The Real World

June 2009
  The Psychologist, 22 (4), 289.

In our last two columns we have written on global matters: Obama’s election, the world economic meltdown. Perhaps it is time to change focus. Our local village primary school fears that it isn’t safe for children to walk to school. They conducted a survey. It turns out that most people feel the road is unsafe because drivers do not take the necessary care. It also turns out that drivers (mostly locals) regularly break the speed limit – going up to 70mph in a 20mph zone. So what can one do?

Widening the road or putting in speed bumps or altering the layout are not practical. The funds are not there. So the school is stuck: they have a real problem, but no realistic solution. But of course there is a solution – to change driver behaviour. How does one do that? Well, that is the stuff of psychology – not only of driving research but more generally of social psychology, of cognitive psychology, of health psychology. What is more, it is not just a matter of applying what we know. It is also a matter of using such questions as an opportunity to develop, test and refine theory. There is nothing as practical as good theory, said Kurt Lewin.

True, but that cuts both ways. There is nothing as good for theory as the test of practice. The school’s problem is just the sort of thing that a student could address through a project – and imagine how much more enthusiasm and satisfaction students would get with work that has an immediate outcome for the community than with a study done seemingly for its own sake. Equally, the more that we and our students become a resource for the community, the more our universities become seen (and supported) as part of the community and as a resource for the community.

So how could we build something general out of one specific example? One of us was talking to a Dutch colleague about this and she introduced me to the idea of the ‘Science Shop’ which is common to many universities in her country. Community groups and charities approach the university with an issue and the university puts them in touch with academics who might be able to help – some through student projects, others through larger interventions. Through the resulting dialogue, problems get solved, relationships are built, data gets published, and unexpected programmes of research often develop.

Can we do the same here? It could be a science shop in a single university. But it could equally be a psychology shop across universities. It could build on the BPS database of expertise. But instead of simply putting us at the beck and call of journalists, of enterprises and of agencies, it would put us in touch with schools and charities and neighbourhood groups. Of course there are many details to sort out in order to make sure that good work is done, and done well. There are probably many devils in that detail. But what a good way to build a ‘popular psychology’.

What a way to increase public understanding of scientific psychology. And what a good way to build a robust relevant and world-class discipline. So, we may start local, but there is a strange tendency to find ourselves ending up global.