Not so long ago, psychology was a mysterious field. Results from various studies were not shared to the public. Psychologists detailed their findings in journals and further elaborated at conferences, but there was not as much dissemination as there is today. This all changed in 1969 when elected American Psychological Association (APA) president George Miller addressed psychologists everywhere, saying it was “time to give psychology away to the public.” This call to action was then readdressed in 2004 when Philip Zimbardo (the creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment) was elected as president of the APA. Since then, many venues for public knowledge have been cultivated.
But why is it so important that we share our findings? Many of them have become so fundamentally grounded in our every day lives and are often taken for granted. They change the way we think, behave, and view the world. Psychology often gets no credit for this. The following are examples of fields in which psychology has had a profound impact on.
Perhaps one of the most important achievements of psychology is the development of testing and assessment. We have all heard of tests such as the ACT, SAT, GRE, MCAT, LSAT, IQ test, personality tests, and many more. These tests have established quantifiable ways in which to assess human performance, intelligence, achievement, personality, and much more. It is hard to imagine a functional society in which these tests are not used.
Positive reinforcement has also had a profound impact. Not too long ago, punishment was used to change behavior of the “undesirable person” and sometimes went to drastic extremes. Since the development of positive reinforcement however, we have turned to reinforcing desirable behavior and punishing undesirable behavior. This has shown to be very effective (and ethical). An example of this is timeouts, which have become a commonplace in parenting techniques.
Psychological therapies have been successful in demystifying mental illness. With techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy, systematic desensitization, psychotherapy, and medication, we have been able to provide hope for those afflicted with illness.
Child development research developed the idea of “the child as a person” which has had a cascade of positive effects. For example, children now have more legal rights, due process, and have recognition that they are competent individuals.
The criminal justice system has also been greatly impacted. Some of my favorite research (outside health psychology) has been conducted by Elizabeth Loftus. She has shown us that eye-witness testimony is very unreliable. This has led to the creation of accurate and unbiased testimony collection. With these new guidelines, there have been a countless number of innocent individuals saved from receiving sentences.
The Milgram Obedience studies and the Stanford Prison Experiment have shed light on the “psychology of evil.” Situational forces and institutional power can have a drastic effect on individual behavior. These are two of my favorite social psychology studies, so I will write separate posts on each of these in the future!
Prejudice and education have also greatly benefited. The “jigsaw” studies by Elliot Aronson showed just how bad segregated classrooms could be. When compared to a segregated classroom, a combined classroom (Caucasian and African American students) led to improved academic performance and self-esteem for the minority children. Further, prejudice and discrimination decreased for everyone involved.
These are just a handful of examples showing the amazing impact psychology can have. So I hope by now you can start to formulate an answer to the question “why should we care about psychology?” Starting next week, we will begin to take a more focused approach as to why psychology matters and how you can apply findings to your every day life.
Zimbardo, P. G. (2004). Does psychology make a significant different in our lives? American Psychologist. 59(5), 339-351.