Warsaw School Emphasizes Better Living Through Social Psychology

Few in the United States know it, but a quiet revolution took place in Warsaw, Poland, on September 23, 2001. On the front lines were 200 men and women, mostly twentysomethings, bearing freshly-minted Master’s degrees in social psychology. Their mission: to improve Polish society through social psychology.

The occasion was the first commencement exercises of the Warsaw School of Advanced Social Psychology, a private institution in which students enroll after high school, and from which they graduate five years later. In that time, they receive an exhaustive survey of psychological topics, conduct several of their own research projects, present their results annually at student-held conferences, and write their Master’s theses. Additionally, students participate in modules on such topics as negotiations and mediation, marketing, and human resources management.

Janusz Reykowski

“The Warsaw School is the only one of its kind in the world,” says school co-founder Janusz Reykowski, a social psychologist who is also director of the Psychology Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences. The primary purpose of the Warsaw School, which was founded in 1996, is not to produce academics or clinicians, but to place its graduates in all domains of civil society – including business, industry, education, media, health, and government – domains that have traditionally been informed by disciplines like economics and law. Reykowski hopes his school will increase social psychology’s influence in these domains.

By Reykowski’s reckoning, the time to wield the wisdom and methods of social psychology has arrived. Modernity has made the individual – and her individual psychological issues – more salient. People no longer rely exclusively on traditional roles or customs as guidelines for behavior. Social change is the rule, not the exception. People also occupy increasingly specialized occupational niches that highlight their distinct talents and shortcomings. For these and other reasons, individuals – and their individual psychologies – seem to be running the show. Or, they are at least occupying more space on the stage of human events.

Because individual psyches have become more elaborated and influential, an understanding of social problems must necessarily embody an understanding of individual psychological processes. “Problems cannot be dealt with effectively without considering the people involved with the problem – their actions, how they perceive the situation, what they understand the problem to be,” Reykowski asserts. “Moreover, many problems boil down to problems in communication. It is my belief that social psychology is specially situated to offer remedies for these problems.”

The school is designed not only for the betterment of Polish society, but also for the long-term welfare of its graduates. The very forces of change that created the need for social psychologists are the same ones that render theories, methods, and jobs obsolete. Change also opens cans of worms, breeds horses of different colors, and in general presents new problems with which no theory or method is equipped to deal. So a major goal of the school is to produce broadly skilled, intellectually flexible practitioners of the craft, who can adapt to these inevitable shifts and shake-ups.

These skills and flexibility are imparted by three years of sound schooling in theories and methods, followed by two years of extensive exposure to applications. It is in these last two years that students participate in the modules, which are taught by such exotic birds as lawyers, businessmen, and dot-commers. Each module is 150 hours of training, much of which is spent in hands-on, real-world activities. All students take three modules of their choosing.

“We do not assume that students get a specialization from these modules,” Reykowski explains. “Rather, we want students to learn to see the wide variety of ways that psychology can be applied to solve practical problems. We believe if one has three different kinds of experiences, it gives him a basis to generate new solutions to new problems.”

Reykowski’s concerns with societal change and its consequences are not just academic. During Poland’s transition from communism to capitalism, he both recommended and participated in the Round Table negotiations between the government and Solidarity. Reykowski served as a co-chair of the political aspect of the Round Table, which charted the course of the political transformation. To this role, Reykowski both unconsciously and consciously brought a host of psychological tactics, such as establishing a common goal towards which both sides could work, and reformulating the issues at hand in terms of facts, rather than of feelings.

Largely because of these negotiations, Poland’s divorce from communism was bloodless – an achievement not enjoyed by most other eastern bloc nations.

The Warsaw School does not currently offer courses on facilitating peaceful revolutions in major nation-states. However, the School’s four tracks do cover a broad swath of worthy and practical applications. The first of these tracks is the “social psychology” program, which prepares its graduates for jobs like marketing, consulting, and human resources. “Clinical social psychology” is the second track. Blending clinical and social psychologies, this track presents individual psychological problems – such as bullying – with reference to larger social phenomena – such as intergroup conflict – and, in turn, presents social problems with reference to individual psychological functioning.

The third track, “cross-cultural psychology,” focuses on problems arising from the ever-increasing contact between people of different cultures. The fourth track, in contrast, deals with problems arising from having no contact at all – that is, issues linked to virtual media like the Internet. This track is the youngest, and has been tentatively named “social psychology of informatics and communications.”

Although the four tracks diverge greatly in their areas of application, they are united by the school’s simple, yet lofty, goal: Help people. With this intention in its sights, and with 5,000 students already enrolled, the Warsaw School seems poised to make good on the promise of social psychology.

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