The travesty that was Bradley Manning’s trial is a topic for another forum. Reading about the court proceedings, what immediately struck me was the psychotherapist’s verdict on Manning’s behavior. He was suffering from “Post Adolescent Idealism”, said the therapist. His bashers took this and other psychological judgements that were passed on Manning (narcissism, obsessive compulsive disorder, gender identity disorder etc), as a clear proof of the fact that he was clueless and made the leaks for ‘personal’ reasons. Some of his sympathizers on the other hand were quick to claim that “post adolescent idealism” is not a pathology but a normal stage of human development. Reading all this, I underwent a severe, almost fatal bout of the WTF disorder (yes, What The F**k).
What should be clear but is clearly not clear to many people is that any kind of psychologizing that purports to have definitive answers for perhaps the most complex thing in this entire universe, human behavior, is bound to be pseudo-science. Let’s forget humans for a moment; let’s take a house lizard (which are aplenty in South Asia). We have no idea why a house lizard decides to sometimes crawl under the sofa, sometimes creep up the wall, and at other times jump down at us from the ceiling. If we want to characterize different lizard behaviors as “Wall Climbing Mania” or “Post Broom Attack Trauma Hiding Under the Sofa Disorder” or “Mid-Life Crisis Jump from Ceiling”; or if we want to label the lizard repeatedly sticking its tongue out as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and other such things, then that’s our problem, not the lizard’s. Seriously though, we can make up any terms we like, the fact remains we still understand exactly ZERO about the lizard’s behavior.
Here, people might reasonably say that we can give some plausible reasons for the lizard’s behavior, such as that it was scared, feeling hungry etc. Sure, if we want to give common-sense explanations, we can go-ahead and say whatever we think is plausible. But that is not science. It might be asked what’s wrong with such explanations, such stories about lizard behavior. The problem is that yes we can say that the lizard was scared so it went under the sofa, but then we have to account for the fact that when scared at other times it climbs up the wall, yet at other times it stays completely still, and yet at other times it runs towards us (the attackers) and so on, and on. And the same is true of human behavior; only to a much greater degree. So the fact is that we can make up all kinds of stories but its all handwaving.
Creating stories is really dangerous as far as human behavior is concerned. The American Psychiatric Association’s infamous bible, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), considered homosexuality to be a disorder till as late as 1968. So homosexuality, since it was a socially deviant behavior, was a medical disorder!! And then we have something called Adjustment Disorders: “They are indicated by impairment in social or occupational functioning; symptoms that are in excess of a normal and expectable reaction to the stressor”.
So you can’t see people being tortured and killed and are undergoing severe stress due to that? You must be having an Adjustment Disorder because the guy next to you is hunky-dory. You are in bad way mister. But worry not: Here’s the prescription.
Also consider the Passive-Aggressive personality. Quoting from DSM, second edition, “This behavior pattern is characterized by both passivity and aggressiveness. The aggressiveness may be expressed passively, for example by obstructionism, pouting, procrastination, intentional inefficiency, or stubbornness This behavior commonly reflects hostility which the individual feels he dare not express openly. Often the behavior is one expression of the patient’s resentment at failing to find gratification in a relationship with an individual or institution upon which he is over-dependent.”
If we read this definition carefully, we discover that all it is saying is that some people are not brave enough to stick it to the man openly! Read it again, judge for yourself. As with the lizard, same people would react differently to same things at different times. It is not clear how helpful (let alone accurate) it is to describe someone as a passive aggressive personality as if it is some inherent condition. Many Pakistanis considered Bengalis to be passive-aggressive, ‘pouting’, ‘inefficient’, ‘stubborn’ rascals. It all changed in 1971 when Bengalis became openly aggressive and decided to stick it to the man, and won their much-needed independence.
Of course, there are real mental illnesses stemming from brain disorders and cognitive impairments. But simply characterizing all kinds of human behaviors has no explanatory force whatsoever. We can label anything we want. I am now undergoing a belated bout of Post Adolescent Idealism; Einstein in not accepting quantum mechanics probably suffered from a severe case of Adjustment Disorder which would ‘properly’ be described as the Entrenched Old Fool Sticks to His Guns disorder; and Galileo most clearly was a Passive Aggressive Personality, who did not dare openly rebel against the church, yet pouting all the time he resorted to churlish, stubborn, and implicit attacks.
So, labeling as we can see is easy. However, if we want to study things in a scientific manner, then we have to study them in a scientific manner. At the moment scientific psychology is still in its infancy. When George Miller showed in his famous 1956 paper that our short term memory is restricted to around seven objects and works in chunks, that was a real psychological discovery. When Herbert Simon proposed a ‘Bounded Rationality’ model to hypothesize how human beings solve problems, that was genuine psychological theorizing. Similarly when Susan Carey and Elizabeth Spelke in experiments with infants make discoveries that hint at various innate properties of our minds, then that’s real progress in the science of psychology.
However, all of these are ‘unglamorous’ and don’t provide answers that we human beings so desperately desire in our lives; answers which DSM seems to give us. But that’s what science is: it talks about simple things and it cannot answer complex questions about human or lizard or cockroach behavior. Like Galileo had said: its all piecemeal and approximate. Those who make big claims can do whatever they want; people should be aware that such “scientists” are not doing anything more than handwaving. In the long run it might turn out that we simply can’t form scientific theories about complex human behavior. In that case, our best bet to understand human behavior would still be, as it currently is, a mixture of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and friends, with a bit of Marlon Brando thrown in!