A bottom-up perspective

How do psychology students and clinical trainees influence psychology orientation, education, and practice?

Eddy M. Elmer

Simon Fraser University, Department of Psychology, April 2003
Please note: This is a working draft only. All text is subject to revision and correction of inadvertent errors and misinterpretations of theories and research findings. Note also that I will list photo credits shortly.


Introduction

        For those of us interested in the history of psychological philosophy and systems, much time is spent exploring "top-down" influences. We focus on the major movements, philosophies, social changes, and historical perspectives that inform and influence psychological thinking and practice. Little time seems to be spent, however, looking at the influence of those people who are thus informed and influenced—the students themselves. We have, in other words, spent little time appreciating the influence of "bottom-up" factors in the development and direction of psychology. Perhaps this is because these influences are perceived as unimportant. More likely, it is because we are blind to them. As psychologists-in-training, we all realise that an even remotely "objective" analysis of the role we play in shaping psychology is impossible because the object of observation cannot completely observe itself (at least in the way we like to think about observation).

        In this paper, I would like to explore the different ways in which students themselves have shaped the field and how their personal characteristics influence the learning, teaching, and practice of psychology. I will discuss such student influences as generational attitudes, personal motivations, personality traits, and psychopathology. I will also discuss ways in which we can minimise any negative impact that these influences may have on the field of psychology. The issues raised may be particularly sensitive to some readers, but I think an appreciation of them is critical if we are to ensure that the field remains true to its goal: to appreciate humans in all their complexity and to apply this appreciation to the appropriate and effective care of those in distress.

Generational influences

        The direction psychology takes is often influenced by the personal preferences of a given generation of students. Granted, larger social forces may influence individual preferences, but these social factors seem to develop by feeding on pre-existing individual preferences. Coke could never have been a smash hit had it not appealed to our individual gustatory preferences. More tellingly, recent generations have emphasised different preferences and values in a grassroots, bottom-up fashion—by protesting or by actively resisting authoritative, top-down influences. While it is fruitful to study the dynamics of top-down influences, I want to focus on the individual preferences and qualities that they feed on and show that the latter strongly influence how students think about psychology, what they learn and research, and how they practice.

        Students at Princeton UniversityAmerican psychology in the latter part of the nineteenth century was strongly influenced by the Scottish commonsense philosophers (e.g., Reid 1764/1997). They emphasised that human life is orderly, that humans are inherently social, and that we were made to live peacefully with one another. Their philosophies focussed on something present at the individual level—common sense. Included in the notion of common sense was the "moral sense"—that which allows us to see certain actions as inherently good and certain others as inherently wrong. Psychology, thus, became the study of the moral sense. In fact, as Brooks (2001) points out, students in this era—all students—were educated not only in academic matters, but also in how to be upstanding, moral gentlemen. Although it could be said that this emphasis on moral education was due to the Scottish philosophers themselves—a top-down influence—I consider it to be a bottom-up influence because it did not emphasise philosophical authority but, rather, something that is basically inside of and accessible to all of us: common and moral sense. Even though the influence of these philosophers was supplanted by the physiological and empirical psychology coming from Germany, it continued to be felt in American pragmatism (Leahey 2002; see also Brent 1993 on Charles Sanders Peirce).

        The emphasis on moral sense seems also to have influenced those who grew up in the early part of the twentieth century—the "Elders" as they are affectionately known. The Elders valued order, authority, discipline, and the Judaeo-Christian moral code. They also valued reason, logic, and concreteness. Taken together, these values undoubtedly fostered an appreciation of the empirical and physiological psychology that was gaining a Protest at McGill Universitystronghold on America. Things changed, however, when the Elders' children were born. The "Baby Boomers", born between 1943-1960, rejected many of their parents' values. This was a time of unfettered protest on college campuses (Glazer 1969; Poirier 1968). "Boomers" rejected authority, were skeptical of big business and government, and were concerned with environmental and equality issues (although their emphasis would change over time and end up resembling that of the Elders; see Howe & Strauss 1992). It is no surprise that the psychology their generation saw was concerned with social issues—and was often radical in nature. Psychology students in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s were eager to participate in cutting-edge, socially relevant research that would make today's ethics boards blanche. The university experience was the students' opportunity to question the unquestionable—and psychology effectively became a new tool of protest. Indeed, it was in these three decades that psychologists conducted basic research into such social problems as authority, aggression, stereotyping, prejudice, gender inequity, and homophobia (e.g., Clark & Clark 1947; Bandura et al. 1961; Sherif et al. 1954/1961; Hooker 1957; Festinger & Carlsmith 1959; Milgram 1961, 1965, 1974; Zimbardo 1970). Indeed, even the behaviourisms—seemingly obsessed only with the everyday travails of non-cognisant rats—were concerned with social issues. The aim of the behaviourisms was prediction and control of individuals—with the ultimate goal being the creation of a perfect society that was devoid of the social problems and injustices everyone was protesting so vocally against.

