Psychobabble
by R. D. Rosen

Are you relating? Are you getting in touch with your feelings? Are you going through heavy changes? Exactly how heavy are those changes? Are you doing your own thing? (Or are you, by some mistake doing someone else's?) Is your head screwed on straight? Are you getting your act together?

We owe R. D. Rosen thanks for inventing the term "psychobabble" and applying it to such clap-trap as the previous paragraph. Psychobabble is the empty, anti-intellectual slang of self-indulgent people who are looking for shortcuts to enlightenment. It is the endless chatter of hypocrites who bore you to tears telling you how sensitive they are. It is the language of those Hollywood types and their imitators who keep up with the latest fads in nitwit psychology. Most of these fads are like revival movements, except they are amoral and self-centered. They amount to secularized positive thinking -- revelation uninformed by history, theory, or understanding.

I just read Rosen's book Psychobabble, which was published in the 1970s and deals with some of the psychological fads of that decade. There were so many that he couldn't deal with all of them, he didn't even have room for Scientology, Rolfing, or astrology, and there have been several more since the book was published.

The first character he discusses is David Viscott, who had several best-selling self-help books and made a lot of money off the fools who bought them. Viscott's idea was that the psychologically whole person is already there, fully formed, if only we knew in which pocket to look. All we have to do is get in touch with our true feelings by reading his books. Viscott himself doesn't read books. He admitted to having read only 5 books (none about psychology) in the previous 8 years. He said he doesn't want to forfeit his originality by reading someone else's ideas. Actually, by not reading, he forfeits the chance to learn about his own lack of originality.

Werner Erhard invented Erhard Seminars Training (est), which is freeze-dried Zen in a boot-camp atmosphere. What is, is. What ain't, ain't. Got It? If you don't get It, you need to finish some unfinished business -- quit a bad job, clean the bathroom, get a divorce. It doesn't matter, and it doesn't not matter. It just is. The past can be completed so it no longer intrudes on the present and so it doesn't prevent you from experiencing yourself. Life stinks. But it's not bad that life stinks. It just stinks. Got It?

Erhard is a master of saying the same thing half a dozen times in different ways until you are worn down and you get It. He shows how easy it is to infantilize a group of people when you lock them in a room for 2 days, berate them with psychobabble, and don't let them go to the bathroom. He teaches self-awareness to the exclusion of any other kind of awareness.

Co-counseling was another fad. Its basic idea was that we are all geniuses and all we need to do is appreciate each other and be supportive of each other. Even though we sometimes do bad things, we are not bad people. Each person's basic character deserves to be respected. They even go so far as to apply this to the scum of the earth -- politicians. Rosen astutely asks,

"What is the point of "appreciating" a president's character, which one has no firsthand contact with, while minimizing his actions, the very things which most affect us?"
Another chapter deals with computer therapy, especially the programs developed by a quack named Colby. There is a famous painting, by Richard Estes, of a New York City drugstore, which Rosen uses to make a point about computer therapy. Rosen says,
"Colby wants to say his computer simulation embodies a new theory of paranoia. That's like claiming you can get your prescription filled at the drugstore in the painting."
Computer therapists have one good point, but Rosen disagrees with it. They think Freudian psychoanalysis takes too long and costs too much. Warner Slack, co-director of Computer Medicine at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, says,
"Psychoanalysis is like hiring Walter Kaufmann to teach you Nietzsche personally."
As bad as Rosen makes computer therapy sound (and he does make it sound bad), it is less bad in all the ways he mentions than if the only alternative were live sessions with trained psychoanalysts. Computer therapy and the guru-of-the-month fads, which allow you to rent an insight for any occasion, are inspired by the disdain for complex Freudian theories and the long-term, expensive, and not particularly successful approach of psychoanalysis. Unfortunately, Rosen doesn't fully appreciate that Freudianism is basically the psychobabble of the 1930s that has acquired respectability in some circles because it has been around for so long and because to become a legally certified psychoanalyst requires years of training.

Rebirthing is another shortcut to insight. The assumption is that all our emotional problems stem from the trauma of birth. So, to solve all our problems, we need to reexperience our birth. By attributing all responsibility for life's problems to a single cause, the rebirthing movement insults our intelligence. It is almost as silly as astrology, which places undue significance on the configuration of the heavenly bodies at the moment of one's birth.

