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We’ve come a long way since Pavlov

The changing face of psychology

A scene from the classic Milgram experiment

If you've taken an introductory psychology course, no doubt you've learned about the many fascinating experiments conducted by researchers ranging from Pavlov to Milgram. Some studies seem to catch everyone's eye. Sometimes the results seem a bit frivolous, such as a recent report that people are happier when having sex then when working (really???). However, there are many findings that get less notice which have important implications for everyone's life. The field is rapidly reshaping itself around several new areas of investigation.

Psychology sometimes gets a bad rap due to people's memories of classic studies, many of which seemed to have a disturbing twist. Pavlov's dog conditioning experiment involved presenting dogs with food (meat powder, actually) but not feeding them. He even went further in subsequent studies by causing his experimental dogs to become "neurotic." The people in Milgram's experiments were led to believe that they were harming other subjects by giving them electric shock. In another famous experiment, Harlow raised monkeys with wire mother surrogates or in total isolation. John Watson, the legendary behaviorist psychologist, caused a baby to become frightened of small white furry objects. After learning about such studies, some students dismiss the entire field, believing that these studies were worthless exercises that only proved how twisted psychologists can be.

The discipline now has in place firm guidelines for the ethical treatment of human and animal subjects, making it unlikely that these studies would have been carried out today. And although controversial, there were benefits to be gained from each of these studies. We now know that dogs (and people) can become emotionally conditioned to fear harmless stimuli. Obedience to authority is a quality that comes naturally to most people. Monkeys (and babies) need a loving touch during their early weeks and months of life. When it comes to illogical fears, the principle of stimulus generalization that Watson demonstrated has provided the basis for effective therapies of phobias.

If it's been a while since you studied psychology or if you've never had the chance to go beyond these well-known investigations, it might surprise you to learn that we have come a long way since Milgram, Watson, and Pavlov. Psychology is constantly reinventing itself as a discipline. Most recently, researchers are paving the way toward new understandings in such important areas as neuroscience, therapy effectiveness, and the impact of culture on individual behavior.

First, let's take a look first at the area of neuroscience. The development of brain scanning techniques has the potential to revolutionize our knowledge of how the brain works. We still can't tie the responses of individual neurons to the content of individual thoughts, but neuroscientists are learning that certain areas of the brain are more or less involved in regulation of emotions, perception of faces, the making of moral judgments, and the planning involved in long-term decision making. Some researchers believe they are close to discovering the true nature of "consciousness," which, curiously enough, was a goal of the first American psychologist, William James, over a century ago.

Significant advances are being made in psychological treatment. It may seem from what you read in the press that there are "magic pills" which can treat everything from depression to phobias. However, psychologists are just as, if not more, interested in discovering therapies that "work." Several years ago, a task force of the American Psychological Association developed a report on evidence-based practice identifying guidelines for determining which therapeutic approaches are best for which clients. Extensive studies involving well controlled conditions are making it possible to peg particular therapeutic models to particular patterns of symptoms. Many contemporary approaches involve a combination of treatments--behavioral, interpersonal, and cognitive.

Social psychology is moving rapidly to expand its understanding of the cultural factors that influence our behavior. Although at one point psychology was definitely the science of the white male undergraduate, new fields of investigation are expanding rapidly to provide a greater understanding of diversity issues. The rapidly changing nature of American society in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, and age is prompting social psychologists to question whether the principles established in past research on male college student populations are still valid. If the shoe isn't fitting, these psychologists are developing new and more encompassing models of human behavior.

There are many ways that you can keep on top of new developments in the field. Following psychology websites (including Psychology Today) is a great start. The chances are that on any given day, you will find a report of a study that catches your interest. It's important, though, to be able to look critically at the studies that you do read about. Critics of the news media complain, often rightly, that there is sometimes too much hype about studies that are flawed. The best research is published in peer-reviewed journals, meaning that the methods used in the studies were subject to scrutiny by the best minds in the business. If you stick to solid sources, the chances are that the conclusions you read about are solid.

One of the features that makes psychology so intriguing is that it is the science about "us." This very feature, though, can be its downfall. It's easy to slip into the mindset that psychology is nothing more than common sense. Almost anyone can understand an article dealing with the human emotion of happiness, for instance. Less common-sensical are findings that mothers can unconsciously pass along racist attitudes toward their children.

Staying on top of the rapidly expanding and changing field of psychology can, however, greatly benefit your life, especially if you know what to look for. Here are some guidelines:

1. Subscribe to RSS feeds that contain psychology news. It's easy to follow late-breaking developments not only through Psychology Today but through Science Daily, the American Psychological Association, and the Science section of the New York Times. Some psychologists on Twitter (including me) have lists that you can follow which we've sifted through to ensure quality control.
2. Check your sources. Information based on published articles usually trumps information based on conference presentations or news media interviews. Make sure that an article was really subjected to peer review. You can easily find this out by following links from stories published online to see if they lead to bona fide scientific journals.
3. Read with a critical eye. The tried and true scientific method encourages us to look for alternative explanations. Many studies fall victim to equating correlation with causation. Avoid that trap by looking for other interpretations of findings than those offered by the author of the story.
4. Evaluate credentials of therapists. In some states, only licensed psychologists can call themselves "psychologists." To get around this legal requirement, non-licensed individuals call themselves "psychotherapists" or "therapists." A Ph.D. or Master's degree isn't a guarantee; you have to look carefully at someone's actual credentials.
5. Be wary of generalizations. Although psychologists are realizing that they must study people other than college students, they often resort to these populations for convenience. In one recent report, it was concluded that "men judge women on the basis of their faces rather than their bodies." The men in this study were 18-year-old college students-perhaps not truly representative of "men."

You'll find many worthwhile findings out there in the literature and as long as you know how to filter and interpret the information, you'll be able to benefit from the important advances taking place every day in our knowledge of "us."

You may also find it interesting to participate in current psychological research yourself. For example, this link will take you to a 20 minute online study by researchers at the University of Virginia. It is funded by the National Institute on Aging and investigates how thoughts and emotions can influence one another, especially when the thoughts are unpleasant.

If you want to look for other online volunteer research opportunities, this link will take you to the Social Psychology Network site where you'll find hundreds of studies by university researchers from across the U.S. and around the world.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010


Henrich, J. Heine, S.J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? (free access). Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2-3), 61-83. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X0999152X