        The Boomers' children—coming of age between 1965 and 1978—were christened "Generation X" by Douglas Coupland (1991).  The "X-ers"Douglas Coupland were not taken as much to protesting (The Atlantic Monthly: Atlantic Unbound 1999). As Halstead (1999) writes, "[These] young adults [were] the most politically disengaged in American history" (p. 33). They placed much more emphasis on experience, sensation-seeking, and concern with personal image. These were the Reagan years, during which intellectual and moral authority from the top-down was absent. In this vacuum, an obsession for wealth, prestige, and power was given free reign. Again, the Reagan philosophies may themselves have been a top-down influence, but they allowed unfettered individualistic concerns to flourish from the bottom-up. Although Gen X-ers were still somewhat open-minded and questioned much of the social order, the decreasing number of emotionally charged psychological studies produced after the 60s and 70s suggests that these students did not have as strong an interest in making radical social change. Consequently, psychology at this time was becoming more concerned with individualistic issues such as cognition and perception. The Cognitive Revolution was well underway and psychology was no longer seen as a platform for social protest or as a vehicle for social justice.

        The next generation of students would be even more lackadaisical, completely washing its hands of social concerns and becoming seemingly obsessed with individual psychology.

The influence of the new "millennial" student

        Don Tapscott (1998) coined the moniker "Net Generation"—also known as "Generation Y" or the generation of the "Millennials"—to describe the first group of young people coming of age in the new millennium. This is the recent cohort of students whom David Brooks (2001)—one of their harsher critics—has characterised as extremely well-mannered youngsters who delay pleasure, never question authority, and have an almost obsessive work ethic. They believe that the world is an orderly, beneficent place and that if they only work hard, focus on their studies, and follow the rules, they will reap the rewards of swift career and financial ascent.

The MillennialThese students' influence on psychology has been dramatic. Whereas students of previous generations brought to the field a strong concern for justice and social issues, it seems the Millennials do not want to touch such issues with a ten-foot pole. They are more at home studying characteristics intrinsic to the individual. A focus on the individual can, of course, be very fruitful (see Taylor's The Malaise of Modernity, 1991), much as the individual focus on moral sense was socially useful in the eighteenth century. However, when taken to the extreme, such a focus often becomes perverted and expresses itself as selfishness. Of those students who actually care about what they study (many do not and pursue their studies only to climb the career ladder), their personal preference is for a more straightforward, narrow-minded psychology that glosses over the influence of the very society they live in. A broad survey of my own peers in psychology shows that they are increasingly interested in such individualistic topics as self concept and self esteem, personality and emotion, mastery, and individual motivation. To my mind, if this continues any longer, we will end up severely curtailing exploration of the deeper philosophical and ethical issues that must be addressed in our field.

        It seems that today's students are averse to socially charged topics for two reasons. First, they genuinely feel that these issues do not affect them. For the most part, the Millennials have not (yet) witnessed the ravages of war, the social injustices their parents marched against, or the mass demonstrations on college campuses. As David Brooks (2001) writes, "They feel no compelling reason to rebel—not even a hint of one. . .'Alienation' is a word one almost never hears from them. They regard the universe as beneficent, orderly, and meaningful" (http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2001/04/brooks-p1.htm). He writes further: "The most sophisticated people in the preceding generations were formed by their struggle to break free from something. The most sophisticated people in this one aren't" (http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2001/04/brooks-p3.htm). Thus, for them, psychology does not need to understand social injustices—because there are none.

        Second, as already mentioned, today's students believe that accepting and following authority will pay extremely handsome dividends. Because getting ahead means "towing the line" of faculty, new psychology students do not want to touch ethically controversial topics. Indeed, as Brooks (2001) writes again, today's students are:

. . .not trying to buck the system; they're trying to climb it, and they are streamlined for ascent. Hence they are not a disputatious group. I often heard at Princeton a verbal tic to be found in model young people these days: if someone is about to disagree with someone else in a group, he or she will apologize beforehand, and will couch the disagreement in the most civil, nonconfrontational terms available. These students are also extremely respectful of authority. . .

"Undergrads somehow got this ethos that the faculty is sacrosanct," Dave Wilkinson, a professor of physics, told me. . ."You don't mess with the faculty". . .Aaron Friedberg, who teaches international relations, said, "It's very rare to get a student to challenge anything or to take a position that's counter to what the professor says." Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist, lamented, "They are disconcertingly comfortable with authority. That's the most common complaint the faculty has of Princeton students. They're eager to please, eager to jump through whatever hoops the faculty puts in front of them, eager to conform" (http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2001/04/brooks-p1.htm).

The Millennial student seems to be flourishing in a structured, authoritative, institutional environment. Hence it seems fitting that Brooks has provided his own alternative name for this new student: "the organization kid":

"The Organization Kid"

        Unfortunately, the kind of passivity just described has several consequences. First, while ardent respect for authority can help prevent ruffled feathers and perhaps fetch a few (or even a lot of) good grades, passivity can actually have a detrimental effect on academic achievement. Japur (1999) found that passive participation in psychology classes can actually interfere with students' motivation. Second, those who enjoy teacher-structured learning environments (i.e., environments in which participation is unidirectional) tend to be of the "sensing" personality type; these psychology students prefer to understand the world through their five senses (Orifici 1997). They like facts and figures and objective data they can see. This is in contrast to those who are more intuitive and like to learn through abstractions. If this is the case, then today's psychology students are primed to pay more attention to empirical work and to feel at somewhat of a loss dealing with more abstract and—arguably more important—philosophically oriented issues. Furthermore, in terms of clinical practice, it has been shown that students with a more rational epistemological style—students similar to the sensors—rate their clients more optimistically than those with other epistemological styles (D'Avanzo 1995). In addition, those with a less empirical philosophy are also more effective in relating with their clients (McLeod & McLeod 1993). Thus, whether in academics or practice, a variety of related personal characteristics show that psychology students and trainees do, indeed, influence "how psychology is done".

