'We can only go forward from here'

The winning entries from a BPS Conference 2020 student competition, around the theme of Psychology of the Future: Changing Landscapes.

This year, the BPS 2020 Conference is going online. Fire up your laptops and join us for two days exploring the future of psychological research and practice. 

  • Hear from leading psychologists and expert speakers who will be hosting a series of webinars across the two days. 
  • Network with peers, chat with other psychologists and build your network on our special online community discussion forums.

Psychology is proving more relevant in meeting the challenges of the new decade and overcoming the unprecedented challenges we are all facing as a result of Covid-19. 

Our conference will push the boundaries of that 2020 vision – are we seeing the challenges ahead clearly? And are we ready?

Alongside keynotes from Stephen Reicher, Paul Slovic, Miranda Wolpert and Alison Gopnik, there will be addresses from both the outgoing and incoming Society Presidents (David Murphy and Hazel McLaughlin), and panel discussions on behavioural science and Covid, and the media (including our editor Jon Sutton). See our archive collection for more from the speakers.

We are delighted to welcome BBC TV Radio 4 presenter Claudia Hammond as our BPS 2020 Conference compere. 

Find out more, and register.

In the run up to the conference, students were asked the following question:

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

We asked other Psychologists the same question, and you'll find their responses in our special summer edition. Here, we publish the winning student entry, by Alice Thomson from the University of Westminster, and two runners up, from Chenel Walker (King's College London) and Amanda Ripley (University of Derby).

Students may also be interested in our latest Voices In Psychology programme, which asks 'What are the barriers to our profession, and how can we remove them?'

Reflecting the world we live in

If the next 20 years are similar to the last 20, then we can expect technological advances to impact psychology massively.

As AI expands and becomes more accessible, we will adopt it not only as a subject of research and way of carrying out interventions but as a tool within our investigations. Virtual and remote counselling will increase due to its flexibility, accessibility and, hopefully, affordability. This will more people to access the services they need. We will be investigating how experiencing less human interaction in public spaces, such as supermarkets and on public transport, is affecting mental and physical health and whether just because ‘we can’, ‘we should’ when it comes to replacing human workers with technological alternatives. The ability to create virtual environments will also allow us to more accurately replicate conditions across studies and help us to combat the replication crisis, building back the public’s trust in psychology.

We will also be seeing the long-term impacts of growing up with social media with platforms such as Facebook turning 36 and Instagram turning 30. We are already seeing the effects these platforms have on the mental health of their users, but these are likely to differ in people who have never known the world without social media. Will they be more resilient? More aware of its influence? Or will the impacts build up over time resulting in more extreme results? Interventions for body-image issues, eating disorders and self-harm will continue to be improved and made more accessible as the number of those seeking them increase. But the positives of social media will also be heralded and built into plans for tackling depression, loneliness and spreading general positivity. 

The changes raised so far have focused on the impact of technological advances on psychology. However, I have touched on improvements to accessibility and I think this is going to be one of the most important changes in all areas of psychological practice and research. We will be focusing on making effective and appropriate psychological practices available to everyone who needs them regardless of wealth, age, ability, geographical location, race and hundreds of other factors that affect the uptake of resources. Increasing collaboration across countries, disciplines and approaches will help to increase the variety of what is on offer and how it is made available to allow the individual to select what they feel is most suited to them. A focus on diversity, and anger at the lack thereof in the bulk of previous research, will drive the foundations of psychological theory and practice to where they should be; more accurately reflecting the world we live in and encompassing all people, communities and cultures. 

Overall by 2040, I expect the field of psychology to have changed colossally. But the motivation behind our work; of understanding behaviour, improving life and supporting those who need it, will remain at the heart of every person involved… even if the ways in which we are carrying out this work are nearly impossible to conceive right now. 

Alice Thomson
University of Westminster

A spaceship named 'Change'

It is the year 2040, and when an individual shares their dreams of one day becoming a clinical psychologist with people external to their psychology-filled realm, others do not respond with, “So you can read my mind then?”. Ha, we wish.

No, now, it is much, much better than that.

It is the year 2040 and psychological research and practice is a diverse epicentre for growth. Service users regularly keep and even make appointments themselves and there is absolutely no such thing as a waiting list for receiving psychological treatment.

But how did we get to this Utopia?

