The psychologist’s fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when an external observer assumes that their subjective interpretation of something represents the objective nature of that thing. Most notably, this is associated with the mistaken assumption that your (third-person) interpretation of someone else’s mental state (e.g., how they feel or what they think) is necessarily correct and identical to their (first-person) experience of it.
For example, the psychologist’s fallacy occurs when a psychologist assumes that their interpretation of how a patient feels must be true, and that the way they describe the patient’s feelings must perfectly capture the exact nature of those feelings.
The psychologist’s fallacy can play an important role in many contexts, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the psychologist’s fallacy, see what you can do to respond to its use by others, and understand how to avoid using it yourself.
Examples of the psychologist’s fallacy
An example of the psychologist’s fallacy is a psychology researcher who writes a report about a participant in an experiment after observing them, and assumes that the report is necessarily a full and correct representation of how the participant felt.
Other examples of the psychologist’s fallacy are the following:
- A parent who assumes that their interpretation of their child’s emotional state must necessarily be correct.
- Someone who, during an argument with their romantic partner, says something insulting, and assumes that they then understand exactly how their partner felt when they heard it.
- Someone who watches a news story on a tragedy and assumes that they fully understand the thoughts and emotions of the people who went through the tragedy.
- An executive who, during a business negotiation, assumes that they understand exactly what the other party in the negotiation is thinking, based on their actions.
Note that in all these examples, it’s possible for the observer’s interpretation to be correct. However, this fallacy comes into play once the observer automatically assumes that their observation must be correct, especially in the absence of proper evidence.
How to avoid the psychologist’s fallacy
To avoid the psychologist’s fallacy, you should keep it in mind when trying to interpret—as an external observer—things such as the mental states of others. When doing this, you can also actively ask yourself whether you might be displaying this fallacy or are about to do so.
Furthermore, you should keep in mind the key errors in logic that are associated with this fallacy, by reminding yourself of the following:
- Your interpretations are subjective, and potentially influenced by various factors, such as cognitive biases.
- Your perception is limited, particularly when it comes to things that you cannot observe directly, such as emotions and thoughts.
- Your information is generally incomplete, so there may be important details that you’re unaware of when forming your interpretation.
In addition, there are other things you can do to try to improve your interpretations. For example, if you’re trying to interpret someone’s feelings, you can ask them to describe how they feel. Similarly, you can use debiasing techniques, such as slowing down your reasoning process and making it explicit, as well as exploring alternative interpretations and considering how likely they are. You can especially benefit from techniques meant to reduce the egocentric bias, such as self-distancing, since this bias is closely associated with the psychologist’s fallacy.
However, while these things may help you become more certain about your interpretation, you should avoid becoming overconfident in it, and instead remind yourself that despite all this, your interpretation might still be wrong. For example, even if you ask someone to describe their feelings, that doesn’t mean that they’ll tell you the truth, that they’ll be able to accurately describe their feelings, or that you won’t process their description in a biased way.
Finally, an important caveat is that all this doesn’t mean that your interpretations are necessarily wrong either. Rather, this simply means that you shouldn’t simply assume that your interpretations are necessarily right, especially in situations where you lack sufficient evidence in order to support them.
In summary, to avoid the psychologist’s fallacy, you should keep it in mind when trying to interpret events that you observe, and actively ask yourself whether you might be displaying this fallacy. You should also keep in mind that your interpretations are subjective, your perception is limited, and your information is incomplete, and you can also use other techniques, such as exploring alternative interpretations. However, you should also remember that your interpretations might still be wrong despite all this, though the fallacy doesn’t mean that your interpretations are necessarily wrong, only that they might be.
How to respond to the psychologist’s fallacy
The main way to respond to someone who is displaying the psychologist’s fallacy is to point out the error in their reasoning, and namely the assumption that their subjective interpretation of something represents the objective nature of that thing. For example, you can say something such as “your argument assumes that you know exactly how the other person felt, but there’s no way for you to know that for sure”. This can be particularly important when this false assumption is implicit, meaning that people rely on it in their reasoning but don’t state it outright.
When doing this, you can potentially also explain what this fallacy is exactly, and illustrate it and its associated issues using relevant examples. In addition, you might benefit from exploring the other person’s reasoning process, for example by asking them how they came to their interpretation, and how certain they are of it.
Finally, there are several other things that you can do when responding to the psychologist’s fallacy:
- Point out issues with the interpretation. For example, you can point out ways in which the interpretation is proven to be false.
- Point out issues in the interpretation process. For example, you can point out that the interpretation is based on incomplete information.
