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Psychology Meets Public Policy: Crafting a Better Tomorrow


Psychology and public policy, huh….? Seems like an unlikely and interesting interface of two disciplines, right? When a layman comes across such an intersection, their minds would certainly be baffled at the idea of having a psychologist dictating terms or even being present at a public policy negotiation table. However, the less-appreciated fact is that psychology is indeed an equally inevitable stream of study that must receive representation at policy tables, just like other social sciences.

Public policies are crafted for the physical, mental, economic, political, social, and cultural welfare of a nation’s citizens, while psychology is the science of their behavior and mind. Influences on public policy are one of the many interesting avenues where psychology assures its application. There have been multiple nations wherein the potential of psychology and other social sciences to contribute to public policy development has been long recognized.

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However, there also exists a long gap between the actual amount of influence it has in public policy development. Philip Zimbardo, who was the then president of the American Psychological Association in 2002, challenged psychologists around the world to become an important hand in policy negotiations. Zimbardo also noted that many of the highly serious problems that the United States faces have psychological causes and consequences and therefore, psychologists need to be heard and be at the table of leaders and policymakers because they have a lot more to say and prove than any others gathered around.

Now the most important question that we need to delve into is to see how exactly psychology and policymaking go hand in hand.

  • When politicians seek to understand the financial consequences of the laws and policies they adopt, they frequently consult with economists. Government officials are increasingly recognizing the relevance of the human consequences of the various public policies they implement. Policymakers resort to social psychology to have a better understanding of the social side of things. Some societal issues can be immediately handled using economic concepts. However, issues such as obesity and climate change are mostly driven by human behaviour and must be handled accordingly. Throughout the process of developing and executing public policy, psychological elements play a variety of roles.

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  • Psychology has become an inevitable field of study since the topics that psychologists examine reflect the country’s everyday concerns. As a field, psychology must be considered with absolute gravity. Psychologists, if provided adequate platforms would be capable enough to advise the administrative and legislative branches on practical methods to employ basic science advancements to improve human health, development, education, and behaviour.
  • The major perk of employing psychology in public policy development would be that these individuals, if rightly and rigorously trained, would be able to point out the major flaws and gaps that may arise in the developed policies and they may be able to accurately intervene to bring a closure to these gaps in the policies made. They would be able to develop accurate and effective solutions to the haunting complex social problems, given the fact that they can access and rely on multiple informed perspectives about the complexity of the problem to be addressed.
  • Only half of the process is complete once public policies are formulated and may be passed into law. The other half of the process entails putting such policies into operation and monitoring the results. Psychologists have a unique viewpoint on how the public will react to new legislation because of their understanding of behavior. Psychological considerations have influenced how governments implement programs to maximize their effectiveness. Repeated psychological research in the United Kingdom, for example, has proven the notion that people are more likely to join a retirement savings plan through an opt-out option rather than an opt-in method. With this information, the United Kingdom altered its default choice to opt out, resulting in a 22% rise in registration.
  • The greater prominence of psychologists in legislative circles can have an impact on policy on the ground. Psychologists have their own set of ideals and priorities, which politicians and economists may not share. Psychologists can push for new laws to benefit underserved and at-risk communities based on their study of community life. One classic example would be that of a psychologist with a Ph.D. in counseling, for example, who worked on then-Senator Hillary Clinton’s staff to assist in developing legislation addressing obesity and eating disorders. The American Psychological Association has a Public Policy Office dedicated to developing policies that address societal concerns such as mental health, hate crimes, violence, sexual harassment, public space accessibility, healthcare, and much more.

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In 1954, The US Supreme Court struck down the 1892 Plessy v/s Ferguson separate but equal doctrine and brought out the new ruling through its Brown v/s Board of Education case, making racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The court stated and cited 7 social science publications to reach this groundbreaking decision and the main thrust of the same was the citing that racial segregation in school would cause a decline in the self-esteem of students who are of African American identity and fostered prejudice towards the latter. This decision is considered groundbreaking in the world of psychology as it was the first time a nation’s Supreme Court cited psychological research findings upon altering a policy.

Unfortunately, this sight is quite rare even after so many decades since this incident, changes and improvements have certainly occurred but still, psychologists stimulating alterations to public policies and the whole fiasco being a common sight would take quite another while of our times. The same goes for the current conditions of policy development in India. There have been instances wherein governments have funded NGOs and other psychological personnel organizations to design interventions that could correct social problems. However, these efforts are not full-fledged and once again would require a while for the same to be common sight.

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References +
  • Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical …edited by Frank W. Schneider, Jamie A. Gruman, Larry
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