What Is Armchair Psychology, And Why Should I Avoid It?

Medically reviewed by Dr. Jerry Crimmins, PsyD, LP
Updated April 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

An “armchair quarterback” is someone who is watching a football game at home, giving opinions about the team's decisions, even though they usually lack professional expertise. But what about “armchair psychology?” 

While an armchair quarterback is on the other side of the screen, the words of someone who practices armchair psychology may have a more significant impact. In addition, they can potentially have a destructive effect on the person on the receiving end. 

Armchair psychology usually isn’t based on objective and scientific observations, unlike the advice that someone might receive when you speak with a licensed online therapist or mental health professional. So please keep reading to learn about armchair psychology and how to avoid it.

What is armchair psychology?

Have questions about armchair psychology?

Armchair psychology is advice on mental health conditions or psychological disorders that typically comes from the logic and introspection of an untrained layperson. Unlike professional psychologists and therapists, armchair psychologists are not certified, licensed, or trained to issue mental health advice. 

Instead, they might think about how things have worked for them, what they've read online, and what makes sense based on what they know. Then, they may state what seems right from their perspective. For example, an armchair psychologist may have experienced weight gain while feeling depressed, if their friend gains weight they may make assumptions and form a diagnosis based on their own experience. However, there are many things that can cause weight gain, not just depression, this is why it's important to seek a professional whose job it is to assess mental health. 

While introspection psychology can be a helpful tool, it can lead to limited or incorrect views. And armchair psychology can't replace professional help for those experiencing mental health issues.

How people use their ideas about psychology

People who use armchair psychology usually feel they have a good reason for offering advice. For example, they may want to help someone solve a problem or make a decision.

However, sometimes a person may use armchair psychology to justify a behavior or decision, for example, an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend may blame the end of your relationship on an armchair diagnosis. This section will discuss how people might use armchair psychology.

1. To diagnose themselves and others

When someone feels distressed by their behavior or that of another person, it's natural to want to label it. But without training, they're likely to label people incorrectly. As a result, they might decide that someone has a serious mental disorder such as borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder when the symptoms aren't present. Diagnosing a mental illness is a complex process requiring the supervision of a licensed professional, so it's rare to arrive at the correct conclusion without training in psychology. 

Diagnoses made without formal training are usually wrong and may harm the person receiving the diagnosis. For example, if an armchair psychologist sees someone sleeping too much, they might decide that the person is depressed. And while depression may be at play, it's also possible that a physical condition is making this person tired. If the person accepts the diagnosis of depression, they might not seek medical help to find the physical source of their fatigue.

If the underlying medical cause of fatigue is serious, this could put the person's life in jeopardy. A licensed professional would have a better chance of understanding the possibilities and referring the person to a physician if needed.

2. To offer advice

While their motivation can range from concern to control, most armchair psychologists love offering advice and guidance. They often think they know what's best and may use psychological words, phrases, and labels to make a point and to back up their advice.

A mental health professional, on the other hand, won't usually tell someone what to do. Instead, they'll likely help the patient examine their thoughts and feelings over the course of a therapy session and use sound psychological methods to help identify the source. Then, they may help the person come to conclusions and consider their options to improve their health.

3. To make important decisions

Sometimes, people might use armchair psychology to solve personal problems or make critical decisions. However, since they're not a trained counselor, they may misuse psychological terms and concepts.

How armchair psychology impacts the person being “diagnosed”

It is normal to want to help a friend or loved one in the moment when they are experiencing challenges or hard times in their life, however, making a mental health diagnosis may just make things worse. When someone is a victim of an amateur diagnosis, they may be vulnerable to adverse effects. Whether the armchair psychologist is thinking about their issues or someone else's, their advice has the potential to cause problems. Here are some of the potential effects.

1. Decreased self-esteem and self-confidence

Getty/MoMo Productions

When someone hears an opinion about what they might be experiencing, they may believe it and begin feeling bad about themselves. In addition, they might start seeing themselves as inferior, weak, or different from other people, which could damage their self-esteem and confidence. 

Trained therapists don't usually dwell on a diagnosis during sessions. Instead, they typically focus on resolving issues and helping their client overcome them.

2. Increased stigma

When an armchair psychologist labels someone and tells others about their opinion, that person may experience stigma and discrimination. As a result, people — even close friends, parents, and loved ones — might begin to treat them differently.

3. Distressing emotions

When an armchair psychologist comments on someone's mental health, the person may feel angry, afraid, ashamed, self-conscious, or misunderstood. While there is a potential for the same feelings to occur when the words come from a professional, a licensed therapist or psychologist has the training to base their assertions on objectives and help their client manage emotions that arise. 

4. Not seeking professional help

Instead of speaking to a professional, someone who receives an armchair psychology diagnosis may decide to live with the opinion they receive, thinking that the person has all the answers. The same can be true if someone uses armchair psychology to diagnose themselves. However, serious mental health conditions, such as borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, or bipolar disorder may require professional intervention for treatment to be effective.

How it affects the armchair psychologist

Informal psychology can potentially cause problems for the person using it. For example, it might disrupt relationships – for example, it can be challenging for a person to have a healthy relationship with someone who thinks they're mentally ill.

Additionally, relying on introspection and personal experience to understand psychology might discourage the person from seeking professional help for any issues they may have. Licensed mental health professionals have studied mental conditions and treatments extensively. They've also had supervised clinical experience helping others.

A safer approach to mental problems: Professional help

Armchair psychology has the potential to be hurtful. A safer approach to mental health problems is usually to let the person know they're supported and consider suggesting professional help.

Ask questions, listen, and acknowledge their feelings

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Have questions about armchair psychology?

People can offer help to those who are struggling without armchair psychology. They can offer conversation, support, and a non-judgmental environment. Additionally, they might ask open-ended questions and give the person space to talk. 

Encourage them to seek help from a professional

A next step might be pointing the person towards mental health resources. This doesn't mean trying to force them to see a therapist. Instead, it's about letting the person know that help is available if they're interested and then leaving the decision to them. And if you're worried about yourself, you might remind yourself that it's okay for you to talk to a counselor, too.

Not everyone feels comfortable seeing a therapist in person, for people who might feel uncomfortable or dislike going to a counselor's office, it's worth considering online therapy from BetterHelp. Online therapy has been rising in popularity over the last few years and makes it easy to connect with a licensed professional counselor from the comfort of your home or wherever you have the internet. Online therapy can be an effective alternative to traditional face-to-face therapy and is often more available. 

An article published in Current Psychiatry Research and Reviews found that online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) had high efficacy and acceptability levels in patients experiencing depression. Although the article covers various studies, the authors noted that online therapy programs had an average of around 80% of both attrition and satisfaction rates. In addition, participants reported high levels of satisfaction (90%) with recurrent CBT interventions.

All that's needed to get online therapy is an internet connection. With a busy schedule and many things to do, you can skip driving through traffic to attend face-to-face therapy. And you can connect with licensed online therapists through your preferred methods, such as phone calls, live messages, and video conferences. 

If you'd like more information and clarification about online counseling, consider reading the following reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing various life challenges.

Counselor reviews

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Avoiding armchair psychology might be challenging, and it may feel like giving up on helping others. However, it's essential to understand the risks. Professional help is the most effective option for those seeking mental health care or support.
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