From the Executive Director

What everyone needs to know about psychology

APA Willpower Report highlights the science of psychology.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

It is common knowledge that public understanding of psychology is typically aligned with the mental health and intervention aspects of the discipline. Most people think of psychologists as clinicians and counselors. Few understand that psychology is the science of behavior, cognition and emotion. Even fewer recognize psychology as a STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics) discipline. People do not generally associate psychologist with scientist.

APA has been doing public opinion polls to get a better handle on what people do and do not understand about psychology. The data are revealing:

  • When survey respondents are asked the first thing that comes to mind when they think of the field of psychology, they most often use words associated with illness, helping people, and treatment. Very rarely do people spontaneously mention anything about research on mind, brain or behavior.

  • Most adults in the United States say that medical doctors, scientists, teachers and engineers contribute a great deal to society’s well-being. But just over half say the same thing about psychologists. The only good news here is that psychologists are seen as contributing more than lawyers and business executives — but not by much.

  • When asked to ascribe attributes to professions, more than half of survey respondents describe medical doctors and engineers as scientific. Very rarely is that term used to describe lawyers, artists, police officers or teachers. Psychologists fall somewhere in between these groups, with 33 percent of adults choosing scientific as an appropriate attribute.

  • Interestingly, most adults agree that the study of human behavior can help solve many of today’s issues.  The list of what people generally regard as the biggest problems we face contains few surprises. Highest on that list is: 

•  The economy 

•  Health care 

•  Education 

•  Energy dependency 

•  Crime 

•  Terrorism

  • Yet, the same respondents do not identify the profession of psychology as one that has a big impact on people’s lives. Medicine, education, and science are the big winners here. Fewer than 20 percent of respondents believe that a career in psychology is one to follow if the goal is to have a big impact on others’ lives.

  • The fundamental deficit in public understanding of psychology is revealed when survey respondents are provided hypothetical job scenarios, and asked to say what the person described does for a living. My favorite is this:

    Kathy works at a major technology company that manufactures computers and computer software. She conducts research on how people work best with machines. She researches things like how a computer could be designed to prevent fatigue and eye strain, what arrangement of an assembly line makes production most efficient, and what a reasonable workload is for a person.

    Based on this description, most respondents said that Kathy is probably a mechanical engineer.  A fair number guessed that Kathy is a computer technician. Fewer than 20 percent said that Kathy must be a psychologist.

Clearly, some public education is needed. Everyone needs to know that psychology is key to addressing many of society’s challenges, including the economy, health care, education, energy use, crime and terrorism. Everyone needs to know that Kathy is far more likely to be a psychologist than a mechanical engineer.

It is against this backdrop that the APA Science Directorate is developing a rich partnership with APA’s long-standing public education campaign. For over 15 years, the public education campaign has been teaching the public about the value of psychological services and generally elevating the visibility of psychology. The campaign’s primary goal has been to promote psychologists as health practitioners and to educate the public about how psychology informs health care practice and delivery.

In 2010, the public education campaign began an important expansion. The goal of the expansion is to increase public recognition of psychology as a science. For several years, the campaign’s thematic focus has been on mind/body health. As part of the expansion, that same theme is now being used to educate the public about the science base of psychology and the role of psychology and behavior in health, wellness and individual and organizational effectiveness.

Over the next two years, expect to see major new elements in APA’s public education campaign. One of the first new features links psychological science to APA’s Stress in America survey. This annual survey garners enormous public and media attention. It is a great vehicle for also educating those audiences about the science of psychology.

This year, we expanded on one very consistent result from the Stress in America survey. Year after year, the survey has shown that people have difficulty achieving the important goals they set for themselves — losing weight, exercising more, improving their diet, saving money and so on. When asked what the obstacles are, the top reason is lack of willpower. People recognize — correctly — that they need self-control to achieve goals such as these.

Decades of research in psychology has produced a fairly good understanding of self-control. So we saw an opportunity to link that tradition of research with a result from the Stress in America survey to help people understand that insight is possible from psychological science.

The result was the development of an array of public education materials based on the psychological science of self-control. We commissioned a special lay summary of the research, publishing it in both English and Spanish. We conducted a supplemental survey to better understand what people know about willpower. We wrote special articles for APA’s Psychology Help Center. I spoke with dozens of radio stations, reaching millions of listeners, to help them understand what the science has to say. And APA’s CEO Norman Anderson devoted an episode of This is Psychology to the topic.

This was just the first installment on APA’s expansion of its public education campaign. As described elsewhere in this month’s Psychological Science Agenda, all of these resources have been assembled in one place on APA’s website. Over the next year or two, expect to see a lot more from this public education initiative.

Our goal is make sure that everyone understands that psychology is the science of behavior, cognition and emotion. Everyone should recognize psychology as a STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics) discipline. Everyone should associate psychologist with scientist.