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Why Psychology Works...Sometimes

Different psychological methods are about equally effective in helping patients feel better.

From its beginnings under the tutelage of Sigmund Freud, the discipline of psychology has been a controversial science.

No sooner did Freudianism become established practice than Jungianism jockeyed to unseat it, positing dramatically different explanations and treatments. That was followed by Skinnerian behaviorism, which was followed by Rogerianism, Allportism, and various newer schools of thought about what makes us tick and how to fix it.

Each of these psychological schools has morphed and glommed on to principles and practices from competing schools in an effort to establish primacy within the field.

Along the way aspects of each psychological school have been challenged and discarded, to be replaced by what promise to be new and better insights and methods.

Meanwhile, the American population, in growing numbers, has taken to prescription drugs to mask, contain, or override their various psychological traumas. Not all of this is bad, mind you; sometimes drugs can be a necessary and helpful aid to better psychological health. However, the growing profusion and variety of such drugs suggests that standard psychological methods are not as effective as their advocates claim.

Actually, according to Richard Friedman, writing in The New York Times ("When Self-Knowledge is Only the Beginning," January 17, 2011), different psychological methods are about equally effective in helping patients feel better. He writes, "when two different types of psychotherapies have been directly compared - and there are more than 100 such studies - it has often been hard to find any differences in them."

The "common ingredient in all therapies" Dr. Friedman explains, is not in their ability to give the patient keener insight to the causes of his trauma - a claim common to all psychological schools. Instead the common ingredient is "a nonspecific human bond with your therapist." From the Christian perspective this sounds a bit like neighbor-love - active, attentive concern to the needs of others.

Does this mean that all psychologies are equally useful? Not necessarily. All psychological schools have some valid and useful ideas concerning why we do what we do or feel the way we feel. The part of wisdom, for therapists, at least, is to discern which aspects of all psychotherapies offer the most help to certain specific patients.

But even then the key to helping patients feel better, if Dr. Friedman is correct, will be the human bond that is established between the therapist and the patient. When this is strong, trusting, and affirming, help is on the way. And the reason this is so has nothing whatsoever to do with the science of psychology.

It has everything to do with the fact that people are made in the image of God, and they thrive best on love, even if that love comes at $100 an hour from a perfect stranger who promises attention, confidentiality, affirmation, and support.

Psychology works sometimes because it borrows on Christian teaching - without acknowledging its debt. How much more helpful could psychology be if it knew how to connect patients with the God of love and to fold them into loving communities of other God-lovers who were committed to living  by the Law of love and the love of Christ?

Supposing, of course, that such communities actually exist.

Additional related texts: Genesis 1.26-28; Psalm 8; Romans 2.14, 15

A conversation starter: "Studies show that the human bond is the most important aspect of improved psychological health. People need people. We need to be loved. Why do you think this is so?"

T. M. Moore

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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