President's Column

Does psychology do any good for anybody? Has psychological science and practice really made a difference in measurable outcomes that matter? Have we given our psychology away in ways in which we can take justifiable pride? Before we all can shout, "Of course!," we need to see the beef, the data and evidence of their application.

My presidential initiative is demonstrating that psychology makes a significant difference in the lives of individuals and organizations by collecting relevant instances into a "Significant Differences Compendium" organized around major domains, such as health, education and safety. We have been gathering this input via a Web survey to be evaluated and organized by a team of experts, and made available online and in print forms. Once completed, we will have in an accessible place the information we need for congressional and media briefings, funding agencies and the general public. We are soliciting collaboration with a number of other national and international psychological societies.

Examples of our successes

There are so many examples of how psychology makes a difference, among them:

  • Elliot Aronson demonstrated enhanced learning and self-esteem, along with prejudice reduction, in schoolchildren within the context of his "jigsaw classroom."

  • Building on basic research with animals, Tiffany Field found that massaging premature infants boosted their development and enabled them to leave the hospital earlier, saving millions of health-care dollars.

  • Psychologists at Veterans Administration hospitals have identified the causes, correlates and consequences of post-traumatic stress disorder, and their treatment modalities have proven valuable with civilian trauma as well.

Psychology has also made many vital differences that are so pervasive and fundamental that they are taken for granted. Basic psychological perspectives have been incorporated into societal thinking and seem the natural, obvious way of the world. For example, psychological testing since Alfred Binet's time has substituted objective assessment for subjective and sometimes biased judgments in many domains of everyday life. The use of positive rewards rather than corporal punishment in schools and child rearing comes out of applying basic principles of behavior change. Small work teams operating with participatory management have replaced dehumanizing factory assembly lines, thanks to group dynamics research. Stress, a virtually unknown concept when I was a graduate student, is now widely accepted as playing a critical role in a host of mental and physical problems. Airplanes land more safely, telephone dialing is easier to remember, auto accidents are reduced all due to psychological and research on human factors.

The human connection

Perhaps psychology's biggest impact has been in the field of health care by making medical staff more cognizant of patients' informational and emotional needs. Our holistic approach has made headway into treatment by increasing awareness of the biopsychosocial factors in causation and recovery from a variety of illnesses. The medical establishment is hearing our message that lifestyle factors influence many of the major causes of mortality. Preventive health care is becoming more accepted.

I personally value psychology's contribution to reducing the iatrogenic pediatric disease of "hospitalism" that was rampant earlier in this century in homes for abandoned and orphaned children. In many such institutions, every child died before age 2. Their listing away despite adequate food intake was a joint product of the medical establishment's worship of sterile, aseptic conditions and the belief that children should not be touched or held. Renee Spitz called attention to this devastating condition of "marasmus," while John Bolby and other developmental psychologists emphasized children's need to attach with caregivers. The therapeutic touch movement in modern nursing is one consequence of this sensitivity to the vital psychological needs of all humans to be touched in caring ways.

As a 5-year-old child in 1938, I spent six months in a charity hospital for children with contagious diseases where parental visiting was limited to brief times only on Sundays, where there was no exercise, no form of cognitive stimulation other than comic books, and we were never touched. Some kids died from the diseases they brought into the hospital in those pre-antibiotic days, but I bet others died from what the staff did not do to them--they never touched them. My survival in that genetic roulette game has influenced my life's goal as a psychologist to promote in every way the importance of making the human connection.