We arrived on a spaceship named Change. The years leading up to 2040 were not spent in vain but used to actively fund the NHS, and otherwise struggling mental health services were filled to capacity with an abundance of care coordinators, clinical psychologists, consultant psychiatrists and even *whispers* assistant psychologists. Keen undergraduates, and postgraduates alike ready to rack up years of experience in pursuit for a coveted position in Clinical Psychology.

However, as the year is 2040, entry into Doctorate courses are also accessible… yes, for all. There are no strings attached. Void of terrifyingly narrow entry requirements and 3-part interviews. It is now a career championed by passion, inclusivity and positivity and not the grueling ability of how long a graduate can work honorarily before their bank account lets out an almighty yelp.

People of all races, genders and abilities are given the opportunity to train in a field they love.

In our newfound Utopia, practitioners are actively able to rebuild confidence within the community for their local mental health service. Service users are no longer floating in an abyss until a community team agrees to work with them; no, they are quickly allocated and accepted into a service for treatment.

Workers also have the time to promote well-being, and not just recovery and this is done by tackling social isolation within hard to reach communities, planting the seeds for rapidly sprouting well-being hubs, support groups evening and weekend activities, only possible due to funding.

And you know what else, the gap between research and practice? That is gone too, oh yes, you better believe it.

Researchers far and wide lift their journals to rejoice that their implications of practice… are actually being practiced. Used as catalysts for even further development within services.

Last but not least, the spaceship named Change that we all rode in on was a one-way trip. There is absolutely no return, and we can only go forward from here.

Chenel Walker
King's College London
AI embedded in the fabric of life

The future rarely unfolds exactly how we expect. “Hindsight is a wonderful thing” is not a truism without just cause. However, the seldom invoked continuation of this phrase, “but foresight is better,” is unequivocally understood as the preferred scenario. Psychology is no exception. A PsychInfo search, ‘the future of psychology’ leads to 162,000 articles. The title of this conference, ‘Psychology of the Future: Changing Landscapes,’ typifies the significance we place on efforts to prepare our discipline for future adaptions.

I believe by 2040 the ‘game-changer’ in Psychology will be artificial intelligence (AI). AI-driven systems already play a central role in how humans interact and earn an income. These trends will only accelerate and AI will affect almost every aspect of our day-to-day lives.
This will undoubtably change how we communicate, such as automating the conversations we have with others, perhaps even how we date! So-called ‘routine’ tasks and jobs, such as driving and clerical work, will be automated. As psychologists we will be busier and more crucial than ever: with AI embedded in the fabric of life, a range of novel social and occupational research questions will arise, from how AI affects verbal and nonverbal behaviour to wellbeing in the workplace.

Every subfield of Psychology will be impacted. For instance, the NHS Long Term Plan acknowledges the role that AI will play in providing outpatient treatment such as online therapy. Psychologists will be faced with a new landscape, not only the challenge of incorporating AI into their clinical work but also investigating how the user experience impacts their clients psychologically. This will create new topics in cognitive and health psychology, such as how experiencing empathy from AI impacts cognitive processes and the mental health of the user.
Quite a distressing potentiality is that by 2040 AI becomes so adept at understanding human processes that psychologists become redundant!

The challenge of forecasting, however, is the extreme sensitivity of models to a wide range of conditions – some of which may be emergent or unprecedented. Advances in computational modelling were logical predictions from the cognitive revolution, yet few would have anticipated the later depth and breadth in social neuroscience.

Psychology constantly attempts to identify trends that may influence the discipline, fine-tuning how psychologists consider problems, conduct research and deploy resources. In this sense, the progression of Psychology is inextricably linked with that of society: They both reflect and inform each other. For instance, my supervisor is conducting research using Covid-19 data from Wuhan: four months ago this project would not have existed. The BPS for example, introduced an additional OP pathway in recognition of the need for alternative routes to reflect the shifting career aspirations of the next-generation workforce.

By 2040 Psychology will have changed. The introduction of AI may well provide a Kuhnian paradigm shift, but perhaps it will be less destabilising than it sounds. The fundamental principles which guide Psychology: to engage in research, test theories, explain processes and offer improvements will undoubtably remain constant, but, with unchartered territory to explore.  

Amanda Ripley
University of Derby

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