When it comes to the perception of psychology by the American public, there is good news and less-good news, to paraphrase the old comedy routine. The good news is that new research concludes that most Americans have a positive view of psychology and believe that studying human behavior can solve real-world societal issues.

The less-good news is that they have a limited understanding of the depth and breadth of the discipline, and they don't view it as a hard science.

"Psychology in general is viewed as a career that treats 'the individual,' similar to psychiatry and social work, but not medicine," says Robert Green, a pollster with Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, LLC. "This is in part because medicine is associated more with the use of scientific techniques that have real-world benefits. However, the public associates psychology with the study of human behavior 'a great deal.'"

Green's firm was part of a team of consultants and APA staff that conducted preliminary research in 2008 to help APA create a public education campaign aimed at bolstering psychology's image as a science and encouraging the selection of psychology as a profession or the integration of psychology and psychologists into other professions and non-traditional work settings. The research comprised a baseline public opinion poll of 1,000 adults, followed by five focus groups scattered around the country. Using data gleaned from those studies, an outside marketing and advertising firm (Reingold Inc.) developed some message concepts that APA tested in a second poll, also of 1,000 adults.

"We were heartened to learn that 82 percent of Americans rate psychology 'very favorably' or 'somewhat favorably,'" said Rhea K. Farberman, APA's executive director for public and member communications. "That's a great position from which to start a campaign."

But one place where Farberman sees a big challenge is in getting people to move beyond the view of psychology that they have formed as a result of seeing psychologists, psychotherapists or counselors on TV and in the movies.

To learn how the public perceives psychology, the consultants first tried to establish people's understanding of scientific disciplines. "What we found was most people think of biology, chemistry and physics as 'hard science,'" says Steven Breckler, PhD, APA's executive director for science. "They also view medicine as a hard science. Interestingly, they see the term 'behavioral science' as harder than the term 'psychology,' and they don't precisely equate the two. This also presents some opportunity with respect to public education."

Once participants were made aware of some of the specific benefits of psychological research—for instance, in crime prevention, environmental stewardship or stemming youth violence—they had a deeper appreciation of the value of such research.

One finding that intrigued Cynthia Belar, PhD, APA's executive director for education, was the uncertainty surrounding how much education is required to become a psychologist.

"Some people thought it took four years of study, others thought six," she says. "Also, in ranking careers that have a positive impact on peoples' everyday lives, psychology was on par with psychiatry and law, but it was not seen as being as valuable as medicine, engineering or business." Educating the public about the rigorous requirements of a psychology doctoral degree will increase the public's appreciation of psychologists' unique training and skills, Belar adds.

Ultimately, Farberman says, "We learned that being considered a 'soft' science does not have to be a disadvantage in terms of our public education goals and strategies. If we can help people make the connection between studying behavior and solving society's problems, we believe people will view psychology as even more useful and applicable than they see it today."

Next steps

APA staff will put together a draft strategy and budget for a public education campaign this year. It could consist of such elements as brochures, posters, palm cards, a Web site, advertising, YouTube videos, podcasts or a Facebook page—the opportunities abound. The plan will be presented to APA's Board of Scientific Affairs and Board of Educational Affairs, both of which are extremely interested in seeing the campaign move forward.

However, given the economic climate and APA's budgetary constraints, any campaign is unlikely to launch until 2010 at the earliest, Farberman says.

"While we would love to jump-start this campaign now, it makes more sense to wait until we know APA can commit the funds to make it a success," she notes. "An effective public education campaign is a multiyear project and must be carefully planned, targeted and executed. Plus, we need to be able to measure its impact, all of which requires a substantial financial commitment."

Until then, APA can use the research to inform projects and programs already budgeted and under way.

"These data will be very useful as we go about our current work, especially when we're speaking to the broader public," says Breckler. "These 'snapshots' of people's attitudes point to areas where we have an opportunity to increase their knowledge, thereby raising the profile of psychology as a discipline and a profession."