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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2006
The Six Characteristics
of Highly Effective Psychologists

Douglas C. Maynard, PhD, State University of New York at New Paltz

I was a Boy Scout as a teenager, and one of the things we did at the beginning of each meeting was recite the Scout Law. The Scout Law lists 12 traits that defined each scout: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. We don't really have a Psychologist Law in the same sense, but I believe that we do have a common set of principles which guide how we perceive the world, how we interact with others, and how we behave in our personal and professional lives. What follows are my own thoughts about some of the qualities that get at the heart of what it means to be a psychologist. These qualities make us especially well-equipped to understand the world and people around us, and allow us to make real and significant contributions to the well-being of individuals, groups, and organizations.
Skeptical
In the ordinary usage of the word, skeptical has a negative ring to it, but for social scientists in general, and psychologists in particular, it's both healthy and crucial to what we do. What this means is we do not accept a claim unless it is supported by strong evidence. Of course, this applies to new scientific findings and counseling techniques. But it serves us just as well in everyday life. We are bombarded with information about medicines, foods, inventions, and politicians every day on television, on billboards, on the Internet. I think it is getting tougher and tougher to separate fact from fiction. But like other sciences, psychology trains us to think critically and to be comfortable with data. When we use these tools, we can make informed judgments about practically anything. When a commercial says in a taste test more people preferred one soft drink over another, people trained in psychological methods immediately start asking questions. Was this taste test done in a double-blind fashion so that neither the customer nor the researcher knew which drink was in which cup? Did everyone taste the same drink first? Were the containers the same in every way? We ask these questions not because we enjoy being difficult, but because we have learned how these things can influence the findings. We can apply the same principles to make sound decisions in important areas of life, such as whether we should try a popular new diet to lose weight or holistic medicine to treat a health problem. Skepticism protects us from false or misplaced claims and bad decisions.
Open-minded
Unfortunately, skepticism alone just makes you a disgruntled, antagonistic person who disagrees with everything without even considering the possibility that a claim might have merit. It's easy to dismiss people who act like this because it seems they cannot be convinced. Perhaps research will find that the new diet or alternative therapy does provide some real benefit. So, a psychologist must be open-minded as well as skeptical. We need to be ready to accept anything–whether we personally would like to or not–should strong enough evidence be provided. In his book, The Demon-Haunted World, the late astronomer Carl Sagan wrote:
At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes–an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counter intuitive, and the most ruthlessly skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense. (Sagan, 1996, p. 304)
One of the implications of this balancing act is that we need to be prepared to accept findings or claims that we may not actually like. For years, magician and debunker James Randi has offered one million dollars to any person who can demonstrate psychic abilities under controlled conditions (James Randi Educational Foundation, 2005), a prize that no one has yet been able to cash in on. While James Randi quite publicly states his strong doubts about the existence of ESP, his offer indicates his willingness to entertain this possibility. This blend of skepticism and openness can provide us with powerful insight about our world, much more than could either characteristic alone.
Self-aware
Because psychology gives us a deeper understanding of human thought, emotion, and behavior, we can also understand ourselves better. To me, some of the most important outcomes of such self-awareness are a sense of humility and modesty. Let me give you three quick examples. First, Stanley Milgram's research on obedience (e.g., Milgram, 1963) demonstrated how decent individuals have, within them, the potential to act in hurtful ways if told to do so by an authority figure. While the ethical implications of the research continue to be debated decades after it was conducted (more on ethics below), the knowledge gained from Milgram's studies is a gift we can use to be aware of and resist such pressures ourselves. Second, cognitive psychologists such as Elizabeth Loftus have demonstrated that our memories are not flawless and can become distorted based upon time or later events (e.g., Loftus, 1992). Understanding this, we can be more modest about whether we recall a past event accurately and can engage in strategies to reduce our reliance on our own memory, such as note taking. Finally, social psychology teaches us that we tend to see a person's behavior as a function of her personality, while at the same time ignoring the influence of the situation on her behavior; in other words, we tend to commit the fundamental attribution error (e.g., Ross, 1977). Armed with this information, we may be more careful before jumping to a conclusion about why a person just did or said something. Learning psychology's great lessons helps make us better teachers, counselors, managers, and parents.
Tolerant
Our understanding of human nature not only helps us know ourselves and our limitations better, it also can foster a sense of tolerance toward others. We now know that our genes and our environment interact to produce differences in the beliefs, values, and norms of groups and cultures. The diversity of cultural norms which exist today emerged at least in part because they helped a group of people deal successfully with their specific environment. Although any two cultures are likely to have striking differences, it is hard to see how one is objectively "better" or "worse" than any other.
