By Michael Corballis 09/10/2015

I have taught psychology since 1961, carried out research on it, written about it. I have postgraduate degrees in it. But I am not allowed to call myself a psychologist.

The reason is that I am not registered under the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance (HPCA) Act 2003, which for psychologists is administered by the New Zealand Psychologists Board. I suppose I might have considered registering if either of those bodies inserted apostrophes appropriately in their titles, but in truth few academic psychologists have seen the need to pay the application fee of $441.50 or the annual fee of $545.

What this means is that the term “psychologist” is largely taken to refer to a practitioner—someone trained to diagnose, or give therapy, or otherwise deal with issues of mental health. In some respects I am relieved not to be able to call myself a psychologist, since to do so often seems to induce the guilty fear that I can read thoughts, or provide advice about errant children or mad uncles.

So many academics have preferred to call themselves cognitive scientists, or social scientists, or sometimes neuroscientists.  Mention psychology, and people sometimes seem to just back away.

As the science of the mind, psychology has a long history, going back to the latter part of the 19th century. Its main concerns have been such topics as perception, memory, learning, child development, language, consciousness—the functions of the normal mind, animal or human. It is a difficult subject. The three most fundamental questions in science have to do with the nature of matter, the nature of life, and the nature of consciousness, and the last of these is arguably the most intractable. But we’re getting there.

The idea of psychology as clinical practice, though, has gradually assumed dominance, at least in the mind of the public, although most universities have retained a strong core of basic science and scholarly inquiry. For the first half of the 20th century, and especially after the traumas of World War 1, psychoanalysis was probably the dominant form of psychological therapy, and even practiced within psychiatry. Practical psychological issues loomed again with World War II, and clinical psychology gradually emerged within university departments of psychology, based on scientific rather than Freudian or “depth psychology” principles.  An influential conference held in Boulder, Colorado in 1949 established the “scientist-practitioner” model as the template for training in clinical psychology.

But that was back in the days of behaviorism, the approach most famously linked to the Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner, although dating back to earlier in the century. Overt behavior rather than the mind was considered the proper focus of study; it was what people do rather than what they think or feel that mattered.

That all changed, though, from the 1960s, with the so-called “cognitive revolution,” driven in part by the rise of artificial intelligence and the computer as a model for the mind, and in part by a return to depth psychology and variants of psychoanalysis. Clinical psychology adapted at least partially to this change with the development of cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT), seemingly a blend of behaviourism and cognitive science. CBT remains the dominant model for clinical training.

Along the way, the gap between between science and practice has widened. In many universities doctoral degrees in clinical psychology have softened the research requirement required for the PhD. In the US, some PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) programmes require no more than a literature survey as a research requirement. Some psychologists, like many in the general public, even seem to reject science as the basis for anything.

When the Department of Psychology at the University of Auckland was changed to a School, there was strong opposition to naming it School of Psychological Sciences, even though it is located in the Faculty of Science. So it simply became the School of Psychology. Not a big deal, perhaps, but symptomatic of a malaise within the discipline.

Does this matter? Well, there is certainly a case for treating people as human beings rather than laboratory rats, and indeed a more general case for treasuring the humanities as much as the sciences. The Royal Society of New Zealand recently altered its statutes to include the humanities as well as the sciences among its fellows and members, and indeed science itself no doubt benefits from the new blend.

But science itself is not in opposition to the humanities, and academic psychology is increasingly concerned with such topics as religion, storytelling, and culture. What really matters is demonstrable truth. Clinical psychology can suffer, and even become dangerous, if it ignores or rejects the science of the mind. This was strikingly illustrated in the last decades of the 20th century when therapists failed to appreciate the frailty and suggestibility of human memory, leading to false charges of sexual abuse, especially in the infamous Christchurch crèche affair documented by Lynley Hood in her prize-winning book A City Possessed, published in 2001. That era and its aftermath are a blight on psychology and politics in New Zealand.

But then I am not a psychologist.