A beginner’s guide to giving psychology away

I almost failed high school. Then I discovered psychology in community college. It consumed me. Psychology gave me scientific answers to questions I had my whole life. What makes us human? Why do we hurt each other? How can we grow? I took every psychology courses I could, transferred to UCLA, went on to get a Ph.D. , and now am an assistant professor at the Columbia University Medical Center. 

Discovering psychology was one of the most transformative moments in my life. But I wonder what would have happened to me if I had discovered it sooner? I was a bad student because I didn’t know how to learn. Cognitive psychology would have corrected that. I had selective mutism in which transformed into social anxiety. Learning about clinical psychology might have made it easier to get help. If I understood social psychology I might have done something when I saw my friends get bullied (instead of doing nothing). 

Psychology is hard to access and that’s bad for everyone

 The "Brain Hat" exercise is a great way to introduce psychology to kids.

The "Brain Hat" exercise is a great way to introduce psychology to kids.

Unfortunately, it’s VERY hard to discover psychology. It’s not a part of school curriculum the way other sciences are. Kids don’t make a paper mache brain in elementary school or perform classical conditioning experiments in middle school science. The earliest most students get exposure to psychology is through an optional AP course in high school (if their school has the resources to offer it, mine didn’t). 

This is too late. Many will already have beliefs about psychology by the time they are in high school. These ideas come from pop culture, are rarely accurate, overemphasize our practice, and don’t show how good research is done (which is why I think many don’t see it as a science). Sure, there are a lot of introductory psychology courses in college, but not everyone goes to college and the people who might benefit most from understanding psychology may have already dismissed it as a worthwhile subject.

This is bad for everyone. From everyday problems such as getting enough sleep and working well with others, to national crises such as gun violence and our broken politics, and global challenges like climate change all have important psychological causes. Yet psychology seems absent from these conversations. As a field we often communicate with each other and our students and rarely share our findings with the public. If psychology isn’t understood by the public, if our science is dismissed by our political leadership, if we aren't part of the conversation, then what good are we really doing? 

As Nicholas Kristof said in the New York Times

"Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates." 

Giving psychology away

Sharing psychology with the public is not a new idea. In his 1969 presidential address to the American Psychological Association, George Miller spoke of “giving psychology away”

“…psychology must be practiced by nonpsychologists…the secrets of our trade need not be reserved for highly trained specialists. Psychological facts should be passed out freely to all who need and can use them…There simply are not enough psychologists, even including nonprofessionals, to meet every need for psychological services. The people at large will have to be their own psychologists, and make their own applications of the principles that we establish. Our responsibility is less to assume the role of experts and try to apply psychology ourselves than to give it away to the people who really need it."

Philip Zimbardo reiterated this message in 2004’s “Does Psychology Make a Significant Difference in Our Lives?”. Alan Kazdin and Stacey Blase expanded on this by discussing what it means to give away our knowledge of mental health in 2011’s “Rebooting Psychotherapy Research and Practice to Reduce the Burden of Mental Illness”. In 2015 Philip Banyard & Julie Hulme wrote about communicating psychology in the era of new media with “Giving psychology away: How George Miller’s vision is being realized by psychological literacy”. The Society for the Teaching of Psychology, under the leadership of Janie Wilson, created a task force on this topic in 2016. In 2017, Danny Wedding wrote a comprehensive review of all major efforts to educate the public about psychology. 

To summarize what’s been written in the articles above, when we effectively communicate psychology to the public we can: 

  • Help the public use psychological knowledge to solve problems in their lives (psychological literacy) ; 
  • Improve the public’s perception of psychology as a core science;
  • Incorporate psychology into discussions relating to current events; 
  • Correct misinformation about psychology;
  • Increase the diversity of voices on psychology otherwise limited by publication bias;
  • Fulfill our obligation to taxpayers who are funding our research;
  • Improves our work by learning from conversations with the public.

We aren’t taught how to share psychology with the public

Most psychologists have a hard time talking about psychology with people who don’t have a background in psychology. Elizabeth Gershoff has a great explanation for why this is: 

We trust data above all else…We consider alternative explanations for our results, discuss the limitations of our data, and make clear that, outside of an experiment, we can never really “prove” our theory about human behavior to be true…Journalists want sound bites and relatively simple stories. They are not interested in qualifications such as “only under these conditions” or “only with this population”…In our professional lives, we are rewarded for writing with rampant jargon, making our published articles virtually unintelligible to anyone who does not have the secret decoding ability bestowed by several years in a doctoral program. We are not trained to distill findings down to their essence in a way that is digestible to nonresearchers but still true to the research. 

Katherine Wu also explores this problem well at Scientific American. 

We learn a lot about how to qualify psychology’s findings and the best way to share that information with colleagues, but we don’t learn the best way to share that information with the public. This makes sense as these skills aren’t explicitly mentioned in the American Psychological Association’s Standards of Accreditation for Health Service Psychology or the Psychological Clinical Science Accreditation System. The former emphasizes professional communication skills while the latter focuses on scientific communication. This is also understandable as many psychologists have jobs that depend on professional and scholarly writing, not public engagement. Maybe that will change in the future.

While I don’t have empirical data to cite, I can tell you that my efforts to communicate psychology with broad audiences have enhanced my performance as a psychologist, opened up new professional opportunities (some that are revenue generating), and sustained me through difficult times at work.  

11 steps to effectively communicate psychology

I’ve spent the last decade learning how to give psychology away. This journey has taken me from traditional TV and radio appearances to stand up comedy performances and comic-con panel presentations. Now I want to give away what I’ve learned and share resources that can help you start your own journey to share psychology with the world. Read on or watch my summary below.

1. Stick to what you know 

When I get an opportunity to speak on an issue, the first thing I consider is whether I have the knowledge and experience to do the topic justice. It’s not a personal preference, rather an ethical imperative. Section Section 5.04 of the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct

“When psychologists provide public advice or comment via print, Internet, or other electronic transmission, they take precautions to ensure that statements (1) are based on their professional knowledge, training, or experience in accord with appropriate psychological literature and practice, (2) are otherwise consistent with this Ethics Code; and (3) do not indicate that a professional relationship has been establish with the recipient.”

I also consider if there is enough research on the topic for me to begin crafting my message. If there isn’t, I’ll either point that out (as I do here) or avoid the topic altogether. 

And while there’s been some debate on this recently, I avoid making statements about a public figure’s diagnosis. If I haven’t completed an evaluation with someone, I can’t diagnose them.

2. Know your audience

Start by asking yourself: Who is my audience, why are they here, and what do they value?

If you can’t answer these questions, you run the risk of communicating in a way that no one will care about. Worst case scenario, you might say something that offends your audience. 

But when you use examples that make sense to the audience, when you emphasize the things they deeply value, you open them up to hearing you out. Highlighting shared values, things that you and the audience both care about above all else, is the key to winning people over to your point of view. Value based arguments cut through political divides. 

Check out this New York Times article for more on that.  

Talk to someone who knows your audience. Study their analytics. Research what people with your audience’s background are talking about. Then build a message that resonates with your audience’s perspective. 

3. Lead with awesome

Derek Muller from Veritasium taught me that you have seconds to grab someone’s attention so you better start with something awesome

People take seconds to decide whether or not to pay attention to you. Look at this YouTube retention data for my video on exposure therapy - a lot of viewers left within the first 10 seconds. I lost about 40% of views 45 seconds into the video. 

YouTube-Retention-Data.png

Same is true of a blog post - we scan the entire article and then decide if it’s worth our time to read. Offline, if someone gets bored they’re going to ignore you by staring at their phone.

Instead of a slow build up, begin with a powerful question, your most interesting idea, or a striking image. 

4. Tell a story

Before videos, powerpoints, and blogs, humans shared stories. They are our oldest, most primitive, and effective ways of communicating information. Stories take complex information and make it easy to understand. 

If you’re thinking “I’m not a good storyteller”, that’s a lie! You’re a great storyteller, you do it all the time with your friends and family. You just forget to do it or try too hard when you’re talking professionally. 

Start your message with a personal story related to your overall message and tie back to it at the end. People will remember more of your talk if you organize it around a theme from a story. If you can’t think of a story to tell, use these prompts: 

  • A moment I will always remember is the time that…
  • If my life were a movie, one unforgettable scene would be…
  • Something someone said to me that I will never forget is…

The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science has a lot of resources on this topic, like this conversation with Ben Lillie.

