More than 50 years ago, George Miller, president of the American Psychological Association, urged his colleagues “to give psychology away”. No, cynical reader, he was not instructing his followers to abandon the field. Rather he hoped raising the general public’s awareness of psychology would help to solve society’s problems.
In the half-century following Miller’s appeal, psychologists have popularised their ideas with missionary zeal. Books written for the public are published at an accelerating rate, bolstered by countless blogs, podcasts, magazines, TED Talks, and videos.
The popularisation of psychology has been strikingly successful. Writing in 1995, a argued “psychological insight is the creed of our time”.
If anything, that creed has even more true believers today. Writers in the business of dispensing psychological insight, such as Brené Brown, are and have armies of followers.
But other writers like Jesse Singal, whose was published last month, pose serious questions to popular psychology.
So will popular psychology change your life? Or does it rest on junk science and make us self-obsessed and miserable?
What is pop psychology?
Popular psychology can be defined as any attempt to present psychological ideas to a general audience. Like all fields, academic and professional psychology have their own specialist publications and jargon. Popularisation is an effort to make this knowledge accessible, palatable, and usable.
There is no agreed way of classifying pop psychology, but three main genres stand out. First, there are books and media whose primary aim is to inform the public about recent developments in scientific psychology, commonly authored by academics or science journalists.
These works are similar in nature to any other kind of science communication, but with a specific focus on mind, brain and behavior. Classics of the genre include Daniel Kahneman’s (2011), about the two fundamental modes of human cognition; Joseph LeDoux’s (1996), on the neuroscience of emotion; and Dan Ariely’s (2008), about decision biases.