The shame of psychology

Thomas Scheff would like psychologists to talk about emotion — not simply to share feelings, but to advance science. According to the emeritus professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara, intuition could be the catalyst that enables psychology to progress in areas in which it has stagnated.

His research, “Three Scandals in Psychology: The Need for a New Approach,” is published in theĀ Review of General Psychology.

Scheff argues that research into aggression catharsis, stigma and self-esteem have become bogged down because scientific method in psychology is blind to the insights that intuition — that which doesn’t require “rational” thought — can provide.

Scheff points to the example of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who spent his life trying to determine the orbit of Venus. Although his observations were meticulous, the science was sabotaged by the common belief that the planets revolved around the Earth. After Brahe’s death, Johannes Kepler, working with Brahe’s data, solved the problem through an accident of intuition.

“Scientific and other methods, no matter how scrupulously applied, are helpless in the face of misleading tropes,” Scheff writes in the paper. He defines tropes as false assumptions — ideas taken for granted that may be untrue or only partially true.

Aggression catharsis, or the venting of anger, is a trope embraced by the public, he continues. Psychologists have shown that venting doesn’t work, but they’ve erred in thinking that there is no such thing as catharsis, according to Scheff. He argues that catharsis is real and achieved through “pendulation,” the process by which people alternate between reliving an experience and watching themselves relive it.

“You’re going back and forth between the emotional moment and the safe present,” he said. “Some writers call it the safe zone. You’ve found the safe zone where you can relive fear that’s actually pleasant. That’s why young people like to ride rollercoasters; because they feel safe. The rollercoaster is a safe machine and therefore they can feel fear in a safe zone.”

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