No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Reductionism: Stamp theories

If you are a safety practitioner, you probably have experienced the tendency in public discourse and even scientific discourse to favor simple and easily digestible theories over complex and nuanced explanations. This is an experience that is shared by mental health practitioners.

In his Anxiety book, Psychiatrist Professor Borwin Bandelow has extensively addressed the challenges faced by practitioners when navigating the public and scientific discourse surrounding anxiety. Bandelow critiques the prevailing tendency to favor simplistic and easily digestible theories, which he terms "stamp theories" (Please don’t confuse this with Nancy Leveson’s System-Theoretic Accident Model and Processes (STAMP).) Bandelow shows how researchers and the media often lean towards theories that oversimplify complex phenomena, neglecting the complexities that characterize mental health.

One prominent example discussed by Bandelow is the widespread application of John Bowlby's findings from the 1950s, which resulted in a tendency to attribute all mental illnesses to childhood traumas. This oversimplification overlooks crucial factors, such as genetic influences, that contribute to mental health. Bandelow gives the example that certain individuals may possess an inherent predisposition to conditions like separation anxiety, irrespective of their actual experiences during childhood.

Bandelow cautions against relying solely on retrospective descriptions provided by patients, who may describe their parents in ways that suggest a connection to mental health issues. These descriptions often portray parents as stricter, more domineering, overprotective, weak in character, and less nurturing compared to control groups. Bandelow underscores the danger of attributing mental health issues solely to upbringing, as these descriptions may be influenced by biases, distorted memories, or prior exposure to psychological literature and therapy discussions.

The complexity of the interplay between genetic and environmental factors is a central theme in Bandelow's critique. Learning processes also contribute to this complex network of influences. For instance, Bandelow illustrates how an individual, having experienced a high pulse in an elevator, falsely associates this physical phenomenon with fear, subsequently avoiding elevators.

Through his work, Bandelow challenges the prevailing preference for "stamp theories" in the discourse around anxiety and mental health, advocating for a more nuanced understanding of interdependent genetic factors, environmental influences, and learning processes. This perspective can motivate us as practitioners in safety, health and environment, to move beyond simplistic explanations and embrace inherent complexities in research and discourse.

Source: Bandelow. B. (2004), Das Angstbuch, Reinbek: Rowohlt.