Here you are at Psych Central, reading about psychology. Maybe you are an undergraduate thinking about majoring in psychology but unsure of the value of doing so. Or maybe you already have your college degree and you are wondering whether to pursue an advanced degree in psychology.
I have some good news for you. I think people who study psychology develop some rarely recognized superpowers. Even if your interest in psychology is more casual – maybe you read articles and books about psychology just for fun – I think you can benefit, too.
The superpowers of people who study psychology come from 6 sources. You can also think of them as 6 ways in which psychology is your secret weapon.
I came up with this list when I was asked to give the Invited Presidential Keynote Address at the Eastern Psychological Society in 2018. However, an epic snowstorm resulted in the cancellation of hundreds of flights and I never got to give my talk in person. I was devastated. I did, though, post the text of the entire one-hour talk at my website.
Two years later, I am just as enthusiastic about the powers of studying psychology as I was then. I want to share the highlights of my talk with you here.
The #1 Reason Why Psychology Is Your Secret Weapon: People Love It
The most important reason why psychology is your secret weapon is because people love it. They are fascinated by the latest research. They crave new and deeper understandings of the people around them and, of course, themselves.
If you want to get an idea of what people want to know about, what they will spend their time learning even when they don’t have to as part of any course requirement or work obligation, look at the TED talks that they watch. TED talks, you probably know, can be about anything at all. Within the academic disciplines, they cover everything from anthropology and architecture and astronomy in the As to zoology in the Zs.
I felt sure that one or two of the 25 most popular TED talks would have something to do with psychology. When I checked the list, though, I discovered that an astounding 24 of the top 25 TED talks were about psychology!
This list of TED talks is my favorite example of people’s love of psychology. But it is hardly the only one. For example, this Psych Central site is very popular, attracting huge numbers of visitors every month.
The #2 Reason Why Psychology Is Your Secret Weapon: Understanding Humans Is a Great Challenge
I have to admit that as much as I, and so many others, love psychology, there are those who look down on people who study it. When I taught a big lecture class for the first time – 300 students in a Psych 101 course – a group of pre-med students filed into the second row of the lecture hall every day, and they just waited for their chance to pounce. They loved to challenge me. They liked to slip into their questions a mention of the fact that their other courses were in physics and chemistry – you know, the “hard” sciences.
They did succeed in rattling me a little. I had never taught a huge class before, so I was insecure. But they never shook my confidence in the value, or the challenge, of psychology. My response to them was that if they wanted to study something that was really hard, they should study psychology. Physics, chemistry – in a way, that’s the easy stuff. When you study an atom or a molecule, it doesn’t try to study you back. It doesn’t try to psych you out. It doesn’t try to impress you. It doesn’t try to hide how it really feels. So I told them that if they wanted a real challenge, they should try to understand other humans.
The #3 Reason Why Psychology Is Your Secret Weapon: You Understand More Than the Substance of Psychology – You Understand Methods, Too
So far, I’ve been saying that psychology is your secret weapon because by studying it, you are learning challenging things that other people would love to know. Those courses you take in personality and abnormal psychology and social psychology are teeming with intriguing nuggets about what makes people behave the way they do.
But I think the courses that are your most powerful – and most under-rated – secret weapons are the ones that lots of students dread: the courses on research methods and statistics.
When you learn about research methods, you are learning about more than just what we know about our fellow humans and ourselves. You are also learning how we know what we know. And in learning how we know things, you are also learning how to evaluate the different claims you hear in the media and in the conversations all around you in everyday life.
When I took what I learned about research methods in psychology and applied it to the claims I had been hearing about married people and single people, it was a revelation. It totally changed my understanding of what the research really did say about the implications for your health and well-being of getting married. I’ve spent the last two decades of my life busting the popular myths about marriage and single life. I could never have done that without my training in research methodology.
The #4 Reason Why Psychology Is Your Secret Weapon: People Don’t Just Want to Know about It, Sometimes They Need to Know about It
I’ve been saying that people want what you have to offer as a person trained in psychology, but sometimes they also need what you have to offer.
In the early years of my career, I used to think of myself as a basic scientist – someone who studies research and theory, leaving the question of the potential applications of my work to others. But over time, especially after 9/11, that changed. Suddenly, the government realized that they needed people who understood the psychology of deception and bad intentions (my area of interest before I started studying single people). I did some consulting for a think tank. I’ve also given talks and workshops to people who give polygraph tests, and to people from the FBI and organizations like that.
Research firms, consulting firms, polling organizations – any group that wants to learn something new and wants what they learn to be reliable and valid, needs people who understand research methods and statistics.
Those are some examples of what other people can get out of your training in psychology. But even if you never use your training in any way that is useful to other people, you get to benefit from it yourself.
The #5 Reason Why Psychology Is Your Secret Weapon: You Learn to Think about Humans in More Sophisticated Ways
I think your training in psychology makes a more sophisticated thinker, psychologically. After you’ve taken a whole bunch of courses in psychology, you think about psychological issues in more complex, and less obvious ways.
Click here to read an example. It is about something I just didn’t understand about how snide people can be in their judgments of single people, including single people who are happy with their lives. Drawing from my training in psychology, I was able to come up with an understanding of what seemed, at first, like very baffling and perverse psychological dynamics.
The #6 Reason Why Psychology Is Your Secret Weapon: It Can Make Insults Feel Less Hurtful
The kinds of understandings you gain from the study of psychology can be comforting if you let them. I’m someone who has said a lot of things that people don’t want to hear. And, I have a Twitter account. In these days of social media snark, I have been told plenty of times that I’m just kidding myself that I’m happily single. And worse. In the spirit of Jimmy Kimmel’s mean tweets, I’ll share some with you, though some of them were comments on blog posts rather than tweets:
- “You’re bitter.”
- “You’re a loser.”
- “No one would ever want to marry you – not for all the tea in China.” (That one really amused me – someone thought that the best way to wound me was to say that no one would ever want to marry me.)
- And one more that was so crude, I’m not going to spell it out.
Psychology can be my secret weapon in these circumstances. I can tell myself that maybe those nasty comments are not really about me. Maybe they are about the person who is making them.
Now maybe those people are actually right that I’m a loser and I’m just rationalizing. But knowing that I have some psychological studies on my side is something I like.
I’ve thought a lot about my career in psychology while writing this. It reminded me that spending my professional life in the field of psychology has not just been comforting, it has been joyful.
My wish for you is that you can get as much delight out of your knowledge of psychology that I have gotten out of mine. As secret weapons go, it is a pretty terrific one.