Media: The blind feeding the blind

Kisane Prutton on the media’s particular appetite for psychology

In my capacity as Conference Press Officer for the Division of Occupational Psychology, I had to be rugby tackled to my senses by colleagues at a recent conference programming meeting, when my eyes alighted upon a paper which could only be described as God’s gift to the tabloid press: ‘The personality of male escorts’. Dynamite! Sadly, the methodology was weak and it had to be rejected. A cold towel to my head later and I realised that I have become trapped in a feeding cycle; the press feed the public’s reality-TV-appetite for human interest stories and I feed the press. How did I get into this unhealthy state of co-dependency? I have tried and continueto try to push serious, scientific research, but it seems to fall on deaf ears. Why? I posed this predicament to a number of influential figures in the media and psychology.

‘I’m not sure that psychology has succeeded in getting over the idea to programme-makers what psychologists do and don’t do,’ reflected Claudia Hammond (broadcaster, lecturer and writer in psychology). ‘In general, the public like psychology because it is about us and the media knows that. Journalists like to report on research that is counter-intuitive, but some are of the opinion that psychology is the science of the bleeding obvious.’ 

Richard Wiseman (researcher, writer, and holder of Britain’s only Professorship in the Public Understanding of Psychology, University of Hertfordshire) provided an effective counterbalance: ‘A journalist’s job is to take the interesting bits of what we do and tell the public. There is nothing wrong in that. Unfortunately the public only get to understand a tiny sliver of what we do. Beyond the media, the public tends to associate psychologists with solving problems in a clinical or educational context, understandably because these are our visible, frontline services. They do not see psychologists as scientists.’

Presumably those who walk the corridors of power in government and industry simply don’t realise the calibre of psychological expertise that they could be tapping into. Hammond was wistful: ‘Economists and doctors are regularly consulted, but psychologists far less so. I’d like to see a day when boards or commissions regularly appoint psychologists.

’It would appear that the media largely portrays a fraction of what we do, and that portion tends to satisfy human curiosity rather than develop an understanding of our scientific contribution. Should we stop feeding the media if their lightweight coverage is skewing public perceptions of our capability?

Charles Abraham (Professor of Psychology at the University of Sussex, adviser to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee), thinks otherwise: ‘The question is, not what is the media doing wrong but how can psychologists make their research outputs more marketable? Psychologists need to design and market their research so that  it adds value to the real world and is seen to be doing so.’

Psychologists working in the area of health behaviour change appear to be leading in this approach. The 2007 NICE guidance on behaviour change, for example, involved four psychologists, including Abraham. Behavioural psychologists are also now working in the emerging area of sustainable energy, but the feeling is that we could do more.

Doing more doesn’t mean doing it all by ourselves. Abraham teams up with economists and together they analyse the financial and psychosocial impact of behavioural interventions. He is very enthusiastic about such collaboration:

‘A cost-effective intervention pays for itself and so is very attractive to policy makers.’ He believes psychologists have a great part to play in the future of the economy. ‘For example, if we could develop interventions to reduce the number of obese school children we could help save the NHS millions.’ That would certainly make national, headline news.

Interestingly, Hammond pointed out that when the bestselling book Nudge came out, (behavioural econometrics in the context of health and well-being) David Cameron had all his MPs read it! It would appear that politicians do have an appetite for psychology, but only when the psychological implications are grounded in terms of their financial value. We have to remember that not all psychology is about behaviour, and as a science of mental life its implications for policy may be limited. Perhaps this is where psychology and the media’s symbiotic relationship currently lies. Feeding human interest with a behind-the-scenes insight into mental processes provides a quick fix for human curiosity but long-term limits the public’s understanding of psychology’s potential. Politicians, industrialists and other influential consumers of the media, will not turn to us to solve real-world human problems if they don’t equate us with being able to make and quantify an impact on society. 

Assuming we should attempt to break this restricted, media/public feeding cycle, what can we do? Abraham: ‘Select and design research around behavioural changes that matter to the real world; demonstrate impact.’ Hammond: ‘See what issues are around in the media and offer expert interviewees and the latest research on the topic. Target the home affairs, financial and social policy correspondents.’ Wiseman: ‘Use the new media and cut out the middleman; blog, twitter, use Facebook. Film your research and put on YouTube.’

The Society does support members via some of these functions, and developments are afoot: watch this space!


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