He’s just not that into psychology

Abstract: Psychology, it seems, has been hijacked by TV writers of female angst…

Maybe it says something about the male human condition that when I die I want to do so in a blaze of glory, saving a toddler from an oncoming train, wrestling a Great White shark, or attempting to defuse a bomb with nothing but a pair of tweezers and nerves of steel. I didn’t think it would be clutching my chest whilst crouched next to the psychology section in Exclusive Books. But it seems I have the female human condition to thank for that.

When I left school I chose to study clinical psychology because it sounded cool. It was also, I believed at the time, a great place to meet girls. Most of my schoolmates had chosen to study science or engineering, and I certainly didn’t fancy my university career attending classes packed to the rafters with more testosterone. I also have to admit that before I started, I had no real knowledge of what psychology was; I just thought it was something to do with what went on the head.

The first lesson’s lecturer put me on track, “Psychology is the scientific study of the human mind, and, especially human behaviour.” It was an area of study grounded in scientific method. I realised at that stage it was something serious; and I was right. From that moment on I was immersed in scientific models of the various components of psychology, research methodology, neuroscience, and, eventually, into my main area of interest – clinical assessment and therapy.

It has served me well in my career as a broadcaster, writer and, more lately, science journalist; that is until about two weeks ago.

I was ambling through a local Exclusive Books, relishing the calm embrace of an environment of quiet contemplation and literary knowledge, when I came across the psychology section. I bent down to examine some of the books, and was suddenly gripped with utter shock and disbelief. There, displayed quite prominently, were copies of ‘The Secret’ – the highly successful work of pure fiction from the imagination of Rhonda Byrne – the producer of a particularly trivial Australian reality TV series called ‘Marry Me’.

I didn’t need to mentally question why it was there – under ‘Psychology’; the stabbing pains in my chest, the feeling of numbness in my left arm, and the strange giddy sensation that washed over me were doing that for me. Somehow I managed to stumble out of the shop, find a chair and sit down. After composing myself I decided that when I felt up to it I would return and interview the staff.

After a while, logical deduction reasoned that no knowledgeable person would ever place such fiction under anything remotely science-based, and that it was either a simple mistake or the actions of a radical ‘new thought’ activist, attempting to give merit to pseudoscience. It certainly couldn’t be the policy of a reputable bookseller.

Or so I thought. This week I ventured into a different Exclusive Books and went to their ‘Psychology’ section; and what I found both perturbed and astounded me. I’ll present some of the titles, and let you be the judge of whether or not they fall under the discipline of scientific study.

Searching just the first half of the alphabetised stacking, I found the following: ‘Why Men Love Bitches’ by Sherry Argov; ‘Doormat Nor Diva Be’, by Annie Ashdown; ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’, by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo; ‘First Catch Your Husband’, by Sarah Bridge; ‘French Women Don’t Sleep Alone’, by Jamie Cat Callan; ‘Toxic Men’, by Lillian Glass; ‘Finding Mr Right’, by Humfrey Hunter; and ‘Backwards in High Heels’, by Tania Kindersley and Sarah Vine. I stopped after ‘K’ because my chest started tightening again.

In case you’re wondering, not one of the authors is a psychologist. Neither is there amongst them a single science journalist specialising in psychology. Most of them are writers. In fact, Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo were writers on the hit US romantic comedy TV series ‘Sex and the City’. Of those who aren’t professional writers, Lillian Glass is a self-proclaimed ‘body language expert’, and Annie Ashdown is something called a ‘life coach’; either way, certainly not qualified to speak on a respected discipline grounded in scientific theory.

I can imagine the argument that the titles be considered ‘psychology’ is to do with that they focus on what, apparently, dominates the female mind. It’s a dubious connection at best. If that is the logic then surely books on cannibalism should be catalogued under ‘Cookery’; books on mining should be under ‘Gardening’, because, after all, digging is involved; those interested in whether a Virgo should marry a Sagittarian, should search ‘Astronomy’; and if I want to know more about the characters of gnomes and fairies, I should look under ‘Biographies’.

There is no denying that such books have value for those interested in the challenges and vagaries of human relationships, and perhaps that’s what they should be catalogued under – ‘Relationships’; but certainly not ‘Psychology’.

The study of psychology, like biology and physiology, is a science; and as a section in a leading bookstore should, therefore, be concerned solely with reference works on matters such as cognitive development, psychoanalysis, behaviour disorders, and social psychology; as well as biographies of some of the greatest minds in the field, such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Hans Eysenck.

It should certainly not be a repository of the highly profitable imaginations of TV writers capitalising on a created and fomented female angst around issues of how to get a man into bed and make him love you.

Originally published in the Sunday Tribune, 15 July 2012