A nation in therapy

The Romance of American Psychology
October 20, 1995

The warfare state and the welfare state both need psychology; and psychologists, the possessors of "a veritable world view", always feel they deserve the money. The United States's romance with psychology and allied trades began with IQ testing and clinical services for the military; and it continued with community psychology for the ghettos and psychotherapy for even the lower-middle-classes.

Such is Ellen Herman's thesis about the relations between psychology and the public life of America. Unconcerned with academic psychology or alternative therapies, Herman tells how mainstream psychology fared on the national stage. With good humour and scholarly detail she writes fairly and fluently about America's "wide-ranging campaign to infuse society with psychological enlightenment".

There can be no doubting the intensity of the romance. By 1970, one American in 20 was in therapy and the Senate held hearings on "Psychological Aspects of Foreign Policy". Yet which psychology was "desperately needed" in the US, and what for?

Unfortunately, Herman prefers a quiet life: she echoes the encomia that have often issued from psychologists themselves. Many well-meant proposals from psychologists who were working for their country owed nothing to any psychological research: US soldiers of 1939-45 were solemnly advised that prostitutes did not provide true sexual satisfaction. And actual research was often ignored: psychologists' sensible studies of Japanese mentality in the wartime relocation camps of eastern California were not responsible for Truman's psychological masterstroke of letting Emperor Hirohito keep his throne. Herman herself points out that postwar therapy could be run satisfactorily by selected amateurs, and that psychologists' memos often lacked ideas or could be "the joke of Washington". Yet she always returns to accentuating the positive as her way of driving through uninspired psychobabble and unvindicated interventions.

Eventually, Herman's Pollyana-ism reaches one of psychology's main set of battle lines. The saintly Gordon Allport had proudly called psychology "social engineering"; but by 1968 it had became fashionable to believe psychology's "engineering" to be dangerously anti-social. To negotiate this historic turning point, Herman has a choice. She can admit that the romance was over. Alternatively, she can explain that antipsychology was itself soon embraced by insurance companies which declined to pay for psychoanalysis and by government agencies which emptied the mental hospitals on to the streets. In fact, Herman has fun with social science researchers being used effectively as spies by the dreaded department of defense; but she soon turns out to have no definite position of her own. "Because human psychology was an enigma," she concludes, psychological experts had been "indispensable to the future of democracy". However, her own failure to join in psychology's civil wars has rendered this assurance hollow.

A coherent account of American psychology does peek through Herman's history. Once in regular employment with the military, IQ-testing psychologists came to realise that psychological breakdown could involve more than (genetic) dispositions. Some situations were manifestly causal - notably, artillery bombardment. As Herman records, when? not who? became the experts' question of the 1940s about mental illness. This change of emphasis led first to the notorious frustration-aggression hypothesis and then to making mental health frankly "synonymous with equality, prosperity and welfare". Finally there came the outright "situationism" and "constructivism" of the past two decades. All behaviour was to be traced politely to "stimulus situations" and to "perceptions" or "identities" that might reflect the perversely individualistic, chauvinistic, homophobic assumptions of psychology itself. Nature was abolished: people no longer had essence.

Herman explains that US wartime psychologists became edgy with stories that traced fascism to "national character" when they realised just how aggressive Americans could be. US infantrymen fought for the hell of it rather than for love of democracy, and were more easily helped back to health by their buddies than by psychologists. By the 1950s, research into "authoritarianism" had confirmed that many civilians were as bad. Herman fails to link this realisation about the citizenry to the post-1968 replacement of psychology's soul with situations. For the solution was to attribute primitive attitudes, psychological problems and even outright criminality to anything other than individuals. The nation that had pioneered mass psychometry by objective tests succumbed to behaviourism just as behaviourism's influence faded in academia: between 1963 and 1976 the percentage of firms using psychological tests was halved.

Herman maintains correctly that American psychologists had wanted to create a citizenry free of "irrationality" and prejudice, and thus capable of sustaining democracy despite America's racial and religious divides. Yet why should anti-individualism and antigeneticism have become the delight and delusion of mainstream psychology? Why did American psychologists abandon the idea of relatively lasting and general personality differences? The answer is revealed by Herman's spectacular omission from her book: the name of America's best-known living psychologist, Arthur Jensen. Bottom-decile IQ is strongly associated with criminality and welfare-dependency, ie with problems that would certainly fuel antidemocratic sentiments if prosperity faltered. This is why outright neglect of the person increasingly characterised American psychology. To do psychology without people and their test scores allowed hard facts to be ignored. In situationist attire America could continue its better-known romance - with ethnic pluralism.

Chris Brand is lecturer in psychology, University of Edinburgh.

The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts

Author - Ellen Herman
ISBN - 0 520 08598 1
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £28.00
Pages - 406

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