A recent article in The New York Times reminded me that people high up on the political ladder make use of astrologers, even if indirectly, to determine the course of their lives. The article was inspired by Cherie Blair's unconventional behavior, as portrayed in British newspapers such as The Daily Mail. The account was not restricted to Mrs. Blair but included the behavior of her husband, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Both apparently took part in a "rebirthing" ceremony in Mexico in which they shouted and smeared mud and ripe pulp on each other. I must note, by the way, that Cherie Blair was appropriately described as a very successful "high profile lawyer."
Of course, foolish or irrational behavior is not restricted to successful politicians or their spouses. Many people are prone to accept events that happen to them personally as more believable sources of general principles than the effects established by scientific procedures. Knowing that the chance of winning "big" in a lottery is truly incredibly close to zero, many people still gamble. Anecdotes about psychokinesis and clairvoyance are given more credence than experimental results questioning these effects. Even those who know better must make a determined effort to countermand these "natural" processes.
It is not hard to find examples among people at all levels of authority who behave irrationally without being certifiable. Behaving in an irrational manner is, of course, a psychological problem and has a psychological solution. It is also true that people in general are unaware of the principles of scientific psychology that might help them arrive at more rational decisions. Yet, when I think if only they had taken a psychology course or two, I am met by the embarrassing fact that almost all undergraduates take at least one course in psychology, and many major in it. Have these graduates never heard of the science of psychology? It seems that way when most people act as if psychologists' skills were restricted to reading minds and elevating our self-esteem. Given the fact that psychology, as a young science, spends a lot of time establishing how to arrive at incontrovertible conclusions, why is the public not better informed?
Before desperately blaming the public for its foolish behavior, however, we must examine how we teach psychology and improve it. We must remember that, in the behavioral domain, the public is exposed to a barrage of information that is not factual, if not contra-factual. I return, therefore, to an earlier suggestion that I made to all scientific psychologists to go out and explain how the science of psychology can help us make a better life. We have at least two programs in the Science Directorate that could help us spread the word. One is our Exploring Behavior initiative (www.decadeofbehavior.org/Ebw/EBW.htm) in which we ask faculty and graduate students to offer their services to public schools by presenting a lecture on what the science of psychology deals with. We have teaching materials available on our Web site, which you could use to lecture from or complement a lecture you make up. You can inform those students who never go to college and persuade those who do to select psychology as a major. Pupils in public school are exposed to physics, biology and chemistry but not frequently to psychology. The other is an effort to support high school teachers who teach psychology and an organization, Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools, that can help them in concrete ways to make their psychology courses more effective; see the APA TOPSS website. Let us, therefore, educate the public early on.
Moreover, I have started another effort to educate the public on what the science of psychology is all about--the op ed initiative. I have asked colleagues to write op ed pieces for newspapers all over the country. Newspapers (including the most prominent, but not restricted to them) are interested in publishing thought-provoking columns. We have an opportunity here to inform the public.
And as we enlighten the public, let us not forget our One Book, One Psychology initiative to educate ourselves about what all we who call ourselves psychologists do. Join the listserv at the APA science Web site.