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Pseudopsychology refers to pseudoscientific formulations of psychology. Although psychology has increasingly become associated with cognitive science in recent times, there is still no general unifying theory of psychology. This makes the demarcation problem in the field more difficult to assess. However, there are some schools of thought and erroneous claims that have been widely rejected within the field today. Psychology has also been applied to numerous fields and occupations, leading it to be rampantly used, misused, and abused by a wide variety of professionals and amateurs alike. The proliferation of pop and pseudopsychology has been a concern for psychologists and those in related fields from very early on, as is evidenced by Joseph Jastrow's debunking of psychological pseudoscience published in 1900.[1]

Pseudopsychological schools of thought and fields of "research"[edit]

Have a seat on the couch of psychobabble.

Assorted woo[edit]

Movements and ideas that are dead or were never taken seriously within psychology, but can be found in popular culture:

Quack therapies and treatments[edit]

When it comes to psychology, the line between a placebo and an actual treatment can sometimes be blurry. In other words, if you think it works, it works! Thus, treatments that carry little to no risk (e.g., homeopathy) may be useful despite a lack of evidence for their efficacy beyond the placebo effect as long as their limitations are acknowledged. However, any claims made for these treatments that go beyond the placebo effect should be regarded as outright quackery. They may also be dangerous if they give a person false hope and lead them not to seek needed treatment. Some are just downright bad news altogether (e.g., Scientology).

Pseudoscientific personality tests[edit]

Tests that have been discarded by the field or were never considered scientific, to begin with:

  • Astrology, based on star signs.
  • Enneagram, based on a nine-pointed figure from a mystical self-help system.
  • Graphology, use of handwriting analysis to attempt to divine personality traits. Other graphological analysis (test): The Paloggraphic/Palographic Test.[2]
  • The Mira Myokinetic Psychodiagnostic Test ([PMK]), "[...] more arcane or bizarre projective tests have been developed. These include the following measures: [...] • The Mira Myokinetic Psychodiagnostic Test (Mira 1940) claims to assess psychopathological tendencies by examining the characteristics (e.g., length, variability) of lines drawn by blindfolded subjects." - "SKEPTICAL INQUIRER September/October 1999 37"[3] - Is a personality test used frequently in Brazil (sometimes mandatory).[4]
  • Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI), only one of its four axes has been shown to have validity, and which one it is is not even clear when you actually read the summaries of the research.[5]
  • Phrenology, the use of skull size measurements and bumps on the head to determine personality traits and intelligence.
  • Rorschach or inkblot tests, attempts to characterize a person's personality or state of mind by having them describe big blobs on a piece of paper.
  • Transactional Analysis, a categorization of human social interactions into strokes, games, and life positions. In vogue during the late 20th century, influenced pop psychology and other movements like reparenting.

The ash heap of history: Outdated schools of thought[edit]

Some schools of psychology have been rejected or superseded by newer research. Modern psychology has incorporated the ideas of these schools to varying degrees, depending on how much has held up over the years. Some practitioners and researchers working in areas of psychology heavily influenced by these schools may still use the label as a sort of badge denoting their theoretical or intellectual influences, but do not strictly follow the tenets of the schools as originally laid out. Some fringe figures within the field of psychology attempting to resurrect these schools sensu strictu may also use the labels.

Straddling the line: Fields under severe criticism[edit]

Some fields within or related to psychology have been heavily criticized by both insiders to psychology and those outside the field for being pseudoscientific or, at least, having major flaws. This may include criticisms of the field's assumptions, research methodology, or lack of empirical rigor. The debate over the value of these fields is ongoing within academia.

  • Emotional intelligence, rife with poorly defined terms and constructs and an over-reliance on self-reports. The popularized form often lacks any empirical backing and has been dismissed as pseudoscience. However, there is still debate over whether the more academic form may have some small degree of validity or is entirely worthless.
  • Evolutionary psychology, where a number of its research findings and theoretical assumptions have been contested by some psychologists, anthropologists, and biologists. The basic concept that the brain, and thus psychological phenomena, are a product of evolution is not questioned, but certain methodological approaches to addressing this question have been criticized.
  • Memetics, a research program that is an outgrowth of Richard Dawkins' idea of the "meme". It has failed to gain traction beyond the fringes of academia; its only academic journal shut down in 2005; and it has come under fire from critics in a wide array of fields. It is on track to be remembered as a short-lived quasi-academic fad unless it suddenly begins to produce results out of nowhere.
  • Political neuroscience, though not inherently pseudoscientific, had its name hijacked by a cadre of shysters and self-promoters to make some quick cash from media and consulting firms.

