Using Psychology

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Just this week, I finished my fifth Coursera MOOC - Social Pyschology, from Wesleyan University. Somewhat interesting, I didn't really learn as much as the behavioural psych and it was a lot of watching videos from experiments, although that still had some hilights like original shots from the Milgram Obedience and Stanford Prison Experiments. Plus, going back to writing assignments took a bit of adjusting to :)

One thing is for sure though, I think Social Psych (or at least, the people running this course and discussing the most on the forums) seemed too closed-mindedly left-wing for my liking. While that might not be a bad thing on average, it's a bit unfortunate in a hopefully scientific, educational environment if logical reasoning is dropped and people just follow oversimplified arguments.

Anyway, the course is over, enough of the mini-rant. The actual interesting thing that seemed worth posting about is something I noticed when doing part of the required readings. In particular, one of the weeks (covering 'Conflict, Peacemaking, and Intervention' - amusingly not the week on 'Persuasion') included reading The Psychology of Climate Change Communication - 'A Guide for Scientists, Journalists, Educators, Political Aides, and the Interested Public'. An interesting how-to guide for anyone involved in marketing, it's mostly a collection of social-psychology-ish findings and how to apply them to climate change communication to best get the message across; e.g. don't call it 'global warming' because that suggests that every part of the world is warming, and lessens the link to natural climate.

I'm not sure how to attribute this image to the original source,
as none of its current users seem to either.

Reading this made me a bit uneasy - I don't know whether there are clear guidelines of how much psychology should be used when trying to 'convince' someone of something, or for scientific things, how much 'convincing' should be done. Certainly, it's better than not knowing it's going on - but is it a perfectly fine thing to do? The closest equivalent I could come up with is political lobbying, which on average seems to be quite disliked - and recently, increasingly so. The idea there is that people with access to money can buy influence, which is bad: their 'voice' is louder than those without money, which seems to weaken a democracy in an arbitrary way. Turning this around, the conclusion here seems to be that better access to social psychology findings can (/should?) also be used to increase your influence, which seems an even more arbitrary way to bias a democracy. Plus, just as with money, they theory is that if you don't do it, your 'opponents' will, so it's kind of a prisoner's dilemma race to the bottom.

For those Australian's reading, this came up a little while ago in the news there too - our former PM, Julia Gillard, was accused of 'leveraging gender wars' (paywall). While there was a bit extra history which complicates this, part of the anger seemed to be that she was pursuing a 'secret strategy' which seems to be just another way of saying 'figure out how to get the message across most efficiently to a larger number of people'. It's for things like this where I think the lobbying comparison still holds, but is a reminder that not all lobbying is bad too. If there was one finding to take away from the behavioural psych course (and one of the economics ones), it was that humans aren't perfectly rational - so even with the best argument supporting a cause that really would benefit people, you may still have to tweak it so that it will actually get through to people.

So in summary...like lobbying, 'applied psychology' can be good and can be bad. Unlike lobbying, however, there's no real discussion of it, so it continues to happen without any oversight. It would be interesting to see however what the reaction would be from the general public if it does become more of an issue, and my guess is that depends highly on whose application of it gets derided first.

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