When Prince Harry talked about EMDR, my heart sank. People talking about
mental health is usually good, but when they promote quackery, they do a lot of
But EMDR is reckoned okay by organisations like the NHS and more, you
might say. Yes, and the lobotomy was considered brilliant and the doctor who
pioneered it was awarded a Nobel prize.
So, am I trashing the profession? No, I’m using this to explain some of
the issues you should be aware of so that you can make more informed decisions.
We are constantly learning more about our world and
ourselves. As a result, ideas and theories are accepted one year and discarded
The lobotomy is an extreme example that I used to get your attention but
it’s not strictly speaking in the field, so let’s take something more
appropriate and accessible.
About 100 years ago, Alfred Adler proposed that personality is linked to
birth order. Being the eldest, youngest and middle child shapes who you are, he
For some years, his theory was accepted. A load of people wrote papers
and books supporting the idea.
However, evidence disproving the theory also emerged. Lots and lots of
evidence. Loads of it. As it piled up, Adler’s theory became less popular and
Today you’ll not find many psychologists who believe that birth order
influences personality. But that doesn’t mean it’s vanished. There are people
who hang on to the idea.
The question is why. I think there are several answers.
1. Understanding scientific method takes training. Critically evaluating
a quantitative psychology experiment, for example, includes knowing how sample
selection, methods of statistical analysis and other elements affect the work.
On top of that, you need to relate the findings into context of other work.
It is a challenge. Although all practitioners are trained, it is
generally the academics who are more practiced at this. And even many of the
academics struggle to evaluate and keep up with new work.
Also, as psychology is a massive field, professionals tend to work in
niche areas. Me, I read papers devoted to depression, anxiety and abuse but I’m
hopelessly lost reading papers on other subjects. Reading out of your field is
like a marathon runner having a go at sailing.
2. Practically speaking, a new theory is always controversial. Informed
evaluation takes a lot of time.
It typically takes years for a new idea to be thoroughly examined.
During this time, people become attached to the work. This is quite
normal. When you've spent months or years on a subject, it's very hard to say,
"Well that sucks. On with the next idea."
So ideas hang around a lot longer than they should within the
3. The public also become invested. Theories need to be tested, and it’s
rare for a new approach not to help someone, somewhere. So when professionals
announce that their last idea hasn’t panned out, there is public
As explaining why a theory or approach is problematic or even bogus can
be difficult, and "because I said so" doesn't go over well, a lot of
us don't speak up.
Maybe we should, but there’s another problem...
4. Crooks, cons and folk intent on making money and gaining influence
work very hard to market nonsense.
They typically offer absolute certainty (i.e.,
a sure fix) with a touch of scientific sounding hocus pocus. Very often, they
set up schools and associations with themselves as chief guru. Scammers are
really hot at monetising!
When consumers are faced with a choice between, "There are few
certainties and we're learning constantly but I'll do my best for you" and
"Here's a sure-fire fix, cross my palm with silver for total satisfaction
guaranteed, you can trust me, honest" it's terribly tempting to settle for
Because we desire certainty in an uncertain world.
5. When professionals see consumers falling for scams, outdated theories
and so on, they want to speak out. However, the quacks who have invested in the
scheme scream blue murder. Very often, the quiet words of sense are drowned out
by those who yell loudest.
Whistle-blowers tend to be punished and mental health professionals are
human. We get tired of being attacked by mobs demanding we respect quack
theories. Because of public pressure, now even hospitals have "alternative
therapy" and "complimentary therapy."
Below is a list of therapies that professionals believe are harmful or
bogus (from a journal paper published in 2008) It’s an eye opener. You'll see
that EMDR has been on the nonsense list since 1996.
6. Finally, as nonsense is easier to sell and takes less effort, some
mental health professionals give in and join the dark side. Doctors too. I know
of several psychologists and two local doctors who have left proper practice in
order to sell quackery.
Frankly, sometimes I think I should increase my fees tenfold and sell
neurolinguistic programming (NLP), EMDR and dream interpretation. But I just
couldn't face myself in the mirror. It's a real shame because my crazy cat lady
image would fit in really well.
In short, it takes an awful lot of work to tell what's what. And as
'truth' is temporary and evolving, there is a lot of controversy.
As for EMDR, read the articles below that dig into it. They explain
simply what’s wrong with it
Having said all this, if you want to go for it, feel free. You're an
adult and you make your own decisions. Thankfully, EMDR won't hurt you. Except
that it tends to cost a lot more than plain old exposure that does the job and
without the hocus pocus.
So, there's my take on the subject. If you want to fight, that's cool.
I'm available Tuesday afternoon.
If you have questions or comments, say so below or PM me. I’ll try to
answer and if I don’t know, I will ask others to contribute. Do note that they
may be shy because of point 5.
Here's a list of topics I’ve seen this week that I put firmly in the
nonsense and avoid section. I'll add some web sites and papers at the end of
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
Law of attraction
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)
Some good resources
An easy-to-read paper, Psychological Treatments to Avoid, by Dr. Timothy C. Thomason, Northern Arizona University
Image courtesy of Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Index of Questionable Treatments from Quackwatch
A nice easy paper on some of the common research study problems Why Most Published Research Findings Are False
It's free, easy to read, and there's a chapter on avoiding scammers
Why EMDR is bogus