Tolerance includes a respect for the beliefs and values of others even when they conflict with our own. We are defined by our personal beliefs, so it is not surprising that we are very protective of those beliefs. Not too long ago, I received a copy of National Geographic in the mail with the words "Was Darwin Wrong?" in large print on the front cover (for the article, see Quammen, 2004). On seeing this cover for the first time, my heart skipped a beat–an undeniable, honest-to-goodness physiological reaction. Why? Because, as someone who personally believes in the validity of evolutionary theory, the possibility that it was fundamentally incorrect (according to a source I tend to trust) conflicted with a strong personal belief. To me, this was a powerful lesson in how delicately and respectfully we must handle the cherished beliefs and values of others, even when we might disagree with them or even hope to change them.
Ethical
Whether we are engaged in research, teaching, consulting, or applied practice, we need to be ever mindful of the potential effects of our actions. We understand that each of these activities involves a relationship with one or more people who seek our expertise or professional guidance. In these relationships, we are often in a position of influence, one which presents its own set of challenges. To help us navigate these challenges, the American Psychological Association (APA) publishes a set of guidelines for conduct in all aspects of psychological research and practice (APA, 2002). However, behaving ethically goes beyond following a set of prescribed rules. We must remember to ask ourselves continuously the following question: "Is there some way–subtle or obvious–that we could be causing preventable harm or discomfort to the person or group we are serving?"
Generous
Finally, psychologists are generous with their knowledge. In his 1969 presidential address to the American Psychological Association meeting, George Miller told the audience of psychologists that we should strive to give psychology away, in other words, to "apply our science to the personal and social problems of the general public" (Miller, 1969, p. 1072). Happily, we have made a real difference in our world. Philip Zimbardo (2004) has recently compiled just a few of the ways in which psychology has positively affected the well-being of those around us. For example, giving a child a "time out" for disruptive behavior, we have discovered from research on behavior modification, is a valuable technique used today by half of American parents and teachers. Individuals who suffer from psychological problems can expect much more humane and effective treatment than just several decades ago, and there is less social stigma associated with mental disorders now than ever before in human history. Medical professionals now recognize the role of psychological stress on health and incorporate this awareness into their treatments. Some dentist offices, for example, allow people to bring their favorite music to be played during examination or surgery. Organizations can implement goal-setting and teamwork programs that have been shown by industrial-organizational psychologists to improve employee productivity and morale. Psychologists have a history, then, of making a positive difference in the welfare of our society's members.
This does not mean that everything we do must have an immediate impact upon our world. Many of the differences noted above would have been difficult, if not impossible, without the groundwork laid by important basic research, for instance. However, we can all benefit from occasionally considering how our expertise and training might be used to improve our world.
Conclusion
I have tried to describe some of the characteristics that define us as psychologists. Certainly, this is an incomplete description; there are other traits that many professionals in our field share, such as being analytically minded or having a thirst for knowledge. Your own list, or that of one of your fellow students or psychology professors, might very well differ somewhat from this one. Indeed, I think that we could all gain insight from discussions with our peers about what makes a psychologist a psychologist. While our opinions, special talents, and job duties may differ, we have much in common beyond a shared set of knowledge. Beginning in college and continuing with our graduate studies, we learn not only theories and empirical findings, but also what our field values: critical thinking, ethical behavior, respect for others, and so on. These characteristics help us excel in the work we do as psychologists—work we all can and should be proud of.
References
American Psychological Association (2002). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. American Psychologist, 57, 1060-1073.
James Randi Educational Foundation. (2005). One million dollar paranormal challenge. Retrieved January 22nd, 2006, from http://www.randi.org/research/index.html
Loftus, E. F. (1992). When a lie becomes memory's truth: Memory distortion after exposure to misinformation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 1, 121-123.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.
Miller, G. (1969). Psychology as a means of promoting human welfare. American Psychologist, 24, 1063-1075.
Quammen, D. (2004). Was Darwin wrong? National Geographic, 206(5), 2-17.
Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 173-220). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Sagan, C. (1996). The demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark. New York: Ballantine Books.
Zimbardo, P. G. (2004). Does psychology make a significant difference in our lives? American Psychologist, 59, 339-351.
Note: An earlier version of this article was presented at the Fall 2004 induction ceremony of the Marist College Chapter of Psi Chi, Poughkeepsie, NY, December 5, 2004.

Douglas C. Maynard, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz, where he has been teaching courses in industrial/organizational psychology, psychological testing, statistics, and research methodology since 1998. He received his BA in psychology from the University of Connecticut and his MA and PhD in industrial/organizational psychology from Bowling Green State University (OH). He helped to create the Psi Chi chapter at SUNY at New Paltz in 2000, and has been the faculty advisor since that time. His research interests include the risks of employee overqualification and underemployment, early work experiences and attitudes, and the role of expectancies in organizations. His work has been published in various journals, including Career Development International, Human Performance, Journal of Organizational Behavior, and Teaching of Psychology.

Copyright 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 4) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology



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