From Findings to Front Page: APS Engages the Public in Psychological Science

When I was a psychology student, I found that many people didn’t understand my field. Relatives were disappointed to hear I worked with rats more than with humans; some even became standoffish, convinced my degree was in reading minds. Eventually, I learned to grin and bear it each time I was asked when my private practice would be up and running. What I really wanted to hear was “what kind of research do you do?”

But honestly, how can we blame those who harbor such misconceptions? For the public, psychology is synonymous with therapy and it doesn’t help that there’s a cultural genre out there called “pop psychology” thanks in no small part to self-help media gurus and feckless TV personalities. Their empirically unfounded advice doesn’t reflect what we know from psychological research on such diverse topics as normative child development; personality; how people think, learn, and remember; medical decision making; visual and auditory perception; social processes; and the role of behavior and psychology in physical and mental health.

It’s not that people aren’t aware that these are important subjects. ”What they are not convinced about,” says Cornell psychology professor and APS Fellow and Charter Member Valerie Reyna, “is whether psychologists have trustworthy and useful answers to these questions.” Psychology faces an additional challenge when it comes to the public understanding of psychological science: Most people have their own entrenched explanations for behavior and for addressing behavioral problems. Researchers are often in the position of challenging those intuitive explanations. This underscores the importance of credibility. If you’re going to ask someone to change their views, they need to see you as a reliable source of information.

Enter APS. Addressing misconceptions and the lack of awareness of psychological science has been a core part of APS’s mission since its founding in 1988. APS has made enormous strides in increasing public understanding of psychological science through its public outreach efforts, but “we wanted to do more to ‘give away’ our science,” says Alan Kraut, APS Executive Director. “Psychological science research generates so much interesting and important information, and it has such potential to help individuals and society, but it is up to those of us in the field to engage the public and make sure the research reaches people,” he adds.

In 2004, APS invited a group of distinguished scientists, science journalists, and academics to the Vinoy Hotel in St. Petersburg, FL, to identify specific ways that APS could increase the public understanding of psychological science. Meeting participants included experienced correspondents and producers from National Public Radio, The Wall Street Journal, Dateline NBC, The Los Angeles Times, ABC Prime-Time Live, and the Discovery Channel, as well as several “media-savvy” psychology researchers. The meeting participants suggested several strategies to increase the public engagement in psychological science, including reacting to current headlines with a psychological perspective; identifying the impact of research findings, overcoming concerns about oversimplifying and talking to the press; developing strong relationships with writers, editors, and media outlets; and sharpening the distinction between science and clinical practice in psychology. To do all this, the group recommended the development of an expanded public-affairs infrastructure at APS.

Since then, APS has focused on increasing its capacity to give away psychology in the public interest. In the past year, research from APS’s journals has appeared in over 4,000 publications with a total circulation of around 170 million. Spearheading the program is veteran science writer and editor Wray Herbert, director of public affairs at APS. Herbert, the former health editor at U.S. News & World Report and editor of Psychology Today, not only oversees the APS media center, he also produces the APS blog “We’re Only Human” (, in which he writes about research for the general public. ”We’re Only Human” also is the basis for Herbert’s monthly column called “Mind Matters,” which continues to be one of the most viewed and emailed columns on the website. This outreach reflects a trend in the shift toward online journalism.

The APS Public Affairs staff works with journal authors to develop news releases on their published articles. These are widely distributed through the APS media center, the American Association for the Advancement of Science press site, Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, and university press offices. The ensuing coverage ranges from leading newspapers, magazines, network and cable television news, to web-only publications, and to local community weeklies. In addition to reaching more people with news about psychological science, this visibility also generates additional press coverage and has solidified APS’s reputation as a credible source for the latest research. Reporters often contact APS to find experts to comment on topical events.

Another critical part of APS’s efforts to bring psychological science research to the public is the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest (PSPI), which presents definitive assessments of topics for which psychological science has the potential to inform and improve the well-being of society. The issues addressed in PSPI have included the effects of media violence, the most effective methods for teaching reading, statistical methods for improving diagnostic judgments, the most successful treatments for clinical depression, self-esteem and achievement, well-being, productivity, diversity, and other similarly critical and interesting subjects.

Stephen J. Ceci, past APS Board member, is co-editor of PSPI. He makes sure that the articles coming across his desk have the potential to reach the broadest possible audience. The impact of this journal has translated into a partnership with Scientific American and Scientific American Mind, which publish rewritten versions of PSPI reports for a more general audience. Ceci, psychology professor at Cornell University, believes this process is having a transformative effect on the field. “A number of our authors have been effusive about this arrangement, pleasantly shocked at the impact of their work on a level not heretofore seen,” he said. PSPI reports also have been featured in the Wall Street Journal and other leading publications with similarly positive results.

Pop Goes the Psychology
What can individual researchers do to help burst the bubble of pop psychology and engage the public in our science? Renowned textbook author and APS Fellow and Charter Member David Myers, professor of psychology at Hope College, encourages us to rely on the “printed squiggles” (i.e., write about the research). Myers is passionate about reaching beyond the classroom with the written word, saying in his invited address at the 2006 APS annual meeting that “writing begins with an urge to tell a story; an urge to replace seeming ignorance with information; an urge to, in some small way, change our world” (“David Myers on Teaching Psychological Science Through Writing,” Observer, August 2006).

In 2004, Myers and his wife Carol pledged $1 million to APS to establish an endowed fund that aims “to enhance the teaching and public understanding of psychological science for students and the lay public worldwide.” As part of that mission, the APS Fund for Teaching and Public Understanding of Psychological Science is supporting a publicoutreach internship for graduate students eager to use their psychology or communications background in disseminating the field’s research findings to the public. This year’s APS Public Affairs Intern is Jesse Erwin. Erwin was recently interviewed by the Observer. (see sidebar below)

Translating Science
While psychologists may be adept at writing extensive reports of their research findings, communicating the results to a lay population presents a new assortment of obstacles. Robert Cialdini, APS Fellow and Charter Member and psychology professor at Arizona State University, recognizes that “the language used in science is not the language of everyday parlance.” He points to a study, for example, conducted by the American Museum of Natural History testing the value of simplifying science for the public. When participants were asked to indicate their level of interest in botany, anthropology, and zoology, their responses indicated only a moderate interest in the subjects. However, when participants were asked to reveal their interest in plants and trees, peoples of the world, or animals, interest jumped dramatically.

Learning to communicate with nonscientist audiences is not generally part of psychologists’ training. APS Fellow and Charter Member Carol Tavris says, “Writing is a skill, one you have to learn just as you have to learn how to conduct an experiment or write it up in a style appropriate for a journal.”

Tavris, a social psychologist, should know. Author of leading textbooks and books for popular consumption, her latest work, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts (Harcourt), written with APS Fellow and Charter Member Elliot Aronson, came out this month. She understands firsthand the difficulty that many scientists have when it comes to writing for a general audience. She describes it this way: “Saying to scientists, ‘Say, Fred and Ginger, you really should get out there and write up your findings for the New York Times’ is like saying to me, ‘Say, Carol, you really should get out there and communicate by tap-dancing.’”

Elizabeth Loftus, past APS President and internationally recognized expert on memory, attributes the difficulty in part to the technical language that psychologists must master. While this may be a hard habit to break, Loftus, who is a professor with joint appointments in psychology, law, and cognitive sciences at University of California, Irvine, urges researchers to use germane examples to explain research findings “in order to provide a colorful illustration to the technicality of the results.”

Some researchers balk at having their work rewritten, hesitant to put their research in the hands of a layperson, even a well-qualified science writer. Ceci encourages researchers to appreciate the important difference between scientific publishing and public dissemination.

The latter by necessity requires some degree of simplification…if you want every caveat and technical distinction included in a public description of your findings, then broad public dissemination is not right for you.”

The Greater Good
Part of the impetus for disseminating psychology research comes from a sense of civic responsibility. Psychological research informs public policy and influences decision makers in government, business, health, and legal settings. “The public comprises our constituents and in many cases our research benefactors,” says APS President Morton Ann Gernsbacher. “It behooves us to increase the titer of empirically based information to that which lacks scientific rigor and to do so in easily accessible ways.”

Cialdini agrees, “We should feel honor bound to explicate how our work is relevant to matters of public concern because the public has paid for the work and are entitled to know what we’ve learned about them with their money.”

Gernsbacher, co-editor of PSPI, encourages researchers to be actively involved in improving public understanding of psychological science. “We bemoan community knowledge sites such as Wikipedia due to our concern with their quality. So edit entries that are lacking in accuracy and post new entries.”

She also urges researchers to keep it simple. When making websites for their labs, researchers should “organize the site by the key questions that drive their research (e.g., ‘how do we comprehend language?’ or ‘how heritable is autism?’) to ensure that a Google search lands on your website rather than sites that are less scientifically based.”

Know the News
Sharon Begley, Senior Editor at Newsweek and author of a new book on the emerging field of brain plasticity, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves (Ballantine), stresses the importance of “being attuned to when an issue in the news might benefit from a psychological perspective.”

Even if it is sandwiched between celebrity gossip items, “I can’t think of a news story that doesn’t involve psychology in one way or another,” says former Los Angeles Times reporter and now educator K.C. Cole. Cole usually finds something interesting in the Observer to use in her classes, especially Science, Society, and The News, which she teaches at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California.

Another aspect of fostering public literacy in psychological science is flagging relevant research findings for writers and publications with specific readerships. For example, readers of health publications should be interested in learning that some of the benefits of exercise may be due to the placebo effect (Ellen Langer & Alia Crum, “Mindset Matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect,” Psychological Science, Vol. 18 (2)). Publications with a focus on family should be interested in research showing that the combination of certain genes and stressed-out parents may lead to shy children (Nathan Fox, “Plasticity for Affective Neurocircuitry: How the Environment Affects Gene Expression,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 16 (1)). A recent issue of PSPI addresses the effectiveness of teamwork, which would prove interesting and beneficial to business publications and companies alike (Steve W.J. Kozlowski and Daniel R. Ilgen, “Enhancing the Effectiveness of Work Groups and Teams” PSPI Vol. 7 (3)).

