Psychology Grows Up

Psychology Grows Up

Many therapists now regard their profession as more of a philosophy than a science--and that is having a positive effect on their patients.

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“Psychology in Recovery” by Paul C. Vitz, in First Things (March 2005), Institute on Religion and Public Life, 156 Fifth Ave., Ste. 400, New York, N.Y. 10010.

When it was born in the 19th century, psychology had high hopes of donning a lab coat and growing up to be a science. That has happened to some of the discipline’s offspring, but therapeutic psychology took another route—and had some wild times in its adolescence. Now, it too seems to be growing into a responsible adult.

Experimental psychology was one of the discipline’s first offspring, and it now has children and grandchildren, according to Vitz, an emeritus professor of psychology at New York University.  They are united by a focus on biology and brain function, and all are recognized as hard sciences. Physiological psychology is now known as neuroscience. Cognitive psychology (which deals with human memory, problem solving, learning, and the like) has begotten “such fields as cognitive neuroscience (focusing on brain activity) and cognitive science (focusing on artificial intelligence and robotics).”

Test-and-measurement psychology, a child of the early 20th century, has won recognition as a useful social science rather than a hard science, says Vitz. Researchers in this field develop tests to gauge intelligence, occupational aptitudes, mental pathologies, and other traits.

Therapeutic psychology, the branch that is psychology to most people, still has a modest base of scientific observation and experimental research, but it’s no longer interested in being a science. The success of biologically based drug therapies in treating  many psychological maladies is one reason. Modern therapeutic psychology uses “concepts and broad interpretive frameworks that are intrinsically nonscientific—and, indeed, philosophical in nature. The result is that psychology is becoming an applied philosophy of life,” writes Vitz, a part of the humanities.

One sign of the field’s new maturity is the emergence of “positive psychology.” Traditional psychology focused on traumas and pathologies—and bred the victim mentality and flight from personal responsibility that now afflict American society. Positive psychology, built on the research of Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, seeks to balance the discipline’s focus by looking at “traits that promote happiness and well-being, as well as character strengths such as optimism, kindness, resilience, persistence, and gratitude,” according to Vitz. In making this shift, he writes, therapeutic psychology “has moved not only from science to philosophy, but also from the past and its effects to the future and our purposes, from mechanical determinism to teleology.”

At the same time, therapeutic psychology has become far friendlier to religion than it was in its younger days. Indeed, “many clinical psychologists today are themselves religious.” Ironically, that friendliness has something to do with the democratization of therapy, which has brought psychologists into greater contact with ordinary Americans.

Vitz sees the possibility of a new “transmodern” psychology that incorporates the wisdom of traditional religious and philosophical thinking in guiding people to better lives. It would be a “smaller and humbler” discipline, but far more useful to its public than the overeager adolescent ever was.

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