Key Things to Know Before You Allow Arm-Chair Psychology
Decide Something About Others
We love sitting! Not only that, but we love to find new and improved ways to sit. We have folding chairs, camp chairs, reclining chairs, bar stools, and more. We spend hundreds of dollars on the best ergonomic desk chairs for our office and the finest Lazy-Boy recliners for our homes. When it comes to sitting, there are so many ways we can do it—and do a lot of it.
Think about it! You probably have a place where you sit that you fondly think of and even name as your favorite chair! In my family (as I am sure in yours), we even claim our favorite spots and name them as “ours.” Many an argument has started with “Hey! You’re sitting in my seat!” At school, at work, and at church, we often stake out a preferred location and that is where we always sit! We will get stressed if someone violates our claim on that spot! We hate it!
Some of have even asserted that we are getting ruined by too much sitting. Novelist Leonard Cohen, in an imagined conversation about sunbathers on the beach, quipped in his novel, The Favorite Game, “What were the bodies on the beach like? Ugly and white and ruined by (sitting in) offices.” Some have taken to calling sitting the new smoking—it is damaging to our health! Too much sitting in our offices and homes seems to be making us ugly and unhealthy!
While I am not qualified to talk about the physical effects of sitting and what chairs are the best or worst for the body, I do want to talk about another chair we all too often sit in. I am concerned about the ugly and unhealthy things that happen when we take a seat in this one particular chair. I am concerned about how quick we are to sit in the psychological arm chair.
Armchair psychology has been described as “a person who gives advice for mental disorders, emotional disorders, or any other mental illness and has no known background knowledge of psychology.” In short, a person sits in their chair and comments or offers advice on a topic without any credentials, training, or skills. Truth be told, even the trained psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, marriage and family therapist, or other professional is likely guilty of arm-chair psychology. Some have said, all of us do it!
This practice is causing harm to individuals, marriages, and families! Sitting in this chair and practicing arm-chair psychology and diagnosis is destructive and is making us ugly. It is ruining so much!
You cannot turn on the TV or follow a news story in on the internet these days without seeing the disturbing practice of arm-chair psychology. A mother loses track of her child and a gorilla is shot and suddenly everyone is an expert on the situation. In moments, we had the mother diagnosed as unfit, neglectful, and irresponsible. Even more, the workers at the zoo were labeled as harsh, overreacting, and more. As we dig deeper, we see it go irresponsibly further. We are quick to diagnose things we know nothing about.
In this world of instant news, scrapping for ratings, and trying to create the next thing to “break the internet,” we have become judgmental, insensitive, and destructive. This practice is not without consequences. We are one tweet away from diagnosing someone with a mental illness. We are one well-meaning Face Book post away from what we think is truly understanding what is going on with our partner, our children, or boss and more. Every day, we see and hear examples of someone cashing in on labeling and diagnosing someone else.
Is it acceptable for any of us to diagnose another person outside of the professional’s office? Is it appropriate to ask Siri or Google some symptoms and experiences and apply them to another person? Is it ever okay to label someone else with a diagnosis (and even prognosis) without it being by a properly trained and qualified professional in an authorized and appropriate location? Ethical practices seem to indicate clearly that it is not!
Medical and mental health practitioners are under what has come to be called “The Goldwater Rule.” This rule came about in the 1960’s when then-Presidential Candidate, Barry Goldwater, had his mental fitness for the presidency evaluated in the public media. The Goldwater Rule states that professionals are forbidden from commenting or evaluating another individual without having conducted an actual assessment. Even more, supposing a proper evaluation was conducted, the Goldwater principle requires the professional to obtain consent before making any public statements about the individual. It appears that all the disciplines address this in their official codes of ethical conduct under the sections of assessment and evaluation.
What does this mean for all of us?
For the untrained, non-professional, it means being more careful about how we use what we can so easily learn on the internet and through public media. First, we should resist the temptation to attach labels to those we know and love (or hate!). While we may think information may fit, we are not qualified to assess another person—including spouse and family. We are not objective, trained, or able to clearly assess and diagnose. It is not such a straightforward process as reading the latest Buzz Feed or a Pinterest Post. We need to carefully apply knowledge that we gain. A little information can be a dangerous thing.
Second, we need to be wary of anyone who purports to diagnose someone in the media. Whether it be our least favorite presidential candidate, a disgraced celebrity, or other characters in our newsfeed, we need to question any assessment made about anyone. Some mental health professionals are cashing in on diagnosing a celebrity they have never met, without consent, and with payment from a third-party. This can hardly be seen as appropriate or objective. In fact, it is clearly wrong.
Finally, we need to resist the temptation to look for certainty in diagnosing others. When we search out and label others without the background and skill to do so, we can cause irreparable harm. While correct and careful diagnosis is essential in so many cases (even I use it to help me in my work), it is only acceptable in the proper setting, with the proper training. We should never seek certainty through an inaccurate and uncertain means. None of us would allow a lay person to diagnose and treat our diabetes or heart condition. Yet, we routinely listen to and rely upon the diagnosis of untrained, unlicensed, unqualified, and unethical practitioners in our home and family. Sometimes it is us. Certainty comes not from information, but information accurately applied.
What does this mean for professionals who are qualified to assess and diagnose?
I am deeply troubled by a trend I see in my professional work. First, more and more individuals are coming to treatment having already diagnosed themselves. While I am a firm believer in education and knowing all you can about your condition, I worry about people taking a subset of symptoms and concluding what is wrong. It is just dangerous. A website does not know how to apply information. There is overlap in so many conditions. We should be careful how we use the information we obtain.
Second, many are coming into treatment because a family member labeled them with a diagnosis. I see this often with children and spouses that are brought in. A loved one has gone online and decided what they are and now they believe that is what they are. They have yet to be professionally assessed, but the loved one has already decided what is going on. Parents, spouses, and close family members are clearly not objective and not able to make that diagnosis. While we may have some confidence in the seemingly clear bullet points we can find on a website that points to diagnosis, we most certainly cannot trust non-objective and unqualified assessments. Family members should be careful to never diagnose a family member.
Finally, professionals in the medical and mental health fields need to be quite careful in consultations with prospective and current clients. It can be so simple on a phone call with a potential new client to craft a diagnosis right there on the phone. For instance, suppose a wife calls in and states she wants help in her marriage. It may seem easy after she describes her husband’s selfishness to say something like, “Oh, he sounds like a narcissist.” Such a comment may boost your credibility with the client and join with her. However, what just happened is so very wrong. In an effort to support a consultee, the diagnosis was just made on a person the professional has never met and has only learned about from an un-objective third party. This happens all too often on the phone. It also happens in therapy sessions with individual clients. Unthinking and casual diagnosis can cause irreparable harm.