Psychology in the press 1988-1999

Susan Howard and Martin Bauer look at the roles psychology has taken on in the mass media.
THE BPS celebrates its centenary this year, a fitting juncture at which to explore the relationship between psychology and the public. The history of this relationship is longer than a hundred years: at the beginning of the last century, psychology had already come a long way from its roots. In its ‘long past’ (Farr, 1996) psychology had been entwined with philosophy. Yet by the late 1800s psychology had met a crossroads, one fork leading to the spiritual psyche, the other to scientific methods and aims of debunking (Burnham, 1987). Henceforth psychology was not only concerned with communicating the substance of research, but also with secularisation: severing ‘spiritual’ psychology from the canon of scientific activity. The First World War boosted the popularity of psychology (Burnham, 1987); the public were turning to psychology as a substitute for superstitious dissections of the soul (Rapp, 1988). From the 1920s psychology has, with peaks and troughs, remained in the public sphere. It has been conceived of as science, but also as quackery, as an expression of common sense, and as the antipathy of common sense (Harré et al., 1985). This article will consider what an analysis of press coverage of psychology says about our public image. The content of popularised psychology may not always be what psychologists would wish, but does it reflect society’s needs?

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