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9 Ways Applied Psychology is Solving Real-World Problems

Armed with an understanding of psychological principles that aid in better understanding individuals, psychologists can apply these clinical theories to help solve some of society’s most challenging real-world problems through applied psychology. This everyday psychology application can address problems across multiple facets of the human experience, including in the workplace or at school, managing health challenges and applications in law.

Here are nine issues in which psychologists have made an impact through research and application.

Proving the Importance of Paid Sick Leave

Although the majority of American employees receive sick pay and job protection, 28% of the working population risks losing their pay – or even their jobs – when they miss work because of their own or a family member’s illness. Dr. Patricia Stoddard-Dare and her team examined the impact having, or not having, those benefits had on employees. They found that even when they accounted for 20 different factors that could influence psychological distress (like gender, age, income, health status, alcohol use and sleep), employees without paid sick leave suffered much more frequently from heightened psychological distress.

Stoddard-Dare’s work links distress to lack of benefits, a critical connection as legal battles at the state level have begun to regulate leave policies, with 15 states blocking paid sick leave and another 39 mandating employers provide paid sick leave. 

Determining How to Group Students for Academic Performance

While educators have long agreed that the composition of a classroom can impact learning, it wasn’t until Ming Ming Chiu, Bonnie Chow and Sung Wook Joh’s 2017 study of fourth graders in 40 countries that reader test scores were linked to classmate characteristics and distribution.

The study found that classmates scored higher on reading tests when their classmates from advantaged families (measured by higher education, income or employment) had better attitudes toward reading or earned higher test scores, thought to be a result of better exposure to educational materials and experiences. As a result, the study advocated for mixed students with different family backgrounds and attitudes toward reading improved overall test scores. The classroom composition allowed those with higher scores to provide peer learning, both encouraging disadvantaged students and reinforcing the knowledge of the advantaged students.

More Education Needed Regarding Title IX Regulations

A recent study by Edwards, Sessarego and Schmidt highlighted a need for additional education on college campuses for Title IX regulations and sexual assault. By posing as a student conducting a class project, the researchers found just 1 in 3 institutions answered calls and were willing to talk to the caller – a concerning statistic given the likelihood that victims will reach out by phone for help in real situations. The research also exposed a general lack of protocol comprehension, as just 4 in 5 campus security respondents knew their Title IX coordinator.

In addition to exposing these significant knowledge gaps, the researchers did note that the colleges and universities that did respond were doing so well – providing correct information and refuting fictions, such as the myth that women frequently fabricate sexual assault. These findings suggest broader change is possible and can help to mobilize efforts at both the local and national level to improve prevention and response to sexual assault.

Criminal Stereotyping and Forensic Bias

After the FBI incorrectly identified and detained Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield for the Madrid Train bombings, an official investigation was launched to examine the FBI’s approach to the case, with one examiner admitting that Mayfield’s characteristics may have predisposed FBI agents to immediately accept the match without question. (Mayfield was a recent Islam convert, married to an Egyptian and had represented a convicted terrorist as an attorney).

Smalarz and a team of researchers examined this bias in a 2016 research study, where they found that for many crimes, people hold shared beliefs about the profile of the criminals who commit them. The researchers highlighted that this type of profiling is different from an assumption that “all white men are bad.” Instead, criminal stereotyping influences people to believe, for example, that most child molesters are white men, which can then influence forensic interpretation when results match the stereotyped profile.

The research has bolstered a push to reform the forensic sciences, either by removing unnecessary, potentially biasing information from samples or by including filler samples with people of the same stereotypical profile known not to have committed the crime.

Helping Veterans with PTSD and Substance Use

Although posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) isn’t limited to any single population, it occurs at significantly higher rates in veterans. In many cases, those who suffer from PTSD attempt to escape feelings of stress and overwhelm with drugs or alcohol, spurring a substance use disorder in an estimated 20% of PTSD cases, according to the National Center for PTSD.

