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Here at The Workplace, we have prohibitions against offering legal opinions.

But we have cases where respondents feel free to offer a psychological diagnosis, seemingly based on nothing more than a few written sentences.

Seems odd to me. Anyone agree or otherwise care to comment?

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    Can you link to some examples of what you're talking about? – David K Oct 12 '16 at 18:28
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    @DavidK - sure. The most recent case involves someone offering a diagnosis of "Imposter Syndrome". You can do a search and see that the term has become popular in answers here. There are others. – Joe Strazzere Oct 12 '16 at 18:46
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    @JoeStrazzere seems like a pretty weak argument for an infrequent problem – Old_Lamplighter Oct 12 '16 at 20:28
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    I tend to agree with you on this. Realistically a 1-2 paragraph question isn't enough to diagnose a medical condition, which seems to happen often enough that I think it'd be useful to have a site "policy" for. – enderland Oct 12 '16 at 20:29
  • I agree with the medical bit, not so much the psychological one though. Hard to say really, because some physical issues have psychological roots – Kilisi Oct 13 '16 at 6:15
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    Is "Imposter Syndrome" always used as an actual medical/psychological diagnosis? I mostly hear it used/use it myself in a colloquial sense of "feeling significantly underqualified and out of place." – MissMonicaE Oct 14 '16 at 19:39
  • We do not allow questions asking for legal advice. There is no overt prohibition on offering legal opinions. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Oct 18 '16 at 20:12
  • For the record, a lot of the concepts (like imposter syndrome) were known to people in the workplace before the medical community formalized the definition. – corsiKa Oct 19 '16 at 18:12
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TL;DR: I don't think we have a problem.

To start with, we don't allow answers that give legal advice because we don't allow questions seeking legal advice. Legal issues are inherent to the workplace, and so theses types of questions are very common. We don't allow them, because most of us are not lawyers, and we don't want people to act on our advice without seeking professional opinions first.

We do not receive questions seeking medical advice, as that is not related to the workplace. There are some questions related to psychological issues, like depression, anxiety, and Asperger's, but they are always directly related to dealing with them in the workplace. Our advice here is relevant and does not require a medical degree, particularly since many people here are familiar with these issues either first- or second-hand. We usually aren't giving medical advice, but instead management or coping techniques.

You specifically mention medical "diagnoses". These almost always occur when someone is explaining their situation and an answerer says "You sound like you have clinical depression/anxiety/back problems. You should really see a therapist/doctor." I think these are well-intended and not out of line. No one is going to take any action from this advice aside from seeing a professional. I don't think these sorts of diagnoses are inappropriate or dangerous here, if they are relevant to answering the question.

The answer you linked is in my opinion a little different in that Impostor Syndrome has become a bit of a generic term for lack of confidence in one's own ability. Yes, it is a psychological condition, but most people don't refer to it that way. I think the answer could be improved by focusing on the lack of confidence and making the Impostor Syndrome definition a side note.

Lastly, we also see people diagnosing coworkers and bosses from posts. "Wow, your boss sounds bi-polar. I'd get out of there fast!" Yes, it's a diagnosis, but no one is going to take action based on the medical aspect of our advice. Judging someone and labeling them with a disorder might be rude and unfounded, but it is not on the same level as giving unsound legal advice.

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  • Should comments like the one in your last paragraph be flagged? – jpmc26 Oct 17 '16 at 14:01
  • @jpmc26 I wouldn't personally consider them rude enough to warrant a flag, but everyone can use their flags (and votes) how they choose. The moderator would then make a judgement on how to proceed. – David K Oct 17 '16 at 14:10
  • Don't forget that "moron" and "idiot" were once official psychological/psychiatric labels as well. ;) – Wildcard Oct 25 '16 at 3:12
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Tl;dr I agree with @Joe but not on Imposter Syndrome.

First, before I get into my larger answer, I need to make a side point relevant to the @Joe's comments on his question and the existing answers. I believe there is an important distinction that we are failing to draw here: there is a difference between a psychological disorder and a psychological reaction.

