What’s Wrong with Dr. Phil | Skeptical Inquirer (2023)

I’ve become a little obsessed with Dr. Phil.

The no-nonsense sixty-five-year-old southern psychologist has been on the airwaves regularly since the late-90s, when Oprah Winfrey hired him as a psychology consultant after she was sued. His style apparently won Winfrey over. She soon had him on her show as a regular feature, and by late 2002, he had his own show, Dr. Phil.

The show is marked by Dr. Phil’s blunt style and contrary disposition. Whatever his guest thinks, you can bet Dr. Phil will think the opposite. His audience seems to eat it up, applauding his every move. He tells it like it is!

Dr. Phil airs in Los Angeles every weekday, making it easy to get trapped in its grip while making your morning coffee. I love to hate Dr. Phil. He shoots from the hip, sometimes with seemingly disastrous results, but he always makes a good show of it. And his reputation bears some scars.

In 2003, he started selling a weight loss supplement line called “Shape Up,” which he claimed “contain[ed] scientifically researched levels of ingredients that can help you change your behavior to take control of your weight.” Disappointed customers entered a class action lawsuit against him, claiming that the plan required them to spend $120 a month on pills, yet they saw no results. Facing a Federal Trade Commission investigation into false-advertising concerns, CSA Nutraceuticals (the manufacturer of the Shape Up line) agreed to stop making the product. In the midst of all this attention, Dr. Phil settled for $10.5 million and the product was withdrawn from shelves.

The same year, an unauthorized biography of Dr. Phil hit the stands, claiming that he had covered up a previous marriage (now verified); that he’d been accused by former friends and colleagues of setting up fake press interviews to catch disloyal employees; that he flew into “rages”; and that his team attempted to halt the book’s publication.

In 2007, he blamed the Virginia Tech shooting on video games.

“The problem is we are programming these people as a society…. Common sense tells you that if these kids are playing video games, where they’re on a mass killing spree in a video game, it’s glamorized on the big screen, it’s become part of the fiber of our society.”

(A recent American Psychological Association analysis did state that “first person shooter” games are associated with aggression, but found no clear correlation between their use and criminal violence.)

In 2008, Dr. Phil’s staff bailed a young woman out of jail after she assaulted another teenager on tape and then released it on YouTube.

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Also in 2008, Dr. Phil visited Brittany Spears in the hospital in an attempt to stage a mental health “intervention.” The family’s representative said he was invited privately and that he exploited the event for the media without consent.

In 2013, he drew the ire of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, when he described “insane” people as those who “suck on rocks and bark at the moon.”

He has had “psychic medium” John Edward on to promote Edward’s alleged abilities to communicate with the dead.

And last year, he was sued by the family of a former guest, who say he sent the young woman to a rehabilitation academy where she was isolated, mentally and physically abused, and suffered a broken arm and “permanently and irreparably” severed nerves when staff forcibly pulled her off of her bed. According to court documents, the guest had originally gone on the show after having been raped and witnessing a violent murder.

The good doctor may have some skeletons in his closet, to say the least, but most central to any review of Dr. Phil’s $70 million business is the real question: Is he a good doctor?

Well first of all he’s not a medical doctor nor a licensed therapist. He does have a PhD, and while some would argue that it’s misleading to call oneself “Doctor” without practicing medicine, technically, anyone with a doctorate can claim the honorific.

What’s Wrong with Dr. Phil | Skeptical Inquirer (1)

But Dr. Phil’s show is a show about real people, not abstract academic concepts. When he sits down with someone suffering from a seriously incapacitating illness such as obsessive compulsive disorder or bipolar disorder, do they realize that this “doctor” merely completed a PhD program and wrote a dissertation on rheumatoid arthritis in 1979?

In fact, Dr. Phil only practiced counseling for ten years before quitting because, “he hated it,” as one reporter summed up his statements. Dr. Phil explained,

“A couple would come in and they’d start bitchin’ and whinin’ and after 10 minutes, I’m like, `My God, no wonder you people don’t like each other, I can’t stand either one of you!'”

