Social Psychology’s Practical Wisdom

In 1964, I arrived in Iowa City and anxiously walked into the University of Iowa’s psychology department to meet my graduate school advisor. Among his first words: “I know, Dave, that you indicated ‘personality psychology’ as your interest area. But our only personality psychologist has just left . . . so we’ve moved you into social psychology.”

Thus began my journey into social psychology. Looking back, aware of the exciting fruits of social psychology’s last half century, I view that unexpected shift as providential. And reading The Wisest One in the Room, by my esteemed colleagues Tom Gilovich and Lee Ross, fortifies my sense of the importance of social psychology’s practicality. Their new book, subtitled How You Can Benefit from Social Psychology’s Most Powerful Insights, enumerates social psychology’s biggest ideas and applies them to promoting happiness, conflict resolution, success for at-risk youth, and a sustainable climate future.

The latter goal, they note, will be enabled by social norms that stigmatize the worst climate-change offenders and celebrate those who are advancing sustainability.

That may sound like an impossible aim in a year when one party’s presidential candidate is a climate-change skeptic who has tweeted that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”?

But consider, Gilovich and Ross remind us, of how fast social norms can change, with

  • same-sex couples’ rights going from nonexistent to the law and will of the land, 
  • fertility rates dropping sharply worldwide in response to overpopulation,
  • smoking transformed from being grown-up and sophisticated to being (among middle class people) dirty and just plain stupid. Yesterday’s cool—big tobacco—has become today’s corporate evil.

The hopeful bottom line: transformational change can happen with surprising speed and great effect.