Psychology and Technology: A Look Back to See Where We Are

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Psychology is the scientific study of mind and behavior. As such, the field is relevant to literally anything you can imagine yourself doing.

Psychology is probably most commonly thought of as a discipline that identifies and treats psychological disorders. And while it’s true that clinical psychologists are important contributors to mental health fields both in terms of advancing clinical science and providing clinical services, there are numerous other branches of psychology that collectively interface with just about every other sector of society – and that includes advanced technology.

Consider modern computers. Not too long ago, computers were basically viewed as incredibly powerful calculators, a substantial improvement over something like an abacus.

Today, our views of computers are very different. We take it for granted that computers are things that we can interact with, machines that can be used to solve just about any problem we encounter and even connect with people from around the world – computers are seen as quite a bit more than glorified calculators.

How did this shift come about?

It turns out that an experimental psychologist – J.C.R. Licklider – published a series of influential papers in the mid-20th century that introduced several then-novel concepts that foreshadowed what computers have become. These include the ideas that computers can be used as a tool for enhancing a person’s cognitive ability (think modern day calendar applications), artificial intelligence (think Siri or Alexa), and computers that could communicate over a network (think the Internet and cloud computing).

It would be a stretch to claim that Licklider invented modern computing, but he was certainly an influential figure, and importantly for purposes of this piece, he was a psychologist by training (he is also well known for advancing models of how the humans perceive acoustic pitch – a topic firmly within the realm of psychophysics).

Many of the technologies that Licklider envisioned transformed the field of computing, and these technologies have in turn transformed the field of experimental psychology.

Every area of modern psychology has benefited greatly from advances in computing technology. For example, telehealth is an important technology for clinical psychologists, especially in the age of Covid19. Without networked computers, which were envisioned by Licklidder, telehealth would not be possible. Students interested in the future of psychology would be wise to pay attention to emerging technologies as the exchange between psychology and technology is still ongoing.  With their understanding of human thinking and behavior, students of psychology are well positioned to help create technology for the future.

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By:D. Alexander Varakin, Ph.D., professor, EKU Department of Psychology

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