WHAT PSYCHOLOGY DOESN'T KNOW: A BRIEF SAMPLE

Article by LiveReal Agents Courtney and Kevin

What does psychology not know?

How much do we really understand about certain key aspects of human nature – things like anxiety, for example?

This can be tricky.

We typically hear a great deal about “what we know” about this or that.

We often hear that “Researchers have learned that…” “Studies have found that…” and etc. “Experts” and the journalists who report on their findings often talk along these lines.

Then the Knowledge Industrial Complex kicks in.

Talking about what we know is often more profitable than talking about what we don’t.

“Experts” tend to get paid based on what they “know,” and journalists get paid (sometimes) to report it.

It’s understandable. Why pay someone for what they don’t know? There’s more than plenty of that to go around. What’s rare is genuine knowledge.

But all of this, when it happens enough, can become an incentive for giving the impression that experts know more and more.

In its extremes, it can eventually lead to the impression that experts know everything (or, that they think they know everything). Doctors run the risk of developing a “god complex.” (“Do you ask me if I have a god complex? Let me tell you something: I am God.” - from the movie Malice, written by Aaron Sorkin, Jonas McCord, and Scott Frank.)

Saying “I don’t know” runs counter to much of this.

It doesn’t sell as many headlines or fortify the careers of experts.

But sometimes, it’s important to hear “what we don’t know.”

An expert simply saying “I don’t know” can require a huge amount of courage. And courage can be a rare commodity.

But still, every so often, someone is both honest and clear in this regard.

In the article “Understanding the Different Types of Anxiety Disorders” by Ashley Olivine, Ph.D., MPH, which was medically reviewed by Dakari Quimby, PhD, Olivine and Quimby offer a brief but illuminating overview.

A few key excerpts:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder: “The specific causes are not fully understood.”

Panic Disorder: “…it is not entirely clear what causes panic disorder.”

Social Anxiety Disorder: “The specific causes of social anxiety disorder are unclear.”

Separation Anxiety Disorder: “The causes of separation anxiety disorder are not fully known.”

Phobias: “…sometimes…the cause is unknown.”

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: “…the causes are not fully understood.”

Obviously, the above are only brief excerpts.

But for some, the above might be quite refreshing.

Hearing an honest “We don’t know” can sometimes be a tremendous relief.

It can relieve someone from going to a lot of trouble to search for something that isn’t there.

We might spend some time and energy searching for ultimate causes by consulting experts from psychology – when, ultimately, we might realize that they don’t really know.

So, how far does this go?

The words of William Goldman (though originally intended for Hollywood) might seem to apply here.

“Nobody knows anything.”

The record, to be fair - even in the article above - isn’t one of perfect uncertainty. Again, the above are experts, and they propose potential causes for various conditions. And as Olivine and Quimby describe, psychology does claim to understand the causes of PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the article, “PTSD is caused by a past experience of a traumatic event or events.”

The fact that a condition that psychology defines that a response to trauma is indeed caused by trauma might not seem like cause for celebration. (Philosophers might even describe it as a tautology.) That said, psychology can be a difficult business, and we should take whatever victories it can offer.

The courage of Olivine and Quimby here is highly appreciated.

But where does that leave us – in regard to anxiety, for example?

Again, knowing that there are aspects of anxiety that experts don’t fully understand can be surprisingly helpful.

Psychology as a science is still young. It’s practically still in diapers. Clearly, there’s still a great deal that we don’t know. It can be good to keep this in mind when we hear simplistic explanations of complex problems.

But when we admit that things aren’t as simple as they might seem, that opens the door to new insights.

Some of these might be better than we imagined.

Regarding anxiety in particular, for example, Kierkegaard famously described anxiety as a potential “adventure.”

Understanding what he meant by that might actually lead to a certain kind of quest.

Other approaches to anxiety also hold promise.

For example, we could see anxiety as an “Everything Problem” – a difficult problem that’s connected to other difficult problems.

“Everything Solutions” can mean that problems like anxiety won’t necessarily always be solved directly – as in “here’s the simple answer that will ‘solve’ anxiety’” – but instead could be solved indirectly.

The image for the article by Olivine and Quimby, for example, features a woman who looks a bit miserable, with a sullen stare down at her phone.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence.

Or, someone’s Sherlock-like powers of deduction might also lead one to think that there is indeed a connection there – and to the conclusion that putting the phone down more often might not be a terrible idea.

That’s just one example. There are many others.

There’s plenty of room to look into understanding anxiety more deeply.

In true everything problem form, exploring this trail can lead to others.

For example, it could mean asking why so many young people seem so unhappy, and what we might be able to do about it.

“Doing something about it” might mean taking a broad, holistic approach.

It might mean an entire way of life, for example.

If overcoming anxiety ultimately ties to living a certain way of life – such as one involving existential fitness, or getting clarity on matters like meaning, happiness, angst, other Big Questions or existential riddles, what “game” or games of life you’re “playing,” and how to strengthen your fundamental life philosophy or worldview – well, clarifying that there aren’t easy answers could be a great place to start.

Toward that end, Olivine and Quimby have done a good service.

When we admit that what we don’t know isn’t enough, it opens the door to the unknown.

And when we venture out into the unknown, we venture into the unknown. We might discover incredible things.

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