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The Psychologist's Fallacy - and other pitfalls

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 19 - April 1997

Today we will look at some common fallacies or misconstructions found in the general area of psychology/ psychotherapy. The most common myth, as I see it – and many are prone to this misconception today – is what American philosopher William James called (about 100 years ago) "the psychologist's fallacy."

This is the very widespread form of specious reasoning in our culture today, especially among psychologists and others who work with people, of assuming that every event has some psychological cause or explanation. A chronic symptom of egomaniacal boors which is often overworked at dinner parties etc. or more dangerously, mistakenly invoked by practitioners to mystify patients.

To put it clearly, many things that happen do not require any psychological analysis. The problem is that our culture is so drenched in "pop psychology" that too much is often attributed to too little. For example, a thief may rob a bank not because he has problems with his father, but maybe he thinks this is a way to get easy money. A woman may marry an older man, not because she is seeking a "father figure", but perhaps she likes his charming ways. Some behaviour patterns may be due to DNA or neurological damage caused by difficult childbirth or other perinatal problems, etc. Let's not be too prone to leap to some unconscious explanation for various behaviours. If someone comes late for an appointment, don't assume that this is a personality defect (of course, if they always turn up late, then it might be wise to wonder about some psychological concomitant).

Sigmund Freud, who of course said many wise things, summed it up well when he stated to an inquirer: "Sometimes a good cigar is just a cigar."

Another deception (or better, self-deception) we often engage in has been labelled "the egomorphic fallacy." This is the assumption that other people are the same as we are. Of course, in some ways we are like others, but always keep in mind that not everyone shares your own tastes, values, interests, etc. A common and dangerous misconstruction is that we may "take for granted" that another person shares our own preferences. This is a cause of many quarrels in friendship and love relationships. Better to air out the differences and discuss them, than to assume, we're all the same.

Related to this is what one might call "the semantic problem", assuming we know what words mean when they actually convey a different connotation. The psychoanalysts are masters of this type of illusion. In fact, Freud labelled his system: "dynamic"; now there's a word to conjure with. A good PR choice, as any advertising executive would say. What is "dynamic" about lying on the couch for years and digging up childhood?

The excuse is another semantic delusion: some problems are "deep". Being deep, they must be dug up in a kind of archeological exercise. The larger fallacy here is the nonsubstantiated belief that digging up childhood memories (which may often be fabrications) solves the present-day problem. It's a theory, Harvey. Not a proven fact. There are many new books pointing out the fallacies of the entire Freudian edifice. The most impressive of these are: A. Grunbaum's Validation in the Clinical Theory of Psychoanalysis, which knocks out the philosophical underpinnings of Freud's theory; and M. Macmillan, Freud Evaluated.

The problem with excavating the past is that we can never objectively know what happened, since our ability to recall what happened may be more creative than factual. Einstein summarised it this way: "Every reminiscence is coloured by today's being what it is, and therefore by a deceptive point of view."

This is a standpoint supported by the gestalt school: we can only know the past on the background of the present.

Einstein was such a succinct observer of life; this was his view on another fallacy of theorists – and many of us are prone to this – we are often too much in love with our own ideas to evaluate them objectively.

Of Freud, Einstein stated critically: "He had a sharp vision; no illusions lulled him to sleep except for an often exaggerated faith in his own ideas."

Perhaps one of the most pernicious misleading notions in the field of psychotherapy today is that over-optimistic doctrine that all conflicts can and must be resolved. So the downtrodden woman tries endlessly to work our her problems with her mother-in-law; the battered wife tries for bruising years and years to understand her violent husband in order to improve their relationship. This is what Fritz Perls called "the hanging-on bite." Perhaps it's better sometimes to just cut it off! Many conflicts can never be solved, but they can be abandoned, and therein lies the solution. Yes, it is simple; but often in this complicated life, simplicity is the best way through a Gordian knot. So forget this idea of always trying to work things out, eternally jousting to understand each other, etc. Maybe a good answer is to instead flee the field and start over somewhere else with a clean slate.

A general conception among many well-wishing laymen is that psychology is a powerful science that will ultimately resolve all human misery. For example, one naive belief is that psychotherapy can heal criminals. The truth of the matter is that psychology is a very rudimentary discipline, at the present state of knowledge, in any event, and is subject to what I call The Relevance/Precision Paradox.

Psychologists have some exact knowledge with a great degree of precision in certain areas, which unfortunately have very little relevance for everyday human life...for example, eye-lid conditioning, reflex behaviour, and small laboratory controlled events. But when it comes to the relevant and important areas of human life – emotions, desire, love, etc. then we have very little precision. The more relevant the topic, the less precision the psychologist can bring to bear on it.


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:


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