  • Positive psychology, an attempt at a more scientifically rigorous approach to psychology with a humanistic bent. While it is acknowledged that the field has produced valid research, it has drawn heated criticism for its measures' simplicity and lack of validity (it's difficult to measure happiness!), recycling discredited feel-good tropes, and for its popularizations' tendency to be watered down to the point of being no better than the average hokey self-help book.

Psychobabble and you: Pop psychology[edit]

Pop psychology, often derided as "psychobabble", is an umbrella term for scientific (or unscientific) psychological theories mass-marketed to the public. It often consists of material based on sound psychological research but is oversimplified or misinterpreted to the point of being misleading or even largely false. Sometimes advocates present outmoded schools of thought or research as fully valid without any recognition of criticisms or of more current research that has modified said ideas. Some pop psychology, though, is just outright pseudoscience with no empirical backing. Indeed, many pop psychologists simply appeal to "common sense" or "the wisdom of" some arbitrary but "inspirational" mentor-figure (a father, teacher, clergyman, sports coach, zany old guy who lives under a bridge and is fond of dispensing folk wisdom, etc.).

Pop psychology is usually oriented toward certain themes such as self-help, dating and career advice, and on personality profiling. Pop psychologists often value entertainment over factual information. They also tend to lack credentials or claim not to be practicing actual psychotherapy, but merely offering "advice". Some jurisdictions — such as Germany, Sweden and Italy — ban and punish claims of therapy made by non-credentialled quacks. One can readily spot psycho-entertainers who tend to go by their first names (such as "Dr. Phil" and "Dr. Laura"), unlike licensed practitioners.[7]

Religion, mysticism, and pop psychology[edit]

Religious hucksters have had a great deal of success jumping on the pop psychology bandwagon. Works fusing together pop psychology and religion tend to be in the self-help genre and typically come in one of two flavors.

Name it and claim it, my brothers and sisters![edit]

See the main article on this topic: Name it and claim it

The first variety is produced by megachurch pastors and televangelist types looking to make a quick buck. Many have been characterized as preaching the "Prosperity Gospel", or the theology of "name it and claim it". Popular figures producing tripe in this genre include Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar.

Expand your consciousness, om![edit]

The second flavor of religious pop psychology books generally consists of a hodgepodge of New Age fluff and watered-down Eastern mysticism. These works may be openly religious, ripping off gods or spiritual concepts from Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, or Taoism, or they may promote a secularized form of pseudo-spiritualism with vaguely religious overtones. In addition to Eastern religious traditions, this form of pop psychology may also incorporate various (often cartoonish) forms of mysticism associated with non-Western cultures, such as the faux native nonsense peddled by the so-called "plastic shamans". Expect meaningless phrases such as "all-natural", "holistic", "quantum", "expand your consciousness", "other ways of knowing", "your true self", and "wellness" or "well-being" to be thrown around with abandon. Popular figures churning out claptrap in this genre include Deepak Chopra and a whole host of other characters often featured on Oprah.

Alternative medicine: Wellness for the Wallets (of quacks)[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Alternative medicine

The New Age flavor of pop psychology tends to be associated with alternative medicine. (Once again, see Deepak Chopra.) A number of quack therapies are based on concepts recycled from alt med. EFT is one such example, as it's based on tapping the same "pressure points" or "meridians" used in quackupuncture. However, the Christian variety sometimes wades into the waters of alt med by incorporating the practice of faith healing.


