The benefits of studying psychology

Sheila Thomas responds to John Radford's call.

Professor Radford’s call for a research project to examine the immediate and longer term benefits of studying psychology (March issue) should not fall on deaf ears.

It is easy to overlook the tangible and intangible benefits which increased access to psychology courses in schools, universities and workplaces has brought. It is also easy to forget how social norms have shifted over the past half a century, since these have now become part of our lived experience.

In so many areas, we, as a society are now aware of psychological concepts which would not have been common knowledge 50 years ago. Concepts such as self-esteem, wellbeing, gender identity, how to conduct healthy relationships, the avoidance of prejudice and discrimination etc. are all now part of the fabric of society and it is all too easy to overlook the fact that this is due, in no small part, to the increased numbers of students choosing to study psychology. Indeed, one could argue that it is in the field of education itself that the benefits of an increased understanding of psychology have been most powerfully felt.

When I was at school in the 1960s, I do not recall a single one of my fellow pupils being given support for special educational needs – they were simply the students who were placed in lower sets. Neither was there an opportunity for a pupil to speak to someone confidentially, if they had a problem that they wanted to discuss, they were simply expected to get on with it. How far we have come in both these areas, with SENCOs and school counsellors standard school provision.

One could cite further examples in so many other areas of life, but we are so used to these things being the norm that we fail to acknowledge the enormous contribution which the study of psychology has made to achieving this progress. It would, of course, be extremely difficult to measure this contribution accurately, but a useful, if somewhat broad brush method is the ‘taxi driver test’. If a taxi driver had asked you 30 years ago what you do as a job and you had replied that you work in the field of autism, the driver would probably have asked ‘what’s that?’. Today they are more likely to say that they know someone whose child has autism. This may be mere anecdotal evidence but it is a realistic measure of how much more psychological knowledge there is nowadays amongst the general public. This has subsequently aided understanding and awareness of so many aspects of modern life. 

The kind of research project which Professor Radford is advocating for would need to be substantial and wide-ranging, but I am convinced it would yield some interesting and insightful results which would be useful in future planning. This project deserves to be prioritised by the society. 

Sheila Thomas

Obidos, Portugal

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