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By Stanton L. Jones

The Romance of American Psychology

The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts, by Ellen Herman. University of California Press, 406 pp.; $35

How are we to account for the rise to prominence, even dominance, of psychology in contemporary American culture? Christian critics of psychology are partly right in saying that the various psychologies offer world-views that compete with Christianity. From this perspective, the rise of psychology marks the triumph of a secular faith; its practitioners are invested with the authority that once belonged to priests and pastors. Another explanation is that psychology has prospered because, in the course of its troubled and complex history, it has genuinely helped and healed countless people (here the analogue is science rather than religion, and the rise of psychology is seen in the larger context of the spectacular success of modern medicine). Alternative explanations can be complementary rather than mutually exclusive.

Ellen Herman's intriguing book, richly referenced with primary source footnotes, offers yet another complementary perspective on the striking rise of psychology to public prominence in the period between 1940 and 1975. Whereas psychology's own account of its growing influence is a story celebrating the inexorable advance of scientific understanding, Herman emphasizes the role of contingent historical circumstances. In Herman's account, war was the critical element in psychology's rise to prominence. War provided a theater within which psychology could test its skills on a mass scale. War provided access to the inner corridors of power within the U.S. government wherein broad public legitimacy could be obtained. War also created a societal context conducive to a psychological vision of the person because of the widespread perception that what human beings were doing or considering doing to each other was fundamentally irrational and explicable only by those familiar with the contours of madness.

World War I provided the initial impetus for the development of intelligence- and ability-testing. World War II added widespread screening of draftees in an attempt to predict "neuropsychiatric disability," expanded treatment of psychiatric war casualties, and utilized "experts" from the behavioral sciences to wage psychological warfare within our country and among our own troops (because maintaining military and civilian "morale" was judged crucial to victory) and against the enemies of the United States in the form of analyses of and responses to their "national character" and propaganda methods.

The transition into the Cold War accelerated psychology's broad acceptance. A 1943 "Psychologist's Peace Manifesto" had declared that "an enduring peace can be attained if the human sciences are utilized by our statesmen and peace-makers." The Cold War led to military sources providing lavish research funding of various studies of other peoples in an effort to predict and hence control the emergence of a certain type of culture--democratic, capitalistic, pro-American. Individual personality, with its needs, drives, and irrationalities, became the theater for psychological warfare, because it was presumed that the ideologies of individuals, and hence of nations, were a function of personality. "Society had become the patient. Psychology had become the cure."

Herman's account of Project Camelot, an ill-conceived plan to study and control social and political development abroad, provides a case study of psychology's imperial ambitions. Although this project resulted in international scandal, expulsion of scholars from Chile and other countries, and the creation of policy barriers in many countries to prevent further U.S. meddling in their domestic affairs, Herman alleges that Camelot-related research continued apace, and that a subsequent psychological computer simulation of social change was a crucial factor in triggering the CIA-backed assassination of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973.

The wartime practice of therapeutic psychology transformed the commonly held understanding of human psychological distress from that of "mental illness" (an unchanging personal attribute) to that of "maladjustment" (a person-environment mismatch that could be prevented and ameliorated). This made psychology potentially applicable not just to the "sick," but to all of society.

The postwar rise of therapeutic psychology was fueled by the widespread contact of millions of GIs with psychological testing and screening, with self-help morale-enhancing educational materials, and with therapeutic services for concerns of all sorts while they were in the service and later through the Veteran's Administration. From the consumer's side, this process reduced the stigma previously associated with seeing a "shrink," while from the provider's side it opened the eyes of budding entrepreneurs to the possibilities for service provision in a propsychology society.

In multiple ways, psychology (broadly defined; Herman includes psychiatry-and psychology-oriented professionals in other social science fields, such as sociology and anthropology) developed a grandiosity of vision in the 1950s and '60s, a vision of "fashioning a new civilization," of using social engineering to ensure mental health and personal satisfaction for all Americans and eventually all humans. Meanwhile, the self-definition of government was expanding to emphasize the promotion of the general welfare of all citizens--a trend that greatly enhanced psychology's influence on public policy, particularly concerning racism and urban violence. In striking ways, the psychological vision of well-being influenced many facets of public policy, most visibly in the concept of psychological harm central to the 1954 Supreme Court desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education. Government became for some psychologists the logical tool for extending their impact. Their goal became to develop tools and services that "from birth to death shall guide and minister to the development and social usefulness of the individual" (in the words of one of psychology's earliest advocates).

There are haunting questions implied that are unanswered or tantalizingly evaded by Herman--for example, the real effectiveness of psychology in accomplishing its grandiose agenda, and the extent to which psychology curried favor with policymakers and power brokers by saying what they wanted to hear. A weakness of the book is its failure to provide adequate exposition of the content of the numerous projects and initiatives it discusses; for example, the actual methodology of Project Camelot is never described.

This book could add fuel to the antipsychology movement in the conservative church, especially its juicy quotes documenting the "salvific" vision of some of psychology's most ardent proponents. But like historical analyses of the power politics of the American Medical Association over the last century, The Romance of American Psychology begs the question of whether some substantive good has not come out of psychology's maneuvering for power.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS AND CULTURE Review


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