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Applying Psychology for a Better World

Psychologists are nosy. They go to great lengths to poke their research, treatments, and interventions into all kinds of fields and subject matter that you may not even consider when thinking about what psychologists do. When psychologists utilize the science of mental processes and behavior to improve or solve problems in more practical, everyday situations like work and school, they are engaged in what's called applied psychology.

If you're happy that your pilot didn't fall asleep during your last flight, you can thank an applied psychologist. If you think justice is served when people faking a mental illness to get out of going to prison are exposed as frauds, thank an applied psychologist. If you've ever seen a child benefit from special education placement and assistance, yep, that's the work of applied psychology.

Applied psychological research, intervention, and consultation have many branches; there's aviation psychology, sports psychology, military psychology, and media psychology as well as psychology focused on rehabilitation, engineering, and community engagement — to name just a few. In this article, I describe three of the largest branches of applied psychology: Forensic Psychology, Behavioral Economics, and Industrial/Organizational Psychology.

Forensic psychology: Experts behind bars

Some of the more interesting psychology work is in forensic psychology. Interviewing and evaluating murderers, assessing the level of risk that an individual poses to the public in terms of violence and sexual assault, and establishing whether someone was "insane" when they committed a specific crime are all part of a forensic psychologist's work.

Most forensic psychologists possess a doctoral degree such as a PhD, EdD, or PsyD, have had some formal education or training in forensics, and know how to use specialized tools and techniques for work in this area. Typically, forensic experts possess a license as a psychologist in the state in which they work.

The list of functions that forensic psychologists perform can get pretty long; they include researching the causes of criminal behavior, assessing risk violence and competency to stand trial, and evaluating insanity pleas.

A court may call a forensic psychologist as an expert witness, or a prosecutor or defense attorney can hire the psychologist to support a certain aspect of a case. To participate in judicial processes, a forensic psychologist usually needs to be recognized by the court (a judge, specifically) as an expert. Ultimately, it comes down to whether a judge thinks a prospective psychologist is qualified, and it's up to a jury to determine whether the psychologist's expert testimony is valid or believable.

Determining why the good go bad

Theories on the causes of criminal behavior range from criminality being a product of an inherent corruptness of a person to criminality resulting from the powerful influences of society or circumstance. Crime is a legal concept that defines a wrong that can be addressed by judicial proceedings, which may result in punishment. Criminal law is the body of laws defining offenses and how offenders should be managed.

Learning theories

One theory of criminal behavior attempts to identify the payoff. What rewards follow a criminal act that might increase the likelihood that a perpetrator will do it again? For example, if you steal, then you get some money — and money is a pretty good reward. Other rewards include peer approval and a thrill from committing the act itself. No matter what a person gets out of the crime-committing experience, the fact that she receives some reward is often enough to keep the behavior going.

This dynamic relates to the concept of operant conditioning. In a nutshell, rats learn to press bars to get sugar pellets. Criminals commit certain acts to get whatever "sugar pellet" the criminal act provides.

Another version of a learning theory comes from the social-learning theory, which essentially holds that a person learns how to be criminal by being around criminals and seeing and copying their behavior. A fair amount of research supports social-learning accounts of criminal behavior. If an individual sees another individual engage in a criminal behavior and receive a desirable reward, then he learns through the modeling of the perpetrator how to engage in crime.

Focusing on development:

Developmental theories try to account for behavior and mental processes by analyzing how they develop over a person's life span.

Many people assume that criminal behavior and immorality are one in the same. This isn't always the case, of course; sometimes a person with a strong moral system violates the law. This occurs when people advocate breaking the law in order to uphold what they consider to be higher moral principles. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. and many others before him advocated civil disobedience, which resulted in violations of the law in the name of a greater good. Immorality and criminality are not always the same, but there is considerable overlap.

And vice versa: Do you obey the speed limit because it's the universally right thing to do? Or is it because of that speeding ticket you got last week?

Working with personality theories

Maybe certain people commit crimes because it's simply a part of who they are. Some people have the personality of a natural-born leader. Others could have made a speech to their kindergarten class entitled "Born to Steal."

A disposition is an inclination or a tendency to do something. This theory suggests that environmental factors (poverty, criminal role models, and a history of child abuse), alone, can't possibly account for criminal behavior because not everyone from a bad environment commits criminal acts. For example, Jordan (one of the poorest nations in the world) has very little crime. And some studies suggest the opposite is true: increases in gross national product (GNP) correlates with higher crime rates. Maybe there's just more to steal in a wealthy country. What are you going to steal in a poverty-stricken nation? Nobody has anything!

