27 May

Absurdities in Psychology

Kelly A. Burton

Park University


Student of Psychology are introduced areas of study for the mind that are quite unorthodox in nature.  Contained in this article are ideas of experimental psychology and psychoanalysis that seem extreme. Examples of extreme experiments, blood letting, mesmerism, frontal lobotomy and ECT.  Freud’s psychosexual stages and ideology are covered in the second half of the article.

  Absurdities in Psychology

            There is a saying that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions”.  The field of psychology can be said to follow that same road.  The human mind is a expansive unexplained territory that is being charted through to this current day.  The field of psychology has been working since the beginning of time to find the answers to how our minds work and why some peoples mind work abnormally.  Clergymen, Shaman, Doctors, Physicist, Philosophers, and many others have defined what we consider psychology today.  One might question the inclusion of Shaman in the list of practitioners of early psychology, however according to an article in the American Psychologist, Stanley Krippner points out,

“The term shaman is a social construct, one that has been described, not unfairly, as “a made-up, modern, Western category” (Taussig, 1989, p. 57). This term describes a particular type of practitioner who attends to the psycho- logical and spiritual needs of a community that has granted that practitioner privileged status. “ (Krippner, 2002).

In defining psychology, many schools of thought have been presented through psychology history.  Two schools of psychology will be analyzed in this paper, Psychoanalysis and Experimental Psychology.  It is the author’s opinion that these two fields yield the most bizarre results of what was considered valid psychology methods for the time periods.

As a student in any field, one must always weigh what is being taught as core values of the field as valid and provable, or mere speculation.  Students of psychology that come from fields backed with empirical results, might have a hard time accepting some psychology paradigms that are not based in scientific facts, rather they are based in mere historical use.  The two areas looked at in this paper psychoanalysis and experimental psychology are areas that cover both empirical evidence and pure speculation, and even the absurd.

For some my views on psychology will be considered naive, not seasoned and perhaps typical of someone new to the field.  Veterans of the current psychology paradigms are comfortable in the history of the field, and consider it a valid base for their beliefs in the field.  While myself as an outsider to the field find the old paradigm unsettling and needing a change into a modern direction, I see the value in studying the history of psychology so we don’t make the same mistakes in the future.

Experimental Psychology

            Early on psychology was handled by people who worked in medicine fields.  Aristotle was one of the first people to work in the field of Psychology.  Aristotle coming from a biological background was used to proving his theories with experimentation.  Aristotle authored his psychology findings in the book De Anima, “on the Soul” (Greenwood 2009).  Aristotle was the first to point out that the body had a life force that was separate from the body and controlled the body.  The downfall of Aristotle’s ideas was that everything stemmed from the heart not the brain. The heart while the most important organ in the body, is merely a pump that supplies blood to the rest of the body, not tied to our mental cognition.  While Aristotle started things out on the wrong foot, his ideas of proving theories based on science was step in the right direction.

Throughout the years the field of Psychology is portrayed as a series of battles among the ideologies, fluctuating from a field of strict biology science to speculative observation and application of snake oils.  Each new idea was better than the old one, with the new paradigm trumping the old in a type of psychological revolution. In the article The mythical revolutions of American psychologythe author presents an alternate version, where the ideas were morphed from one form to the next in a peaceful manner, “Save for Wundt’s founding of psychology, revolution in psychology is a myth.” (Leahey, 1992).

The Psychology Revolution

During the history of psychology there have been many experiments conducted in the name of science that by today’s standards seem absurd.  Hippocrates attributed hysteria in women to be caused by the uterus, this was thought to be correct even in 1937, “…that hysteria was caused by the vagaries of the behavior of the uterus and if this is interpreted allegorically,  he was very close to the correct etiology of this disorder.” (Stone 1937).  An Early prescription for lunacy from England was as follows, “ For Lunacy take clove wort and wreathe it with a red thread about the man’s swere (neck) when the moon is on the win in the month which is called April, in the early part of October; soon it will be healed.” (Stone 1937, p135).  Early accounts of blood letting are littered throughout the history of psychology as a mean of balancing out the body (Greenwood 2009).  Mesmerism came into vogue using water, magnets and hypnotism in the late 1800s, and finally debunked fifty years later as fraudulent in the 1850s by Dr Ernest Hart (Newbold 1897).  In 1928 at the Carlisle Conference, one of the topics of discussion was on using peyote for visual imagery (Goodwin 2010), this from a conference that was working towards creating a nation laboratory to conduct this these types of research projects.  In 1932 Dorothy Yates blasts the field wide open with her investigative book “Psychological Racketeers”, pointing out the flaws of 14 different psychologist, their methods and credentials to be “extravagant, misleading, and absurd” (Yates 1932, p232) (Bender 1932).  In 1945 studies were being conducted in the destruction of the frontal lobes of the human brain. In this study, the death rate for patients was five percent and some patients were left in a vegetative state (Schrader & Robinson 1945). Included in this study was the use of insulin shock another controversial psychological treatment that was used on human subjects without knowing the real effects on the body.  One might argue that these kinds of absurd studies are no longer conducted, however in 2011 a study using geese was conducted to see the effects of stressors on the animals.  Geese were outfitted with transmitters and then subjected to predators and other stressors to see the effects (Wascher, Scheiber & Kotrschal 2011).  Common sense would tell us that introducing any animal to a predator would introduce a stress situation to the biological system.  Electro shock therapy (ECT), is still used today even though there is no evidence of what it does to the brain or the long term effects.  While the introduction of the electric current is administered in a more humane way with muscle relaxers, anesthesia, the patients are still traumatized (Comer 2009).