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One has to wonder how his former clients feel, reading those words. Betrayed? Enraged? Or do they shake their heads like his TV audience and say, “That’s just Dr. Tell-It-Like-It-Is”?

In the same interview, Dr. Phil said he found counseling “too gray,” and that he liked black-and-white victories such as those in courtroom forensics, so he founded his deposition company, Courtroom Sciences. Surely, court battles afford clear wins and losses, but to hear a self-proclaimed “doctor” who advises people with mental issues regularly (and in front of millions, no less) say he doesn’t like “gray” issues is more than a little disconcerting.

What’s Wrong with Dr. Phil | Skeptical Inquirer (2)

I went to visit Dr. Phil myself last week. The show is taped just a mile from my home in Los Angeles. Obtaining tickets was one website visit and a phone call away. In no time, I had two tickets to be in the audience the very next week, so my partner and I read over the rules (no cell phones, no cameras, no weird clothes), and showed up at 8 am for the taping.

A group of mostly women entered and milled around an alleyway with free coffee. The mean age appeared to be somewhere around fifty-five, and they were about 90 percent female. We were asked to fill out basic waivers before going inside, essentially stating that the producers could edit us any way they wanted. This is standard in the industry and has low stakes for an audience member, but it would certainly make me nervous if I were going to be up on that stage, spilling my guts to Dr. No-Bullshit.

After the usual herding around and insistence that everyone “go to the bathroom now! You won’t be able to go for five hours!” we were escorted into the studio and placed in seats. A warm-up host joked with audience members, endearing himself especially to the older women in the crowd. He gave away coffee mugs, books, and toiletries. A woman in our row won a copy of Dr. Phil’s The 20/20 Diet, then commented to us that it was the fifth she had won in the last few weeks. She was an audience regular.

Rather unceremoniously, the warm-up act was ushered from the stage, and a voice announced an approaching Dr. Phil, who ambled onto the stage from behind a 90s-style geometric set. Without acknowledging the live audience at all, he looked right at the camera and began reading off the teleprompter.

“Ashleigh says she accidentally pushed her husband out a window, but others say it was murder…”

The first episode centered around two potential miscarriages of justice: A woman who, in Dr. Phil’s estimation, was imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit, and two foster children whose torturers were not sufficiently punished for their crimes. Dr. Phil attacked each story expertly, bringing to light interesting angles and compelling questions. It was not hard to imagine a jury eating out of his hand. When he promised to go to Oklahoma to visit one prisoner and potentially help her get a retrial, the audience burst into applause, and the prisoner’s family smiled in dizzying excitement.

This is what Dr. Phil was born to do.

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The next episode of the two-episode taping was what the show had become famous for: Close encounters with people who needed “tough love” therapy. The first, a twenty-two-year-old beauty queen who was brought on by her mother who feared she was overworking herself into an early grave, smiled brightly for the camera but quickly descended into a desperate spiral of moral guilt. She had taken on the duties of the world: feeding the sick, helping the poor, and getting involved in local politics to make others’ lives better.

“I don’t think I’m better than anyone else,” she said, “just more willing.”

She appeared completely sincere to me, though her sentiments may seem unfamiliar. As she quietly divulged that she was religious, I was reminded immediately of scrupulosity, a less-common but still widespread variant of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), in which the sufferer obsesses (literally) over whether they are doing the morally right thing, and doing enough to help the world, or to please God. I have no training as a therapist or doctor, but on the other hand, Dr. Phil’s current license to diagnose someone is exactly the same as mine.

Rather than note that there are genuine disorders that could make a person harbor these feelings and thoughts, Dr. Phil immediately accused his guest of lying, of making up her motivations, and selflessness, and of having a narcissistic need for approval from others. The young woman looked not so much embarrassed as crestfallen; she had hoped for help and instead was being told that her problem was something that didn’t resonate at all. She nodded politely, trying valiantly to assimilate his thoughts into her mental framework. But when he went to commercial, all I saw was disappointment in her eyes.

Strangely, as Dr. Phil led us into the next segment, he said there would be a common theme between this guest and the next, and hinted that the next guest was someone with OCD.

“Ah ha!” I thought. “Maybe he will mention scrupulosity!”

But he didn’t. The next woman spoke of her germ phobia, a heartbreaking story of washing her hands until they bled and being unable to stand on the floor of her own house without shuffling on paper towels beneath her feet. She had been diagnosed with OCD when she was eight, and today is in her late twenties. Her OCD has become so difficult that her fiancé has considered leaving her and their son out of frustration. But Dr. Phil doesn’t buy any of it.

“Eight is very early to be diagnosed,” he said, “Usually you don’t even see these symptoms ’til ten or twelve.”

Dr. Phil is half-right. Of minors being treated for OCD, the mean onset is 9.6 years old for boys and eleven for girls. His guest is outside the average, but not by much. The most recent data on this, however, is from 1989. Virtually all diagnoses (other than those conditions which have been removed from the literature) have become more prevalent, and thus people can be diagnosed earlier. Dr. Phil’s own website has a questionnaire to gauge “signs that your child might have OCD” but mentions nothing about age.

Dr. Phil suggested that her diagnosis might be, instead, an iotragenic label: a concept introduced by a person’s therapist or physician that then becomes reality to the patient. The guest didn’t have OCD! She just thought she had OCD and so was acting like someone with OCD. McGraw went on to say she did have a germ phobia but that she just needed to stop telling herself she has a crippling disorder.

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This might sound temptingly insightful, but health professionals know that denying that OCD exists (or denying that you have it) only leads to more suffering. Bruce M. Hyman, an expert in OCD, explains in his book, Coping with OCD, that denial is particularly powerful among OCD sufferers, who think that their compulsions are actually helping others:

“Another kind of denial occurs when you tell yourself that you’re engaging in a compulsion for the greater good, to keep the people around you safe from harm…. It numbs you to the very real pain that the people around you feel as a result of your OCD. At the same time, it gives you a false sense of pride and accomplishment, making you into something of a martyr… But the truth is that they’re suffering—and you’re suffering—all needlessly. And the longer you deny that fact, the more pain you and your loved ones will have to endure.”1

There is nothing inherently wrong, of course, with seeking second opinions. In fact, the American Medical Association encourages it. But second opinions should come from licensed doctors, not TV personalities without medical credentials.

To Dr. Phil’s credit, he briefly turned to an expert in the audience—a licensed doctor on his advisory board—to give brief advice to his guest. The doctor seemed to hint at cognitive behavioral treatment, saying that our thoughts and actions can be reprogrammed through the right kinds of therapy. But there was no mention of whether Dr. Phil and his staff would actually get the young woman the help she needed.

As I watched all of this, I became increasingly uncomfortable. It seemed entirely possible that guests came on Dr. Phil’s show better off than they left. And as for the trust factor, when Dr. Phil took a five-minute segment to recommend a beauty cream, it became obvious that we were dealing with little more than a TV huckster. He sells gotchas and zingers with occasional breaks for Boots No. 7, available at Walgreens for under $30.

It’s time for us to acknowledge the problem with Dr. Phil. It’s easy to demonize people such as Dr. Oz, who promote obvious, quantifiable pseudoscience. But there’s another doctor in town arguably doing the same kind of harm. Psychology is also a science, and therapists are licensed for the very reason that only certain people have the knowledge and talent to do it, and even those that do need training to do it effectively. Everyone is entitled to give insight and advice, but positioning yourself on national TV with the misleading title of “doctor” is something altogether different. Something possibly sinister.

I left the studio with two free bottles of Boots No. 7 (which actually works great) and the nagging feeling that I should have tried to talk to the women he’d berated on stage.

But what would I have said? I’m no doctor.

1. Hyman, Bruce M. Coping with OCD, p. 131.

Carrie Poppy

Carrie Poppy is the cohost of the investigations podcast Oh No, Ross and Carrie. She regularly writes and speaks on social justice, science, spirituality, faith, and claims of the paranormal. She also performs, mostly in funny things. She only has one fully functioning elbow.

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