The science of psychoanalysis

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Lacewing, Michael (2018)

For psychoanalysis to qualify as scientific psychology, it needs to generate data that can evidentially support theoretical claims. Its methods, therefore, must at least be capable of correcting for biases produced in the data during the process of generating it; and we must be able to use the data in sound forms of inference and reasoning. Critics of psychoanalysis have claimed that it fails on both counts, and thus whatever warrant its claims have derive from other sources. In this article, I discuss three key objections, and then consider their implications together with recent developments in the generation and testing of psychoanalytic theory. The first and most famous is that of ‘suggestion’; if it sticks, clinical data may be biased in a way that renders all inferences from them unreliable. The second, sometimes confused with the first, questions whether the data are or can be used to provide genuine tests of theoretical hypotheses. The third will require us to consider the question of how psychology can reliably infer motives from behavior. I argue that the clinical method of psychoanalysis is defensible against these objections in relation to the psychodynamic model of mind, but not wider metapsychological and etiological claims. Nevertheless, the claim of psychoanalysis to be a science would be strengthened if awareness of the methodological pitfalls and means to avoid them, and alternative theories and their evidence bases, were more widespread. This may require changes in the education of psychoanalysts.
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