Psychology has loads and loads of misconceptions—both within the field and outside of it. There are few that bother me more than the one that, very likely, every student or practitioner of psychology has heard multiple times in their lives. You know how it goes, but I’ll remind you:
“So, what do you do?”
“I study/practice (some form of, any form of!) psychology.”
“Oh, so are you like, ANALYZING me right now?”
Followed by silence, a blank stare (see above), an eye roll, jaw clench, forced laughter on the part of the psychology student/practitioner… you get the idea.
The people who ask psychology students and practitioners this question usually really do mean well—I get it. They are trying to make conversation, to relate, to be funny. But seriously, you guys. If you are guilty of asking one of your psychology-minded friends this ridiculous question, you have GOT to stop. And this is why.
To me, the notion of analyzing everyone I meet or observe has the following implications: that, A) I am so consumed with the behavior of others, that I absolutely cannot resist the urge to deeply and thoroughly examine, scrutinize, inspect (these are all synonyms of “analyze,” by the way), other people on a constant basis; or B) that I am so void of on-going thoughts in my own head, that I have nothing better to do than to pick apart the behavior and presentation of others.
Both of these notions bother me. That’s not to say that I don’t realize there is some automatic “making of meaning” that goes on in the mind of the psychology student during interactions with others or observations of behavior—there has to be. I liken it to that of a mechanical engineer passively noting the dimensions of a cell phone case purely out of habit (shout out to my Otterbox friends!). Just because they note the dimensions and fit of the case, doesn’t mean that they break down each and every measurement and detail. You can’t unlearn this shit once you’ve spent so much time trying to impart it into your brain, so automatic thoughts of some nature are certainly going to be involved in our everyday experiences.
Are there exceptions to this? Of course– there are always exceptions. But generally, we can’t necessarily conclude that the automatic meaning-making process of a psychology student is any more advanced than something like, “that person is ordering a sandwich– they must be hungry.” This is hardly delving into wondering about the individual’s relationship with their parents, their experiences as a child, their complex motivations and desires, and all of the other thoughts and stereotypes that might come along with the true notion of “analysis.” (Furthermore, the idea of “analyzing” has somehow become related to “judgment.” In its purest form, it really isn’t– but the connotation has emerged and flourished, and I would argue that the making of meaning should actually be free from judgment. Another topic altogether, perhaps.) Not that the psychology student/practitioner isn’t capable of complex deductive thought processes, but we have our own needs and concerns, too. So, in all likelihood, my thoughts are probably going to stay along the lines of, “What kind of sandwich am I going to order? Am taking up too much time ordering it?” (Some of us are self-aware, to a fault.) And on, and on.
With that being out of my system, what is an acceptable question one can ask the psychology student or practitioner? Ask them what their role in the psychology field looks like! Psychology is so very broad, that they may not even care about the individual human psyche—maybe they focus on the psychology of groups, or schools, or organizations, or animals. At any rate, they will likely be appreciative of your effort to dodge the uncreative stereotype of the psychology student as chronically obsessed analyzer, and, instead, focus on the true reality of their work and interests.
Which stereotypes bother you about your field? Which questions do you find to be the most irritating?