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When the arts influence policy more effectively than research

23 November 2016 | by Peter Kinderman

A scene from I, Daniel Blake - photo by Joss Barratt

As a psychologist trying to influence public policy, I occasionally promote a ‘manifesto’ for change, and community psychologists actively campaign about the effects of austerity.

But sometimes other people do psychology with much greater effect. Four weeks ago Ken Loach released the movie I, Daniel Blake, partly about the psychological effects of austerity measures on those of us claiming benefits in the UK and the impact of the Work Capability Assessment. I have to confess that I haven’t seen the movie, but many colleagues have – including Steve Heigham, Chair of our Psychotherapy Section – and can testify as to its powerful impact.

Winner of the Palme D’Or, the film is gripping, powerful… and popular. It is an example of the world of the arts influencing policy. We’ve actually seen this before. 50 years ago, Cathy Come Home stimulated a change in national consciousness far more effectively than academic research papers alone.

So, then, as we work diligently to promote psychology and present evidence about the counter-productive effects of government policies, we hope that that our evidence will have the desired impact and that change occurs. But at the same time, a major movie comes out having an emotional effect, which can set in train a groundswell of public opinion that begins to change culture. We can see a different paradigm at work.

In that – highly plausible – world, perhaps the role of the psychologist (the role of Martin Luther King’s ‘social scientist’) is slightly different. As well as speaking to and writing for politicians and policy makers, we must be aware of our power in influencing artists and popular culture. This is not policymaking by anecdote – we should illustrate the objective evidence rather than tell unrepresentative stories.

But there is a role, perhaps, for synthesising high-quality psychological science in a recognisable and human form, illustrative for, and useful to, artists and filmmakers. Popular culture can, horribly, reflect and encourage the worst of human nature. But – wonderfully in the case of I, Daniel Blake – popular culture can also be as powerful a forum for changing the world as is the chamber of the House of Commons or the High Court.

Perhaps one of the responsibilities of a psychologist with an eye on social justice would be to work as hard with the creative industries as with the political world.


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