Psychology Today

In a simpler era, Dr. Joyce Brothers was criticized by many of her colleagues for dispensing advice via radio without having the time to thoroughly probe the caller's condition. Now we have Dr. Phil, who is more than willing to churn out coast-to-coast counseling for someone who is not even under his care, provided her first name is Britney.

So it would seem that it when it comes to healing our emotional wounds, we can choose the quick and painless route huckstered by TV shrinks. Or the slow and methodical journey espoused by psychologists who are -- how best to phrase this? -- respected by their peers.

That's what makes Psychology Today such a fascinating read. It seems to offer a little something for those on both paths. I remember years ago when my sister, who was a clinical psychologist at a state hospital, described PT as a consumer magazine that some people think of as a trade magazine, and she did not mean it unkindly. So it still seems to be. The May/June issue contains lengthy features that are probing and insightful, yet also contains short, choppy front-of-the-book stuff that seems oddly out of place for a publication with so many Ph.D.s on the masthead.

On the plus side, take "The Freelance Personality" by Amy Rosenberg, must reading for so many of today's work-from-homers (myself included). It's also a piece that contains one of the all-time great ledes: "I should have started this article two weeks before I actually did." The advice about how to effectively be your own boss while wearing pajamas is quite profound.

Similarly, "Awkward Encounters of the Friendly Kind" by Carlin Flora provides real and practical insights into challenges that await on the flip side of friendship: growing apart, staying pals with the opposite sex, going into business with a buddy. The tone is practical, yet infused with real psychological knowledge.

The other long features are good reads as well, especially "A Fateful First Act" by Emily Laber-Warren, an examination of all things utero that details what really goes on during those action-packed nine months. The cover story -- on surviving tough times -- uses evergreen advice in a timely way. As for the cover photo, it doesn't seem to be as over-the-top as some other recent examples, but then I've never typed "long haired girls in full body suits of armor" into Google Image Search, so maybe it touches a nerve for a certain subset after all.

There's also a truncated but sober look at a hot-button topic: the Pentagon's recent ruling that service members who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder are not eligible to receive the Purple Heart, the military decoration awarded to those wounded or killed while serving. Two sincere and thoughtful opposing viewpoints of about 100 words each are put forth, but they read like executive summaries rather than the passionate, fleshed-out essays both authors seem more than capable of providing.

Of course, all magazine editors have to fight the battle of the word count. PT does this by squeezing in a lot of short items, on topics ranging from orgasms to olives. However, what one doesn't expect is glibness, yet PT provides plenty of that as well. Sure, it's a consumer magazine, and we all know how tough it is to provide compelling and entertaining editorial content. But isn't painting with a broad brush the antithesis of journeying toward meaningful psychological awareness?

In "Buyer Declare," are we really supposed to buy into the tongue-in-cheek assertion that all Buick owners voted for W and attended either Princeton or West Point? That all Mini owners read Harper's? That all Volvo owners are reliable and pay attention to detail? This, after all, is Psychology Today, not a checkout-line tabloid.

What's more, lay persons might be forgiven for doubting the questionable science behind the research that claims standardized test scores among African-Americans in 2008 increased by 1.5 points after Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination, and by 1.6 points after he won the presidency. Considering how many hundreds of variables must comprise such results, these conclusions rocket past "lies" and "damn lies" and shoot straight toward "statistics."

Psychologists have taken quite a few lumps from many other scientists over the years, but the idea that they practice a science that can bring peace to troubled psyches is both soothing and reassuring to many. Yet there's little that's soothing or reassuring about certain articles. For example, the panel of experts culled for the "Mind Your Manners" piece on enforcing rules of etiquette spews forth some surprisingly snippy opinions. One refers to a "clown" soliciting free psychological advice at a party. Another summarizes his offense at strangers saying "God bless you" after a sneeze thusly: "Under few other circumstances would an unknown person be allowed to comment on your body and its functions, let alone provide religious counsel."

Ouch. Note to self: Stifle all "gesundheit" urges while in the midst of recalling the most painful childhood traumas.

The fact of the matter is, I can't be too glib about psychology, since like millions of others I believe it helped save my life. But what I find most striking about Psychology Today is this weird balance between the insightful and the slick. Yet it would seem that for many subscribers, it's a formula that works.

In fact, the final letter in this issue contains a rather surprising summation from a reader who uses only an email tag as identification: "Wonderful magazine, even better Web articles and blogs. PT has profoundly helped me to know myself better and to become free from anxiety, phobias, and OCD. It's amazing how I tried so hard to solve my problems and now just by reading these articles I found all the answers. Thank you."

Wow. Assuming this declaration is sincere, does the editorial staff itself really believe it's possible to find all the answers to such vexing issues in Psychology Today? For $15.97 a year? Jeez. Some of us paid $125 for 50 minutes, and for years and years. Yet we've still got quite a ways to go. Maybe we should've bought Volvos.


Published by: Sussex Publishers

Frequency: 6 times per year

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2 comments about "Psychology Today".
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  1. Drew Eastmead, May 28, 2009 at 2:21 p.m.

    Nice review; great insights and observations about the mag's content. I feel like I have perused one of these issues myself now.

  2. Tameka Kee from ContentNext Media, Inc., May 28, 2009 at 3:54 p.m.

    Ditto. You've actually made me want to go out and get this issue. Nice job.

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