I was browsing through some RSS feeds when this article’s title grabbed my attention. It talked about one particular prevalent myth surrounding psychology and counselling – how we are supposed to be able to give a precise summary of someone’s life based on the way they present themselves.
You can access the article here: “Can Psychologists Read People’s Minds? | CounsellingResource.com“. Following on from the article, my take on it is – So, how should our response be?
I suppose most psychologists would empathise with me. It is not unusual when I tell others what I do that they immediately present me with the challenge to analyse and interpret their background. I would then reply that psychology does not work that way. One time, this stranger at a restaurant challenged me to uncover his personality in which I politely said it is inappropriate to make explicit inference about someone based on first impression and that the way therapy works is to piece together numerous information to inform counsellors. It is impossible to make conclusive judgements just from one exchange and I personally think it’s unprofessional to do so. In which he replied, ‘ha! look, you can’t come up with anything.’
The article gave an example of the popular TV series ‘Lie to Me’ which depicts a gifted psychologist who is able to accurately tell the emotions someone is currently feeling and whether he/she is lying. This art is not a complete make up, it has its place in psychology known as the study of ‘micro expressions’. However, I think one important point that the author of the article omit and possibly the general audience (those who believes that psychologist are fortune-teller-like) missed is that Cal Lightman (the protagonist in this series) has continuously stressed the fact that, yes he can tell whether one is being untruthful or emotionally unstable but he is not able to ascertain why or how that’s the case. That is an important point.
For me, I would rather have the overall picture before pointing out certain impressions I have of someone. This is in consideration of the negative implication the act has on one’s integrity. Some may argue that, why should we be nice about it if someone is lying. A lie is a lie regardless of the reasoning behind it. That is true but not a principle I adopt. Coming back to the example I gave about the stranger in the restaurant. He visited the restaurant almost everyday of the week and spent hours at the restaurant, only leaving when we close for the night. My first inference would be that he lives alone, does not have a sociable lifestyle and works in a certain field. However, I did not feel that is a respectful thing to say. Simply because of the negative implications it has. I found out later, the impressions I had were true. Perhaps, one of the reasons psychologists reserve their opinions is to signify respect to others. As a psychologist I feel that we have a duty to offer due regard to another individual especially with the impact they perceive we have.