What is health and social psychology and why should we care?

Whenever I tell someone that I am studying psychology, the most common response I get is “oh, so you’re going to be a psychiatrist?” When I clarify that I am doing research related to health and social psychology, I am usually met with some confusion about what that means. Because the average person may not be too familiar with the areas of health and social psychology, we thought it would be practical to have a special extra post this week giving a broad overview of the importance of health and social psychology before we jump into a more focused approach as to why psychology matters.

Social psychology studies how the presence of others can influence our thoughts and behaviors. The presence of others does not even need to be real; simply imagining the presence of another person or assuming what another person is thinking can have an effect on the way we think and act. This makes social psychology a relevant and relatable field, because to some extent, all of our behavior is influenced by our perceptions of others and our interactions with them.

Social psychology is important because it helps explain why we think and act the way we do in a way that affords us the opportunity to address what is harmful, promote what is beneficial, and better empathize with others. For example, Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience studies demonstrated situations in which normal people with no hints of psychopathy or cruelty would be willing to inflict harm on another person just because a person with power told them to do so. This knowledge led to the discovery of ways to alter the situation so that people would not feel obligated to inflict harm, and showed that people who do terrible things in certain situations may not necessarily be evil people. When we understand the underlying reasons why people think and behave the way they do, we can realize the flaws in our own thinking, be more sympathetic to others who act in the same way, and work together to overcome problematic thoughts and actions.

Of similar importance is the field of health psychology. If there is one thing everyone can agree on, it is that it is good to be healthy. Illnesses can be painful and interfere with daily life, doctor visits and medications can be expensive, and poor health leads to shorter life expectancies. It is easy to think of health in strictly biological terms and assume psychology only deals with mental health issues and brain-based diseases. While treating mental illness is a major component of psychology, health psychology dedicated to identifying the factors that cause and influence physical, mental, and social health problems

Health psychology examines health from a biopsychosocial standpoint, meaning that it looks at the biological components of health, red flags in the social environment, and by considering how we think, feel, and behave in regards to health. If we conceptualize health as purely biological, we miss a host of factors that play into overall health. For instance if we view having a heart attack as simply a blockage an artery, we may miss that chronic stress increases likelihood of heart disease, that diet and exercise habits contribute to clogged arteries, that heart disease tends to affect certain populations more than others, and more. Understanding the blend of biological, psychological, and social factors helps us not only treat a heart attack when it happens, but also allows us to identify at-risk populations, design interventions to increase heart health, target the causes, and control for the influences that worsen the illness and impede recovery.

So, why do these two areas of psychology matter? They matter because they concern understanding the underlying mechanisms behind things that affect our everyday lives. Once you understand the core components of why people think or do what they do, you can start predicting and influencing behavior to create a better general wellbeing. This thought is a major interest of this blog, and will be related to much of what we post in the future. This week was slightly odd in that we posted two articles, but next week we’re going to start with our regular format of posting a new article every Friday.

Why Should We Care About Psychology?

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.

Who we are and what this blog is about

We are Michelle and Mike, two doctoral students studying psychology at North Dakota State University.  We are studying health and social psychology, so the majority of our posts will be on issues relating to topics in these fields.  The purpose of this blog is to take a look at some of the topics and issues in psychology and explain why it matters, not just to the field of psychology but to everybody. We will be posting articles every Friday morning. The topics we will be covering include theories in psychology, experimental methods, issues in the field, with an occasional article intended to give tips on graduate school.  Our goal is to make this knowledge easily accessible to anyone reading.