        The lack of emphasis on thorny social issues has also led to an increasing personal preference for the field of "positive psychology" (e.g., Seligman 1998; Snyder & Lopez 2001). Students in this field study such "clean" and innocuous topics as happiness, self efficacy, and achievement motivation. There are, of course, a large number of students who study fairly unpleasant topics. However, these tend to be restricted to issues facing the individual specifically: the study of abnormal personality and psychiatric disorders.

A dramatic increase in clinical specialisation

        The idea that students' personal preferences for studying individual as opposed to social psychology is shaping the field is born out by the dramatic changes we have been seeing in the pursuit of clinical and counselling psychology degrees. Psychologists with degrees in the health service provider fields have jumped over 300%, from 10,027 in 1975 to 40,835 individuals in 1995. While degrees in clinical fields have increased, those in the more basic research fields have remained stable—and fairly modest in quantity when compared to the clinical fields. The following chart is instructive:

% PhD Psychologists by Subfield: 1975, 1985, 1995

Subfield 1975 1985 1995
       
Clinical/Counselling/School 35% 44% 50%
Experimental/Comparative/Physiological 17% 17% 16%
Developmental/Child/Social/Personality 14% 14% 13%
Educational 5% 4% 3%
Industrial/Organisation 3% 3% 3%
Other Psychology subfields 26% 18% 15%

Taken from American Psychological Association, http://research.apa.org/doc15.html

 

Indeed, almost 50% of students enrolled in doctoral psychology programs in 2000 were pursuing degrees in clinical or counselling psychology:

Graduate Students in Psychology by Subfield, 2000

Taken from American Psychological Association, http://research.apa.org/doc17.html

 

And half of psychology PhDs now work in applied, clinical fields, compared with only a third in 1973:

Primary Employment Activity of Psychology PhDs:

Taken from American Psychological Association, http://research.apa.org/doc12.html

 

Furthermore, at the undergraduate level, surveys of Canadian universities consistently show that psychology is either the first or second most popular degree major (see Maclean's 2003). Why this dramatic increase in clinical specialisation?

        Economic factors offer a possible explanation. It may very well be that there are increasing job opportunities for those wishing to practice clinical and counselling psychology. However, the Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the United States Department of Labor suggests that, through 2010, the market for psychologists is only "expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations" (United States Department of Labour 2002). The growth of opportunities in this field does not seem to account for the rising interest in the field. Neither does the actual salary that clinical and counselling psychologists earn; median annual earnings are USD$48,320 (United States Department of Labour 2002). I argue that something else—a student-driven generational focus on individual psychology—is accounting for this rising interest in clinical specialisation.

        Aside from influencing what today's psychology students will be studying, why is the rise in clinical specialisation of interest? Well, if psychology is increasingly attracting students who have an individual focus on psychological matters, it becomes more likely that their own personal motivations will also influence how they approach and how they apply what they study. This becomes all the more obvious when we consider the "wall" that psychology students and trainees seem to hide behind. It is as though they wish to mask the personal motivations that drive them to enter the field. For instance, it is interesting that those in the clinical and counselling fields tend to avoid doing studies in which they and their graduate student peers are the focus of investigation. Where such studies are conducted, the results are usually not published in mainstream journals. In fact, a recent literature search showed that when such studies were conducted, they were usually in the form of dissertations (e.g., D'Avanzo 1995; Koch 2000; Farber 2000; Dearing 2001; Ault 2001). The implication here is two-fold. First, given that some students are conducting entire dissertations on the topic, it is obvious that some people consider student motivations an important area to investigate. Second, because few people are keen to publish the results of these dissertations in journals, the question arises whether psychology as a field is ashamed of or trying to hide something. I argue that it is. It is trying to obscure the potentially negative impact that some future psychologists' personal motivations and characteristics may have on the field as a whole.

The influence of prestige, competitiveness, and the business spirit

        Many students want to pursue degrees and jobs in clinical and counselling psychology because they are perceived to be prestigious and well-paying. Indeed, psychology students appear to overestimate starting salaries in the field (Briihl 2001). They also pursue elite programs even if these programs do not agree with their own philosophical orientations to psychology. If students are pursuing studies which—all other things being equal—they would not normally pursue, then students are probably doing only enough work to get good grades but not enough to delve deeper into significant intellectual and clinical issues. Clearly, if the intrinsic motivation is not there, why bother going above and beyond what is required to earn a good grade? I think many of today's psychology students—the Millennials—are contributing to what Allan Bloom (1987) calls the "Closing of the American Mind". Their work may be good—if not fabulous—but it is not necessarily advancing the field as a whole. More unfortunate is that faculty actually foster these attitudes by emphasising prestige and advancement over quality of intellectual development. The head of a major graduate psychology program at a large Canadian university recently told me in personal correspondence that a degree in clinical psychology differs from one in counselling psychology because the former is more prestigious. He did not have much more to say about the differences between the two.

        Excessive competition between students is another influence on the field. Several decades ago, students were able to get into whatever graduate programs they wanted to. This is not the case today. The result is a hyper-competitiveness between students and, in turn, a near complete lack of teamwork. Students in past collaborated to work through deep philosophical issues, but today they keep to themselves, pursuing their own ideas independently. This type of attitudes does little to advance new ideas in the field—but is, of course, very consistent with the ways of business. Indeed, as students ramp up competition with one another, they come to "patent" their ideas and sell them to the highest bidder (see Press & Washburn 2000). We are already witness to this with the "branding" of such products as the MMPI® and the PCL-R® (Psychopathy Checklist). Without a doubt, the original spirit of academia is quickly fading, perhaps no more so than in the field of psychology.

