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Enhancing the Relevance of Personality and Social Psychology

Mark Leary headshot
Mark Leary, SPSP President
The past few years have been particularly challenging ones for SPSP and for personality and social psychology more generally.  The field weathered some highly troubling cases of scientific misconduct, which damaged our public image and prompted intense self-scrutiny.  At the same time, SPSP experienced an embezzlement scandal, which consumed a great deal of time and resources and catalyzed a major reorganization of how the society is managed.  Concerns about the reproducibility of our results led to calls for sweeping changes in how we conduct our research, analyze our data, and report our findings.  More broadly, funding for research has been declining, academic jobs have not yet recovered from the recession, and I’ve heard a number of individuals, ranging from graduate students to distinguished senior members of the field, express disillusionment with the entire enterprise. 
But amidst the turmoil, change, and consternation, we should not lose sight of that fact that the field has nonetheless continued to progress, prosper, and grow.  Exciting new theories and research still emerged, articles were published, degrees were awarded, and tens of thousands of students were introduced to social and personality psychology for the first time.  And, most importantly from the standpoint of SPSP, a central office was created with a professional staff dedicated to managing the affairs of the organization and promoting personality and social psychology on all fronts.  We have emerged from the challenges of the past few years a stronger field and organization than before facing these trials and tribulations. Perhaps post-traumatic growth can occur for organizations as it does for people.
My immediate predecessors—Trish Devine, David Funder, and Jamie Pennebaker—devoted much of their energies as President to these various challenges and creating the new organizational structure that will lead SPSP into the future.  They put a tremendous amount of time, effort, and angst into working on our behalf, and they deserve our deepest thanks.  Selfishly, I am particularly grateful.  Because of them, other members of the Executive Committee, and the new SPSP staff, I start my term as President with the luxury of being able to look forward rather than solving crises.  So, I’ve given a good deal of thought to what personality and social psychology might need right now as we move ahead.   
We talk a good deal about needing more jobs, more funding, more reproducible results, more research transparency, and more diversity, all of which are important goals.  But, another broad and pervasive concern – one with implications for these other goals as well as for our viability as a discipline – involves the relevance of social and personality psychology as a field.  Most of us went into psychology because we thought that the topics were interesting, and we perceived that the processes that we study are pertinent to almost everything in human life.  I suspect that virtually every member of SPSP believes that social and personality psychology are central to understanding a wide array important phenomena and to finding solutions to the problems that exist in many domains of human life.  Indeed, our journals, books, and courses focus on topics such as prejudice, violence, environmental behavior, psychological well-being, relationships, education, health, crime, terrorism, business, conflict, and so on.  Yet, many of us sense that outsiders do not generally view our field as directly relevant to discussions of these topics, and the question is “why not?”  Why don’t politicians, educators, government functionaries, business leaders, managers, other social scientists, mental health professionals, social engineers, and lay people see our work as centrally relevant to what they do?  Why isn’t social and personality psychology invoked whenever human behavior is discussed in any context? 
I’m certain that scientists in most fields feel a bit underappreciated, but our discipline is so obviously relevant to important domains of human life that we should think carefully about why we are not as visible and impactful as we should be.  Is it because the specific topics we choose to study are often not conceptually or empirically connected to real-world phenomena in ways that make their relevance obvious to other people? Or, is it because of how we tend to conduct our research, which necessarily strips processes to their bare bones, leading people outside the field to miss its relevance to “real life.”
Have we tended to assume that people will automatically recognize the relevance of what we do and, thus, not made an extra effort to help them see why it is important?  Perhaps we simply haven’t done a good enough job of getting our findings into the hands of other scientists, decision-makers, and the public.  (Here’s where our role as college and university teachers is essential to disseminating our knowledge to the next generation.)  Or when we do give social and personality psychology away, perhaps we don’t package our knowledge in ways that resonate with people outside the field.  In our efforts to be precise and scientifically rigorous, do we sometimes take the life out of our findings or go overboard with qualifications?  I suspect that there are many possible sources of the problem, and thus many possible solutions.
The opening presidential symposium at the SPSP meeting in Long Beach will focus on enhancing the relevance of personality and social psychology, but I hope that our discussion of this issue will extend far beyond the convention and prompt each of us to reflect on what we might do to promote the relevance of the field both individually and collectively.  Personally, I have not made enough of an effort to promote the relevance of either my own work or the field in general throughout most of my career.  In retrospect, I wish I had, and so one of my goals as SPSP President is to bring this discussion to the fore.  What can be done, if anything, to make our work have a greater impact outside of our own field?
The solutions might not necessarily be found in major changes in the ways that we do our research, write our papers, teach our students, or talk to the media.  Rather, I think that we will enhance the relevance of social and personality through many, small ongoing tweaks and nudges that enhance what we have to offer and that promote our contributions more clearly and confidently.  I welcome any thoughts that you may have regarding what SPSP as an organization can do along these lines.