Want some story inspiration? Go see a live Moth event, listen to The Story Collider podcast, and read The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking

5. Make it emotional

We like to think that we’re logical beings who work like scientists looking for truth. Or a judge that evaluates all arguments and picks what has the most evidence. But the main job of our thoughts is to defend what we’re feeling. We don’t have an internal scientist or judge, we have a lawyer who creates arguments that protect an emotional client. If your message isn’t making someone feel something, it isn’t going to do much to change their thinking either. 

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes it like this:

“A dog’s tail wags to communicate. You can’t make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail. And you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments.”

Emotions activate people, get them thinking, and make content viral. Most trending videos on YouTube are funny, surprising, make you angry, cry, or are super cute. They make you FEEL something.

If you can find a way to get your audience to feel what you’re saying, then you have a chance at getting them to think about it too. 

6. Bridge new information with old information

It’s nearly impossible to remember what it was like to not know something. Think about it - do you remember what the world was like before you could read? Before you knew what the moon was? Or how to use a smartphone? 

If you’re creating a message about a psychological topic, you probably know a lot about it, studied it, and have a unique perspective on it. You’ve formed really advanced, complicated memories (more specifically schemas) in your head. But I might not know anything about this topic. You have to help me learn this information by bridging it with something I already know. I’ll let Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explain

"I have retained enough running awareness of pop culture that it is the pop culture scaffold on which I clad the science that we unravel…You don’t have to teach them pop culture. They already know who Beyonce is, what football is, who the Kardashians are. If they come in with that, and we analyze that scaffold, here’s science that can fit this and that section, you walk away with an enhanced understanding of the pop culture you already care about and realize that science is infused everywhere. You’ll recognize that science is a fundamental part of what it is to be alive in modern civilization…If knowledge connects with other things you care about more, then it’s better than knowledge, it’s enlightenment."

For example - when I’m teaching someone about cognitive dissonance, I tell them their mind fights off dangerous ideas the same way the immune system fights viruses. That’s a lot more effective than talking about how the mind strives for consistency between beliefs and actions.  

Selena Gomez does this well when she explains the financial crisis in The Big Short

7. Use everyday language

Stop using big words. I know you think they make you sound smarter but they don’t. 

Psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer studied this and discovered that simple writing sounds smarter than complicated writing. Like Mark Twain said, “Don't use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”

High school and college students often use more complicated language than they need to. But the biggest offenders are scientists and professionals (i.e. you and me). They often rely on complicated jargon. Jargon is great when you’re communicating with your colleagues but it alienates audiences who are outside of your profession. To paraphrase Einstein, if you can’t explain it without jargon, you don’t know it well enough.

I’ve struggled with this a lot in my career. Back in 2012 I wrote an article called “Prometheus and the Fallacy of Origins.” No one read it. Seriously, NO ONE clicked on that article. Why? Only lawyers, philosophers, and speech and debate competitors use the word fallacy. Compare that with this article - “First contact with aliens could bring peace but we might kill our extraterrestrial guests.” Much easier to understand and much better analytics. 

Run your talk, script, or article through a readability tool and check it’s grade level. The most bestselling authors all wrote at elementary or middle school grade levels. The simpler you write, the larger your audience will be. 

8. Only use text when you have to

People can read faster than you can talk. If you’re reading from a powerpoint, the audience has already beat you to the end of the slide. 

Instead of text, fill your presentations with emotional images. I like Googling for high quality photos that are labeled for reuse

You should only use text when it adds value to what you’re saying or emphasizes an important point. Stephen Colbert’s The Word is a great example of this - what he’s saying and what is appearing next to him are in a perfect dance. Every word extends on the meaning of everything he has said.  

To learn more about this pickup a copy of Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds.  

9. Engage your audience

Lectures aren’t that effective at teaching students. They good for clarifying information and presenting new information, but what’s much more helpful is active learning, collaborative learning, things that get people to think and do things on their own. 

Give your audience a way to experience your content, your message, your ideas. Stop your talk and ask them to think about a question for 30 seconds, share their response to the person next to them, and then aloud to the group. Start a conversation at the end of your article. Ask your community to help you decide what type of content they want to see next. Help your audience make your content their own. Not only will they learn it better, you’ll learn a lot from your audience.