The physical application of psychology to the human body has been a crude methodology of hit and miss throughout the history of the field.  The negative implications are many, the positive are mostly non-existent.  Physical harm is not the only damage done to people in the name of science, damage to the psychological being was conducted in the form of psychotherapy and humanism.

Psychotherapy and Humanism

“Historically, the term “psychoanalysis” has acquired three different meanings. It is first a dynamic system of psychology, offering particularly a theory of personality deeply rooted in naturalistic observation. Second, it is a philosophical approach to living, using its knowledge of psychology to clarify the age-old problem of happiness. And third it is a system of therapy, which claims to be more successful than any other therapy ever devised, even though it still leaves much to be desired.” (Fine 1970, p 120).

Freud is considered by most to be the grandfather of psychoanalysis, yet his ideas today seem quite absurd.  Freud, a user and proponent of cocaine (Comer 2009), identifies the three areas of the mind as Id, Ego and Super Ego, and bases his work on this trinity (Feist, & J., 2008).  The use of a trinity shows Freud’s link to religious dogma, as a most religions are based in trinity ideology.  His further links his methods to Greek mythology with the Oedipus, and Electra complexes, further persuading us that his ideas are based in mythical fantasies not science or reason.  Freud’s five stages of development, Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latency, and Genital stages are aimed at the libido and sexual drive in early human development (Feist, & J., 2008).  Improper development during these early stages, according to Freud can lead to psychological problems in adults.   Early childhood development is about survival not sexual feelings. Humans mating with their own bloodline is detrimental to the survival of their genes.  Science has shown us that mutations occur when people directly related to each other reproduce.  Freud’s link of most mental ailments to sexual needs deficiencies is more likely based in his own sexual inadequacies,  projecting them onto his work.  While Freud’s work contains more than just his psychosexual development work, like hypnosis, dream interpretation, and psychoanalysis, his extreme notions in child development weaken these areas.   Unfortunately others followed in Freud’s footsteps, Alfred Alder and Carl Jung continued his work on a faulty train of theories.  Because Freud’s work is not based in scientific facts we cannot weigh it as a valid area of psychology, rather, its merely an interesting antidote on the historical trail of psychology.  Psychotherapy is not based in science, and our failure to know how the mind works leads to dangerous situations for unsuspecting patients: “In my own experience I have observed a number of individuals who were frightened into chronic maladjusted states as a result of their encounter with psychotherapy. I also privately wonder how many “suicides in therapy” or “psychoses in therapy” were a direct result of treatment. In my own case work 1 can painfully remember at least one or two cases that would have been better off if therapy had been refused or not attempted.” (Walsh 1961).


            One might conclude that that I find no value in the field of psychology, however, that is not the case.  I find the study of the mind completely fascinating, and strive to learn how the mind works in a biological and scientific manner.  Recent technological advances in the use of computers in the medical field has given us the ability to view a working brain using MRIs to see what areas are affected during different stimuli.  The study of psychology must be rooted in the biological, as this is the key to successfully studying psychology.  Mental abnormalities must stem from a difference in biological makeup between individuals this would explain how individuals in the exact same scenarios respond differently.  For example, our military members fighting in wars are all affected differently, all witness and conduct acts of great atrocity, yet some are completely unaffected and others are inflicted with ailments such as post stress traumatic disorder.  There has to be a difference in their genetic structures that differentiate the wide variety of reactions the mind. Perhaps it falls back to Darwinism where the species is trying to thin the herd and only propel the most strong minded of the human race. Whatever the case, we must find better ways to analyze the mind and find ways to correct the deficiencies.



Bender, I. E. (1934). Review of “Psychological Racketeers”. Psychological Bulletin, 31(5), 372-373. doi:10.1037/h0066593

Comer, R.J. (2009).  Abnormal Psychology. New York, NY: Worth Pub.

Feist, J, & J., G. (2008). Theories of personality. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill  HumanitiesSocial SciencesLanguages.

Fine, R. (1970). Psychoanalysis, psychology and psychotherapy. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 7(2), 120-124. doi:10.1037/h0086559

Goodwin, C. (2010). The 1928 Carlisle conference: Knight Dunlap and a national laboratory for psychology. History of Psychology, 13(4), 378-392. doi:10.1037/a0019224

Krippner, S. C. (2002). Conflicting perspectives on shamans and shamanism: Points and counterpoints. American Psychologist, 57(11), 962-977. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.57.11.962

Leahey, T. H. (1992). The mythical revolutions of American psychology. American Psychologist, 47(2), 308-318. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.47.2.308

Newbold, W. R. (1897). Alterations of Personality, and Hypnotism, Mesmerism and the New Witchcraft. Psychological Review, 4(1), 88-90. doi:10.1037/h0069408

Schrader, P. J., & Robinson, M. F. (1945). An evaluation of prefrontal lobotomy through ward behavior. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 40(1), 61-69. doi:10.1037/h0054461

Stone, S. S. (1937). Psychiatry through the ages. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 32(2), 131-160. doi:10.1037/h0058883

Walsh, R. P. (1961). A Generation of Skeptics. American Psychologist, 16(11), 712-713. doi:10.1037/h0039391

Wascher, C. F., Scheiber, I. R., Braun, A., & Kotrschal, K. (2011). Heart rate responses to induced challenge situations in greylag geese (Anser anser). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 125(1), 116-119. doi:10.1037/a002118


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