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Healthy Skepticism International News

August 2009

Review of Questionable Behaviour by Robert Spillane

Spillane R. Questionable behaviour: psychology’s undermining of personal responsibility. South Yarra, Vic. Michelle Anderson Publishing, 2009.

Description: xix, 268 p; 21 cm.

ISBN: 9780855723910 (pbk.)

In this book professor of management, Robert Spillane, sets out to ‘debunk’ the basis for some major schools of thought in psychology, arguing that too often psychological models of woman/man are based on a pseudoscientific and determinist view that robs people of moral agency and a capacity to make informed choices through recognising notions of right and wrong. Over the course of 8 chapters, Spillane critiques Freudian psychoanalytic models, Jungian concepts, Maslow’s hierarchies, Eysenck’s models for personality, Skinner’s behaviourism, and the concept of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The one chapter covering a psychiatrist that Spillane agrees with, is the chapter on Thomas Szasz, who, like Spillane, emphasises human agency and the twin constructs of freedom and responsibility.

Spillane writes in a skilful and pithy manner, pulling no punches in his carefully constructed critiques of some well known schools of thought found in psychological discourses. His main contention is that whilst these models emphasise different aspects of humanity, they share a model of humans being driven by forces outside of their conscious control, whether this comes from the unconscious, Pavlovian style learnt behaviour, or genetic endowment. To Spillane these models are inescapably deterministic and disconnect woman/man from her/his own agency as they are unable to accommodate fundamental concepts such as free will. This then opens up psychology to being used in a variety of ways, including cultural and political, to both curtail freedom and escape from having to take responsibility for one’s actions.

Whilst there is a lot of merit in Spillane’s argument I feel he falls into a similarly deterministic trap to those he is keen to criticise. Freedom and responsibility thus become a somewhat deterministic mantra viewed as sitting at an opposite and mutually exclusive pole to that of woman/mankind postulated by psychologists and psychiatrists. Somewhere in this dualistic and polarised discourse that Spillane embarks on, multiplicity and complexity seem absent, as do other important views (such as the social construct or Marxist one) and values (such as compassion and justice).

Perhaps the weakest chapter of the book was the last chapter critiquing ADHD. The chapter revolves around a critique of paediatricians Christopher Green and Kit Chee’s book Understanding ADHD. This is a book written for parents and therefore from an academic point view it does not contain the evidence that we rightly need to rebut; nor for that matter was Spillane’s the most convincing of rebuttals, as much of his critique was Spillane putting forward his polemics to counter those of Green and Chee.

Overall I think the book is well worth a read and it is thought provoking in many places. I doubt however, that this will become a ‘classic’.

Sami Timimi

Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist
Director of Postgraduate Medical Education
Lincolnshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust
Visiting Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Lincoln University



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