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Beware of False Humanists

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At the same time, I cannot find a single discovery in the history of science that has been made by following the conviction that everybody is different.”

I have yet to meet anybody with three feet. Nor have I been successful in meeting someone with more than five fingers on each hand. I have also noticed that all the people I have observed during meal time take the food into their mouth and do not attempt to suck it up through their nose. With boring regularity, most people—apart from those who are injured—have two eyes and two ears. They excrete in the same way and speak in the same manner. Even if they speak in a completely different language, they use verbs and nouns and similar sentence constructions. Nor have I ever met a person whom I might suspect of not being a human being but, rather, a representative of some other species, no matter how far neglected that person is. And yet almost daily I come across people who with complete confidence emphasize that “Everybody is different!” Those claiming this, I call the “false humanists.” 

Are they perhaps thinking about such details as the length of both feet, or the color of a pair of eyes always fixed immutably on each side of one (and only one) nose, albeit sometimes bigger or smaller, flatter or bonier? I do not think so. I believe that such statements are formulated for a variety of reasons. One of them is thoughtlessness, which is not worth bothering with. Another might be the defense of a person’s individuality. However, it is a poor individuality that can only be expressed through otherness. Another reason for expressing this “insightful” truth may possibly lie in a need to negate the precepts that allow us to understand the functioning of the human being.

But who possibly needs this? It is irrelevant, but only at first glance. Let us take a look at what happened to the representatives of those professions that agreed with the statement that everybody is very similar to each other, and even if they differ, it is still possible to place them in a few groups to which they roughly fit. Shoemakers were replaced by shoe factories making shoes that fit the majority of feet. Those who order bespoke shoes do it rather from a need to be different than being induced by their own otherness. Similarly, the defining of a few typical body shapes eliminated the once-ubiquitous master tailor. Even dentists, saving us from excruciating pain and its concomitant afflictions, do not take advantage of teeth’s otherness but carry out their repetitive work in accordance with their position as highly-paid craftsmen. Indeed, even the surgeon slicing with great confidence through our abdominal coating derives that confidence from the deep conviction that underneath he will find a person’s stomach in the same place as it was in all his previous patients, and the same goes for the appendix, liver, and spleen. 

There are those among us, however, who are faithful to the ideals of humanism and above whom a standard with the motto “Everybody is different!” boldly flutters. One such battalion arose during the 1940s when the psychologist Theodore Sarbin, in his Ph.D. thesis and later in a series of articles, showed the superiority of statistical (actuarial) methods over critical analysis of cases in predicting human behavior. He showed—more or less—that comparing precisely defined factors gained from research (with results in tables summarizing the collected data) gives a more accurate diagnosis than those obtained by clinicians. And this is true also in many other fields apart from clinical psychology. Paul Meehl, the then-very young future president of the American Psychological Association, became interested. He frequently raised the topic in his series of lectures, which were later transcribed and published in 1954 in the form of a modest monograph. This small booklet proved to be a can of petrol poured onto the embers kindled ten years earlier by Sarbin. It fueled a discussion that still rages.

For this reason, psychotherapy is probably a backwoods in which the conviction that everybody is different rules.

Since Sarbin’s initial research, the accuracy of diagnoses based on statistical data (currently with the aid of computers and artificial intelligence (AI)) has outdistanced all diagnoses presented by specialists, and its dominance is systematically increasing. Despite this, adherents of traditional clinical diagnosis are still in an overwhelming majority and do not count on a modern, swift and accurate diagnosis with the help of AI algorithms. Why? Because everybody is different, and no machine can replace the unique human experience! Thanks to this conviction, one in five medical patients have a completely false diagnosis, 66% have a diagnosis requiring significant reformulation, and initial diagnosis is confirmed in only 12% of patients. Inaccurate diagnosis leads to mistaken medication, which accounts for about 250,000 extra deaths in the United States annually. An even larger problem is the false diagnosis of mental health problems. A 2009 meta-analysis of 50,000 patients published in The Lancet found that general practitioners correctly identified depression in patients in only 47.3% of cases.