Rapid human cultural evolution has allowed the development of a group of emotional states that one can label worry, fear, concern, terror, grief, regret, depression, gloom, annoyance, despair, obsession, angst, frustration, etc. (Most humans can be socialised to recognise and distinguish these, even without the help of friendly spiritual advisors, patriarchal father-confessors, and greedy life coaches.Wikipedia But slow-coach human gene-based physical evolution lumps most of these emotions into hormonalWikipedia reactions involving the likes of cortisol.Wikipedia When researchers started noticing this (since about the 1950s), they began to ascribe every undesirable human reaction to something called stressWikipedia — by analogy with the concept of stress in mechanics. Pop psychology has seized on "stress" and can offer any number of panaceas for same.

Hungry for brains: Pop neuroscience[edit]

With the advent of more advanced brain-imaging technology, interdisciplinary fields combining psychology with neuroscience and neurology have arisen, such as cognitive neuroscience and social neuroscience. The pop-science press has become enamored with said fields, often drawing wild and unsubstantiated conclusions from pilot studies and from misinterpreted concepts in neuroscience, leading to a mix of psychobabble with neurobabble.[8] Perhaps the most commonly abused concept in pop neuroscience is hemispheric dominance, in which the two hemispheres of the brain are portrayed as housing opposing (or complementary) personality traits and skills. The concept of neuroplasticity has also become commonly abused, with whatever the author's pet peeve is being accused of "re-wiring" the brain and dumbing down the next generation (e.g., video games, social media, the internet in general, etc.).

Pop-science media also loves pretty pictures of brain scans generated from functional MRI (fMRI). Said pictures have been pejoratively termed "neo-phrenology."[9] Spurious extrapolations from preliminary neuroscience research have become rather commonplace in the media. There is a tendency to reduce all human behavior to the workings of the brain, despite the fact that the direction of causality cannot be determined from a one-off brain scan.[10][11][12][13]

Cocktail party psychology: Some infamous pop psych factoids[edit]

Much of pop psychology is dispensed in the form of misleading or false little nuggets of information, making it difficult to keep track of these bits of pseudo-knowledge. Commonly repeated factoids include:

  • B.F. Skinner raised his daughter in a box, leading her to sue her father and commit suicide.[14]
  • Lunar effect, the full moon makes people into, well, lunatics. Or werewolves, if you're trapped in a horror flick.
  • Men, being the immature horndogs from Mars that they are, think about sex every seven seconds. (Other common variants include figures ranging from between seven seconds and one minute.)[15]
  • Mozart effect, the purported increase in intelligence from listening to Mozart's music. It has, however, definitely led to an increase in the cash flow to the bank accounts of those hawking "Baby Mozart" CDs.
  • Opposites attract in relationships[16] (the truth is that people are most attracted to those similar to them).
  • People with mental illnesses are prone to violence.[17]
  • Subliminal messages in general, but common tropes include the use of said messages in advertising and backward masking that encodes secret Satanic messages in whatever music the kids are listening to these days. (The particularly ironic thing about this is that the way people think can easily be shaped by non-subliminal messages, which rather defeats the purpose of subliminal messages.)
  • Taking out your anger on an object like a pillow or punching bag provides cathartic relief.[18][19] Venting and catharsis (yelling, violent behavior, cursing, hitting pillows) are unhealthy outlets for anger. The real danger lies in that catharsis does have immediate relief, it eventually fuels more resentment and anger. These are poor coping strategies for anger, and while you can express anger, it's better to practice some emotional control in the process and not lash out at others, but do not bottle up your emotions either.
  • Ten percent myth, the idea that we only use 10% (or thereabouts) of our brain. A favorite of New Age hucksters who promise to "unlock" your unused potential… for a hefty fee, of course.
  • Women, being the chatty Cathys from Venus that they are, talk more than men (with varying figures for words per day given).[20] The actual facts are that it varies based on situations and other variables.[21] This may come as a shock to those that assume the world is black and white.
  • "Bullies" are really insecure with low self-esteem. Truth: While it's true that "bullies" are generally significantly less happy, their self-esteem is not to blame.
  • The learning styles myth. Truth: There is no evidence to support the idea of auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learners.[22]

The psychologist's fallacy and folk psychology[edit]

Everyone thinks the way I do![edit]

