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[Book Review] Psychology and Capitalism by Ron Roberts


I am not sure if this is necessarily a review, for me this piece of writing will be more of a reflection after reading. Especially for people who aspire to be psychologists and purport to be humanists, there is likely only very few other available modern works that is as important as Psychology and Capitalism: The Manipulation of Mind.

This work of critical psychology revolves around these major themes, which psychology as a field has played a part in: alienation of the human condition by capitalism, perpetuation of mental health oppression, promotion of surveillance, militarism and social control, and pretending to be value-free and independent from political influences.


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The book takes off with revisiting the history of psychology as a field and reveals the lasting influence of capitalistic forces and politics on its growth. It sheds light on how psychology as a young discipline attempts to be recognized as a science and joining the Big Science movement through adopting pure quantitative methodology from already established sciences and statistics (‘the science of the state’-a field that was born just to enhance surveillance of people), and alienating and distancing itself from the psychoanalysts, humanists, and qualitative researchers. Through this, psychology as a field essentially sold its soul (which it initially intends to study) to the rich and being bent as one of capitalism’s most dangerous tool. Businesses use psychology to manage their organizations and manipulate consumer behavior to further expand their businesses and accumulate more wealth for the already wealthy. In the hands of the military, psychology becomes a tool of interrogation, torture, social control, and even military operations (‘PSYOPs’). Some of the most influential psychological scientists and organizations have close ties with these complexes, and while they should not be outright be dismissed as evil, it is important for scholars of psychology to be aware of the potential evil of these relations.

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This book also actively talks about the mental health industry and the DSM (the holy bible of psychiatry and psychopathology) and how it is probably not as scientific as it purports to be. The industry actively pinpoints the causes of mental illnesses as biological-medical, and often ignores the economical, personal, legal, and sociopolitical factors (which may be very well perpetuated by the capitalistic industry itself as suggested by the book). While these claims may not be outright legitimate, Ron Roberts had a couple of good points worthy of attention, which demonstrate the incentives to use psychology and the mental health industry as a tool for social control.

‘Anger is the most pathologised emotion of all-when it is the emotion most needed to bring about constructive change’,

The book’s final point revolves around psychology’s obsession to be recognized as a science while allowing its traditional academic values to be devoured by the highest bidder. The noble intentions of studying human mind and behavior may over time be twisted to be a subordinate to the ‘calculus of profit and loss’. This is indeed worrying if scholars of the sciences continue to study without being aware of their own ideologies and what part they want to play in mankind’s history, which in turn allows themselves to be guided by the tides of monetary gain. The book calls for all who pursue psychology with a passion to recognize and resist the political forces that shapes the purpose of psychology, and in turn intervene to change the world with a humanist vision.


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Ron Robert’s own tone of the future of psychology is cynical: he believes that the contemporary form of psychology needs to be done with and leave to the other social sciences to better understand the human condition. This is not a vision we all share. Thankfully, his cynical sentiments are not echoed by many and certainly not by this review or reflection. Psychology’s saving grace lies with the newer generation of psychology scholars and psychologists who enter the field with noble intentions to improve lives. It is time psychology adopts a new vision that transcends the primitive standards of the classical sciences and stop trying to be part of them, but to interpret the human condition and functioning in a meaningful way through acknowledging the element of history and forces of politics that is prevalent in psychology. Perhaps a good start would be to actively promote the notion of ‘self-bracketing’ in academic reports of all kinds: communicate with the audience what point of view is the researcher coming from and why would this study probably be important for academia and society. If anything is important for the public at large to acknowledge, it is that science has always been inherently a social and human activity, and is therefore prone to imperfections. But it is these imperfections that gives meaning to all sciences, to continuously progress and change across human history.


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Jia Yue Tan
JY is a counselling trainee at Monash University Malaysia under the Master of Professional Counselling program and writes psychology articles to procrastinate from his counselling paperwork and assignments. His interests are in individual differences, psychotherapy, and helping the public understand psychology(s) as a profession. Occasionally reviews books and promote person-centered psychotherapy.

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