Quack Psychologists, 1927

I’ve just found this interesting 1927 news item from Science magazine lambasting the rise of ‘quack psychologists’ that were apparently troubling the American public at the time. It’s interesting because it has a dig a two very specific groups of unorthodox psychological groups:

PSEUDO-PSYCHOLOGISTS, who promise, like fairy godmothers, to turn every-day human beings into fascinating personalities or into great financial successes, are creating large groups of discontented individuals, according to Dr. E. A. Shaw and George E. Gardner, of the Harvard University Psycho-Educational Clinic.

These two clinical psychologists state in a report to the National Committee for Mental Hygiene that “character analysts” and “practical psychologists” are responsible for many of the dissatisfied, badly adjusted cases that come to the Harvard Clinic. Gilt edge promises made to all, irrespective of ability and training, lead individuals to false hopes and discontent with kinds of work for which they are suited. And repeated failures to attain the heights so glowingly described as well within reach can lead an individual to serious mental upsets.

The psychological quack, half informed concerning scientific psychological principles, undertakes in a conference or by lectures, and for no small fee, to advise men and women about their mental and vocational ills. The two Harvard psychologists explain that “these men, we maintain – and their numbers are growing day by day – are a detriment to the mental health of the community. In their doctrines and platitudes there is just enough of truth and of falsity to make them dangerous.”

One serious result of the situation pointed out is that the work of the “analysts” becomes confused in the eyes of the public with the work of well-trained vocational advisers and directors of personality clinics who conscientiously and carefully study the individual who comes to them for help and who advise him according to his real possibilities.

The reference to “character analysts” and “practical psychologists” is not just a general dismissal of the poorly trained practitioner, it refers to two specific movements that departed from the established mainstream.

“Character analysts” undoubtedly refers to followers of analyst Willhelm Reich who was originally a follower of Freud before foolishly engaging in some free-thinking which got him kicked out of the inner circle.

His book Character Analysis departed from the traditional Freudian focus on individual symptoms to consider the interplay of the whole personality. It has become a classic in psychoanalysis but as he wandered from the Freudian path, he and his followers were ostracised.

Reich took a distinctly odd turn in later years, believing the power of orgasm, called orgone, could be stored in batteries and could be absorbed from the sky by the use of a special machine called a cloudbuster. Incidentally, this story inspired the Kate Bush song Cloubusting, which describes Reich’s obsession with the machine and his eventual downfall.

“Practical psychologists” refers to a movement of amateur psychologists that created their own popular clubs to discuss and ‘translate’ lab findings to the populace.

They saw themselves as liberating psychology from the ivory towers of the university but they were despised by academic psychologists for their uncritical thinking and, probably worse in their eyes, popularism.

The Psychologist had a great article on the growth of this movement in the UK, if you want more on what pop psychology looked like in the early 20th century.

Some years before the publication of this news piece, Freud had written his famous paper on ‘Wild Psycho-Analysis’ which clearly stated that true analysts had to toe the line and had to be taught by one of the initiated – everyone else was to be considered a dangerous amateur.

I have no idea who Dr E.A. Shaw was, but George E. Gardner was a orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis based at the prestigious McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, so you can see how they were using the talk reported in the Science piece to bolster the established Freudian approach to the mind.

Link to PubMed entry for news report.

One Comment

  1. John
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    The only real quacks these days are the drugpushers of the pharmaceutical industry. My nephew used to be a professor of microbiology but now works for pfizer where he earns a whopping 6 times more! All he does all day long is trying to find as much proof that a medicine is not harmfull


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