Overrated: Psychological literacy

In an online extra, psychology undergraduate Madeleine Pownall (University of Lincoln) picks her 'Overrated / Underrated'.

I sit across from my friend, consoling her as she tells me about her recent troubles. Instinctively, psychological theories and approaches begin to bubble up in my mind. She becomes a case-study, a real-world example of psychological mechanisms at play.

All too often I have found myself reacting to situations like these by saying 'you know, there’s a really interesting theory that says…' or 'I know what you mean, I recently read a book that talked about this…'. I am, thanks to my psychology degree, learning to become a fully-fledged critical thinker. I have a head filled with theories and notes about real-world applications, but feel myself losing a little bit of my humanness. I know what theories claim, and I can now navigate SPSS with some confidence, but I haven’t learned what I expected my degree to teach me: how to connect and understand another person.

So I can’t help but wonder if the so-called 'psychological literacy' that is promoted throughout my degree is actually hindering my ability to understand myself and others. Is psychological literacy making me psychological illiterate?

McGovern et al. (2010) defines psychological literacy as 'being insightful and reflective about one’s own and others behaviour and mental processes' (p.11). It is, in essence, the general capacity to apply psychological knowledge to real-world scenarios. Murdoch (2016) dubs it the 'ethical application of psychological skills and knowledge', and offers a critical stance, stating that psychological literacy can be harmful if misapplied.

I agree, and would extend that statement. I think psychological literacy can be harmful if over-applied. If every situation is greeted with psychology, much of the message is lost. I am literate – but have little idea of what to do with my new found literacy. I can’t help but feel like I am left with a wider vocabulary and a full book shelf, but few actual tools that will benefit me in life. Psychology can be confusing; academics rarely agree, and for every theory there is a contradictory theory stating the opposite. Attempting to translate this to real-life becomes problematic. We must question: how often does ‘critical thinking’ become over-thinking? How can educators battle against this?

Recently there has been a big push to embed psychological literacy into all undergraduate curricula (Trapp et al., 2011). However, this should not be done uncritically. To illustrate this point, I relate to other forms of academic ‘literacy’. For example, English students who spend their degrees critically assessing literature may find themselves unable to enjoy reading a book in a way that is free from complex analysis. Scholars of film studies may be unable to relax in front of a movie without feeling the need to evaluate every decision of the Director. I believe the same principle can be applied to those who study psychology, but our subjects are people.

Critical thinking has become the buzzword, and is promoted through every facet of my degree. However, the potential negative implications of thinking critically are scarcely acknowledged. McGovern et al (2010) suggest that those who are psychologically literate are 'critical scientific thinkers and ethical and socially responsible participants in their communities' (p.10). This may be true, but in every definition of psychological literacy I have read, the researchers seldom mention how frequently this literacy should be applied. If everything is met with the sharpest critical eye, I wonder how much goes unnoticed, or how this impacts our general enjoyment of life. Questioning everything can be an exhausting way to live. 

Behind every scientific thinker and every psychologist is a human being. Too often, it feels like this is forgotten. When theories, evidence and data comes before compassion, when students are well equipped to reference but find it harder to relate to another person, does this not mark a crisis in psychology education? Dunn (2009) discusses this, claiming that 'psychologically literate people can use what they know about psychology to solve home-based, local, civic, and even national matters by looking to data instead of personal opinion'. I admit, when I read this my heart sank a bit. I understand the requirement for educators to instill a sense of viewing the world critically and objectively, but I fear that some fundamentals of psychology have been replaced. The world, as I see it from the comfort of undergraduate life, revolves around personal opinion. Surely that is the whole point. As one lecturer told me 'you learn more about a person in a five minute conversation than a validated questionnaire will ever teach you'. There is more to psychology that critique and analysis, and there is more to life than data.

How can I refrain from seeing everything through my newly-found lens of psychological theory? (I recall a good friend offering me relationship advice before I embarked on my degree. 'Don’t psychologically analyse your partner,' she laughed, 'they don’t like that'.) Haigh and Clifford (2010) claim that the over-arching role of the education system is to produce 'responsible, capable, compassionate, self-aware, eco-literate, cosmopolitan and employed' graduates, and to achieve this Barnett (2006) suggests universities must also acknowledge more personal skills, such as passion and authenticity. Next year I will join the 2018 cohort of graduates, and I hope and expect to end up in a job which requires a sense of warmth, competence, and compassion. This goes beyond the prescriptive and analytical components of psychological literacy, and instead is focused on being a generally good human being (rather than being an analytical problem solver). 

Allow me to end with another definition of psychological literacy. Cranney and colleagues (2012) define it as ‘the general capacity to adaptively and intentionally apply psychology to meet personal, professional and societal needs’. But what if there are some needs that cannot be met by psychology? The scenarios where only a person, rather than a theory or carefully selected nugget of psychological literature, will do? Is the academic study of psychology making us psychologically illiterate? At the very least – speaking as a current psychology student – I believe it is largely overrated.

Underrated: Smiling

A smile is a very powerful tool. It can build both therapeutic and academic partnerships, reconcile friendships and ignite relationships. It makes people like each other more, which plays a key role in the development of trust, a cornerstone of any interpersonal interaction (Nicholson et al., 2001). It's an inherently social action: that's why bowlers smile not when they first score a strike, but when they turn to face their friends (Kraut & Johnston, 1979). There are complex theories that discuss how and why people smile, yet I cannot help but feel that psychologists are missing the point. Much of the psychological research has been around whether or not smiles are genuine: I would argue this should not be our primary focus. Given recent negativity and political turmoil in the UK, is it time to put the scientific study of smiling on hold, accept our social responsibility as psychologists, and just learn to smile along?

