There is huge potential in an approach that tackles crises not by dominating or manipulating people, but by working with them
For many years, psychology has largely been relegated to the “and finally …” section of the news, down there with dogs on surfboards and siblings reuniting after a lifetime apart. I recall, for instance, during the Scottish independence referendum, being asked to comment on how political differences within families might lead to marital discord. Significant to those involved, no doubt, but hardly central to the story. Although issues that were central to the story – national identity, trust in government, decision-making under conditions of uncertainty – did involve a core psychological dimension, psychologists and behavioural scientists more generally were never invited to comment on these.
The problem is that, although our society and popular culture are endlessly obsessed with the psychological, this is generally limited to how we act alone or in personal relationships. It rarely extends to how we act together, how we combine collectively and hence how we constitute a force that can alter the whole of society. So, when it comes to public policy, the discipline is irrelevant. Fine for the Big Brother House, less so for No. 10.
Stephen Reicher is a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science