6 Pseudoscientific and Disproven Approaches in Psychotherapy: Debunking Myths and Dangers

by | Sep 18, 2023 | 0 comments

Innovation and experimentation in psychotherapy is a crucial part of figuring out how to help individuals address and overcome various mental health issues. Hopefully these new developments are developed in compassionate and informed collaboration with patients, practiced ethically, and later verified with the scientific method and research. While many evidence-based therapeutic techniques have proven effective, some pseudoscientific approaches have emerged over the years, promising miraculous results but failing to deliver. We’ll explore six pseudoscientific and discredited psychotherapy approaches, their inventors, reasons for discreditation, and the harm they can cause. Some of these led to useful developments in the profession of psychotherapy while others were complete garbage.

  1. Recovered Memory Therapy

Inventor: Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT) gained significant notoriety with the publication of the book “Michelle Remembers” in 1980. Laurence Pazder, a Canadian psychiatrist, co-authored the book with his patient, Michelle Smith, outlining her alleged experiences of repressed traumatic memories. This publication marked the beginning of a tumultuous journey for both Pazder and RMT.

Pazder and Michelle documented her purported experiences in “Michelle Remembers.” The book described shocking accounts of Satanic ritual abuse, complete with vivid descriptions of torture and human sacrifice. These claims, which included allegations of her being a victim of a Satanic cult as a child, sent shockwaves through the psychotherapy community and the wider public.

Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT), a therapeutic approach that aimed to help individuals recall repressed traumatic memories, became the center of a significant controversy in the late 20th century. While the intentions of therapists practicing RMT were often well-meaning, numerous cases have demonstrated the risks associated with this approach, including the implantation of false memories and the resulting media hysteria that damaged the credibility of the psychotherapy profession.

Implanting False Memories:

Inaccurate Recollections: RMT often encouraged individuals to delve deep into their subconscious to retrieve repressed memories of trauma, particularly childhood abuse. However, the process of recovering such memories is fraught with the risk of implanting false recollections, as the power of suggestion can lead individuals to believe in events that never occurred.

Vulnerable Individuals: Many clients seeking therapy were already in distress and vulnerable. The suggestion of repressed memories could lead them to confabulate stories that were not based in reality.

Notable Cases:

Michelle Remembers: The case of “Michelle Remembers” is a notable example of the controversy surrounding RMT. The book, co-authored by Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist, Lawrence Pazder, claimed that Michelle had recovered memories of Satanic ritual abuse. However, subsequent investigations revealed significant doubts about the accuracy of these memories. Some individuals involved were unreliable due to psychosis or drug use. Lawrence Pazder was also sleeping with his patient, while he both did therapy and wrote a sensationalized book he hoped would be a best seller with the patient has co author. This is highly unethical and retraumatizing behavior that should have cast more doubt on his work.

Inappropriate Therapist Behavior: In some cases, therapists using RMT were found to engage in unethical behavior, such as suggestive questioning, leading clients to believe in implausible events, or even, as in the case of Lawrence Pazder, engaging in sexual misconduct with their clients while implanting memories.

Media Hysteria and Damage to Psychotherapy:

Sensationalism: Media outlets, drawn by sensational narratives of Satanic cults and repressed memories, often amplified these stories without due skepticism or fact-checking. This sensationalism contributed to widespread hysteria.

Professional Backlash: The controversy surrounding RMT, particularly the high-profile Michelle Remembers case, led to a significant backlash against the psychotherapy profession. The media portrayed therapists as reckless and potentially harmful.

Erosion of Trust: The media’s role in sensationalizing RMT stories eroded public trust in psychotherapy, creating a climate of skepticism that still lingers today. The resulting fear and mistrust discouraged some individuals from seeking therapy when they needed it.

Legacy and Backlash:

“Michelle Remembers” generated significant public interest and media attention, contributing to a moral panic surrounding Satanic ritual abuse. However, as the book’s claims came under increased scrutiny, doubts grew about the veracity of the memories and the ethics of the therapeutic process.