A psychological disorder is something like depression, being bipolar, etc. where the brain is recognized as functioning outside of a neuronormative state. Another way of thinking about this would be that these disorders are likely happen regardless of the inputs (i.e. people are depressed but not due to a events-based specific cause).

On the other hand, Imposter Syndrome is a real thing that also needs to be corrected, but it is more of a reaction - its occurrence is more dependent on the situational inputs. Another example of a suboptimal reaction or bias would be how people think about prices - for example, how you can often get people to pay more money than they otherwise would under two pricing options by adding a third option because of assumptions about the quality of the "cheaper" option.


With that distinction made, I largely agree with @Joe. I feel that:

  1. People writing answers should not offer definitive-sounding medical diagnoses (either physical or psychological) for disorders. Instead, if this person feels a disorder may be playing a part in the OP's situation, they can say something like "I was once in a similar situation and found (disorder) to be the cause. You may want to consult with a medical professional to see if this also applies to you."

  2. That said, I feel that answers explaining about Imposter Syndrome are completely fine. I feel that the answerer in @Joe's example was probably off-base, but there is nothing wrong with explaining about human psychological biases to try to help a questioner make a more informed, objective decision.

Here is one good example of many where I feel Imposter Syndrome makes for a great answer: https://workplace.stackexchange.com/a/47273/43144

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    Side note on "...where the brain is recognized as functioning outside of a neuronormative state." There are no biological tests to show this brain functioning, however—whether normal or abnormal. The idea that depression or bipolar disorders have anything to do with brain chemistry is purely speculation; this is a hot button of contention in the psychiatric and medical field. Point being that it is not universally accepted (even by psychiatrists) that "bipolar disorder" and other disorders are valid, definitive, evidence-based diagnoses—regardless of who pronounces them. – Wildcard Oct 25 '16 at 3:18
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    Agree with Wildcard that this answer is slightly overreaching in characterizing a disorder, but as someone who is not a medical professional but does suffer from such a disorder, I feel the characterization is pretty on topic. Upvoted because I think the strategy for the occasional cases someone wants to suggest medical help is done well. – user42272 Oct 27 '16 at 5:44
  • @Wildcard Thank you for informing me about that - I didn't realize it was something still up in the air. I know treatments for some disorders involve serotonin and dopamine, so I figured the brain chemistry part of the equation was mostly settled. Now that I'm more informed, do you have any suggestions as to how I could improve that aspect of my answer? I'd be happy to do so and want to characterize the situation more accurately where possible. – puzzlepiece87 Oct 30 '16 at 23:44
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    @puzzlepiece87, thanks for the very polite request. :) After consideration, I unfortunately cannot think of any way to improve the accuracy of that portion of the answer without wholly rewriting it, and possibly reconsidering the basic premises of the answer as well. (cont'd) – Wildcard Oct 31 '16 at 7:43
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    (cont'd) The sad truth is that the description from the Original Poster: "a psychological diagnosis, seemingly based on nothing more than a few written sentences," does exactly describe the modus operandi of many, many actual practicing psychiatrists and psychologists—effectively all of them. Since there are no physiological tests, their methods of diagnosis are inherently subjective—period. Psychiatric disorders cannot be objectively demonstrated, so there is no intrinsic difference between a psychiatric opinion and that of a stranger online. Both are opinions. As I say, sad but true. – Wildcard Oct 31 '16 at 7:46
  • @Wildcard You're welcome - again, I'm grateful for the feedback :) I will push back very gently on the point of "no intrinsic difference" and say that, as flawed as the DSM may be, it's at least a peer-influenced, well-contested guide that positions practitioners who diagnose (either in agreement or in disagreement) with its guidelines in mind as more well-informed and up-to-date on the latest research and opinion of the crowd than someone who is unaccredited. I don't want to risk giving them vs stranger false equivalence because, imo, they don't have the same likelihood of improving outcomes. – puzzlepiece87 Oct 31 '16 at 19:40
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My take on this specific case was that imposter syndrome was not being referenced as a diagnosis, but as a label for discussing a common human behavior most of us experience at some point in our careers.

