The Changing Nature of the Celebrity Psychologist

A recent article in Nature highlighted the potential conflict of interest that may exist for psychologists who earn an income from public speaking on topics for which they are researching. The synopsis of the argument is that where an academic is paid to talk on an issue for which they have an incentive that the results of the research support a particular view, that this conflict of interest should be made explicit, according to the guidelines for journal publication.

My interest in blogging about the article was not, however, in regards to potential issues of conflict. I do not doubt that the various researchers that they quoted are impeccable in their practice and conflict of interest, or not, I think their research methodology and findings if scrutinised will be absent of deliberate flaw. Nor, do I want to discuss the conclusions some of these researchers have drawn, which in many cases have overestimated the uniqueness and contribution to the field. For example, like many researchers, I think that the concept of grit is little more than consciousness and in a recent study with a graduate student note that the contributing effect of passion can be accounted for by other variables such as self-efficacy.

The most exciting aspect of the article for me is the evolving notion of what it now means to be an academic, and how one now builds a career. No longer are academics content to write research papers and provide lectures for students. Speaking, and publication in the popular press is now somewhat of a necessity for psychologists who are making a name for themselves. Indeed, the line between academic and celebrity is perhaps closer now than at any other time in history. The article notes that many of these psychologists are paid well into the six figures for the talks that they give.

Many of these academics are no longer content to only operate out of a University and are now taking their ideas to a much wider audience regularly through podcasts, books and public appearances. Moreover, the model for an academic is changing with accomplished psychologists such as Scott Barry Kaufman opting to not go for tenure, in part, so he has the academic freedom to pursue other avenues such as the Psychology Podcast.

I see the shift in thinking as to what it takes to now be an influential academic as a positive with benefits for both the discipline and the public at large. A case in point is the polarising figure of Professor Jordan Peterson, who came to fame when he took a stand against Bill C-16 in Canada (about speech laws) and has since skyrocketed to recognition, since the publication of his book on the 12 Rules for Life. Peterson has a large body of work, that is now only becoming well known, simply because of the fame he has now gained. For those with a deep interest in psychology his Maps of Meaning book, that attempts to link myth with neuroscience, evolution, and psychoanalytical work is a fascinating read and an impressive attempt at a complicated and complex subject. Peterson’s work on personality, completed with Colin DeYoung, has had a significant impact on our field and his academic rating places him in the 99th percentile of researchers on ResearchGate.

And Petersen is but one in many. Steven Pinker is another psychologist who is worth mentioning as his work has made evolutionary psychology applicable to the masses. Daniel Gilbert’s book on stumbling on happiness is the antidote to much of the faulty literature on happiness associated with our field. Adam Grant is helping to cross the scientist-practitioner gap with books that are both theoretically sound and with actionable advice for businesses and individuals. What all these people share aside from individualised websites, TED Talks, and podcast appearances, is extensive academic careers that underpin their work.

For a pracademic such as myself, the likes of Adam Grant, Jordan Petersen, and Daniel Gilbert are not only inspirational but provide the template of what it now takes to make a name for oneself in the field. Theirs is a show with a substance. While noting the need for conflicts of interest to be identified is essential, let us also not forget the contribution these people have made to our field, introducing the public to what we do and raising the bar on what it now means to be influential in our area, while staying true to one’s principles.

Reference

Chivers T. (2019) Does psychology have a conflict-of-interest problem? Nature 571, 20-23 (2019)
doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02041-5

2019-07-12T12:09:52+00:00