In my almost 4 decades of being a social psychologist, few people have asked me why I decided on a career in social psychology. Maybe it’s not too interesting to find out why people choose a career, maybe there’s something else to discuss, or maybe the topic never occurred to the people with whom I interact, but whatever the reason, I have only had a few occasions to explain my career choice to anyone. For this reason, I will take this opportunity to tell the world why I decided to become a social psychologist. Like many undergraduate students who major in psychology, I initially considered earning a Ph. D. in clinical psychology. As a child, I routinely helped friends and family members with a variety of personal crises, to the point I became pretty adept at seeing the world through other people’s eyes. Soon after starting college, however, I decided that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a negative, soul scorching, environment of counseling people who, for the most part, were not going to make permanent positive life changes. I became interested in cognitive psychology, the science of attention, learning, memory, reasoning, and problem solving, after taking a few classes in this area. I delved into cognitive psychology, becoming a research assistant to one of my professors in my junior year of college. During my senior year, when I was preparing to apply for admission to graduate school, something terrible happened while I was taking an introductory social psychology class. On November 18, 1978, 909 people were murdered in what is now known as the Jonestown Massacre. My astute social psychology professor suspended our regular course of study for the remainder of the semester to focus his teaching on how the scientific premises of social psychology can explain this terrible tragedy. I became interested in learning everything I could about social psychology, applied for admission to Ph.D. programs in social psychology, was accepted to 5 schools, and ultimately chose to attend the Florida State University to study with Dr. John C. Brigham, one of the most famous social psychologists in the world. I turned an awful tragedy into a lifelong learning experience and love of social psychology. Not bad for a small town girl from Fort Myers, Florida.
Melissa told me the story of why she chose social psychology not long after we met. The number of social psychologists are but a fraction of the total number of psychologists and are not what one usually thinks of when thinking of psychologists. Clinical psychologists, like TV’s Dr. Bob Hartley (Bob Newhart) are much more the stereotype of psychologists. And though I took a couple of psychology courses in college, I didn’t understand the various other fields of psychology. Social psychology is more research oriented, studying human interactions in many settings. The Jonestown massacre was a dramatic event in many ways. One of the few positive outcomes of this horrible event was that it has been studied from many angles in hopes of learning from this unimaginable tragedy. In Melissa’s case, it obviously sparked her interest in making social psychology come alive. The need for human behavior research was made more real than ever. As a catalyst, that was a good thing. And it drove her to research memory, specifically, the legal ramifications of eyewitness memory/testimony. Her experience conducting and publishing on that topic gave her direction to further study human behavior as it interacts with the legal system as a career. Her entry into the trial/jury consulting world was made possible by her having a strong foundational education in social psychology, and especially the legal ramifications. As a backstory to a career, I think her story is quite unique.
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