The other I instances I can think of where the comment has been directed to the querant have all been of the form "I'm not a doctor, but what you are describing sounds like it could be ... And you might want to consider that as an approach to managing that." Or "as someone who has wrestled with ... here's what I've found useful."

Where we get into trouble, in my opinion, is when we are tempted to apply labels to the crazies the querant works with, based only on what the querant has told us about them... It's important to remember we don't have all the facts, they aren't here to give us their side of the story, and sometimes the querant 's perceptions are completely mistaken. We need to allow room for that when offering advice.

But over all, I think we do fairly well on this front and I'm not convinced I see anything that needs changing -- as long as we continue to focus on the workplace rather than treatment.

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I don't think the comparison of the medical "diagnosis" to which you refer to legal opinions is a fair one.

This is the Internet. It's largely full of crap and everyone knows it. To paraphrase Gene Spafford:

[The Internet] is like a herd of performing elephants with diarrhea -- massive, difficult to redirect, awe-inspiring, entertaining, and a source of mind-boggling amounts of excrement when you least expect it.

But the distinction between a legal question and a medical diagnosis is where it applies. We don't answer legal questions. We also don't answer medical questions. I suspect that the reason there's not a closure reason specifying medical questions is because nobody actually asks them.

We're not talking about a question though, we're talking about answers. And that's where my Spafford quote comes in. The Internet is largely full of crap and everyone knows it. But it's generally up to the individual to differentiate the crap from what's valuable.

We aren't supposed to give legal advice as answers, obviously. But the reality is that we often do, to a greater or lesser degree. We phrases like "if it were me" or "in my opinion" or even go so far as to be more blunt and then end it with something "...regardless, you need to see a lawyer" or something similar.

The difference with medical opinions is that they are talking about a person rather than a situation and we need to be discussing situations because otherwise there's no wide applicability to a Q&A site. But like legal "answers" does anyone really take a diagnosis seriously? Is a questioner going to say "Wow, I didn't know I had that, I'm going to tell my HR department and get some accommodations"? Highly unlikely.

So the real question as I see it is "How do we deal with people offering medical diagnoses?" and the good news is that we already have ways and use them:

  • Downvote the answer
  • Comment about it so anyone reading the answer sees that the so-called diagnosis is challenged.
  • Flag the answer as "Not an answer" or with enough rep, vote to delete it.

TL;DR: If I were going to change anything (assuming the language isn't there already) I'd specify something that clarifies that (like questions) it's not permissible to offer any answer that otherwise requires a license such as legal, medical and psychiatric.

"Of course that's just my opinion. I could be wrong" -- Dennis Miller

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    The internet may indeed be largely full of crap. IMHO, we can do better here. – Joe Strazzere Oct 12 '16 at 22:38
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    By comparison, Parenting does have "question seeking medical advice" as a close reason. – Dan Henderson Oct 12 '16 at 23:37
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    @JoeStrazzere we ARE the internet here. By definition we won't do better, but what we won't have is deliberate disinformation because the community swoops down on trolls like an angry blue jay defending her nest – Old_Lamplighter Oct 17 '16 at 20:27
  • The mission statement of StackExchange is pretty much to do better than crap. Like, that's really the entire point. – user42272 Oct 27 '16 at 5:48
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Legal issues are a fine point that vary from state to state, country to country.

Human bodies do not vary, so if someone is asking about a pain in their chest, shortness of breach and numbness in their left arm, I think we can all identify those a symptoms of a heart attack.

Many of us also suffer from neurological and psychological issues and can provide a unique perspective on the issue. I should hate to see questions about what a good approach is for assistance when you are hearing impaired go by the wayside due to some arbitrary, and IMO, unnecessary ban on asking real questions with real answers that have a very real affect on the workplace.

Similarly, there are plenty of people from HR or who have personal experience dealing with psychological issues. There are numerous books on the workplace dealing with psychology from Dale Carnegie's "How to win friends and influence people" to "The seven habits of highly effective people" to "Brag, how to toot your own horn without blowing it" to lesser known books such as "Rhinoceros success"

And what is sales if not 100% psychology?

IMO, if we ban questions like this, we may as well close down shop and turn out the lights.

EDIT:

Per Jan Doggen. This does not mean that we should not employ the down-vote when someone is giving bad advice, especially when it's from armchair diagnosticians.

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    next thing you know, we'll be closing any question that requires opinions. Oh wait.... – Chris E Oct 12 '16 at 18:30
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    Providing a unique perspective on a condition with which you have personally been diagnosed is one thing (although unless it is core to a specific work issue, I'd argue that it's off-topic). But providing a medical diagnosis after reading a few sentences is different. If you are a doctor, your answer belongs on a medical forum rather than here. – Joe Strazzere Oct 12 '16 at 18:49
  • Spot on, in almost any situation involving people and their interactions it becomes an analysis of motivations, agendas, personalities etc, etc,. Nothing special about being a psychologist that I know of except a piece of paper and believing that every man has the hots for his mum...and homicidal inclinations towards his dad. – Kilisi Oct 13 '16 at 4:51
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    I have upvoted this answer but add one suggestion: we should downvote answers (and leave a comment why) that jump to medical/psychological conclusions, when we recognize Joe's observation seemingly based on nothing more than a few written sentences. – user8036 Oct 14 '16 at 12:54
  • @JanDoggen Spot on. I agree completely. – Lumberjack Oct 14 '16 at 14:26
  • @JanDoggen agreed. That's what the downvote Is for. We don't have to go banning things willy-nilly, the community can simple handle it with the downvotes. – Old_Lamplighter Oct 14 '16 at 16:11
  • @JoeStrazzere I deleted my comment. I misread your post, it was not rude. My apologies – Old_Lamplighter Oct 17 '16 at 15:50
  • @RichardU - no worries – Joe Strazzere Oct 17 '16 at 21:37
  • Maybe this is a nit, "Human bodies do not vary" is pretty contrary to the very nature of physiological and mental disorders. This answer then trails off into pop psychology -- I'm a lot more concerned of cases when depression, bipolar disorder, or neurodiversity enter the picture, which Dale Carnegie for instance does not come close to touching on. – user42272 Oct 27 '16 at 5:47
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My answer sparked this meta post. It was highly up-voted and I don't believe it overstepped a mark.

I pointed the OP to an often mentioned psychological syndrome. I didn't offer a medical diagnosis nor suggest treatment.

Edit: for reference I've changed the part where I say that the OP maybe suffering from impostor syndrome, to one saying that many job seekers and new hires feel symptoms similar to those of impostor syndrome.

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  • I think your answer was very good except for the diagnosis part ("I think you are suffering from impostor syndrome"). I think if you removed that portion, your answer would be improved. – Joe Strazzere Oct 13 '16 at 10:51
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    @JoeStrazzere. I don't think that imposter syndrome is a medical condition at all, is it? – TRiG Oct 13 '16 at 11:59
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    @JoeStrazzere That article says it's not considered to be a mental disorder - it's more like a bias. I am going to post an answer agreeing with your proposal in cases of mental disorders but NOT in cases of bias. – puzzlepiece87 Oct 13 '16 at 16:02
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The reason for not giving legal advice, I presume, is that this is a specialized and highly technical field and people with legal issues should seek help from professional lawyers and not from random people on the Internet.

Of course you could then say the same thing about psychological diagnoses: You should get such advice from a trained psychologist and not some random guy on the Internet.

But if we follow that reasoning to its natural conclusion, we'd have to rule out almost any sort of advice. Aren't you better to get advice about personal finance from a professional financial consultant? Shouldn't you get advice about job hunting from a professional job placement firm? Etc.

