The Myth of Objectivity
When people ask me what I do for a living, I typically respond that I practice psychotherapy. I often hear the response, “Oh, so you’re a shrink.” Notwithstanding that I’m a psychotherapist, and not in fact a psychiatrist (the more proper match for being a shrink), being called a shrink causes me to pull back and defend myself. I’d rather expand than shrink.
Although my comment might be seen as glib, it really speaks to my shifting worldview and my intention to practice a psychology that is in coherence with this shift – emergence as opposed to reduction.
Psychotherapy, for the large part, has been rooted in an old paradigm of reality, which values reductive thinking and objective analysis. From this perspective, based upon certainty and determinism, we believe that with sufficient information we can drill down to the root causes of an individual’s afflictions. So our focus is often on the cause, hence the reductive thinking and the term “shrink.”
Yet from this methodology, we sadly neglect how to get from here to there and what there looks like. Many people seem to have a reasonable understanding of why they have become who they are and what their struggles are. A continued replay of these life events – ad nauseam, without sufficient focus on emergence – leaves many people dissatisfied with their therapeutic experience. So many people who come to work with me share their hope that they won’t have to encounter once again the same retelling of their life experience.
Moreover, therapists tend to become steeped in the diagnostic penchant, which limits our capacity as healers and has us treat the diagnosis rather than co-creating new realities with our clients. This approach would provide a framework grounded in a humanistic venture of actualizing new possibilities. Let’s take a look at some of the core tenets of mainstream psychology and how they limit the healing potential of the profession.
Traditional psychology, still in lock step with our bio-medical approach, rests its foundation on diagnosis. In fact, health insurance requires a diagnosis for coverage. The operating assumption of diagnosis is that objectivity, in fact, exists. In order to diagnose someone, we must assume that our subjective interpretations aren’t getting in the way and that objectivity actually prevails. From this perspective we should assume that a dozen clinicians working with the same individual would all render the same diagnosis. I can assure you that no such thing would happen.
We each see through the subjective filter of our own life experience, colored by our beliefs, thoughts, personal history, prejudices, biases, and our unconscious stirrings. Therapists are not calculating automatons – thankfully – but simply educated professionals hopefully doing our best, although perhaps constrained by an outmoded model of thinking.
The root of the word objectivity is object. This is the basis of reality in Newton’s atomistic paradigm. The world is thus comprised of separate and discrete objects and objectivity becomes not only desired but amongst the highest of ideals. To be objective requires the capability to stand apart, unaffected by the other. We’ll soon discover that this is entirely implausible.
Webster’s third dictionary defines the word objective as follows:
Of or relating to an object, phenomenon or condition in the realm of sensible experience, independent of thought and perceptible by all observers. Having reality independent of the mind: expressing or dealing with facts and conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices or interpretations.
This definition requires that the observer’s experience be sensible, independent of thought and perceptible by all observers. The notion of sensible is of course completely contextual and relative, and we need not delve too deeply into that; suffice it to say that the circumstances and a consensus of agreement determine sensibility, which is hardly objective, but mostly subjective.
As an aside if we consider the etymology of sensible, it likely limits the notion to that which our five senses can appreciate. Might this be somewhat limiting?
What is sensible in one set of circumstances might be insane in another. Indeed, the very wedding of the words sensible and objective is ludicrous.
The next parts of the lexicon are particularly curious. Independent of thought implies that in an independently objective state there resides a truth, which has nothing at all to do with thought. An interesting proposition indeed and rooted in the philosophy of positivism. Yet, how would we know of anything without thought? The absoluteness of perceptible by all observers leaves no room for exceptions. Therefore, if we now had one hundred or one thousand psychologists observing an individual they would all have to concur without exception. Good luck!
Now for the last part of the definition: Having reality independent of the mind: expressing or dealing with facts and conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices or interpretations.
Again, we are confronted with a reality independent of the mind. As such, we detach from the constructs that mind creates. In our profession all diagnoses are constructs, creations of mind. Does borderline personality disorder or attention deficit disorder exist without mind? Mind created them. We then label people as such and lose sight of the fact that mind invented the terms. The noted philosopher Alfred North Whitehead referred to this dilemma as the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Thought constructs and then denies its creation, conferring upon it an independent reality. We might correctly say, “Jane appears to have behavior consistent with what we call borderline personality disorder.” That is far different from, “Jane is a borderline.” When we observe from the former perspective, we lose both our intuitive and humanistic skills as therapists. The person becomes the diagnosis.
I am in no way suggesting that the behaviors that describe these conditions don’t exist; they most certainly do. So creating the term or the diagnosis in order to facilitate a description is most useful. But conferring upon the diagnosis (a few descriptive words) an actual thing-ness or reality is altogether a different matter. So the very nature of objectivity, requiring reality independent of mind becomes perhaps untenable. Could we imagine circumstances in which attention deficit disorder might be regarded as functional and highly desired? Of course we could, and under those conditions what we see as pathology might actually be functional.
Expressing or dealing with facts and conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices or interpretations really seals the deal. As humans, we are feeling, interpretative individuals. This is an essential part of our humanness. Should we not be repulsed by certain acts and comforted by others? To perceive without feelings might be very dysfunctional. Were the judges at the Nuremberg trial objective, suggesting that they had no feelings or prejudices? If so they may have indeed been objective, but not quite human. The goal of dealing with circumstances devoid of our evocative feelings and interpretations might indeed, of itself, qualify us as a sociopath.
A number of years ago, I was a prospective juror on an alleged rape case. Not surprisingly I found myself in judge’s chambers explaining that as a therapist I have often worked with individuals who have suffered from sexual abuse. The prosecuting attorney asked if I could nevertheless be objective. I mischievously broke into some pontification on the subject. I concluded my interlocution by suggesting that a more appropriate question to inquire of jurors might be, “Can you be in touch with your biases and still feel that you can be reasonably fair?” In case you’re wondering what happened, I was dismissed and directed to serve on another jury.
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You took the discussion into an interesting direction, Mel. We therapists study what most people do not and therefore can use language differently.
If objectivity doesn’t exist it’s impossible to discuss it objectively. 🙂
So if someone is using the word, we need to understand what they mean and how that meaning differs from own own interpretation. Objectivity can mean feel nothing. It can also mean, as you say, put your prejudices on hold and be fair and open to new possibiities.
To me it means being consciouse, aware and mindful of personal perspective.
I don’t believe in objectivity. I do believe in being conscious and aware of perspective.
Thank you for an interesting read, Mel!
Joanna Poppink, MFT
Los Angeles psychotherapist
author: Healing Your Hungry Heart
08/11 Conari Press http://amzn.to/grcDfG
Thanks so much for your insights. Although we might agree that objectivity doesn’t exist, we can of course come to what is called, inter-subjective agreement. This is far healthier and always subject to change and growth, whereas the false notion of objectivity isn’t.
The book “If you Meet the Buddah on the Road, Kill Him” is dated, but Sheldon Kopps’s ideas still resonate with me. I credit many of my clients for teaching me how to/not to live. I dread putting people into categories. It’s like trying to bottle the sea.
Your thoughts enrich and expand me and always make me smile.
I’ve always enjoyed the title and expression regarding killing the Buddha..so important to not worship..I find categoriesdefeating.. Descriptions are fine as long as we don’t succumb to turning them into actual “things”
You make an interesting observation, but isn’t saying that you don’t believe in objectivity making an objective statement? Isn’t objectivity based on human subjectivity? If being subjective than woouldn’t one also be objective? Then there is bias which is loosely based on objectivity. I would think we are objective but objectivity is just another word for bias.
Provocative considerations you are raising. At the risk of getting lost in the semantics, here we go. My not believing in objectivity is based upon emerging science and my own beliefs and experiences. Fundamentally, given the definition of objectivity, I find it unsustainable. So I think it not an “objective” statement but a personal and subjective belief on my part. You might correctly charge with me generalizing though.
As to your last point, our scientific framework suggests that objectivity protects against bias (which I think a fool’s assumption) but certainly don’t think people in general regard objectivity as bias give the general meaning. But yes, it is my bias not to believe in objectivity.
Thanks for the thought-provoking question, discussion, and comments. I am not sure that my comments will add anything meaningful to the debate/discussion, but I’d like to weigh in with my opinion, as subjective as it necessarily is.
I believe that objective reality exists in a way that supersedes our own opinion and experience and that may be knowable but might not be known. Periodically, these objective “realities” impose themselves on our perceptions in ways that become difficult to deny, distort, or explain. (The recent natural disasters in Japan come to mind.)
My goals, then, include, (1) being as closely attuned to the “real”truth as I can possibly be, despite my perceptual biases, so as to be able to anticipate, manage, and respond appropriately to that truth with the most equanimity; (2) to be as acutely cognizant of my known biases, so as to intentionally offset the necessary distortions and limitations of stereotyping, (3) to be as non-defensive and deliberate as possible in recognizing my unknown biases, so as to maximize certain values (authenticity, respect, compassion, communicative flexibility, etc.)
As an official “disclaimer”/explanation, I must also acknowledge that my spiritual beliefs inform my belief in a broader, knowable but not necessarily fully comprehended truth, which ultimately “sets us free” in our ongoing effort to embrace it.
Thanks for the stimulating exchange and for inviting me to the party!
When someone calls me a “shrink,” I always use that moment as a point of curiosity–I believe they are curious about me, and I certainly am curious about them. Because “shrink” means different things to different people, I ask what they mean when they use the word.
That typically starts a conversation that I usually find fascinating, and connects me to the person in some way or other. It’s one of the things I’ve always appreciated about being a therapist–people have all sorts of misconceptions about what I (and we) do, which is fodder for great discussions. I do not feel defensive about the use of the word “shrink” toward me. In fact, I interpret their use of the word “shrink” toward me as a moment of revealing something about themselves to me–a vulnerability, if you will. My curiosity takes over at that point.
As for objectivity and subjectivity, there probably is no way to reduce the theoretical discourse about them to practical applications in our therapeutic work. I suspect that subjectivity and objectivity are each equally debatable as to their existence, if you will, particularly if one takes a Hagelianistic approach to the discussion. But that’s a different discussion altogether.
Objective and subjective are in the lexicon, and, like the word “shrink,” we are all probably better off exploring with each other what we mean when we use the words “objective” and “subjective,” rather than trying to determine whether or not there is a universally acceptable way to employ them in our work, or understand them relative to our work and world in general. But it is fun trying.
Thanks, Mel, for the provocative discussion.
Thanks Jim for your complex and well considered comment. Your intrigue and curiosity around the use of the word “shrink” speaks to your personal evolution, no doubt. The last point you make around definitions and shared meaning is so on point. The words in and of themselves mean little, what matters is that we have a shared meaning about what the word represents to each of us.