The Difference Between Psychology and Psychotherapy

Yes, contrary to what you and many people think, “psychology” and “psychotherapy” are not the same concepts and, therefore, cannot be used interchangeably.

The tendency to confuse those terms comes up a lot whenever people discuss the effectiveness of psychotherapy and creates a series of disconnected communications in which all sides of the debate can’t hear each other and can’t respond to the substance of each other’s arguments.

Those who have been harmed by the practice of psychotherapy often conclude that “psychology is a quackery”, whereas psychology, as a concept, may have had nothing to do with how their psychotherapy worked or didn’t work.

“Psychology” and “psychotherapy” terms are interconnected and interdependent, but they aren’t interchangeable. In fact, I believe that the main reason why the practice of psychotherapy doesn’t often deliver the results it is meant to deliver is because it is largely NOT based on the scientific findings of psychology. But let us first define both terms so we could understand what we are talking about in the first place.

The following are the Google definitions:

“Psychology – the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behavior in a given context.”

“Psychotherapy – the treatment of mental disorder by psychological rather than medical means.”

For comparison I will also give a Merriam-Webster definitions.

“Psychology – the science of mind and behavior”

“Psychotherapy –  treatment of mental or emotional disorder or of related bodily ills by psychological means”

The above definitions show the difference between psychology and psychotherapy very clearly. Psychology has to do with the theoretical understanding of human mind and behavior through using scientific methods of research, and psychotherapy is (supposed to be) a practical application of the findings of the psychological research. Thus, psychology is a science,  since it uses research as its method of understanding human mind and behavior, and psychotherapy is a practice which supposed to base its methods on scientific findings of psychology derived from research.

Now, the most important thing to understand here is that “supposed to” is the key word that explains why psychotherapy has been such a disappointing and, often, harmful experience for many people. It is because it is largely NOT doing what it is “supposed to” do. Up until this day, the research findings and the psychotherapy practice have been fundamentally disconnected from each other.

The discoveries of trauma research described in the works of Dr. Van der Kolk, the research on how different attachment styles developed in early childhood affect one’s adult relationships conducted by Dr. Daniel Siegal, the data collected by Dr. Vincent Felitti on how adverse a.k.a traumatic childhood experiences are linked to many physical ailments and addictions, the data from newly developed therapy methods like neurofeedback and EMDR, the researches on psychiatric drugs conducted by Dr. Irvin Kirsh and others that challenged the claim of those drugs’ effectiveness and many other studies, experiments and discoveries have been known to the professional community for quite some time.

While some of those findings, like the ones that challenged the long-term effectiveness of psychopharmacology, were dismissed as not credible, others, like those reflected in the works of Daniels Siegal and Bessel Van der Kolk were accepted by the professional mainstream, because people who presented them and who conducted the researches (Siegal and Van der Kolk) are respectable members of the professional establishment.

Nevertheless, the above mentioned findings, despite being accepted as scientifically legitimate, have never lead to the development of widely used treatment methods that would be consistent with the present day scientific knowledge of human brain.

While the mental health professional community has generally accepted the groundbreaking work of Van der Kolk, they seem to have completely dismissed his criticism of traditional psychotherapy methods. Therapists go to his workshops and seminars, listen to his presentations, accumulate their required continuing education hours, but they don’t seem to have learned much from them, as they continue using the same outdated, scientifically unproven methods and theories. They have changed fundamentally nothing in their their theoretical framework and their approach to work.

The recent discoveries of neuroscience are so fascinating that we can discuss them endlessly. For the purpose of sticking to the point of this article I will just mention some of them that challenge some mainstream psychotherapy ideas.

It has been discovered by Bessel Van der Kolk, Peter Levin, Francis Shapiro and other professionals that many people with the history of severe trauma do not respond well to traditional talk therapy, if at all.  Those cases require different types of intervention that bypass the engagement of the conscious mind in the therapy process. Methods like EMDR, neurofeedback, somatic experiencing and sensory-motor engagement have shown to be more effective than traditional talk therapy.

The works of Vincent Felitti and his Adverse Childhood Experiences research group discovered the link between traumatic experiences in childhood and chronic illnesses and addictions in adulthood. This challenges not only the mainstream theories on addictions but also the entire western medical field that completely separates mental and physical states and makes no distinction between the symptoms and the root causes of diseases, and this is, probably, one of the most groundbreaking discoveries in not just psychology but western medicine. Shamefully, neither the mental health nor the medical professional community acknowledged those findings as something worthy of further research.

The examples shown above are just the tip of the iceberg of the vast data collected from many psychological studies, experiments, researches and tons of anecdotal evidence collected throughout the history of psychotherapy. Each one of them, if given the much deserved recognition and the sufficient funds to continue research, could open the new era in health care, when most of physical and mental ailments could be healed much easier and faster than they are now.

What I have described above indicates that psychology IS a science, not a quackery, because it has been making a continuous effort to collect information about the human mind and behavior through the means of scientific research. Does the psychology research have serious flaws? Yes, absolutely. But the main reason it is often not done properly with bigger samples and better methods is because the professional community, for some strange reasons, doesn’t think it is important enough to be recognized as valid and to fight for its financing.

As a result, we have a psychotherapy practice that doesn’t stand on the solid scientific foundation, that operates largely with subjective theories, presumptuous premises and questionable methods. And, while subjectivity doesn’t necessarily make a particular theory or a particular method ineffective or harmful, any healing practice that doesn’t root itself in the objective information derived through scientific research can be technically called “quackery”.

Thus, we have a strange situation, when the practice of psychotherapy technically falls under the definition of “quackery”, while the science of psychology upon which the practice of psychotherapy is supposed to be based remains a science, and the former and the latter don’t seem to have much in common with each other. Should we then wonder why so many people experience psychotherapy as traumatic instead of healing?


“The Body Keeps the Score”, Bessel Van der Kolk

“The Developing Mind”, Daniel Siegal

Adverse Childhood Experiences Study        

Adverse Childhood Experiences website                                                                                          

Dr. Vincent Felitti: Reflections on the Adverse Childhood Experoiences (ACE Study)


“EMDR: Taking a Closer Look”, Scientific American                          

“Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma”, Peter A Levine

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