Pseudoscience in Psychology

words in psychology, some lead to pseudoscience

There is a lot of debate on what is pseudoscience within the field of social sciences. Even among those within the field of social sciences. This includes some areas of psychology (“Pseudoscientific Topics: Psychology,” n.d.) and these include Freud’s theories, along with a few others.

When you look at history, there are many theories in science, which in the past have been classed as pseudoscience. There is the Trial of Galileo over his insistence on heliocentrism (Finocchiaro, 1989). There is also Gregor Mendel and biological inheritance through genetics (Henig, 2017). What this article points out, is that when looking at what is pseudoscience within Psychology, the hard line some people have is not necessarily the full picture.

What is Pseudoscience?

In general, the definition of pseudoscience is [emphasis mine]

statements, beliefs, or practices that are claimed to be scientific and factual in the absence of evidence gathered and constrained by appropriate scientific methods

(Cover & Curd, 1998)


A pretended or spurious science; a collection of related beliefs about the world mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method or as having the status that scientific truths now have

(Simpson & Weiner, 1998)

Pseudoscience is often defined by the following:

  • contradicting, exaggerated or unprovable claims;
  • reliance on confirmation bias rather than rigorous attempts at refutation;
  • lack of openness to evaluation by other experts; and
  • absence of systematic practices when developing theories.

Because it suggests something is being put across as science inaccurately or even deceptively, the term pseudoscience is often considered defamatory (Hansson, 2008). Accordingly, those termed as practising or advocating pseudoscience often dispute it (“Pseudoscience,” n.d.).

What makes areas of psychology pseudoscience?

What forms a lot of the debate on what is pseudoscience within psychology is the replication crisis. Also known as the replicability crisis or reproducibility crisis, it is considered to be an “ongoing methodological crisis” primarily affecting parts of the social and life sciences (“Replication crisis,” n.d.).

Within the social and life sciences, scholars have found that the results of many scientific studies are difficult or impossible to replicate or reproduce on subsequent investigation, either by independent researchers or by the original researchers themselves (Schooler, 2014; Smith, 2017).

On what basis?

The basis of the replication crisis is that for anything to be considered scientific (not pseudoscience), experimental results should be reproducible and able to be verified by other researchers (“Scientific Method & Pseudoscience,” n.d.)

Another way to see it is that it has been argued, most notably by Karl Popper, that the scientific method demands that a theory must at least in principle be falsifiable for it to be valid as science (Popper, 1959). This was Popper’s solution to the “demarcation problem”, (what is and what is not science).

Example theories considered pseudoscience within psychology

Freud’s Drive Theory – Ego, Super-ego and Id

With Sigmund Freud, a lot of people get hung up on the sexual elements of his theories when really, Freud’s theories centre on his motivation and drive theory and they centre on all sorts of pleasure. This is because, we are motivated towards whatever brings pleasure and are motivated away from pain, difficulty, destruction, confusion, etc.

With drive theory centring on Eros and Thanatos along with the elements of the self (id, ego and super-ego), he is explaining resistance and why people use avoidance tactics through ego-defence mechanisms such as repression, denial etc. The Freud Museum’s website explains this too, along with topics such as the Oedipus Complex (Freud Museum London, n.d.).

Freud’s drive theory at play

I have seen Freud’s drive theory in play in many different ways. People who I have been supporting after being assaulted often display these characteristics. Although not always, they will avoid, at all costs, anything they feel will put them in the same situation again, even if that means sacrificing personal and social interactions.

Some will also seek other forms of pleasure, either just for the pleasure they gain from it, or for the purposes of blocking out bad feelings, memories and emotions they are suffering from due to the past experiences haunting them through flashbacks etc.

Even those who have not experienced assault display drive theory traits when you look at the effects of commercialism in society. Everyone looks for the things that will give them pleasure, whether it is the latest mobile phone, laptop computer, or a future holiday or bigger home. The increase in readily available loans such as payday loans also make things more accessible and those who find difficulty paying them back avoid looking at the letters of demand, burying their head in the sand in the hope that they can deal with it later or it will just go away.


Whilst not cited, RationalWiki raised a point that:

Repressed memory is now considered pseudoscientific. There is no special mechanism that “represses” memories and it’s likely that many of the “repressed” memories Freudians claim to have discovered were actually just inadvertent inventions of the therapist or patient himself.

(“Sigmund Freud – Repressed Memory,” 2018)

Repression is described by Freud by saying

the essence of repression lies simply in turning something away, and keeping it at a distance, from the conscious.

(Freud, 1915/1957)

There are 2 parts to repression according to Freud, later remodelled slightly differently.