Primal therapy is deeply anti-intellectual. It has no theory at all to explain particular emotional problems. It is pure clap-trap pretending to be a panacea. It comes in two flavors. In both versions, the individual is supposed to induce himself into having primal experiences until he finally becomes a post-primal man. In the Regardie version, when a person has a primal experience, he regurgitates. In the more popular Janov version, the person screams.

The only validity is in experiencing a primal emotion. Primal emotions are induced in group therapy sessions in which the leader uses a strategy of humiliation and debasement to break down the inhibitions that we have learned by growing up in a civilized society. Sometimes members are requested to strip naked in front of the group or to declare that they are forevermore homosexual, whether they are or not.

Asses who undergo these therapies are still asses afterward, but worse. They become more confident and obnoxious asses. And they speak in psychobabble instead of English.

Instead of addressing the intellectual content of criticism, est people say the criticism demonstrates that the critic hasn't gotten It, and Primal Therapy people say it is an expression of the critic's "primal pain." They avoid the rational objections by characterizing the critics as unenlightened -- they offer no evidence, no proof, no arguments.

Many of these crackpot therapy cults are based on the popular myth that feelings accumulate and ball up inside us like pressurized steam unless we release them. The truth is that whether they are expressed or not, old feelings usually do not survive after the stimulus that caused them is gone. In fact, if we do not express a feeling it will fade faster because the memory of the feeling is not reinforced by memories of the things we did to express it and our memory of the reactions of others to our expression of it. Bad feelings are kept alive by rehearsing them and reliving them. It is no wonder that the fools who participate in emotional therapy groups are neurotic.

Rosen's major criticism of the therapy cults is that they are too simplistic. He can easily see the fallacies they are based on, so he cannot believe in them. Since he doesn't believe in them, they can't work for him. (Each of these therapy cults is a religion in that it requires a leap of faith. If you believe something works, then it works, or so you believe.) Freudian psychoanalysis is apparently too complicated for Rosen to refute, so he treats it with respect -- even though it is no more effective than the other techniques.

In the 20th century, many people who have difficulty coping with their emotions look to psychology for guidance like people in previous centuries sought comfort in religion. The various psychological cults are analogous to various religious sects. Some of the self-help psychology cults mirror the religion of positive thinking espoused by Reverends Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller (my mother's favorite). Viscott's psychology amounts to the belief that the Kingdom of God is within you. The primal screamers are like Holy Rollers exorcising demons. Re-birthers are like Baptists in thinking they can be born again as adults. Est seminars are like fundamentalist camp meetings. Psychiatrist's couches are like confession booths. Psychobabble is like speaking in tongues.

Psychoanalysis is very high church. Like Episcopalianism and Lutheranism, it is for complacent, well-healed snobs. It is an established religion brought over from the old world. Its Holy Trinity of ego, id, and superego is as impenetrable as the writings of the medieval scholastics. It requires a Jesuit-like education to become one of its practitioners.

The cults that Rosen criticizes are low church. They have simple or nonexistent theologies. They appeal to true believers from the naive, unreflective, anti-intellectual strata. Like the frontier Baptist and Methodist sects of 18th and 19th century America, they emphasize lay preaching, conversion, emotional commitment, and salvation through illuminating personal experiences.

The primal therapists look to an inner experience as the source of authority in much the same way as the Levellers and Quakers of the 1700s looked for inner light, vision, and revelation. They believe the spirit is within every man. When they feel the spirit, it looks from the outside as though they have a weak grip on reality if they are not outright deluded or insane.

But the low-brow religious sects have an important virtue that the high-brow churches and the high- and low-brow psychologies lack. The low-brow sects try to bring back to life the original moral values that Jesus and the early Christians stressed: love, charity, honesty, integrity, personal commitment, responsibility, compassion, and forgiveness. The high-brow churches traded these in years ago for respectability. The psychological cults, whether high- or low-brow, disparage all morality as an infantile hang-up that we need to overcome. So the low-brow, spiritualistic, religious sects are the only ones defending morality. Unfortunately, they are knuckleheads. They get morality so confused with apocalypticism, prohibitionism, and patriotism, that they give morality a bad name.

Year Read: 1992


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