The history of Recovered Memory Therapy is marked by a cautionary tale of the risks associated with implanting false memories and the damage wrought by media hysteria. While some individuals may have genuinely believed in their repressed memories, the controversy surrounding cases like “Michelle Remembers” underscores the importance of rigorous therapeutic practices, ethical conduct, and critical media scrutiny. It serves as a reminder of the need for responsible and evidence-based approaches within the field of psychotherapy to ensure the well-being and trust of clients seeking help for their psychological and emotional challenges.


It should be noted that sometimes repressed memories do surface in trauma therapy, even if this is rare. However RMT is only adept at creating false memory not healing trauma. Recovered memory therapy was widely discredited due to its potential to implant false memories. Patients were led to believe they had repressed memories of traumatic events, often involving childhood abuse, which, in many cases, turned out to be inaccurate.

Harmful Aspects: This approach could inadvertently lead patients to believe in false events, causing emotional distress and harm to both the patient and their families.

  1. Rebirthing Therapy

Inventor: Rebirthing therapy was popularized by Leonard Orr in the 1970s.

Harmful Aspects: Rebirthing therapy involves the client being wrapped in blankets to simulate the birth experience, often leading to panic and suffocation. This traumatic experience can result in severe psychological harm.

Concerns and Criticisms of Rebirthing Therapy:

Lack of Scientific Validation: One of the primary criticisms of rebirthing therapy is the lack of empirical evidence to support its claims. Critics argue that the purported benefits are largely anecdotal and not backed by rigorous scientific research.

Dangerous Practices: Tragically, there have been cases of individuals, including children, dying during rebirthing sessions due to complications related to the use of restrictive techniques like wrapping individuals tightly in blankets or plastic sheets. These practices have raised significant safety concerns.

False Memory Implantation: Similar to other controversial therapies, rebirthing therapy has been accused of inadvertently implanting false memories, potentially leading clients to believe in events or traumas that did not occur.

Ethical Issues: Some therapists have been criticized for using rebirthing sessions as a form of coercion or control, potentially causing emotional distress to clients without their informed consent.

Potential for Harm:

Rebirthing therapy, particularly when conducted without proper safety measures or by untrained practitioners, poses serious risks. The use of restrictive practices and the potential for emotional manipulation can lead to psychological harm, and in extreme cases, physical harm or death.

Rebirthing therapy remains a highly controversial and unproven approach to mental and emotional well-being. While some individuals may report positive experiences, the lack of scientific validation, safety concerns, and the potential for ethical issues make it a therapy that requires extreme caution. Anyone considering rebirthing therapy should seek guidance from qualified mental health professionals and prioritize evidence-based approaches to address their mental health needs.


In 2000, a tragic incident involving the death of a child during a rebirthing session led to widespread criticism and discreditation of this technique.

  1. Primal Scream Therapy

Inventor: Primal scream therapy was developed by Arthur Janov in the 1960s.

The Therapeutic Potential of Primal Scream:

Primal Scream therapy, initially developed by Arthur Janov in the 1960s, centers around the idea that emotional healing can be achieved through the release of repressed emotions, often through cathartic expressions of intense emotions, including screams, shouts, and tears. While it has been criticized, there are specific cases and diagnoses where Primal Scream therapy can be helpful and cathartic:

Repression of Traumatic Memories: In cases where individuals have experienced severe trauma, such as childhood abuse or combat-related PTSD, Primal Scream therapy may provide a cathartic outlet for repressed emotions. Expressing these emotions can help individuals process and release traumatic memories, potentially leading to healing and improved mental well-being.

Chronic Emotional Suppression: Some individuals may have learned to suppress their emotions due to societal or cultural norms, leading to chronic emotional tension and psychosomatic symptoms. Primal Scream therapy can offer a safe space to release these pent-up emotions, providing relief and reducing symptoms.

Exploration of Deep-Seated Issues: Primal Scream therapy can help individuals explore and confront deeply buried emotional issues, such as unresolved grief, anger, or feelings of abandonment. In these cases, the cathartic release can serve as a catalyst for self-discovery and personal growth.

