Psychological advertising will “destroy democracy”, according to a report from the British Psychological Society (BPS).
Psychological advertisers are not only targeting individuals with specific beliefs and values, but also those who do not have a similar, but more diverse, set of beliefs, said BPS deputy director of policy and research, David Atherton.
In the UK, for example, many people with mental health problems have been subject to psychological manipulation, with a growing number of psychologists using their position as psychiatrists and psychologists to promote their own ideas and agenda, BPS said.
Psychologists are also targeting consumers by offering advice on how to improve their health, with psychological advertising increasingly becoming part of this practice.
“These companies are attempting to get a piece of the market share, and it’s not working,” said Dr Athertons report.
The BPS report says psychologists have been using the power of their position to promote certain beliefs, including that the NHS is “failing” and that social media is “a wonderful place to be” and “an excellent tool for psychological manipulation”.
“We are in danger of a slippery slope towards psychology becoming the norm, as people’s beliefs are used to sway public policy and influence public opinion,” Dr Averson said.
“The government should be leading the charge to protect the integrity of the NHS and its ability to deliver high-quality care.”
Psychological advertisement is already prevalent in some countries.
British psychologist Richard Wiseman has been criticised for being a “psychological salesman” for the NHS.
A spokesman for Wiseman said the former GP and director of the British Medical Association’s Centre for Psychology & Psychotherapy said psychological advertising was not only not harmful, but was also a “good thing”.
Dr Atherons report also warns that psychologists have a history of misusing their positions to “mislead” patients.
“Psychological agencies have used their position of authority and influence to manipulate patients, by falsely and deceitfully claiming to treat mental health conditions,” Dr Jodie Bowers, chief executive of BPS, said.
“These organisations also exploit vulnerable individuals for their own gain, including by deceiving them into believing that they will receive better care if they sign up to a psychological agency’s psychological services, and in doing so, potentially undermining their ability to provide the care they require.”
The UK is currently considering a new mental health bill that would give the mental health system greater powers to deal with psychological disorders, with the Government now under pressure to deliver a national strategy to tackle the mental illness epidemic.
Professor David Allen, a senior lecturer at the University of Reading, said the report was not the first warning about the misuse of psychological agencies.
But he said it was “not good enough” to simply “let it go” and ignore it.
He said it would be better for psychologists to take a more rigorous approach to psychological influence, and to consider the risks to mental health from psychological advertising.
Dr Bowers said it could be “further complicated” for psychologists who had been “misused” in the past to now be more aware of the risks of the “toxic and potentially damaging” practice, and how to protect themselves.
However, she said the BPS “will continue to work with policymakers, and other organisations to promote the integrity and efficacy of the mental healthcare system”.
Professor Athers report is expected to be published in the coming weeks.