Primal Repression

The first phase of repression, which consists of instinctual representations (thoughts, ideas and feelings) being denied entrance into the conscious. When this fixation is established, the representation in question persists unaltered from then onward and the instinct remains attached to it.

Repression Proper (Later considered to be suppression)

Freud considered a second stage of repression, repression proper. This affects the mental derivatives of the repressed representation, or such trains of thought originating elsewhere, having come into conscious thought. On account of this, these thoughts and/or ideas experience the same fate as what was primally repressed. Repression proper therefore is actually an after-pressure [Nachdrängen].

What you need to be careful about here is that although some people use these words interchangeably, repression is different to suppression.

Repression is unconscious/subconscious, whereas suppression is completely conscious

repression is the term for unintentional, unconscious forgetting, and suppression [is] intentional, conscious removal of a thought from subsequent conscious attention. Suppression is almost never studied, whereas a wide literature has formed around the concept of repression…

…Although repression and suppression processes are by no means mutually exclusive or contradictory, the interest value of repression has tended to exclude suppression from scientific study. It is in this sense that Freud was responsible for what we do not know about suppression.

(Wegner, 1992)

Now think about suppression in a quote provided by Wegner in the above article.

Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.

(Dostoevsky, 1955)

The debate

There has been a lot of debate on repressed memories over recent years and the debate and scientific studies has led to further studies on False Memory Syndrome (FMS). FMS is subject to debate and has even been successfully used as defence in criminal trials against those accused of rape.

It is for this reason that those practising in the field of abuse and trauma therapy need specialist training and are warned that they must be particularly careful when examining past events that false memories are not created.

I argue that I have witnessed the fact that repressed true memories do exist, although it cannot be scientifically tested.

Who was Freud?

Photo of Sigmund Freud.  A lot of Freud's work is considered to be pseudoscience.
Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939)

Sigmund Freud is one of the founders of psychoanalytical (and psychodynamic) therapy, a method for treating mental illness and also a theory which explains human behaviour. Freud’s contribution was therefore of prime importance in the development of psychodynamic therapy, and arguably all forms of therapy.

Freud’s work is derived from clinically derived empirical evidence (McLeod, 2017) and backed up with high profile journal articles, but his work is also seen as non-falsifiable under Karl Popper’s criteria of falsifiability to distinguish science from non-science (Popper, 1959).

How are his theories considered pseudoscience?

RationalWiki states that

It’s important to remember that Freud’s writings on psychology consisted only of case studies and don’t follow a strict application of the scientific method.

(“Sigmund Freud – Methodology and Case Studies,” 2018)

Interestingly, Popper argued the case of Freud’s theories being non-falsifiable

largely on the basis that psychoanalysts could easily deploy various defense mechanisms themselves and other psychoanalytic concepts to dismiss countervailing evidence.

(Popper, 1963)

and Hans Eysenck, an opponent of Freud, argues that

Freud’s theories are falsifiable and therefore a science, though an incorrect one.

(Eysenck, 2004)

Whilst there are anti-freudian psychologists out there, Freudian theories are not outdated and very much accepted in psychology, for example, Freud’s theories on ego-defence mechanisms are followed a lot when looking at the mental health of a client.

We have talked about Freudian theories. What about Jung, Erikson, Adler…?

According to a 2016 article in Psychology Today, psychology, in general, is not a real science. However, psychology was defined by the application of scientific method(s) and psychologists conduct valuable research and have developed some key insights into animal behaviour, cognition, consciousness, and the human condition (Henriques, 2016).

Yet another Psychology Today article (Kraus, 2013) states that psychologists do unscientific things, and psychology:

  • doesn’t define its terminology well enough to be considered a science,
  • relies too heavily on subjective experience, and
  • isn’t falsifiable.

The crux of the problem

The problem here is that although psychology talks about things in a different way to the likes of neuroscience for example, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the research and development of theories to do with the human psyche are not scientific. It is just that ‘high level’ cognitive functions in humans (e.g. memory, awareness, thoughts, emotions, executive function…) (Driver, et al. 2007) cannot be physically recorded and measured, and therefore they can only be measured and recorded subjectively.

Where there is no point of reference, either you need a very large group of people who fit a specified criteria in order to assess statistically how predominant certain traits are evident, or you start by assessing a few people (or maybe even one person) with a view to encouraging more research.

This could be seen when looking at Erikson’s life stages of development (Erikson & Erikson, 1998).

Erik Erikson

Put together originally in 1950 in his book Childhood and Society, Erik Erikson’s life stages of development (8 life stages of man) was developed, based on his own experiences of life. A 9th stage was later added in 1998 as the Eriksons came to believe that,

the role of old age needs to be reobserved, rethought.

(Erikson & Erikson, 1998: p. 62).

