Alternative medicine

The psychology of alternative medicine

“Pseudoscience is popular because it confirms what we believe; science is unpopular because it makes us question what we believe. Good science, like good art, often upends our established ways of seeing the world.” —Carol Tavris, social psychologist

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With Gwyneth Paltrow’s new Netflix docuseries, The Goop Lab, slated to launch on January 24, 2020, the quasi-healthcare approach known as alternative medicine is also set to bask in the limelight of mainstream television. Topics in the six-episode show include energy healing, psychedelic drug use, exorcisms, cold therapy, anti-aging, and female sexuality. More generally, goop the brand has promoted other similar alternative medicine topics, such as past life regression therapy – a unethical treatment in the case of mental health disorders – and provided a platform for Medical Mediuma brand that promotes potentially dangerous treatments, like celery juice for addiction.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health defines alternative and complementary medicine (CAM) as health care approaches that are not usually part of conventional medical care. The term “alternative medicine” is preferred when a non-traditional practice is used in place of conventional medicine, while the term “complementary medicine” is preferred when a non-traditional practice is used in conjunction with conventional medicine.

Although it has been argued that alternative medicine practices may be plagued by ethical difficulties and that promoters often promote a philosophy based on logical errorsit is important to develop an accurate understanding of what drives many people to seek out these types of treatments.

An obvious and important driver towards CAM is the sad reality that current conventional medicine treatments do not work for everyone. Indeed, conventional medicine works by using the scientific method as a mechanism for acquiring knowledge and there is simply more knowledge to be acquired. There are currently a range of treatments that have varying levels of evidence and theoretical support that fall under the CAM umbrella. This means that some, but not all, current treatments that are understudied and considered CAMs (for example, some psychedelic-based treatments for certain mental health disorders) may one day reach the somewhat arbitrary threshold where they can be considered within the realm of evidence-based medicine. But everyone who has failed to benefit from the uses of conventional medicine, fails to find the benefits and ultimately does not believe in CAM. What other factors might be at play?

A study published in Personality and individual differences offered a first empirical insight into the psychology and attractiveness of CAM approaches.

This particular study administered self-report questionnaires to a sample of over 3,000 people (mostly university students) to assess attitudes towards CAM approaches, individual differences in thinking styles (intuitive vs. rational), paranormal beliefs, magical beliefs about food and health and values. . The researchers found two main findings:

  1. A tendency towards intuitive thinking (not rational thinking) was positively associated with a belief in alternative medicine.
  2. The strongest predictors of CAM beliefs believed in the paranormal and held magical beliefs about food and health.

These results are interesting. First, they suggest that CAM believers differ from non-believers in terms of information processing. While CAM believers are more likely to rely on an intuitive thinking style – a kind of unconscious, quick and effortless thinking style that uses personal experiences, feelings and concrete images and stories – the non -believers in CAM are more likely to rely on a rational thinking style that employs conscious reasoning and mental effort, using objective information and a willingness to adjust conclusions in light of new facts.

Second, the results suggest that those who believe in CAM are also more likely to hold paranormal beliefs that would violate the laws of nature (e.g., clairvoyance, telepathy, and astrology), as well as magical beliefs related to food and health (for example, that a person’s health can be influenced by sources such as a stone or a hand via some kind of enigmatic essence such as energy or vibration).

How might these results be useful?

The results suggest that there are particular psychological variables that can predict belief in and possible use of CAM practices. Additionally, the researchers note a very astute point: that CAM practices are often promoted and marketed in a way that appeals to a non-rational, intuitive style of thinking, using oversimplified explanations of problems and solutions, familiar and concrete concepts, and with reference to personal experience, anecdotal evidence and testimonials.

The results of this study are in synergy with the work of Timothy Caulfield, professor of health law and science policy and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow wrong about everything? Professor Caulfield recently called for encouraging critical thinking and using the power of history to win the fight against health-related misinformation. This is important given that many CAM practices are underpinned by potentially harmful pseudoscientific ideas – so it is in the service of health care advocacy to correct CAM-related misinformation by appealing to our both rational and intuitive.