Being a Good Consumer of Psychological Advice

“Karen*” has become famous. Everyone knows a Karen – many of us know many Karens. Karen has a lot to say about a lot of things. Karen wants you to know what she knows – and she knows a LOT!

A Karen is a person who has opinions, but lacks evidence – at least, valid evidence. Karen starts sentences with “Have you ever tried X” (where “X”= a home remedy, behavioural strategy to manage ADHD-related symptomology in your kids, or any number of possible areas of “expertise”). Karen’s sources come from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and various questionable websites. Karen’s main source? “They.” A Karen will let you know the latest about what They are saying about nutrition. And working out. And supplements. And skin care. And, most distressingly, what to do to manage your psychological health. Karen treads dangerous territory when she does this – and she likely doesn’t even know it.

As a psychologist, I have a specific interest in ensuring that we do the very best we can as professional to embed our interactions and particularly our recommendations in evidence. Evidence does not exclusively mean experimental data (though that’s a great place to start!). It can mean more qualitative approaches. It may be based on clinical experience, coupled with strong and meaningful theory. Psychology is, at its core, a science – while over time, there has been some diffusion of the science aspect of psychology and perhaps an overemphasis on the art of practice, the fact remains that our roots as psychologist lie in evidence. Our regulatory boards take that commitment very seriously and so do I.

So, it concerns me when the general public, who may or may not understand the difference between a psychologist and a well-intentioned individual, are provided with advice from folks who, best intentions aside, have no accountability or responsibility for the claims they make. I’d offer an example that may be familiar, but there are too many to select from – and understand that I am not discounting alternative approaches to psychological wellness. There are, without question, certain things people can do that may enhance psychological wellness that are not based in evidence. But that is not what we are talking about – we are talking about folks who make recommendations to vulnerable people based on little to no (to actually verifiably false) evidence.

As a consumer, it is wise to ask a few questions before engaging in a path to wellness that may be lacking in evidence:

  1. Who is the source? Some people take on personas of expertise and what they say sounds great…but what is their background and experience? Just because someone has experienced personal trauma does not make them an expert on YOUR trauma. We can certainly empathize with their pain and their hopes to support others who have had similar experiences – but personal experience does not exclusively imply expertise.
  2. What is their motivation? We all like to be liked and admired – is that perhaps what is driving the narrative they are promoting? Do they stand to gain financially? Full disclosure: I get paid to be a psychologist. So do I gain financially? Yes. Is that my motivation? Absolutely not! I would have bailed on such a demanding career were it not for the non-financial rewards of feeling a sense of pride and connection with my clients and students. Are they looking for personal validation? For more social media followers? What drives them to try to steer you in a certain direction?
  3. What about those who ARE qualified? Is their advice always to be taken at face value? Nope – not at all. Again, full disclosure – I have provided some absolutely miserable advice to my clients in the past – but, I learn. And I certainly acknowledged when I’ve been wrong. I have never claimed to be an expert (though others have called me so), but I do claim expertise in certain areas. And I work exclusively and only within those areas. It’s dangerous and potentially unethical for psychologists to deviate from our areas of expertise, or to offer recommendations to clients that could be, in many cases, actually harmful. I know of at least two psychologists who have recommended drinking to their clients/ followers. I mean, okay, we all have our strategies, but if the best you have as a psychologist is “Drink through it,” perhaps it’s time to brush up on your clinical skills.

So, to the Karens and others who provide advice in areas in which they have limited to no expertise or supporting evidence, I suggest that your opinion is as valid as anyone else – but without evidence your opinion is only an opinion. To consumers, engaged in some optimistic skepticism – maybe something good IS being said – but don’t swallow the pill until you know what the medicine is.

*Of course, the use of the name Karen does NOT intentionally or unintentionally represent any real person named Karen! So, apologies for any unintended offense any real “Karen’s” out there – I know that you’re better than this!