Psychology in the 21st century
Psychology in the 21st century

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Psychology in the 21st century

1.3 Psychology has social impact

The relevance of psychology to everyday concerns, and the ease with which it can be popularised and used, mean that psychological knowledge – some of it dubious, some of it accurate – is continually absorbed into culture and often incorporated into the very language we use. Examples of psychological concepts that have entered popular discourse include the notion that we are predisposed, both through evolution and through the functioning of our brains and nervous systems, to behave in certain ways and to have intellectual and emotional capacities and limitations. In many cultures psychoanalytic ideas are commonplace; for example, the centrality of sexuality and its repression, and the idea that Freudian ‘slips’ – mistakes of action – reveal unconscious motivation. Many people speak of having short-term and long-term memories and recognise that they use different strategies for remembering details of recent and more distant events. And a lot of people now know that it is possible to be fooled into perceiving illusions as real and that things as routine as face-recognition or behaviour-in-groups are extremely complex. Many people have absorbed and take for granted the psychological notion that what happens to us in childhood has an influence on our psychological functioning over the rest of our lives. Ideas about the importance of parenting and parental styles of child rearing have also become part of ordinary talk, with the result that some children now complain about not getting enough ‘quality time’ with their parents.

These examples demonstrate also how psychological concepts have an impact on the ways in which we think life should, ideally, be lived. Such ideas, and many others, have been influenced by psychological research, even when they are ideas that are not widely recognised as psychological. Furthermore, psychologists are increasingly being called on to give expert evidence on questions as disparate as legal decisions and design issues. It would, therefore, be true to say that psychology has an impact on our beliefs about ourselves and how life ought to be lived as well as on our everyday behaviours.

So far we have highlighted a pathway of influence from psychology to society. But this is not a one-way street. It is certainly the case that psychological research quite often addresses questions that originate in common-sense understandings. And this direction of influence between psychology and ordinary, everyday knowledge about people has led some to suggest that perhaps psychology is no more than common sense. However, as a field of enquiry, psychology is about much more than common sense, particularly in the way it investigates its subject matter.

Psychological knowledge advances through systematic research that is based on consciously articulated ideas. And psychology is evidence-based. Psychologists may start from the knowledge they already have by virtue of being people themselves. This can be knowledge about people and psychological processes that are common in the culture or it may come from personal experiences of dealing with the world. It is these kinds of knowledge that are often called common sense. For example, one tradition in the study of personality began from the ordinary-language adjectives that everyone uses to describe other people's characteristics. And many psychological researchers have chosen research topics and studied them in ways that seem to reflect their own life concerns.

However, evidence-based research findings quite often contradict the common-sense understandings of the time, and can produce new understandings that themselves eventually become accepted as common sense. For example, in the middle of the last century, it was widely accepted in Western societies that infants should not be ‘spoiled’ by being attended to every time they cried. Consequently, they were expected to learn to spend time without adult attention. But a wealth of psychological research from the 1960s onwards has reported that even very young infants are able to interact with other people in far more sophisticated ways than had been thought. And it has been found that they develop best when they receive plenty of stimulation from the people around them and their environments more generally. The idea of leaving infants to cry or to spend time alone is now much less accepted than it was. Instead, the notion that they need stimulation has become part of ordinary knowledge about child rearing and generated a multimillion dollar industry in the production of infant educational toys.

Although psychologists may begin from ‘ordinary’ knowledge or their own preoccupations, they usually start formulating their research questions using the existing body of psychological knowledge (the literature) and the evidence-based research that their colleagues and co-workers are engaged in (see Box 1). Sometimes technological developments can lead to entirely new research directions. These new directions might not have been envisaged through the application of common sense or using older evidence-based methods. One example of such a technology-driven new direction is neuropsychology and the increasing application of brain-imaging techniques as a way of furthering understanding of behaviour and mental processes. Other examples are advances in genetics and the decoding of the human genome, as well as computer-aided analysis of videotaped observations.

Box 1: Using evidence: the cycle of enquiry

What do we mean when we say that psychology is an evidence-based discipline? The basic principle is that it is necessary to have some means of evaluating the answers to psychological research questions. Sherratt and her colleagues (Sherratt et al., 2000) devised a ‘circuit of knowledge’ as a way to help students examine evidence and move away from common-sense reactions to psychological questions. We have used a version of this that we call the cycle of enquiry (see Figure 1).

Figure 1
Source: based on Sherratt et al., 2000, pp. 17–18)
Figure 1 The cycle of enquiry

There are four elements in the cycle of enquiry:

  1. Psychological research starts with the framing of appropriate, answerable questions.

  2. The answers to these questions are claims. These claims have to be clearly identified so that they can be thoroughly assessed.

  3. Assessing claims requires the amassing of information called data. The word ‘data’ is a plural word for the building blocks that make up the evidence that is presented in support of a claim.

  4. The evidence then has to be interpreted and evaluated. The process of evaluation often generates new questions to be addressed as well as providing support for, or disconfirmation of, the original claims.


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