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Beyond Repair? The State of American Psychology
How the American Psychological Association became, in the words of one of the country's most respected psychologists, an “actively politically partisan organization”.
Written by John Mac Ghlionn
I recently wrote a piece discussing the dire state of psychology in America, and the many ways in which psychologists are failing men. The piece focused on how qualities like stoicism and competitiveness, both of which are intimately associated with masculinity, have been demonized by the American Psychological Association (APA). Traditional masculinity, according to the APA, is “psychologically harmful.” It’s not. But the APA’s desire to pathologize masculinity certainly is.
Now, in this piece, it’s time to ask: Can psychology be saved?
Before writing this piece, I reached out to many leading psychology professors in the U.S. Almost all responded, and almost all said they would be interested in contributing if they weren’t afraid of retaliation from the APA and/or students. In other words, the risks far outweighed the rewards. Thankfully, one professor was intrepid enough to speak out. That professor is Christopher J. Ferguson, one of the country’s most respected psychologists.
Last year, Ferguson wrote a stinging op-ed, accusing the APA of waging war on the boys and men of America. The APA is the primary programmatic accreditor for professional education and training in psychology. When it comes to the teaching and practicing of psychology in America, the APA is the dominant force. And that’s bad news for all Americans, especially the 50 percent of the country who happen to be male.
The problems with the APA are myriad. First, as Dr. Ferguson noted, the APA is more of “a professional guild” than a science organization. One might even argue that it is an ideologically-driven organization masquerading as a scientific one. The APA’s mission, Ferguson wrote, “is to promote psychology,” not necessarily to "tell the truth." Although laudable, this creates problems. The APA, noted Ferguson, tends to “distort the truth in order to make psychology seem more relevant than maybe it is.” Instead of saying "we simply don't know", "it's complicated and nuanced," or "sorry, psychology doesn't really have an answer for that," the APA makes declarative statements that swap honesty for expediency. This has led the APA to “grossly misrepresent issues for decades,” including associating the practice of psychology with inherent acts of racism. In 2021, the APA offered a groveling apology to the country’s people of color. The apology had very little relevance to science or psychology.
The APA may have a crisis of credibility, which has been growing for years. In 2015, the APA was caught in the infamous Hoffman Report of relaxing its ethical standards for psychologists directly involved in torture interrogations. In the years since, APA, like so many other organizations in the U.S., “has become a hotbed of groupthink and ideological capture,” according to Feguson. This is one reason facially absurd ideas become mainstream, and scandals like the APA's practice guidelines for men and boys largely go unchallenged.
Today, sadly, the APA, in Ferguson’s opinion, has become an “actively politically partisan organization” dedicated to telling half the population “that psychology and psychological services just aren't for them.” Is it any wonder that only 5 percent of psychologists in America under the age of 30 are male?
The APA has gone from being an organization that once represented objective science to an organization interested in lecturing the country, especially the country’s men, about privilege, patriarchy, and systemic racism – even if those ideas, according to Ferguson, “have little empirical support or aren't relevant to a particular patient's circumstances.”
All of this raises the question: If the APA calls the shots, and the APA is clearly not fit for purpose, what, if anything, can be done?
There is no easy answer, no silver bullet. The APA's problems are similar to other left-coded institutions (like medicine, for example) experiencing ideological capture. Ferguson believes that “The APA will only change when circumstances necessitate.” Therefore, people need to force the APA to change. More members should resign. (Ferguson resigned last year). Likewise they need to stop giving the APA money. This might compel the APA to moderate some of its positions. As Ferguson argued, one should see the APA as a business. And like a business, it cares about surviving. That means it is responsive to incentives.
But conservatives, however disgruntled by modern psychology, should not avoid academia. In fact, as Ferguson correctly contended, “We need more conservatives in the field, desperately, and I say this as a center-left person myself.” If conservatives flee, it will leave a vacuum that progressives will happily fill.
John Mac Ghlionn is a psychosocial researcher and essayist. Follow him on Twitter here.