10. Be real

People often tell me, “What I want to say has already been done” or “I can’t say things the way [INSERT BIG NAME HERE] can.” 

I don’t care what’s already been said, written, or filmed. It’s never been said in your voice, from your perspective, with your story. 

Don’t try to be what you think people want you to be, that person already exists. Be yourself because everything is more interesting when you are honestly being you. If you’re funny, be funny. If you’re serious, make it serious. If you’re REALLY into baseball, TALK ABOUT BASEBALL! This is 100% true with YouTube content - your video doesn’t need to look perfect but it does need to feel like you.

Everything I say in public includes some personal details, whether it’s about starships, living in Brooklyn, or my dad. These are the things that make me unique. It helps audiences connect with me, trust me, and remember what I’m saying. 

11. Build value

People have a REALLY good BS radar. We can easily figure out if someone is trying to promote themselves, their organization, or their profession. If an audience smells BS, they will tune you out. 

Instead of self-promotion, give people something valuable. Give them something useful. A new perspective. A helpful tip. Connection to resources. If you are able to do this consistently, you’ll never have to promote yourself, people will start coming to you because you’ve already given them so much. 

How to give psychology away

There are a lot of ways you can put these steps into action. The Society for the Teaching of Psychology has a comprehensive list you should check out. There’s also a long list of science outreach ideas here. My favorite ways to start include: 

  • Learn how to talk to journalists (here's a great checklist for that).
  • Submit articles to websites, magazines, and newspapers. The Science Writers’ Handbook will guide you through this, step by step. If this seems too daunting, start by submitting a guest blog to an existing psychology website.
  • Get involved in your local community by mentoring at a science fair, volunteering at a school’s career day, sharing your story (Story Collider offers fantastic workshops and will coach accepted pitches), or some of these places.
  • Be active on social media. I’ve got another guide on how to do that

To see everything I've learned about giving psychology away on YouTube, watch this video below.

One of the best things we can do to give psychology away is to teach our students how to do it themselves. As psychology is one of the most popular undergraduate majors, our alumni could become wonderful promoters of psychological literacy in the public. Psychology graduate students will quickly find themselves in situations where they are either being approached for a quote from a journalist or are trying to build their professional identity. Learning how to do this effectively in graduate school will save them a lot of time and headache later in their careers. 

Consider adding the following to your courses: 

  • “Is that true?”: I learned about this from Deborah C. Stearns. The goal is for students to find an unsubstantiated popular media claim about psychology, popular articles supporting this claim, and comments by public figures about this claim. Then, students find scientific articles relevant to this belief and evaluate its accuracy. A paper summarizes whether the student believes this claim is true or false. All together, “Is that true” helps students to understand the gap between the public’s psychological literacy and psychological science. 
  • Journal to Journalism: This comes to me from Jennifer A. McCab. Students are asked to write an article for the public. Papers are graded on the catchiness of their title, the student’s bio (here’s a guide on how to write a bio for the public), how much the introduction captures the attention of the reader, how well the paper summarizes the highlights of the research, if students include a quotation from a lead author of research, translation of the research to real-world issues, and how interesting the conclusion is. Students are also asked to include one graphic, either taken from the research or created by the student (here’s a good place to make infographics). All together, the paper must be close to 800 words. 
  • Tell a story: Inspired by The Moth and Story Collider students are asked to prepare a 5-10 minute short story (without notes or slides) that integrates their personal experience and speaks to psychological research, principal, or theory. Students are rated on their ability to use narrative storytelling and use everyday language (instead of jargon). 
  • Create a brochure: Annette Kujawski Taylor introduced me to the idea of teaching students how to create a brochure. For an IO psychology course, this could be a brochure for a fictional company that highlights the principles of management that would make their company a great place to work for. For clinical psychology, a brochure on a disorder, what causes it, and how to treat it. This assignment has real practical value for graduate students who could go on to use their brochures as they launch their careers. 
  • Science to community project: Maggie Syme has students develop a project that will address a real need in a community, canvas the issue, and share the proposed program with the intended community. 
  • Everyday classroom activities: Ziv Bell has created a list of everyday activities teachers can use to integrate more psychological communication into their classroom activities. 

There’s a lot more I could say about giving psychology away but I want to hear from you - what are your favorite ways to share psychology with the public? Let me know in the comments below. And for more examples, check out this list on Twitter.