Executive Director's Column

Psychological Science in the Public Eye

Like most scientific disciplines, psychology devotes considerable attention to its own public image. Here are just a few examples of how we do this.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

Like most scientific disciplines, psychology devotes considerable attention to its own public image. Here are just a few examples of how we do this:

  • Our professional associations issue press releases when publications or research results are deemed newsworthy, and they offer summaries of the scientific literature for public consumption. Good examples include APA's Psychology Matters website, and APS's Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

  • Publications such as the APA Monitor and the APS Observer feature articles tailored to audiences beyond our immediate scientific colleagues.

  • Initiatives such as the Decade of Behavior devote resources to public outreach, such as Exploring Behavior Week and the Behavior Matters booklet series.

It is worth stepping back, and asking ourselves why we do these things (what are the goals?) and whether some other vehicles might better deliver on those goals. I can think of four distinct reasons for devoting resources to the public connection with psychological science:

  • As scientists, we appreciate the value of nurturing a scientifically literate society. Most of us would agree that scientific literacy is a good thing, and that it translates into a happier, healthier, and wealthier society.

  • Science is often motivated by, and usually aspires to practical application. For science to achieve success in application, the public must accept the merit of our science and trust the applications that are derived from it.

  • Science depends on money and public support. Most of our financial support comes from the federal agencies, which are funded by taxpayers. If taxpayers have some appreciation for the value of our science, they should be eager to support it with their tax dollars.

  • The long-term health of science depends on developing future generations of scientists. This depends, in large part, on sparking the interest of children and young adults. Public outreach and cultivating a positive public image is key.

Our goals and our methods for achieving them are good ones. It is important to keep the effort up, and to continue devoting our collective attention and resources to it. Yet, I fear that we are approaching the endeavor too much as scientists, with too little attention to the more basic goal of simply cultivating a positive public image. The tradeoff between academic exposition versus Madison Avenue gloss and glitter clearly comes down in favor of the former. As a result, I suspect that we are winning the public mind but not the public heart.

I am suggesting that we devote more attention, and resources, to the public image of scientific psychology. Not an image that depends on qualifications, hedging our bets, and long-winded discourses regarding exceptions, interactions, and special conditions. We already excel at this. I am talking about a simple image. A positive image. An enduring image conveying merit, trust and respect for the science of psychology.

I recognize that many scientists would be troubled by this approach - that it is driven too much by consumer and media concerns, and not enough by scientific concerns. But we need to be realistic and pragmatic. If we can agree on our goals, then we need to explore the most effective means to achieve those goals. I believe that the proper branding of scientific psychology offers huge potential in helping to achieve our goals.

Major corporations understand this. Private foundations get it. Even government agencies do it. They all cultivate a simple, positive, memorable public image to convey the essence of what they are about:

  • We don't make your products, we make them better (BASF)

  • Dedicated to helping groups and individuals foster lasting improvement in the human condition (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

  • Where discoveries begin (NSF)

  • Talk to someone who can help (APA Public Education Campaign)

I believe that scientific psychology will better achieve its goals for public education and fostering a positive public image by considering a similar approach.