The roots of much pseudopsychology seem to be in what are termed "the psychologist's fallacy" and "folk psychology." The psychologist's fallacy refers to the tendency for people, when judging another's state of mind, to assume that the other person must have similar knowledge or experience. It was first defined by William James thusly:

The great snare of the psychologist is the confusion of his own standpoint with that of the mental fact about which he is making his report. I shall hereafter call this the "psychologist's fallacy" par excellence.[23]

A major aspect of folk psychology is a mental simulation, in which we attempt to understand the mental states and processes of others by imagining ourselves in their place. This can easily combine with the psychologist's fallacy to produce a faulty interpretation of another person's behavior. Surely, everyone knows the things you do, thinks the way you do, and so would act the way you do in any given situation!

Confusion of psychometric constructs with folk concepts[edit]

The second issue with folk psychology that may lead to popular misinterpretation is the semantic confusion of a folk conception of a term with its psychometric construct. For example, the concept of intelligence is often conflated with its psychometric construct, IQ. However, intelligence is not equivalent to IQ, and there is no consensus definition of the concept of intelligence — as a report by the American Psychological Association noted: "Indeed, when two dozen prominent theorists were recently asked to define intelligence, they gave two dozen somewhat different definitions."[24] This conceptual confusion has led many to question the usefulness of folk psychological concepts in the use of research psychology and theory of mind, with the most extreme critics being "eliminative materialists" who reject any use of folk psychology.[25]

The Man wants to know what you're thinking: Practical applications of pseudopsychology[edit]

Military, police, and security woo[edit]

Questionable applications of psychological and related quasi-scientific techniques have found their way into the armed forces as well. Various attempts at employing parapsychology, mind control, and other psychic nonsense have been made by the military. Two of the most famous of these were the US army's experiments in which people attempted to kill goats using alleged psychic powers[26] and MKULTRA, the CIA's experimentation with mind control using LSD and other psychedelic drugs.

Lie detection devices and techniques are also popular with the police and security administrations. The most infamous of these is the easily cheated polygraph test, which is alleged to be able to tell lies by reading a person's pulse, breathing rate, and skin temperature. Another bogus device, the penile plethysmograph (PPG), popularly known as the "peter meter", is used to detect sexual arousal. This has seen use in psychological tests of sex offenders. (There are also vaginal plethysmographs for the ladies.)[27] The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has employed screeners trained to read micro-expressions on the faces of alleged terrorists, but they perform no better than chance.[28] In the past few years, there has been an unsuccessful push for fMRI scans to replace polygraph tests.[29] These and other pseudopsychological techniques may be used to produce false confessions during interrogation.[30]

(Pseudo-)psychology in service of oppression[edit]

There is a long history of the use and abuse of psychology, psychiatry, and medicine to reinforce state power and existing social norms, especially in authoritarian states. However, unlike many other forms of pseudopsychology that arose outside of academia or were fringe fads, these ideas were (and still are, in some cases) often considered "establishment" science in their times.

Pseudopsychology and phrenology in eugenics (and other assorted bigotry)[edit]

The fields of phrenology and craniology, i.e., the measurement of skull size and shape, became the psychological component of scientific racism and eugenics during the 19th century. Skull measurements were used to scientifically "prove" the inferiority of just about everyone who wasn't a white male. Other "disorders" were invented to justify slavery and racism, such as Samuel Cartright's coinage of "drapetomania", a supposed "illness" that caused slaves to run away. During the 20th century, IQ testing replaced phrenology in biological determinist theories as a means of "proving" the innate intellectual inferiority of minorities. A recent example of this is Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve.

Those wacky Nazis (and Commies)[edit]

The Nazis inherited a fascination with certain occult and paranormal topics from their forerunners in the lebensraum and volkisch movements. A number of Nazi psychologists became fans of parapsychology, mind reading, and other psychic "research" (however, claims about the influence of the occult on the Nazi Party are sometimes overblown).[31] Nazi psychiatrists and medical doctors were complicit in exterminating what they deemed to be "racially and cognitively compromised" individuals prior to and during the Holocaust, such as in the Action T4 program.[32]

