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The everyday benefits of a psychology degree

Grandpa's memory may be better than you think
CC/Flickr/George Hatcher
Grandpa’s memory may be better than you think

In honor of the 200th issue of its BPS Research Digest blog, the British Psychological Society recently asked 21 psychologists to write brief essays on a “time in their lives that their psychological knowledge or skills came to their rescue.”

They got back some interesting stories.

For example, American psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, renowned for her work on false memory, writes about how she used her knowledge of prestige-enhancing memory distortion (how we rewrite our memories to feel better about ourselves) to resolve an issue about which of her graduate students should be listed first (a sign of greater contribution) on a published study.

Tom Stafford, a British psychologist and author (“Mind Hacks: Tips and Tricks for Using Your Brain”), describes how he applied his familiarity with studies on bystander apathy to enlist “two lads who looked like they’d be handy in pushing a car” to rescue a young mother whose car had broken down in the middle of a British road.

Another one of the essayists, Essi Viding, a psychology professor at the University College London, discusses how she uses her professional knowledge to successfully resist marketing efforts that “prey on people’s anxieties about providing the best for their children.”

“I have been confidently uncompelled to buy various DVDs and books claiming to enhance my child’s abilities and development,” she writes. “On the other hand, psychology research has furnished me with good evidence that in a ‘good enough’ environment (loosely consisting of ‘love, feed, clothe, be reasonably consistent and provide opportunities’; i.e. common sense backed up by data), my children are likely to thrive according to their individual abilities and characteristics.”

Who says a humanities and social-sciences degree isn’t worth anything?

However, like psychologist and Mindhacks blogger Vaughan Bell (who writes in this collection about living with ambiguity), my favorite among the essays is the story told by Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard. First she describes how our deeply ingrained ageism often leads us to see incompetence in older people that isn’t really there. Then she tells this delightful story about her father:

At age 89 my father’s memory was fragile — he was showing his years. One day we were playing cards and I began to think that I should let him win. I soon realized that, if I saw someone else behaving that way, I’d tell her to stop being so condescending. I might even explain how negative prophecies come to be fulfilled, and I’d go on to explain that much of what we take to be memory loss has other explanations.
For instance, as our values change with age, we often don’t care about certain things to the degree we used to, and we therefore don’t pay much attention to them anymore. The “memory problems” of the elderly are often simply due to the fact that they haven’t noted something that they find rather uninteresting. And then, while I was weighing whether to treat him as a child because part of me still felt that he would enjoy winning, he put his cards down and declared that he had gin.

That’s a lesson from the study of psychology that all of us could put to use from time to time.

You can read the 21 essays (and others added by commenters) at the BPS Research Digest blog.

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