Then and Now: The New Face of Psychology

This is a photo of an old cover of the APS Observer and a newer cover of the APS Observer.

“Is he ‘famous’ famous, or ‘psychology’ famous?” a young student asked her friend as she passed by the information booth at the APS 19th Annual Convention last year. She was no doubt talking about one of the many pioneers of psychology featured at our annual meeting. Those of us who work to increase the visibility of psychological science understand this dichotomy all too well. Psychologists at the top of the field are known for their innovative research by thousands of, well, other psychologists. But think for a second as a non-scientist: Who comes to mind as the face of psychology?

For the public, the concepts associated with B.F. Skinner and Sigmund Freud, are still often what come to mind when they think of psychology.  The Skinner box, the meaning of a cigar, the id, and the superego all have persisted despite dramatic advances in the science. The good news is that people are open to what science has to say about human behavior as they try to make sense of the world and of their own lives. The less good news is that the popular image hasn’t kept up with the research.  But these days, the interest in pop psychology may be giving way to a new level of sophistication, as advances such as imaging are capturing the public’s imagination. But it is hard to pinpoint exactly who is our new spokesperson.
The introduction of Prozac in 1987 marked a pivotal turning point in the perception of psychology. The launch of this successful medication ushered in a new period of open discourse about mental health. It may also have given rise to the “quick fix” approach to behavior change and the modern self-help industry. Cue: Oprah Winfrey. In 1987, just one year after “The Oprah Winfrey Show” debuted, it became the number one talk show in the nation. Along with interviews of celebrities, and current events, Oprah regularly features self-improvement segments (wagon of fat, anyone?) Most notably, Oprah Winfrey gave rise to the TV phenomenon, Dr. Phil. First hired in 1996 as a “relationship and life strategy expert” to prepare Oprah for her Amarillo Texas beef trial, Phil McGraw made such an impression that he was given a weekly segment on Oprah’s show. Previously a licensed psychologist, Dr. Phil tackled topics from weight loss to ill-mannered teens and financial management with a confident, larger-than-life, tough love approach that audiences couldn’t get enough of. And, to the collective groan of psychological researchers, Dr. Phil was awarded his own talk show in 2002.

The mass appeal of Dr. Phil and others like him is undeniable. By default, his is the face of psychology. But for the public’s sake and for the sake of our discipline, we need to take back the image of psychology and ensure that reporting accurate science carries more weight than ratings and quick fix strategies.

Psychology 2.0
In the 20 years since APS was founded, psychological science has changed dramatically. New fields, such as social neuroscience, behavioral economics, and behavioral genetics have burst onto the scene, as advances in theory and technology have allowed scientists to incorporate new techniques and combine a variety of perspectives in their research. Teams of researchers across all scientific domains are diligently generating exciting research. But the emergent transdisciplinary nature of psychology makes it all the more difficult to identify one new face of psychology.
Could it be that the brain is the new face of psychology?

The visibility of psychological science was significantly advanced when, in the early 1990s, functional magnetic resonance imaging technology provided scientists with a powerful non-invasive method to explore the brain. Today, the use of brain images to explain behavior has reinforced the visibility of psychology as a science. However, as with any scientific fad, we have to be careful with the emphasis placed on brain images. In a study published recently in The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Deena Weisberg at Yale University found that audiences are more likely to uncritically accept studies if they reference the brain. So, in an effort to advance, rather than exploit, these new imaging techniques, psychologists are focused on integrating traditional studies of, among others, behavior, memory, perception, and emotion with this new technology.
It’s an exciting time to be a psychological researcher, and a rewarding time to be involved in engaging the public with our field.

Each month, APS published research is disseminated to the press through the APS media center website, the American Association for the Advancement of Science press site (EurekAlert!), Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, and university press offices. Research from APS’s journals has appeared in over 5,000 publications with a total circulation of around 200 million. Wray Herbert, Director of Public Affairs, also writes a Newsweek.com column, Mind Matters, on psychological science, which is consistently ranked the #1 most-viewed and most-emailed column. This ranking equates to no less than 500,000 unique views per day. With continuous coverage in Science, The Economist, The New York Times, Scientific American Mind, and countless blogs and newswires, psychology is earning a reputation as a sensible, not sensational, science.
Stuck for so long somewhere between Freud and Dr. Phil, psychology is finally regaining its rightful image as a scientific discipline. You keep on producing the research; we’ll keep on getting the word out, for the next 20 years and beyond.

As for the question of who is the new face of psychology, the preceding page suggests a few candidates. But you can also spot one at the APS convention, in your department or office, and, most importantly, each time you take a look in the mirror.

Observer Vol.21, No.5 May, 2008

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