Personality theorists identify some personality traits that may increase a person's likelihood of criminal behavior:

  • Psychoticism: These people tend to be more antisocial, unempathetic, creative, and tough-minded.

  • Extraversion: People who are carefree, dominant, assertive, and adventurous.

  • Neuroticism: This includes people who are irrational, shy, moody, and emotional.

Of course, having these personality aspects doesn't cause a person to become a criminal. But they may contribute to the risk for developing criminal behaviors.

Pinning down the "super criminals": Criminal psychopaths

Think of the perfect criminal, the stereotypic villain, these people who engage in extreme criminal behavior and challenge the general concept of morality. Such people have intrigued professionals for years. They're on the front pages of newspapers, and they take the lead on national news coverage. They sit in high-security prisons, and in some societies they're sometimes executed for their horrific behaviors. These are the psychopaths.

A lot of definitions exist for the psychopath. Some psychopaths don't commit crimes, but many do, and when they do their crimes are often unparalleled by non-psychopathic perpetrators. Therefore, this article focuses on psychopathic individuals who do end up involved with the criminal justice system.

The following list of psychopathic personality traits outline the major features of this disordered personality:

  • Glib and superficial charm

  • Callousness and lack of empathy

  • Grandiose sense of self worth

  • Parasitic lifestyle (lives off of other people)

  • Need for stimulation, prone to boredom

  • Poor behavioral controls

  • Pathological lying

  • Promiscuous sexual behavior

  • Conning and manipulative

  • Early behavior problems (temper tantrums and disobedience)

  • Lack of remorse or guilt

  • Failure to accept personal responsibility

  • Shallow affect (no deep feelings about anything or anyone)

  • Revocation of conditional release (put back in jail after failing at reform)

  • Lack of realistic, long-term goals

  • Many short-term marriages

  • Impulsivity

  • Juvenile delinquency

  • Irresponsibility

  • Criminal versatility (good at a lot of different crimes)

That's quite a list! But this checklist has become a real standard for evaluating people in court cases, prisons, and forensic hospitals. And some of these traits seem more "villainous" than the others.

Two other hallmarks of psychopaths are smooth presentation and charm. They're not easily embarrassed or even mildly self-conscious and so don't come off as nervous or easily rattled. They're calm in social situations because they couldn't care less about what other people think of them. Charm comes through maybe in the form of flattery, apparent concern, or interest as they attempt to manipulate you, gain your trust, and use that trust to their advantage.

Still other times, they come off as if they believe they're the neatest thing since sliced bread. They're often full of themselves and see other people as inferior and easy prey. They'll lie, cheat, and manipulate to get whatever they want, and they'll do all of this with a sense of detachment and coldness of heart. Psychopaths don't feel remorseful or guilty for any of their transgressions and can sometimes be so cold that they are extremely ruthless, possessing no empathy for the suffering of others.

Excusing or explaining criminal behavior

When someone is arrested and tried for a crime, he has several options when he goes to court. He might plead innocent, guilty, or not guilty by reason of insanity. Forensic experts are often consulted when a defendant, his lawyer, or the court introduces the mental health of the accused as a factor in the crime.

Sometimes, a person commits a crime and claims he was "insane" at the time. An insanity plea is a legal concept that states that a defendant is not legally responsible for the crime due to being insane at the time it was committed. It's a legal concept, not a clinical concept.

Different countries and legal jurisdictions have different definitions of legal insanity. But it really comes down to whether the person committing the act knew the difference between right and wrong, and whether this confusion was due to a mental disorder or disease.

This is the point where the forensic experts weigh in. A forensic psychologist or psychiatrist evaluates the defendant and makes a determination of whether he meets the criteria for legal insanity. Experts generally represent both sides, the prosecution and the defense, and the experts often disagree with each other. Ultimately, it comes down to who the jury or judge believes.

What if someone is trying to fake mental illness in order to avoid going to prison or facing the death penalty? This is called malingering — forensic psychologists try to detect this deception and catch these liars through special interview techniques and extensive psychological testing. This is often difficult.

Behavioral economics

Many people love their brands. Ever hear someone say, "I only buy American cars!" or "I wouldn't run in anything but Asics"? And the truth is, brand loyalists decide which products to buy more quickly. For good or for bad, whether you think that the world is too materialistic or not, a big part of human behavior and thinking has to do with money. The branch of applied psychology that focuses on the role of individual mental processes and behavior in economic decision-making and behavior is called behavioral economics.