The influence of the "worldly", yet uninformed, tunnel-vision student

        Yesterday's students made a greater effort to be informed about everything going on around them. Today's students are more likely to be narrowly focussed on their own individual studies and progress and, consequently, see psychology as playing only a few roles (e.g., fulfilling their own research agendas or, more basically, providing them with a healthy paycheque). While today's students are well-travelled and do a variety of different things in their spare time (in fact, some feel they do too much, earning them the label of "Superkids": Kluger & Park 2001), they often do so more to beef up their résumés than to appreciate the world in all its dimensions. Their experiences are not ends in themselves, but means to something else: advancement. In this context, psychology comes to be seen as something fragmentary: it cannot be related in meaningful ways to life more generally. It is but yet another discrete professional "experience" to be accumulated all on its own. Psychology comes to mean nothing and, of course, there can be no intellectual curiosity about nothing. Indeed, there is little interest in such topics as history or systems of psychology, topics which help put discrete psychological issues into a bigger, integrated, meaningful context. As Woody (2002) found in a sample of advanced undergraduate psychology students, there were "serious deficiencies in their historical knowledge" of psychology (p. 1013).

        Lack of intrinsic interest in the field is clearly waning. Marchant (2002) confirms what is already generally well-known amongst psychology students and professors. In his sample of 83 educational psychology students, participants reported that they read an article more carefully if they knew they were going to be tested on it than if they were told that it was considered professionally important. Further, as Becker (2002) confirms, the first things psychology students look for on a course outline are due dates and holidays. Course goals, titles of articles, and topics of study generally receive less attention. Lowe and Brock (1994) found that even psychology students at the graduate level focussed more on short-term goals (e.g., requirements, readings) than on longer-range and global goals such as sharpening critical thinking skills.

        I recognise, of course, that time constraints probably also play a role in this (i.e., graduate students have so much work to do and, thus, little time to focus on anything beyond meeting basic requirements). However, it has been shown that building on one's longer-range, intellectual goals can actually improve performance of shorter-term goals. For example, becoming a better critical thinker can make reading and understanding psychological studies an easier and more efficient task. That shorter-term goals are still the focus of graduate study even when it is known that longer-term goals can be beneficial for the short term suggests that students' focus only on basic course requirements is probably due more to lack of intrinsic intellectual motivation than to time constraints. If longer-term, intellectual goals require intrinsic motivation and that motivation is simply not present, then such goals will not be a priority for students, even if they know they will be beneficial in the short term.

The influence of students' personality traits

        Do psychology students and trainees differ from people in the general population in terms of personality traits? If they do, are these traits "positive" or "negative". And how might they influence how students and trainees approach psychology?

The good part: Psychology students are generally a very well-adjusted group

        Lest it seem that this paper has an overly negative bent, it is important to emphasise that most psychology students have very good intentions and possess the kinds of characteristics that make for excellent thinkers, researchers, and clinicians (Shipp-Nelson 2000). It is generally found that psychology students' and trainees' above-average level of self control, open-mindedness, intellectual curiosity, empathy, and care orientation go a long way in helping them: understand multiple perspectives on a given issue; think laterally and "outside the box"; appreciate things from someone else's perspective; and appreciate people's multidetermined complexity. Further, such qualities as perseverance and a positive attitude, along with a strong locus of control, help psychology students and trainees persist even in the face of the most difficult challenges. Whether it be understanding a difficult theoretical concept or applying such a concept to therapy, all of these qualities can go a long way in making for an effective psychologist.

        Unfortunately, certain other traits can be—and often are—problematic, academically and otherwise. And indeed, they seem to be present in a significant minority of psychology students. For two reasons, I would like to focus on these traits as opposed to the more positive (and definitely more frequent) ones mentioned above. First, it should by now be obvious to those in the field how most students' and trainees' strengths and positive characteristics affect their education, training, and practice. We do not seem to be as well-informed about the influence of less positive traits. Second, positive characteristics have received more attention in the literature than potentially problematic ones.

Is there any truth to the negative stereotypes of psychology students and trainees?

        It is a common stereotype that those in psychology—particularly those who study mental health issues or treat clients—are somehow mentally unstable or emotionally deficient. As a psychology student myself, I am often included in that stereotype. One article in a popular magazine starts off: "Suicide, stress, divorce—psychologists and other mental health professionals may actually be more screwed up than than the rest of us) (Epstein 1997, p. 58). Is there truth to this stereotype? Well, it may not be as severe as the opener above suggests, but various lines of evidence do suggest that some of those who enter the field have some potentially troubling pre-existing qualities or issues that set them apart from the general population. It is, of course, true that there are troubled people in all sorts of professions and occupations. However, it seems not only that there is a greater proportion of them in such fields as psychology, but also that their characteristics, motivations, and personal issues may be more detrimental in this field than in others because they can, either directly or indirectly, intimately affect other human beings' lives. Psychology students themselves seem to be aware of this, at least at some level, because they report ambivalent feelings about those in their own profession. At least as regards psychotherapists, they report both idealisation and disdain towards them (von Sydow 1998).

