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This lesson examines what is meant by the term ‘pseudo-psychology,’ and gives examples to illustrate how pseudo-psychology differs from scientifically based psychology. Afterwards, take the quiz to test what you learned.

What Is Pseudo-Psychology?

The term ‘pseudo’ means ‘false’ or ‘pretend.’ Pseudo-psychology, therefore, refers to a psychological practice that is false or unfounded. The science of psychology is built on rigorous principles such as research, evidence and testable ideas. Any discipline that is treated like a science but does not meet these standards can be called pseudoscience.

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Many of the practices that fall under the umbrella of pseudo-psychology are quite popular and enjoy a wide following of believers. Let’s explore a couple of examples to get a better idea of the difference between pseudo-psychology and scientific psychology.

Examples of Pseudo-Psychology

Sarah is getting ready to graduate from college, and she has several options for what to do next.

She could move to a far away city for graduate school, stay in her current town to live with her boyfriend or take a year to travel on her own. Because these choices are so different from each other and carry such high stakes, Sarah has found herself quite anxious and confused. She has been talking to friends about the problem.One of Sarah’s closest friends, Margaret, urges her to have her astrological chart read. In astrology, which dates back many thousands of years, the positions of celestial bodies are said to exert influence on the Earth and people’s personalities. Margaret explains that a good astrologer can use information about when and where Sarah was born and compare it to the positions of stars and planets at that time.

This would give Sarah much more information than just her astrological ‘sign.’ Margaret tells Sarah about how an astrological reading helped her understand herself better and decide what she should major in in college.

People have been turning to astrologists for longer than there have been newspapers
advertisement for astrology

Sarah is uncertain, since she’s never heard any convincing explanation about how astrology works. So, Margaret suggests another idea: she could get a psychic reading. A psychic, Margaret says, is able to tune into a person’s energy and see that person’s past, present and future. Margaret explains that a true psychic knows what we should do in the present because he or she can see what is supposed to happen in the future.

Margaret mentions dozens of stories she’s read online about psychics knowing things they should have no way of knowing and of helping people make choices. In fact, Margaret points out that her own mother decided to marry her father because of a psychic’s advice.

A storefront window advertises psychic readings to passersby
sign for psychic readings

Sarah really respects her friend Margaret, who is a wise and thoughtful woman. While Sarah considers seeing an astrologist or a psychic, she has so much trouble sleeping that she makes an appointment with her doctor. The doctor urges her to see a psychologist to discuss her concerns and also prescribes her a short-term medication to help her sleep.

Pseudo-psychology vs. The Real Thing

Both astrology and psychic readings fall into the category of pseudo-psychology, because they do not follow the guidelines of the scientific method. There are several ways that they fail to do this:

  • Many of their claims are general in nature and cannot be tested. People who benefit from these practices are interpreting the conclusions broadly.

  • There is usually no hard evidence supporting these methods. Most pseudo-psychological practices can only point to anecdotal evidence that they do what they say they do.
  • The practices are not held up to critical reviews by peers, such as they would be in a scientific community. As such, there is no research that can advance them over time.

Sarah’s use of medication for her sleep problems is very different.

Many scientific studies have shown that the medicine does what it says it will do. Other studies show that getting enough sleep helps people function better.When Sarah visits a licensed psychologist, she is getting support from someone whose methods have been tested and been subject to ongoing critical review. She can trust that the psychologist is providing care that has research behind it.Sarah also decides to see both an astrologist and a psychic.

Though their suggestions are broad and open to interpretation, she appreciates the help.Finally, Sarah begins sleeping better and feels calmer. She decides that she is more comfortable with the scientifically valid help that she gets from her psychologist and continues to attend sessions. Through these discussions, she learns ways to relax and clear her mind so she can evaluate her options. In the end, she decides to go to graduate school to study psychology.

Lesson Summary

Pseudo-psychology encompasses practices that may be very helpful and interesting to people, but they do not hold up to scientific principles.

We looked at the examples of astrology, which holds that the positions of celestial bodies are said to exert influence on the Earth and people’s personalities, and psychic readings, which involves tuning into a person’s energy and see their past, present and future. These methods are not testable, carry no hard evidence of efficacy and do not stand up to critical review. Some people are more comfortable relying on psychological methods based on science, since they can be sure that the help they are getting has been rigorously tested, researched and reviewed.

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