Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Psychologists as portrayed in Sci-Fi

Lately I've been reading a fair amount of science fiction. The past five books I've read have all been by Frank Herbert (of Dune fame) and Philip K. Dick (best known for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). All of these five books have had psychologists/psychiatrists as supporting if not main characters. Psychological professionals as presented in these novels are very different from the way I typically think of them.

Herbert portrays them as all knowing behavior predictors. They are able to tell what a person will do far in advance and use that information to advance their agendas. Psychology is an accurate and predictive science in Herbert's view. This seems to imply a rather simplistic model of the human mind. As if psychology were like elementary physics and we could predict behavior as though it were a cannonball on a trajectory. In reality it isn't so easy. No reputable psychologist would venture much more than an ordinary human guess at what a particular person might do in a particular situation. There are just too many variables to consider in each person. The science deals more in generalities than specifics. They can say what many people would do (and perhaps propose an explanation why), but not what the individual person would do.

Herbert's view seems like it might have had some weight in the popular media forty years ago when he was writing, but it seems to have little now. Science fiction is sometimes portrayed as a picture of the future. Viewed this way we can see that Herbert thought that psychology would someday become like the 'hard' sciences and be a predictive tool. Looking from where we are today though it seems foolish. We would never expect Dr. Phil to be a swami who knew what others were thinking and could control them with a word or gesture.

Dick shows psychologists as inept know-it-alls who have a psychobabble explanation and a snake-oil cure for any problem. In some respects he sees them similarly to Herbert: he sees them as people who believe that they hold the key to human behavior. They think that they see the true motives behind actions and have some control over them. In fact they are deluding themselves with their own fancy words and concepts.

Dick presents the popular view of the psychoanalyst who can come up with an after-the-fact reason why someone has done something. Dick is critical of these psychoanalysts and sees them as vain and self-important people who believe that they have it all figured out, but can't make heads or tails of their own lives. This cynical view helps Dick to give more credibility to the views of 'insane' people, a theme that appears again and again in his novels.

The psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts whom I have known don't tend to fit in either of these models. First, no one takes Herbert's predictive model seriously. As far as Dick's view goes, most psychologists and psychiatrists won't venture into the realms of motivations or mental states, but stick to simple correlations. In the case of clinical psychologists and psychoanalysts, most are hesitant to offer up patent explanations for behaviors and would rather listen and offer a few suggestions or hints to help the patient/client.

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