Ditch the Lab

Geoff Beattie, Professor of Psychology at Edge Hill University 

We are all fascinated by what makes people tick.  So psychology could be the gateway drug to get people hooked on science as a way of understanding both people and the world more generally.  Of course, it’s just one way of understanding people, their beliefs and attitudes, their hopes and fears and their behaviour, but it’s a particularly powerful one.  But it’s our responsibility to demonstrate this.

My widowed mother, I should say, swore by cheap romantic fiction to provide insights into the social worlds that she was interested in – men, women, relationships, temptations, affairs, joy, happiness, remorse, regret.  And she had a point.  Too much of my scientific knowledge about people and their behaviour came from reading the psychological literature where social psychologists spent the vast majority of their time studying undergraduates (and particularly psychology undergraduates) in the laboratory.  This unfortunately is the norm for the discipline.  My mother could see through it all. ‘What do students know about life or love or any of the other things that really matter in life to someone like me.’  I thought that she was being a bit hard on students, but the point was still well made.

Psychology has a significant role to play in exciting people about scientific understanding and insight.  But we have to compete with great works of fiction, memoir and autobiography, film, poetry, everyday intuition, even cheap romantic fiction.

To compete we need to spend more time away from the lab and make sure that our hypotheses and theories provide greater insight into people out there in the world, who we need to observe and describe in all their great complexity.  In the case of psychology, in my view, we know enough about the psychology of the undergraduate (somehow accepted as the norm for our research), and they have constrained our social psychological theories quite enough.  We need to get out more.

Geoff Beattie is Professor of Psychology at Edge Hill University.  His main areas of research are multi-modal communication and applied social psychology.  His latest book ‘Rethinking Body Language’ (Routledge) offers a major reconceptualisation of non-verbal communication.  He has presented a number of television series on BBC 1 and Channel 4.



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