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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2015
The Public Eye on Psi Chi
Daniel Corts, PhD, Psi Chi President, Augustana College (IL)
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On September 15 this year, President Obama issued an executive order that, regardless of political leanings, all Psi Chi members in the United States should be able to support. The order, “Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People” (The White House, 2015) is a call to make sound, data-based decisions in matters of public life that involve human cognition and behavior. To most of us, using evidence to guide decisions seems perfectly reasonable. In the general public, however, many decisions are guided by common sense and anecdotal evidence; when the data suggest an alternative would be better, there is a tension between the data and what just feels right. To resolve that tension, we as students of psychology know to critically think about the quality and nature of the evidence while considering our own biases. Those who do not understand the value of science find it all too easy to dismiss the evidence and continue on their normal paths.
Why does this matter so much to the President of the United States? The fact is that a little bit of science can make a huge impact on individuals and society. For example, consider the judicial system where many of the researchers I most admire are making an impact. Dr. Elizabeth Loftus (University of Washington) and her colleagues have studied the source and nature of false memories in her laboratory. Dr. Gary Wells (Iowa State University) and his associates have identified multiple weaknesses in the traditional methods of interviewing eyewitnesses and conducting lineups. Dr. Saul Kassin’s (Williams College, MA) research has revealed some remarkable reasons why people might confess to crimes they did not commit. Each of these research areas challenge common-sense beliefs that are difficult to dislodge: That if a witness remembers something very clearly, it must be true; that if a person comes face to face with her assailant, she would never pick the wrong suspect out of a lineup; that if an individual signs a confession, then clearly he is guilty. We know that these beliefs are deeply engrained because these psychologists have at times met strong resistance when trying to put their findings into practice. These beliefs are of critical importance because, when law enforcement, judges, and juries accept those assumptions, they are more likely to send an innocent person to prison (Innocence Project, 2015).
The justice system provides a compelling context to argue about the merits of behavioral science research in the public sphere. The truth is, psychology and other sciences can effect meaningful changes in far more mundane areas. President Obama himself cited management techniques that have led employees to better prepare for retirement, and have produced application procedures that have increased students’ access to federal financial aid. Those are the types of changes that are most clearly reflected in the order. Regardless, as a psychologist, I am excited to see evidence-based interventions in place and producing positive results. But more than that, the psychologist in me puzzles over why those two interventions have been successful, while many other attempts to bring psychological science to public life have fallen short. When science and common sense conflict, people all too easily resolve the tension by ignoring science or explaining it away rather than by changing their behavior.
As another example, the science is clear that driving and talking on the phone make a risky combination, and psychologists such as Dr. David Strayer (University of Utah) have produced enough evidence to get cell phone restriction laws on the books in most states. Chalk one up for science! Unfortunately, many of those laws only address handheld use while hands-free phones are perfectly legal. The evidence shows that mobile phones disrupt driving by occupying the mind, not the hands; switching from handheld to hands-free does not address that problem in the least, nor does it make driving while talking any safer. I have seen the evidence and critically evaluated it. It’s good evidence, but it seriously conflicts with my common sense notions of driver safety. I know that even a hands-free phone call increases my risk of an accident, and yet I can’t help but think how convenient it would be if I could just call home—only for 30 seconds! If psychologists have a hard time convincing themselves, then it is going to be a real challenge to convince the less scientifically literate segments of the population.
Personally, I think the executive order is a good thing, and I hope federal agencies get the message. However, I believe a more realistic expectation would be that some programs will respond to the order while others will continue to rely on assumptions and common sense. That leaves it up to us as psychologists and psychology students—especially as members of an honor society—to advocate for data-based decision making. We need more than just laboratory data; we need to produce compelling real-world evidence, seek out innovative ways to put interventions in place, and develop the communications to get the message across. In some cases, especially when it comes to cell phones, we may have to start by convincing ourselves.
References
The Innocence Project. (2015) The causes of wrongful conviction. Retrieved from http://www.innocenceproject.org/causes-wrongful-conviction
The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. (2015). Executive order—Using behavioral science insights to better serve the American people [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/09/15/executive-order-using-behavioral-science-insights-better-serve-american *
* My own behavioral science suggests that a quick Google® search is more efficient than typing this URL.

Daniel Corts, PhD, discovered psychology at Belmont University where he earned a BS, and then completed a PhD in cognition at the University of Tennessee. After a post doc at Furman University, he went to Augustana College. He has been involved with Psi Chi for over 10 years serving on the Midwestern Steering Committee and Grants and Awards Committee, as a consulting editor for the Journal, and completing one term as Midwestern Vice-President.

Copyright 2015 (Volume 20, Issue 1) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


 
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Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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