This Friday, John Cacioppo, a distinguished social neuroscience professor from he University of Chicago gave a lecture on “Psychological Science in the 21st Century” at Michigan State University. Because one of the main topics of this research was public perception of psychology and its uses, I thought it fitting to give a short overview of the key points. Below is the abstract for the talk:
Science is constantly changing. Whether one is deciding how to invest our limited federal research funds or to search for a faculty replacement for a retiring colleague, we cannot afford to simply replace what existed previously if we are to keep pace with the advances in our scientific disciplines. There are some clear trends in psychological science that reflect on where we have been, where we are, and where we are likely headed as a scientific discipline. If correct, there are implications in terms of how we teach psychology, train our students, treat our faculty, and structure our departments.
One of the general trends that Dr. Cacioppo explicated was an increase in psychological articles being published with multiple authors, especially across disciplines. This trend mirrors changes in other disciplines, especially the “hard” sciences, e.g., biology and physics. He regarded this as one of the positive advances in psychology recently. Interestingly, this trend has emerged despite common advice given to junior faculty to work independently in pre-tenure years, in order to “establish” a research program and field for grants.
Related, the now classic divisions of psychology (into eight major disciplines: cognitive, developmental, abnormal, social, industrial/organizational, counseling, and clinical), have become increasingly permeable, and simply replacing old faculty with new faculty that stick strictly within a single division is not an efficient use of resources. Rather than stand by this current system, the University of Chicago, and other universities like it have developed a system that integrates the domains, focusing on level of observation (e.g., neurological, cognitive, and social) along several cross-cutting perspectives, e.g., developmental (how things change over time) and abnormal (how things act when broken). The key is not the re-organization per se, but rather that psychologists embrace interdisciplinary work.
Why is this movement important? First, with cuts in federal funding resulting in increasing competition for grants, work that has maximum impact is obviously preferred. But the reasons go beyond just the practical application of securing funding for oneself. The larger issue is that the public at large does not have a clear understanding of what psychology is and why it is important. Psychological research is done for the public benefit, but if the public is not aware of the research or it is not accessible to them the benefits are undermined. They may decide to even cut funding for psychological research.
For an example, consider the fact that the vast majority of Americans know that the Earth is not the center of the universe, that it is just one of eight planets that travels around the sun. These facts are not self-evident, in fact, they go against our own observations and common sense. Yet we believe them because we learned these counter-intuitive ideas and trust the physics behind these assertions. Yet, this is not the same in psychology. Many well known theories in social psychology have not penetrated the public in the same way. For example, the “fundamental” attribution error (the tendency to over attribute behavior to dispositional traits as opposed to situational explanations) is hardly fundamental to a lay person; many individuals have never even heard about it.
Thus, if psychology is to flourish, psychologists need to renew their commitment to getting their research out to the public, not just other psychologists. It is helpful to remember that when talking to reporters, or even teaching an intro psychology class made up mostly of non-psychology majors, these individuals are precisely the ones who it is most important to reach. In twenty years they will be the ones making public policy and determining whether it is worth investing money in psychological research. And if we don’t show them our worth, then why should we be surprised when they conclude that our research isn’t necessary after all?