When I wrote an article for The Atlantic about a year ago arguing for the importance of a Council of Psychological Advisors, I was motivated by frustration that policy makers fail to take advantage of the best that psychology has to offer when it comes to formulating and implementing public policy. There is almost no domain of public policy that does not require the willing participation of citizens for its effectiveness. Students have to want to learn, sick people have to want to adopt healthier lifestyles, employees have to want to save for retirement, and all of us have to want to reduce our environmental footprint. Psychology knows a lot about these topics, and many more. Yet, when policy makers do their work, they tend to ignore the science of human nature and trust either their intuitions or the unfounded assumptions of economists.
Psychology doesn’t know everything about human nature, but it knows more than most of the people whose decisions affect our lives on a daily basis.
Why are our decision makers ignoring that best that psychological science has to offer? One reason, no doubt, is the suspicion that psychology doesn’t really know all that much that goes beyond common sense. Theories come and go, and empirical findings get contradicted by subsequent evidence. This is all true. Human beings are complex, and even our best accounts of human behavior are surely incomplete. But psychology shares this fallibility with medicine and with economics, and yet we take what these sciences have to offer quite seriously, indeed.
What else is responsible? I believe that psychology has been hiding its light under a bushel, unwilling to go public with anything short of certainty. I can understand this reluctance to make what are surely tentative principles widely accessible to non-professional audiences. What if we’re wrong and people are led astray? It is not trivial to be wrong when billions of dollars and the well being of millions of people is at stake. But in my view, it is even worse to withhold ideas that might be wrong and allow people to continue to act on the basis of ideas that are surely wrong. Psychology doesn’t know everything about human nature, but it knows more than most of the people whose decisions affect our lives on a daily basis.
It is our hope that The Psych Report will remove the bushel so that people can see the ways in which psychology can illuminate many of our most serious challenges. The Psych Report will bring the best that psychology has to offer to the public and to the people whose policies affect the public. Perhaps in a few years, it will become evident that it is foolish to try to govern without a Council of Psychological Advisors at ones side.