Psychology holds the key to solving world’s problems

If you think hard, you’ll realise the problem lies in people’s thinking. Credit: Mutiara Karina (flickr)

We have reached, in terms of technical solutions, if not a plateau, at least a point of diminishing marginal returns. The technology for cutting carbon emissions, for storing nuclear waste, for supporting forays into Alzheimer’s disease research and for taking science education to students in the developing world already exists.

In a post for the Lindau blog, Ashutosh Jogalekar suggests that, at a meeting of Nobel Laureates meant to inspire the young, there should be a place for psychologists. That is because, as he explains,

…while technological solutions can be challenging enough, changing people’s minds is a truly herculean task, often spread over several generations and entire social movements.

And this thought has often troubled me. Technology has developed rapidly in the past few centuries, but human psychology has remained the same for thousands of years.

We know today that there are certain things that humans will be predictably doing wrong. These biases and heuristics affect us all and force us to make these mistakes. Two psychologists received the economics Nobel for their work in this area and that work has have also hinted at some solutions to these problems. After all, as Ashutosh puts it,

Science and technology can only take us so far. Ultimately nothing changes until people and politicians’ thought processes change, and no number of sound technical fixes will work if people refuse to believe in their benefits and change their behavior.

Dealing with climate change is a prime example of this. For many years, there has existed the technology to do something but not the political will. The trouble is, as many have said before, even after it is too late to do something about the climate, we will be seeking technological fixes. Of course we still need to improve the efficiency of solar cells and to understand the dangers of geoengineering, but all those tweaks and minor developments will happen if, say, the world adopts carbon-trading and rewards green solutions over polluting ones.

Psychology is often looked as a soft science. In recent years, it drew attention because of malpractice of a few scientists. At the moment, though, it seems to also be one of the most powerful weapons we have to deal with the world’s problems. Yet, few look at psychology from that perspective.

The big questions

Jean-Marie Lehn shared the 1987 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Donald Cram and Charles Pederson for their development and use of molecules with structure-specific interactions of high selectivity. He is more commonly known as the father of supramolecular chemistry. In the lecture that preceded this interview, he tried to explain the importance of supramolecular chemistry. “Chemistry is a bridge between Physics and Biology. It tries to explain how complexity arose from particulate matter”, he said with conviction.

Interview with Jean-Marie Lehn: Chemistry is trying to answer the biggest questions – Nature Lindau, 15 July 2010