Some trace the spike in psychology's popularity to Hollywood's glamorous and overly dramatic portrayal of the profession. In Basic Instinct, we are told that the psychopathic antagonist, Catherine Tramell (played by Sharon Stone), was a psychology major. The implicit message was that psychology can help you come out on top even if you're an ice-pick wielding serial killer. On the other side of the law, the BBC's hit TV series Cracker featured Robbie Coltrane as a degenerate, albeit endearing, forensic psychologist. This misanthropic maverick brought near psychic abilities to the interrogation room, solving high-profile cases that outfoxed regular detectives. This trend continues with the recent US series Lie To Me, based on the work of the psychology professor Paul Ekman, who is also a consultant to the show. The show's psychologists have the enviable ability to detect deception with an accuracy that renders polygraphs redundant. Who wouldn't want such a skill on occasion?
But while all of this is mostly art imitating reality, one thing is incontestable: the growth in psychology's popularity is very real. The US Department of Education reported 1.5 million bachelor's degrees in psychology were earned in 2007; this is about 6 per cent of all the bachelors degrees awarded. This places psychology firmly amongst the US's most popular majors, right up there with "sensible" majors like business. Psychology's rise has been rapid: between 2001 and 2007, the number of psychology degrees awarded in the US jumped by a massive 17.3 per cent. As a standalone course, introductory psychology is taken by 40 per cent of all first-year students; English composition is the only other course that attracts over 20 per cent of first-year students. The picture in the UK is very similar, according to the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). Psychology has become the largest scientific discipline in higher education, and the second largest overall.
Why are students increasingly interested in this discipline? One rather cynical idea is that our interest in psychology is linked to the rising levels of narcissism in society. Research in North America has shown a year-on-year increase in narcissistic personality traits among university students over the past decade. What subject could be more important for such students than the study of self? "Hi I'm Chad. I'm majoring in Me."
An equally cynical explanation is that the self-help industry and the "depression epidemic" have also contributed to the popularisation of psychology. Students are seeking answers to their own existential woes, or they are spotting a trend and hoping to cash in on the increased demand for therapy. But I suspect neither explanation accounts for much of the field's growth.
A mystical take on psychology's rise is that it is a sign of our troubled times. The collective unconscious is guiding us away from our external, world-conquering focus, toward internal self-improvement. Our conquest over the rest of nature has proven so successful that it now threatens disaster. A greater understanding of human nature may provide the antidote for our self-inflicted global woes.
A more down-to-earth explanation of psychology's popularity is its unique position as a bridge between the natural and social sciences. It provides students with a breadth of knowledge and skills applicable in everyday life and across professions. This breadth of focus is reflected in the diverse areas of employment enjoyed by psychology graduates. According to the QAA, roughly one third of graduates go on to postgraduate studies and careers as professional psychologists across a variety of sectors: the health service, the armed forces, education and civil service. Around another third work in industry and commerce, from personnel management to marketing and advertising. A further 10 to 15 per cent go into teaching and research, while the remainder take their valuable skills to an array of other jobs.
My personal experience at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi is that the demand for psychology-related courses has grown rapidly in the past few years. The university now offers a minor in applied psychology, and has increased the number of teaching sections to meet the growing demand for psychology courses. For many, the upshot of the broad interest is a growing "psychological literacy" at the societal level. Psychologically literate citizens are well equipped to think critically about their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. This can only be good news, given that so many of the world's problems are related to human behaviour.
Justin Thomas is a psychologist and assistant professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi