On TV news programs and in documentaries, when a therapist appears you know you are being sold a bunch of crap - if they wanted real information, they wouldn't turn to a therapist.

 

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, November 15, 2010. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

When the Therapist Appears on Screen, Duck for Cover

You know that old line - "The opera ain't over until the fat lady sings?" Well, here's a new one, "When the therapist and brain reseacher appear, the bullshit begins."

You're watching a documentary movie or a newscast, and they introduce a therapist (prototype, Dr. Drew). You know the next thing you're going to hear is bullshit.

Case in point: Inside Job, a film detailing the 2007 global financial crash. The movie (which was a NY Times critics' pick ) points to the many culprits in government and the financial industry who enriched themselves while they lost billions of individuals' and taxpayers' funds. After describing the legislative changes that caused these upheavals, a therapist is introduced as someone who treats these financial wizards. (Incidentally, he is interviewed in the same kind of glass-windowed upper-floor Manhattan office the financial guys inhabit, and he looks just as sleek and prosperous as they do.)

Alarm bells go off in my mind. How many of the high-level whiz kids depicted in the film did he treat? None I bet. How many Wall Street traders overall did he treat? And he tells us what about them? They are risk-takers who frequent expensive strip clubs and take cocaine. Wow! What percentage of the investment bankers that he treated did those things?

You'll never know from the film, one that relies on numbers and comparisons across years when dealing with financial figures - you know, when they're not dealing with bullshit.

One expert who was interviewed before the therapist came on to announce his findings said the field had been flooded by Ph.D. physicists and mathematicians. Did they consort with high-priced hookers and take cocaine? Because, you know, we aren't used to thinking of Ph.D. mathematicians that way. This is one of a series of factual assertions the film presents that the high-risk, strip-club, cocaine-using theory makes no sense of.

Then there was the author-commentator who told about one trader he knew who used to have a night job to support his family in the 1970s when he was making $40,000 a year, but in the 1980s he started making millions. Was he always a high-risk guy biding his time, or did the money change his personality and rewire his brain?

And, in fact, perhaps the one person interviewed on screen who was given the most respect - because he prosecuted financial violators that the SEC ignored - was former New York Attorney General and Governor Eliot Spitzer. We know Spitzer consorted with high-price call girls. So is this a problem with financial workers and the people who hate them both?

Then again, other experts testified that the people who used to run investment banks were gambling with their own money. Nowadays, the movie states, they immediately offload any risks through derivatives and default swaps. To my mind, these older types were greater risk takers than those throwing around other people's dough.

Of course we get no meaningful comparisons in this area - have these risk-taking brains become more prevalent in recent years? Indeed, has strip club attendance gone up since the 1970s? In fact, we know that cocaine use by the middle class (including Wall Street types) peaked in the early 1980s. So if, acording to the therapist, these risk-taking types use a lot of cocaine, why was the economic calamity so much greater in 2007? As a matter of fact, I'd like to know, do high-level financial guys spend more time in strip clubs than their limo drivers? They don't ask the therapist these types of validating questions - he's a therapist, for God's sake! (Better to ask a movie star.)

But I knew I had to leave when they got to the research about how big-risk investments stimulate the same parts of the brain as cocaine. (Note to the DSM-5 work group - make that Compulsive-Gambling-High-Risk-Financial-Instrument Addictive Disorder.)

This brain research was relayed by someone who had previously commented expertly on the financial aspects of the scandal. I guess he had to double-up here as a brain expert since the film was so negative to former or current government officials - Larry Summers, Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, Tim Geitner - that Nora Volkow , director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, wasn't allowed to speak on screen.

So we learned, from a psychological standpoint, that the financial crisis was caused by cocaine-swilling, strip-club-frequenting guys (do women financial types go to strip clubs?) whose brains light up like pinball machines when they make incredibly risky investments with other people's money. Good to know, so that we can pre-test people in the industry to make sure they are not susceptible to cocaine addiction (which would knock out the risky-money addicts too).

Or, we could put reasonable regulations for these industries in place and strictly enforce them.

Any wonder why people don't take psychology seriously?