How to Psychologize Unwisely


Weaponizing for personal advantage.

Posted May 18, 2020

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and a lot of knowledge can be still more dangerous. That applies especially to knowledge in psychology. Though knowledge may be power, it isn’t always wisdom and that for a reason that is easy to understand but hard to swallow.

People – meaning you, me, all of us – tend to psychologize for personal advantage and then pretend we aren’t, pretending that we’re being neurtal when we have actually put our thumb on the scale tipping it our way.

That is, we all suffer from, or rather indulge in confirmation bias, the tendency to embrace what affirms us and reject what doesn’t. We speedread criticism and close-read affirmation. As such, we’re vulnerable to seductive self-affirmation, groupthink, pandering, mutual admiration societies, and yes-men. We tend to be far better at dishing out criticism than taking it in and far better at taking in affirmation than dishing it out.

Confirmation bias is natural, understandable, and to some degree necessary. We all need motivation but it’s in limited supply. To carry us through the day, we each have our little cup of mojo, as motivation is sometimes called.

Critics knock our cup of mojo and some spills out. If by the end of the day we’re down to a few drops of mojo and running on fumes, we start to doubt ourselves. Anxiety sets in. We lose our ability to focus because maybe our critics are right.

If we don’t protect, hoard, and replenish our mojo we can end up disoriented, self-berating, and unproductive. No one likes that so of course, we would seek ways to refill our cups with affirming mojo and we try to protect our cup from hard knocks.

Confirmation is therefore understandable but at the extreme, dangerous. Some people become absolutely confirmation-biased. They lid their cup, opening it only for refills, and go around bashing other people’s cup because one way to keep our cups brimming is by depleting other people’s cups.

Narcissism tends to be sado- because superiority is relative. You can refill your cup of mojo or deplete your competitions’ cups. Either way, you feel your relative superiority. You don’t have to worry about whether other people are right.

That’s how knowledge of psychology can become power without wisdom. We’re far better at psychologizing our critics than our allies. All we have to do imagine some ulterior psychological motive motivating our opponents’ challenges, diagnose them as though we’re authoritative and neutral psychiatrists and we don’t have to give their challenges another thought.

Oh, they’re just narcissists. 

Oh, they’re just playing politics

Oh, they have biases.

Oh, they’re just projecting. 

Whether these diagnoses are right, they tend to evade self-reflection. Once we’ve diagnosed our challengers we’re liberated from self-examination. We’re liberated from deliberation.

This is not a new problem. Socrates thought a lot about it, trying to distinguish between how logic is used by philosophers vs. sophists, the precursors to today’s scientists and spin doctors respectively. Used for personal advantage, logic or what today we call critical thinking is a dangerous thing. Critical thinking easily becomes mercenary to whatever subjective gut-campaign we send it on. We tend to use critical thinking to criticize our critics and Socrates spotted that tendency as early as 2500 years ago.

Critical thinking and rhetoric are generally taught as two sides of the same coin. If you can persuade people with rhetoric, you can resist persuasion with critical thinking. Rhetoric is spin; critical thinking is unspin.

These days, the most important advances in our understanding of critical thinking and rhetoric come out of psychological research, in particular, social psychology and behavioral economics in which we have stopped thinking of our rational minds as indefatigable engines, instead thinking of them more as what rationality really is, a reluctant employee that would rather be resting in its comfort cave back home.

That is, through the concept of “bounded rationality” we’ve come to recognize that we’re rational about how we allocate our limited powers of rationality. We’re frugal with it. We economize on thinking slow and hard. Our minds would rather be liberated by self-affirmation, so we avoid deliberation, the constraint, and discipline of rationality.

We tend to apply critical thinking to dissenters far more than to assenters, and far more than to ourselves. When we can get away with it, we use “heads I win, tails you lose” critical thinking rather than playing fairly. The other side of that coin is rhetorical “tails I win; heads you lose.” In other words, through confirmation bias we tend to use rhetorical spin to confirm ourselves and critical thinking to unspin our critics.

To do so, a little or a lot of psychological knowledge comes in very handy. When someone challenges you, just psychologize them. You’ll feel like the neutral authority while tipping the scale all you want.

It’s a vocational and avocational hazard when studying psychology and how can we avoid it?

Simple, though not easy to apply. Practice spinning and unspinning evenhandedly. Whenever you psychologize someone, make a point of remembering a time when you’ve done exactly what they’re doing regardless of whether you did it to the same degree.

Such recollections tend to vaporize instantly the second we start psychologizing someone. You really have to make an effort to retrieve such memories, because remembering your own faults when you’re knocking someone else’s is like knocking your own cup of mojo just when you want and need it most.

It’s not “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” so much as “it’s remember when you’ve done to others as they’re doing to you.”

It’s compassion by a practical unromantic definition. I think of empathy as putting yourself in other people’s shoes, and compassion as remembering when those shoes were yours.

As the philosopher Piet Hein said, “Philosophers find their true perfection, knowing the follies of humankind by introspection.


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