Communist governments have a long, sordid history of using psychiatry in order to jail political dissidents. This originated in the Soviet Union, with what became known as "Soviet political psychiatry" or "Soviet punitive psychiatry." One of the Soviets' favorite "diagnoses" for this purpose was "sluggish schizophrenia."[33] The abuse of psychiatry spread to other communist regimes, including China under Mao Zedong and Romania under Nicolae Ceaușescu.[34][35]

Sex (and gender) the way god, er, psychiatry intended[edit]

A persistent phenomenon in psychology and psychiatric practice has been the pathologizing of female and "deviant" sexualities and gender identities. Women were often diagnosed with female hysteria, a diagnosis loose enough to fit just about any symptoms. "Frigidity" (i.e., failing to put out) was another common diagnosis,[36] which was problematic, as putting out too much meant you were a nymphomaniac.[37] In addition, pop therapy and psychology has continued to peddle myths of Mars and Venus, reinforcing sexist stereotypes.[38]

Sexual "deviants" included those with homosexual or bisexual orientations and practitioners of BDSM. Homosexuality was removed as a mental illness from the DSM in 1973, although many paraphilias still remain listed. The DSM-5 covers a number of paraphilias but, crucially, only considers them as disorders when the individual feels personal distress about their interest (not including distress brought about by society's disapproval) or when the sexual desire "involves another person’s psychological distress, injury, or death, or a desire for sexual behaviors involving unwilling persons or persons unable to give legal consent."[39] Some psychiatrists advocate for the removal of paraphilias from the handbook entirely.[40] Gender dysphoria, although no longer considered a disorder by a number of medical authorities, is still used to pathologize transgenderism.[41]

Sick and wrong?[edit]

The general fields of clinical psychology and psychiatry have been criticized from a number of angles. On the crank end of the spectrum, one can find another form of pseudopsychology opposed to clinical psychology, which is mental illness denial. Those that deny the existence of mental illness are generally associated with the anti-psychiatry movement or Scientology, such as Thomas Szasz.

More measured and level-headed criticisms of these fields have been made, however. As above, the "psy practices" have been used in service of oppression. Early mental institutions and asylums that were founded in the 18th and 19th centuries were often used for the purpose of keeping the "undesirables" locked away, with the poor, criminals, and those with mental disorders being given similar treatment.[42] The issue of the boundary between normal and abnormal behavior, and physical and mental disorders, continues to be controversial within the fields.[43]

Another problem with clinical practice is the gap between research and clinical psychology. Often, practitioners may not keep up with the latest research or may endorse some of the quack therapies listed above. These may include iatrogenic disorders manufactured by the practitioner, as in the cases of recovered memory therapy and some therapies for dissociative identity disorder.[44]

The "biomedical model" has also been severely criticized for its use by pharmaceutical companies and for ignoring cultural contexts. In Japan, for example, pharmaceutical companies and advertisers engineered a campaign to alter the Japanese cultural conception of depression in order to market anti-depressants.[45]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

Skeptical sites, blogs, and resources on psychology[edit]




