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

How to pack like a pro (for guys)

Yes, I’m packing to go to Europe. First up, the Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting and then a few days travelling in Switzerland. Inspired by a post from Grace,  here’s how to pack like a pro for guys only and no, I’m not going to do it with pretty pictures.

1. Liquids: Really? Do we need any? haha.. kidding. All we’ll need is a perfume (or deodorant), toothpaste, shaving cream & aftershave tightly wrapped in a plastic bag or better get one of those shaving kit pouches which can fit it all in. Yes, I have one. Make sure that caps are screwed on well before u put them in. Those going to Lindau, do get the insect repellent and allergy cream.

2. Undergarment bag: We don’t need one. … our dignity is right where it has to be. 😀 Someone wants to go through our baggage, they are free too. If they touch them, it’s their problem. Might be a good idea to carry some plastic bags to put the used ones though. 😉

3. Personal Hygiene bag: Wow! We don’t need that either. We got no jewelery or make-up to put in it. The shaving stuff will be in the shaving kit bag with all the liquids. 😉 The rest (emergency napkins, toilet roll?)  can go in anywhere in the bag.

4. Roll up your clothes: “Instead of folding squares, a superior method is to roll them up.  It reduces the space that they take up, and they unfold upon arriving at your destination without weird creases.” Nice idea. I’m willing to give this one a try. In the clothes, department, we do have a problem if we’re getting a suit (which I’ll need for the meeting!). Here’s a way of folding your suit without a garment bag.

5. Shoes: You all know. One pair of sneakers & one pair of formal shoes. Sweet!

6. Spare room for souvenirs: Nah! We’ll get some beer for our mates back home but that can be bought at the duty-free shop at the airport. Yes, I’ll also get some mugs, bells and chocolates (because I’m going to Switzerland) but considering I don’t need half the things that Grace did, I’ll have plenty of space in my bag.

Grace’s idea of two bags is good because in case you lose one, you’ll have something to continue on. But as I’m going to be a lot on the foot in Switzerland, I’ve decided to carry just one trekking bag. Inside the trekking bag, I’m going to take a smaller shoulder bag which will have my valuables (laptop, camera, passport, etc.) and which I can carry separately when I have a chance to leave the trekking bag in a hotel for the day. It’ll be perfect for the Lindau meeting as well.

PS: Lindau attendees, do read Jessica’s post (a quick survival guide) here.