‘The levers that government are pulling are psychological’

Our editor Jon Sutton hears from Kathryn Scott, Director of Policy for the British Psychological Society.

It’s 2040. Imagine you’re still the British Psychological Society’s Director of Policy. How would you hope psychology had changed?

That we had realised our potential, and been proactive about it. I’d hope that psychologists’ confidence in our science, and what it can bring to the world, has grown and solidified. And that confidence was mirrored in terms of changes in external perception and impact.

In the policy work I do there seems to be a ‘hierarchy’ of science. My question is, is it imagined or is it real? 

My recent work with the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviour [SPI-B] brought this into focus; there’s the virologists, there’s the modellers, and there’s the behavioural scientists and psychologists. I’ve heard members of the behavioural science group say we need to ‘defer’ to one of the others. Do we actually mean ‘defer’? Have we been told there is a hierarchy or is it internalised?  As psychologists I think we can operate in a space where we believe that we are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to science. Rather than defer, it should be collaborate, consult – or even challenge. Everyone valuing each other’s piece of the jigsaw puzzle. 

Do you think that perceived hierarchy is there with the virologists, the epidemiologists and other disciplines?

I think it’s changing for the better – there’s moves in policy making that are opening up space for psychology and I’d like to see that continue. Covid is offering us an opportunity for us to see that unfolding in real time. 

So the virologists and the epidemiologists have outlined the various things people need to do to minimise transmission and reduce risk – physical distancing, hand-washing, as the most straightforward examples - then traditionally it’s been the behavioural scientists and the psychologists’ role to get everyone to do those things. But there is a growing understanding that if there are psychological reasons why a particular behaviour will be impossible to achieve or maintain, or if there is a risk of significant unintended consequences, then the approach needs to be adapted. There’s less hierarchy and more of an interplay, and that’s a better place for science to be.  

I suppose we’ll only know a long way down the line with enquiries exactly what’s gone on in the political and scientific response to Covid, but from bits I’ve seen, it does seem like there’s some debate over human nature in terms of ‘will people do this’, and ‘how might we get people to do this’… Some of it based on quite a pessimistic view of human nature, scepticism that people will step up and respond in the way that they need to. Yet some of the individual psychologists who I know have been involved, they actually have a much more optimistic view.

Psychology brings that sense of light and shade. Yes, some people behave that way. Some people will be antisocial, and some people will be prosocial, and then there will be everything inbetween. Government may want a straightforward answer, and there isn’t one. As psychologists, we can be comfortable saying, ‘that behaviour is on a continuum’. Psychologists are comfortable in saying ‘everyone is different’, including individuals from one day to the next. Am I going to panic buy? Probably not, but if my kid gets sick, 
maybe I would.

It’s interesting that you say we’re comfortable with that… in terms of policy pronouncements and media work, it’s perhaps just in the last few years I’ve seen psychologists seem more willing to accept uncertainty and communicate that… ‘there isn’t a straightforward answer: people are complex, and this is why they’re complex’.

It comes back to self-confidence. As a discipline we can be a bit deferential, a bit ‘we can’t talk about that because people want straightforward answers and we can’t give them that’. But we’re now growing in confidence to be able to say, ‘It’s not that simple, and here’s our science to tell you why’. 

But what happens when you do that? People do still want straightforward answers. And if they don’t get it from us as psychologists, will they go to places where they get them?

It’s a journey for policymakers. If you only listen to science that gives you black and white answers, you’re only going to get policy solutions that are black and white. A blunt policy tool, a one size fits all, doesn’t give the best outcomes. The science of policymaking is developing as well. The more tools that government have, and the more they understand that, the better the policy that comes out at the other end. 

The more different approaches you can think about, the more you can prepare for unintended consequences. In this work around Covid, I’ve seen that psychology is quite good at thinking about unintended consequences in a way that more rigid sciences might not be. It’s like systems thinking… if the only thing affecting the science of whether or not to wear a face mask was the virus itself, that would be simple, but there’s a whole systemic response, all sorts of different influences, and that’s what we’re pretty good at. 

And I guess your Psychological Government programme is about trying to embed that thinking in a wider population. Psychologists are perhaps becoming less protective over specialist professional training, and the goal is to get people other than psychologists thinking psychologically.

Yes. There’s a bit of an identity issue as well. How much of psychology are we willing to give away? There are people who can’t bring themselves to say ‘behavioural economics’ without adding ‘that’s Psychology, actually…’ And I include myself in that, at one point. But to what extent is the semantic argument the place we want to expend our energy? Better to acknowledge the impact of behavioural economics and use it to leverage the wider impact of psychology.

So if, in 2040, Psychology has, in effect, scattered itself to the winds, you’ll be quite comfortable with that because it would at least be growing in other places?

Yes and no. It’s about bringing the rest of psychology to bear… the theoretical models, ways of thinking, introducing uncertainty and emotion and complexity and systems thinking. We have a whole other way of thinking, and of improving outcomes for policy and for general public. That hasn’t yet been embraced in the same way. So let’s work on cementing that bit of psychology in the public and political psyche. 

