6 Reasons Why Psychology Is Your Secret Weapon

What you have as a student of psychology that other people want and need.

Posted Mar 12, 2018

Are you a student of psychology? An undergraduate psychology major, perhaps, or a graduate student? If so, I think you have some strengths that you may not even recognize. As you go out into the world looking for a job or just living your life, your training in psychology will be your secret weapon. Even if you are just an informal student of psychology – someone who reads blog posts and articles and books, for example, without pursuing a formal degree – you may reap some of the same benefits from what you are learning about psychology.

#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.

Let’s take a look at the current list of the 25 most popular TED talks of all time to see how many of them are about psychology. Each of the 25 talks has been viewed millions of times.

The #1 TED talk, the most popular one of all time, is “Do schools kill creativity?” That’s a talk that draws from psychology.

The #2 TED talk, “Your body language may shape who you are,” is a talk about psychology.

The #3 TED talk, “How great leaders inspire action,” is a talk about psychology.

The #4 TED talk, “The power of vulnerability,” is a talk about psychology.

The #5 TED talk is “10 things you didn't know about orgasm.” There’s some psychology in there.

The #6 TED talk, “How to speak so that people want to listen,” is a talk about psychology.

The #7 TED talk, “My stroke of insight,” includes psychology.

The #8 TED talk, “Why we do what we do,” is a talk about psychology.

The #9 TED talk, “This is what happens when you reply to spam email,” includes psychology.

The #10 TED talk, “Looks aren't everything. Believe me, I'm a model,” includes psychology.

The #11 TED talk, “The puzzle of motivation,” is a talk about psychology.

The #12 TED talk, “The power of introverts,” is a talk about psychology.

The #13 TED talk, “How to spot a liar,” is a talk about psychology.

The #14 TED talk, “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness,” is a talk about psychology.

The #15 TED talk, “The happy secret to better work,” is a talk about psychology.

The #16 TED talk, “The thrilling potential of SixthSense technology,” includes some psychology.

The #17 TED talk, “How I held my breath for 17 minutes,” includes some psychology.

The #18 TED talk, “The art of misdirection,” is a talk about psychology.

The #19 TED talk, “The surprising science of happiness,” is a talk about psychology.

The #20 TED talk, “Inside the mind of a master procrastinator,” is a talk about psychology.

The #21 TED talk, “How to make stress your friend,” is a talk about psychology.

The #22 TED talk is “Underwater astonishments.” Oh, no – this is a talk that has nothing to do with psychology! But look, among the most popular TED talks of all time, talks that could have been about anything at all, the first 21 of them had something to do with psychology. So did the last three of the top 25:

#23 “Brain magic.”

#24 “The danger of a single story.”

#25 “Your elusive creative genius.”

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 Psychology Today site is tremendously popular, attracting millions of visitors every month.

#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 premed 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.

When I was at UVA, I spent a few years on the university committee that makes decisions about promotions and tenure. We took our work very seriously. To make a recommendation about whether a colleague should get tenure, we would read almost all their work, even if it was in an entirely different field from our own. And that’s when I realized that I felt proud of psychology not only in comparison to the supposedly hard sciences but also in comparison to the humanities, such as philosophy and literature and religion. I’m not putting them down. Scholars in the humanities are often beautiful writers and impressive thinkers. I always wanted to get assigned their cases when I was on that committee.

But think about what a journal article looks like when it is written by a researcher from psychology. Psychology professors do empirical studies. They come up with hypotheses, and then they collect data to test those hypotheses. In their journal articles, there will be an introduction, where they explain what they are predicting and why, a methods section where they explain how they tested their hypothesis, a results section in which they present their findings, and a discussion section in which they talk about whether they were right about their hypothesis and what it all means.

Scholars in the humanities don’t typically collect data the way psychology professors do. So on the tenure and promotion committee, I’d read their papers, and then when I got to the end, I’d think: Hey, they only had to write an introduction and a discussion! Then they got to go home.

The quality and impact of their scholarship depends on the power of the arguments they make. In psychology, you can write an introduction that is amazing. You can use your writing and your reasoning and your wisdom to persuade everyone that your hypothesis is surely correct. But that’s not enough. You then have to go out and collect data. And lots of times, no matter how smart you sounded in your introduction, you are just wrong.

That might sound demoralizing, and sometimes, for me, it was. But more often, it was exciting. Sometimes the data told a much more interesting story than the one I set out to tell. Real life was a lot more intriguing than my limited imagination.

#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.

#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. I did 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.

#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.

I realized that when I was first starting to study single people and how they are viewed by other people. Consider this example.

In the year 2002, Time magazine ran a cover story about single women. The magazine noted that “more women are saying no to marriage and embracing the single life.” Time then asked, “Are they happy?” Some of the single women said that they were.

That didn’t sit well with one of the readers of the story, who sent a letter to the magazine that said this:

“as long as women bounce around kidding themselves that life is full when alone, they are putting their hedonistic, selfish desires ahead of what’s best for children and society.”

This man was talking about single women who were not complaining about their single lives. They were not whining. They were not asking for anything. They were describing what they liked about their single lives. So why was this man so upset? At first, that was really puzzling to me.

My first reaction was to wonder what it would mean to just take comments like that at face value. Because sometimes, that may be the most straightforward and most reasonable approach.

So here was someone saying that single women were “putting their hedonistic, selfish desires ahead of what’s best for children and society.” If that’s his issue, then is there a way that single women could behave that would satisfy him? Now I’m certainly not saying that single women should respond to someone like him by placating him. My question is a more psychological one: What does he want?

There are a number of possibilities, but one logical implication is that he wants women to have children. So maybe if the single women were raising children, he would see them as anything but hedonistic and selfish and narcissistic.

I don’t know what that particular man thinks of single mothers, but in that same issue of Time magazine, there was a story about single women raising children without the help of a husband. Another reader wrote in to scold those single women. He said, “It is sadly typical of our narcissistic age that so many women are opting to have children and raise them ‘on their own’.”

So it didn’t matter if the women were single and did not have kids, or if they were single and they did have kids. No matter what they did, other people were coming for them. They were getting put down not because of the kid issue or any other issue—they were getting criticized because they were single.

As I continued to study the way other people think about single people, I kept finding the same kind of thing over and over again. For example, single women are sometimes told that their life is empty because they don’t have a spouse. Maybe they are especially at risk of getting told that if they are working at a job that is not very fulfilling. But here’s the thing. When single women have jobs that they love, meaningful jobs that make a difference in other people’s lives, jobs that single women do with a passion, there’s a come-back for them, too. They are told that their jobs won’t love them back.

Or consider what happens to single women around the issue of sex. If single women are having sex, you can be sure there are people just waiting to pounce and call them promiscuous. But what if they aren’t having sex? There’s a put-down for those women, too: “Aw, poor thing—you aren’t getting any.”

Again, the crime is not whether you are having sex or not, or even how much. The issue is, you are single, and even in this 21st century of open-mindedness about all sorts of things, lots of people still have a problem with people living single.

Of course, it is not just the single women who get bashed by the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination that I call singlism. Men get it, too.

One of the most popular stereotypes about single men is that they are slobs. They dress like slobs, they live like slobs, they even talk like slobs. But what happens when people meet single men who are just the opposite—men who always look great, have places that are neat and attractive, and speak eloquently? That’s an easy one. If you are a single man who is like that, other people will just say—“oh, he’s gay!” And they think there’s something wrong with that.

When I wrote Singled Out, I came up with titles for my chapters that made fun of the way that other people think about single people—the myths about what single people are like. For the chapters about single men and single women, I wrote titles that zeroed in on this dilemma that no matter what you do, there is a put-down waiting for you.

The title of the chapter on the myths about single men was:

“You are horny, slovenly, and irresponsible, and you are the scary criminals. Or, you are sexy, fastidious, frivolous, and gay.”

The title of the chapter on the myths about single women was:

“Your work won’t love you back and your eggs will dry up. Also, you don’t get any and you’re promiscuous.”

For other chapter titles, I also made fun of the myths about single people, but without using the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” theme.

Myth #3: The dark aura of singlehood.

“You are miserable and lonely and your life is tragic.”

Myth #4: It is all about you.

“Like a child, you are self-centered and immature and your time isn’t worth anything since you have nothing to do but play.”

Myth #7: Attention, single parents:

“Your kids are doomed.”

Myth #8: Too bad you’re incomplete

“You don’t have anyone and you don’t have a life.”

Myth #9: Poor soul

“You will grow old alone and you will die in a room by yourself where no one will find you for weeks.”

Myth #10: Family values

“Let’s give all the perks, benefits, gifts, and cash to couples and call it family values.”

Let’s go back to the guy who wrote to Time magazine complaining about the single women who “bounce around kidding themselves that life is full.” Ask someone who has never taken a psychology course to explain that guy, and they will probably say, “He’s a jerk!”

And you know what? He probably is a jerk.

But that is just one component of the psychology of stereotyping and stigmatizing single people. What you learn in your psychology courses is to look at the bigger picture.

When it is not just one guy who is bashing single people, but lots of guys (and women, too), there’s something bigger happening. When single people get put down no matter what they do, then we are talking about something much more meaningful, psychologically, than individual people being jerks.

There’s something about these beliefs that people have about single people that is very powerful. I think these beliefs are part of a whole worldview, an ideology, in which people are very invested.

The ideology goes something like this: Find “The One,” get married, and all of your dreams will come true. Your path through life will be set. You will be happier because you got married. You will be healthier. You will live longer. You will be a better person, maybe even morally superior to people who stay single.

That’s a very seductive worldview. It tells you that once you get married, your whole life falls into place. Your fairy tales come true.

People who believe in that worldview really want it to be true. They want it to be true the same way that people want their political ideology to be true. It matters to them.

The flip side of thinking that if you get married, you will be happier, is that you don’t get to be happy if you are single. The ideology says that in order to be truly happy, you have to get married.

And that, I thought, was the answer to the puzzle of the reader of Time magazine. He wasn’t incensed at those single women despite the fact that they were happy – he was angry because they were happy!

That was my guess when I wrote Singled Out. Since then, there have been several studies that support that interpretation.

Without my training in psychology, I’m not sure I ever would have developed that understanding. I think I’d still be saying that the guy who wrote to Time magazine was just a jerk.

#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 bouncing around 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 most 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, like that person who wrote to Time magazine. He’s feeling threatened. And he is feeling especially threatened because I’m a single person who is happily single.

Now maybe these 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.

[This blog post is a shortened version of a talk I was asked to give on March 3, 2018, at the meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association in Philadelphia. The title of my Invited Presidential Keynote Address was “Psychology is your secret weapon: What you have that other people need and want.” Much to my great disappointment, I did not get to give that talk in person. The Nor’Easter was headed to Philadelphia the same time I was, and every flight I booked and rebooked was eventually canceled. I ended up giving my talk remotely, by Skype and phone. Apparently, the audio in the conference room was not great, so I decided to post the entire talk at my personal website in case anyone is interested. You can find it here.]