Tête-à-tête with Dr. Matthew Whoolery

Dr. Matthew Whoolery, psychology professor at Brigham Young University, Idaho, is a Fulbright Scholar and a Visiting Professor at Lady Shri Ram College. He has 12 years of teaching experience at the university level and numerous publications in the fields of cross-cultural psychology, psychological assessment and theoretical psychology. Dr. Whoolery has had significant international experience including work as an anthropologist in rural Namibia with the Himba tribe and three years as a psychology professor at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. At Lady Shri Ram College, he took courses in Counselling, Emergence and Growth of Psychology, and Critical Thinking in Psychology. His critical thinking seminar entailed discussions on journal articles ranging from Dr. Thomas Szasz’s Mental Illness is a Myth to Comstock’s Relational-Cultural Theory. As a Fulbright Visiting Lecturer, Dr. Whoolery developed collaborative relationships with Indian faculty and students. Aakriti Pasricha and Sreepriya Menon had a brief interview session with Dr. Whoolery, a new addition to our family.

Aakriti and Sreepriya:  What caused you to develop an interest in Psychology?

Dr. Whoolery: My initial interest came by reading Freud in my “spare” time as a student.  I was drawn to the amazing questions he asked, even if not always satisfied by his answers.  I thought that psychology must be a field that has endless great questions about why human beings are the way they are.

Aakriti and Sreepriya:  What, according to you, are the main criticisms of Psychology?

Dr. Whoolery: Psychology has become too narrow in its considerations.  If you look at most of the major journals in psychology you will find extremely narrow coverage of very narrow topics.  There is not very much in the way of large-scale thinking and writing anymore like there was with people like Freud, Jung, Adler, Skinner, and others.  Also, American psychology is under the impression that everyone in the world is like their students.  So they create theories based on the research conducted on their undergraduate students and make claims about “human beings” when they are very much limited to the current American cultural ideals.

Aakriti and Sreepriya:  Tell us about your most interesting research experience so far, considering that you have worked with refugees, worked on concepts like good and evil as well as how different cultures perceive time.

Dr. Whoolery: It is hard to narrow down my most interesting project.  My first real cultural psychology experience was as an anthropologist working with the Himba tribe in the Kalahari Bush in Namibia.  This was the first time that I have been in a culture so unlike my own.  They are a fine people and I feel like I learned a lot about life from them, not just as a “scientist” but as a fellow human being.  My work in putting together a course on Good & Evil, which you mentioned, was also a wonderfully fun experience.  We often get stuck in our narrow cultural and historical understandings (whatever our culture and history) and it was an amazing thing to explore the different concepts of good and evil across different cultures and across history.  Particularly interesting was the explorations of different religions’ stories of the creation and purpose of man.  Amazing to see the similarities and differences in those myths.

Aakriti and Sreepriya:  Tell us about any unique contributions that you feel Indians have made/ can make to Psychology.

Dr. Whoolery: There is no question in my mind that people in India have something to contribute to psychology, especially as they learn to draw upon and create their own psychology.  As far as Indian students and scholars simply replicate and teach the Western tradition, they will be stuck with photocopies, literally and figuratively, of the Western perspective.  I am happy to see the burgeoning of a truly Indian psychology and it is quite unique in the world.  Most places in the world seem to think the use of American textbooks in their classes is simply teaching the universal truth of psychology.  And that is not accurate.

Aakriti and Sreepriya:  How has Psychology affected your personal life?

Dr. Whoolery: I am glad in some ways to be part of the field for the reasons I was originally interested in it.  I love the great and important questions that psychology asks, even if I am not satisfied completely with the answers.  I have some reservations about where psychology has gone in the USA and am disappointed that it has become so narrow, culturally and scientifically.  Sometimes I wish I could tell people that I am an ichthyologist so that they would stop telling me about some problem that a family member has and at least have to go and look up what I do before telling me about the problems of their pet fish!

Aakriti and Sreepriya:  Out of qualitative and quantitative research, which one do you prefer and why?

Dr. Whoolery: It depends upon the question.  If the research question involves things like “how many” or such quantitative questions, it seems logical to use statistical methods.  If the questions involve meaning, purpose, and human experience I believe it is better to use qualitative methods.  I tend to lean toward the qualitative questions and therefore the qualitative methods.

Aakriti and Sreepriya:  How do envision psychology and its purpose?

Dr. Whoolery: I suppose in the long run psychology’s purpose is probably much more narrow and less important than we often think it is or should be.  Many people know very little about our field and lead perfectly fine lives.  Psychology can (not always does) offer some perspective on life and how to live it.  We do propose some crazy stuff at times and most of the time people just look away or think we are nuts.  But psychology can ask and provide some discussion of very important issues about the human condition.  And in certain cultures psychologists might fulfill and important need of having someone to talk with about problems.

Aakriti and Sreepriya:  Tell us about your paper on deconstructing self esteem.

Dr. Whoolery: I had long had strong feelings about the issue of self-esteem and was at one point motivated to write a paper against the idea of self-esteem.  I presented this paper at the American Psychological Association conference and was fascinated by the strong feelings it invoked.  Some people just loved it and some people thought I was the very devil.  I think that self-esteem and self-focus in general are a trap that you cannot find your way out of.  I don’t know anyone who has “worked on their self-esteem” and found their way out into a stable life.  I think the solution is to help people forget about themselves and focus on what they might do to benefit the lives of their family members, friends, and community.  This focus is unusual, but with precedent.  Alfred Adler, for example, believed that the proper and healthy life was one that was filled with social interest and altruism.

Aakriti and Sreepriya:  Tell us about the Youth Outcome Questionnaire.

Dr. Whoolery: This was a project I worked on in developing a survey for children’s and youth’s mental health.  Its purpose was to provide a way of tracking change in therapy.  Roughly, it tries to answer the question: “Is this person getting ‘better’ in therapy?”  It was a great experience for me to be involved in the development and analysis of this instrument, though since I have been more critical of that kind of enterprise.  In a way, my doctoral dissertation was a refutation of the very thing I helped to develop with my Master’s Thesis!  I disagree with myself quite often anyway.

Aakriti and Sreepriya:  How has your experience at LSR been so far?

Dr. Whoolery: At first I felt a bit like a fish out of water, to be honest.  I feel that way in any new job, regardless of the culture and country.  Maybe being a foreigner and a male in a women’s college accentuated that.  In fact, I felt so hesitant at first walking around campus that I didn’t even eat because I didn’t know how to order the food!  It seems silly to admit that as an adult, but maybe I just never quite grew up.  But in the long run I have been treated with such kindness that I am feeling more like I have a place here.  In fact, one of my students said “Do you want me to help you order some food?”  So she took me to the cafeteria and showed me how it all worked.  That kind of treatment is what I mean, students and faculty have been very good to me.

I am also very impressed by the caliber of my students at LSR.  They are, on the whole, very motivated to learn and eager to gain an understanding of what they are studying.  The response to the critical thinking in psychology seminar has been amazing.  I mean, where do you find 90 students who are willing to join in a seminar for which they receive no credit but have to read, write, and attend a class?  LSR, that’s where!

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Here is a link of video second year students made on his farewell http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7WiaY0Y7Fg&feature=youtu.be

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