Why we... believe the internet can enhance psychology

January 12, 2001

In 1948 researchers from Pennsylvania State College found that the majority of people they surveyed put psychology at the bottom of a list of careers they would like their children to go into. Forty per cent believed psychologists were more odd than chemists or engineers. By the 1970s the situation seems to have improved - psychology was ranked in the middle of the list, alongside farmers and bankers. And by the 1980s, one survey showed over 90 per cent of respondents had a favourable attitude towards the discipline.

However, this dramatic change in attitude has not been accompanied by an increased understanding of psychological research. A few months ago we conducted a small-scale survey into the British public's knowledge of scientific findings within psychology. We asked 100 visitors to a national science museum whether scientific research supported the existence of various psychological phenomena: 60 per cent believed that humans only use 10 per cent of their brains; 50 per cent thought handwriting analysis was a highly accurate way of predicting personality; 90 per cent believed people are strongly influenced by subliminal advertising. In fact, none of these are supported by scientific research.

It seems the major challenge facing psychology is to find ways of communicating methods and results of research to the public. Traditional ways of reaching the public - via museums, public lectures and books and magazines - have been complemented by television and radio.

However, a breakthrough may be at hand, with new technologies, such as the internet and interactive television, soon offering psychologists unprecedented opportunities to directly inform and involve the public in their work.

Huge numbers of people now use the internet as their primary source of information about science and technology. Many sites, such as that produced by the British Psychological Society ( www.bps.org.uk ) contain a large amount of up-to-date information that would be almost impossible to disseminate by any other means. However, the internet also illustrates the dangers of unregulated mass communication. We typed in "psychology" to a search engine and found sites promoting concepts that we believe have yet to be validated by research, including the usual suspects - astrology, rune readings and graphology - and more esoteric offerings, such as a company giving seminars in "chocolate therapy". Background on the founders of the company listed qualifications including a "Dip.Choc".

We are excited and optimistic about how technology can help the public understand psychology better. But there again, according to chocolate therapy, we would be classified as "hazelnut whirls" - apparently, they always look on the bright side.

Richard Wiseman
University of Hertfordshire

Caroline Watt
University of Edinburgh

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