Why it’s time for scientists to market for the masses
Psychology is part of everything we do. But, despite our daily use of memory, attention, language and social interaction, most of us do not know much about the field and its innovative researchers.
This is unfortunate, because many of the most pressing problems in business and society draw upon psychological solutions.
• Business magazines tout the importance of innovation in companies. Innovation is based on creativity, which is an essential aspect of cognition, a field of psychology focused on how we think.
• Health professionals focus on helping people prevent diseases. Avoiding a piece of cake or cigarette often involves the psychological tradeoff between current choices and future implications.
• Politicians and social activists are concerned about the effects of stereotypes on how people treat others, which is an important aspect of social and personality research.
But, the field of psychology suffers from stereotypes about its work. Most often, psychologists are portrayed as therapists, who preside over a couch or, perhaps, conduct experiments with rats that must run through a maze.
Rx: A Call to Action
Fortunately, this problem has a straightforward solution. Since psychology is a commodity with a high value to consumers, marketing is key. We, as academic psychologists, must package our work, give some of it away, and sell it.
Let me explain.
Package it: The academic world has changed. In the past, psychologists assumed if we conducted interesting, basic research people would discover our work and figure out how to apply it to problems outside the lab. Certainly, a few people did. For example, business schools routinely teach about decision-making based on psychological research. But, the academic community needs to make clearer connections between our work and the real-world.
Give some away: If a discovery falls in the forest, and there is nobody there to hear it, then did it really happen? Institutions that support psychology need to ensure there are people around to hear it. It is routine for journals and universities to wind up their public relations apparatus to trumpet their latest research. This promotion is critical. In addition, scholars are beginning to connect to popular sources of information. As a proponent of this trend, for three years, I have served as a scientific advisor to The Dr. Phil Show as a way of bringing some small measure of science to daytime television.
Sell, sell, sell: If our field has the potential to transform business, health-care, interface design and education, then psychology researchers and graduates should be selling the implications of our work. But how?
Traditionally, scholars sell their work by writing books for broad audiences. We must continue to share the field’s ideas similar to David Buss, author of “The Murderer Next Door,” and Sam Gosling, who recently wrote “Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You.”
Academic psychologists also need to sell their services as consultants. Bob Helmreich, who retired from the psychology department last year, is a master at this. The international aviation expert helped industry and government improve and maintain their safety records.
Cindy Meston, a clinical psychologist, has shared her research on female sexual dysfunction with drug companies and consumer products companies. And, I have consulted with consumer products companies to explore how research on memory and reasoning can be used to make groups better at developing new ideas.
Finally, the market needs psychology students. An undergraduate psychology graduate has many options beyond earning a clinical license and hanging out a shingle (although that is an honorable and important use of the degree). Companies want and need psychologists to design studies that test user interfaces, analyze consumer reactions to new products and offer guidance about how to better motivate staff.
Psychology for the Masses
The link between academic psychologists and the world does not end when class concludes and students file out of the room—or when our peers review our scholarship. It is crucial for researchers to engage people outside the university and share the value of our work.
This engagement will inform the next generation of research. Listening to people who are potential consumers of psychology is a valuable source to address under-studied research questions. For me, thinking about the practical applications of cognition research has led to new and interesting basic research questions, which can only improve the field and its scholarship.