Psychology as a thing of the past

Prof-bots or a psychologically informed future? You decide, says Angel Chater.

It's 2040. You're still working in Psychology, but it has changed. How?

The pandemic changed things. Humans began to isolate themselves. First by country, then by city, then by family. Some were left alone, with Alexa or Siri as their only companions. Human touch became a thing of the past, with people not knowing what was safe and what would put them at risk. They became driven by fear and emotion, with just a small number of psychologists to provide behavioural insight. Daily essentials to fight the spread of the virus were wiped out of the marketplace. Hospitals were stripped of products needed to protect the ill.  

Many died, and not just from the virus. Health care for those with long-term conditions dwindled. Mental ill health was rife. Decades of lack of investment in psychology was catching up with the world. People missed the human connection. Microsoft Teams and Zoom shone brightly from floor to ceiling in every home, organisation and public space.

While the surviving human race retreated, artificial intelligence and robotics advanced rapidly. The Human Behaviour Change Project had highlighted, from the research evidence, what works in the prevention and treatment of ill health and computing experts had taken this to produce a stronger population. Without an investment in psychology to support behaviour change and strategic policy making, science created an alternative solution to the vulnerability of human contagion. The weakness of human behaviour was attributed to the many ‘lifestyle’ diseases. Research labs and hospital departments were now commonly led by Professors – but machine, not human. These ‘Prof-bots’ were virtually indestructible. Not vulnerable to communicable contagion, air pollution or the behaviours that put the human race at risk such as smoking, excess alcohol, poor diet or lack of activity. They didn’t need to engage with a health care system, yet they could deliver structured services.

To keep up, the humans who survived evolved. Working with the Prof-bots, they programmed themselves with technology that extended the wrist-worn trackers to a micro-chip embedded into their arm. These chips monitored heart rate, blood pressure and temperature. They now controlled behaviours that were once high priority for public health, removing the need to eat, and the desire to smoke or drink alcohol. They needed just one hour to charge, seen as ‘sleep’ in the human world. ‘Me time’ away from work was issued to all humans, and was limited to 30 minutes per day, which included social and physical activities. Prof-bots mapped these restrictions to pre-virus behaviour, whereby many humans were engaging in minimal sleep and found it difficult to allocate even 30 minutes each day for behaviours such as physical activity or eating with their family and friends.   

This way of life had emotional ramifications. The humans were isolated and lonely. Fearful and sad. Benefits of social interaction, friendship, relationships and love were a thing of the past. Time filled instead with working to produce the ‘next big thing’… to add to all the other next next big things. Chasing the dream that one day, it would all slow down. That one day, they would have that ‘me time’, to spend with friends and family. In reality, this was a dream that few would experience.

For decades, the authoritarian government had restricted the resource given to psychological support. So the humans learned to switch off their emotions and to ignore their exhaustion. This helped them to stay focused and driven on the achievements of the next big thing, and made them more robotic and able to function to a similar level as their peer Prof-bots.

While the humans and Prof-bots acknowledged that psychology could provide sensible solutions, death of the weak, and suffering of those who remain was the chosen option. Commonly you would hear echos of this dis-investment. ‘But psychological intervention is so expensive’, ‘We haven’t got the time to give to psychology’, ‘Can’t we find a cheaper solution’, were words that chimed from the Prof-bots who now had majority control of the mechanical government. The lack of investment in psychology rippled to the closure of psychology departments. Psychological training courses ceased to exist. The role of psychology was replaced in health care, academia, business and so on by digital AI and by those who think they know what psychology is and what it can offer, based on one book they read or a two-hour workshop they went to.

But let’s stop for a moment… Imagine, everything you have read until here was a nightmare. The rapid changes in technology, the sheer speed of living, while assisting our lives, is also destroying us. The world has moved quickly. We have lived through the advancements we once thought would be beyond the realms of our existence. So how do we redraw the bleak picture of Prof-bots and a disconnected society? Of humankind facing premature death or an emotionless life, fuelled with work?

The answer… Psychology. From top-down to bottom-up, we need to be psychologically informed. But people outside of psychology don’t know what they don’t know. We need a psychologically-informed society. One led by a functional psychologically-informed government, that invests in training and career opportunities to see psychological professionals as important as doctors as nurses within a multidisciplinary team. To help inform policy and practice, training and service development.

The leading causes of illness and death in society today can be supported by psychology. That may be through direct psychological support, to enhance mental wellness. Or through the psychological understanding and intervention with a multitude of detrimental behaviours, engagement with the health care system and professional communication. We are the voice of psychology and we need to shout louder than ever before, with gravitas. Let’s not sleepwalk our way into a world led by Professor Zorb, where psychology becomes a thing of the past.

- Professor Angel Chater is a Health Psychologist at the University of Bedfordshire [email protected]

Illustration by Nick Taylor

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