It comes back to the quality of the evidence base as well. One of the criticisms of the behavioural economics side of things, and the Behavioural Insights Team in government, has been a perceived tendency cherry pick suitable evidence or to overplay the quality of studies that backup things they’ve done. Ideally, we would trace a ‘golden thread’ back from a policy pronouncement or position to actual published pieces of quality scientific evidence. To what extent do you think that’s important, the golden thread, as opposed to another way of influencing policy – having very smart people involved in the right groups, saying sensible things?

It’s both. Let’s be honest, the evidence base isn’t always there. Sometimes we stand by substandard bits of research, and there’s a ‘pop’ element of psychology that is not massively helpful in terms of our reputation. 
But we know what research we need to do: what kind of questions and how to answer them. And partly that’s a chicken and egg thing with funding priorities… there’s been money invested in the medical research so they have the evidence base to justify further investment. But more and more we’re identifying really important research priorities that will help create that virtuous circle for psychology.

The Covid work is shining a light on this. There are places where the existing evidence base can’t provide all the answers and having some of those questions answered by psychology would have been really useful. We can’t go back in time and fund all the research that we need for now, but we can systematically map the gaps and work to fill them. 

There are so many research studies starting up now. The obvious danger is that it ends up being hasty or only really tells us something about responses in an unprecedented situation, rather than anything more fundamental. In 20 years, will we look back on this time as a shot in the arm for psychological research, a golden age when psychology stepped up, or as a missed opportunity and a scramble to respond?

But to what extent is that a weakness of our discipline, or more a structural issue around the funding? Psychologists are everywhere at the minute commenting on all the different elements of Covid. That’s a strength and weakness of our discipline – we can talk about everything, but we can lack focus. Covid is affecting everything we think, feel and do and psychologists study everything we think, feel and do. We can offer opinions on issues that we don’t have a solid evidence base for, because we see the world in a different way. 

So we can help understand that complexity. But policymakers don’t necessarily want more things on the ‘too difficult’ pile. It becomes about framing, and trying to take policymakers on a journey with us. To say ‘you don’t have to go out to the most radical, theoretical versions of our science… there are real steps that we can take you on that will help you improve the outcomes of your policymaking.’ That might involve gently introducing some more complexity and emotion, some humanity. 

Covid has made everybody really human. We’re in the age of authenticity. I can say to my team on a Zoom meeting ‘Look, guys, I just can’t talk anymore. I’ve run out of words for today.’ Everyone – government and parliamentarians included - can relate to that, and I’d like to see us capitalise on what that ‘humanness’ means for policy. One of the strands of the Psychological Government work is on people as the units of policymaking. The levers that government are pulling are psychological: they affect the way people think, feel and behave. 

That speaks to the importance of psychological input, but that’s not a new thing. Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus, in 1937: ‘Psychology is action, not thinking about oneself’. Abraham Maslow’s 1958 paper, ‘The mission of the psychologist’: ‘I believe that the world will either be saved by the psychologists or it won’t be saved at all. I think psychologists are the most important people living today. I think the fate of the human species and the future of the human species rests more upon their shoulders than upon any group of people now living.’ What gives you hope that in 2040, we’ll be starting to finally realise some of the ambition shown in those statements?

It’s gradual If you gave me two-year timescale, probably not. If you give me a 20-year timescale, I’m quite hopeful. If we can lose some of the self-interest and promote the public good bit of our mission statement… These are highly unusual times: the Prime Minister is sick, he’s a human, and Psychology has ways of understanding and explaining that and how it makes us feel… to discuss how people are human, emotional, complex in a way that classical economists or town planners perhaps can’t. It’s not about saying that we’re better, it’s saying that we’re part of the puzzle.

Not all members are happy with the Society’s clear swing to more ‘political activity’. We’re regularly told on The Psychologist to ‘stick to the science’. What do you say to those members?

That’s a very good question. I don’t understand what science is for if it’s not to try and improve things. Progress is not left wing or right wing – and anyway, we’re not in the world of right wing / left wing politics at the minute. Look at what has just happened with public spending.

Call me naïve, but I don’t think anybody gets into politics, right or left, to not try to make the world a better place. My experience of working closely with MPs and policymakers, is different to the stereotypes. Many of them could get more powerful, better paid jobs without having to be elected by constituents, to be accountable and responsible. Genuinely, the vast majority of people who get into politics are doing it because they want to improve things. So why would only one side of politics be wanting to use science to make the world a better place? Sure, maybe they want to use it in different ways, maybe the way a piece of evidence might be interpreted will be different, but that’s why it’s for science to be there, making recommendations from the evidence base that are stronger, clearer, more usable and less able to be co-opted for one argument or the other.  

So what do you need from members to truly embed psychology in policy, to make the world a better place?

I need them to be self-confident. I need them to understand the uniqueness of the skill set that they’re bringing. I need them to keep arguing for specific questions that need to be answered. 

I’ve had some great expert reference group meetings recently… we will have this wide-ranging conversation, and then someone will just go, ‘oh, I’ve thought of a framework for this’, and it helps to clarify everybody’s thinking. Yes, there are gaps in the evidence base, and they’re not all going to get filled immediately. But that’s the skill we bring.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber