The Israeli Psychologist Driving His Profession Crazy

Do we choose our psychological disorders because they can actually benefit us? Yes, according to Prof. Jacob Rofe, whose unusual theory places responsibility for madness on the individual.

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Just over two years ago, Prof. Jacob Rofe was sitting in the TV studio of the daily Channel 10 current events program “London and Kirschenbaum,” trying to explain why there is no such thing as “temporary insanity,” and how a person commits extreme acts out of rational choice.

Due to the lack of program time, the doctor’s provocative statement remained unbroadcast. This was set to be one of his rare appearances in the media, although for over two decades he has been publishing articles and books that contain a subversive and hard-to-digest viewpoint regarding a complex relationship – between a person’s psyche on the one hand, and madness and insanity on the other.

It’s not often that a professor of psychology decides so consistently to present human madness as a matter of deliberate choice, and, consequently, is almost totally shunned in the local scientific community of which he is a member. However, Prof. Rofe – a psychologist and lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences at Bar-Ilan University (and until recently the department chairman) – does not let this discourage him. History, he believes, favors those who go against the current, and then, in hindsight, are discovered to have been ahead of their time. Until that happens, the doctor continues to publish articles and disseminate his theory.

“Madness is an economic product,” Rofe states. “It’s no different from perfume or tomatoes, and there’s a large supermarket of disorders and types of craziness,” adding that we choose our psychological disorder based on economic criteria of need, availability and cost-benefit.

“My choice of disorder must provide an optimal solution so it will serve me in an optimal manner,” he claims. “A soldier during wartime, for example, will not choose anorexia, but rather a disorder that causes him physical paralysis. During World Wars I and II, such soldiers were evacuated to the home front – like pilots who suddenly lost their night vision.” Nor does he skip over the “marketing” component in the commercial relationship between the “consumer” and psychological disorders.

“In Freud’s time, there were only isolated cases of anorexia. Why has there been an increase in the disorder over the years?” asks Rofe. “In effect, the exposure ‘sells the goods.’ That’s also true of cases where a husband murders his wife. That has an effect and contributes to the accessibility of these phenomena.

“Freud’s theory of the subconscious was adopted by the West, because Freud provided answers to questions that, at the time, had no solution relating to bizarre behaviors – in other words, dramatic and illogical behavioral changes,” he adds. “But the subconscious presented by Freud is monstrous. It can cause a person physical paralysis and other extreme phenomena – a real demon. Such a subconscious does not actually exist, and studies from the past 20 years have shown that a person remembers his difficult experiences and doesn’t repress them.

“Since Freud, we have had 100 years of study of the psyche from all angles – biological, clinical and behavioral – and, time after time, psychology has been defeated on that issue. Those many theories are unable to achieve a synthesis because they rely on that same mistaken basic assumption, to the effect that a psychological disorder is an illness that was forced on you, and you are the victim.

“I don’t deny that biology and genetics play a role in the creation of the psychosis,” Rofe adds, “but I claim that those people’s problematic initial situation makes it so difficult to accept social conventions that it turns them into exceptional and isolated people, causing them extreme distress. As opposed to neurosis – the result of dealing with depression originating in relations with the external environment – in a state of schizophrenia the choice of behavior stems from a more extreme, internal situation, in which a person finds he hates himself so much, he chooses the alternative of psychotic behavior, which accepts his situation.”

In his most recent article, Rofe describes the swift process of the “conscious” psychological disorder, and the self-deception it provides to the person suffering the disorder. “When you’re suffering from psychological distress, there are subconscious processes of intuition. These are spontaneous processes that contain a rationale, and we use them wherever decision making is required. Scholars such as Nobel Prize laureate Prof. Daniel Kahneman and others have written many articles about these processes,” he explains.

In the article, he writes about a complex mechanism in which the solution for the intolerable situation is formed at the subconscious level – where, in effect, the idea of choosing some psychological disorder or other is formulated. “The ‘subconscious’ suggests the solution, but it is the conscious mind that decides to implement the actions and behaviors rationally, with the intention of improving the person’s situation,” Rofe claims.

Rofe’s enthusiasm about his theories does not make him and his ideas especially popular, at least not in Israel’s mental health community. But one of his studies from 2008, which was ignored in Israel, was well received overseas – mainly by his colleagues at universities such as Harvard and Berkeley. About a month ago, a new article was published in Europe’s Journal of Psychology, where he continues to try and shake up the psychological community – to attack psychoanalysts on the one hand; psychiatrists, neurologists and biologists on the other.

In the article, he focuses on what Freud described as “transference disorders,” in which repressed psychological distress presumably undergoes a process of transference and is expressed in physiological, disease-like symptoms. Rofe says this is not a disorder originating in a traumatic event from the past, but rather a deliberate choice on the part of the person. In the same article, he also describes the sophisticated psychological mechanism that makes it possible to choose insane behavior alongside a process of self-deception.

An indefensible defense

Rofe’s most recent article joins previous published articles: One from 2008, in which he performs a “kosher slaughter” of Freud’s concept of “repression”; in a second article, from 2010, he explains how and why we choose our psychological disorders so they will serve us in an optimal manner. He is also currently writing his second book, to be called “Insanity and Madness – an Indefensible Defense,” and will include additional evidence to support his theory, alongside an analysis of cases of familiar figures – from mathematician and economist John Nash (featured in the movie “A Beautiful Mind”) to nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu (“He was paranoid,” states Rofe).

His approach is characterized by an existential basis that grants the conscious mind a central role and exclusive responsibility for behaviors that a person adopts. He leaves no room for surrendering to the subconscious. Rofe’s research draws insights from the behavioral psychology of economics, and from game theory, in terms of how a person makes decisions. All these led him to the conclusion that the way a person develops a psychological disorder is no different from the way his world of material consumption operates.

“A person doesn’t choose depression, he suffers from it as a result of an external event or an inability to deal with life,” observes Rofe. “Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, for example, didn’t choose depression – he suffered from it in the wake of the first Lebanon war. Dudu Topaz, the television personality who committed suicide, didn’t choose depression – he suffered from it because he was removed from such Olympian heights.

“What options are open to a person who suffers from intolerable depression?” Rofe continues. “The usual distractions are not effective in such a case, and, therefore, there is the need for a more aggressive activity. He can try to end his life, but that option doesn’t suit everyone – it often clashes with your status and the way you want to be remembered. Another option is to use drugs as an escape, or to engage in an act of revenge, which doesn’t solve the depression.

“In the final analysis, when you examine the variety of options, you see that the most rational one in practical terms is the choice of madness,” claims Rofe. Here, he argues, the world of psychological disorders offers the depressed person a wide range of behaviors with minor and serious symptoms. “What do I get out of madness? I claim the opposite of Freud: Madness is a means of repression, not vice versa. It’s an extreme distraction that enables us to deal with depression.”

Prof. Jacob Rofe.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Prof. Jacob Rofe.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
'A person doesn’t choose depression, one suffers from it as a result of an external event or an inability to deal with life.'Credit: Marina Zlochin

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