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Relationship Science and Pop Psychology: Can't We All Just Get Along?

We recently ran an article by Dr. Dylan Selterman, titled How to Deciper Your Date...with Science. In his article, Dr. Selterman critically examines a post on Psychology Today by Dr. Seth Meyers. Over the past week Drs. Meyers and Selterman had a lively exchange that we'd like to share with you, because their respective sentiments highlight the various approaches that are taken in understanding close relationships. More specifically, their exchange underscores how the mission of SofR differs from "pop psychology." (by the way, if you haven't read our Mission Statement, please do take a moment to do so!)

Note that we haven't broken any confidences by sharing Dr. Meyers' email to Dr. Selterman; Dr. Meyers posted his response on his blog and Psychology Today. Similarly, Dr. Selterman approved our posting his reply to Dr. Meyers.


May 22, 2014

Dr. Seth MeyersDylan,

I read your review of my article on Psychology Today, with it's inclusion as a "fail" and an example of bad science.

Honestly, I think your review is cattiness masked as intellectualism, or as you would not-so-modestly probably put it, "good science." Child, please.

In my wish to focus on how my article impacts the reading audience, I can confirm that I drew from about 15 years of clinical experience (working with people and their relationships) as I outlined the generalizations, and my academic work and trainings over the years formed the backdrop. As an aside, I'm curious as you explained relationship dynamics in your response article, how many years of clinical work have you engaged in?

Yet rather than take sides or to try to assume which position is better - because psychology is simply not a natural science, at least with our current understanding - I see value in research-based academia and pop psychology valuing each other and communicating in a way that spreads the word to the audience most effectively. In many of my articles, I cite various studies and am well aware of the value in that. But let's keep it real: A lot of relationship dynamics are awfully challenging to study or measure, which makes anecdotal data relevant and even necessary.

At the end of the day, I will always stand by the ultimate goal that drives me: to show people how to feel better about themselves and to go get in this life what it is that they most want.

I will publish a link to your article as well as my response on my blog; perhaps this will somehow help the readers for whom you profess such concern? Oops, there I went, stooping to a low level and colluding with the us vs. them mentality between academia and pop psychology that we've been stuck in for too long. Can't we all just get along? In fact, I'll propose a deal: If you value a pop psychologist's work, I'll continue to value a researcher's work.

Seth Meyers, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist



May 24, 2014

Dr. Dylan SeltermanHi Seth,

First let me say that I am sorry if I hurt your feelings. Work-based criticism can sting—I know this as well as anyone. As they say in The Godfather, this is business, not personal. Incidentally, I did not choose the “FAIL” photo that went with my post; the webmaster of the site posts pictures that go along with each article.

I agree that we have common ground to work with; we’re both striving for the same goal, which is to help people have happy and healthy social lives. We may, however, differ in our perspectives on how to best achieve that goal. I certainly didn’t mean to single you out. There are many articles on Psych Today (and on the internet in general) that contain unscientific relationship advice, and I wish I had the time to go through and critique them all. That may be a full-time job in itself.

I also wasn’t trying to sound overly “harsh.” Actually, I think my response was rather tame compared to some of the comments from my colleagues who saw your article after I reviewed it (some of whom called it “garbage,” “trash,” “junk,” and other non-PG rated adjectives which I won’t repeat here). At the same time, these colleagues uniformly praised my review article, with phrases like, “kudos,” “great job,” “good for you,” and “way to go, Dylan.”

The colleagues I refer to, by the way, have PhDs or are working toward finishing PhDs (meaning, they have substantial research experience and scientific background), and most of them belong to the International Association for Relationships Research (IARR)—have you heard of us? http://www.iarr.org/

I’m curious why you think so many professionals in this field would react so negatively toward your article, while reacting so positively toward mine?

The truth is that I do not speak with one voice, but rather with the voices of thousands in this field who hold the view that science is the best tool we have to understand human nature.

Most of my friends in the field are social/personality and developmental psychologists (like myself), although many are clinical/counseling psychologists, with years of clinical experience in addition to their research experience. I deeply value what they do, because they base their work on scientific findings. These folks draw on the research and (like me) express frustration and anger toward psychologists who ignore research and instead base their practices purely on anecdotal observations and instinct (which is often prone to biases and errors). My colleagues and I strongly believe that when you take anecdotal observations and equate them with scientific research, you may be unintentionally causing a lot of damage (though I have no doubt that your intentions are noble).

