Sunday, July 15, 2018
Woozling Parental Alienation
Like many other poorly substantiated events and entities, some alternative psychotherapies get woozled. The ones that don’t get woozled do not have much success.
Alterative psychotherapies (APs) are the psychological equivalents of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), but as they are hardly ever used in a “complementary” fashion, along with conventional evidence-based treatment, it makes sense to call them “alternative” alone. APs are lacking in research support, but they are also implausible—illogical, incongruent with what we know about development and personality, and dependent on unlikely mechanisms of change. They are potentially harmful, sometimes seriously so, but always causing harm in the sense of wasting time and money that could be invested in effective treatment. APs are not the same thing as experimental treatments; those are interventions that have not yet been supported by empirical work but that are logical, congruent with established information, and dependent on well-understood mechanism of change. Genuinely experimental treatments are used in ways that allow information about their effectiveness to be collected, but APs are not.
Woozling is a process by which people come to think that something exists or is effective just because they have heard of it before. This useful term comes from the Winnie the Pooh story in which Pooh and Piglet interpret their own tracks in the snow as an indication of ferocious beasts they call woozles—there’s no sign of the woozles except that Pooh and Piglet have seen those tracks before.
How can psychotherapies become woozles? Like the celery stick the toddler refuses the first time he sees it, but accepts after several presentations, woozled therapies begin to look acceptable to many when they become familiar—even if they might seem ridiculous at first sight. Therapies that are somehow connected with emotional attachment tend to be easily turned into woozles, because the concept of attachment is now so familiar. This process has occurred with a range of APs that claim a basis in attachment: Attachment Therapy, Holding Time, Festhaltentherapie, Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy. When a woozle has developed, its proponents benefit because they no longer have to argue in favor of their assertions when “everybody knows” that something is correct.
Like the Bellman in “The Hunting of the Snark”, who said “what I tell you three times is true”, proponents of APs often depend on simple repetition to make their audience familiar with their claims and to facilitate the woozling process. But the world of the Internet offers many other routes to woozle status for AP advocates: Facebook pages, organizations of concerned supporters, and easy publicity in general. We are presently seeing the woozling process at work, as proponents of “parental alienation” (PA), its diagnostic methods, and its proposed treatments move forward to take PA out of the confidentiality of the family courts and into the public domain, so that public attitudes and pressure can in their turn exert pressure on the courts.
To recapitulate briefly, the theory of “parental alienation” is that in many cases where children of divorced couples are reluctant to visit one of their parents, the reason is that the other parent has created a state of alienation by persuading the child that the rejected parent is bad, abusive, or whatever. PA proponents have argued (without presenting supportive evidence) that alienated children suffer from deficits in critical thinking and/or may develop narcissistic traits, and therefore are developing both intellectual and emotional problems that will become quite serious. Because the preferred parent has caused these changes, the PA advocates argue, that parent has been abusing the child and should therefore lose custody. Several programs are offered with claims to restore the child to emotional health as indicated by a new acceptance of the formerly-rejected parent; all of these involve court orders for removal from any contact with the preferred parent.
The assertions of PA proponents are without acceptable empirical support and have other parallels with the alternative psychotherapies (APs) described earlier. They are working toward woozle status, though. How, then, is the woozling process going on?
There are many people who want to create a PA woozle, but I am going to choose one who gives a good example of how this can happen. This person, who has done absolutely nothing illegal or even obviously unethical, is Jennifer Harman of Colorado State University. She is a psychologist by training, apparently not a licensed clinical psychologist, but a “coach” who provides services . Harman has had a very active professional life (psy.psych.colostate.edu/psylist/Harman.pdf) with a long-term interest in health issues, particularly HIV. In 2016, it appears, she made her first presentation about PA.
So why do I point to Harman as an example of PA woozling? First of all, she has initiated the Colorado Parental Alienation Project, in which, as far as I can tell, she will have undergraduate research students analyze interviews with persons who believe they have been affected by parental alienation; this project is discussed at This seems to have become rather a tradition among PA researchers—find some people (rejected parents or rejecting children) who believe that PA has occurred, then ask them about it, but don’t compare them to people who do not believe this has happened to them. Do, however, make this research project widely known so that PA becomes familiar to a wide audience. . In other words, like the PA proponent Amy Baker, it appears, she is collecting information from people who believe they have lost their children’s affection because their ex-spouses campaigned to denigrate them, rather than for any of the other reasons (not even including experiences of abuse) why a child or teenager might resist contact with someone.
In a conspicuously woozling move, Harman had at the time of the CV linked above made a grant application for a project on strategies to address PA in schools. This is indeed a classic woozling approach, successful for organizations like Love & Logic and of course for a myriad of APs dating back to “patterning”. Put your assertions in front of teachers and parents, as well as kids who will learn from them, and the familiar woozle will begin to emerge, helped along by TV and print journalists who will announce the services the schools are providing.
But, you say, don’t people using conventional psychotherapies do these things too? Don’t they have websites, have research projects and advertise for participants, and offer training to schools? Yes, indeed they do. So why are those treatments not woozles? It’s because they have bothered to find the empirical support for their programs first , before making these public presentations. They have demonstrated effectiveness, not just assertions. Woozles, in contrast, use public presentation and the ensuing familiarity of their ideas to create an impression of empirical support when there is none—and this seems to be the direction some PA proponents are presently going.
Once again, I do not say that Harman is doing anything illegal, or even anything unethical by any ordinary professional guidelines. She has a perfect right to use information she believes is correct for any purpose she can. The problem is that while she and others move PA closer to woozle status by making it familiar to the public, it becomes essential for psychologists, lawyers, and other professionals to spend more of their time on anti-woozle duty and on communicating the realities to each other as well as to the wider audience. When presenting about PA at ABCT a couple of years ago, by the way, I got the distinct impression that few of the psychologists there had ever even heard of PA—that’s why I point out the need to communicate to each other as well as to the public.