Psychology thrives in adversity. The 20th century's two world wars shone a light on just how valuable this youthful science (psychology) is for forward-thinking, progressive societies. From the need to screen soldiers for vulnerability to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to refining the art of persuasive communication, psychology proved invaluable during, and in the aftermath of, industrialised military conflicts. Without comparing Covid-19 to a war, the current global public health crisis has also drawn renewed attention to psychology's vital role in contemporary society.
My own appreciation of psychology began with a visit to a community library in Liverpool, UK in the 1980s. There was only one psychology book in my local library at that time: The Dilemma of a Muslim Psychologist by Malik Badri. This tiny yellow book had illustrations, which spoke to the teenager in me. It is a brilliant book and it was my introduction to the world of Freud, Jung, Skinner and Watson.
Like many people, I initially thought that psychology was solely about mental illness and therapy. As an undergraduate student, however, I soon learned that the science of "why we do what we do" was usefully applied in many other areas of modern life.
For example, psychology informs how best to influence people's purchasing decisions in advertising. So it is not surprising that John Watson, the founder of behaviourism, ended up vice president at J Walter Thompson, one of the world's largest advertising agencies. Psychology still remains central to marketing and advertising. In the same vein, it contributes to effective health messaging and strategies to encourage society-wide pro-social behaviours, such as organ donation and safer driving.
In my second year at university, one of my favourite professors, Dr Sue Thomas (no relation), left to become an organisational psychologist. She had previously taught me social psychology: how people influence each other and why people often work less productively in groups. She was now going off to practice what she preached, helping large corporations improve workforce productivity, morale and engagement.
Organisational psychology, a relatively new profession, has blossomed. In 2014, the US Bureau of Labour's Occupational Outlook Handbook listed it as the single fastest-growing career of the coming decade. Organisational psychologists have also made considerable contributions to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). According to LinkedIn, demand for EDI roles – a good fit for psychologists – increased by 71 per cent between 2015 and 2020.
By my third year of university, I was wide awake to the broader potential of psychology. The internet was coming of age, and I became increasingly interested in the interplay between emerging technologies and our prehistoric minds. The prominent intersections were artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction. These are areas where many psychologists find a natural home.
All the big names in tech – Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook – have psychologists on the payroll. Beyond the tech giants, a Forbes report said that tech-based mental health start-ups attracted a record-setting 1.5 billion investment during 2020. Many of these start-ups, the ones most likely to succeed, will include psychologists in their teams as they attempt to offer tech-mediated psychological therapies and services.
Even after graduation and throughout my career, I continue to discover new areas where psychology has positively impacted society. Aromachology, for example, is a scientific exploration of the relationships between psychology and fragrance technology. Yes, psychologists work in the perfume industry, too. Aviation psychology looks at how human factors impact the safe operation of aircraft and broader aviation systems. There are even groups of psychologists who help deradicalise extremists.
In more recent years, I've also become aware of environmental psychology. This field is vital to all our futures. Environmental psychology basically looks at the impact our environments have on our behaviours and well-being but also looks at how our behaviours and attitudes affect our environments. Most people now accept that massive changes in behaviour and mindset are required if we have any hope of mitigating climate change. Psychologists are key players in the team for this task.
The scope of psychology is vast; it includes health psychology, sport psychology, forensic psychology, educational psychology and more. Furthermore, psychology training provides in-demand skill sets such as data analysis, team building, active listening and stress management. Such skills make graduates of psychology programmes valuable wherever they find employment.
None of this detracts from the excellent services provided by psychologists working in mental health. The demand for clinical psychologists, counsellors and psychotherapists has never been greater. Covid-19 has put mental health in the mainstream and reduced social stigma.
Psychology is critical to mental health care, but it also deals with much more than depression, anxiety and psychosis. Unfortunately, some people still can't see psychology as anything other than being focused on mental health. This is a big miss, and in-demand skill sets can remain underdeveloped or under-utilised. Perhaps a positive legacy of the pandemic could be to shed further light on psychology's widespread social good.