I think the practical answer is that it's a matter of degree, and the level of technicality of an answer.

If someone on this site answered a question by saying, for example, "No, you can't do that, because that would be breaking a contract", I hope the moderators wouldn't be so pedantic as to say that that's legal advice and thus out of bounds. Or if someone said, "You really should take your vacation time, because we all need some rest to stay healthy and alert", I hope that wouldn't get flagged as improper medical advice. But if someone said, "Sounds like you have Fowler-Hayes Syndrome. You should take 4 milligrams of oxyribotropin twice daily ..." etc, (I just made those words up, don't bother telling me they're nonsense) well even if the person is a licensed physician it's unlikely he could make a serious diagnosis and treatment plan based on a forum post.

I don't need a licensed psychologist to tell me that screaming obscenities at co-workers will likely make them angry and resentful towards me. But I wouldn't give any credence at all to a diagnosis of a complex psychological condition from a random stranger based on a forum post.

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  • The reason for not giving psychological advice, I presume, is that this is a specialized and highly technical field and people with psychological issues should seek help from professional physicians and not from random people on the Internet. I don't see how this rules out giving advice regarding navigating the workplace. – Joe Strazzere Oct 20 '16 at 17:12
  • @JoeStrazzere Almost any advice one could possibly give falls into SOME specialty. Why doesn't the same rule apply? No, that's financial advice, you should consult a financial expert. No, that question about office layout is interior decorating advice, you should consult a professional interior decorator. No, that question about lunch breaks is dietary advice, you should consult a professional dietician. Etc. – Jay Oct 20 '16 at 17:25
  • I'm not sure what you are saying. Are you saying Legal is not okay, but Medical is? – Joe Strazzere Oct 20 '16 at 17:27
  • I'm saying that a blanket "no legal advice" or "no medical advice", if taken literally, and for the reason you just stated, would logically lead to saying "no project management advice, you should consult a certified project manager", etc, as I said in my post. Almost any advice anyone could give, there's probably a profession that specializes in that. Often a highly specialized, technical profession. Is there some reason why legal advice is fundamentally different from project management advice or software development advice or interior decorating advice, etc, for this purpose? – Jay Oct 20 '16 at 17:33
  • And if it's not specialized and highly technical, than it probably falls under the ban against "opinion-based" questions. :-) – Jay Oct 20 '16 at 17:35
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I surmise Joe's intent here includes establishing some precedent. In this answer I do my best to outline what "medical advice lite" is junk and what a quality answer that may include a suggestion to see a doctor actually looks like. I do feel this answers exist and are important to maintaining quality, so it's important to get it right.

But we have cases where respondents feel free to offer a psychological diagnosis, seemingly based on nothing more than a few written sentences.

This is more specific, generally bad behavior than you are mentioning in your question title. This behavior is usually the wrong thing to do. Feel free to be harsh on these respondents.

The more difficult philosophical question is whether "I think you have X disorder, go see a doctor" is okay. To be frank, we really freely do this with advising to seek a lawyer. I think this advice is usually just a diagnosis plus an excuse to make one, and this ought to be shut down more often. But, a handful of time someone raises the risk that a serious physical or mental condition is at play, and some fraction of the time this is the right call, and this site would lack quality answers if this is nevr on topic.

A good suggestion to seek medical advice meets two criteria: expertise is well-stated, and a case based on more specific evidence than a couple over-psychologized sentences is presented. Of course, said evidence should bind to said expertise.

"I have X disorder, and OP or coworker has Y behavior that can be caused by X" is, in my opinion, weak, but germane. Make a judgment and vote accordingly. Something more like "you overslept every day this week? You should get screened for depression" is not quite wrong, but in my opinion a junk answer that does little to make workplace.SE higher quality than junk medical advice sites or junk Q&As.

I think those two examples illustrate where the line is, and higher quality answers will explain expertise and evidence more thoroughly.

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