You could say that this theory on the stages of development is pseudoscientific, but without a better frame of reference, Erikson provided the best he could for the time being.

Carl Jung

Carl Jung (1875 – 1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology, and collaborated, for a while, with Sigmund Freud on a joint vision of human psychology.

While Jung worked on his book, Psychology of the Unconscious: a study of the transformations and symbolisms of the libido, tensions manifested between him and Freud because of various disagreements, including those concerning the nature of libido (Jung, 1963).

Carl Jung created some of the best known psychological concepts. These include:

  • synchronicity
  • archetypal phenomena
  • the collective unconscious
  • the psychological complex, and
  • extraversion and introversion.

Many of Jung’s theories are considered to be pseudoscience. One example is synchronicity, his idea that meaningful connections in the world manifest through coincidence with no apparent causal link. This is what Jung referred to as the acausal connecting principle (Nickell, 2002). This is because these ideas culminated from his ideas about the paranormal. Despite his own experiments failing to confirm the phenomenon (Shermer & Linse, 2002) he held on to the idea as an explanation for apparent ESP (Jung, 2013).

Carl Jung’s interests

Jung had an apparent interest in the paranormal and occult. For decades he attended seances and claimed to have witnessed parapsychic phenomena. Jung initially attributed them to psychological causes. He even delivered a lecture in England for the Society for Psychical Research on The Psychological Foundations for the belief in spirits (Jung & Main, 1997). Jung later began to doubt whether an exclusively psychological approach can do justice to the phenomena in question and stated that the spirit hypothesis yields better results.

Alfred Adler

Born 1870 and died 1937, Alfred Adller was an Austrian medical doctor, psychotherapist, and founder of the school of individual psychology.

Adler considered human beings as an integrated whole with relationships to the external environment, therefore he called his psychology Individual Psychology (Orgler 1976). Concepts developed by Adler include inferiority and superiority complexes, the family constellation, and organ inferiority.

Some of Adler’s ideas have long been controversial. Although in the mid-1930s his opinion began to shift, Adler believed that he had established a connection between homosexuality and an inferiority complex towards gender.

Considering the latest views on the subject, this point of view can be dismissed as pseudoscience.

The problem with subjective measurement

Where subjective measurement can also pose major problems is highlighted in Forde (2017). When you are trying to profile and treat for recidivism amongst sexual offenders, you can only rely on subjective observations. What Forde pointed out is that in this area of psychology, psychologists are relying on questionnaires along with the psychologist’s opinion on what is required. He also highlighted areas in which this can pose big problems, and why.

What about the predictability required in science?

In a scientific sense, prediction refers to the ability of a theory to accurately forecast what will happen under specific conditions. In order to test a theory a scientist will make a prediction based on that theory.

My argument on predictability in social sciences is that not all outcomes can be predicted. Take survivors of abuse for example. It is well known that there are some who will go on to have mental health problems, and they last for many years. However, some only suffer for a short time and some move on from the abuse without any adverse effects.

A group of people can suffer the same type and amount of abuse (for want of a better phrase), at the same age and for the same duration, and yet each one of them can suffer differently. That surely throws scientific predictability out of the window as far as testing psychological theory is concerned.

On the subject of predictability testing, with something like abuse it would be unethical to test predictability by subjecting test subjects with abuse and seeing what the result is so you would have to rely on case studies for this which is also a part of the problem with testing Freud’s theories.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)

One of the ideas put forward about CBT is that it is a suitable form of therapy for all human problems. It is an element of predictability which has helped CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) to gain scientific backing. This is because selected tests have supported the claim that it has been found to help many people within a short time-frame of around 6-8 weeks.

In my view, this idea can be damaging in some ways. This is because, as I will demonstrate, CBT is not suitable for all psychological conditions.

What is CBT?

CBT is not a single model of therapy, applicable to all clients in all situations. This has been one of the criticisms levelled at CBT, that its ‘one size fits all’ approach to the complex nature of human problems will, inevitably, fail to meet the needs of many, or (at best), simply focus on symptom reduction.

(Reeves, 2013)

CBT is a combination of behaviourism and behaviour therapy, along with cognitive theories and their application in therapeutic settings (Reeves, 2013).

How does CBT work?

CBT helps to change how you think, hence the word Cognitive, and what you do, hence the word Behaviour. A difficult life situation, relationship or practical problem can lead to changes in:

  • Thinking
  • Emotions and feelings
  • Behaviour
  • Physical feelings or symptoms

Things can also happen the other way. Any of the above changes can also lead to a difficult life situation, relationship or practical problem (Royal College of Psychiatrists, n.d.).

CBT works by trying to get the client to think about a situation in a more helpful way in order to move forward using more helpful behaviours.