The Challenges and Potential Risks of Cathartic Expression:

However Primal Scream therapy is not universally beneficial, and there are specific issues and attachment styles where cathartic expression can be retraumatizing or unhelpful:

Avoidant Attachment Style: Individuals with an avoidant attachment style tend to suppress their emotions and avoid vulnerability. For them, forced cathartic expression can be overwhelming and retraumatizing, reinforcing their reluctance to open up emotionally.

Inadequate Support: Cathartic experiences can be emotionally intense, and without proper guidance and support from a qualified therapist, individuals may struggle to process the overwhelming emotions that arise. Inadequate support can lead to increased distress and emotional instability.

Overwhelming Trauma: Premature exposure to intense emotions may exacerbate trauma-related symptoms or lead to emotional flooding.

Harmful Aspects: The approach may lead to the worsening of emotional distress and a lack of evidence to support its effectiveness.


While Janov’s therapy gained some recognition, it was largely discredited because not everyone needs cathartic emotional expression. Revisiting traumatic memories in this way can retraumatize individuals rather than heal them.

  1. Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP)

Inventor: NLP was co-created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in the 1970s.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a diverse field that encompasses numerous models and techniques, some of which have been found to be helpful, while others remain challenging to research or have been misused.

Helpful Aspects of NLP:

the development of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) was influenced by various psychological techniques, including Ericksonian hypnosis, and it also paved the way for the emergence of other approaches like Motivational Interviewing.

Ericksonian Hypnosis Influence on NLP:

One of the significant influences on NLP was the work of Milton H. Erickson, a renowned psychiatrist and psychologist known for his innovative approach to hypnotherapy. Erickson’s hypnotic techniques, which emphasized indirect communication and the power of suggestion, captivated Richard Bandler and John Grinder, the co-founders of NLP. They sought to model and understand the underlying principles of Erickson’s success as a therapist.

Positive Aspects of Ericksonian Influenceon NLP:

  1. Indirect Communication: Erickson’s indirect and permissive communication style, which encouraged clients to explore their own thoughts and feelings, greatly influenced NLP’s approach to language and persuasion. NLP practitioners adopted these techniques to build rapport and facilitate change.
  2. Patterns of Influence: NLP identified patterns within Erickson’s hypnotic techniques, such as the Milton Model, which became a fundamental aspect of NLP’s communication strategies. These patterns are still used in fields like marketing, coaching, and therapy to enhance persuasive communication.

Motivational Interviewing as a Development:

Motivational Interviewing (MI) is another psychological approach that emerged in the 1980s, inspired in part by NLP and Ericksonian techniques.

Positive Aspects of MI Development:

  1. Client-Centered Approach: MI, like NLP, emphasizes a client-centered approach, focusing on the client’s intrinsic motivation for change. This technique aligns with the NLP principle of respecting an individual’s autonomy and their ability to make positive changes.
  2. Enhancing Change Talk: MI borrows from NLP’s ability to facilitate change through effective communication. It helps individuals express their reasons for change (Change Talk) and resolve ambivalence, making it a valuable tool in addiction treatment, health promotion, and counseling.

Assertiveness Training: NLP offers valuable tools for improving assertiveness, empowering individuals to express their needs and boundaries effectively. Techniques like the “meta-model” can enhance communication and self-advocacy skills.

NLP Eye Movement Patterns: Some studies suggest that eye movement patterns can be associated with cognitive processes, such as accessing memories or constructing ideas. NLP has incorporated these findings into techniques like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which can be helpful in trauma therapy.

Challenges in Researching NLP:

Subjectivity: Many NLP models rely on subjective experiences and interpretations, making them difficult to study empirically. Concepts like “meta-programs” or “representational systems” lack concrete scientific validation.

Posture and Communication Analysis: NLP emphasizes the importance of body language and non-verbal communication. While these factors undoubtedly play a role in human interaction, the precise relationship between specific postures or gestures and underlying psychological states remains a subject of debate and limited empirical support.

Co-optation by Cults and MLMs:

NLP’s techniques related to hypnotic suggestion, persuasion, and influence have been co-opted by certain cults and multi-level marketing (MLM) groups, leading to ethical concerns and misuse.

Manipulative Techniques: Some organizations have exploited NLP’s persuasion techniques to manipulate individuals into joining cults or purchasing products in MLM schemes. These practices often involve subtle forms of coercion and psychological manipulation.

