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Psychology and Society: How Society Shapes
Science and Science Shapes Society

George M. Slavich, Ph.D.
University of California, San Francisco

The Clinical Psychologist

Recent technological advancements have profoundly influenced our understanding of psychological health. Driven by innovations in genetic mapping and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, for example, disorders such as major depression are becoming increasingly investigated and discussed along biological lines. The resulting scientific perspective can easily become genetically and neurally deterministic, overemphasizing the role that biology plays in causing psychological disorders and minimizing the contribution of environmental factors to psychological health status.

Biological systems are involved in the onset and clinical course of all psychological disorders, and future work at this level of analysis will surely lead to novel treatments that have the capacity to significantly reduce disability and distress. Notwithstanding this point, though, just how much has the current Zeitgeist shaped research and theory in psychology?

One answer to this question surfaced during a talk I recently attended, given by a well-known geneticist. The talk addressed the role that genes play in risk for major depression, and at the end of the talk, the geneticist revealed what he and his colleagues had found. The PowerPoint slide summarizing their work was titled "Candidate Genes in Depression," and it was blank! The geneticist’s conclusion: After five years of research into the genetic bases of major depression, his group had found no evidence that candidate genes are associated with elevated risk for the disorder.

Overall, the talk was quite compelling, and if you were to take the conclusion at face value, then you would come away from the presentation thinking that candidate genes are not involved in risk for depression. That’s what I did. But then I realized that the models tested included only genetic factors. Environmental variables, such as exposure to life stress, were omitted, even though genetic risk for depression is known to be conditional upon environmental factors, such as exposure to both early and recent stress (see Caspi et al., 2003). I asked the presenter about this, and he responded: "There are probably pure genetic effects, pure stress effects, and then some interactive effects." The answer is fair, I suppose, but unsatisfying. Has the novelty of investigating the genetic bases of psychological disorders rendered all other factors uninteresting or unimportant?

Vignettes like this illustrate how societal changes may shape scientific thinking regarding disorders that we care about. And the effects of a Zeitgeist on science are never limited to only a few investigators. A recent review of research on how variation in the serotonin transporter gene interacts with stress to predict depression demonstrates this point. Specifically, it showed that while great care has generally been taken to determine participants’ genetic risk for depression (as indexed by their 5-HTTLPR status), few investigators carefully assess major life stress, even though stress constitutes half of the interaction term (see Monroe & Reid, 2008). In this case, environmental contributors to psychological health status have not been ignored entirely, but they have taken a backseat to genetic factors, which are much sexier and currently in vogue.

Society thus shapes science, but science also shapes society. Just a few years ago, for example, only geneticists could access their genetic fingerprint. Today, this information is available to anyone who is willing to pay $399 to 23andMe, a company that uses DNA analyses to genotype and provide to customers a remarkable amount of detailed, personalized feedback. Users are told their propensity for more than 90 health conditions and inherited traits. They can also explore the geographic origins of their genes and are permitted to compare their genomes to those of family and friends who also use the service. The ability to examine your genetic makeup was impossible in 1995 and financially prohibitive in 2005. In 2009, though, the service is not only widely available, but less costly than some visits to the dentist.

As it turns out, The Human Genome Project ushered in not just a new era of scientific exploration, but also a new wave of consumer products. What began as a basic science endeavor quickly evolved into a revolution, at the center of which lies personalized genomics. 23andMe represents only one example of how science may shape society, but it is a good example. Founded only in 2006, 23andMe’s genotyping service was named TIME Magazine’s 2008 Invention of the Year. Such attention shows that scientific discoveries, such as those in the fields of genomics and genetics, may profoundly influence societal discussions regarding human health. The potential implications of this are noteworthy. One wonders, for example, if promoting biological explanations over psychosocial ones will lead people to view health status as predetermined, causing them to entertain increasingly radical solutions for unwanted attributes. Will remedies that address our neurobiological and genetic makeup – such as psychiatric medications (for the “faulty brain”) and genetic engineering (for “faulty genes”) – become first-line treatments for various conditions, even when less extreme solutions are available and otherwise sensible?

Reflecting on how society shapes science is useful for budding and seasoned psychologists alike because it adds context and meaning to programs of research and bodies of work. This is particularly true in clinical psychology – a field in which disorders are not divinely defined but socially constructed based on what society believes is "abnormal" at a given time. Sadness following a relationship break-up is major depression, but sadness following a death is not.

Science also shapes society, and reminders of this help underscore that research can affect how people navigate their lives. This includes influencing how individuals view, and elect to treat, mental health issues. The intended consequences of science are often good, but unintended consequences also exist. Working to understand both is not only the responsible thing to do, but can be quite illuminating, as it reveals the pervasive power of science.

Caspi, A., Sugden, K., Moffitt, T. E., Taylor, A., Craig, I. W., Harrington, H., et al. (2003). Influence of life stress on depression: Moderation by a polymorphism in the 5-HTT gene. Science, 301, 386-389.

Monroe, S. M., & Reid, M. W. (2008). Gene-environment interactions in depression research: Genetic polymorphisms and life stress polyprocedures. Psychological Science, 19, 947-956.


Slavich, G. M. (2009). Psychology and society: How society shapes science and science shapes society. The Clinical Psychologist, 62(1), 9-10.

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George M. Slavich, Ph.D. :: Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology
UCLA Medical Center Plaza
300, Rm 3156 :: Los Angeles, CA 90095-7076
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