Interestingly, whilst researching the overall efficacy of CBT, I came across a few items of note.

Criticisms of CBT

Carl Rogers

  • Carl Rogers emphasised the quality of the therapeutic relationship as a necessary and sufficient condition for successful therapy (Rogers, 1957) whereas CBT therapists tend to see the alliance as more instrumental in ensuring the patient’s adherence to the treatment protocol (e.g. Dunn, et al., 2006) (Goldsmith, et al., 2015)


  • The Countess of Mar in the House of Lords suggested the results of a trial into the effectiveness of CBT and GET (graded exercise therapy) had been artificially inflated (BACP, 2013)
  • An international team of researchers (Cuijpers, et al., 2016) concludes that
    …CBT is ‘probably effective’ with major depression, general anxiety disorder, panic disorder and social anxiety disorder, but not as effective as has been claimed, due to publication bias, poor quality of studies, and the use of waiting list control groups as a comparator
    (BACP, 2016)
  • Recent literature provides fairly strong evidence that CBT in addition to antipsychotic medication is effective in the management of acute as well as chronic schizophrenia (Rathod & Turkington, 2005). However, from what I have seen, I would stress that CBT was not used alone in any of these studies. CBT was provided in conjunction with psychiatric help and anti-psychotic medication.

CBT is as much based on the development of a therapeutic alliance as it is in a psychodynamic and humanistic approach. The success of therapy will be at least partly informed by the nature of the therapeutic process, and not simply the application of particular theoretical ideas, as some suggest (Reeves, 2013)

Either way, if the client is not able or willing to challenge their thoughts and behaviours, then CBT will not be effective.

So, is psychology pseudoscientific?

Sven Ove Hansson, author and scientific sceptic, is a professor of philosophy and is the chair of the Department of Philosophy, and History of Technology at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, Sweden. He looked at the whole demarcation problem regarding what is scientific and what is not.

While Hansson’s article, Defining Pseudoscience (Hansson, 1996) looked to sort out the problem, he steadily improved on it. To get a full grasp of what Hansson says, you need to read all three references (Hanson, 1996, 2008 & 2013), but to summarize, he pointed out the following.

Many authors assume that to be pseudoscientific, an activity or a teaching has to satisfy the following two criteria (Hansson, 2013):

  1. it is not scientific, and
  2. its major proponents try to create the impression that it is scientific. (Hansson, 2008)

Sven Hansson’s research

Science vs Pseudoscience

The phrases “demarcation of science” and “demarcation of science from pseudoscience” are often used interchangeably, and many authors seem to have regarded them as equal in meaning. In their view the task of drawing the outer boundaries of science is essentially the same as that of drawing the boundary between science and pseudoscience.

This picture is oversimplified. All non-science is not pseudoscience, and science has non-trivial borders to other non-scientific phenomena, such as metaphysics, religion, and various types of non-scientific systematized knowledge. (Mahner (2007, 548) proposed the term “parascience” to cover non-scientific practices that are not pseudoscientific.) Science also has the internal demarcation problem of distinguishing between good and bad science.

A comparison of the negated terms related to science can contribute to clarify the conceptual distinctions. “Unscientific” is a narrower concept than “non-scientific” (not scientific), since the former but not the latter term implies some form of contradiction or conflict with science. “Pseudoscientific” is in its turn a narrower concept than “unscientific”. The latter term differs from the former in covering inadvertent mismeasurements and miscalculations and other forms of bad science performed by scientists who are recognized as trying but failing to produce good science.

Hansson (2008)

His research in summary

In Defining Pseudoscience and Science (Hansson, 2013), he summarized the outcome of his research as follows:

Science (in the broad sense) is the practice that provides us with the most reliable (i.e. epistemically most warranted) statements that can be made, at the time being, on the subject matter covered by the community of knowledge disciplines (i.e. on nature, ourselves as human beings, our societies, our physical constructions, and our thought constructions).

(Hansson, 2013)

How do I summarize my research?

The best I can do is to leave you with the following quote:

Although the scientific method is often touted as the sin qua non [sic] of science, it is not. Indeed, if science were solely a method, then it would not be all that valuable, a point that is sometimes lost on empiricists enamored with the scientific method. Thus, it is crucial to keep in mind that the scientific method is not an end unto itself, but rather is a means to an end.

The ultimate desired product of the method is a cumulative body of knowledge that offers an approximate description of how the world works. In concrete terms, this refers to the body of peer reviewed journals, textbooks, and academic courses and domains of inquiry. Ideally, the body of knowledge will have a center that is consensually agreed upon (e.g., the Periodic Table in chemistry) and peripheral domains that represent the edges of scientific inquiry and where one will find much debate, innovation, and differences of the opinion.

(Henriques, 2016)


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