Science Directions

We have been treated to an avalanche of messages repeating the George Miller injunction to give psychology away. When I first heard his message, I stood ready to help. Later, I began to suspect that we are making psychology a loss leader because we cannot sell it. Finally, I came to the reluctant realization that much of what we have given away, we should have kept for our own use or even thrown away.

Take my prime example, self-esteem. Like the word "new" in the sale of soap, so the word "self" has become a way of luring consumers to buy books. I don't know whether anybody has written a book on the "new self," but I'm sure this title combination has a good chance of becoming a best seller. I did a cursory search for a book with such a title in Amazon.com. Amazon immediately greeted me personally, if a little too familiarly: "Hello, Kurt Salzinger. We have recommendations for you." And just as my self-esteem rose because it recognized me, not to speak of my self, there arrived that parenthetical remark "(If you're not Kurt Salzinger, click here.)" "Not on your life," I said to myself.

The point is that although self-esteem has taken the country over by storm, it has not shown any real effect when examined by scientific research. Many criminals have high regard for themselves, and given that they are in jail when we study them, they don't have all that much competence; certainly that high self-esteem fails to empower them to be good citizens. Furthermore, many people with low self-esteem have achieved much in life. Yet the books continue to appear, e.g., "Breaking the Chain of Low Self-esteem" and "The Six Pillars of Self-esteem" (the latter now sells for $11.96; that's almost $2 per pillar).

Yet self-esteem has been adopted by some schools and some teachers who teach self-esteem rather than reading or arithmetic. "I am wonderful. I can do it," chant the students following the teacher, and you know they fail to learn reading or arithmetic. We have permitted, even encouraged, people to accept the simple notion that the psychological concept of self-esteem has a life of its own independent of other behavior. Because it sometimes correlates with achievement, it has given rise to the belief that it can cause achievement. This is tantamount to believing that one can work faster by making the clock slow down.

What else of psychology have we given away? Nobody simply forgets anything anymore; we "block" or "repress." Because we've given psychology away, we have had wardens in prisons "do behavior modification" by placing prisoners in solitary confinement, substituting torture for behavior modification while calling it by a psychological name. We've given away our concept of stress only to have it come back as a justification for criminal behavior. We've constructed tests with great care and specified the conditions under which they are to be administered and the manner in which they are to be interpreted only to have popular magazines make up their own tests to provide psychological profiles that have no validity at all. We have shown that tests are sensitive to the conditions under which they are administered only to have laypeople tell us that our tests are invalid. We have shown that parents can materially affect the behavior of children and the lives they lead afterward only to have that information used to excuse reprehensible behavior on the part of the adults who had such life experiences.

No self-respecting physicist or biologist has ever enjoined colleagues to give away their science, neither would any layperson accept such a gift. Such gifts are akin to giving a young child a loaded gun to play with. They are prone to yield disaster. If we did not know that in George Miller's time, we know it now. If we wish to encourage the use of psychology in world affairs, then we must be there to apply it. We should not give it away; we should show everyone how we use it. But making it popular is not the same thing as having laypeople try to apply it. Let's describe how principles of psychology work; let's show how such principles can be applied. Let's describe psychology as best we can so that laypeople will come to us to ask for our help, but let us not transfer such dangerous tools to people who cannot handle them.

I ask you all again to write op-ed pieces that explain how psychology works and how it works to help humanity. See the science page of the APA Web site (www.apa.org/science) for more information.