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The Pop Psychology Pulp Industry

I will be discussing modern pop psychology’s infection of science. As a preamble, I refer to an April 27, 2009 expose on youtube, which was conducted at the University of Richmond (Virginia), featuring psychology professors Scott T. Allison, Ph.D. and Timothy L. Hulsey, Ph.D. Concerning psychotherapy and the application of psychology, Hulsey said, “Freud…offered self-awareness…of our unconscious as the path to freedom…[which] doesn’t sit very well these days. People don't want it to be like that. You can…in…this era of Oprah induced psychobabble and Doctor Phil’s phony fixes…almost hear Freud…saying: ‘You’d like this to be easy.’ You wanna swallow a pill, to confess on television, and be cured before the last commercial, but you don't even know what your disease is.”

What did Hulsey mean by “psychobabble”? Winn (1980), says it was the term Rosen (1975), inaugurated to describe the argot of the personal growth movement (evolving from humanistic psychology, which abandoned the position that unconscious forces or environmental conditioning shaped behavior). Therein, patients used their free will to “explore” their human potential, to surmount conflict and anxiety, through creative dreaming, meditation, howling, screaming, etc., at retreats run in a quasi-professional atmosphere. Winn affirms that psychobabble “…has developed…an entire language of its own…incomprehensible to outsiders…and, according to Rosen, a…smokescreen even to insiders. Jargon such as ‘exhaling negative emotions’…‘in a bad space’, and ‘living out scripts’ are no more communicative of emotion than any expressions we’ve…used before” (p. 226). Rosen, explains that “One of psychobabble’s problems is…interpreting the individual’s history…as the result of conscious choices; in this, psychobabble has fed…on the tendency toward sloganeering…at the expense of a deeper, psychodynamic critique” (p. 19).

Psychobabble typified the jargon on the Oprah television show, wherein Oprah Winfrey, B.A., communications (earned 13 years after dropping out of university), though never presenting herself as a psychologist, discussed human problems. On her last show she emitted the sublimely Oprah-esque “Please take responsibility for the energy you bring into this space” and “You alone are enough.” “The Oprah Effect”--influencing the public, businesses and consumers--is huge.

Former consultant on Winfrey’s show, Phil McGraw, Ph.D., espouses a “phony fixes” commercialized pop psychology, but admits that “…his…work does not involve the practice of psychology” and that he had "…retired from psychology" [TODAY ]. Therefore, he requires no license to entertain on television and so his more simplistic approach deals with issues in sound bites eschewing context or history. For instance, in 2006 he featured, on his Dr. Phil program, the film series Bumfights— which showcased homeless men, given money or alcohol to perform zany stunts. Coincidentally, its architect, Ty Beeson, physically resembled McGraw; the latter curtailing the episode’s taping after seeing a film bite from the series he found “disgusting.” Historically, Bumfights could exemplify the irrational, apathetic times we are living in, therefore, should not any psychologist make an effort to objectively understand such, albeit distasteful, phenomena? Ratings are important and perhaps McGraw wanted to absolve himself for an imprudent production decision.

The psychobabbling messenger can be seen as synonymous with media itself. McLuhan (1964), stated that “…’the medium is the message’…[so] technology…creates a…new human environment. Environments are not passive wrappings but active processes” (p. viii). Therefore and moreover , as Rutledge (2010), declares, “…it isn’t surprising when media psychology is perceived as a psychologist appearing in the media, such as the…infamous Dr. Phil” (p. 2). Essentially, viewers don’t just appreciate the controversial content of a Dr. Phil episode, but the way it is presented. After all, what McGraw or Winfrey present on their respective shows must be veracious because it is on the omniscient medium of television—or so they think. Subsequently, this leads people into believing what psychology is not about.

So then, what is psychology about? Stanovich (1989), says psychology: investigates solvable, empirical problems; presents functionally defined theories, which develop as evidence amasses and are falsifiable to explain an acquired, slow gathering of data; does this through diverse methodologies, whose conclusions are mainly gleaned following numerous experiments; possesses eventual behavioral fundamentals which are nearly always relationships that are probabilistic; and has theories and data that are accepted after being published in peer reviewed scientific journals. I have never seen these principles realized in the self-help writings of Winfrey or McGraw—regardless of the fact that they never acknowledged following said principles. They have written nothing cited in bibliographies or references of psychology books. Stanovich—himself, well cited--exclaims, “Most ‘media’ psychologists…have no standing among researchers in their field” (p. 155). He says America’s real psychologists have not articulated their findings in ordinary language to the lay public, whom, they worry, might misuse it.

In conclusion, the amount of scientific information in Oprah’s and Dr. Phil’s pop psychology pulp TV shows and books is scant. That is because psychology and psychotherapy were never designed for psychobabble entertainment purposes, where we merely “confess” a negative feeling, but are meant to explain why we think in the ways we do and to know and be “cured” of our “disease.” Therefore, embrace “self-awareness” by visiting your university library or bookstore, to find substantive works of scientific psychology.


Dr. Phil. (August 14, 2013) URL=

Hulsey, T.L. (2009). “Core Colloquy: Freud in the 21st Century: Psychoanalysis and/or Psychology.” URL=

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Rosen, R.D. (1975). Psychobabble. New York: Avon Books.

Rutledge, P. (June, 2010). What is Media Psychology? And Why You Should Care. American Psychological Association. URL=

Stanovich, K. (1989). How to Think Straight About Psychology. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company.

TODAY Show (2/1/2008) URL=

Winn, D. (1980). The Whole Mind Book. London: Fontana Paperbacks.

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