  1. Fact and Fable in Psychology by Joseph Jastrow
  2. See the Wikipedia article on Projective test.
  3. Projective Measures of Personality and Psychopathology: How Well Do They Work? by Scott 0. Lilienfeld. Skeptical Inquirer, 2003, 23(5), 32-39
  4. Farah, Denise (September October November, 2009). "CONVERSANDO COM UM PSICÓLOGO - Detran esclarece sobre avaliação psicológica para obtenção de cnh [TALKING TO A PSYCHOLOGIST - Traffic department explains about psychological assessment to obtain a driver's license"]. Jornal PSI 162. 
  5. The relationship between the revised neo-personality inventory and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator by Adrian Furnham et al. Social Behavior and Personality, 2003, 310(6), 577-584.
  6. collective unconscious by Robert Todd Carroll, The Skeptic's Dictionary.
  7. The "Just Do It!" Trap: Why Radio "Docs" Help Few, Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld, Scientific American
  8. Neurobabble, Rationally Speaking ep. #50
  9. Beware the Neo-Phrenologists, USC Trojan Family Magazine
  10. Paul Rodriguez. Talking Brains: A Cognitive Semantic Analysis of an Emerging Folk Neuropsychology. Public Understand. Sci. 15 (2006) 301–330
  11. Cliodhna O'Connor, Geraint Rees, and Helene Joffe. Neuroscience in the Public Sphere. Neuron, Volume 74, Issue 2, 220-226, 26 April 2012
  12. 'Brain Culture': How Neuroscience Became a Pop Culture Fixation by Maria Popova (August 18, 2011) The Atlantic.
  13. Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Popular Media' by Davi Johnson Thornton (2011) Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0813550130.
  14. One Man and a Baby Box, Snopes
  15. Daydream Deceiver, Snopes
  16. Do Opposites Attract? WebMD
  17. Violence and Mental Illness: The Facts, Understanding Mental Illness Factsheet, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration/US Department of Health and Human Services
  18. Brad J. Bushman, Angela Stack, and Roy F. Baumeister. Catharsis and Persuasive Influence: Self-Fulfilling or Self-Defeating Prophecies? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999, vol. 76, no. 3, 367-376.
  19. Myth #30 — It's Better to Express Anger to Others than to Hold It in, Myth #30 — It's Better to Express Anger to Others than to Hold It in. Archived 2016, accessed December 19, 2021.
  20. Sex-Linked Lexical Budgets, Mark Liberman, Language Log
  21. Women Don’t Talk More Than Men, They’re Just More Likely To Collaborate, Study Finds by Amanda Duberman (07/31/2014 02:58 pm ET) Huffington Post.
  22. Learning Styles Debunked: There is No Evidence Supporting Auditory and Visual Learning, Psychologists Say
  23. In James' Principles of Psychology Vol. 1, p. 196
  24. Ulric Neisser et al. Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns. American Psychologist, Feb. 1996
  25. See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entries for Folk Psychology as a Theory and Folk Psychology as Mental Simulation for further detail.
  26. See The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson
  27. Penile Plethysmograph (PPG), The Skeptic's Dictionary
  28. Airport Security: Intent to Deceive? Sharon Weinberger, Scientific American
  29. Brain Scan Lie Detection Deemed Far from Ready for Courtroom, Alexis Madrigal, Wired
  30. Brian R. Gallini. Police "Science" in the Interrogation Room: Seventy Years of Pseudo-Psychological Interrogation Methods to Obtain Inadmissible Confessions. 61 Hastings L.J. 529, Feb. 2010
  31. The Occult and Nazism Re-Examined, Steve Mizrach, Florida International University
  32. Rael D. Strous. Psychiatry During the Nazi Era: Ethical Lessons for the Modern Professional. Annals of General Psychiatry 2007, 6:8
  33. Greg Wilkinson. Political Dissent and "Sluggish" Schizophrenia in the Soviet Union. British Medical Journal, vol. 293, no. 6548, 1986, pp. 641-642
  34. Robert van Voren. Comparing Soviet and Chinese Political Psychiatry. J. Am. Acad. Psychiatry Law 30:131–5, 2002
  35. Robert van Voren. Political Abuse of Psychiatry—An Historical Overview. Schizophr. Bull. (2010) 36 (1): 33-35.
  36. 'Female Sexual Dysfunction' as a Mental Disorder in the 20th Century: Psychoanalysis and Marital Advice, Medscape Today
  37. Review — Nymphomania, Metapsychology
  38. See Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine
  39. Paraphilic Disorders American Psychiatric Association.
  40. Charles Moser and Peggy J. Kleinplatz. DSM-IV-TR and the Paraphilias: An Argument for Removal. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 17(3/4), 91-109.
  41. Megan R. Yost and Tara E. Smith. The Medicalization of Gender and Sexual Deviance: Social Values and Psychiatric Diagnosis. In J. Hoefler, D. Sarcone, & D. Schubert (Eds.), Health Studies: A Reader. Carlisle: Dickinson College.
  42. See Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization,Wikipedia often quoted and misrepresented by the anti-psychiatry movement
  43. TA Widiger and LM Sankis. Adult Psychopathology: Issues and Controversies. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2000;51:377-404.
  44. See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, eds. Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, and Jeffrey M. Lohr
  45. See Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche by Ethan Watters