The Impact of Psychology

"We can put a man on the moon but we still cannot reliably teach slum children to read." This view is an accurate reflection of national priorities but it is misleading in its implication as to what can be done. It would have. been more accurate to say, "We have put men on the moon but we have not taught slum children to read." The fact is, we can reliably teach slum children to read but we have not yet done so systematically on a nationwide scale. There are other things that can be done that have not yet been done. But the science of psychology is now getting involved in real life in ways that may enable applied psychology to make an impact comparable to that of applied physics.

This module will present three examples of ways in which the science of psychology has become involved in practical, and often controversial, issues. These examples illustrate two points that were introduced in Module One:

1. Working with the same raw material (i.e., observations of the same behaviors) different psychologists may legitimately reach diametrically opposite conclusions. Even when the scientific data is the same, its interpretation depends very heavily on the judgment of the scientist.
2. The science of psychology can use its knowledge of behavior to achieve known objectives. Anyone may form his own opinion as to the importance of those objectives, but many issues in which psychologists are involved (including the three described in this module) have attracted a great deal of public attention.

As you study the text, make your own tentative evaluation of the positions taken by the various psychologists whose work is described. You will be able to make better informed evaluations when you have finished the course, but from your study of Module One, you can already begin to apply certain criteria, such as: .


The question of whether man's behavior, and especially his intelligence, is influenced more by heredity or environment has been hotly debated since long before any scientific data was available on the subject. The issue is fundamental to many moral, social, and political policies, particularly regarding racial and other minority groups. It was inevitable that psychologists would become involved in the argument when they started developing scientific data relevant to the problem.

The available evidence on the effects of heredity and environment is still inconclusive.

Since the early 1900's, a great deal of relevant data have been developed. There have been extensive analyses of results from objective tests designed to measure achievement and capability. One might have expected that this new evidence would have settled the issue. But the introduction of new data and expert opinion seems, so far, to have shed more heat than light on the subject. The psychologists themselves (all of whom have access to the same evidence) are as divided in their views as anyone else. There is little disagreement as to what the data are; the issue revolves around the interpretation of the data. What the new data accomplished was to provide more impressive evidence for either position, as long as the contradictory evidence was downgraded in significance.

Considering only the question of intelligence, there are two facts which are almost never disputed by an informed observer:

1. Many minority and low-income groups score consistently lower on tests than does the white middle class majority. This is a fact, clearly verifiable in objective data. For example, during World War II, more than 10 million service men and women took the Army General Classification Test (AGCT) and Whites scored significantly higher than Blacks.
2. No one has devised a test of intelligence that has not been shown to favor one group or another. Taking the same example (the AGCT scores in World War II), northern Blacks from urban communities scored significantly higher than rural southern Whites. In another example, white children did very poorly on a "Chitlin' IQ Test" which was loaded with questions familiar to most black children.

The data are insufficient to prove either position, but enough to make the validity of both claims doubtful.

These are two facts, at least to the extent that no one disagrees with them. But what do the facts mean in terms of the "Nature-Nurture" controversy? One view holds that the low scores achieved by the minority and low income groups result from the impoverished learning environment in which they are held by their socio-economic position. They do not have an equal opportunity to learn about the subjects covered by the IQ tests, just as white children have not had a chance to learn to define "chitlins." While few if any people conclude that heredity has no effect at all, the proponents of this view feel that the cultural biases in the tests represent adequate evidence for discounting the claim that heredity is the dominant factor in measured intelligence.

Another (equally well-informed) view gives more weight to the difference in test scores. While acknowledging that biases exist in the tests, the proponents of this view contend that heredity is the best predictor of a child's future performance, and that people with the greatest inherited intelligence climb highest on the social and economic ladder.

The issue will probably never be resolved to the satisfaction of everyone, but it has far-reaching effects on society. Whether they state their positions or not, those who make social and political policy reflect one position or another in decisions which have very real implications for millions of people.

Professor Richard Herrnstein (1971 ) is one of those who believes that intelligence, and therefore success in a social sense, is determined mostly by heredity. He envisions America becoming a meritocracy by which he means that society will become stratified by IQ, with only the more intelligent people reaching the pinnacle of success while the less intelligent remain stuck at the bottom. Dr. Herrnstein emphatically denies that he said that Blacks are inferior to Whites. But such a position must inevitably strike some people as racist. In his article, Dr. Herrnstein said: "The data on IQ and social class differences show that we have been living in an inherited stratification of our society for some time." His book on The Bell Curve, 1995 was quite controversial.

