The Enormous Value of Modern Psychology

Researchers have documented dozens of reasons why the human race has been slow to react to climate change.  Humanity’s reluctance to contend with climate change is, understandably, a source of sadness for some people. Indeed, one reader says that findings about psychology and climate change, about voting behavior in the U.S., as well as other research highlighted here, leave her feeling depressed.

Although sympathetic to that point of view, I offer two responses. First, it is usually difficult to solve a problem if it has not been diagnosed properly—and with climate change we clearly have a problem. Second, delving into the findings of modern psychology shows how useful it is for many purposes.

Every day we rely on psychology. How can I build a strong relationship with my spouse, or my boss? What are effective ways to teach my child? Psychology provides guidance about many practical situations. As an example, Good Thinking, an online series of short and amusing animated videos aimed at science teachers, illustrates barriers to learning science, based on research, and helps teachers teach in ways that minimize those barriers. As another example, psychologists’ understanding of infants and young children has grown enormously since, say, the 1950s, and has resulted in a host of useful findings, as suggested by the title of a recent book review, Memo to Parents: Back Off, and Children Learn More.

Manipulative rhetoric helps dictators, con artists, and some politicians to sell “the big lie” by taking advantage of weaknesses in how people think. (Consider how the phrase “death tax” obscures the fact that the federal estate tax applies to only about 2 in every 1,000 estates, or fewer than 1 percent!)  By focusing on rhetoric, the Frameworks Institute, a non-profit organization, offers policymakers research-based suggestions about framing public policy issues (related to education, the environment, health, etc.) to encourage members of the public to understand the issues, rather than react negatively based on prejudice and reflexive thinking.

Research demonstrates how public and private institutions can offer better choices so that more people make smarter decisions. If employees must opt out of funding retirement plans, for example, they are more likely to make smart decisions than if they must opt in. Simply changing commonly used forms and norms to better reflect how people think can pay off—literally, in this case—for millions of people.

At a deeper level, a major goal of both secular and religious education from ancient times to the present has been to understand ourselves: Who am I? What goals shall I adopt and why? How should I live? Proverbs urging self-understanding—for example those condemning people who criticize the ‘mote’ in another’s eye while being unaware of the ‘beam’ in their own eye—have been used across many cultures and religions for millennia. We now have scientific evidence to support that proverb, in the form of research demonstrating that virtually everyone shares some of the cognitive and affective limitations they would like to believe are characteristic only of other people, ranging from racial and ethnic prejudices (in fact prejudice can often co-exist with compassion and decency), to thoughtless “logic” where careful thinking is required (see Thinking Fast and Slow), to excessive obedience to authority figures (e.g., experiments by Stanley Milgram showing that normal people will often obey orders to hurt others), a contributing factor to horrible events such as at Abu Ghraib prison.

Realizing that psychological flaws are so prevalent among human beings, specifically including ourselves, is critical for anyone interested in self-improvement. We can teach ourselves, and others, to think more clearly; and when we are aware that prejudice is common we can better guard against it and re-examine personal and cultural assumptions (e.g., about Islam, the Jews, racial minorities, drug addicts, the poor, or other targets of prejudice). Psychologists who have documented the difficulty of changing people’s deeply held opinions about climate change and other issues conclude nonetheless that few people are impervious to information, and find that how new information is presented, and by whom, can make a big difference.

This blog has referenced work by Idries Shah, the leading writer in the West about Sufism. Many years ago Shah selected a world-renowned psychologist, Stanford University Professor Robert Ornstein, to be his deputy in the United States. Prof. Ornstein, an accomplished psychology researcher, teacher, and prolific author, also heads up the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge (ISHK), which publishes books about the human sciences, and supports literacy programs for children around the world, among other activities. Shah wrote that “the psychological insights of the Sufis have proved a source of continuing knowledge which is not inferior to the achievements of modern workers in the field of the mind.” As his choice of Ornstein demonstrated, Shah was an admirer of modern research in psychology, saying “What I really want, in case anybody is listening, is for the products of the last 50 years of psychological research to be studied by the public, by everybody, so that the findings become part of their way of thinking.”

The first entry in this blog, my take-off point for thinking about psychology and climate change, referenced Doris Lessing’s suggestion in 1987 that the findings of psychology be applied to public affairs. Now, decades after her suggestion, at a time when even more people seem to ignore or dismiss facts affecting public policy, and many others wonder why, Lessing’s suggestion remains pertinent. Increasingly, individuals and organizations are constructively applying psychology to public policy issues. And beyond public policy, the more one learns about what modern psychology has discovered, the more compelling it seems, as Shah suggested, that everyone be encouraged to benefit from knowledge of how the mind operates—not only to influence public affairs but also for personal reasons, not least of all to develop better understanding of oneself.

(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section.)