Psychology, I’ve got a problem with it

Psychology, I’ve just got a problem with it. This was a sentence said by a colleague recently, and has been playing on my mind for some weeks now. Being a student of psychology and taken it through to my current career path, it follows that it would really. I get that people don’t associate well with psychology, it is a broad subject that touches on a lot of our everyday lives. So I’ve been trying to unpack why. Why would someone have problems with it?

At first glance, there’s simply too much to focus on. Do we look at cognitive psychology, psychotherapy, developmental psychology, social psychology, occupational psychology, evolutionary psychology, psycho-biology, positive psychology? There’s just too many fields. So it’s hard to know what is being referred to when someone makes the above statement.

Then, when you look at higher education, psychology is amongst the top five subjects being studied at undergraduate levels, and has an increasing number at postgraduate levels. This would suggest that there is an appeal to study the human mind, how we work, personality theories, and make sense of these. This would also suggest that the area must be a well researched area. This is certainly true as publications such as The Psychologist are a mainstay of the British Psychological Society. You of course have academic journals and papers being written throughout the year. There is a science to psychology and it’s quite rigorous. Papers and psychologists are subject to peer reviews and scrutiny like any scientific journal.

In the field of occupational psychology specifically, this rigour is even more under the spotlight. You can’t just create a questionnaire and claim it has psychological validity or reliability. You have to show it and prove it with evidence from experiments, data, analysis, and a detailed evaluation. This is a lengthy and difficult process. Programmes the likes of SPSS have been designed (and sold at great profit) for the very purpose of evaluating and analysing the data gained from studies. Many of these tools are then taken to the general workforce and public, where if used poorly can have quite detrimental effects. Used well though they enable and encourage greater debate and discussion about their usage.

Findings from studies across all fields are readily quoted in news and press articles. This is probably where the greatest worry comes from. “The smile is contagious”, “Depression spreads amongst friends”, “Separation theory informs us that parents are vital to the development of a child”. You’ve come across this everyday. And in most cases the studies are taken out of context to fit with the article as opposed to using it as was intended. This is a fault on the academics for not making their findings more understandable and a pressure on journalists (in the widest sense) to be more mindful of accurately quoting these kinds of studies.

At a more practical level, within the field of learning and development we are even more at risk of bastardising these theories to fit with the content of what we’re developing and delivering. The argument of practitioner vs academic raises its head regularly and forces both sides to consider have they done enough to make things happen. As a practitioner myself, of both positive psychology and learning and development practise, I am left considering if I am doing enough to ensure my knowledge and use of theories is not just satisfactory but up to scrutiny.

Do these theories and indeed psychological practises have a place in the workplace? I think they do. Our challenge is to ensure that we don’t belittle the theories, and at the same time we don’t lose our intended audience by overwhelming them with information. It’s this type of topic which we’ll be discussing at the L&D Connect unconference. There’s only two weeks left, so book your place and get involved with the discussion on our LinkedIn page.