In the last few decades, a new trend has emerged among frum Jews. When a serious problem arises, one doesn’t consult a rabbi for advice. One doesn’t consult Mishlei or Pirkei Avos. One doesn’t consult famous sefarim written by tzaddikim or ge’onim. One doesn’t even consult classic repositories of secular wisdom, such as the works of Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, or Shakespeare. No, one consults psychologists.
These mental-health “experts” or “professionals” allegedly possess the secret to the human mind. They alone understand why people are unhappy or anxious or depressed. They – not Shlomo Hamelech, not Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, not the Lubavitcher Rebbe, not your parents, not a wise rav – understand what makes people tick and only they can properly address the human afflictions that have been plaguing man since the dawn of time.
This belief is strange for several reasons – not least of which is that this generation, despite intensive psychological intervention, seems less happy, less satisfied, and less at ease than any previous one. We also don’t seem to be performing better on any of the classic metrics. Are we happier than our parents or grandparents? Are we more successful? Do we possess better characters?
But let’s leave all that aside. Psychology enthusiasts claim that psychologists are like doctors. Just like you go to a doctor when you have a fever, you should go to a psychologist if you’re feeling anxious, for example. But is psychology, in fact, a discipline like medicine or physics, which is based on facts that can be properly measured and tested?
The answer is no.
Indeed, psychologists themselves now routinely attack their own field for lacking scientific rigor. An article on Vox.com (not exactly a right-wing site) just last month declared, “Things in psychology are more than messy – the field has been going through a very public, and painful, crisis of confidence in many of its findings.”
For starters, numerous psychological findings, we now know, fail to withstand careful statistical analysis. Even worse, though: In recent years, researchers have often been unable to replicate the results of earlier researchers. They conduct the same experiments but come up with statistically meaningless results or results that conflict with the results of the original experiment. Many psychologists now openly proclaim that their field is experiencing a “replication crisis.”
Several years ago, the New York Times reported that “a painstaking yearslong effort to reproduce 100 studies published in three leading psychology journals has found that more than half of the findings did not hold up when retested.” More than half!
Even before these recent developments, however, it should have been obvious that many of psychology’s boldest claims simply cannot be substantiated. To reach proper scientific conclusions, one needs to conduct controlled experiments. A controlled experiment – as we’re all taught in elementary school – means that every factor except the one you wish to test must be “controlled,” i.e., kept constant.
Thus, if one wants to test what effect, if any, sugar has on the boiling point of water, one would take two pots of exactly the same size and material, pour exactly the same amount of water into both of them – but sugar into only one of them – and place them on fires of exactly the same temperature at exactly the same time. One would then wait to see how long it takes for each pot to boil.
If one starts boiling before the other, one would know that sugar affects the boiling point of water since there is no other possible (rational) explanation for why one pot of water would have started boiling before the other since the pots were otherwise exactly the same and treated exactly the same.
Now let’s examine a psychological claim that’s repeated by many as a self-evident truth: Potching a child – even on the rarest of occasions – is psychologically harmful. Okay, how would one test this claim? First, it’s immediately obvious that doing a controlled experiment is absolutely impossible. No two human beings are the same. We have different natures and grow up in different families, different schools, different communities, and have different life experiences. If one child grows up to be Steve Jobs and another child grows up to be homeless, it may be the potch that’s responsible for the different life trajectories – or it could be a million other factors.
Doing controlled experiments on human beings is impossible. Even if two people are literally clones – and thus share the same exact nature – they still don’t live the exact same life. And that’s why psychology (like economics and political science, for example) is called a “soft science” – because its hypotheses simply cannot be properly tested like those of biology, chemistry, or physics (all of which are considered “hard sciences”).
Just because psychology is a soft science doesn’t mean all its theories are false. What it does mean, though, is that its theories are precisely that: theories. They may be right, they may be wrong. But just because a psychologist says repression is bad (despite the fact that civilization is built on repression) or that you’re anxious because your mother treated you unfairly when you were five years old (an unprovable hypothesis if there ever was one) doesn’t make it so.
Aristotle had his theories about human behavior, as did Rousseau, Kant, and numerous other geniuses. One need not feel compelled to accept Freud’s theories any more than theirs. Indeed, considering some of Freud’s strange obsessions, one should feel even less compelled to accept his ideas. Let’s not forget that it was Freud who argued that we invented Judaism to assuage our guilt for having murdered Moshe Rabbeinu (yes, he really writes that), and it was Freud who claimed that “[c]ircumcision is the symbolical substitute of castration, a punishment which the primeval father dealt his sons long ago out of the fullness of his power.”
One last word on psychologists: According to a 2007 study, 65 percent of academics in psychology are either atheists or agnostics (compared to 5 percent among the general American population). According to another study that year, Democrats outnumber Republicans among psychology professors at elite universities by a ratio of 12 to 1.
Now ask yourself: Do you really want to put your mental well-being in the hands of these people? Do you really trust their advice is based on rigorous research as opposed to a secularist outlook on life? Might not the famous psychiatrist Thomas Szasz be right that psychotherapy is really “a religion that pretends to be a science”?
I am not dismissing the entire field of psychology. Rigorous research is, indeed, done in this discipline (although its findings are usually modest in nature or tend to confirm commonsensical truths like “grateful people are happier people”) and some psychologists do, indeed, help people (although “how much [of this help is due to] personal charisma, art, religious conviction, or science” is unclear, writes psychologist Zenobia Grusky in relation to psychoanalysis).
My main point is this: Psychology is not a discipline like chemistry or physics, and most of modern psychology’s sweeping statements about human nature and behavior are based on philosophy, not science (which is why, for example, transgenderism was considered a psychological illness for many decades but no longer is today). And this philosophy, to a large extent, is built on a rejection of traditional and religious values.
If you find certain psychological theories compelling and compatible with Torah, by all means embrace them. But feel no pressure to do so. They’re not facts. They’re theories. And more often than not, you’re liable to find better advice on living a happy, content life in Torah sources than in a psychologist’s office.
The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the full editorial board of The Jewish Press.