- Point out the limitations of the observer. For example, you can point out that they were wrong when it comes to several similar interpretations past interpretations. Alternatively, you can point out that every person’s interpretation can be influenced by issues such as cognitive biases, which we often underestimate; this is the case even when we are external and supposedly objective observers, and there are many biases that we are prone to in such situations, such as the egocentric bias and the empathy gap.
- Explore alternative interpretations. For example, you can propose alternative interpretations of an event, or ask them to come up with some alternatives, and then also ask them to consider how likely those interpretations are.
Alternative forms of the psychologist’s fallacy
The main conceptualization of the psychologist’s fallacy is the one that’s presented in this article. It was first proposed by William James, who described it as follows:
“The great snare of the psychologist is the confusion of his own standpoint with that of the mental fact about which he is making his report. I shall hereafter call this the ‘psychologist’s fallacy’ par excellence. For some of the mischief, here too, language is to blame. The psychologist, as we remarked above (p. 183), stands outside of the mental state he speaks of. Both itself and its object are objects for him. Now when it is a cognitive state (percept, thought, concept, etc.), he ordinarily has no other way of naming it than as the thought, percept, etc., of that object. He himself, meanwhile, knowing the self-same object in his way, gets easily led to suppose that the thought, which is of it, knows it in the same way in which he knows it, although this is often very far from being the case. The most fictitious puzzles have been introduced into our science by this means. The so-called question of presentative or representative perception, of whether an object is present to the thought that thinks it by a counterfeit image of itself, or directly and without any intervening image at all; the question of nominalism and conceptualism, of the shape in which things are present when only a general notion of them is before the mind; are comparatively easy questions when once the psychologist’s fallacy is eliminated from their treatment…”
— William James, in “Principles of Psychology”, Volume I (1890, pp. 196–197)
However, additional forms of this fallacy have been proposed, by James and others, as shown in the following sub-sections.
Attribution of reflectiveness
Attribution of reflectiveness occurs when someone incorrectly assumes that just because they are reflecting on someone’s mental state, then that means that this person must also be reflecting on their own mental state.
This can be considered to be a form of the psychologist’s fallacy, as proposed by William James, who described it as occurring when a psychologist assumes that the mental state they are studying must be conscious of itself if the psychologist is conscious of it:
“Another variety of the psychologist’s fallacy is the assumption that the mental state studied must be conscious of itself as the psychologist is conscious of it. The mental state is aware of itself only from within; it grasps what we call its own content, and nothing more. The psychologist, on the contrary, is aware of it from without, and knows its relations with all sorts of other things. What the thought sees is only its own object; what the psychologist sees is the thought’s object, plus the thought itself, plus possibly all the rest of the world. We must be very careful therefore, in discussing a state of mind from the psychologist’s point of view, to avoid foisting into its own ken matters that are only there for ours. We must avoid substituting what we know the consciousness is, for what it is a consciousness of, and counting its outward, and so to speak physical, relations with other facts of the world, in among the objects of which we set it down as aware. Crude as such a confusion of standpoints seems to be when abstractly stated, it is nevertheless a snare into which no psychologist has kept himself at all times from falling, and which forms almost the entire stock-in-trade of certain schools. We cannot be too watchful against its subtly corrupting influence.”
— William James, in “Principles of Psychology”, Volume I (1890, p. 197)
Intersubjective confusion (or confusion of standpoints) occurs when someone fails to account for the fact that others perceive events in a different way than they do, since they mistakenly assume that other people’s experiences are identical to their own.
This can be considered a form of the psychologist’s fallacy, which is often interpreted as revolving around social projection or egocentric thinking. It too has been discussed by Willian James in the same work where he first discussed this fallacy:
“It is true that we may sometimes be tempted to exclaim, when once a lot of hitherto unnoticed details of the object lie before us, ‘How could we ever have been ignorant of these things and yet have felt the object, or drawn the conclusion, as if it were a continuum, a plenum? There would have been gaps—but we felt no gaps; wherefore we must have seen and heard these details, leaned upon these steps; they must have been operative upon our minds, just as they are now, only unconsciously, or at least inattentively. Our first unanalyzed sensation was really composed of these elementary sensations, our first rapid conclusion was really based on these intermediate inferences, all the while, only we failed to note the fact.’ But this is nothing but the fatal ‘psychologist’s fallacy’ (p. 196) of treating an inferior state of mind as if it must somehow know implicitly all that is explicitly known about the same topic by superior states of mind. The thing thought of is unquestionably the same, but it is thought twice over in two absolutely different psychoses,—once as an unbroken unit, and again as a sum of discriminated parts. It is not one thought in two editions, but two entirely distinct thoughts of one thing. And each thought is within itself a continuum, a plenum, needing no contributions from the other to fill up its gaps.”