        Let us explore how various personal traits and motivations can affect psychology education, orientation, and practice. We can start on the academic and theoretical side. Ault (2001) found that in her sample of graduate psychology students, several showed elevated scores on the clinical scales of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI)—a measure of psychopathological personality traits. These students ranked lower academically than students in the normal range. Further, as mentioned earlier, the tendency for some students to avoid participating actively in psychology class (such as by challenging the professor) can actually interfere with academic motivation (Japur 1999). If, as I have suggested, it is becoming more and more common for psychology students to be of the passive type because of their generational influences, than this finding may be troubling from a motivational standpoint. On another note, Orifici (1997) has found that students with an empirical and rational epistemology (and I argue that more and more of today's psychology students fall into this category) may shy away from thinking about more abstract, philosophical issues. Another interesting point involves what Ellenberger (1970) calls "creative illnesses". He believes that many of the personality theories that we feel are applicable to the general population often derive from the theorists' focus on their own personal problems. As (Monte 1999) writes:

Ellenberger's concept of "creative illness". . .asserts that theorists resolve a personal crisis by creating a theory that universalizes their distress. . .in theoretical constructs that purport to describe all people. . .It is by now abundantly clear that a theorist's personal experiences, conflicts, and idiosyncratic interpretations of social reality become that theorist's theory. Call it a "resolution of creative illness" or call it "reliance on personal sources." Either description communicates that personality theories are uniquely the harvest of the personalities that create them (p. 943).

        The potential impact of students' and trainees' personal characteristics on the practice of psychology are more troubling, because, as mentioned earlier, they affect those who receive psychological services. Recall that in her sample of graduate psychology students, Ault (2001) found some students had elevated scores on the clinical scales of the MMPI-2. From a clinical standpoint, this can interfere with practice. Depressed mood, for instance, can affect how clinicians perceive the severity of their clients' concerns (Herskovitz-Kelner 1997). Histrionic tendencies can lead to overreactions to clients' difficulties and, subsequently, can make those clients unnecessarily anxious or apprehensive. Suspiciousness can foster distrust of clients' motivations and encourage belligerent "probing" or overanalysis. Excessive fear of death can lead to poor empathy for clients experiencing distress related to dying (Kirchberg 1998).

        Individual attachment style can also be problematic. "Attachment style"—based on the work of John Bowlby (1969/1972, 1973, 1980) and expanded by Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991)—refers to the pattern of behaviours we exhibit when we experience personal threat. This pattern is modelled after the experiences we had with close caregivers during childhood. During times of stress, we learned of the extent to which close caregivers were available as safe havens. From this, we also came to develop a perception of our worthiness of receiving care from those close caregivers (i.e., we came to develop a model of ourselves as people). As adults, these perceptions influence how we relate to those close to us when we are in need of care, comfort, and a safe haven. Those with negative models of caregiver availability and negative models of self may reflexively see the world as cold and uncaring and themselves as unworthy of care. They may develop what is called a "fearful" attachment style in which they fear getting close to others, especially in times of stress. In one undergraduate psychology class on interpersonal relations, 26% of students were identified as having a fearful, insecure attachment style. They chose this as their most similar pattern of relating:

I am uncomfortable getting close to others. I want emotionally close relationships, but I find it difficult to trust others completely, or to depend on them. I worry that I will be hurt if I allow myself to become too close to others (Kim Bartholomew, personal communication, January 16 & 23, 2003).

In the general population, only about 5-10% of people identify as being fearfully attached (Berk, 1997: need to confirm with studies from AAI). It is interesting that such a large proportion of students in an interpersonal relations class identify themselves as fearfully and insecurely attachment. Again, there is the suggestion that those with pre-existing personal difficulties are drawn to the study of psychology. Of course, it might just be that those students in such a course want to take just that one course and not other psychology courses (i.e., they want to learn about their personal difficulties in terms of attachment styles, but not much else). However, most of the students in this class were psychology majors. This is all the more compelling when we consider the work of Roe (1957, 1956) and Roe and Lunneborg (1990). These researchers have found that relationships with parents and close caregivers and the attachment styles that are shaped by such experiences can actually predict career choice. This is potentially troubling because psychology students and trainees with an insecure attachment style may, for instance, lack the necessary boundaries to deal with clients who have their own security issues. These students' and trainees' insecurities may also affect how they receive and interpret feedback from their supervisors. During times of stress, some may even come to avoid their supervisors altogether. This can severely affect the quality of care that is delivered to clients. And of course, insecurely attached students may also end up centreing their research precisely around attachment issues, "creating illnesses" as Ellenberger (1970) writes and, consequently, overestimating the role that attachment plays in their clients' difficulties.

Overcompensating for perceived personal deficits?

        Hardy (1997) finds that students who report a history of psychological treatment are more likely than other students to pursue an advanced degree in clinical or counselling psychology. For the most part, this is consonant with the fact that most people enter the field from a position of altruism (e.g., Miller 1979). These students may have experienced their own suffering and want to "give back" to the community or help others avoid the pain that they themselves experienced. However, it seems that in the context of the findings discussed in this paper, some psychology students are also entering the field with the conscious (or usually unconscious) goal of "repairing" themselves, hiding from their own perceived personal shortcomings, changing society to reflect their own worldviews, or overcompensating for feelings of inferiority by entering a profession in which they can advertise and/or assert perceived superiority or psychological control over others. While this is probably the case in all professions, it seems to be more predominant in the helping professions. This is important to consider because these motivations, as mentioned earlier, are not conducive to effective psychological education or practice. They can, indeed, be harmful not only for those studying psychology and providing treatment, but also for those receiving psychological knowledge and treatment.