However, even though the problem of iatrogenesis in medicine can be researched fairly systematically (only a superficial search among the literature reveals a whole range of books and monographs on the subject), only a few articles can be found relating to psychotherapy, and most of these are theoretical. I have not found one book devoted entirely to the iatrogenic effects of psychotherapy, and individual articles are mostly theoretical. For this reason, psychotherapy is probably a backwoods in which the conviction that everybody is different rules. Many psychotherapists go beyond this simple assertion, stating that because everybody is different psychotherapy is an art and not a science. If they were to pass this statement through the filter of critical thinking, they would have to consider its consequences. In psychotherapy, as in art, are there no limits other than the creator’s imagination? Can they, like artists, provoke and even shock? When learning their profession, do they leave a trail of shattered sculptures and worthless canvasses? Do they, like artists, enjoy unhampered freedom? It seems, however, that instead of critical analysis, they find the glitter of the word ”art” sufficient, especially when placed next to the less inspiring word “science,” and they care less about the consequences of such comparison.

Psychotherapists have invented more than 600 different therapeutic approaches (or schools). None of them are able to remember even all of their names, let alone acquire any knowledge about them and be able to assess their usefulness. It is beyond anyone’s capacity, and yet they are continually developing new ones. It is a herculean task because by assuming that everybody is different, 600 approaches do not count for much when compared to the number of patients seeking therapy.

The reasons sketched out here for maintaining the conviction that everybody is different are nevertheless basically interesting, even if by using them the matter is not fully understood. Most often we accept this kind of conviction with the ethos of our profession, and, as long as we do not subject it to conscious deconstruction, its significance can remain hidden. Another situation in which people very often reach for the false humanist formulation is in discussions about suggested public policies or ways of doing things in a society (or within a profession). 

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Let us imagine a hypothetical. In the course of a conversation about the best methods of, say, improving teaching results, a first person, “Andrew,” states: “The XYZ approach in education gives the best results. Statistically, most students improved their results by at least 20% in a short space of time.” Without thinking too long, a second person, “Brian,” ripostes, “Perhaps, but we should remember that every student is different and has different needs, and we cannot thoughtlessly apply one approach to all.”

After this somewhat tasteless exchange of views in which Brian brought nothing new to the conversation, he, nevertheless, gains a psychological advantage over Andrew, who tries to stuff everybody into the same drawer. The understanding and tolerant Brian has perceived and recognized the diversity of students. His approach is “humanistic,” in opposition to the mechanical approach of Andrew, who has reduced everybody to statistics and numbers. Witnesses of such a discussion might misinterpret Brian’s false humanism as real care, even if, in reality, Andrew proposed a solution that offered 20% better results, while Brian ridiculed it and offered nothing in exchange. 

False humanists are able to negate policy proposals, suggested treatment methods, therapies, ways of conducting negotiations, approaches to motivating workers, rehabilitation techniques, and hundreds of other more or less effective solutions. The basis for the false humanists’ dismissals is that such proposals and suggestions apply to more than a single person. Perhaps this is why some false humanists so often repeat that they have “no knowledge of mathematics.”

I know of only one human achievement resulting from the conviction that everybody is different. And that is tolerance. At the same time, I cannot find a single discovery in the history of science that has been made by following the conviction that everybody is different. This invariably leads to helplessness and powerlessness because—just as we cannot produce several billion different pairs of shoes to suit every member of the human race—we will never be able to develop several billion vaccines, therapies, education systems, etc. The false humanist statement that “Everybody is different!” has its blade pointed towards us, people who are so similar to each other that—regardless of where we come from or how many details differentiate us—we have accorded ourselves identical rights: human rights.

Tomasz Witkowski is a psychologist and author. His latest book, which was published last year, is Shaping Psychology: Perspectives on Legacy, Controversy and the Future of the Field.

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