Psychology’s top 10 misguided ideas

Here’s one we can all join in on. Psychology Today magazine has a column from earlier this year on The Loose Screw Awards which gives out (notional) prizes for ‘psychology’s top 10 misguided ideas’. This includes “The P.T. Barnum Medal for Mass-Market Potential” (which goes to the Mozart effect), “The Idea That Launched a Thousand Suits” (recovered memories) and “Most Bureaucratic” which goes to the idea that terminally ill people go through five distinct stages of dying (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) and that any deviation from this strict pattern is detrimental to the patient. It has been claimed that the theory was based on interviews with patients who hadn’t been told that they were terminally ill. Which would explain their anger and denial – they were being lied to by the very people who were supposed to be looking after them!

Fun as the list in the article is, I can’t help feeling that there are a few ideas that missed out on prizes, or at least on honourable mentions. What about a “Scientific Gold-Rush Prize” (Neuroimaging?). Or a “Delusions of Grandeur Trophy” (Evolutionary Psychology? Psychoanalysis? Could be a close race…). Maybe the “Restating the Obvious in Esoteric Jargon Medal” (we’d probably need a gold, silver and bronze for this one).

A few years ago a poll of 200 psychiatrists produced a similar list of bad ideas in mental health. The Independent ran an article on it (‘Ten Things That Drive Psychiatrists To Distraction’) and there’s quite a few items (psychosurgery, electroshock therapy) that I’d put in my top ten. All in all, a sharp reminder of the sad history of ideas in psychology. Anyone got any other nominations?


  1. Posted July 27, 2005 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    I forgot the “Prize for Theoretical Construct Reification” (which could go to IQ testing)

  2. Posted July 28, 2005 at 3:25 am | Permalink

    Could you please provide a little more infomration on why Neuroimaging should win the “Scientific Gold-Rush Prize”? I was under the impression that studying the brain was a good thing…

  3. tom
    Posted July 28, 2005 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Neuroimaging *could* win the gold rush prize because it is vastly expensive and time consuming, offers (scientific) riches and everyone and their dog wants to be on board the gravy train. Of course studying the brain is a good thing, but if you a) do badly designed experiments b) sacrifice things like correct replication of findings then what you are producing isn’t good science. Not that i think all neuroimaging is bad, i’m just a little skeptical, when i see reports along the lines of “Doing this thing X involves this area of the brain Y” (which is essentially saying “Thinking involves your brain!” but with more jargon)
    And it has been said:
    “the use of functional imaging to understand the brain is like trying to understand how a car engine works, using only a thermal sensor on a geostationary satellite”
    (see here:
    Jerry Fodor on these things:
    Paul Bloom (see suggests that part of the popularity of brain imaging is that it appeals to people’s innate dualism. If we haven’t really accepted that our minds have anything to do with our brains, then *any* result which shows up the connection is suprising

  4. Daniel
    Posted August 1, 2005 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Hello, very interesting.
    I am not sure if the problem with “Delusions of Grandeur” is with psychoanalysis or many psychoanalysts.
    Can you elaborate on the issue of psychoanalysis and its delusions?.

  5. Daniel
    Posted August 1, 2005 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    This website always crashes Opera broser :-(

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