        The issue of perceived superiority seems to be the most troubling one and so I would like to turn next to the ideas of Alfred Adler (1926, 1964).

Alfred Adler and the role of the "inferiority complex"

        As our careers come to define more and more of our own individual identity, they come to consume our lives. As we read more and more about successful psychologists who have "made it" despite personal adversity, we come to value our membership in the professional psychological community. Those in the field essentially form a potent "in-group"—what can sometimes be a fertile breeding ground for ego inflation and self-satisfaction. Adler (1927) felt that one of the primary motivations in life is to overcome feelings of perceived inferiority:

The striving for significance, this sense of yearning, always points out to us that all psychological phenomena contain a movement that starts from a feeling of inferiority and reach upward. . . [T]he stronger the feeling of inferiority, the higher the goal for personal power. (Adler 1923, cited in Stein 2003a).

There are many ways to compensate for feelings of inferiority (i.e., to gain personal power), including following a particular career path:

. . .[C]ompensation is derived from whatever lifts [a person] above his present inadequate state and makes him superior to all others. This brings [him] to setting a goal, a fictitious goal of superiority which will transform his poverty into wealth, his subordination into dominance, his suffering into happiness and pleasure, his ignorance into omniscience, and his ineptness into creativity. This goal is set higher and will be adhered to more tenaciously the longer and more clearly [he] perceives his insecurity, the more he suffers from physical or mental impediments, and the more intensely he feels being neglected. If this goal is to be discerned [he] must be observed at play, at freely selected activities, or when he fantasizes about his future occupation (Adler 1914, cited in Stein 2003a).

Alfred Adler        Ample anecdotal evidence suggests that a sizable minority of psychology students and trainees experience feelings of inferiority because their behaviours appear to reflect an excessive need for inferiority compensation. In other words, some students appear to overcompensate—a tactic that can be deleterious for the field of psychology. For instance, a survey of my own peers shows that a significant number of them revel in the "power" they feel as their friends and acquaintances come to fear being "psychoanalysed" by them. My own observations of students and trainees has revealed that many of them try to compensate for feelings of inadequacy by playing the role of an omnipotent, all-knowing, and all-powerful therapist who is the client's only hope of a "cure". When such tactics have been rebuffed by clients, the results have been more than obvious; on one occasion, a clinical trainee blurted out to a group of students that his client was a "fucking bitch who doesn't listen to anything I say and doesn't do anything I tell her to".

        On other occasions I have witnessed several instances of projection (see Freud 1936) in which a student or trainee "deals with emotional conflict or internal or external stressors by falsely attributing to another his or her own unacceptable feelings, impulses, or thoughts" (American Psychiatric Association 1994, p. 756). One trainee said the following in front of a group of his peers: "What a loser my client is for not being able to ask a man to dance. Like how wimpy can you possibly be?" In this example, the trainee was disgusted with a quality (timidity, feeling inferior in the company of others) that he himself possessed and that he was reminded of in the presence of his client. It is, of course, recognised that we all get frustrated from time to time and need to "vent steam". However, we must consider deeper motivations when emotional outbursts are "over the top", and especially when they are turned into a spectacle in a front of gossipy audience.

        Clients can be severely affected by student therapists whose own personal conflicts are tainting the therapeutic alliance. They quickly pick up on therapists' incongruent feelings and consequently start holding back honest expression of their feelings. They come to hate—or even fear—their therapists. Fueled by inferiority feelings, the student therapist's seething anger or frustration not only can diminish his/her empathy and positive regard for the client—thus making therapy useless—but it can actually make therapy harmful. One clinician writes about his observations of therapists who work with schizophrenic clients:

[T]he schizophrenic person's tendency to externalise conflict can create problems in alliance formation. From the viewpoint of the therapist's countertransference, the alliance is most likely to suffer when the therapist limits his empathic involvement with this patient so as to protect himself from making contact with aspects of himself that are ego-alien. Unfortunately, the more primitive the patient, the more the patient threatens to make the therapist aware of forbidden aspects of his own self. To prevent this from happening, the therapist may choose to view the patient as incomprehensible so as to put a barrier both between himself and the patient, and between the reasonable and primitive aspects within himself (Selzer & Grimaldi 1993, p. 376).

In the above example, the therapist could—out of his own fears—literally try to "make the client crazy". Obviously, students' and trainees' perceived emotional shortcomings can make them cruel and callous. Nothing is more potent in creating negative countertransferences and dooming the therapeutic process. Part of successful therapy involves connecting with another human being who is part of the same world you live in, yet overcompensation and other defensive manoeuvers can completely undermine this. Indeed, as Adler writes,

Whoever strives for personal superiority prevents his connection with the community. He does not seek integration with others but their subordination. With that, he naturally disturbs the harmony in life, in the society and among his fellow human beings. Since no one is made to allow himself constantly to be under a yoke, those who seek to dominate. . .will face enormous difficulties. If they wish to bring their tendency toward overbearance and superiority into [their relationships], they must either find a partner [or client?] who appears to submit to them, or they must struggle with a partner [or client?] who also seeks superiority or victory. . .or can be enticed into it. In the first instance we see a transformation. . .to slavery, in the second there is a constant mutually generated struggle for power that has no promise of harmony (Adler 1926, cited in Stein 2003b).

