What Psychology Isn't


…and, in my opinion, should be

The conclusion to my previous comment on training is my introduction to the next point of discussion. The focus now is on what occurs in our experience that is purely psychological, but is not even considered in psychological training or anything having to do with mental health.

Long before the hazing that was my doctoral program, before the MS degree in Clinical Counseling, not before I grew my first beard, I had this idea that reason was not confined to humans, but that other species had their own methods of understanding. This occurred to me when I was living in Manhattan in a tenement apartment of four rooms counting the kitchen with a number of other people, none but one of us paying rent, along with a dog whom I found on the street and two cats, one who had just produced a litter. The year was 1968, for those who have interest in those things.

Having little else to do with my idle mind, I began to observe the mother cat and my dog interact and soon noticed that they evinced a real disdain for each other that seemed personal. I also realized that no one else in the apartment was aware of or had any interest in what happened between them, except that they shouldn’t fight. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe these two could be talked into making some sort of peace. With that in mind, I waited for the cat to pass my dog without look at him, except out of the corner of her eye and he seemed to be looking at her in the same way. It was then that I started talking to them, each in turn, using my finger to refocus their averted gazes and I said soothingly in the language that was current at the time, “Look at him,” said I to the cat, “he’s groovy.” My dog looked at me, but I countered in the same way, attracting his gaze first to my finger, then toward her, saying, “Don’t look at me. Look at her. She’s groovy.” I worked at this for about five or ten minutes until I had the two crouched on the floor nose to nose, about an inch or two apart, staring into each other’s eyes. That lasted for a second or two until the cat freaked out and scratched and my dog lunged at her. Then, they returned to their previous way of inter-relating. (The woman who actually paid the rent later got three baby chicks that in a matter of days became chickens and would follow her around as their mother, if you can imagine that.)

The parallels with the doctoral program should be obvious. Lest you imagine a love-fest of compassionate people training more compassionate people, it is better to think of training as a strata of professors unmindful of the rabble that occur beneath them and who hope to one day join them. The rabble’s problems cannot possibly be that great as to be worth paying attention to, even those problems that are psychological in nature and occur within our mutual field of study. As long as they don’t fight, or bare their teeth, especially at me, I will ignore them.

It all sounds reasonable enough. Although in my doctoral committee meeting where I presented my dissertation proposal, an idea based on a theory that came straight out of my head (I thought they might be looking for that level of creativity), I walked in believing I had the enthusiastic support of my committee chair only to discover that he would say nothing in my defense. Instead I was attacked for a full two hours (that was how long the room was reserved for) by everyone else on my committee with no one to intervene and no acknowledgement of my quickly expressed willingness to pursue another topic. No, they had two hours and they were going to use them to chastise me again and again for what was obviously my misapprehension of what a dissertation was all about.

As I said at the time, my guts were hanging out (or at least it felt like that) for about two days. It took two weeks to fully recover. But, I decided on a strategy within two hours of leaving the room. I went to my beloved films for guidance, relying on what I have learned from Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, an action-adventure film released in 1954 that has much to say about philosophy and strategy. When the leader of this group of master-less samurai has the villagers building a fence to defend themselves against the marauders, he leaves an opening for the bandits to enter so they might have a better opportunity to kill them. In keeping with that thought, I realized that I couldn’t keep all my committee members out. I had to let them in, but I needed a defender, what I didn’t have in that meeting. I also realized that my most relentless and abusive attacker would serve me much better as my friend. To that end, I recruited that person, who came from our department, to direct my dissertation. The surprise and lack of surety that came from both my chair and my future dissertation advisor demonstrated the sense, the psychological sense that could only be learned from film.

Once they finally agreed, after they got over their uncertainty and discomfort, I had some more hoops to jump through. First I had to humble myself by accepting a topic in an area that I would not have pursued otherwise, vocational assessment. Then, with the requirement that I research the field first, I needed to propose my own ideas for a dissertation, this empty exercise until I waited for my advisor to finally tell me what I was going to do to for a project, what would be my dissertation. I never had any doubt that he already had something in mind, but would not reveal it until I proved my seriousness. And so I proceeded. This time the reconvened committee accepted the topic. I was discouraged from leaving the State because, I was cautioned, I would not be able to get the necessary data. This proved false and I was desperate to see a large body of water again, like the Pacific Ocean for example. There was the problem of data analysis, for which I also found help even in the wilds of Washington State. But the next real hurdle was dealing with the writing and editing which was done remotely through the mail, now called snail mail. I still remember my advisor telling me over the phone that I was very, very close on my writing, but there were still one or two changes to be made and to wait for him to mail the packet back. When I got it, it proved to be covered in red ink. When I calmed down after a couple of hours, I realized that most of what he marked was bogus, one or two bogus changes were from passages he had suggested to add in the first place. Nevertheless, there were one or two real comments that, both very minor. “Perfect!” he enthused over the phone.

When I went to my final meeting, hopefully to get the dissertation accepted and signed off by everyone, I couldn’t even speak I was so nervous. I finally relaxed when one of the group made a negative comment about the data analysis. I surveyed the room. My God, I realized, three of the four people on the committee considered themselves expert in stats. The person with the most knowledge about statistics was the one who made the comment. The one with the least was my advisor. Realizing how the game was played—Finally!—I knew I could shut up and let them posture and decide among themselves who knew more. I had my own answer, which might not bode well in terms of outcome. But there was pride and personality involved. I decided I would do best to just keep my mouth shut as they decided among themselves what to do with me. Just leave the gate open as I thought and I did. And the rest happened according to plan.

Psychology is not a game nor is it really a study, although there are people who study at it. It is a method of observation that will allow the development of strategy to maximize outcome. This involves personality, intelligence, culture, circumstance, environment, everything that brings two people or groups of people together. It can occur among psychologists without their being aware of it. But, let’s be clear. It didn’t start with Freud, or James, even the Greeks. It began when there was a person who had a problem to solve, most likely of Survival, who learned about that problem by interacting with it to solve it. This process is best rendered in the arts, not in the sciences. Don’t read Aristotle, read Homer. Without a background in film and in literature, I would not have completed the study I was working on and I would not be writing this thing that you are reading. Felicitations! Broaden your focus. The learning in this field is everywhere.