Executive Director's Column

Public Education

Nurturing a simple, positive, credible public image can be a real challenge for scientists who like to qualify their results and insist on explaining every subtle nuance in their data.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

One of my enduring interests is public education, and the importance of communicating the value of psychological science both for solving everyday problems and for addressing the grand challenges of society.

In the last issue of Psychological Science Agenda, I used the upcoming presidential election as one context for pressing the need for effective public education (Gearing Up). Candidates need to know that psychological science has important insight to offer when it comes to challenges such as disparities in healthcare, global climate change, and vitality for an aging population.

I’ve noted before that scientists often show discomfort when it comes to communicating with public audiences (Psychological Science in the Public Eye). Nurturing a simple, positive, credible public image can be a real challenge for scientists who like to qualify their results and insist on explaining every subtle nuance in their data. Yet, it is the simple message that gets heard and remembered.

Over the past several years, APA has been working to create materials that help educate the public about psychological science.

One resource is PsychologyMatters, a web-based compendium of psychological research that demonstrates the application and value of psychological science in our everyday lives. The website provides accessible articles in 19 content areas, including driving safety, education, parenting, and violence prevention.

Another resource comes from the Decade of Behavior, a multidisciplinary initiative to focus the talents, energy, and creativity of the behavioral and social sciences on meeting many of society’s most significant challenges. The five major themes of the Decade of Behavior initiative are improving health, increasing safety, improving education, increasing prosperity, and promoting democracy.

One activity under the Decade of Behavior umbrella has been the development of the Behavior Matters booklet series. One booklet focuses on how psychology research improves lives. Another focuses specifically on health-related behaviors, and highlights how research in the social and behavioral sciences can be used to improve the health of individuals and the nation.

Just last month, the APA Science Directorate published two new booklets as part of Alan Kazdin’s presidential initiative focusing on the grand challenges of society. One booklet discusses how psychologists are researching ways to improve the quality of life for people over the age of 85. The other describes how psychologists are studying ways to address global climate change.

All of these educational materials can be used to demonstrate and discuss the many ways in which psychological science helps to solve everyday problems, and ultimately contribute to the solution of societal challenges. They can be distributed and highlighted for diverse audiences: students, parents, teachers, voters, lawmakers, politicians, and many others.

The more we can develop materials like these, the better able we are to accomplish our public education goals. Of course, producing the materials is only part of the challenge. Another is dissemination – getting them out there and recognized as a resource. Each of us can play a role in this regard.

Indeed, APA’s is not the only effort in public education about psychological science. The most powerful case can be made when we collect together all that has been done and then work hard, collectively, to make it known. To help move in this direction, please share with us materials and resources that you know about. We’ll do our best spread the word.