— William James, in “Principles of Psychology”, Volume I (1890, pp. 488–489)
This and similar conceptualizations have been also discussed by others, as in the following example:
Psychologist’s Fallacy: …The fallacy, to which the psychologist is peculiarly liable, of reading into the mind he is examining what is true of his own; especially of reading into lower minds what is true of higher.
— From “Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology”, Volume II (Baldwin, 1902, p. 382)
“In the employment of any psychological test there is always a danger to be avoided known as the ‘psychologist’s fallacy.’ This arises from the fact that the experimenter is apt to suppose that the subject will respond to a stimulus or an order in the same way as he himself would respond in like circumstances. The only way of avoiding this difficulty is to secure careful introspection from the subject as soon as the task is completed.”
— From “Tests of Aphasia” (Fox, 1931, pp. 242–243)
“…William James’s ‘psychologist’s fallacy,’ warns against substituting the ethicist/researcher’s point of view with that of the person under study. Failure to appreciate this essentially egocentric bias can result in asking people to report on things (e.g., probability of benefit from an experimental therapy) that are not a part of the person’s experience in the same way they are a part of the researcher’s worldview. The responses the person provides in such cases do not provide good information about his or her experience and so cannot be used to guide sound policy.”
— From “Understanding What Participants in Empirical Bioethical Studies Mean: Historical Cautions From William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein” (Weinfurt, 2013, p. 49)
“I have said that part of the dilemma is how one can study human psychological phenomena scientifically with a minimum of distortion. It will be recognized that the ‘distortion’ that results is in a way an instance of what James called ‘the psychologist’s fallacy’… the error of method and interpretation in which the psychologist confuses his own knowledge about the process with what the subject directly experiences in the process. This fallacy is a peculiar hazard of the psychologist-observer when compared with the observer in the physical and biological sciences, although the hazard exists as well in nonhuman psychological fields where one is dealing with descriptions of animal behavior. ‘Projection,’ in the way in which we now ordinarily use this term, when practiced by a psychologist, may be thought of as an extension of this fallacy. Thus we may project into our subject both cognitive and affective elements.”
— From “Research in child development: A case illustration of the psychologist’s dilemma” (Shakow, 1959, pp. 51–52)
Psychologism is generally used to refer to the attempt to “psychologize” experiences, by interpreting non-psychological entities as psychological ones. This is sometimes considered to be a form of the psychologist’s fallacy.
The psychologist’s fallacy is closely associated with several concepts in psychology and philosophy, which can be useful to understand in order to avoid and counter the psychologist’s fallacy.
One such concept is inference-observation confusion, a form of jumping to conclusions that involves mistaking something that you inferred (using logic) for something that you observed. For example, inference-observation confusion could involve seeing someone driving a fancy car, and believing that you observed someone who is rich, when in reality you merely inferred that this person is rich based on their car, rather than observed it.
Another such concept is naive realism, which represents people’s tendency to assume that their perspective is entirely objective, meaning they can see things as they truly are. This is also closely associated with the illusion of objectivity (a phenomenon whereby people tend to see themselves as more objective, even-handed, and insightful than they really are, and as less biased), as well as with the bias blind spot (a cognitive bias that causes people to be less aware of their own biases than of those of others, and to assume that they’re less susceptible to biases than others).
Finally, another concept that is not generally important from a practical perspective but that’s still closely related to the psychologist’s fallacy is the psychologist’s dilemma, which is the question of “whether to create a science of the self, objectively considered, or to create a science compatible with the self, as subjectively experienced“.
Summary and conclusions
- The psychologist’s fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when an external observer assumes that their subjective interpretation of something represents the objective nature of that thing.
- Most notably, this is associated with the mistaken assumption that your (third-person) interpretation of someone else’s mental state (e.g., how they feel or what they think) is necessarily correct and identical to their (first-person) experience of it.
- For example, the psychologist’s fallacy occurs when a psychologist assumes that their interpretation of how a patient feels must be true, and that the way they describe the patient’s feelings must perfectly capture the exact nature of those feelings.
- To avoid this fallacy, you should keep it in mind when trying to interpret events that you observe; actively ask yourself whether you might be displaying this fallacy; remember that your interpretations are subjective, your perception is limited, and your information is incomplete; and potentially use other techniques, such as exploring alternative interpretations.
- To respond to this fallacy, you can point out the error in reasoning, the issues with the specific interpretation, the issues with the interpretation process, and the limitations of the observer; you can also explore, together with the person who used the fallacy, the original reasoning process and alternative possible interpretations.