Having a degree in clinical psychology allows you to treat patients/clients in a therapeutic setting. It does not, however, automatically make you a credible source of information and advice for the rest of the population who are not in therapy. It would be a mistake to generalize idiosyncratic personal experiences with clients as being representative of the general population (Freud made this error in his work as well). If you only observe or work with people in a clinical setting, that could mean that your advice only really applies to the subset of people who are struggling with distress or dysfunction, and does not generalize to everyone else (this is known as “external invalidity”).

Truthfully, I have no beef with people giving advice based on anecdotal or clinical experiences, just as long as they openly admit THAT’S what they’re doing. I often do this with my students when I tell them personal stories; I’ll say something like, “Here’s my experience, but take it with a grain of salt because this might be a unique case…” Readers may mistakenly believe you are giving them advice based on scientific research, and we must correct this misperception. If you had included a brief disclaimer along with your article—something along the lines of, “These views are based on my unique experience as a therapist,” or, “These experiences may not generalize to the rest of the population who are not in therapy,” that would have been a substantial improvement.

Maybe there is some validity to your ideas—but we won’t know for sure until they are tested using scientific methods (something measurable and quantitative). A good writer will let readers know this (e.g., “Here’s my hunch, although this hasn’t been tested yet…” or, “Here are my thoughts on this, although I’m not basing this on scientific research…”). The bottom line is that you confidently presented a lot of advice as fact, even though it was not based on anything empirical. This is what irks me, and why I felt the need to write a post that addressed your article. Also, when I read your, “cattiness masked as intellectualism” line, I couldn’t help but be gleefully reminded of this Family Guy quip: https://myspace.com/dave_mcsharry/video/shallow-and-pedantic/26813275 and your “child, please” comment conjured fond memories of Dr. Andre Nowzick http://youtu.be/29fu2WDtHos

I’m not sure what you meant when you suggested that research-based academia and pop psychology should value each other. I see very little value (if any) in pop psychology. Scientific research is absolutely, without question, a superior approach, especially when it comes to relationships and dating. I don’t think you understand what science is, or what purpose it serves. If this were a conflict between two legitimate opinions about abstract interests (like which Beatles album is their “best” one), then I would agree we should hear each other’s arguments with mutual respect and come to some agreement in the middle ground. But this is not one of those cases. Saying that pop psychology is equally beneficial as psychological science is like saying that a flat earth theory is equivalent to the idea that the earth is round. There is substantial evidence to support the big bang theory—there is no evidence to support creationism. To quote Neil deGrasse Tyson, “The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.” http://efficientexercise.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/NDT-science.jpg

In my view, pop psychology is equivalent to astrology. It’s a pseudoscience. If you want to believe in it, that’s your right (you are free to do so). A lot of people love astrology, and they read horoscopes every day. But scientists don’t make behavioral predictions based on constellations, and intelligent readers understand that there is no credible evidence to suggest that people have different personalities based on birth signs (same goes for “psychics” and Scientology). Honestly, I don’t value pop psychology. I think it’s damaging. But you are free to express your pseudoscientific views if you wish. I certainly can’t stop you. But I can let readers know that there is a (better) alternative. I might be giving your readers more credit than you do! I think your readers are curious, open-minded, resourceful folks, who will be drawn to science as a path to knowledge and health.

Going forward, I strongly suggest that you pick up a recent issue of Personal Relationships, or the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (two high quality journals with evidence-based information about dating and interpersonal relationships). My colleagues and I would love it if you applied scientific research to your dating advice in the future.

In addition, here is the SofR mission statement in full, and I hope you read it (I did not write it but my colleagues did): http://www.scienceofrelationships.com/missionstatement/

Money quote: “At ScienceOfRelationships.com we base every article in the ever-growing scientific literature on relationships. There's so much bad information out there, and the key is getting high quality information out to the broadest possible audience in an interesting and useful way so that people start to ignore and/or question the bad information that is out there.” Our motto is “The important things in life deserve data.”

Thank you for publishing a link to my post on your blog. I would do the same for you if I had a blog. I always embrace healthy debate and discussion about such important matters. I may decide to do a follow up piece for SofR in the future, based on our conversation.

Science, FTW!

Warm regards,


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