It is abundantly clear that students' and clinical trainees' own personal issues and characteristics must be a topic of exploration is we are to preserve the dignity of psychology.

Patterns of help-seeking behaviour amongst psychology students and trainees

                Psychology students' help-seeking behaviour is another line of evidence suggesting that specific traits may influence their views and practice of psychology. Farber (2000) found that "while most [graduate psychology] students had sought or would be willing to seek help in the future, many would hesitate to do so" (p. 3917). Interestingly, this hesitation does not seem to be related to shame or stigma (Dearing 2001). Thus, other factors are obviously at play. I suggest that feelings of inferiority and their resultant overcompensations account for part of this pattern of help-seeking. If part of the reason I want to be a psychologist is to adopt the role of a superior, all-knowing professional in order to mask my own inferiority feelings, then I will avoid doing anything which I might perceive as threatening this image. Seeking help might be perceived as a sign of weakness and, thus, avoided at all costs.

        What is more telling about the Farber (2000) study is that it aimed to determine the extent to which personal psychotherapy was included in the graduate curriculum of APA-approved doctoral counselling programs. If some psychology students do possess certain potentially troublesome emotional and behavioural patterns that could interfere with their performance, then it is clearly distressing to learn that many programs do not openly advocate personal counselling for their students. Indeed, from my own queries to major graduate programs in clinical and counselling psychology, personal counselling is not even a requirement of the programs. It is rare that a graduate program will adopt the practice of psychoanalytic schools in which student must undergo their own therapy (in this case, an analysis) as a prerequisite for graduation. In fact, in one study, only 50% of doctoral clinical psychology students felt that personal growth work is essential in their training (Rothery 1992). This is not surprising, given that students and faculty in psychology departments feel that personal growth and awareness do not even need to be emphasised at the undergraduate level (e.g., Koch 2000).

        Over all, it seems that pragmatic goals of psychology training are simply not a priority (Coslin 1999). Unfortunately, psychology licensing bodies are starting to feel the same way. Len Bergantino, a clinical psychologist in practice for over 30 years, laments the decision of the California Board of Psychology to do away with the oral examination for new licensees—precisely the kind of test that evaluates a new psychologist's personal and clinical competencies. He writes:

The decision [of the Board] deals a final blow to a profession that will attempt to sell the words clinical psychologist to the public when all they have are people who are able to pass academic examinations...Wilfred Bion, the great British psychoanalyst, once said: "The entire psychoanalytic library is good for about the first hour and one half of an analysis. After that you have to know what to say to the patient." (Bergantino, 2003, pp. 21)

        This lack of emphasis on personal growth and development is especially troubling when we consider that it is not a temporary phenomenon. Indeed, practising psychologists themselves find that they are unlikely to seek help from their peers if they feel distressed. What is interesting is that even though psychologists outnumber psychiatrists by about three to one, psychologists are much less likely than psychiatrists to seek help from their peers (Epstein 1997). I might conjecture that psychiatrists are more likely to seek help from their peers because psychiatry's objective medical model takes emphasis away from actual personal problems in favour of more medical ones. Thus, for psychiatrists, seeking help is not necessarily going to be an angst-ridden affair. Psychologists, on the other hand, are trained to deal more specifically with the personal, emotional component of individuals' distress. They are, therefore, more likely than psychiatrists to encounter some uncomfortable—yet necessary—"digging" by their colleagues. Those who are scared of this sort of personal exploration will shun seeking psychologists for help—including psychologists and psychology trainees themselves. Given that psychologists and psychology students/trainees are less likely than those in the general population to seek help, it seems that perhaps they have a few things to hide—or are too afraid to shed their professional "armour". Whatever the case, it is clear that mental health issues do afflict psychologists and psychology students/trainees. More importantly, these issues are likely to impact education, training, and treatment precisely because they remain unexamined.

Psychology students' and trainees' characteristics in summary

        If the personality characteristics of those seeking counselling affect how receptive they are to treatment (e.g., West et al 1991), then surely the characteristics of those studying and providing counselling will affect the treatment itself. Over all, while I cannot argue that there is a particular "profile" of the kind of person who wants to study psychology, various observations do suggest that a sizable minority of psychology students and trainees possess certain characteristics which may directly or indirectly affect how they approach psychology and clinical practice. This is particularly troubling considering that psychology students and trainees—compared with non-psychology students and trainees—may lack insight into their more troubling traits (Baluch et al. 1996). Again, it should be emphasised that for the most part, psychology students and trainees are a very emotionally balanced group of individuals—more so, in fact, than the general population. However, there also appears to be a greater-than-average proportion of troubled individuals in the field and this requires attention because personal difficulties can adversely affect how psychology is approached and practised.

        Taken together, problem traits and dynamic conflicts—if left unchecked—can promote stereotypes of the "crazy" psychology student who can hardly help himself, let alone others. Given that the general public still sees psychology as a quasi-professional and often questionable field, the proliferation of emotionally distressed students, educators, and practitioners will do little to win the field much needed positive attention. Indeed, research already suggests that the general public perceives psychologists and psychiatrists as having negative traits (Bremer 2001). Psychologists are also regarded as less caring than non-psychologist counsellors and psychiatrists (Warner & Bradley 1991).

        Given the potentially troublesome influence of students' and trainees' traits or emotional distress, we need to pay more attention to personal characteristics when selecting graduate students for doctoral clinical and counselling psychology programs. Indeed, studies show that the heavy emphasis on academic qualities (e.g., high GPA, research experience) has no significant relationship—or even a negative relationship—with counsellor effectiveness (Weaver 2000; Pope 1996). Unfortunately, we may be narrowing down the applicant pool dramatically if we look for students who are qualified both academically and personally. Yet it may be worth it because, psychology students generally underestimate the extent that their personal qualities—whether positive or negative—will affect graduate admission (get reference). This means that students wanting to pursue advanced psychology degrees are not necessarily taking proactive steps to ensure that they are emotionally healthy.

Conclusions and recommendations

        Before concluding this paper and discussing recommendations, I would like to address a question that some of my peers have raised in reviewing this paper. Namely, can it be that studying psychology promotes the kinds of characteristics and behaviours that I have discussed in this paper? Can it be that studying psychology distresses people as opposed to the other way around? In other words, is the field of psychology itself a top-down influence on how it is approached, taught, and practiced?  I think that this could very well be a possibility. In this paper, however, I have discussed traits and motivations that have existed prior to students' commencement of psychology study. I have not investigated the possibility that my peers have raised. I encourage them to do so. However, my inclination is to believe that those who become troubled by studying psychology would eventually leave the field. Those who would continue studying it even after supposedly "becoming" distressed as a result might very well possess the potentially troublesome traits and motivations that I have focussed on in this paper (thus strengthening my hypothesis that bottom-up, student-oriented influences play a significant role in psychology orientation, education, and practice).

        Throughout this paper I have tried to show how student attitudes towards psychology have changed and how these changes have impacted the field. While it is obvious that larger, overarching social factors influence students (i.e, from the top down), students themselves bring a wealth of their own personal influences to the field (i.e., from the bottom up). We need to appreciate both of these influences to see where the field will be going—and, indeed, whether it will be able to survive. Students' personal characteristics seem to play a role in all aspects of psychology training: from thinking about psychology in general, to studying, research, and clinical practice. Taking time to think about these factors is by no means an exercise in indicting psychology students and trainees or fuelling popular stereotypes of the "crazy" psychology student. Rather, an appreciation of these factors can help us:

  1. realise that psychology is by no means a value-free, objective endeavour or field of practice (which can help us more clearly understand the role that personal subjectivity has in constructing psychological "reality" and "truth);

  2. understand how psychological theories are often motivated by personal concerns and, therefore, are not necessarily applicable to people in general;

  3. appreciate that psychology will change not only as a function of what recipients of psychological theories and therapies want, but also as a function of what students and practitioners want—both professionally and personally; and

  4. assist those students whose own traits or difficulties may interfere with their studies or with their interactions with clients (through remedial training, personal counselling, or stricter graduate selection criteria).

        In light of the observations made in this paper, I think it is fitting to offer some recommendations for the field. Nothing, of course, can be done to stop individual students' and trainees' personal characteristics and motivations from influencing their career choice and performance. In fact, doing so would turn psychology students into objective, robotic automatons devoid of any feeling or humanity—anything but the kind of person who can appreciate the study of human nature and be sensitive to those who need their assistance. What we can do, however, is take some steps to ensure that personal concerns do not adversely affect the field.

        The first thing we can do is actually acknowledge what is happening. Appreciating the potential influence of student characteristics can help bring to consciousness the personal defence mechanisms which may interfere with effective teaching, learning, and practice. The more that we keep these "skeletons in the closet", the more that they are seen as "deviant" by the general public and the more that they interact to become psychology's "dirty little secret". Years of clinical evidence show that when personal conflicts and defences are brought to the fore—such as through dynamic or person-centred psychotherapy—the less they interfere with an individual's functioning. Indeed, as Carl Rogers (1947) writes,

It would appear that when all of the ways in which the individual perceives himself—all perceptions of the qualities, abilities, impulses, and attitudes of the person, and all perceptions of himself in relation to others—are accepted into the organized conscious concept of the self, then this achievement is accompanied by feelings of comfort and freedom from tension which are experienced as psychological adjustment (see online).

This goal can, indeed, be put into practice. For instance, Fleming-Holland (2002) reports positive results from a workshop aimed at raising undergraduate psychology students' awareness of their own personal difficulties and their attitudes towards them. And Barnette (1989) found that group sessions with other psychology students was beneficial in enhancing students' self-actualisation.

        Once we become aware of these influences, demystify them, and eventually assuage our fears surrounding them, we can start to take proactive steps to ensure that they do not take on a life of their own and negatively affect the field. Again, individual counselling may be useful. So too may more effective career counselling which attempts to show students how their own personal needs and motivations affect their career choices—both positively and negatively. It is ideal that this counselling start in high school and not just during the college years.

        Perhaps more than anything, this paper is a clarion call to educators in psychology. William James used to talk to his students about the meaning of life and life's ideals (Wight 2003). While this may seem trite to modern educators and students alike, it certainly had an impact on the students in James's day. If history is any indication, the social interests of yesterday's psychology students are just not alive today (at least not to the same extent). But given that today's students are already primed to welcome the wisdom of perceived authority figures, educators are in a unique and very powerful position to help their students develop, clarify, and shape more socially oriented, altruistic and beneficent values, beliefs, and attitudes. While it may seem wholly inappropriate to bring such discussion into the "scientific enterprise", the future of psychology literally rests on it.

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