Psychology’s contribution

The debate on 'psychology's non-stick frying pan' continues.

I have followed with interest the many letters and comments in response to Phil Banyard’s question ‘Where is our non-stick frying pan?’ (Letters, September 2015). Banyard feels that when we consider the great advances made by other sciences it’s not looking good for psychology. My view is the very opposite, and when I gave my Presidential Address to the Society in 2001 I argued that ‘the future belongs to psychology’ (MacKay, 2001). I would propose four reasons why psychology is indeed a discipline that in many ways eclipses other sciences.

First, there is the very definition of psychology, which is defined by the Society as ‘the scientific study of people, the mind and behaviour’. It is therefore the discipline that is at the very heart of the human welfare agenda and of the world’s problems. As such, psychology can make an almost unlimited contribution as a central scientific force in society. In many respects it has already done so, and its insights have frequently given it a central role at the highest level of international negotiations.

Second, the crucial contribution made by some other core sciences has been at the lower levels of Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’, such as the struggle to meet the basic physiological requirements of life. As society develops, the focus shifts further up the hierarchy to the levels of esteem and self-actualisation. It is there that the systematic study of the mind and behaviour is of crucial significance and this is an arena where scientific inquiry has been dominated by psychological research.

Third, the centrality of our contribution has been promoted by changing paradigms within the discipline. In the first of their Delphi studies on the future of psychology as a science Helen Haste and her colleagues spoke of two significant changes. The first was an increasing research emphasis on everyday life, quality of life and the whole person; the second was that psychological research was increasingly moving from the laboratory to real-world settings (Haste et al., 2001). The more this has happened, the more psychology has come to centre stage.

Fourth, the centrality of psychology as a core science is demonstrated by scientific inquiry itself. In a paper entitled ‘Mapping the backbone of science’, Boyack et al. (2005) looked at citations in over a million journal articles published in 7321 journals. Their aim was to map the various scientific disciplines to determine which have most influence on other areas of inquiry. Seven ‘hub’ sciences were identified of which psychology was one, the others being listed as mathematics, physics, chemistry, earth sciences, medicine and social sciences.

It is therefore unnecessary that psychology should be seeking to proffer, as Banyard has stated, any ‘excuse for the lack of great findings’. I have argued that ‘psychology can play a central role in tackling the issue of crime in our cities, litter on our streets, pollution in our atmosphere, breakdown in our international relations, obesity in our children and perhaps ultimately, oppression and injustice in our world’ (MacKay, 2008, p.931), and it has already made a very significant scientific contribution in all of these and in many other areas.

Professor Tommy MacKay
Psychology Consultancy Services/University of Strathclyde

Boyack, K., Klavans, R. & Börner, K. (2005). Mapping the backbone of science. Scientometrics, 64, 351–374.
Haste, H., Hogan, A. & Zachariou,Y. (2001). Back (again) to the future. The Psychologist, 14(1), 30–33.
MacKay, T. (2001). The future belongs to psychology. The Psychologist, 14(9), 466–469.
MacKay, T. (2008). Can psychology change the world? The Psychologist, 21, 928–931.

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