I am NOT reading your mind

Since I began undergrad studies in psychology, 16 years ago, right up til this present day when I tell people what I do, they mostly appear confused. They go on to ask what I find, really, really absurd questions about my career and what exactly therapy is and what a psychologist does. However, all these people I meet seem to ask the same questions, over and over, so these beliefs and thoughts about psychology must come from somewhere and they must be somewhat widely held. So here I am to honestly answer your questions and comment on your statements with the hope that the next time we meet things are less awkward. And dull.

Can you read my mind?
The first time this question was asked I thought the person was joking. They weren’t. And neither were the next 100 people that asked me. It really astounds me how many people out there think that psychologists have such an amazing superpower, such as mind reading. We really don’t. Does anyone?

Where has this belief come from? Is it that possible that the terms ‘psychic’ and ‘psychologist’ are constantly confused by most? I doubt it. Perhaps it’s strongly suspected that we’re able to open someone’s mind up, peer into their brain and see what’s inside. Gee, that would make things a whole lot easier. And less interesting.

But, think about it just a bit longer. If this was the case and we could read your mind, why would we need to make hour long appointments with you? And why would we ask so many questions? Why?

Do you have a lounge in your office?
No, because I am not Freud. And Freud was around a long time ago. Around the time methamphetamine (i.e., “ice”) was given to military personnel to keep them alert and strong in battle. We’ve learnt some things and moved on from this. Dr M has a lounge in one of his offices, though I think it’s more an interior design thing. I don’t lie down. I’d probably fall asleep on him.

Are you psychoanalysing me right now?
We just met. We’re at a party/pub/awkward social occasion. No, I’m not psychoanalysing you. I’m just trying to have a nice time. Did you bring your job to the event? Are you engineering/retailing/hairdressing right now?

Therapy is only for crazy people, isn’t it?
Not true. And I don’t believe in crazy and non-crazy people anyway. Some people do believe that you must be diagnosed with a psychological disorder or be in significant distress in order to see a psychologist, but the truth of it is that people seek therapy for all sorts of reasons in everyday life. And that’s a good thing.

“People go to therapy to cope with disorders, relationships, stress, grief, to figure out who they are and learn to live life to the fullest,” says Clinical Psychologist, Dr Howes, “There’s no shame in wanting a better life.”

True that. A scary statistic though is that whilst 1 in 5 Australians will experience a mental health condition in a given year, only 20% of those Australians will access treatment. For a lot of people, they try a lot of other things before getting help. Unfortunately this waiting only exacerbates problems and can make them more difficult to recover from.

So in reality, it would probably be beneficial for everyone to see a therapist as a preventative measure to mental illness. And who doesn’t want to change some aspect of their life. People might want help coping with major life transitions or changing problem behaviours: the loss of a job, a divorce or the death of a loved one. Yet others need help managing and balancing the demands of parenting, work and family responsibilities, coping with medical illness, improving relationship skills or managing other stressors that can affect just about all of us. Anyone can benefit from psychotherapy to become a better problem solver.

Psychology is a bit airy fairy and new age.

Another common myth about psychology is that it isn't a real science. False. Key characteristics of a science include:

  • The use of empirical methods
  • Researchers controlling and manipulating variables
  • Objectivity
  • Hypothesis testing
  • Replication of results
  • Findings that allow researchers to predict what will happen in the future.

Psychology relies on all of these methods in order to investigate human and animal behaviour. To understand the brain and why people act they way they do, researchers utilise the scientific method to conduct research, which means that variables are controlled and operationally defined. Experimenters are able to test different hypotheses and use statistical analysis to determine the likelihood that such results are due merely to chance. Psychologists also present their findings in a way that makes it possible for other researchers to replicate their experiments and methods in the future.

Psychology might be a relatively young science in the grand scheme of things, but is indeed a real science. However, it is important to note that scientific psychology does have some limitations. Human behaviour can vary and change over time, so what is true in one particular time and place might not necessarily apply in different situations, settings, cultures, or societies.

You’ll probably just blame all my problems on my parents or childhood experiences.
Now that just sounds a bit too simple. It is true that one component of psychotherapy might entail exploring childhood experiences and significant events impacting your life. Relating information from your family background can help you and your psychologist understand your perceptions and feelings, current coping strategies, or see patterns that developed. This is because the evidence shows us that a lot of a person’s beliefs about themselves, others and the world come from early experiences. The point of wanting a person to look backward is to better understand their present and make positive changes for the future.

It’s also possible that in some instances a psychologist will choose to focus mainly on the current problem or crisis that brought a person into treatment and not delve into the past at all. They’ll learn how to incorporate techniques and use tools that will help change their current thoughts or behaviours contributing to the problem.

What’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?
I don’t mind answering this question. And unlike most the other questions, it’s not that silly. It took me a while. The difference here is the medicine. A psychiatrist is a medical practitioner also. They studied the medicine and the psychology. They can prescribe you the medications and do the physical treatments and also do the talking therapy. Psychologists do the talking therapy. Psychiatrists also get paid more.

All psychologists do is listen.
I would agree that psychologists are generally very skilled and extensively trained in listening. But properly listening is not easy. We’re not being passive about it. Have you tried active and full listening? Using your complete attention, tuning in to someone’s words, nonverbal communications and the themes behind the words? Listening to what isn’t said as well? It’s not just sitting silently and nodding. It’s weaving together everything that you’ve said and haven’t said right now with things you’ve said and haven’t said before to help you discern previously unnoticed patterns.

Therapy is about helping a person reach goals and better handle parts of their life. To achieve those results,a therapist has to do much more than just listen. They have to collaborate actively with the person. The two of them are a team. That means a good therapist combines listening, questioning, giving feedback, and sharing information. They know when to be quiet and when to talk. When to push and when to back off. In some ways, therapy is a subtle, complex choreography that happens on multiple levels.

Once you start therapy you’ll need to stay there forever.
Everyone moves at a different pace during psychotherapy — it’s a very individualised process. In one study for example, half of patients in psychotherapy improved after just eight sessions while 75 percent had improved by the six-month point. For some particular conditions and diagnoses, there’s really good evidence to suggest that one brief intervention (about 1.5 hours) is enough to reduce distress and the problematic behaviour. It’s something that psychologist and client discuss in the initial meetings when developing a treatment plan. A psychologist's goal is not to keep a person on as a client forever but to empower them to function better on their own.

Psychology is just common sense.
Is it? Psychology is the study of human behaviour. And people refer to human behaviour as common sense. This floors me. Is there anything more complex than humans?

For example, if human behaviour was common sense we would sensibly then believe that there’s some safety in numbers. That the more people present in an emergency, the greater the chance that someone will intervene. That makes sense. I’d believe that. And I’d be wrong.

In an ingenious series of investigations, Darley, Latane, and their colleagues tested the notion that the presence of others inhibits helping in emergencies. In one study, participants entered a room to complete a series of questionnaires; in one condition, the participants were seated alone, in another, they were accompanied by two other participants. After a few minutes, smoke began pouring out of the vents into the room. When subjects were alone, they ran out of the room to report the smoke 75% of the time; when they were in groups, they did so only about half (38%) as often. When in groups, some subjects stayed in the smoke-filled room as long as 6 minutes—to the point at which they couldn’t even see their questionnaires.

In another study (Latane & Rodin, 1969), an experimenter greeted participants, escorted them to a room to complete some surveys, and went to work in a nearby office containing books and a ladder. In some cases participants were alone; in others they were accompanied by another participant. A few minutes later, participants heard the experimenter falling from a ladder, followed by the sound of her screaming voice: “Oh, my God, my foot… I… I… can’t move it!” When participants were alone, they offered help 70% of the time; when they had a partner, one or both of them did so only 40% of the time.

Researchers have replicated these kinds of findings many times using slightly different designs. In an analysis of almost 50 studies of bystander intervention involving almost 6,000 participants, Latane and Steve Nida (1981) found that participants were more likely help when alone than in groups about 90% of the time.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Research suggests that being exposed to research on bystander effects actually increases the chances of intervening in emergencies. This is an example of what Kenneth Gergen (1973) called an “enlightenment effect”: Learning about psychological research can influence real-world behaviour. One group of investigators (Beaman, Barnes, Klentz, & McQuirk, 1978) presented the research literature on bystander intervention effects to one psychology class (containing much of the same information you’ve just learned) but didn’t present this literature to a very similar psychology class.

Two weeks later, the students—accompanied by a confederate of the experimenters —came upon a person slumped over on a park bench (as you might guess, the experimenters had rigged this scenario). Compared with only 25% of students who hadn’t received the lecture on bystander intervention, 43% of students who had received the lecture intervened to help the person. This study worked, probably because it imparted new knowledge and perhaps also because it made people more keenly aware of the importance of helping. So the few minutes you’ve spent reading this myth may have increased your chances of becoming a responsive bystander in emergencies. Although there may not be safety in numbers, there’s often safety in knowledge.

Because psychology is a science (see point above), psychology requires us to put aside our common sense when evaluating evidence.

 “Common sense is not so common.” Voltaire (1764)

When it comes to psychological therapy you often hear that counselling is pointless because all therapists do is rehash common knowledge. But, we’ve got the science to help you figure out what really is correct common knowledge and what isn’t. I also like Dr Howes’ comment on this subject:

“Common sense is wisdom that applies to everyone, but therapy gives insight, which is wisdom unique to you.”



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