Executive Director's Column

How Many Psychology Majors Does it Take to Produce an Informed Public?

Those in Academia must invite colleagues to their laboratories; they and other researchers must volunteer to give lectures to clubs both in high schools and in their own college and university, at museums and other public venues.

By Kurt Salzinger, PhD

According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, some 73,534 students in the United States received bachelor's degrees in psychology in academic year 2000 - 2001 (the last year on which statistics were available). Assuming that the graduating students live until age 71 (50 years past graduation), we should have accumulated 50 times 73,534, or 3,676,700 adults with knowledge of psychology. The most recent estimate is that some 8 million high school students have taken at least one course in psychology in the past ten years. I have not mentioned how many college students have taken psychology courses without majoring in it, but there are approximately 45 million people alive who have attained a bachelor's degree as of 2000 (Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac Issue, August 29, 2003). We know that almost everybody in college takes a psychology course but let us be ultra-conservative and estimate that only 60 percent do so, and we arrive at 27 million adults who had at least one psychology course. Shouldn't that produce many people informed about psychology?

Yet what evidence is there that we have in fact educated these people so that they can distinguish a stimulus from a stimulant, a behavioral fact from an astrological invention, an illusion from a delusion, biological extinction from behavioral extinction, a psychiatrist from a psychologist from a salesperson, a psychological practitioner from a psychological scientist? How many have learned when we speak of psychological motivation, psychological needs, cognition, or bias that we are not necessarily speaking of psychopathology? Discussions by educated members of our society, or even by our colleagues in science or art are not very encouraging in this respect.

If the problem is one of poor teaching, we have experts in this area and ought to be able to improve it; if this is a matter of forgetting, then we surely know about memory, having studied it from the beginning of psychology. As those of you who have been reading my column know, I have consistently said that we need to communicate better and to greater effect if we are going to be able to influence people's behavior sufficiently to consider our science. APA's Science Directorate website shows that we have been working on bringing our knowledge to 8th graders and above by providing what we call Exploring Behavior Week. Brett Pelham, our senior scientist, has been improving the materials that can be used by graduate students and others willing to teach about the science of psychology. I continue to urge you to write op ed pieces to demonstrate how psychology is a science and/or how that science can be used to improve life. Our Public Policy Office is constantly working to educate our various government agencies of the wisdom of heeding what psychologists have to say.

But I believe we have to do more. Those in Academia must invite colleagues to their laboratories; they and other researchers must volunteer to give lectures to clubs both in high schools and in their own college and university, at museums and other public venues. I believe also that we must ask ourselves how much our students have learned when they get their bachelor degrees. Should we consider a booster session or two for our students at the end of their college career and not just for our majors but even for those who took but one or several psychology courses? Perhaps we should follow up our students to determine not only what fields they ultimately have gone into (with their uncertain knowledge of psychology) but also how much they recall of what we have taught them. We ought to consider summer school booster courses made available in continuing education programs.

It is not enough for us to complain about how little the public knows of the science of psychology. We must all contribute toward the end of educating the public. Any of the techniques mentioned above would be appropriate; you may well have others, including informing people who carelessly make remarks about psychology that simply are not so. Let us all work towards the end of educating the public.