Florida Tech professor Natalie Fala is working to combat that in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs as a PTSD/substance use disorder psychologist, where psychologists are striving to treat both issues at the same time, as opposed to previous approaches that worked to address substance abuse and then PTSD. By addressing the trauma through psychotherapy instead of trying to manage the symptoms or avoid it altogether, Fala says people are better able to move forward, enjoy their current life more, and find balance.

While treating the comorbid disorders to PTSD and substance abuse is a step in the right direction, Fala says more research in the realm of substance abuse is also important.

Role in the Opioid Epidemic

Medication is a vital tool in many treatment plans for patients of psychologists; however, in light of the opioid abuse crisis, psychologists must also play a key role in understanding the symptoms of a person developing a dependence on opioids, as well as understanding and presenting treatment options and support for patients who need help.

Psychologists can also partner with prescribing physicians to assess risk factors for opioid addiction and aid in the design of contingency management programs aimed at rewarding patients for staying off the drugs, a realm which Nancy Petry, PhD, says often needs better support in administering correctly.

Teamwork in Space

As astronauts strive to reach Mars, psychologists are examining what it means for humans to be confined together in such small spaces for extended periods of time. While little research has been done to date, Lauren Blackwell Landon, PhD, lead author of Teamwork and Collaboration in Long-Duration Space Missions: Going to Extremes, applied psychology best practices are informing recommendations for NASA’s approach to assembling teams for extended space missions.

With an anticipated 45-minute delay in communications leaving room for little support from Mission Control, a mission lasting 2-3 years, and compact living quarters reminiscent of an RV, astronauts joining missions headed to Mars must be adept at building trust, acting autonomously, mitigating conflict and establishing rapport, according to Landon and her team.

Employers and the #MeToo Movement

As the #MeToo movement gained traction in 2017, the workforce faced increased scrutiny for workplace sexual harassment, spurring several high-profile lawsuits, terminations and resignations for conduct. Despite the ongoing national dialogue addressing workplace behavior, in a recent survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), just 32% of working Americans reported their employer had created new measures to prevent and address sexual harassment in the workplace. Instead, many employers simply reminded their employees of existing policy.

The APA study, Workplace Sexual Harassment: Are Employers Actually Responding? spotlights the largely ineffective approach the workplace is currently taking, says David W. Ballard, PsyD, MBA, director of APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence. But the research also found some promising correlations that could represent part of a solution, including links between increased reporting and more women in senior leadership, and between superior employee and organizational outcomes in businesses that boosted efforts to prevent and address workplace sexual harassment.

Coping with School Shooting Trauma

With rising exposure to trauma in school-aged Americans, psychologists are examining the interventions used to support the students, who most often receive mental healthcare from school administrators, counselors and teachers.

The APA’s new book, Creating Healing School Communities: School-Based Interventions for Students Exposed to Trauma, offers several models to support administrators and teachers working with students exposed to trauma. In their research, the authors found a gap between student need and services provided, reporting that just 25% of children with mental health needs receive services, and an estimated 70-80% of those services are offered through schools.

The authors recommend a multi-layered, prevention-based approach that incorporates the whole school first, then provides additional, targeted care for at-risk students, and further support for students with the greatest need.

Are You Interested In Applying Psychological Principles to Real-World Issues?

While society benefits from the depth of understanding applied psychology offers, practicing professionals often find their work rewarding and beneficial as well. “I enjoy doing applied psychology and work that matter’s in people’s lives,” said Dr. Lisa Steelman, Associate Professor and Director of the Industrial/Organizational Psychology program at Florida Tech.

With applied psychology, you can leverage your professional expertise to find solutions, challenge norms and advocate for change in the areas that are critical to you. Applied psychology can help answer questions that impact people, improve systems and technology, and influence forensics and law.

Interested in learning more about Florida Tech’s applied psychology programs?

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