A 'game changing' time for psychology?

Several recent developments point to greater influence for psychology in politics. Ella Rhodes reports.

Could Psychology be heading for a new era, where the subject becomes increasingly influential in guiding policy and legislation? Recent events seem to signal a shifting focus towards psychology and the behavioural sciences in the political world.

The newly appointed leader of the UK Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has garnered praise for his appointment of a new Shadow Minister for Mental Health, Luciana Berger. The Independent reported that Berger will: ‘Directly work on mental health issues and consider how they can best be addressed by the NHS and prioritised by a Labour government.’ Her position is an entirely new creation and Berger has no counterpart in the current Conservative Government. Corbyn said: ‘I am delighted that we have established a Shadow Cabinet position for mental health which is a matter I have long been interested in.’

Professor Peter Kinderman, President Elect of the British Psychological Society, said on Twitter that the appointment of Berger was 'game changing'. He told us: ‘It’s wonderful that mental health now has a Shadow Cabinet position - Luciana Berger will sit at Shadow Cabinet meetings (rather than being a subsidiary Shadow Minister under the Health portfolio), which substantially raises the profile of this vital issue.

‘Luciana Berger herself has been a strong advocate of good mental health services and, indeed, the work of the British Psychological Society, speaking at the launch of the Division of Clinical Psychology's report “Understanding Psychosis”. And, as shadow Public Health spokesperson, Luciana has powerfully advocated for an appreciation of the social determinants of health - for physical health problems, where economic and social disadvantage dramatically effect our health, and in mental health, where social determinants are overwhelmingly important.’

Psychology and mental health also featured in Corbyn’s first Prime Minister’s Questions – in which he asked members of the public to submit questions to be put to David Cameron. He was asked by one woman why mental health services were ‘on their knees’ and Angela Gilchrist, a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the Society, had one of her own questions put to the Prime Minister - concerning the lack of beds for mental health patients. Cameron responded that although more resources need to be made available there should also be a change in both the way the NHS works and public attitudes to mental health.. He added: ‘But I say again that we will not be able to do any of those things without the strong economy that we have built over these last five years.’

On the other side of the pond, US President Barack Obama signalled his intention to put psychology at the heart of policy by issuing an Executive Order on the use of so-called 'nudge' techniques. Obama said in the order that findings from psychology about how people make decisions and act on them could be used in policy to ‘better serve the American people.’ He added that where policies have been guided by behavioural science they have improved outcomes for Americans, giving the example of automatic enrolment and escalation in retirement plans (which have helped people accumulate more in savings).

Obama added that behavioural insights could support people in finding better jobs, lead healthier lives and increase access to educational programmes. He made recommendations, among others, that Executive Departments and agencies should identify areas of policy where behavioural science could have good input, test and evaluate areas where it is used and recruit behavioural science experts to the Federal Government to help achieve this.

Of course, politics is not the only way psychology can have a huge impact upon our everyday lives. Corporations and technology are increasingly influential, and there are signs here too that psychological knowledge is moving front and centre. In the US, Dr Tom Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, announced he would be stepping down to join Google Life Sciences, which looks into developing technologies for early detection of health issues. The New York Times reported that Insel was turning back to the psychosocial realm after focusing much of his career steering funding towards the most severe psychological problems, such as schizophrenia, and into basic biological studies. ‘One project he has thought about is detecting psychosis early, using language analytics – algorithms that show promise in picking up the semantic signature of the disorganized thinking characteristic of psychosis.’ Insel told Technology Review: 'We are at a really interesting moment in time. Technology that already has had such a big impact, on entertainment and so many aspects of our lives, can really start to change health care. If you ask the question “What parts of health care can technology transform?” – mental health could be one of the biggest. Technology can cover much of the diagnostic process because you can use sensors and collect information about behavior in an objective way. Also, a lot of the treatments for mental health are psychosocial interventions, and those can be done through a smartphone. And most importantly, it can affect the quality of care, which is a big issue, especially for psychosocial interventions.'

So, although psychology may not have its own non-stick frying pan, could it be that we are entering a new era in terms of psychological influence in our lives via varied routes? 

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