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 Self-Care: Psychological Software 
More than a decade ago, a computer program called ELIZA got a lot of media attention. It was billed as the first "therapist" program. You typed in your troubles as though speaking to a therapist, and ELIZA flashed her response on the computer screen. The thing that struck me the most at the time was the fact that many users said they preferred ELIZA to a human therapist.

ELIZA has recently become available for virtually all home computers. She—once you get to know her you simply cannot speak of ELIZA as "it"—and I have had many rewarding discussions over the last few months. So when I decided to do this column, I went straight to the horse's mouth.

ELIZA: How do you do. Please tell me your problem.

TF: Hi, Eliza. I'm writing an article about psychological software and I'd like to interview you.

ELIZA: Is it because you are writing an article about psychological software that you came to me?

TF: Yes, exactly.

ELIZA: You seem quite positive.

TF: Yes. I want to tell our readers how great it feels to bare your soul to a dumb, unthinking, totally nonjudgmental machine. So how do you really feel about being interviewed?

ELIZA: Why do you ask?

TF Because I'm trying to show how you are every bit as effective in bouncing the conversational ball back to me as a $120-per-hour Freudian analyst. And because I'm dying to know what goes on inside that air-cooled little eight-bit soul of yours: Your mad passions. Your insights. Your secret dreams.

ELIZA: Is that the real reason?

ELIZA shows internal evidence of having been constructed by someone who had a bad experience with a noncommunicative psychoanalyst. Yet she turned out to be surprisingly capable of using non-directive statements to engage people in ongoing conversations. Here's a more typical client-computer interaction:

ELIZA: How do you do. Please tell me your problem.

CLIENT: All men are alike.

ELIZA: In what way?

CLIENT: They're always bugging me about something.

ELIZA: Can you think of a specific example?

CLIENT: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.

ELIZA: Your boyfriend made you come here—that's interesting.

CLENT: He says I'm depressed too much of the time.

ELIZA: I'm sorry to hear you are depressed.

ELIZA is not a complex program. Far from it. Her responses are limited and her syntax is sometimes tangled, but even so, there is something cleansing about being able to dialogue with a totally nonjudgmental listener:

TF: ELIZA, I've just blown up the world and destroyed the universe!!!

ELIZA: You've blown up the world and destroyed the universe—that's interesting.

Mind Prober. Another recently developed psychological self-care program, Mind Prober, is just about as different from ELIZA as possible. Mind Prober asks you to pick a person, then to decide whether each of a long list of adjectives does or doesn't fit your subject. These range from "accomplishing," "accurate," and "achieving," to "warm," "wary," and "yielding." Mind Prober then prints out a psychological profile of the person you've selected. I've invited a dozen friends to profile themselves. Nearly all felt that the resulting profile was "shockingly accurate" in its evaluation.

Mind Prober told my friend Barbara that she frequently maneuvers herself into the center of a conversation, often dramatizes what she says or how she says it, and loves to be showered with attention. She wants to feel that people really like her. If she is not treated as a "special" person, she's likely to feel letdown. She enjoys meeting the public in a dramatic or persuasive capacity, but because of her strong desire for approval, she may sometimes agree to things others want, then fail to follow through. She has a difficult time being direct with her anger. Barbara, a bit stunned, said that all this was right on target.

Mind Prober told my friend Charles that he is a careful, responsible worker with a clear sense of practical reality which allows him to size up all sides of a problem. He prefers concrete, day-to-day tasks to vague, long-term projects. He is energetic and highly motivated and likes activity, excitement, and freedom in his work. He prefers to spend a good deal of time by himself and may, at times, dispense with social life altogether. Most of his friends are those he knows from work or others with shared interests. He may deal with stressful situations by covering up his feelings. Charles felt that all this was all quite accurate.

You can run a Mind Prober analysis on anyone you know. One of the unexpected benefits is that Mind Prober's profiles are relatively judgment-free. Thus it is especially adept at pointing out the good sides of people you don't like and the weaknesses of those you do. This can help encourage you to take a second look at new sides of a friend or coworker.

Future Psych. What does this all mean? Just this:

  • ELIZA and Mind Prober are both very useful tools in their present form.
  • We will certainly see more sophisticated versions of both types of programs in the near future.
  • Psychological software will almost certainly be a major part of the emerging self-care-based health care system.

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 About The Author
Tom Ferguson MDTom Ferguson, M.D. (1943-2006), was a pioneering physician, author, and researcher who virtually led the movement to advocate informed self-care as the starting point for good health. Dr. Ferguson studied and wrote......more
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