Fly on the Wall—Psych! A Confidence Trick

Where an empathic desire to help others is built into many students desire to study psychology, it’s easy to miss key epistemological blind spots in the discipline.  A scanty half century ago a feminist writer named Germaine Greer eviscerated the core of psychiatry/psychology.  In The Female Eunuch she wrote that “psychiatry is an extraordinary confidence trick: the unsuspecting creature seeks aid because she feels unhappy, anxious and confused, and psychology persuades her to seek the cause in herself.  The person is easier to change than the status quo…Psychologists cannot fix the world, so they fix women.  Actually, they don’t even manage that…” (Greer, 90).  Sometimes our troubles really aren’t so much our own as we may think; this is where sociology, gender studies, anthropology and history can help round off the individual focus of psychology

In consumer society, where we see our identity in terms of wage labour permitting the acquisition of possessions that supposedly express our inborn desire, psychology’s individual focus seems natural and inevitable.  Yet you don’t have to go far into the anthropology literature to see that societies around the wold and over the centuries each see the individual differently.  No society has been more individual-centric than post 1945 North America and Western Europe.  Yet you might never know this context by studying psychology alone; you’d have to add in some anthropology and history.  Yet, often, these three varied disciplines bracket and even contradict one another in fundamental ways.  For instance, anthropologists may dislike the claim that humans each possess the same mental processes.  Culture may form us more than we realize—more than a psychologist might care to admit; a once-common term for the way even a given such as time exists in different cultures is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  If you think people have been basically the same in all times and places then you must ignore both their words and actions, or summarize them down into convenient terminological pigeonholes.  For Germaine Greer, this is what psychology often does in the name of its disciplinary bias.  Ignorance becomes just another ‘confidence trick’: the client is expected to have faith that the psychiatrist will understand her simply because that is what the discipline of psychology claims to be able to do.

A Shot in the Social Dark? Nope, an Example of Why Context Requires Interdisciplinary Understanding

An example of this dualism between psychology and sociology is summarized in the life of a woman named Valerie Solanas.  A half century ago she shot Andy Warhol and was committed to a psychiatric institution.  Besides her violent act, she’d also written a manifesto titled ‘Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM)’; it was a literary and rhetorical response to “male arrogance and egotism” (Cohen, 2019).  By her own reckoning she wasn’t unstable so much as too smart for society around her.  Facing professorial bias at the University of Maryland she, in her own words, evinced clarity and concision: “Do I detect a touch of male arrogance and egotism?…I’m afraid Mr.  Parr’s puerile arguments are doomed to fizzlehood” (ibid.)

Solanas’s “impassioned loathing” for male privilege was chalked up to her psychiatric diagnosis of “paranoid schizophrenia” and yet an Arizona State professor named Fahs refuses to leave it at that.

Breanne Fahs teaches the SCUM manifesto in her classrooms and states that “Solanas embodies much of what feminism tries to distance itself from…a figure on the margins that shapes the centre” (ibid).  Without this sociological sense that Solanas herself expressed, we would miss out on a full explanation of her situation in her times and her society.  Not that violence is ever warranted, but to understand its cause requires more than a mere psychiatric diagnosis.  Individuals are far more than individuals as soon as we see their social context; limiting our knowledge of them to the confines (often literally a room) of psychology also limits our knowledge of their humanity.  And yet, ignorance of social reality is built into the psychological discipline just as sociology restricts itself to big-picture interpretations.

Facts don’t lie but facts are almost instantly interpreted; to ignore that fact is to requisition our inner ignoramus.  For instance, Time magazine reports that between 1971 and 1972 a staggering 2500 bombs were set off on American soil by “radical activists” (ibid).  Were all these terrorist attacks merely bout of mental illness? Perhaps, but they were likely also a response to the 58 000 Americans killed in the Vietnam War and a litany of others social issues: women’s liberation, civil rights and the general upheaval of so many young baby boomers amassed on a single planet.  People were reacting to “The Man” and while in Solanas’ case “it’s more comfortable to chalk her assault up to an individual mental illness”, this sort of psychological etiology would obscure, erase, and obfuscate the sociological truths of the situation (ibid).

As W.I Thomas famously stated, “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”.  Women too, of course, and only a Gender Studies approach would fully explain that aspect.  Individual definitions of a situation are the social impetus to action.  Our brains my exist in a neurological vacuum but only if we force ourselves to see them that way; psychological reality is subsumed within social consciousness.  In 2019 it’s almost inconceivable to imagine thousands of pipe bombs going off without an automatic assumption of mental illness; and yet, that explanation is more about the assumptions of our times than about knowledge or ignorance.

So next time you feel like proclaiming how much knowledge you’ve acquired at AU remember: whatever we learn can also reveal limits, not only within our given disciplines of scholastic study but also in terms of our willingness to realize that the bounds of what we learn are as wide as the terrain we try and cover.  Knowledge and ignorance exist not on a spectrum, but as aspects of an intellectual prism.  The view we receive of the world depends upon the ideological lens we choose to use; there’s no ‘just the facts’ without a prior interpretation of ‘what counts’.

Cohen, A.  (2019).  ‘Grappling With the Legacy of the Woman Who Shot Andy Warhol.’  Retrieved from
Greer, G.  (1970).  The Female Eunuch.  Great Britain: Paladin.
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