10 ways psychology has shaped our world

10 December 2020

Assessment and Selection (Astrology and Graphology; Inkblots & Projective Techniques)
For well over a century psychologists have been at the forefront of people assessment, mostly for selection purposes. The two world wars were particularly important to develop and assess theories, measures and tests. Psychologists have not only investigated the claims of various techniques like astrology and graphology, the lie detector and inkblots but more importantly they developed and tested their own theory-derived techniques. Whilst many people know about intelligence and personality tests which have proliferated, psychologists have been at the forefront of modern developments. Current approaches that are being used are Big Data analytics, Digital interviews and resumes, Gamification, Social Media Analytics, and Wearables.

Attraction and Beauty
Along with artists and philosophers, psychologists have been interested in what people think constitutes a beautiful face and body. The ancient Greeks believed in the idea that beautiful faces and bodies could be described mathematically and objectively, while in the eighteen century it was thought ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. However, the evolutionary psychologists this century have offered evidence-based explanations for what people find attractive and why. Acronyms like BMI (body mass index), WHR (waist-to-hip ratio), LTR (leg-to-torso ratio), STR (shoulder-to-torso ratio), and symmetry are the answer! They also have investigated assortative mating: ‘linking’ up with people of our shape and level of attractiveness.

Behavioural Economics (Psychology of Money)
The Nobel prize for economics has three times been won by psychologists and all through a contribution to the new science of behavioural economics. It acknowledges that people are psycho-logical in their decision making and rationalising rather than rational. It is about our ‘quick thinking’ cognitive short-cuts, rather than following the rules of cool logic. The area has become famous for its long list of cognitive biases and heuristics some of which are well known and exploited by all sorts of people. These include the anchoring bias, confirmation bias, loss aversion, mental accounting and the decoy effect. They have led to the development of the ‘science of nudging’ which influences people by the way information is presented.

Conspiracy and Cover ups (Brainwashing and Cults)
Conspiracist beliefs are widespread and usually false narratives where multiple shadowy agents are believed to be working together toward malevolent ends. They are false beliefs that many major events are caused by secret, powerful, and evil groups. The conspiracy theorists themselves talk of cover-ups: that we are fed lies (false news) by the media which is controlled by governments and big organisations. The research question is who, when and why people believe in some, or all, of these theories. Are they from disadvantaged, disenfranchised, and powerless groups, ever distrustful of authority and low in self-esteem? More importantly how can we denounce and dissuade people to believe in these theories?

Understanding creativity and innovation is at the essence of successful adaptation. But what is creativity: an ability, a personality trait, a thinking style? Can it really be taught? At heart is the ability to come up with products that are both novel and useful. Psychologists have studied the creative person, process, situation and product. They have looked at creative geniuses to understand how they do it and talked of four phases: preparation (hard work), incubation (sleeping on it), illumination (the ‘aha’ experience) and verification (testing the idea). There are still many debates: is creativity linked to mental illness; how to measure it; is creativity in the arts, business and science different?

Culture Shock (Country and Culture Differences)
People have, and will, always travel to ‘far off lands’, different countries and continents and possibly soon planets, for very different purposes. They go to convert, conquer, explore, trade, teach, learn, holiday and settle. Currently there are around 70 million refugees; nearly 5 million foreign students; and 1.3 billion people go abroad as tourists every year. Culture shock has six components. Strain due to the effort required to make necessary psychological adaptations; a sense of loss and feelings of deprivation in regard to friends, status, profession and possessions; being rejected by and/or rejecting members of the new culture; confusion in role, role expectations, values; surprise, anxiety, even disgust and indignation after becoming aware of cultural differences; feelings of impotence due to not being able to cope with the new environment.

Dark Triad (Personality Disorders, Psychopaths; Workplace deviance)
Twenty years ago, psychologists argued that three disorders could explain a good deal of bad behaviour and deviance. It was called the Dark Triad because they noticed an overlap of similar features: all three entail a socially malevolent character with behaviour tendencies toward self-promotion, emotional coldness, duplicity, and aggressiveness. They were Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy. Machiavellianism is personality, belief, dimension or personal philosophy characterized by cynical, manipulative behaviour, expedient and self-interested rather than principled behaviour and cold affect. Narcissism is characterized by grandiose sense of self-worth, entitlement, dominance and superiority. Psychopathy has been noted as the most ‘dangerous’ of the three. Subclinical psychopathy manifests itself mainly in part by high levels of impulsivity and thrill-seeking behaviour along with low levels of empathy and anxiety: an absence of guilt.

Obedience and Conformity (Groupthink; Persuasion)
Sociology textbooks have chapters on deviance; psychologist textbooks on conformity. Some of the most famous of all psychology studies have been on the topic of why people obey the instructions and orders of others or conform to those around them. They are different – conformity regulates the behaviour of equal status subjects whereas obedience links one status to another; conformity is imitation, whereas obedience is not. In obedience the prescription for action (an order) is explicit, whereas in conformity the requirement of going along with the group is implicit. Because conformity is a response to implicit pressure the person interprets his/her own behaviour as voluntary. They question what sort of people defy others and why. What situational factors encourage and discourage us from copying the behaviour of those around us?

Sex Differences
Group differences in human characteristics (particularly intelligence) is one of the ‘hottest’ topics of research. Many people want to believe that men and women are equal, not only in potential, but also ability. Inevitably there are two strongly competing, opposite forces: those who stress the biology of difference and those who stress the sociology of similarity. The former often suggest that these differences are immutable, though we know that all innate traits can be changed with experience. Maximizers want to find and explain the (many large) differences between the sexes while the minimisers want to emphasise how few differences there are. Thus minimisers are happy to see many differences are trivial and dismissible as unimportant in every sense while maximizers are eager to describe and explain all differences that they find.

Work Motivation (Unemployment; Engagement and Drive at work)
The question that managers most often ask work psychologists is ‘how can I motivate my staff?’ Is money a good (necessary and sufficient) motivator? Does job satisfaction lead to greater productivity, or are productive people more happy? What is job engagement and how can it be developed? Psychologists make the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation showing that they have different correlates and consequences. If people are paid equitably and in line with market forces, money has little effect on motivation, even pay satisfaction. People adapt to increases in money quickly. Further what upsets them most is not how much they are paid, but how much their colleagues are paid. Give people as much autonomy as possible; let them exploit their talents and remind them of the contribution of the company.

- Adrian Furnham’s new book, Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World is published on 10 December by Bloomsbury Business. Available at Bloomsbury.com.