Presidential Column

Seeing Psychological Science Everywhere

Barbara Tversky

Nearly 50 years ago, George Miller — yes, that Miller, the one from the Magical Number 7 +/- 2 — called for “giving psychology away” (Miller, 1969). Like many catchy phrases, this one has been echoed many times, sometimes without the cautionary title, “Psychology as a means of promoting human welfare.”

Some years later, in his APS presidential columns (2007–2008), John T. Cacioppo brought data showing that psychological science was in fact being given away. Cacioppo presented a dense network of citation links within and across the sciences. A few sciences, psychology among them, were hub sciences. Like transportation hubs, a hub science is one that gets a lot of traffic; it is central to other sciences. In this case, it means that papers published in psychology journals are frequently cited by papers published in other disciplines. Some of the traffic might have come from interdisciplinary collaborations with psychologists, a practice encouraged by my immediate predecessor, Suparna Rajaram, and one that I can only cheer.

Big Data provides yet another way to assess the impact of our field. With trepidation, I turn to Google search yields. Because the numbers keep changing for reasons known only to Google’s ineffable algorithm, they are a very crude estimate, to be taken as such. I’ve entered only fairly recent psychological terms, mostly from the late 20th and early 21st centuries. I also entered, for comparison, concepts from nearby disciplines. We’ll start with two of those: populism yields 18.1 million Google results, and gene splicing gives 45.1 million. Although concepts such as cognitive dissonance and stereotype threat yield more than 7 million results each, they don’t reach the level of populism. Between populism and gene splicing fall fundamental attribution error at 19.2 million, confirmation bias at 35.9 million, implicit bias at 39.6 million, and marshmallow test at 45 million. But look at these, topping gene splicing: cognitive load at 54.1 million; grit at 93.7 million; cognitive behavioral therapy at 99.4 million; and growth mindset at 105 million. Now another point of comparison, genetic engineering: It yields 154 million results, but working memory far surpasses that at 677 million. And System 1 System 2 gives a whopping 5.56 billion.

Readers will have noticed that many of the concepts widely discussed by the public were central topics in recent widely read books that engagingly described years of accumulated research and its implications for the larger world. The public seems to understand both the interest and the relevance of psychological science and is thirsty to learn. At the same time, our field has an impressive pool of talent that not only can do excellent research but also can explain and apply it beautifully.

We have given psychology away. Indeed, psychological science seems to be everywhere — in policy, in other fields of science, in art, in engineering, in many parts of daily life. Much of this has, as Miller exhorted, been used to promote human welfare, though that is far harder to assess than even constantly varying Google search yields. Numerous findings and ideas from psychological science have been put to work to improve many facets of life: child-rearing; education; workplace hiring, promotions, and atmosphere; health and well-being, both mental and physical; and economic and social policy. APS has taken on Miller’s mission in its journals, explicitly in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Those publications play a large role in disseminating ideas worth applying as well as documenting where they have been done so successfully. Other fields, notably behavioral economics, have taken on a similar mission. Nudge, arguably a psychological concept, yields 23.8 million Google results, and more importantly has become an explicit method in the social and economic policies of many organizations, including governments.

Yet there are the inevitable dark clouds hovering. Big Data reminds us of arenas in which knowledge created by psychological science is not always used for the public good. Notorious among them are fake news and the related use of psychological data to target individuals. Other findings from, for example, neuroscience, may grab fewer headlines, but also raise complex issues of policy and ethics. The intricacies of such questions are far beyond these columns, and fortunately psychological scientists have stepped up to address them. APS annual conventions regularly include panels to discuss these topics.

Still another way of looking at the impact of psychological science is through its influences on the practices of other disciplines. So many fields are now collecting human data and adopting our methods. Education, certainly. Medicine, more and more. In many areas of computer science, human–computer interaction and augmented and virtual reality among them, it’s hard to publish without running comparisons on people. Artificial intelligence is inevitably compared with natural intelligence, and increasingly with intelligence in other species. Political scientists are beginning to assess the effects of policy on behavior. Behavioral economists have been doing that for years. Physicists, chemists, biologists, and mathematicians want to know the teaching methods that best serve their students. Researchers in engineering and business schools study the ways teams interact and innovate in order to improve both. Architects and urban planners want to know how their designs affect behavior, and environmental scientists need to know how human behavior affects the environment. Art educators have been investigating the magical wordless conversation between the eye and the hand and the page in the creation of art.

The spread of psychological science to so many domains is thrilling. To bring it home, I have invited a few outsiders to contribute columns to the Observer. Each of them is doing remarkable work in another discipline, yet that work has been deeply influenced by psychological science. I have asked them to reflect on those influences. In future columns, you will hear from someone who is designing new institutions of higher education by adopting evidence-based practices from psychology; an architecture critic and author who analyzes architecture and urban design with a cognitive lens; a physician who is also a researcher whose own practice has been influenced by research in judgment and decision-making and whose research has contributed to that field; an actor-director-teacher whose work has been affected by social neuroscience; and a human–computer interaction researcher whose designs are influenced by psychological science and who assesses their effects on people. I am looking forward to their reflections. I know I will enjoy them and learn from them, and I hope you will too.

Reference

Miller, G. A. (1969). Psychology as a means of promoting human welfare. American Psychologist24, 1063–1075.

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