Political powers vs Ivory towers

Ella Rhodes reports on our fringe event at the Annual Conference.

Should psychologists be aiming to make the world a better place? Are we over-reaching with this goal? Or in danger of prioritising it to the exclusion of the thrill of pure intellectual curiousity? Are we already making the world a better place – and which successes should be shared and celebrated? What are the core values of psychologists and how do these feed into improving society? 

These were some of the questions posed by Managing Editor of The Psychologist Dr Jon Sutton at our fringe event at this year’s conference. Ella Rhodes has collected some of the key answers. 

‘I see our [the BPS Policy Team] role as a conduit between what psychologists do, in terms of having the expertise and the evidence base, and then being able to make those connections in parliament, to be able to have those conversations. There’s a real disconnect between parliamentarians understanding academia and how we pitch that in three minutes. It's about being able to say “this is what this could mean to you, it could make a material difference”. The job is messy, it’s about building up connections with our members, knowing who we have to speak to and when, and then building up those external partnerships – because we're not at the table we should be at the moment.’ 

‘In the last month I know that I've saved people from going to prison, I have saved people from having horrendous social outcomes… but what I'm not very good at is capturing those kinds of outcomes. That's where I think the BPS would be massively helpful. Our contracts still focus on activity data, on the fact we're doing this one to one therapy, when a huge amount of indirect work is not getting captured. We’re missing out on an opportunity to illustrate how we're preventing harm, and how that then translates into savings for the public purse. I think that's what we need to steer towards.’ 

‘I'm coming at this from quite a different perspective because I'm a teacher of psychology and this year I've been in quite a unique position of teaching government and policy as well… It’s been really interesting to look at the young people we've been working with and their understanding of government policy and trying to help them understand how psychology can play a big role in changing society. A lot of the 16-17 year olds we work with come in thinking politics is very boring, very dry and all about money. But we’ve been helping them understand how much policy drives society and how much underpins that for psychological practitioners.’

‘I do not feel my job is to make the world a better place, that's an impossible task for any individual. I do feel it's the role of my professional body, the BPS, to be shouting a bit fucking louder about stuff and taking a position. I think the granular detail of policy is important, and I think it is complicated and difficult, but I think every other professional body takes a stand, has an opinion and voices its expertise. I think the BPS need to become less risk averse, less conservative, and say its piece. This stuff is important and it might make the world better.’ 

‘A lot of other professional bodies are quite professional about influencing politicians and they know that politicians have a very short attention span, they know they're interested in getting voters, they have an event horizon of maximum five years, they want sexy topics that are going to appeal to Daily Mail readers and readers of the Telegraph and are pushing that objective all the time. We've done some work with scientists, they are awful. They think by giving more and more data and doing more and more studies and being more and more complicated, and more and more clever, suddenly the politicians are going to listen to them. Guess what? They don’t, they switch off. The BPS needs to be doing that and the fact the Policy Team is being enhanced is a fantastic thing.’

‘If we want to engage with the public we need to get better at mass media. We continue to allow mass media to misrepresent a lot of the studies in psychology. Consistently you will see a report on a study that says it found one thing but sometimes it has actually found completely the opposite. A lot of policy change and social change comes through mass media and we need to have much better engagement with that. I think part of that is to find some way to recognise the contribution of qualitative science… a lot of people engage far more with an emotional story.’

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