Sociocentrism in Psychology

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This page is a response to the Three Laws of Psychology that appear on the website of establishment clinical psychologist, David Smail.

Among all the good liberal stuff on the website of leading NHS clinical psychologist and retired professor, David Smail, we find the following:

  • Absolutely everybody wants to be liked (law 1).
  • Everyone feels different inside (less confident, less able, etc.) from how they infer other people to feel (law 2).
  • Few honest and courageous people who have achieved anything of real value in life do not feel a fraud much of the time (law 3).
  • Acceptance of these three laws alone would save an awful lot of people an awful lot of grief!

Smug certitudes

When I first came across these smug certitudes a couple of years ago, I was dismayed. Smail's three laws of psychology did not correspond to my own experience, nor in my opinion to the experience of some of my relatives, friends and colleagues over the years. More than that: in spite of Smail's concern for our world, I found that his three laws made him part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

You might want to consider your own reactions to Smail's laws at this point. They should be very revealing.

My own reactions are:

  • Law 1: This is just not something I ever worry about.
  • Law 2: Again, these are things I don't worry about. I just don't measure myself against other people. I certainly get nervous, even devastated, in certain situations, but that doesn't undermine me as a person.
  • Law 3: I think the very idea that life should have to be about achievement is destructive, a burden that should not be put on people's shoulders.


Essentially, I see these three laws - worrying about other people and about achievement - as indicative of middle class alienation: if you subscribe to them, then you are alienated. Smail seems to be urging acceptance of this alienation, which is why, in spite of all, his site looks like part of the problem.

What's involved here may be understood in terms of the distinction between proximal and distal personal relationships being developed on this site. Alienation, estrangement, happens when proximal relationships are replaced with distal relationships.

The first two laws

For me, the first two laws reflect personal relationships that fall between the old lower and upper class relationships I have referred to in Proximal and Distal Relationships. But they are closer to the latter than to the former.

To me, to say, as in Smail's First Law, that people want to be liked is to say that their relationships are not spontaneous, but in some sense premeditated and contrived. In proximal relationships, people are just getting on with the people who happen to be around them. It's not that they don't want to be liked, it's that it isn't an issue for them.

The Second Law is about comparing yourself with the people around you all the time. It suggests that you are in a competitive relationship with them. This contrasts with the basic solidarity of proximal relationships, in which people experience themselves as sharing a common lot.

Middle class ideology

The Third Law is about feeling a fraud in spite of achievement of real worth. This probably represents some sort of recognition that much middle class achievement is merely a matter of deploying the talents of others. But more important than that, the whole idea that life is about achievement is simply middle class ideology, now foisted on ordinary people.

Such a notion is going to make a lot of sense to professors [1] and those trying to scramble up some professional career ladder after them, but as a leading NHS clinical psychologist's insight into human nature it is terrifying. For the enunciation of this law places David Smail in the same mental universe as another professor of clinical psychology, Simon Baron-Cohen, in a distal world where normal people have a nanny for their children, where wives have coffee mornings and supper with friends, where, if your car breaks down, you call the mechanic, just like that. See Classism.

A psychology of achievement

In his Third Law, Smail is referring to a vision of life no different from that of Baron-Cohen, in which a typical young woman's main problem is something like overcoming sexism so as to get on to a university maths course. With establishment thinking shaped by minds like these, it is no wonder that nobody in power understands what on earth is going on in our society as a whole, why for example, so many young women have eating disorders, smoke, drink to excess, take drugs.

What on earth use is a psychology of achievement like Smail's to people, say, whose best future lies in some insecure service industry job, like call centre operative, hoping against hope that the work doesn't get transferred to India, or bank worker under constant threat from automation, or so-called trainee, who will be replaced on qualifying for an adult wage!

Sociocentric psychology

Indeed, if sociocentrism is about using one's own social group as the norm by which to make judgements, then the psychological theorising of Smail, along with that of Baron-Cohen, can usefully be described as sociocentric.


1 Professors

Smail's Three Laws appear in an online publication of his called Power, Responsibility and Freedom. In this 27,000 word document, he uses the word class only once. Clearly, if he offered any class based analysis of the operation of power in society, he would have to place himself in the class of the powerful. The dominant class in our society certainly includes university professors. [Back to Article]


(c) John C Durham, 2003 - 2004