by Dr. Lorin Bradbury
Question: As a psychologist, what is it like being able to psych people out all the time?
This is a common misperception of psychology and psychologists. I suppose every psychologist has had the experience of being in a group where someone warned everyone else in the group that the psychologist is probably psyching them out at that very moment.
There is nothing mystical about psychology. Psychology is defined as the science of behavior and mental processes. Psychologists do not possess some supernatural ability to tell people what they are thinking and why they are behaving in a particular way. Instead the goals of psychology are to be as objective as possible. Psychologists work to describe, predict, understand, and influence behaviors.
In addition to being trained to provide counseling and psychotherapy, psychologists have very specialized training in the administration and interpretation of tests. For tests to be of any real value, they must demonstrate good statistical properties, such as validity and reliability. Validity refers to the likelihood that a particular test measures what it claims to measure. For example, if a test claims to measure depression, does it really measure depression?
Reliability refers to how consistent the test is over time. Certain IQ tests have been shown to be very reliable. As long as the same type of IQ test was given at intervals throughout your life, you would find the scores to be similar each time you were tested. Because the test is reliable, the psychologist can state with a degree of certainty that the person’s true score falls within a certain range. For example, if you obtained a Full Scale IO of 100, the psychologist could state with 90% certainty that your true IQ is somewhere between 96 and 104.
Because psychologists have available to them well-developed and well-researched tests or instruments with good statistical properties, psychologists are able to describe with a degree of accuracy an individual’s level of cognitive functioning, or the likelihood of the presence of a psychotic process, personality disorder, or other mental disease.
However, it is not because a psychologist possesses some mystical power, but it is based on the information provided by the individual being tested. Certain tests gather enough data that the psychologist can predict with a reasonable degree of certainty that an individual is experiencing depression, anxiety, or a psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia.
By using a combination of tests, a psychologist is often able to establish a diagnosis or to assist other mental health professionals and physicians in refining a diagnosis.
A behavior checklist is another kind of instrument that is helpful in defining behavior problems in children and adolescents. Generally, the items on the questionnaire are related to scales that have been developed to measure certain kinds of behaviors. The information obtained, either from the individual, or those close to the individual being evaluated are then compared with others. When enough items on a scale are answered in a certain way, a particular behavior, or problem has been shown to exist. This allows parents, mental health professionals, teachers, and others to address that behavior and work to influence behavior change.
For purpose of predicting risk of harm to other or self, or risk that an individual will commit a certain crime again in the future, courts like information that is referred to as actuarial. For example, insurance companies have determined through research that male drivers under the age of 25 pose a much greater risk for accident. In the same way, based on research, psychologists are able to predict the likelihood of someone committing the same crime in the future, or the likelihood of harming someone in the future.
So you can relax in the presence of psychologists; we really are not psyching you out. In fact, we prefer to leave our work at the office.
Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected]