A victory for sweet reason as psychology scores love

A US psychologist has cut the ground from under his own field with his facile conclusions. Iain Murray fêtes the achievements of a fabulous fifth-columnist

Wouldn’t it be heart-warming if just one behavioural scientist were to come clean and admit that the whole caboodle is a sham? All it would need is for a solitary brave soul to confess that yes, Freud, Adler, Jung and all their crazy vapouring about sex and dreams and anal retention and ids and egos and consciousness and subconsciousness were so much baloney and have done far more harm than good, and others would surely follow.

Once the blessed rot had set in, the whole edifice would crumble and the world would wave a contented goodbye to psychometric testing, psychological selling and a hundred and one similarly futile attempts to probe the depths of the human mind.

Of course it takes guts to admit that your doctorate in psychology is bogus and that it has been your misfortune to have chosen for a profession one of life’s blind alleys, but sooner or later, someone will dare to do it. And when he or she takes that historic step, they will, if I’m not greatly mistaken, owe a debt to John Gottman.

At first sight, he seems an unlikely inspiration for one wishing to take the giant step of professional apostasy: he is, after all, a doctor of psychology at Washington University, an institution where no doubt behavioural science is taken seriously. But, on closer inspection, Dr Gottman may be seen to be doing his bit, perhaps a little subtly by American standards, to remove the keystone on which the folly of “mind studies” is erected: namely plausibility.

For even in this age of credulity, when many people hold beliefs that would cause a medieval scholar to rub his eyes in astonishment, there is a point at which even the most gullible will draw back and refuse to be led further. Dr Gottman may have reached that point.

Last week he unveiled a “Specific Affect Code”, or Spaff, which he claimed could predict with 90 per cent accuracy who is heading for the divorce courts. His work, he says, is based on the idea that all marriages “have a distinctive pattern of interaction”. His code gives a number to each of 20 emotions. Disgust scores one, for instance, contempt two, and sadness comes in at 13.

Observing couples who visit what he calls his “love lab”, Dr Gottman assesses their scores and rates their chances of treading much further down matrimony’s rocky path. It is said that Gottman has become so adept that just 15 minutes spent eavesdropping on a couple in a restaurant is all he needs to ascertain with unerring accuracy whether they will soon be hiring lawyers and deciding who has custody of the dog.

From what I have told you, only one firm conclusion may be drawn: when dining out with your spouse, before so much as scanning the menu or spreading a napkin on your knee, make certain that Dr Gottman is not seated at an adjacent table, his ear cocked and his pen poised over his cuff. But what should really lift the scales from your eyes and release for ever any grip psychology might have held on you is the realisation that key elements in Dr Gottman’s Spaff code are already known to each and every one of us with eyes to see and a brain larger than a flea’s knee.

Before telling you the behavioural signs Dr Gottman regards as positive, I am spared the need to urge you to hold on to your hat, since you are unlikely to be bowled over. Here they are: holding hands, touching, stroking, cracking a joke, laughing, smiling and a warm tone of voice. Yes folks, couples who laugh and smile together, who hold hands and stroke each other, give every sign of the kind of compatibility that makes for warmth at the breakfast table and bodes well for their relationship.

Now for negative scores: these include scornful comments, mockery, a cold tone of voice, reluctance to talk, critical comments and rolling the eyes. Well, what do you know? Can it be true that a woman who rolls her eyes when her husband speaks, addresses him mockingly in a cold scornful tone, and then refuses to talk at all is not brimful of affection for the mate to whom she’s conjoined in wedlock? I may be guessing, but I’d bet that a smack in the mouth would cause Dr Gottman’s sensitive antenna to register a negative.

He has done us a service and we should be grateful for it. In his work, we find affirmation of what we already knew – that nature has equipped us with the ability to take the measure of our fellow creatures, insofar as that is possible – and what so many of us have always suspected, that the attempt to concoct a science of the soul and mind is at best foolish and at worst very dangerous.

It is not often that we get the chance to look behind the pasteboard facade of behavioural science and see the flimsy struts on which it rests, and for this rare opportunity we have Dr Gottman to thank. Should we ever meet I should not hesitate to smile and shake his hand, signs which, when he has had time to look them up, he will confirm as indicating a friendly disposition.


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