Science to SPARQ Change: Stanford’s New Psychology Solutions Center

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

Stanford University’s Social Psychological Answers to Real-world Questions, or SPARQ, is setting out to do what most budding social scientists hope to do: change the world.

Through working directly with the public – policy makers, educators, non-profit leaders – SPARQ’s mission, as its rather lengthy but straightforward name suggests, is to develop and help implement smart solutions to practical problems. Or, as SPARQ Faculty Affiliate Geoffrey Cohen is often heard saying, it’s about “getting more social science into the real world, while getting more real world into the social sciences.”

Officially launched in February 2014, SPARQ was conceived some two years ago by the highly respected social psychologist Nalini Ambady, a leading expert in nonverbal behavior and interpersonal perception. It’s one of a number of progressive psychology institutes popping up around the country, such as Craig Fox’s Behavioral Science & Policy, whose purpose is getting their research into the hands of the people who need it.

It’s a trend illustrating that social scientists, especially its new generation of researchers, are not content with just contributing to the science’s already vast wealth of knowledge in the form of scholarly articles. They want to apply those new ideas, something academia hasn’t proven historically well-equipped at doing.

When you look in the world, you see lots of opportunities for more social psychology.

Executive Director Alana Conner, who’s worked both in academia and in the media as a writer and editor, says she sees the social sciences as struggling with a “last mile problem.” Researchers are good at developing new theories, designing sophisticated experiments, and publishing their findings in journals. But they haven’t been so successful at turning those ideas into action.

“Let’s just say when you look in the world, you see lots of opportunities for more social psychology,” Conner said.

“There’s a real call to implement changes, to apply theory, and, something that I find heartening, to create theories that are relevant to real world issues,” Conner said. “We’ve reached a point in history where the problems that are engulfing our planet and our species don’t really care about the divide between academia and the real world. All of us have to get our solutions out into the public and implemented.”

One way they’ll do this is through partnering with organizations to help them evaluate their operations to improve their policies. As Conner eloquently laid out in her 2006 article, “Drowning in Data,” non-profits and government agencies collect a lot of data and yet, they rarely have the expertise or resources to adequately analyze that data. SPARQ is currently partnered with one government organization to help them comb through their data.

Another one of SPARQ’s focuses will be on “special projects,” which are research-intensive collaborations with organizations where they’ll help develop and implement a solution to one of their problems, and then share their findings with their academic peers. They’ve already launched a number of projects ranging from working on a university program at a California prison to helping Israelis and Palestinians manage their emotions in times of conflict.

One such project emerged under difficult circumstances. SPARQ’s founder Ambady was fighting a long battle with leukemia and needed a bone marrow transplant. Conner says SPARQ’s staff spent a lot of its time trying to find a bone marrow donor for Ambady. They searched for a donor worldwide, but there weren’t many Indian donors out there. The ones they did find decided not to go through the transplant process.  Ultimately, they were unsuccessful, and Ambady lost her battle to cancer in October of last year.

We’ve reached a point in history where the problems that are engulfing our planet and our species don’t really care about the divide between academia and the real world. All of us have to get our solutions out into the public and implemented.

“In that process we found all types of opportunities in the bone marrow donation process for improvement by applying social psychological principles,” Conner said.

What emerged from SPARQ in the wake of Ambady’s passing was a new project aimed at trying to fix the problems SPARQ witnessed while searching for a bone marrow donor. Called “Be the Donor,” they’re currently working with partner organization Delete Blood Cancer to test solutions that would improve donor recruitment and retention.

One problem they noticed, Conner says, is donors were frequently discouraged from donating by the very donor organizations that are supposed to recruit them.

“They were told often “You don’t have to do this.’ ‘You really don’t have to do this,’” Conner said. “Out of the fear that you don’t want to coerce people into being donors.”

From a social psychological perspective, rather than ensuring people were confident and autonomous in making the decision to donate, donor organizations were implicitly telling potential donors that they should opt-out.

To help them navigate the legal and ethical waters of bone marrow donations, SPARQ enlisted the help of Stanford Law School’s Law and Policy Lab, who were able to provide a clear explanation of donor organizations often difficult to understand legal and ethical obligations.

With a firm understanding of the legal and ethical landscape, Conner says SPARQ is focusing its attention on one of the most critical stages in the donor process: registering. They’re now working on testing possible interventions at the registration stage to improve people’s commitment to being a donor when they register.

In addition, they’re looking at tackling another big issue faced by donor organizations: recruiting an ethnically diverse pool of potential donors. Currently there are a much higher number of registered Caucasian donors than people of color. Conner says for a number of cultural and historical reasons, people of color are less likely to register. They want to figure out how they can get them to register too.

These kinds of studies are rigorous and expensive, but solutions are often easy and inexpensive to implement. To help the public – policy makers, nonprofit leaders, teachers, and decision makers – harness the insights of social psychology to make better choices, they’ve also created a “Solutions Catalogue.”

While still in its early stages, the catalogue hopes to provide the public with a large database of brief, easy-to-read solutions to common problems. As Conner says, social psychologists have innumerable academic databases to find the information they’re looking for. There isn’t one tailored to the public. The catalogue addresses everything from suicide prevention to helping improve GPAs in college to increasing political action be it activism or voting.

For example, parents might wonder how they can get their kids to eat more veggies. Activists might wonder how to motivate the public to act. Hotel managers might wonder how they can help the environment and cut costs. SPARQ suggests parents try reading storybooks about nutrition with their children, activists remind people their actions don’t always align with their beliefs, and hotel managers appeal to our desire to fit in by using more specific and personal language in their appeals to reduce water use.

The idea isn’t for the database to provide off-the-shelf solutions, but rather a good starting point for people to learn about social psychological interventions relevant to their problems. The public is also able to submit their own psychological solutions that are then reviewed by Conner and her team.

While still young, SPARQ has an all-star line up of faculty on their team including Hazel Rose Markus, Carol Dweck, and Philip Zimbardo.

“I’ve been really impressed by the commitment of the social psychologists at Stanford at getting behind this project and putting in all types of sweat equity and donating all manner of time and effort,” Conner said. “People go into the social sciences because they think they’re going to change the world, and I think we’re finally in a position to make a lot of impact.”