In 1969, the President of the American Psychological Association, George Miller proposed that psychologists should ultimately aim to 'give psychology away' to the general public, in the pursuit of making the whole human race more self reflective. He proposed that psychologists should be responsible for discovering 'what is humanly possible, and what is humanly desirable.' The aim that he set for the next generation of psychologists was to 'advance psychology as a means of promoting human welfare'.
The events of 2016 have indicated that psychologists have largely failed in this endeavour. While 'pop' reality TV shows in which competitors are crudely psychologically manipulated for entertainment have proliferated since the turn of the 20th Century, many aided by psychological 'consultants', underpinning societal structures have deteriorated to the extent that huge numbers of people in western democracies are currently rejecting the liberal values that have underpinned western democracy since 1945 in order to place their faith in divisive demagogues.
Such politicians have a standard approach: identify a usually weak, minority sector of a population as a threat, and then assure the audience that they are going to take a 'tough' approach to 'deal with the problem'. This syndrome is well known in evolutionary psychology; the alpha male who follows a standard pattern of oratory: create a threat, then play on the fear aroused by intimating the need for a 'strong man' who will take care of everything in some purposively vague and unspecified fashion. Highly anxious populations are vulnerable to such demagoguery, and it is clear that much human anxiety builds up in response to socio-political factors. For example, in post WWI Germany the highly punitive reparations forced on the losers following the Armistice led to the rise of Adolph Hitler and his Nazi philosophy.
More recently, in the democratic western world, the neoliberal philosophy introduced by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. In an interview with the Sunday Times in May 1981, Thatcher proposed 'Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.' Thirty five years later, we are experiencing the consequences of neoliberalism's unsurprising failure to rip away the evolved social and collaborative human 'heart and soul', in the apparently surprising choices made by the electorates of two of the leading nations who set up the democratic, liberal consensus that has dominated the western world since 1945: the vote to leave the European Union in Britain, and the election of President Trump in the USA.
However, the mass psychological pathway towards such outcomes was gradually emerging from the 1990s onwards, most obviously in a rising tide of mental breakdown in both nations, driven by systems that sprang up to rip the heart out of these societies by coldly weighing and measuring the 'worth' of each individual in terms of his/ her potential earning power. Young children were converted into capital as soon as possible in a culture of professionalised care and early assessments against performance targets, the sick and disabled were increasingly bullied into seeking paid employment, and the elderly were induced to stay in paid labour for as long as possible. Schools were turned into exam factories, and attempts made to turn schools, universities and health services into quasi-corporations. Those undertaking roles caring for the young, the old and the disabled are allocated both low pay and low status. Those in employment are continually assessed and evaluated, and where possible, kept on short term contracts where extensions depend upon compliance and 'performance'.
In the early 1950s, psychologist John Bowlby introduced the concept of the Internal Working Model that he proposed regulates our social and emotional responses to others. If we feel that we are socially and emotionally connected to other people and expect that they will show care towards us, then we in turn feel connected to them and show care towards them. If the opposite is the case, then, as highly social creatures, human beings consequently develop low self-esteem and a deep anger towards others. Later attachment theorist Mary Ainsworth described the condition of anxious ambivalence- the behaviour of children of fickle, self-centered and over-demanding parents, who become unsure that they are worthy of love. One of the symptoms of anxious ambivalence in adulthood is a continual, ultimately unsuccessful quest for enough affection to fill the chasm that indifferent parenting has created. In this way, anxiously ambivalent people become highly vulnerable to the machinations of unscrupulous and exploitative individuals.
The manner in which neoliberal societies treat their citizens seem almost purposively designed to set up anxious ambivalence amongst their populations- with the eventual result that within a generation, they create people who are prone to run into the arms of 'strong man' political leaders who promise that they will love and protect them. As in the case of the German electorate of the 1930s, the population only finds out that such promises have been obfuscations after they vote such demagogues into power.
Is it too late for psychologists to give enough of what we know about human nature away to reverse the rot that is eroding two of the most prominent post-war democracies? Had Thatcher proposed that she was going to condition penguins to sunbathe or cats to swim she would have been a laughing stock. An attempt to rip out the humanity of a species which built its intense sociability across millions of years of evolution was, from this perspective, always doomed to end in chaos. However, we human beings remain surprisingly resistant to gazing into the mirror of our own evolved humanity. What it would tell us, if only we would study our reflection for long enough, is that, what is most 'humanly desirable' in the production and maintenance of mentally healthy, sociable human beings is, as two of the most celebrated bards of the twentieth century pointed out, fundamentally 'easy: all you need is love'.