Bluster and Black Magic, but still no frying pan?

Ella Rhodes reports from a fringe event at the Society's Annual Conference.

Last August, Phil Banyard (Nottingham Trent University wrote to The Psychologist bemoaning the lack of testable theories, headline discoveries and transformational products in psychology. Where, he asked, is our non-stick frying pan? In an animated late-night fringe event at this year’s Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society, Banyard came face-to-face with BPS Research Board chair Professor Daryl O’Connor (University of Leeds) to defend his stance – which was somewhat unpopular.

Opening The Psychologist and Research Board‘Impact Challenge’, Banyard claimed he is met with bluster whenever he asks colleagues what psychology’s biggest achievement is. Some of their suggestions include the two-stage memory model: ‘But doesn’t that just say that you remember some things for a long time and others for a short time?’, Banyard quipped. When chemistry has the periodic table, biology the theory of evolution and physics the theory of relativity, can psychology really stand aside other sciences? Banyard said many argued that psychology is a young science, but he countered: ‘It’s 150 years old – it’s very young compared to physics, but not compared to genetics or electronics, which have given us so much more’.

The Psychologist Managing Editor Dr Jon Sutton gave some examples of products developed via psychology including Black Magic chocolates, the Windows ‘Start’ button and the £1 coin. Then O’Connor began his rhetoric-packed reply with: ‘This is the easiest gig of all time.’ He criticised Banyard for focusing on the Psychology of the 60s and 70s and said he’d failed to mention one of psychology’s greatest contributions – vision. Since the 60s psychologists have helped us understand how we see and perceive the world. As well as hearing, speech, learning, O’Connor said psychology had shed new light on all the senses.

‘Psychology has changed nearly every single thing we do; medicine, law. And it saves lives,’ O’Connor argued. He pointed also to the government’s ‘Nudge Unit’, where psychological principles underlie its policy recommendations and decisions.

Somewhat on the ropes following forceful blows from the enthusiastic audience, Banyard fought back with the repeated claim that psychology cannot be positioned as a science: that its theories, applications and potential products are simply not the same as other sciences. He said in terms of the subject’s focus it was facing thoroughly in the wrong direction. Harking back to the research on memory which he opened with, Banyard drew on George Miller’s address to the 1969 APA convention to suggest that psychology’s real contribution is in how we understand ourselves.

O’Connor disagreed on the need for a grand theory – ‘just because psychological research lacks a grounding in physics does not make it a lesser science’. A lively debate followed, including input from BPS Lead Policy Advisor Dr Lisa Morrison-Coulthard on the Society’s own contributions via the Impact Portal, which The Psychologist has begun to draw on for articles which demonstrate a concrete contribution to the world. 





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