Thursday, August 22, 2019

Irrational Beliefs vs. Defense Mechanisms

The current predominant school of thought in psychotherapy is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which replaced the previously dominant school of thought, psychoanalysis (PA). There are of course, other psychotherapy schools - over 200 of them as a matter of fact. Why? Well, as I described in a another post, because of three facts: 

1. The brain is so complicated. 
2. We can’t read minds. 
3. People lie not only to others but themselves. 

Psychology is still a very young science. 

It is in a phase of development that the scientific philosopher Thomas Kuhn, in his classic book The Structure ofScientific Revolutions, called the “pre-paradigmatic stage.” This means that in young sciences in which not a lot is known, a lot of theories compete with one another for dominance until the evidence accumulates to the point in which one model starts to predominate. After a while, some problems with that model arise, which then leads to the development of new models. For instance, although Newtonian physics still works for large objects, it falls apart at the subatomic level, where it has been replaced with quantum physics.

Understanding that this is the way science works has not stopped a lot of psychologists and other therapists from loudly claiming that their model is the only correct one. The psychoanalysts used to do it. When anyone dared to question the theory, they were told they needed to get into psychoanalysis to find out why they were resistant to its ideas. Three logical fallacies in a single sentence! (For those readers interested in logic: ad hominem, non-sequitur, and begging the question. If you want more detail, e-mail me back channel).

Now the CBT people are playing this same “We are right and you are wrong; we are superior to everyone else” game. Historically, the game went down this way: Psychoanalysis attributed “neurotic” behavior (showing signs of mental disturbance but is not psychotic) to conflicts in individuals between their biological urges – their id – with their values that were internalized from their upbringing – the superego or conscience. CBT people said this was all a buncy of nonsense, and went on to cherry pick certain parts of PA theory that were obviously incorrect to throw hot water on all of the PA ideas – which is another one of the tricks that indicate “groupthink” is operating instead of “facts and logic.”

Which brings us to what is postulated to be the cause of neurotic behavior which cognitive therapists champion (behaviorism – rewards and punishments - seeming to have almost disappeared from the therapy arsenal of a lot of CBT therapists). Starting with Albert Ellis and latter with Aaron Beck, they attributed it to “irrational thoughts.” Someone thinking, for example, that they simply must be this or that, or torturing themselves by imagining unlikely worst-case scenario outcomes which would then prevent them from even trying something new that they might just excel at.

So who’s right? Well, both of them. But don’t tell that to any of them on either side. I once mentioned what I am about to say to Albert Ellis at a psychotherapy conference, and he practically laughed in my face in front of a whole audience. Anyway, the key is something that authors Jonathan Haidt and Gregg Henriques have discovered: Logic in human beings did not evolve to arrive at truths. It evolved to justify group norms. 

Groups have to stick together to survive; they can’t be constantly arguing about everyone’s individual ideas about what to do when they are, say, attacked by another tribe. So group cohesion has survival value – at least it used to. It still does to a significant extent, but with the advent of technology and other modern developments, not nearly as much as it once did.

Before I understood this, I was bothered by something I called the “problem of stupidity.” Why were people torturing themselves with these thoughts which are obviously and transparently stupid or illogical.  Even seemingly highly intelligent people do this all the time. Are we all really that dull-witted? I didn’t think so, so I asked myself why these people are seemingly acting as if they are that dumb.

See if you can spot the irrational idea in a recent letter (8/14/19) to advice columnist Dear Abby:

8/14/19. DEAR ABBY: I've been with my boyfriend, "Rocko," for two years, but in the late months of last year… He would disappear for days at a time, block my phone number and ignore me. I was sure he was seeing another woman or taking drugs because he is an ex-addict. Two months ago, he was arrested. I was right -- Rocko was on drugs and had been hanging out with another woman… I hate myself, and I can't stop wondering why I wasn't enough.

See it? Her boyfriend is an addict and a cheater, yet this woman wonders why SHE wasn’t enough for him! It wasn’t his glaring and obvious faults and limitations: his problems were all due to her and her being inadequate to meet all of his needs. How nice of her to blame his irresponsible behavior on herself rather than hold him accountable!

If we assume that she is not stupid enough to think this is a logical conclusion, then we have to ask ourselves why on earth she doesn’t just dump the S.O.B. and find someone who will treat her right. I answered this by looking at the end result – what I call the net effect  - of her continuing to think this way. It’s obvious. She ends up staying with a man who cheats and uses drugs. So this would have to be her intent.

(But why on earth should she want to do that? The answer to that question in my opinion lies in her playing some sort of dysfunctional role in her family of origin which requires her to do this in order to stabilize her unstable parents. Explaining that part is beyond the scope of this post, but various roles are discussed in detail in previous ones).

So the irrational belief generates anxiety which then prevents her from acting in her own best interests. This allows her to continue to sacrifice herself for her kin group – a process known in evolutionary biology as kin selection. Guess what? The defense mechanisms of PA accomplish the very same thing. Analysts think that defense mechanisms are meant to control anxiety, but as a fellow blogger known as The Last Psychiatrist once said, if that were true, they sure do a lousy job of doing that. No; in fact, they too are meant to either create anxiety or do other things which lead people to avoid doing something that might conflict with their role in their family.

If for example your role in your family is to be a scapegoat so that your frustrated father can blame you for all of his problems and not have to feel bad about himself, his behavior is bound to make you angry. Your anger makes it hard for you to maintain the scapegoat role. You may eat (or repress) a certain amount of it, but some of it must be discharged somehow. So you come home and kick the dog (the defense mechanism of displacement).

Defense mechanisms or irrational thoughts? You say tow-may-tow, and I say tow-mah-tow. They are the same damn thing!


  1. You’ve addressed PA and CBT, what about TA and the dynamic victim/perpetrator/enabler model? And why do we need to discount one in favor of another. Working in tandem perhaps an ah ha may become apparent. Perhaps, using the Dear Abbey letter as an example, the simplest answer is the easiest, or Occam’s Razor. I can change the other person or I can change myself, but to change myself I need to admit that something needs changing. I’ll change you instead and avoid the dissonance. When is the last time you saw a FB argument end with someone saying, “Oh yes, you’re right and I’m wrong. I need to change. Thanks for making things so clear”. How about never.

    John Goodman

    1. Hi John,

      Actually, the TA games are also played in order to keep oneself (and other co-conspirators) in the same (bad) position. That's kinda the point. People are afraid of certain changes precisely because, if they changed, their family would become less stable over the short run, and they are willing to sacrifice their own best interests in order to avoid that. The dissonance in changing would come because they would no longer seem to "fit in" anywhere, not because they'd have to admit they were wrong.