It is human nature to concoct theories in attempt to explain various phenomenon. As human beings, we have the capacity to problem-solve, to think critically and creatively about issues which impact us. For centuries, people have constructed theories as a means of “making sense” of things.
The need to create theories arises most often when the reason or cause of an event or circumstance is not readily apparent. For example, in ancient Greek mythology, the god Apollo rode his chariot across the sky every day, carrying the sun from east to west. Now we have modern science to explain the earth’s rotation on its axis every 24 hours, thus creating the appearance of the sun moving overhead from east to west, so the myth of Apollo is no longer necessary.
In modern times, science has replaced mythology and theory as our means of understanding various phenomena. While modern science has helped us understand many phenomenon, we still do not know what happens to us after death. This explains the popularity of major world religions which offer theories to answer these questions, such as heaven in Christianity or reincarnation in Hinduism.
In contrast to physics, chemistry, and biology, which have existed for millennia, psychology is a relatively new science. Relatively little is known about the causes of, and effective treatments for, mental illnesses. Therefore, numerous psychological theories have been proposed over the past century in attempt to explain psychological disorders. For example, in the 1950’s mental health professionals believed that autism and schizophrenia were caused by emotionally frigid “refrigerator mothers.”
With the advent of better science in recent decades, we have learned that parenting style plays no role whatsoever in the development of autism nor schizophrenia. While the precise causes of these brain disorders are unknown, we do know that autism and schizophrenia are neuro-biological disorders with strong heritability components, and that the patient’s parents can be extraordinarily valuable resources in treatment if they are given the right professional support.
While our current understanding of mental illness is in its infancy, recent scientific research has shed some light on factors that influence the development of mental illnesses. We also have some scientific data demonstrating that certain types of treatment are more effective than others for certain populations. In light of our current understanding of the etiology and effective treatment of mental illness, I am profoundly disappointed when I read about well-meaning but misinformed psychologists who cling to antiquated theories of mental illness and practice antiquated treatments.
For example, psychologist and author Judy Scheel, Ph.D., LICSW, believes that eating disorders are rooted in unhealthy or disrupted attachments to parents. In her recent Psychology Today blog post, she writes:
“For many individuals, eating disorders are attempts to fix externally what is internally vulnerable in an individual. Yet the cause of an eating disorder can often be traced back to attachment patterns that are weak or failing in childhood, which leave someone vulnerable to a whole host of self-esteem, self-worth and relationship issues later in life.”
This theory has a familiar odor. It reeks of refrigerator mothers, castration anxiety, and unconscious conflicts. In 1950, this was all we had. But now, in 2011, we know so much more.
Why do some psychologists cling to antiquated theories which have been disproven? Similarly, one may ask why many people cling to the theory of creationism when we have solid scientific evidence to support evolution. For some people, the notion that “we came from monkeys” is insulting and offensive and clashes with their existing belief system. The story of creationism is a foundation of Judeo-Christian religions, and (at least in its literal interpretation) is incongruent with Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The same is true with psychological theories. Many people who have been trained in psychodynamic or relational approaches feel that the new science runs counter to everything they have been taught and undermines the type of treatment they practice. They cling to their theories and defend them with religious fervor. The new science threatens their religion.
The problem here is that psychology is not a religion; it is a science. In the United States, we all enjoy freedom of religion – the freedom to believe whatever we wish and practice any religion we choose without persecution. We should not have freedom of science. As experts in the field of psychology with doctoral-level degrees, we should not have the freedom to write and publish whatever we happen to believe, and practice whatever method of treatment we wish, without accountability.
I was a graduate student relatively recently (2001 – 2008), and I was taught many things in my training that I no longer believe to be accurate. This is not a failure of my training; this is a reality of an evolving science. New developments occur in medicine all the time, and physicians who have been in practice for 20 years have had to learn and re-learn new ways of practicing as the science of medicine has evolved. This is expected. It is taken for granted by most patients.
As psychologists, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves about the latest scientific developments in our field and utilize our expertise to help people in need. Clinging to unproven theories, in the face of new science, is irresponsible, lazy, and potentially harmful. When challenged on their ideas, many old-school psychologists will use phrases such as “everyone’s opinion is valuable” or “can’t we agree to disagree” or “there is no right way to treat eating disorders” or “I feel unsafe.”
Here is the problem – this is not group therapy. We cannot sit around and validate one another’s feelings and hold hands and sing Kumbaya. Yes, all people are equal, but all ideas are not equal. Some ideas are supported by reliable scientific evidence and others are not. There may not be one right way to treat eating disorders but there are many wrong ways, and there are methods and techniques which clearly work better than others for most people.
We must let go of unhealthy, dysfunctional attachments to old ideas. Clearly, these attachments to antiquated theories contribute to the development of unhelpful psychotherapy. Perhaps today’s unhelpful psychotherapy is an attempt to validate one’s early training.