Two other scientists who have been involved in this controversy are Arthur R. Jensen of the University of California, and William Shockley, the inventor of the transistor, of Stanford University. Jensen published an article in the Harvard Education Review (1969) entitled, "How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?" His conclusion was: not very much. But Jensen went further than that and actually postulated that Blacks and Whites differed in inherited intelligence. Dr. William Shockley debated his views on race and intelligence at a California junior college. The San Francisco Chronicle (1972) reported Shockley's views as: "Translated, this means that some dwellers on welfare will breed more children and lower the quality of the gene pool. Shockley said it is already happening. He insisted that Blacks have become less intelligent as a group over the last 30 years, because of the adverse destructive influence of welfare policy." Most psychologists reject Dr. Shockley's conclusion. Even those who agree that intelligence is influenced principally by heredity do not claim that selective breeding has caused a lowering of the intellectual capacity of any racial or cultural group.

Social and political priorities could be changed radically if one position or another became generally accepted

There are still others who suggest that the whole controversy is a waste of time. This line of argument emphasizes practical considerations. It says, in effect, "Heredity is presently beyond our direct control, so instead let us concern ourselves with variables we can manipulate and see how far we can go in increasing measured intelligence by providing a stimulating environment." This position was supported by Dr. Michael Scriven (1971 ) at a symposium held by the Western Psychological Association on the question of race and IQ. He concluded that the whole controversy was non-productive and that instead of conducting further research on genetic differences that may affect intellectual behavior, we should get on with researching more important problems, such as how to teach children to read.

The Question of Scientific Morality

Most psychologists are acutely aware of the need to be sure of their ground

The controversy involving intelligence, heredity, and race has raised another important issue. Psychologists have often taken the position, as do most scientists, that they must report their findings regardless of the consequences. As a result, psychologists are becoming increasingly embroiled in a question similar to that asked of atomic scientists a few years ago: do the scientists have a moral responsibility for the many uses people make of their findings? There is no easy answer to that question. But some say that if a message has strong social and political implications, it is entirely appropriate that it be criticized at a political level. Professor Fotis Kafatos (1970) wrote, "Just as it is intolerable to suppress thought for political reasons, so is it intolerable to make a political statement immune from exposure under the guise of academic freedom."


Recently a whole new area of research has been opened up by psychologists, called "biofeedback." This research is dedicated to learning how we can establish voluntary control over many bodily functions that are normally maintained automatically. There has been evidence that for thousands of years eastern mystics have been able to exert remarkable control over their body functions. For example, some yogis have gone into trance-like states that simulate death so perfectly that their heart beats can just barely be detected. In the past, many of these claims were disregarded, but recently such phenomena have been studied in the laboratory.

Biofeedback research is challenging many established assumptions about neurophysiological functions

Until this research became available, psychology texts taught that most of the internal body functions were reflexive and therefore beyond any kind of voluntary control. There were some exceptions, such as toilet training, but reflexive behaviors such as heart rate, respiration, the regulation of blood pressure, and so on, were subject to different behavioral laws than the voluntary behaviors. Recent experiments have changed this picture considerably. Reports are being received of organisms learning to control the level and form of electrical activity in the brain as well as normally involuntary responses such as the formation of urine and even the ability to turn pain off and on.

Biofeedback researcher Joe Kamiya (1971 ) characterized the procedures for establishing such control as using a sort of "psychological mirror." Normally we are unaware of these internal bodily activities, but if sensitive electrical detecting equipment can amplify and display them so that the person can "read" his own internal activities, then he may be able to learn to control them through practice. For example, heart beats can easily be picked up by a microphone, amplified, and "played" to the subject. The person can then try various kinds of "internal experiments" and recognize immediately any change in the rate of his heart beat. After a series of practice trials, he can often achieve some degree of control of his heart rate, increasing it or decreasing it at will. Through similar procedures people have learned to exercise direct voluntary control over many body and brain functions that were previously considered to be totally beyond such control; such phenomena include sweating, high blood pressure, stomach acidity, migraine headaches, and insomnia.

