Presidential Column

How Can Clinical Psychology Help Bridge the Gap in a Divided Nation

By Elizabeth A. Yeater, Ph.D.


This is my final entry in The Clinical Psychologist as President of Division 12. Dr. Annette La Greca is our incoming President, and Dr. Jon Comer will be completing his year as Past President. Make no mistake about it – the three of us will go down in the history of Division 12 as the “Pandemic President Trio!”

I am a clinical psychologist, and not a politician, and it has been several decades since I took a course in political science (I did well in the class, but shoot, it has been many years!). Thus, I do not intend to wax political in the following paragraphs. Yet, it is remarkably obvious that the past year (likely four years) and the recent election have had a psychological and emotional impact on many (myself included). As I sat transfixed in front of my computer as the election results came in, I found myself completely baffled by the fact that there was any red on the map of the United States. It was so clear to me in that moment – who would vote for a continuance of the same for the next four years! Who would vote for an administration that eschewed science when it came to COVID-19? Certainly, refusing to accept the scientific realities contributed to the deaths of many Americans!

Just as there have been several times in my life when I have been confronted with my own ethnocentrism (when I visited Tanzania, for example), I realized then that I am peculiarly out of touch with a large percentage of the United States citizenship. I make this statement descriptively, not judgmentally – it is true, I am a “card- carrying liberal” who would have voted for Bernie Sanders, one of the 2% of our population who holds a doctoral degree, and someone who associates primarily with people who adhere to the same political beliefs as I do (thus, they sound exactly like me! No dissenting opinions are offered!). I simply am not representative of the general population and am out of touch with at least a substantial portion of the United States population. I would prefer to consider myself as reasonably “in touch” – I come from a relatively poor background (I know what food stamps are and how to use them), was raised by a single mother, and had few educational resources growing up. My family, on both sides, lived for several centuries in West Virginia. My paternal grandmother had a fourth grade education, never learned how to drive, and never flew in an airplane. I am the first in my family to obtain an advanced degree. Yet despite those roots, and all of the associations that came with them – both good and bad – I clearly do not understand a substantial portion of our population (and I am a psychologist!). I know I am having a shared experience with many of you, and am making a statement that I have heard others declare, but it feels good to say it regardless – perhaps by admitting this to ourselves, we can find a way to bridge the gap that divides our country. As psychologists, I am confident that we can find ways to accomplish this goal. We treat clients successfully who are different from us in various and sundry ways; we are trained in multicultural diversity and how to identify our biases and blind spots; and we know about errors in judgments and the problematic use of heuristics in decision making (I will return to these points in just a moment).

As someone who conducts research and values the scientific method for all that it has to offer us, I have found the attack on science to be one of the most disconcerting aspects of this year (which notably had many disconcerting aspects to it). Certainly, we can point to other times in our history in which science was denigrated and scientists persecuted, yet I did not expect to see this during my lifetime, particularly because of the clear advantages science has provided us in the modern age (e.g., personal computers, cell phones, DNA, vaccines, treatments for once terminal cancers).

I teach our graduate course in Psychological Clinical Science at the University of New Mexico. One of the issues we discuss early on in the course is pseudoscience, as well as how common it is for people to believe in things that have little or no evidence (you would think I would have reminded myself of these readings when I was shouting like a lunatic at the red on the electoral map!). For instance, a non-negligible percentage of people (who are not psychologists) believe in aliens (on Earth!), astrology, ghosts, communication with the dead, extrasensory perception, and psychic experiences. However, even within our own field, there have been dark times in which some have fallen prey to pseudoscience. The one that comes to mind most readily is the repressed memory debacle of 1990s. There too, a non-negligible group of psychologists and therapists believed that repression of sexual abuse (particularly childhood sexual abuse) was real, and that clients often presented for treatment with any number of symptoms that might “signal” that they had repressed their own abuse (e.g., depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and the list went on and on). Of course, that “pseudoscience fever” broke once the work of Drs. Stephen Ceci and Elizabeth Loftus demonstrated that: (a) repetitive and suggestive questioning of children (and sometimes adults!) can result in confessions of experiences that never occurred (i.e., kids are good conversationalists!), and (b) we can cause a significant percentage of people to “remember” events that never happened to them (e.g., Loftus’ classic hot air balloon ride experiment).

So, why might Trump supporters believe the pseudoscientific statements made about COVID-19? Why would QAnon supporters believe that Democrats are part of a Satanic pedophilic cult that is working to undermine Trump? Why did a non-negligible group of psychologists buy the book Courage to Heal in the 90s to assist their clients in uncovering their repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse? Carl Sagan (among others) has written that we fall prey to these ideas, while inconceivable, because pseudoscience is easier to conceive of than science, and because pseudoscience may function to help us avoid a reality that we do not have control over. Let’s face it – scientific reasoning is arduous, and pseudoscience is less of a “cognitive load,” so to speak. The year 2020 has been laden with lack of control – thus, it is no mystery why pseudoscientific beliefs have multiplied and proliferated among the general population.

Yet, I have hope, and some of that hope lies in the realm of education. We know quite a bit in psychology about information processing, memory, and judgment errors and biases. We know how to train people to think more scientifically about claims that are made by others. A favorite paper of mine that I assign in my Clinical Science course is Lilienfeld’s (2005) article “The 10 Commandments of Helping Students Distinguish Science from Pseudoscience in Psychology.” In this brief yet compelling paper, Lilienfeld outlined 10 ways in which we can educate undergraduates on the differences between science and pseudoscience. Notably, he stated that in order to grasp scientific thinking, students need also to understanding the underpinnings of pseudoscientific beliefs (e.g., venting pent up rage is good, opposites attract, schizophrenics have two personalities, we only use 10% of our brain). That is, we need to “go there” with students, and in a way that is not pretentious, defensive, or authoritarian. Only then, might there be an opening to change thinking about pseudoscientific beliefs. Lilienfeld (2005) noted also that the media and internet contribute to the swift dissemination of pseudoscientific claims and theories (clearly, this relationship is much stronger in 2020), and that instruction in critical thinking skills is needed and crucial for countering pseudoscientific thinking.

Lilienfeld’s comments seem so relevant, even 15 years subsequent to the publication of this paper. Can we attempt to listen to those who hold beliefs that are disparate from our own? Can we assist others in considering counterarguments to a cherished belief system? I suspect we can – although the task seems immense to me as I write this – we certainly do this in our clinical work with clients who hold on to maladaptive beliefs about themselves, others, and the world. I realize the problems at hand are more complex than simply engaging in Socratic reasoning, but I also believe that psychology has a place at the table here – surely, we know quite a bit about changing human behavior.

References

Lilienfeld, S. O. (2005). The 10 commandments of helping students distinguish science from pseudoscience in psychology. Observer, 18, 39-40 & 49-51.