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Embracing Brevity in the Communication of Social Science

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As a member of SPSP, advocating for the field should never be far from one’s mind. This is especially true for members of the Government Relations Committee who have a specific focus on national policy and the system of research and development supported by the federal government and its agencies.

“Social psychology has the unique expertise to help provide solutions to many social issues, but people outside of our field are often unaware of the contributions we make,” says Government Relations Committee member Corey Cook.

And while the majority of members are not meeting with legislators on Capitol Hill to communicate the importance of the field’s efforts, each of us can play a role by explaining the value of our work through well-thought-out, concise language that resonates with the average person.

To encourage future advocates to embrace brevity and straightforwardness when communicating the impact of their work in the real world, the Committee developed a competition that asked students to use this “less is more” approach when detailing the impact of social science research.  

Announced earlier this year, the competition was modeled on COSSA's "Why Social Science" campaign. It asked researchers to relay the social impact of their work in 100 words or less. 

The committee received 47 submissions, mostly from graduate students. To arrive at the three best entries, Cook and fellow committee member Kate Sweeny of University of California Riverside, blindly evaluated each submission and scored the submissions on a scale of 1 to 3 based on the importance of the societal issue, its timeliness in terms of the current landscape, the submission’s level of interestingness, it’s readability and quality of writing, and the extent to which it highlights social psychology research.

The twelve entries with the highest total scores were then shared (again, blind to their author’s information) with the other members of the Government Relations committee (Lani Shiota, Jason Plaks and Chair Yolanda Niemann) and asked them to select their top 3 submissions. The three vignettes that received the most votes were determined the winners. The three winners—James Dunlea, a second year graduate student in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University, Ryan Lei, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Haverford College and Annie Maheux, a second year graduate student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh—will each receive a complimentary registration to SPSP2020 in New Orleans for their submission.

Congratulations James, Ryan, and Annie for their winning submissions (featured below). The Committee hopes everyone will be inspired to communicate the importance of their own work in equally concise and clear language.

image of man sitting on benchCriminal justice reform can start with our words

James Dunlea, Columbia University

Most people who are incarcerated will eventually leave prison or jail. Upon returning to “the outside,” many will experience discrimination. However, recent research in psychology has demonstrated that such negativity can be attenuated by changing the way we talk about incarceration. Adults who learn that incarceration is caused by societal inequalities report more positivity toward incarcerated people than those who learn that incarceration is a result of bad behaviors. Moreover, adults who learn that incarceration is a result of bad character are prone to holding especially negative views of incarcerated people. Together, this work demonstrates the power of our words.


image of female scientistChanging the language we use to build a more diverse STEM workforce

Ryan Lei, Haverford College

The words we use have a large effect on whether women and underrepresented minorities stay engaged with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Social science has shown how simple strategies such as shifting the words and language we use can have a large impact on students’ science motivation and feelings of capability. For example, talking about doing science (as an activity) or emphasizing students’ capacity to grow leads students to persist more in science activities than they might otherwise. These small changes take little effort but yield major benefits by sustaining a larger and more diverse STEM pipeline.


image of dry desert with dead treesDescribing climate change as a collective problem can engender climate action

Annie Maheux, University of Pittsburgh

Social scientists have known for a long time that humans are social creatures, and have now begun leveraging this need for social connectedness to address the climate crisis. Messages about climate change that frame the problem as a collective one – a “we’re in this together” attitude – promote support for climate action. Framing the problem in community values and emphasizing the steps others are already taking to reduce their carbon footprint encourages people to rally together around a common cause.

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