Psychology for dummies: 10 misconceptions about psychology.

Este post en Español

Although starting the first post of the blog insulting my readers may not sound like a good idea, let’s face it: we don’t know much about psychology!

If you are a psychologist you probably already know the typical sentences with which everyone comes to you after knowing your profession. If you are not here are some examples:

  • I don’t believe in psychology
  • Every psychologist s crazy
  • Are you gonna read my mind?
  • Psychoanalyze me!
  • If the psychiatrist can give you medicine, why go to the psychologist?
  • I dreamt… what does it mean?
  • Psychologist must be rich!
  • Only crazy people go to therapy

After dealing myself with people that don’t know what psychology is, rather than being just mad at them, I thought, “why not explain what it really is?”. So I ended up picking up some of-in my opinion- the worst misconceptions about psychology. of course they are not the only ones, and this is no official parameter, it’s my own opinion. Let’s go step by step.

(note that in the English version of this post the words “psychologist”, “therapist” and “counselor” have been used interchangeably, not taking into account the cultural role of each, but more using the general idea of “professional that works practicing therapy” that all share)

1.The idea of psychology as clairvoyance

Lot of people say they don’t believe in psychology. They say this as if they talked about Tarot. This idea is based on the thinking that psychology is nothing else than a pack of tricks to manipulate people and make them think in a concrete way. Therefore, anyone who thinks this way sees psychology as a scam or a pseudoscience (see bellow).  What’s more, the fact that sometimes, therapy doesn’t work supports their thoughts.

Reality: First I will quote the Wikipedia: “Psychology is an academic and applied discipline that involves the scientific study of mental functions and behaviors.” So, psychology can be applied in many cases, uses a scientific method to do its work in an efficient and proved way.  This way, same way we believe in flu shots, we can also believe in the cognitive therapy, the analysis, the free association method in therapy, between others.

As for the ideas of mind-reading and manipulation, I think that maybe TV hasn’t helped much. We see psychologist characters that know what others are thinking just by looking them in the eyes. Maybe there really is someone with those capacities, but it is not the case of most of us.

Not all therapies work always. There are people who go to therapy and don’t obtain what they were looking for, neglecting the psychology as a whole. Something like if trying a painkiller that didn’t work for us and concluding that general medicine is worthless.

2. The idea of the psychologist as a magician

Related to the last assumption too, there is an idea that the psychologist is a magician. The therapist is seen as someone in whose hands we put our problems and he solves them. This way, if something doesn’t work we can always blame the therapist and reject any personal responsibility.

Reality: I like to think on the psychologist as a driver. If we use the “car” metaphore, the psychologist would be the driver. The patient would be the car itself. While the psycholgist can guide and advice, it is the patient who has the capacity to move forward. The mutual work and collaboration of the patient is essential.

3. The idea of the passive patient

Following the point of view of the magician therapist, we fall in the mistake of the passive patient. That who want’s to be “cured” and relies all therapy on the psychologist.

Reality: I have to say that there are indeed currents who see the patient as passive. Personally I think that the patient is the only element in therapy that can make it work. This does not mean there aren’t better and worse psychologist, but I agree more with the statement that says that some professionals will fir better with some patients and vice versa.

Those who go to therapy and see it did not work, tend to confuse therapy with a garage. They go to therapy to see if they can be “fixed”. Maybe this is one of the most important differences with medicine. The patient is the most important element in his or her own recovery. When we take medication for the pain, we put our hopes on the pill. Instead in therapy, the curing element is inside ourselves.

4. The confusion between psychology and psychological currents

There is a totally understandable confusion with the psychological currents. Techniques and currents are mixed up and psychology and psychoanalysis  between others.

Reality: Even tough there have been some attempts and there still are to unify the psychology, there is still no general way or opinion that can be followed in the study of any aspect of the human mind. The different currents of psychology emerge because it’s of them understands the mind and psychological problems in a different way and so their way of treating them is also different. Between the most popular ones are: the psychoanalysis, the cognitive-behavioural current, the humanism, or gestalt.

5.Psychology as pseudoscience 

The fact that Psychology isn’t unified, and doesn’t have it’s own absolute laws and acting guides takes many people to the mistake of seeing it as a pseudoscience.

Reality: When the discussion of psychology’s unity opens, it is said that psychology is still too young. But it’s not only about that, since other sciences like physical sciences reached their peak in a few decades. We have to understand that this science tries to understand the brain with another brain. We can say that what it is trying to encompass is more difficult than physical sciences (hope the physics don’t get mad at me) from the human point of view. Because we are trying to understand something that clashes against us.

In my humble opinion, psychology is never going to be united, and it has to remain like that. The same way we talked about apropiate psychologist for each patient, happens with the currents. Certain illnesses are easier to be treated with different techniques and patients. Here we find the richness of our field.

However, even if there isn’t a unique opinion about the human mind, this does not mean that there isn’t science behind all the theory. Many hypothesis will still be proven right and wrong with the scientific method the same way than techniques have been proving themselves effective during years.

In any case, there is a lot of research that showed many therapies work. Not all have been proved and each day new methods appear inside of each current.

6. Psychologist are rich and they are paid for doing nothing

A controversic topic, how much does a psychologist earn? Soon I want to create a series of post talking about psychology in the world, and there we will be able to see the cultural differences in each country. To specify it a bit, let’s say that a therapy session in the US can vary from $50 to $270. This can be too much money and it is one of the reasons why people won’t go to therapy.

