, that a large portion of it remains shrouded in obscurity when one attempts to think back to such a time.  We can therefore thank Freud for his contribution to what is now called, and I think generally accepted, as being childhood amnesia.  In this regard Freud was going beyond psychology and delving into the depths of metapsychology (As can be seen in his metapsychology papers at the turn of 1914).  And perhaps this is the reason why people like Smith discredit him.

Psychoanalysis was indeed the psychological procedure Freud eventually came to adopt and use to conduct his work in the field of neurosis, work that helped bring mental conflicts to the fore and their concomitant irrational tendencies, impulsivities and desires which Freud came to recognise as fundamental problems for the psyche to master.  If it be the case that Freud has been very influential in building psychology to the state in which we view it today, how can it be justified to disregard his psychological credentials just because he is not a modern psychologist ? If many in the profession, as Smith likes to call them, believes we can totally reject Freud’s psychological credentials, then what of the many thousand of other professionals who claim the opposite – namely those practising as analysts in the Institute of Psychoanalysis and the British Psychoanalytic Association?  Should we slide them into the same bin as Freud and devalue their work as popular nonsense? In fact, I defy anyone to read Freud’s 1915 essay The Unconscious for example, and tell me that one derives the same sense of ‘ help’ as that afforded by reading Sassy, Single & Satisfied, Secrets to loving the life your living type books.  Freud was arguably even more academically stringent than most psychologists today.   
But it is the two very typical college-type evaluative criticisms that Smith regards as giving good reason to discredit Freud – namely, that his method wasn’t scientific and that the sample of cases on which he developed his conclusions was biased.  To my mind this indicates how poorly read Smith is in this subject.  Indeed, if Smith believes that such arguments can easily persuade us to drop Freud into the waste paper basket once and for all, then he has a huge mountain to climb in order to persuade the hundreds of psychoanalytical societies across the globe to embrace this stance.

We must remember that at the time Freud was practising, his method was centred on talking and listening to his patients.  His method was a therapeutic, not a strictly academic, one, which gave him insight into his patients’ personal thoughts about their paternal relationships and the transferences they projected out toward him. Although I am not a practising psychoanalyst, I have read a lot of Psychoanalysis and, with an open mind, can appreciate that Freud developed psychoanalysis over many years of seeing many patients.  It is only natural that sooner or later patterns in the subject’s free associations and/or transferences would soon emerge.  From these patterns, Freud undoubtedly drew inferences and hypothesis.  One such hypothesis he developed during the early years of psychoanalysis was the existence of infantile sexuality (c. 1905), and it was through the analysis of the case of little Hans in 1909 (an analysis established through Han’s father) that he went on to confirm it.  But even therapeutically, Freud adopts a method of obtaining data from such free associations and utilises the force of suggestion as a tool in gaining an insight into the psychological realm.  In both these approaches I would agree with Freud’s claim that he was being scientific in his approach to his patients.  Though it is clear he is not adopting statistical analysis nor designing research methodologies, as psychologists today tend to do, Freud is conducting his own method of investigation as based, fundamentally, on one person at a time.  In my view it is misplaced to disparage Freud as being unscientific, as Smith thinks, because insofar as a form of therapy, it provided at that time a relatively valid basis for his theories, and a way of obtaining and interpreting universal psychological phenomena.  Though one can question and indeed argue that fundamentally Freud’s theories boil down to subjectivity and interpretation, contemporary academic Psychology faces precisely the same problem save that statistics now provide a firmer indication of the degree of confidence one can place in one’s hypotheses.  Such confidence though relies on the strictness of the research methodology in question and might therefore appear to be more scientific to the eye.  But I would challenge the notion that this gives Smith the right to presume psychological superiority over Freudian thinking.  It is surely indisputable that Freud’s pioneering psychological work has yielded rich ideas and theories which still hold today despite its lack of a significant p value. 

In considering Freud’s way of conducting psychoanalysis, how objective was his gathering and analysing of evidence ?  Clearly, one can only infer from observing the actions of people that something is going on inside their heads.  For Freud these actions consisted of free associations, transference and dreams.  Although the latter appears to send shivers down the spines of psychologists as being mystical hocus-pocus, modern Psychology also ‘observes’ people and their actions, leading to hypotheses and inferences based on observations – just as psychoanalysis does.  Though it might be able to ‘control’ certain variables and test them in specific ways, psychoanalysis allows for some freedom of movement in such variables. 

But still, and more to the point, if Smith had actually read Freud he would have noticed that he too was fully aware of the problems and limitations psychoanalysis had to offer.  Though he was adamant that his work be considered scientific, he was fully aware of, and also pessimistic, to the view that his theories could be ‘proved’, or at least corroborated, during his own lifetime.  As a result of this he claimed that ‘proof’ of his theories lay in the future – something neuroscience is now beginning to take notice.

The second and final argument put forward by Smith is one routinely levelled at Freud and, I think, starting to become a habitual knee-jerk reaction by those studying or familiar with the A-level in Psychology. It is the classic sample bias argument: because Freud mostly analysed Austrian middle-class women his detractors allege that his theory is unscientific and therefore bogus.  If only it were as simple as that.  Freud could only analyse those willing to come to his practice and these happened to be Austrians because, surprise surprise, he was practising in Vienna, Austria.  It would have been nice if he had had access to Italians, Americans and Asians but being restricted to a particular place and period in history he unfortunately didn’t have access to Easy Jet – though he did analyse Carl Jung, a Swiss, on a ship halfway across the Atlantic; doesn’t that count?  Still, the fact that Freud analysed middle-class women in the early 1900’s doesn’t detract from the fundamental tenant of his theories ; on the contrary, ‘his sample’ provides us with a historical perspective about the society the man was practising in at the time.  Indeed, in discussing the possibility that his critics would be shocked at his open discussions of sexual matters with a young girl in his practice, Freud quoted Schmidt: but let no one reproach me on this account but rather accuse the spirit of the age. And so we should not blame Freud for his so-called biased sample, but rather exult in the fact that it allows us a deeper insight into the zeitgeist of the times save the analytical work he also conducted on men. 
But, more importantly, this criticism does little or no harm at all to Freud’s ideas about the unconscious aspects of sexuality, because, for Freud, the unconscious and its contents remains the same for everyone. 

I agree with Smith that contemporary psychology and Freudian thinking are inherently different subjects.   But whereas Smith is adamant in separating Freud from what he believes is a real and more honest psychology, I personally would like to see more psychologists – not only read Freud – but take a more balanced view of his ideas and attempt to incorporate the results of his work – as the International Neuropsychoanlysis Society attempts to do – into their own field.  

References to Smith's article:

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