Misinformation Thrives on a Misunderstood Science

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Trigger Warning: Discussions of Mental Illness and Brief Mention of Trauma

With the popularisation and de-stigmatisation of mental health, psychology has entered the zeitgeist in a way that it never had before. Words such as ‘trauma’, ‘gaslighting’ and ‘toxic’ have become buzzwords, often misused. With the rise of social media as an educational tool, psychology is one of many fields swept up by the sometimes dangerous trend of ‘self-educating’ online. Everything from Instagram therapists and healers, to TikToks about personal experiences with therapy, to inevitable clickbait headlines about mental illness, have made room for interpretation – and subsequently, misinformation. The unregulated conversations that are being consumed by a global audience threatens not just their mental health, but the field of psychology.

“So you studied psychology. What am I thinking about right now?” I get asked, as if it’s fortune-telling. “You can’t generalise psychology,” an Engineering student told me in my first year of university. “There is no way to predict everyone’s behaviour based on a small sample.” It is true that psychology has an issue with sampling, but it does not “predict behaviour”. It is a mass misconception that psychologists are still reading the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, analysing people’s dreams, making sweeping statements about their innermost thoughts, and of course, examining how every action stems from a traumatic childhood, all to guess someone’s behaviour.

This could not be further from the truth. Psychology aims to understand the human mind by gathering empirical evidence about why somebody may exhibit certain behaviours, or what trends exist across human cognition. There is no guarantee that a singular individual will act according to psychological research patterns, but when they don’t, the purpose of the discipline is to ask why. 

The perceptions and nuances of psychology make it uniquely at risk of misinformation. It uses scientific methods and empirical evidence, but also relies on small samples, observations, and generalizations. A psychologist not only observes phenomena, they must also make interpretations. How do you argue then that it is an objective science? Interpretation necessitates years of experience in one’s chosen field and is always up for debate. Contrary to popular belief though, psychologists use very rigorous, statistical testing before publishing research. The statistical probability that an effect is due to pattern, and not chance has to be under 0.05% for research to be credible. One of the first things I learned when studying psychology is that we are never allowed to use the word “prove”. You cannot prove anything, you can simply provide evidence for and against it. 

When popular concepts that are neither credible nor accurate are globally platformed as facts, a divide forms, with Instagram ‘healers’ on one end of the spectrum and people who believe psychology is a pseudoscience on the other extreme. As a result, practitioners who use scientific methods are left out – the restrictions of social media and magazine titles mean that complex, nuanced topics are immediately flattened into a headline or an infographic that users dedicate less than seconds to digest. Algorithms exacerbate this by favouring instant shock value over analytical discussions, encouraging people to dramatise their posts for the sake of engagement and virality.

A greater concern is when sensitive buzzwords are used for clickbait and engagement. Dr Laura McNally debunks popular myths in psychology (ironically, she too has an instagram page), and particularly how the overuse of ‘trauma’ as a term for any form of distress* can have acute mental health implications for everyone involved. This is dangerous because human memory is reconstructive, and telling someone to look out for signs of trauma in their childhood can cause them to misattribute the label of ‘trauma’ to normal levels of adversity.  She concludes: “Non-traumatized people may require additional psychological support to sort through their past experiences that are now viewed through the lens of trauma, while survivors of actual trauma are expected to absorb the costs of seeing their adversity used as a marketing tool.”

Of course, the demand for pop psychology and the content-creator market that has been built around it, is a direct consequence of a society that does not provide accessible mental health services. This irony is heightened when some of these content creators raise awareness around trauma for the sake of selling a service. Yet even today, when it is estimated that 1 in 6 adults experience a ‘common mental disorder’ every week ** psychology is still not taken seriously as a science. 

The reason why this is important is that the taboo around mental health is directly linked to the field’s credibility – we can only have valid mental health services when we recognise the value of studying the human condition. Denying one is denying both, and as a result psychology is underfunded, rigorous and widespread research cannot be conducted, and people cannot get the help they need either because it is not available or there is no data on how to help them. And currently, the solution as it stands – social media – perpetuates the problem of underfunding. 

As a psychology student, I understand how the perception of  psychology not being a “real science” began. Everyone has an opinion on psychology and loves to talk about it, because psychological concepts can be found everywhere, from politics to interpersonal relationships. However, these conversations mean that complex information is usually in the hands of individuals – especially social media-savvy ones – who are not familiar with the nuance needed when discussing complex psychological issues. While other disciplines also suffer the consequences of misinformation online, none are as underfunded as mental health services – this is what makes misinformation around psychology so much more dangerous.

The solution is not to stop discussing mental health –  rather it is personal responsibility. When you come across psychological advice online, remember:  

  1. Whatever you see on social media should be a starting point, not an end point. Encourage critical discussion of information you see, rather than immediately believing it. 
  2. Non-experts should be allowed to share their opinions, but people consuming that content must be aware of the information’s source, and the difference between fact and opinion. 
  3. If you feel emotionally triggered by certain words, look inwards, but remember that negative emotions and adversity are part of the human experience. There is a line between being kind to yourself and validating your own emotions versus assigning labels such as ‘trauma’ or ‘toxic’ to a situation – especially when others are involved.
  4. If you plan on reposting something, fact check it against scientific reports to help support a healthy information cycle. 
  5. Most importantly, it is okay to not know – the world not expecting you to be an expert. Keep educating yourself, but don’t pressure yourself to make it public.

Psychology is still in its infancy – the field is only 100 years young. Our scientific, regulated approach to psychology is even younger, given the moral dubiousness and lack of ethical guidelines in earlier research. Said research generated interesting data and shock-worthy titles that are still quoted today, however it was also gathered from a place of extreme bias. One thing is certain: if we want mental health services to improve, we must continue to trust and invest in psychology. If not, the cycle of taboo and misinformation will continue. 

*There is a big misconception that ‘trauma’ can only refer to situations of extreme physical danger (such as war or violence). While I advocate for correct use of this word, I am not implying that individuals cannot judge situations that were traumatic to them. 

** Please note that these statistics were gathered before the pandemic, and that reported cases are often lower than actual cases due to the amount of people seeking help. 

Article by Kelly Samuel

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