Behavioral economic psychologists are interested in a wide variety of money-related topics, including the role of emotion in money decisions, shopper behavior, and advertising techniques. A great deal of behavioral economic work is focused on the question of why people make certain economic decisions over others — choice and preference.

For example, if you buy a new smartphone and are totally happy with it, then why do you feel compelled to run out and buy the next version of that same phone the minute it comes on the market? After all, the phone you already have works fine; do you really need a phone that's ever so slightly faster or has a few new features? Is the upgrade worth hundreds more dollars?

Behavioral economists may not be able to answer this specific question — aside from saying, "Marketing works!" — but they do have insights into consumer behavior, particularly the process you went through when purchasing your original or new phone.

What are the factors that influence purchasing choice? Some research shows that products that appeal to your ideal self influence what you buy. (That explains that work-out machine that's collecting dust in your garage.) But there are factors that seem to influence a majority of purchasers; two such factors are deal-proneness and enjoyment.

Consumers love a sale, a coupon, a special, and a deal. This behavioral economic fact brings people to retail stores time and time again. The remarkable thing about deal-proneness is that it's all about perception. As long as someone thinks he's getting a deal, this belief can drive purchasing. Deal-proneness gets exploited all the time in retail settings, where sellers mark items as "clearance" that may not otherwise sell. Just remember deal-proneness when you donate that rainbow turtle-neck sweater with the tags still on it. Hey, at least you got a great deal when you bought it.

Buying is often tied to entertainment, exploration, and self-expression. People love a good "hunt" for a product. That's why you might enjoy going to those extra-large warehouse type stores just to see if they have anything you might want. (Interesting that you didn't know you wanted camouflage duct tape until you saw it.) Sellers capitalize on this drive by manipulating people's tendency to be more attracted to variety and novelty. If it's new, then it's good.

Industrial/organizational psychology

Some say death and taxes are inevitable, but work has to rank up there as well. It's a fundamental human activity along with eating, sex, and sleeping. Being so fundamental to human existence, working has not escaped the lens of psychological examination. Industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology is the study of human mental processes and behavior in organizations and the workplace. I/O psychologists investigate and provide intervention and consultation in many areas related to jobs:

  • Employee training

  • Worker productivity

  • Workplace safety

  • Management and leadership

  • Hiring and employee selection

  • Work stress

  • Organizational design

  • Teamwork

  • Workplace communications

Here are some details of the more popular topics in I/O psychology.

Increasing worker productivity

Worker productivity is a well-researched topic in I/O psychology. Findings include these gems:

  • Dim the lights and workers slow down.

  • Put a clock on the wall, and workers speed up.

When a worker or employee is not "living up" to performance expectations, bosses wonder what's going on (and the employee, too, sometimes). I/O psychologists can provide a list of diagnostic questions that could include the following:

  • Does the employee have a personal problem that requires counseling or other assistance?

  • Does the person understand what behavior is expected, and does she have the skill to perform that behavior?

  • Does the equipment work? Is it in good repair? Is the environment conducive to top performance?

  • Are there any disincentives for performing the task?

  • Is a competing behavior being reinforced?

  • Does the person get any feedback on her performance?

  • Does the behavior produce any important positive consequence?

Worker productivity is a function of personal health, knowing what the goals and expectations are, having working materials, proper incentives, and monitoring and feedback.

Creating happy workers

If you're like most people, you've had jobs you hate and jobs you love. I/O psychologists have discovered that many psychological factors determine worker well-being; they range from perceived support to job stress. Perceived support is defined as an employee's perception that her employer has positive feelings toward her and that the company values the employee's contributions and cares for her well-being.

Another finding of I/O psychology is that workers experience more well-being when they can get some of their social and emotional needs met at work.

Work stress has a direct effect on worker happiness; in fact, it kills. People experience work stress when they perceive an inability to deal with job demands. Employers often respond to this by giving people time off, adjusting their work duties, or suggesting an employee "get some help" from a counselor or acupuncturist.

Five different types of "support" at work can reduce employee stress:

  • Social support: Having helping relationships available when needed (as in being able to go talk to the boss about something that is stressing you out)

  • Esteem support: Having access to input and feedback that you're valued and accepted

  • Information support: Having information that helps define problems and reveal solutions

  • Social companionship: Spending time with others outside of work in leisure or recreational activities

  • Instrumental support: Having financial and material resources

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