Unsubstantiated Claims: MLMs, in particular, have a history of making extravagant claims about the transformative power of rebranded and renamed NLP concepts in sales and personal development, often without credible scientific support. NXIVM, Scientology, and many religious cults use these ideas.

Problems and Potential Harm with NLP:

False Promises: One of the significant issues with NLP is its propensity for making grandiose promises about rapid personal transformation, which can foster unrealistic expectations and lead to disappointment when results fall short.

Lack of Scientific Validation: Many core NLP concepts and techniques lack robust scientific validation, leading to skepticism and criticism within the academic and psychological communities.

Pseudo-Scientific Claims: Some proponents of NLP make pseudo-scientific claims, such as the ability to cure deep-seated psychological issues within minutes, which can be not only misleading but also potentially harmful.

Risk of Emotional Manipulation: In the wrong hands, NLP techniques for persuasion and influence can be used unethically to manipulate individuals emotionally or exploit their vulnerabilities.

Harmful Aspects: Some practitioners have exploited NLP techniques to create cults and exploitative multi-level marketing groups, preying on vulnerable individuals seeking personal growth.


While NLP contains elements that can be useful for communication and personal development, it has been criticized for its lack of empirical support and its association with pseudoscientific claims.

NLP is a complex field with both helpful and problematic aspects. While it has contributed positively to areas like assertiveness training, executive coaching, and trauma therapy, it also faces challenges related to subjectivity, limited empirical validation, and its misuse in unethical practices. Individuals should approach NLP with critical thinking, be wary of unrealistic claims, and seek evidence-based approaches when addressing psychological and personal development needs to avoid potential harm. While NLP contains elements that can be useful for communication and personal development, it has been criticized for its lack of empirical support and its association with pseudoscientific claims.

5. Freudian Psychoanalytic Oedipal Compex and Dream Interpretation

Inventor: Sigmund Freud popularized psychoanalytic dream interpretation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Harmful Aspects: Freud’s emphasis on repressed sexual desires in dream analysis is now considered outdated and potentially damaging.

The Oedipal Complex:

Freud’s concept of the Oedipal complex is perhaps one of his most famous and controversial ideas. According to Freud, during a specific stage of psychosexual development (the phallic stage), children experience unconscious sexual desires for the opposite-sex parent and may develop feelings of jealousy or rivalry with the same-sex parent. While Freud’s theory has historical significance, it has been widely criticized for several reasons:

Reductionist and Gendered: Freud’s Oedipal complex reduces complex family dynamics to a simplistic, gendered model. It overlooks the diversity of family structures and the range of emotional experiences that children may have with their parents.

Lack of Empirical Evidence: Freud’s theory lacks empirical evidence and relies heavily on case studies and clinical anecdotes. The Oedipal complex cannot be scientifically validated, making it a highly speculative concept.

Neglect of Other Factors: Freud’s focus on sexuality and unconscious desires may overshadow other essential factors in child development, such as socialization, cognitive growth, and attachment dynamics.

Little Hans’ Fear of Horses:

Freud’s case study of Little Hans, a 5-year-old boy who exhibited a fear of horses, has also faced criticism for being bizarre and age-inappropriate. Freud interpreted Little Hans’ phobia through the lens of the Oedipal complex, suggesting that the fear of horses represented a castration anxiety linked to Hans’ unresolved feelings for his mother.

Freud believed that Hans’ fear of horses was linked to what he called “castration anxiety.” In Freud’s view, Little Hans feared that his father would castrate him as punishment for his desires toward his mother. This anxiety was believed to be rooted in Hans’ unconscious sexual desires for his mother, which are part of the Oedipal complex.

Hans’ fear of horses was interpreted by Freud as a symbolic representation of his fear of horses’ large penises. Freud believed that the horse was a stand-in for Hans’ father and that seeing a horse with a large penis reminded Hans of his castration anxiety by making Hans fear his father would remove his penis.

Several critiques of this interpretation exist:

Age-Appropriateness: Many psychologists and child development experts argue that Freud’s interpretation of Little Hans’ fear was wholly inappropriate for a child of his age. Children often have fears and phobias that are developmentally normal and not rooted in unconscious desires.

