Psychology in Recovery

By Vitz, Paul C. | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Psychology in Recovery


Vitz, Paul C., First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


Modern psychology, like Caesar's Gaul, has classically been divided into three parts: there is experimental psychology, test-and-measurement psychology, and therapeutic psychology. All three branches have been in steady operation since the late nineteenth century, and in all three of them one may observe, over that time, striking transformations that I think bode well for the future. As some readers may know, I was a public and rather harsh critic of much popular psychology in my first publications in the 1970s and '80s. I stand by those views. But much has changed, and changed (to my surprise) for the better. Particularly in the therapeutic discipline, and specifically in the past generation, a new and salutary understanding of what psychotherapy is and is not has been developed. It is to these advances in psychotherapy that I will pay closest attention below. But I will begin by sketching the changes in psychology's other two branches.

Experimental psychology. This branch of psychology began in the mid-nineteenth century and had a strongly physical emphasis, studying sensation, perception, and behavior; it originally included animal experimentation and has come increasingly to focus on brain function. By the late 1960s the term "experimental psychology" was falling out of use and the field was dividing into two distinct pursuits: cognitive psychology and physiological psychology. In the past thirty years or so, these two fields have again transformed themselves, with physiological psychology turning decisively back to its biological origins and becoming what is now called neuroscience. Meanwhile, cognitive psychology (with its focus on human memory, schematizing, learning, problem-solving, sensation, perception, and the like) has been going through a similar metamorphosis, giving rise to such fields as cognitive neuroscience (focusing on brain activity) and cognitive science (focusing on artificial intelligence and robotics).

It is important to emphasize that the current progeny of what was originally called experimental psychology have become accepted members of the community of the "hard sciences." The new subdisciplines of neuroscience and cognitive science retain in their names no reference to "psychology," and their practitioners display waning interest in what is still generally understood as psychology. This seems to me to be not a movement away from experimental psychology's origins, but rather a proper development from the discipline's true roots in biological and physical science.

Tests and measurements. This branch is perhaps the least glamorous of the three, but it has a creditable pedigree and has proved its usefulness. Tests and measurements began in the early twentieth century. It focused first on measuring intelligence but soon expanded into other testing areas, such as occupational aptitudes. Techniques developed in this branch help us to identify different mental pathologies: for example, the MMPI-2 measures depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and personality characteristics; and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual allows psychologists to assign to each client a diagnostic category of mental disorder. (The DSM, despite many biases and other difficulties, has proven to be extremely useful as a standard reference.) Also developed in this field are useful measurements of general well-being related to such social variables as marital status, family structure, drug use, social class, and so forth.

The kind of social science being done in the test-and-measurement field is extremely informative, and I fully expect this discipline (despite the imperfection of some of its tools) to continue to make contributions to psychology as a whole. Again, as we saw above with experimental psychology, the internal logic of this field's development may tend to push it away from understanding itself as a branch of psychology, and in the future its practitioners may become part of a general social science measurement program, or possibly part of the field of statistics. …

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