Feature

Google the phrase "psychology blog" and up pop hundreds of blogs—or "Web logs"—offering news and commentary about developments in psychological science.

Huge commercial Web sites such as WebMD produce some, including one on anxiety and stress management (http://blogs.webmd.com/anxiety-and-stress-management). Psychological organizations publish others, such as the British Psychological Society's BPS Research Digest (http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com) or the Association for Psychological Science's "We're Only Human…" (www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman), which offer engaging looks at the latest psychological research. And publishers with books to promote often encourage authors to blog on their sites, such as Daniel Gilbert's blog promoting his book "Stumbling on Happiness" (www.randomhouse.com/kvpa/gilbert/blog)

As blogging technology becomes ever-simpler, the number of people creating psychology blogs continues to grow. The Monitor spoke to several popular bloggers to find out who they and their readers are, what motivates them and what role their blogs play in sharing science with the public and psychologists.

Blog as personal notebook

For Christopher H. Chatham, graduate student in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Colorado in Boulder, starting a blog was a way to manage his transition to grad school.

He launched "Developing Intelligence" (http://scienceblogs.com/developingintelligence) as a first-year student to keep track of his reactions to what he was reading for school without boring his wife at the dinner table.

"The blog was just a natural way of organizing thoughts, because you can hyperlink posts," he explains. "I didn't feel any commitment to having a fully formed thought. You can just jot something down in a quick entry."

What started as a diary of sorts has become a popular meeting place for fellow students, scientists and the general public: 500 to 600 readers visit the blog each day. Science magazine recently ranked it as one of 50 popular science blogs.

Unlike some bloggers who also use their sites to chronicle their lives, Chatham keeps his focused on research about cognitive neuroscience and developmental psychology. Many of his early posts, for example, consisted of papers and reading critiques he wrote as school assignments.

"You usually just file these things away on your computer," he says. "No one else gets to read or react to them."

One commenter on his blog—a professor whose identity Chatham still doesn't know—has even become what Chatham describes as "almost a secondary adviser." In the blog's early days, the anonymous professor's comments pushed Chatham's thinking into new directions, and he sometimes runs ideas by the professor before he posts about them.

As Chatham's understanding of the field has deepened, his blog has become more technical.

"When I started out, I didn't really know a whole lot about the field and the terms, so it ended up being an explanation for lay people, too," he says. "It astounds me that the blog has maintained its popularity despite decreasing in accessibility."

Blog as teaching tool

Blogger Laura A. Freberg, PhD, a psychology professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, launched her blog, "One Professor's Observations of the World of Psychology" (www.laurafreberg.com/blog), as a way to keep her students engaged in psychology outside of the classroom.

Initially, Freberg offered extra credit to students who commented on posts or passed on interesting tidbits. Soon she found they were going well beyond what was needed for extra credit.

"The blog encourages a different subset of students to participate," explains Freberg, pointing out that some students tend to dominate in-class discussions while others remain silent. "You get some very thoughtful, meaningful comments from students who otherwise don't share them with their classmates."

Those comments help Freberg in the classroom, too.

"I forget what it's like to be 18," she says. "With the blog, you find out very quickly what they're really interested in."

Postings about relationships and gender differences are especially popular, she says, noting that the online writings help her identify interesting examples to use in class and steer students toward paper topics.

By including glimpses of her own life with posts on interests such as video games, college football and cooking, Freberg also makes herself more approachable to her students.

It's not just her students who helped make the blog a finalist in the 2007 Weblog Awards, sponsored by the BlogWorld & New Media Expo and the new media network Wizbang. An online school called Ashworth University syndicates an occasional column, adding Freberg's posts to the course materials available to its students. And the nearly 50,000 visits over the last six months have come from people all around the world.

"Apparently, I do pretty well in Australia and New Zealand," says Freberg, adding that she also has readers in Europe, Africa and South America. "And just recently, I've started to get quite a few hits from central China."

Blog as public service

Reaching a wide audience is what motivates the husband-and-wife team behind "Cognitive Daily" (http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily). In fact, the blog began as notes for a book Greta and Dave Munger were planning to write to introduce the general public to psychology's many interesting facets.

"We're trying to give psychology away to the public beyond my classroom," explains Greta Munger, PhD, a psychology professor at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C.

The blog's readers, she says, are "the same people who would read Scientific American, professionals who want to read something interesting and have their fun fact of the day." To reach them, the Mungers—and occasional guest-blogging students—use language that isn't "dumbed down" but is clear and easy to understand despite the often-complex topics covered.

What distinguishes Cognitive Daily from many other blogs, says Greta Munger, is its emphasis on peer-reviewed research. Instead of drawing on press releases and the like, the Mungers highlight peer-reviewed research that's already been published.

"There's a 'We want to get the thing that's new' feeling in journalism sometimes," she explains. "We're not that. We're not reporting on the latest issue of anything. Good science is more timeless than that."

Between the two of them, each post—approximately 750 words plus charts and graphics—takes five or six hours to complete, Greta Munger estimates. Typically, she selects the research to be highlighted and then hands it off to her spouse, a freelance writer. She doesn't mind the extra work.

"It's interesting to hear the voices outside the classroom and to have people beyond your students talking to you about psychology," she says. "It's fun."

Blog as virtual community

For John M. Grohol, PsyD, blogging and other online activities aren't just fun; they're his living.

What began as a hobby in 1995 has blossomed into a comprehensive Web site called Psych Central (www.psychcentral.com), which attracts 650,000 visits a month. Supported by advertising, the site features an "Ask the Therapist" column, quizzes, news, chatrooms, members' blogs and the site's own blog "World of Psychology" (http://psychcentral.com/blog), written mostly by Grohol himself. Most of the dozen paid staff members who work for Grohol on the site are mental health professionals.

The goal is to help consumers learn more about mental health, says Grohol, who launched the site soon after completing his doctorate and now serves as editor-in-chief.

"You can now research anything and everything in the privacy of your own home," says Grohol, who hopes that the information will prompt those who need treatment to seek it.

The site—and the blog in particular—have a "news you can use" emphasis, he says. Instead of the "more esoteric or academic kinds of research," he says, he highlights findings that can make an immediate difference for visitors.

While about 15 percent of the site's readers are clinicians, researchers or others involved in the mental health professions, many readers are people who have mental health concerns or relatives who do. Psych Central brings them together, says Grohol.


Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.