Lack of Empirical Rigor: Freud’s analysis of Little Hans’ case lacks empirical rigor and relies on subjective interpretations. Critics argue that the case represents Freud’s tendency to impose his theories onto individual cases rather than allowing the data to speak for itself.

Overemphasis on Sexuality: Freud’s inclination to interpret even the most common childhood issues, like a fear of horses, as manifestations of sexual anxiety has been criticized as overly reductionist and pathologizing normal developmental experiences.

While Sigmund Freud’s contributions to psychology are undeniable, his theories, including the Oedipal complex and his interpretation of Little Hans’ fear of horses, have been widely critiqued for their reductionism, lack of empirical support, and sometimes bizarre interpretations of age-appropriate behaviors. Modern psychology has evolved significantly, emphasizing a more holistic, evidence-based approach to understanding human development and behavior, which moves beyond Freud’s controversial theories.


While Freud’s work contributed to the development of modern psychology, his dream interpretation methods have been largely discredited for their subjective and unscientific nature.

6.  Facilitated Communication:

Inventor: FC was not created by a single individual but gained attention in the 1980s through various proponents.

Facilitated Communication (FC) is a controversial communication technique that gained attention in the 1980s. It involves a facilitator providing physical support to an individual with communication difficulties, such as nonverbal autism or severe motor impairments, to help them type or point to letters on a keyboard or communication device. While FC initially garnered enthusiasm for seemingly allowing previously nonverbal individuals to communicate, its history is fraught with controversy, skepticism, and ethical concerns. This critical examination explores the troubled history of FC.

Early Optimism and the Rise of FC:

FC was introduced as a hopeful breakthrough in the field of communication disorders. Proponents claimed that it could unlock the potential of nonverbal individuals and give them a voice. The technique’s popularity surged as stories of apparent successes spread.

The Controversial Claims and Lack of Scientific Rigor:

  1. Inadequate Scientific Validation: One of the fundamental criticisms of FC is the lack of rigorous scientific validation. The method’s proponents often rely on anecdotal evidence rather than well-controlled, empirical studies to support its effectiveness.
  2. Questionable Facilitator Influence: FC’s effectiveness hinges on the assumption that facilitators merely provide physical support without influencing or controlling the individual’s responses. However, studies have shown that facilitators may unintentionally guide or even control the communication process.

False Hope and Ethical Dilemmas:

  1. False Memories and Accusations: FC has been linked to cases where individuals, often children, have made false or unsubstantiated claims of abuse or trauma. These claims have led to legal and ethical dilemmas, as they can result in unwarranted investigations and accusations.
  2. Vulnerability and Exploitation: Nonverbal individuals and their families are often in vulnerable situations, seeking any means to communicate. This vulnerability has led to the potential exploitation of these individuals and their families by practitioners offering FC services.

The Backlash and Scientific Rejection:

As FC gained prominence, it also faced growing skepticism from the scientific and professional communities. Many experts in speech-language pathology, psychology, and education questioned its validity and raised concerns about facilitator influence.

Alternative Communication Modalities:

Over time, alternative communication modalities, such as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices and strategies, have emerged as evidence-based approaches for assisting individuals with communication disorders. These AAC methods have undergone extensive research and development, offering more reliable and validated means of communication.

The history of Facilitated Communication is marked by a complex interplay of hope, controversy, ethical dilemmas, and scientific skepticism. While some individuals and families have reported positive experiences with FC, its lack of empirical support and potential for facilitator influence have led to widespread rejection within the scientific and professional communities. In the pursuit of effective communication solutions for individuals with communication disorders, it is essential to prioritize evidence-based approaches and ethical considerations to avoid false hope, exploitation, and unwarranted accusations.


FC was widely discredited due to concerns about the facilitator’s influence on nonverbal individuals with communication disorders. Scientific studies showed that the facilitator, not the individual, was often responsible for the messages conveyed.

Check Out our Podcast with Matt Hongoltz Hetling about Scams and Pseudoscience in Healthcare: https://www.podbean.com/ew/pb-yt597-1472629

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