Psychoanalysts in the News: Drew Westen

William A. MacGillivray, PhD, ABPP
President, Division of Psychoanalysis

Drew WestenDrew Westen is known to many Division 39 members as one of the most prominent and productive researchers in the area of psychotherapy research. Along with his colleague, Jonathan Shedler he is famous for developing the SWAP, a research and clinical tool that is an effective measure of patient personality and can be used to assess progress in treatment. A notable feature of the system is the use of ordinary language to elicit a clinician’s observation of the patient, while yielding data that provides an in-depth, meaningful, and sophisticated description. In other words, the SWAP brings psychoanalytic concepts “down to earth” and allows broader communication among competing “dialects” within psychoanalysis and provides jargon-free descriptions for others less versed in analytic arcana. This emphasis on clarity has been a hallmark of Drew’s contribution to our field and has greatly improved the ability of psychoanalytic researchers to communicate their ideas to others.

In recent years, Drew has reached out beyond the research lab and consulting room to address a general public and to make psychoanalytic concepts understandable to non-clinicians. His 2007 book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (Public Affairs) was widely praised for addressing integrating contemporary research on emotion into an understanding of our current political impasse.

Drew’s recent editorial in the Sunday edition of New York Times, “Why Our Candidates Disappoint Us,” carried on this important task to engage and inform the public about how to understand the  impact of our emotional life on our politics, and the enduring relevance of character structure in understanding personality. In clear and simple language he addresses our current political ennui. He expands upon the core observation in his book, noting,

“In everyday life, the ability to deal comfortably with authority or accept ‘how things have always been done’ can produce a good teammate or employee. But it can also lead someone to nod his head approvingly as a leader is about to make a catastrophic decision. Similarly, a tendency to value reason and intellect in decision-making is invaluable, but its flip side can be a discomfort with emotion that can interfere not only with intimacy in close relationships but, paradoxically, with good decision-making.”

He adds a further observation that our political leaders, like all of us, have character traits that are virtues and defects all mixed together: “Perhaps it couldn’t be otherwise. All of us have the misfortune of having grown up in imperfect families, born with a set of designer genes that even millions of years of evolution couldn’t tailor to perfection. And from that pool of imperfect people we draw our leaders, many of whom are attracted to politics as much by their weaknesses as by their strengths.”

Drew’s editorial (and you can check out more by doing a Google search for “Drew Westen”) is an important example of how psychoanalytic psychologists can reach out to a general public and teach basic psychoanalytic insights relevant to understanding our society and culture.