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Why Is Psychology So Popular?

Eight questions with a science writer about psychology.

Imagine looking up at the sky on a particularly clear night. The stars, thousands of them, are scattered all around you, dotting the vast darkness with glints of light. Imagine if each star had a message, an insight into what it means to be human, and your task was to relay these messages to your fellow Earthlings.

What if these messages were findings from psychological research, and you—with your telescope, pen, and paper—were a science writer? A part of your job would be to build bridges—to make the starlight legible for everyone else. In other words, to understand the research well enough to turn the raw data and hypotheses into something meaningful for your audience. Bridge-builders are also story-tellers. Luckily for our story-loving species, explorations into workings of our minds make for great stories.

One of these starlight-translators, bridge-builders, and story-tellers is Dr. Christian Jarrett. As a chartered psychologist with a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience, Jarrett could have found himself at the front lines of conducting the experiments that he now regularly writes about. But as a science writer, he gets to put the findings of his fellow scientists into perspective and confront the big questions that got him interested in psychology in the first place. Just like the night sky with its endless stars, the field of psychology boasts an abundance of research. How does he know which light to follow, I ask him, on which new discovery to direct his telescope? He relies on his instinct, he tells me. By following his curiosity from one study to another, he takes his readers on a quest, as they stumble on their own discoveries along the way.

Here is Jarrett, in his own words, offering a glimpse into both his worlds: psychology and writing about psychology.

1. What are some of the biggest insights you have gained as a translator of psychological research for wider audiences?

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We are all psychologists in a sense. We have years of personal experience observing and interacting with each other and many people have their own strongly held views about how to live, get on, and get ahead. If some new study comes along, or even a whole body of research, that challenges a way of seeing things that someone has built up over many years, I’ve learned it will meet a lot of resistance. You can’t just dismiss this folk psychology. Rather, it’s important to be respectful of it and learn from it.

Another insight is the constant need for humility. Many of psychology’s most celebrated findings have been called into question over the last decade, either because of failed attempts to replicate those findings; because of reinterpretations of old evidence; or sometimes, because of cases of outright fraud. And I’ve learned another kind of humility to do with how hard it can be to apply the practical insights from psychology to my own life. We have all these fancy theories and clever mental tips and tricks, but sometimes they can seem frivolous, even in the face of mundane challenges, never mind more serious ordeals. For instance, I remember an occasion a few years ago when my wife, our twins and I were struck with a sickness bug, there was no one to walk the dog and no milk left in the fridge—at the time I remember thinking how powerless and irrelevant psychology seemed, that it was just a case of getting through a wretched few days.

That said, psychology can be beneficial and if I had to pick one pearl of wisdom I’ve encountered through so many years of reading and writing about psychology, it would be a line from Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking Fast And Slow about how nothing matters as much as you think it does while you’re thinking about it. When I’m fretting about something, I remind myself of this idea, known as the “focusing illusion.”

2. Why is psychology so popular among audiences across the world?

It’s part of being human to strive for self-understanding and self-improvement. Religion and philosophy used to provide the answers, but today many of us look more to science. Psychology is the science of mind and behaviour and a lot of what psychologists study is directly relevant to people’s lives.

3. Can reading about psychological findings help people improve their lives?

I believe psychology findings can certainly help people improve their lives in many ways, whether it’s overcoming fears, understanding their relationships, or even finding new meaning in life. To take one practical example, a lot of us when we’re studying are inclined to be quite passive, so we’ll simply keep re-reading our textbooks or notes. Yet, time and again psychology studies have shown that learning is more effective when it includes more active components, like self-testing and explaining what you’ve learned to others.

4. What trending topics are capturing the audiences’ attention these days?

Based on what I’ve noticed in my work, here are five that are grabbing a lot of attention:

  1. There’s a huge buzz around psychedelics at the moment, in terms of their therapeutic potential, but also what they might help us learn about consciousness;
  2. Understanding the roots, appeal and dangers of the “dark triad” traits (psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism) has been a hot topic for a while and shows no signs of abating;
  3. The question of whether our digital devices are scrambling our brains or not;
  4. Cross-cultural differences in attitudes to emotion and emotional experience, and overcoming the white, western bias in psychology research as a whole;
  5. Research around sex differences and gender identity.

5. What are three of the most popular myths in psychology?

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I wrote a book on brain myths, so this is one of my special interests! One of the most popular myths must be the “learning styles” myth (the idea that we learn better when taught via our preferred modality, such as auditory or visual); the left-brain, right-brain myth (the idea that some of us are creative right-brainers, while others are analytical left-brainers); and finally, the old favourite, the 10 percent brain myth (the idea that we only use a tiny proportion of our brainpower). To label these ideas simplistically as “myths” is to ignore a lot of nuance, however. Many myths have a kernel of truth to them and it’s worth remembering that many taken-for-granted facts of yesteryear have become myths, and in some cases, myths have turned out to be facts.

6. Your upcoming book is about personality. What is one of the most surprising insights about personality that you have gained from your research?

There’s growing recognition in the field that while personality traits are relatively stable (and meaningfully so, in the sense that they predict all manner of outcomes in life, from health to career success), they are not fixed. Moreover, as I explore in my forthcoming book, we can choose to change our own traits. It’s not easy by any stretch, but it is possible.

7. What writing advice would you have for non-fiction writers?

Above all, try to empathise with your readers—take their perspective and try to engage and inform them without being patronising or overly didactic.

8. In what ways has being a science writer changed you?

On the positive side, I like to think it’s made me more open-minded. I’ve seen theories come and go and enjoyed following countless intellectual debates. These days I can’t imagine being dead certain about anything. On the negative side, I confess it’s probably made me more neurotic. Just as I can imagine a doctor who spends her life diagnosing and treating physical ailments becomes more acutely aware of her own aches and pains, I am more aware of the foibles and frailty of the human mind, including my own.

Many thanks to Dr. Christian Jarrett for his time and insights. Jarrett is a Senior Editor at Aeon and Psyche. Previously, he was the founding editor of the British Psychological Society’s acclaimed Research Digest blog and an award-winning journalist for The Psychologist magazine. His writing about the human mind and behaviour has appeared in countless publications worldwide, including in his neuroscience column for New York Magazine, his personality column for BBC Future, and his anxiety advice column for VICE Tonic, as well as in the Brain Watch blog for WIRED, and the Brain Myths blog for Psychology Today. Jarrett’s critically acclaimed books including Great Myths of the Brain, The Rough Guide to Psychology and 30-Second Psychology have been translated into 10 languages.

Note: This interview was conducted in January 2020, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.