Explanation, prediction, replication, application

This is a comment on applied psychology. It is a comment inspired on the one hand by a few very optimistic statements about the good that psychology is doing in the world, that appeared recently in Perspectives on Psychological Science, and on the other hand by a decidedly more pessimistic view to be published soon in the same journal, as well as by a problem in what you could call the ‘conceptual replication’ position in the current crisis debate in psychology.

In July, Perspectives published a ‘Special Symposium on the Future Direction of Psychological Science’, and naturally most of the papers began by reflecting on the current state of the discipline. What struck me was that quite a few of the authors were very positive, almost glowing about psychology’s contributions to society. Susan Fiske wrote that”(a)s a field, we are everywhere in policy advice” (2017, p. 652) producing reports on topics ranging from safe sunbathing to national security and counterfeiting. Likewise, Carol Dweck rejoiced that psychology’s passion for addressing social issues “has earned our field a seat at decision-making tables around the world, advising world leaders, economic councils, and ministries of health and education.” (Dweck, 2017, p. 657) Diane Halpern (2017) and Ethan Kross (2017) presented similar optimistic assessments of psychology’s social impact.

Sitting at the decision-making table is one thing, but how did those psychologically improved decisions work out? There is little to nothing in these four papers about the effects of psychological interventions. There is a lot of ‘working towards …’, ‘beginning to …’, and similar hedging of the difference that psychology makes in practice, but no concrete success stories. It is good to know that government is becoming more evidence-based, but one would also like to see the evidence for the efficacy of psychological interventions. Especially since there are reasons to be more pessimistic of psychology’s technological prowess as well.

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