Meetings in the Dean’s Office: Presenting Psychology as Practical and not a Punchline

Okay, fine: only this picturesque about 40 percent of the time.
Image from the LA Weekly. Yes, LA traffic always looks this picturesque. I promise.


by Ian Tingen

I’ve been spending a great deal of time in LA recently; a number of projects keep me well acquainted with the 5, 405, 710, and (ugh) 101. For those of you who don’t live here, that means one thing: traffic. Having been in Southern California for more than half a decade (!) now, I see my commutes as a boon – there’s plenty of time to think when it sometimes takes minutes to go inches. It’s time I enjoy, as the cacophany of traffic serves as ample white noise against which I may consider the finer points of whatever interaction I’ve just engaged in.

One such drive occurred last week, after I met with a dean of a psych department at a well-heeled LA institute of higher learning to discuss developing and teaching a course for them. What was supposed to be an hour interview turned into a three hour discussion about what the value of an education in psychological science is, and what it isn’t right now. Here are a few points from that discussion I’d like to share with you.

1) Psychology has an image problem, and psychologists don’t do enough to address it.

There’s plenty of popular discussion about the value of a baccalaureate in psychology – close to nil, usually ranked somewhere between anything that University of Phoenix gives out and an Underwater Basketweaving degree. Psychology degrees are punchlines in national discussions of labor markets for a number of headline-catching reasons: psych majors don’t have any practical skills, psych is for people who aren’t smart, and (my favorite) there’s something wrong with those who study psych.

Predictably, the defenders of the discipline react to such argument like good empiricists, trying to disprove the factual content of each claim. There are plenty of ways to do this; the smallest level of familiarity with the elements of the skills garnered in quality psychology education disassembles the haters’ arguments. Even so, taking these arguments one by one misses the forest for the trees: Psychology has an image problem. So how can we address it?

The key point is to remember the number of psychologists relative to everyone else. There aren’t many Ph.D.-level psychologists compared to the rest of the world, and I’ve heard more than one person at that education level complain that “There’s so many of them, and so few of us, what can we do?” If Ph.D.’s were where advocacy for our field was forced to stop, I might commiserate with the doctoral lamentation. Alas, I cannot, because there are a number of psychologically-savvy people out there, at least if we are doing our job right: the students. We have numbers – psychology is often one of the biggest majors at public universities. There is vast power in these numbers, and instructors hold the power to turn students from parrots to proselytizers.

We can best achieve this by remembering that the vast majority of those who interact with a psych education will not become grad students, and that even fewer will become professors. We need to reconnect with reality. If we aren’t making the lessons we teach relevant to non-lab situations, we are failing our students. We have to create this connection, if only to surmount the biases that are present against psychology outside of the academy. Psychology doesn’t have the cultural value assigned to the physical sciences – any physics major has worth ascribed to them as soon as they out themselves in a social situation. Nor does psychology have the cachet that other social sciences do: economists and sociologists rarely catch flak like we do, and if they do, it’s easy to point to high-ranking government and private sector representatives of the field as evidence of value.

I could continue down this path, but I’ll stop here with a simple question: when was the last time you made it clear to your students that the critical thinking and theory-building skills they got in research methods were good for something other than deciphering jargon in some overly-indulgent theoretical article? If the answer is never, you need to revise your lesson plan.

2) Psychologists could be stand to be a bit more blatant about their value.

As an undergrad, I was extremely privileged to have worked with Bob Cialdini, forefather of the study of social influence and an amazing educator. Part of the magic in Bob’s method is that he has a handful of real-world anecdotes for just about everything that he explains in a lecture or the lab. Though I am nowhere near as good at doing this as Bob is, practicing his techniques have yielded great returns for my students (and, not so coincidentally, my teaching evaluations). There are a few reasons for this:

* Real-world anecdotes make the science accessible by giving self-contained examples of phenomena.
* Anecdotes can help make otherwise dry material mentally palatable (Research methods and stats classes, I’m looking at you).
* Anecdotes humanize instructors, and allow us to create a personal connection to the field.

While the first two points are relatively self-evident, the third merits a little discussion. One of the greatest truths I have come to appreciate about the study of psychology is how so many of the findings are truly human. Cialdini’s book Influence has a great number of anecdotes where the master psychologist falls victim to the very quirk of cognition he just described. We don’t have to be great storytellers, but telling stories helps greatly. Anyone who’s sufficiently invested in their field of study will have a personal connection to the work – and we need to let that connection be illustrated to energize the eager minds before us.

3) We need to stop hiding in the shadows, and embrace our ubiquity.

Though this final example heavily relies on social psychology as an example, it is relevant for many fields of modern scientific psych.

When I was studying for my comprehensive exams in grad school, I became immersed in the history of social psychology. It was a wonderful experience, one that illustrated the rich real-world roots of my discipline and reignited my passion for what the science can do to help make the world a better place. Imagine my disappointment, then, when it became clear that the trajectory of ‘pure’ social psychology across the last forty years is away from practical relevance and towards an infatuation with the smallest of lab-derived effects.

As I pored through decades worth of articles, opinions, and theoretical advances, I noticed that a number of fields have splintered away from ‘pure’ social psych across the years. Health psychology, psychology of law, and environmental psychology all immediately spring to mind as prodigal children, though it is by no means a comprehensive list. Many of these fields are interdisciplinary, and often housed outside of traditional psych departments, but they are all similar in that they have appropriated social psychology, and social psychologists, as their own. This trend is seen in both top journal articles and the faculty that are hired across professional programs these days: scan the rosters of business schools, med schools, and law schools and you’ll see that more and more social psychologists are being hired in these departments, even if they don’t tout their credentials as such.

Often, this fact is not taught in undergrad social psych classes: we’re an almost ubiquitous aspect of professional programs, with great real-world relevance, but these truths are practically invisible in psychology classrooms. This is the exact opposite of the approach we should be taking. The more we elaborate on the abundant relevance of our field to other fields, the better our students are able to deflect and defuse the criticism and jokes they will invariably encounter from their peers and future colleagues. We can easily give them tools to defend against accusations of worthlessness and irrelevance, so why don’t we?

I hope I’ve given you something to think about the next time you have a commute. Until next time!

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