Mechanizing Clinical Psychology

November 23, 2017
Glendale, California



Mechanizing Clinical Psychology

Last August, I spent a tortuous half-a-day completing an application to renew my status as a continuing education (CE) provider for the California Psychological Association’s (CPA) Office of Professional Development (OPD). 

Full of ire and frustration, I dashed off an email to a lovely woman I’ve know for years, Patricia VanWoerkom, the Director of the CPA-OPD.

In the note dated August 19th, I complained:

I’ve spent the last two-hours re-doing the entirety of my original application. I must say, the manual reads a bit like the US Tax Code (although it’s not 18,000 pages, like the Tax Code). The problem is, for a solo guy like me as opposed to a University, I just don’t think it’s fair to submit me to such a Soviet like set of procedures.
Obviously, I’m prone to irritable moods. However, the less personal part of my annoyance concerns the efforts to turn clinical psychologists into robots.
Ms. VanWoerkom and I went back and forth several times. I failed to use sufficiently robotic words in my renewal application. The CPA-OPD CE Provider Approval System Criteria Manual and Application Guide, likely created in a secluded, darkened Sacramento office by former Soviet citizens, orders psychologist-CE-providers to offer only courses which:

1) Are relevant to psychological practice, education and science.

2) Enable psychologists to keep pace with emerging issues and technologies.

3) Allow psychologists to maintain, develop, broaden and increase competencies in order to improve services to the public and enhance contributions to the profession.

It cautions we providers that, if we date offer

Content focusing on non-traditional or emerging practice or theory we must be able to directly bridge course content to criteria 2.1.

(I could look up criteria 2.1 but it would make me nauseated; suffice to say it’s some other bureaucratic regulation intended to turn psychologists into mechanics).

Most egregiously, we tremulous providers must write industrial-grade Assessment of Learning Outcomes which must:

determine whether or not the workshop participant learned what you set out to teach them, and;

provide feedback on how well you met the stated educational objectives.

The learning objectives should be designed so participants can rate them numerically, and should use phrases like:

State two differences between… 

Employ two methods for…

Apply ethical standards to… 

These are not terrible, of course.

But herein lies the rub:

The required words are entirely action-oriented. Words like understanding, considering, knowing, or comprehending are, in essence, forbidden.

Now why would our culture want clinical psychologists to understand or comprehend anything?

Why, it’s an absurd thought!

These rigid guidelines eliminate the possibility for CE providers to teach psychologists about many extremely relevant trends, like where the humanities intersect with clinical psychology. Psychologists could benefit from, and would likely flock to, courses which discussed the overlap between literature and psychotherapy, the influence of the arts on the mind, how historical trends affect the practice of psychology, or similar themes.

Although I had already planned to post on the rigid, anti-humanistic nature of these CE guidelines, I was pushed over the edge (in a good way) by an article by Marina Warner.

She notes that, in Arabic, the verb for story telling, raawa, is the same as the verb for irrigation. In other words,

Narration is like irrigation.

Warner continues,

literature is a watershed, carrying its figments on many currents, into many aquifers and wells…

She laments the culturally-popular attacking of the humanities, such as occurs in the CPA-OPD manual, noting how:

we’re told that they’re not useful, that literary studies and practice are idle and luxurious irrelevancies in a modern society driving towards economic growth.

Warner emphasizes that, in contrast to such a contemporary trend,

narratives foster growth, quench thirst, and they make their way like flowing water, unstoppably… Stories play a part in defining the public sphere, and the shared values of a group.

Today’s LA Times warns of a loss of potentially seven million American jobs in the trucking industry as automated trucking arrives. Many aspects of medicine will soon become robotic as well:

This would be a terrible time to study radiology, for example, because machines can already read many X-rays better than humans.

Clinical psychology will be among the last professions to fall. They devote themselves to the subtleties of human experience—the despair of loss, the thrill of love, the pain of abuse, and endless other troubling human themes.

These human trends are simply too complex and dynamic for reduction to simple algorithms.

Hopefully those who accredit CE programs in these human-oriented professions will ultimately learn this:

While applications, methods, descriptions, and demonstrations are important, other subtle competencies like understanding, believing, comprehending, or viewing are equally so. 


Warner, M. (2017). Diary. London Review of Books, 11/16/17, pp. 37-39.




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