Reality: The answer will vary much depending on the country. You can find information about it here.

But, is it the same what someone charges to what he or she earns?

We should think about two important facts: the costs of the place the counselor hires and the tests used. When you have a place for private practice, you have to pay some high costs. Renting the place and paying the tests are, I think, some of the highest costs. For those who use tests to diagnose, this is a huge cost.

All this said, I have the opinion that health should be universal and free for everyone, also in mental health. This way anyone can be attended under their free coverage. I know that this is a different discussion as in countries like the US this is still far from real.

Anyway, even if we pay more or less -or nothing- we would say that the psychologist does nothing. The psychologist actively listens and acts according to his or her knowledge and the collaboration with the patient. The work of mentally attending to what other people tell us abut their own minds is a hard work.

7. Psychiatry is better

Let’s put it this way: a psychiatrist analyses the mind and also can prescribe medication, while a counselor cannot prescribe. It is clear that the first is much better, right?

Reality: psychology and psychiatry are considered sister sciences, with different methods, researches and professionals. Based only in the differences we can say that: psychiatry is more centered in the body, like medicine is; psychology tries to understand and help mental health in a more global way. The psychiatrist, even they can do psychotherapy, will usually be more centered in the physical treatment of the symptoms. The diagnosis will be done using medical tests and after concluding with one, the respective medication will be given. The psychologist will make a diagnosis bases on tests, psychometric tests and his or her own professional eye. Depending on this a treatment will be created in order to help the patient.

In most of the cases, both professions work together. In some cases medication will be needed and the psychologist can be the one that sends the patient to see a psychiatric. If possible it is adviseable to keep going to therapy with the psychologist and never to focus only on the physical treatment.

Again, in my humble opinion is for the psychologist and psychotherapy. The mental health cannot put aside medication or psychiatrist. However, if we only give importance to medicine, we risk to fall into over-medication. Situation in which we already are as a society. The fasts lifes that we want to live make us take the quick option. Taking anxiety pills is a faster option than going to therapy during months. But, is it the best?

No doubt is it a complicated topic that I am sure will be worked in the future.

8. Going to therapy will be painful 

Sadly, this is another of those ideas that we took from the movies, where we see the psychologist as someone to whom we go to cry and suffer from things we didn’t even know existed. The therapist as the professional that wants to make us suffer at all costs.

Reality: each person is a different world. Depending on their situation, the psychologist and on what this person wants to do, the therapy will be different. But one thing is clear: therapy is not based on suffering.

As humans, we go in life through a variety of situations of struggle and hard moments where we suffer. The healthiest way for our minds is to to suffer in those moments, to cry, and go on. However, many people see this as a weakness and they deny themselves the possibility of suffering. This (superfluous) denial can develop some other symptoms (unconsciously created), coming from the block itself. This latter problems can make this person go to therapy and it will be there where the psychologist will create -if necessary- a comfortable environment to let the patient suffer.

Will we suffer each time that we want to overcome our problems? Not at all. Sometimes, humor will be one of the most powerful tools of the psychologist. Working with games, irony, laughter or simply the discussion of the day-to-day are some of the examples of how therapy can work. But we just cannot deny ourselves suffering when it is needed.

9. We only use a 10% of the brain

This is not completely relatd to therapy, but we listen to it many times. I remember recently watching the trailer for the movie Lucy, where they confirmed that we all use only the 10% of the brain.

Reality: Scientists have proven this myth wrong since at list two decades. We use the 100% of our brains, but not completely at all times. Each part of our brain has a determined function, and when it is not being used, it is less active. This may be the biggest confusion, thinking that less activation means only using one part of our brain.

There are many possible origings of the myth, but why do we keep holding to it? One of the posible explanations is philosophical. The human has this desire to be more than what he really is. It is in this difficulty to accept we are mere animals, that we cannot accept that we have our limits. Thinking that we still have a 90% of our brain to develop sounds more exciting than this is all we are meant to be. But this is also an understimation of the mind. Our minds are able to do incredible things, even already using that 100%.

10. Only crazy people go to therapy

This is one of the most extended ones and in fact, the most problematic. Like I explain in the post about stigma, and I’m sure I will explain later, the idea of craziness has harmed us as society.

Reality: As I said in the first statement, mental health is part of a global kind health that we need to incorporate to our lifes. The idea that only crazy people go t therapy is harmful for anyone who needs help, as they will fear to be treated as crazy just because they go to the psychologist or psychiatrist.

Someone can go to therapy for any reason, more or less severe the reason: some difficult or confusing stages in life, the loss of someone we love or having suicidal thought. The fact of going to therapy doesn’t mean you are going to be diagnosed with a mental illness of any kind.

However, if you are in the unfortunate case that you are indeed diagnosed with a mental illness, life does not end here. Even in the most severe illnesses, patients can have a good quality life. It is all about having a better health. Same as life doesn’t always  end with a heart attack, but will need of work and habit changes, it will happen with bipolar disease or schizophrenia.


2 thoughts on “Psychology for dummies: 10 misconceptions about psychology.

    • Thank you Diana for the link. Yes, many related topics can be found on the internet as it is a quite common issue.
      As for why those ideas are so spread, well, humans always need to give a meaning to what they don’t understand. Specially when something seems scary. This explanation will give some relieve to whatever was the idea they had before. Part of the solution then comes by having more information.
      Thank you for reading and writting.


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