3 fields of psychology every comms person should explore

psychology definition

If you’d have told me when I graduated from my psychology degree course a decade ago that I’d be willingly writing about the topic, I’d have laughed my head off.

It’s not that I didn’t like psychology – it fascinated me. I just didn’t like university much (a post for another day!).

But here I am – about to write another psychology post. Why? Because if my time working in communications has shown me anything, it’s that psychology and comms (strategic function) are two sides of the same coin.

Comms = persuading people to think, feel or do something differently using words, images, sound etc

Psychology =

3 areas of psych blog post

Luckily, the topic still fascinates me and is very popular amongst the comms community, so there’s loads of people to share theories and experimental findings with. *GEEK EMOJI*

Here are 3 areas of psychology that I think provide vital – and intriguing – insight into the best way to persuade people to change.

1) Social psychology

In a nutshell… the study of how an individual’s social interactions affect their mind and behaviour, and their psychological make-up influences social structures.

Hot topics…



Pro-social behaviour

Social influence

Social cognition

Prejudice and discrimination

Big research questions…

Why do we obey leaders?

Do groups make better decisions than individuals?

How does online social networking differ from real-life social interaction?

How can you change someone’s attitude?

Why do we help others?

Fascinating findings…

Haters are all the same… according to the well-evidenced out-group homogeneity bias, we tend to overestimate the similarities between members of other groups compared to members of our own groups (e.g. women vs men). This bias is thought to be the motivational factor behind stereotyping and may be purposefully used for self-protection purposes. One study found that participants strategically used the bias when judging out-groups who gave them negative feedback (e.g. committee rejecting their job application). The bias was less evident when individuals received positive feedback or witnessed others getting feedback. According to the researchers, applying the bias allowed participants to dismiss the out-group’s negative feedback as unreliable, thus protecting their self-image (1).

Mind your paralanguage… with digital communication technologies developing at pace, researchers are increasingly interested in how textual paralanguage (TPL) – written expressions of non-verbal elements that supplement or replace written language, like emojis and exclamation marks – influences a reader’s response to online content. Marketing assistant professor Andrea Luangrath and colleagues found that brands who used more TPL when tweeting from their official account (e.g. ‘!!! *thumbs up*’) were seen as less competent, but this effect was reduced if the tweet came from a brand mascot’s account (2).

Think as one group, fail as one group… more heads are not always better than one, especially when you consider the concept of groupthink, the tendency for individual members of small cohesive groups to accept the group’s actual or perceived consensus even if it’s not valid or optimal. I’ve covered groupthink in-depth in a previous blog post.

Recommended read: Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini (buy it on Amazon)


2) Cognitive psychology

In a nutshell…. The study of how we acquire and apply information and knowledge.

Hot topics





Judgement and decision making


Big research questions…

How reliable are eyewitness testimonies?

Are humans rational decision makers?

How do our emotions affect our memory?

Does our language influence the way we think?

How do we judge risk?

Fascinating findings…

It’s risky business…when it comes to assessing risk, the framing of the message can have a considerable impact on our judgement. A classic study by psychology professor Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell and colleagues found that beachgoers who read a suncare brochure with gain-framed messaging (e.g. “Protecting yourself from the sun is the surest way to prevent skin cancer”) were more likely to request sunscreen and to intend to apply it regularly than those who read loss-framed messaging (e.g. “Exposing yourself to the sun is the surest way to get skin cancer”). (3)

You speak therefore you think: linguistic relativity – the belief that different languages have different effects on thought – is a much debated topic amongst cognitive psychologists. In support of the theory, researcher Benedetta Bassetti (2007) found that Italian monolingual children attributed more female voices to objects whose noun is grammatically feminine than Italian-German bilingual children. As both groups of children grew up in Italy, the bias in conceptualising objects could only be attributed to language.

Looking back, I should have… humans are predisposed to think counterfactually – to wonder how a situation could have turned out differently. But did you know you’re more likely to regret things you did in the short-term and things you didn’t do in the long-term? In one study, participants were given decision scenarios which differed in terms of outcomes and longevity of regret and asked to make judgements on how different people in the scenario would feel post-decision. Participants were more likely to judge an actor (than a non-actor) as regretful of their decision in short-term, bad-outcome scenarios, and judge the non-actor as regretful of their decision in the long-term, bad-outcome scenario (4).

Recommended reading: Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (Buy it on Amazon)

3) Personality psychology

In a nutshell… study of the individual differences in patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that make us, us.

Big research questions…

Can personality change over time?

Is creativity a personality trait?

How does our personality affect our job performance?

Do people with certain personality characteristics live longer than others?

What’s the best way to measure personality?

Fascinating findings…

Conscientiousness for Employee of the Year! The Conscientiousness personality trait (factors: efficient, dutiful and achievement-striving) has been positively linked to job performance, training proficiency, positive teams dynamics and job satisfaction; and negatively linked to absenteeism and turnover. Employees with high levels of this trait are more likely to be highly engaged – read my previous post to find out why.

Neurotics = smartphone addicts The more shady amongst us have long predicted that certain personality types are more reliant on their smartphones and social media apps – and emerging research suggests they might be on to something. A 2018 study found that people who rated high on neuroticism (factors: tense, shy, and lack self-confidence). were more likely to engage in problematic smartphone use, defined as compulsive use that negatively interferes with our productivity, relationships and health (5).

Make your ad about me… tailoring communication strategies to an individual’s psychological make-up may feel like too much work but research suggests it’s your best bet for getting people to engage. One study exploring the link between personality-based wording of a fake mobile phone ad and its perceived effectiveness found that participants high on extraversion (factors: sociable, enthusiastic, adventurous) were more persuaded by the ad which highlighted excitement and social reward, whereas those high on agreeableness (factors: forgiving, warm and flexible) were more interested in the ad focusing on connection with family and community (6).

Recommended reading: still looking for a good one – if you’ve any suggestions, let me know!

If you want more psychological content, I’ve written about academic insights into intranet usage and gave a conference talk on the psychology of leadership communications.

I’d love to hear how where your journey through psychology takes you – please leave a comment below or @ me on Twitter.

Happy exploring!


Abstracts for studies

Study (1) Savitsky et al (2016) | Study (2): Luangrath et al (2017) | Study (3): Detweiler et al (1999) | Study (4): Byrne & McEleney (2000) | Study (5): Horward & Anglim (2018) | Study (6): Hirsh et al (2012)



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