Psychologists know what you’re thinking: True/False?

Do you find yourself strangely silent when meeting a dentist or psychologist in a social setting? Dentists must be shielded from your teeth, while psychologists must be shielded from inadvertent slips of the tongue which might reveal your deepest fears and desires. But don’t worry: psychologists can’t read your thoughts.

This misconception probably derives from Freud and his followers who really thought they could read deep meaning into trivial actions. But Freudian psychoanalysis has largely fallen out of favour in modern psychology. When pretty much anything can be interpreted as symbolic of some repressed desire all you end up with is a lot of highly subjective explanations, none of them provable and few of them useful.

Behaviourist psychology emerged as a rebellion against this unscientific approach. The behaviourists argued that psychology was not about the mind at all, but about behaviour, since that’s all we can really observe. Pavlov and his dogs, conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell, paved the way for the theory that all behaviour is just a chain of such conditioned responses to stimuli. Words like “thought” and “memory” were banished from the behaviourist lexicon. What we call thought, they supposed, was really just a kind of suppressed speech.

This extreme couldn’t last either. The decisive blow came in the fifties, when B.F. Skinner, behaviourism’s poster boy, was routed by linguist Noam Chomsky, a rising star of the cognitive approach. Cognitivists realised that a lot of behaviour just cannot be explained without recourse to some kind of mental representation — thought, if you will. Determining the nature of that thought has proved tremendously difficult, though.

Today psychology is a (sometimes uncomfortable) blend of the cognitive and behaviourist approaches.

So: psychoanalysts might try reading your thoughts, but end up reading their own; behavourists don’t believe you have any thoughts to read; and cognitivists can’t make head or tail of those you do have. Yes, some psychologists are good at reading people, but that’s more because of their humanity than their psychology.

Psychology is good for many things, but reading minds is not one of them.

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