These findings have many potential implications in the field of medicine. For example, could a patient learn to control his blood pressure or blood sugar content without drugs? Can people learn to block pain without chemical anesthesia? It is still too early to answer these questions but many encouraging experiments are being conducted.

Dr. Neil Miller, a pioneer in this field, has reported on experiments dealing with the voluntary control of the vasomotor response (1970). Tiny blood vessels expand or contract to increase or decrease the amount of blood in various parts of the body. For example, whenever we are cold, the capillaries near the surface of the skin contract to conserve body heat. These actions are reflexive; we did not learn them. Dr. Miller describes one of his experiments as follows. "Dr. DiCara and I put photo-cells on both ears of the curarized rat (an animal which had temporarily been paralyzed by the drug, curare) and connected both of them in such a way that only when differences between the amount of blood in each ear occurred, were the animals rewarded. . . We were somewhat surprised and greatly delighted to find that this experiment actually worked. Each of the six rats rewarded for relative vasodilation in the left ear showed that response. Each of the six rats rewarded for vasodilation in the right ear showed that response." The ability of every one of these rats to turn one ear bright pink while the other remained white shows the precision of control which can be acquired by biofeedback.

Some physical illnesses may be learned responses .

These findings also raise other interesting questions. Have we, in many cases, learned to be ill? Miller gives the following example. "Suppose a child is terror stricken before going to school in the morning because he is completely unprepared for an important examination. A strong fear elicits a variety of fluctuating autonomic symptoms, such as a queasy stomach one time, a pallor and faintness at another. At this point a mother who is particularly concerned about cardiovascular symptoms says, 'You are sick and must stay home.' The child feels a great relief from the fear and is thus rewarded. This reward should reinforce the cardiovascular response producing pallor and faintness. If such an experience were repeated frequently enough, the child theoretically should learn to respond with that kind of symptom."

Controlling the Brain

A device called the electroencephalograph, or EEG machine, has been used for a number of years to record brain waves. One particular type of brain wave detected by this machine is called the alpha wave, which is often observed whenever a person is in a state of relaxation. These same waves have been observed occasionally in sleep and during yoga and Zen meditation. Work on the voluntary control of alpha was begun by Joe Kamiya at the University of Chicago. In a typical experiment, Kamiya attaches electrodes to a subject's head. These are connected to a device which detects alpha rhythms and indicates their presence to the subject in the form of a blinking light or audible tone. If the alpha waves are fast alpha waves, the light is fast or the tone is high.

Through biofeedback training people have learned to duplicate conditions achieved in deep meditation

Kamiya found that when subjects are told to "eliminate the alpha tone," many learn quickly to do so. When later questioned on how they did it, they often report that they would use visual imagery, that is, they would conjure up an image of a person's face, hold it, and "look" at it very carefully. Kamiya concluded that, when subjects were able to fixate on something, they could effectively turn off their alpha.

In other experiments, he asked subjects to maintain or increase the alpha tone. These subjects generally reported a feeling of pleasantness; they often associate a high alpha state with a "relaxation of the mental apparatus," a sort of general calming down. One subject stated, "You just sort of listen to the tone and let it carry you along."

What is the future for biofeedback? It is too early to be certain but some of the speculations are staggering: Some predict that there will shortly be biofeedback centers all over the country; there is already a small industry developing which sells alpha counters to the public. Others consider it a fad. Is it a step toward greater awareness of ourselves? Perhaps when future generations have learned to control their physiology, they will look back on the beginnings of biofeedback and rate it as important to mankind as the development of language.


After a few months of guidance, a group of high school drop-outs were eagerly attacking their school work in order to earn points which gave them the opportunity to do things they enjoyed. An emotionally disturbed twelve- year-old who, in his self-mutilative acts had nearly bitten off two of his fingers, stopped this behavior after one week of behavioral therapy. A shy four-year-old, whose parents thought he was mentally retarded, was rewarded for expressions of self-confidence and within a month learned to read at the second grade level. These are typical of the results reported by a group of psychologists known as behavior technologists in the areas of education, rehabilitation and therapy (Homme and Tosti, 1971). These psychologists are using behavior modification techniques which try to influence apparent motivation by managing the consequences of behavior. That is, attention is focused on what happens to a person after, rather than before, he exhibits a particular behavior.