Reclaiming Psychology
Even with the dramatic progress that we’ve made in disseminating psychological science to the public, researchers remain confronted with a paradox: the blessing of an audience with a predisposed interest in the field, but the burden of swaying preexisting beliefs about psychology and behavior.

As a field, we should strive to change the public’s understanding of behavior by shaping what they already know and are interested in. In the process, psychologists will have the increasing ability to dictate new frontiers in research and ultimately public interest. Here’s to reclaiming the field of psychology from punditry and firmly engaging the public in psychological science.

Wray’s Anatomy
Wray Herbert’s column Mind Matters has become a staple of Here are some excerpts from his recent posts:

On the placebo effect
(Can thinking ‘fit’ get you fit? 2/27/2007)
“Placebos are usually thought of as ’sugar pills’ — inert tablets or sham procedures that convince people of their healing effects because they resemble regular medicine. But fake pills are just one way of packaging the placebo effect. Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer and her student, Alia Crum, decided to explore the potential placebo effect of beliefs and expectations — specifically, beliefs and expectations regarding activity and health.”

On risky decision making
(Why do teenagers do stupid things? 11/21/2006)
“While we tend in our culture to celebrate reason and careful, deliberative decision making, some psychologists are now arguing that the opposite value sometimes holds. The emerging view is that the brain is a dual-processor, with certain neurons dedicated to systematic crunching of information, and others (probably older and more primitive from an evolutionary point of view) to making fast intuitive leaps. These leaps, the new research suggests, may lead to healthier decisions. In other words, impulsivity sometimes trumps logic and caution.”

On the set-point theory of happiness
(Time only heals some wounds 3/28/2007)
“People’s feelings of well-being are affected by life’s stressful challenges, and healthy adaptation is not at all predictable or inevitable. Indeed, emotional equilibrium seems to depend a lot on the event.”

Engaging the Public
The world of mass media is undergoing some dramatic changes right now. Especially in print journalism, the old model no longer applies, as publications devote more and more of their resources to the Internet. In an era of retrenchment, many publications are working with leaner staffs than ever before, yet they need more information than ever before to constantly refresh their websites. This trend presents some unprecedented opportunities for engaging the public with psychological science, but it requires some adjustment in public-outreach strategy. APS’s major asset is its intellectual property — primarily, the research published in the four APS journals — and our strategy has been to attract journalists (through press releases, the annual meeting, etc.) to the work of our scientists. A complementary strategy is to present our research in ways that make it accessible not only to journalists but also for public consumption, in effect bypassing journalists. This approach requires more work by APS and by psychology researchers, but it will give our science much more visibility in the public arena.

Inside the Intern’s Studio

This year’s APS Public Affairs Intern is Jesse Erwin. Erwin recently talked to the Observer about his experience.

Describe your position at APS. What do you do?
The Public Affairs internship was designed to help strengthen the communications infrastructure at APS so I try to act as the “glue” of the department. The bulk of my job consists of maintaining our contacts in both the media and academia to make sure that we stay current on new research and formulate ideas for potential articles. My favorite part of the job is reading articles. I read every one of our journals and craft press releases for as many articles as I can. It is difficult to pick and choose because there is so much interesting research going on.

What is your impression of psychology in the media now that you have had some experience?
Overall, I’ve realized that spreading the psychology gospel is a collaborative effort between all of the parties involved. The psychologist produces the research, public affairs makes sure that the research gets to the media, and the media make sure that it gets to the public. But it’s definitely not a one-way street. The process doesn’t always go in that order, and there are often plenty of steps in between, which makes it even more crucial that everyone works together.
As people with a vested interest in psychological science research, it is easy for us to appreciate the value of it. The public, however, may not be aware of its importance, so it is our responsibility to convey it. APS is in a position to shape public opinion about the field, which is incredibly important because psychology in the media is susceptible to “of the moment” fads. We do this by consistently showing the public what is happening in psychological science and how valuable it is to them.

Do you have any advice for future interns or anyone else leaning toward a career in psychology and journalism?
Psychology will always be interesting, so there will never be a shortage of topics. The trick is to make these topics palatable to the public. Just because you are putting science in terms that most people can understand, does not mean that you are robbing it of its value.

Jesse received his bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of California, Davis.

Going Viral
Sometimes when a news item is picked up, the findings spread in a way that can only be described as “viral.” In the January issue of Psychological Science, the article “Action-Video-Game Experience Alters the Spatial Resolution of Vision” did just that.. Researchers C.S. Green and D. Bavelier of the University of Rochester demonstrated that playing video games actually enhances vision by 20 percent. The APS public affairs staff coordinated a release with a public-information officer at the University and then released it to specific media outlets. Soon, the article was picked up by over 100 news publications including Fox Newswire, Yahoo! News, and Reuters along with multiple video game and parenting websites. Several television stations across the country picked up the story as well. The total number of estimated viewers from all forms of media? 100 million.

APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.