How to Change the World

If you enter the world of research, there will come a time when you’re talking about your studies at a party and you suddenly realize that no one cares. If you’re lucky, this will happen before you’ve been in academia for 10 years and published 30 papers that 5 of your closest friends have read. Or skimmed. Let’s be honest, they read the title. So how can you take the leap from academia to real life? How can you changethe world -- and for the better? The following list of strategies, along with the previous sad (but true) observation about your unread publications have been stolen from the mind of social psychologist and UCLA Professor, Ben Karney.

Photo from PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE (Flickr)
Photo from PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE (Flickr)

1. Identify a problem that people actually have and actually solve it

There's plenty of problems. Take your pick. Robert Cialdini picked "how to influence people." I probably should have read his work before writing this post...

2. Debunk a myth

Confident that your memories are accurate? See the work of famous psychologist, Elizabeth Loftus, and think again.

3. Write a book (that people actually read)

I hate to break it to you, but no matter how cool your name looks on that journal article, few people are going to see it. Take the advice of psychologist Daniel Gilbert and write a popular psychology book instead.

4. Pass legislation

As someone who's lobbied in D.C., let me warn you that this takes time. If you're a patient saint, go for it! If you're not, go for it anyway, but write that book on the side. Your representatives are supposed to represent you, so if there's something you care about, let them know. For inspiration, learn about how psychologists Clark and Clark influenced the decisions of the Supreme Court on Brown v. Board of Education.

5. Create a tool

But also be prepared to market it. Or pay someone to market it.  Or go to conferences and talk about your tool nonstop. Or be famous to begin with and tweet about it.

6. Develop an institution

If you want, you can even stick your name on it. Sure, institutions can fail, but they can also live on for ages. It's a big investment, but then again, it's a big way to change the world.

7. Change the culture

This is a huge one, it often requires a lot of hammering your point into the ground (see #9). But it can have some of the most far-reaching implications. Consider Positive Psychologywhich is not merely an emerging topic in psychology, but also a movement that is shifting the focus of psychology beyond dysfunction to human strengths.

8. Teach

World-changing professor Ben Karney forgot to put this on the list, so let me add it for him. If you teach, you can change the world. But the only way you’ll receive any credit for it is if your students become famous and write books that chronicles their lives (see #3). So remind your students how much they want to become authors. And how much they want to mention you in their books.

9. Hammer a point into the ground

This is crucial for the success of most of the above strategies. If you solve a problem, let people know you solved it. Repeatedly. If you debunked a myth, remind people the myth is wrong. Repeatedly. If you wrote a book, talk about it. Repeatedly. Don't like talking? Then write even more. Good ideas can change the world, but they can wither and die in darkness. Shine light on the topics that matter to you, because with enough attention, these topics might come to matter to other people, too.

10. And always remember to "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." -Margaret Mead (1901-1978)