The most cited articles discussing the impact of smiling tend to be early research involving children in their first year of life (e.g. Ambrose, 1961; Spitz, 1946; Washburn, 1929). They suggest that smiling encourages children’s emotional and social development – and there is a no shortage of research to support this. There is also a pile of recent research which discusses the difference between authentic and fake smiles. ‘Duchenne smiles’ are genuine, eye-wrinkling, mouth-stretching exhibits of real, true happiness. Harker and Keltner (2001) analysed old yearbook photos, and found that those who displayed duchenne smiles in their photograph at age 21 had higher well-being later in life compared to their classmates who faked their smile. Other research discovered that genuine smilers live longer.

I admit, I find this research a little problematic. The literature seems saturated with studies differentiating between real and fake smiles. Yet in recent weeks following terror attacks in the UK, everyone seems to be in need of a smile. Could any smile, even a fake or halfhearted one, be worth at least something?

After all, according to Basch (1983), a smile is contagious. We mimic the facial features that we see around us, regardless of their authenticity. Dimberg and colleagues (2000) found that when participants were exposed to happy faces, they moved their zygomatic major muscle used in smiling. This occurred even when the happy stimulus was shown in flashes for a very short time, and shortly after participants were not always aware they had moved their faces at all. Also, crucially, the genuineness of the happy face was not accounted for. People like happy faces, it makes them feel happy.

So why do psychologists have to ruin the fun? Smiling is one of the most instinctive evolutionary mechanisms that humans exhibit, and yet in research it seems cloaked in suspicion. Is the smile real? Are the eyes crinkling at the side? Let's just enjoy smiling and being smiled at… In the 80s Annie taught us that we are never fully dressed without a smile, and yet smiling continues to be overcomplicated and underrated. As the supposed experts in studying people, human dynamics, and relationships, let's set the gold standard for smiling. Let's encourage people to smile regardless of how genuine it may feel.  

Smiling not only makes us feel good – it also makes us more attractive to others. The Face Research Laboratory at the University of Aberdeen (2011) found that people were more attracted to images of people smiling than those who were frowning and importantly, it is not the authenticity of this smile that matters. Strack and colleagues (1988) asked participants to hold the tip of a pen in their mouth, simulating a smile. These participants then rated a set of cartoons as significantly funnier than those who held a pen in their lips (without the smile simulation). Again, the genuineness of a smile seems irrelevant; the act of smiling alone can improve mood. 

Maybe it’s me, maybe my positive psychology module at university has gone to my head, but I just cannot shake the feeling that psychologists are missing a trick. We spend hours and spend millions researching and analysing how to be happy and promote happiness, and yet one of the easiest methods to achieving this is under our nose (literally). I am not saying that all the problems in the world can be fixed by a smile – but it’s not a bad place to start.

- Read more from Madeleine Pownall in our archive; revisit Professor Elizabeth Meins' 'rated'; and consider contributing your own

Key sources

Psychological Literacy

Barnett, R. (2006). Graduate attributes in an age of uncertainty. Graduate attributes, learning and employability, 49-65.

Cranney, J., Botwood, L., & Morris, S. (2012). National standards for psychological literacy and global citizenship: Outcomes of undergraduate psychology education. Australia: The University of New South Wales.

Cranney, J., Morris, S., Martin, F. H., Provost, S., Zinkiewicz, L., Reece, J & Earl, J. (2011). Psychological literacy and applied psychology in undergraduate education.

Dunn (2009) Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/head-the-class/200909/thinking-about-psychological-literacy

Haigh, M., & Clifford, V. A. (2010). Widening the graduate attribute debate: a Higher education for Global citizenship. Brookes eJournal of Learning and Teaching, 2(5).

McGovern T. V., Corey L., Cranney J., Dixon W., Holmes J. D., Kuebli, et al. . (2010). Psychologically literate citizens, in Undergraduate Education in Pscyhology: A Blueprint for the Future of the Discipline, ed Halpern D. F., editor. (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; ), 9–27.

Murdoch, D. D. (2016). Psychological literacy: proceed with caution, construction ahead. Psychology research and behavior management, 9, 189.

Trapp, A., Banister, P., Ellis, J., Latto, R., Miell, D., & Upton, D. (2011). The future of undergraduate psychology in the United Kingdom. Higher Education Academy Psychology Network, University of York, York.


Ambrose, J. A. (1961). The development of the smiling response in early infancy

Basch, M. F. (1983). Empathic understanding: A review of the concept and some theoretical considerations. Journal of the American the Psychoanalytical Association, 31, 101–126.

Conway, C. A., Jones, B. C., DeBruine, L. M., & Little, A. C. (2008). Evidence for adaptive design in human gaze preference. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences275(1630), 63-69.

Dimberg, U., Thunberg, M., & Elmehed, K. (2000). Unconscious facial reactions to emotional facial expressions. Psychological science11(1), 86-89.

Harker, L., & Keltner, D. (2001). Expressions of positive emotion in women's college yearbook pictures and their relationship to personality and life outcomes across adulthood. Journal of personality and social psychology80(1), 112.

Kraut, R. E., & Johnston, R. E. (1979). Social and emotional messages of smiling: An ethological approach. Journal of personality and social psychology37(9), 1539.

Nicholson, C. Y., Compeau, L. D., & Sethi, R. (2001). The role of interpersonal liking in building trust in long-term channel relationships. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science29(1), 3.

Spitz, R. A. (1946). The smiling response: a contribution to the ontogenesis of social relations. Genetic Psychology Monographs.

Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: a nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of personality and social psychology54(5), 768.

Washburn, R. W. (1929). A study of the smiling and laughing of infants in the first year of life. Genetic Psychology Monographs.

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