Both common sense and empirical evidence indicate that the consequences of a behavior affect the probability that it will be repeated. If, for example, positive consequences (e.g., a reward) follow a behavior, then the subject is more likely to repeat that behavior. Conversely if we apply aversive consequences (e.g., punishment) then we decrease the likelihood that it will occur again.

The term "Contingency Management" was coined (Tosti, 1965) to identify procedures that one uses in applying these principles. The term "contingency" refers to the relationship between an event and its consequences. For example, we can say that receiving a paycheck is contingent upon working. We can all think of many such contingencies that influence our day to day behavior, e.g.,

A particular consequence- -

is contingent upon

A specific behavior



eating asparagus

a painful burn


touching a hot stove

use of the car


working hard in school

Some contingencies occur just because of the way the natural world is constructed; if you touch a live electrical wire, you will get shocked. But most of the contingencies which affect our lives are "arranged" or managed by other people. Teachers, parents, or therapists who try to modify behavior by regulating the contingencies between behavior and its consequences, are using contingency management, regardless of me words they may use to describe their approach.

Grandma's Law embodies sound psychological principles: First the beans; Then the dessert

Generally speaking anyone functioning as a contingency manager is trying either to strengthen a desired behavior or weaken an undesired one. One simple question that is always asked in such programs is: "What favorable consequences (or payoffs) are there for the behavior in question?" If there is none for a desired behavior, the contingency manager arranges for there to be one. If, on the other hand, there is a payoff that is maintaining an undesired behavior, then the contingency manager sees to it that the payoff stops. The techniques are often simple in their application, but they sometimes have profound effects. Consider the following case history. Allyon (1965) relates that a psychotic in a mental hospital for 16 years would not eat unless a nurse led her to the dining room, gave her a tray, silverware, and food, seated her at a table, then urged her to eat and occasionally spoon- fed her. The therapist hypothesized that the consequence which was maintaining her helplessness with regard to eating was the attention she got from the nurses whenever she displayed her helplessness. This being the case, the nurses were instructed not to feed the patient, or even to take her to the dining room. On the other hand, they were to give her attention immediately whenever she did any of these things for herself. The results were that, for four days, the patient remained sitting in her chair during mealtime, thereby missing all her meals for those days. On the fifth day, another patient went with her to the dining room, and a few meals thereafter she started going to the dining room entirely without help. Once the patient began to take food and eat by herself, the eating problem was over. A later follow-up study indicated that she was still eating normally two years later.

A contingency manager concentrates on changing behavior that can be observed

There are several things worth noticing in this example. First, the therapist arranged the social environment so that inappropriate behaviors no longer paid off and started providing rewards for appropriate ones. Another thing to notice is that the therapist did not have to delve into the original causes of a behavior problem that started 16 years earlier. The solution did not depend on a knowledge of the patient's family relationships, or early childhood experiences, or any other historical facts.

This course in Introductory Psychology is an example of contingency- management principles applied to formal education. Your progress from each unit to the next is contingent upon your demonstrated mastery on the unit tests; when you score high enough, you are allowed to go on to the next unit. If you do not do well, you must re-study the unit and take a second form of the test. The payoff is moving to the next unit, contingent upon passing each of the unit examinations. The contingencies to strengthen study behaviors have been arranged early in the semester, because whatever pattern is set in the first few weeks is likely to be maintained.


In this module, we have been discussing applied psychology. Just in these few examples, you have seen the science at work, influencing many real-life situations, e.g.:

No one can predict accurately what the future impact of the science of psychology will be in another 10, or 20, or 30 years. We can only predict that this science, like other sciences, will do far more in the next 30 years than it has in the last 30 years. If anything, this is more true now of psychology than of other sciences simply because it is still in a relatively early stage of its development.

To obtain reliable results, applied psychology must use concepts that are scientifically valid

You should note that few of the achievements so far, and certainly none of the more demanding tasks to come, could result only from common sense solutions. Indeed, most of the solutions make sense after the fact, but they were not intuitively obvious until they were discovered through careful observation, analysis, and testing. Achieving more outstanding goals in the future will require a great deal more of the same.

NOW GO TO PROGRESS CHECK to check your comprehension.