Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

What is psychology’s greatest achievement?

I am sure that there are some who still proclaim that psychology’s greatest achievement is buried somewhere in Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic papers, whereas others will reject the focus on early childhood memories in favor of present day Skinnerian contingencies of prediction and control. Still others might vote for a self-actualizing, Maslowian humanistic psychology, which has been more recently branded as positive psychology. Having studied in all three of these areas in my lifetime, I have found these models to be hopelessly individualistic and ecologically incomplete.

Regretfully, piecemeal and person-centered approaches have dominated these psychological world views, particularly when it comes to treatment and rehabilitation. For example, our massive investments in prisons has done little to protect us, but rather has stigmatized and victimized a generation of our most vulnerable citizens. Just think, hundreds of thousands of people are locked up for petty, non-violent crimes, often involving drug usage. Being warehoused in total institutions only serves to unwittingly teach prisoners how to become seasoned criminals. When inmates exit these desensitizing settings, they are given one-way tickets back to the networks, associates, and ineffective programs that often further cement hopelessness and demoralization. Formerly incarcerated individuals need safe housing and decent jobs, but are only provided dehumanizing shelters and dead end job training programs. As a consequence, most psychological models perpetuate programs that are expensive, ineffective, and fail to address the social environments that provide so few constructive opportunities or resources.

Drug overdose by Sam Metsfan (Apartment in New York). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Drug overdose by Sam Metsfan (Apartment in New York). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Our efforts to curb violence have had similarly disappointing outcomes. We know that adolescent violent behavior, for instance, is positively related to factors outside of the adolescent, such as peer behavior, family conflict, and exposure to community violence. Our youth are exposed to media saturated with violence, where negative consequences for aggressive behavior are rarely depicted. The ready availability of guns further fuels an erosion in the social fabric of neighborhoods. A tipping point arrives when schools with the greatest needs are provided the fewest resources and where illegal gang activities provide the best job prospects. And yet our therapeutic models continue to ignore these contextual barriers and risks, and the failure to embrace more preventive frameworks dooms our efforts to control or eradicate crime and violence.

Psychological models that attempt to eliminate deficits and problems for individuals rarely address the causes that contribute to those problems. Such models often only produce cosmetic change that provides, at best, short-term solutions. These interventions are alluring because they promise to solve the most deeply-rooted problems with simple solutions, yet they fail at the most basic levels due to ignoring the “elephant in the room” of racism, neighborhood disintegration, and poverty. Such interventions can render people powerless to overcome their oppression or unable to break out of a cycle of crime or addiction.

Fifty years ago, the field of community psychology emerged out of a comparable crisis in the 1960s, a time of turmoil involving the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. Although not well known among the public, community psychology’s vital ecological model provides a far richer framework for solving our nation’s problems than those involving psychoanalytic, behavioral, or positive psychology. This new field offers the powerful message of prevention as an effort to move beyond attempts to treat each affected individual. The field also promotes collaboration, actively involving citizens as true partners in efforts to design and implement community-based interventions. This discipline further rejects simplistic linear cause and effect ways of understanding social problems and instead adopts a more elegant, complex, systems approach that seeks to understand how individuals affect and are influenced by their social environments. In other words, community psychology provides a unique framework from which to examine contextual influences that have been absent from prior models dominated by thinking of problems as resting solely within individuals. As a field, community psychology is a contribution that stirs the imagination by charting a course that can provide structural, comprehensive, and effective solutions to our most pressing problems.

Heading image: Prison fence by jodylehigh. CC0 via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Sandip Roy

    I’d say Positive Psychology (PP) is the greatest achievement of Psychology. There are going to be detractors of PP, and there are going to be people who’d brand happiness as a disease, and yet more who’d proclaim that sadness & anger serves a greater purpose than positive emotions – still, PP will stand tall and long.

  2. Tonya Hall

    This is an excellent blog stating that community psychology is psychology’s greatest achievement! I agree that prevention efforts in the community are often overlooked leading to an unnecessarily weighted emphasis on “solving the problem” by attempting to “fix the individual.” How apropos for what we are seeing unfold before our very eyes nationwide!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *