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What Technology Advances Are Affecting Psychology Studies?

Texting and Counseling

What Technology Advances Are Affecting Psychology Studies?

Our world continues to modernize, globalize, and see rapid improvements in technology. There are many, many consequences of this. One of them is that the practice and study of psychology are rapidly changing as well.

Just a couple of generations ago, it would have been unheard of for a client in a psychotherapeutic session to pull out their phone and refer to a text message interaction with another person with whom they’ve had a conflict. Yet, today, this is commonplace.

Likewise, where diagnostic tests used to be administered via pencil and paper, today, they are wholly online. What was once a set group of questions on an assessment can now evolve as the person takes the test based on how they’ve answered previous questions.

These are but two examples of how technological advancements are changing psychology. There are many others. But they give us a good idea of the disparate manner in which technology can be used in psychological applications – and for the betterment of those being served.

Let’s explore these and other examples of how the dynamic of technology and psychology is changing.

Texting and Counseling

Texting and Counseling

Since the birth of modern psychology, popular methods of communication have influenced psychotherapy sessions. Then, as is typical still today, the psychotherapeutic relationship was based on face-to-face interactions between clients and their therapist.

In the context of this relationship, therapists in years past might have asked their clients to bring in “documentation” of events in their lives – a handwritten letter, for example, from one spouse to the other outlining the reasons they want a divorce. As another example, a therapist and their client might survey a collection of printed photos as a means of processing grief after the death of a loved one.

Indeed, in therapeutic sessions, the client’s recollection of conversations and life events have always played an important role. But as technology has advanced and people use mobile devices to communicate more frequently, many therapists find that the “old ways” of sharing memories via physical objects like notes and photos is less common.

Instead, some clients today like to refer directly to their text history or photo album on their smartphone to work through issues in therapy. So, the handwritten notes from ex-spouses are now replaced by text exchanges in which both sides of the conversation can be seen in living color on the phone’s screen. Not only is this perhaps a more convenient way of sharing details about one’s troubles, but it also gives the therapist insight into both sides of the story. 

This can be especially helpful in working with adolescents on interpersonal relationship issues. For example, rather than relying on the client’s memory of an interaction, the client and therapist together can look at what was actually said during the interaction. In some cases, the client will have forgotten or mentally skewed the recollection of her or his part in the conflict, but the phone’s history helps to clarify the involvement of both parties.

So, technology in this respect offers convenience for the client, greater detail for the therapist to gain insights, and as a result, it can help in the process of identifying destructive or inappropriate behaviors on the part of the client. In other words, technologies as simple as texts can assist psychologists in the process of identifying troublesome behaviors and developing a treatment plan to help their clients change those behaviors.

Delivery of Mental Health Services

One of the most significant ways in which technology is impacting psychology is in the availability and delivery of mental health services.

In today’s world, clients don’t have to be face-to-face with their psychologist. They don’t even have to be in the same city, state, or country, for that matter! People seeking psychological services can access them from anywhere at any time thanks to advances in technology.

For example, in some rural areas, residents might not have easy access to in-person psychological treatment. In years past, this might have meant traveling a great distance to the nearest mental health clinic (or foregoing psychological treatment altogether).

But technology has changed this unfortunate reality with services like teletherapy.

Teletherapy is essentially digital psychological services. So, instead of meeting with your therapist in person for an hour, you would meet online for an hour.

The manner in which teletherapy is delivered varies greatly. In some instances, it might take place via text messaging or online chat. These would be the least preferred delivery methods because the therapist can’t get the whole experience of communicating with someone – the nuances of tone of voice and body language are lost in a purely text-based exchange.

For this reason, teletherapy is better delivered when video is also involved. Whether this occurs on Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, or some other platform, a video interaction with a client gives therapists that “face to face” information they need to glean the most insights into the client’s behavior.

This is not the full extent of how technology has changed the delivery of psychological services, either.

People seeking help with psychological difficulties can turn to services online, either through websites or apps. In some cases, websites and apps might simply offer educational materials about mental health, but in other cases, they might also provide therapeutic services, or connect you to other online services where you can seek help.

What’s important to remember about websites and apps is that they are often not regulated. This means that while the therapist you might see in person has to meet certain educational and experiential requirements to be licensed to deliver therapeutic services, no such requirements are in place for therapy you might receive via website or app. This being the case, you need to be cautious when seeking help from these resources.

Nevertheless, while there are some things regarding technology and the delivery of psychological services that should still give us pause, there is no denying that technology has made access to psychological services far easier than it was even just 15-20 years ago.

Advances in Industrial-Organizational Psychology

One of the fastest-growing specializations in the field of psychology today is industrial-organizational psychology.

Psychologists in this specialization work with employers to improve employee retention rates, boost productivity, mediate conflicts between employees, and collaborate with others to improve the employee experience. Many people in this career also work closely with computer programs.

For example, some industrial-organizational psychologists might use computer programs to deliver interest inventories to prospective employees to see if their interests align well with the job for which they’ve applied. Likewise, an industrial-organizational psychologist could use computer applications to conduct assessments of current employees.

Since one of the many duties of IO psychologists is to enhance the workplace experience, they might develop an app whereby employees can submit complaints about a co-worker anonymously. Likewise, an app might allow IO psychologists to glean honest information about the workplace experience – with the benefit of anonymity, employees might be more inclined to offer truthful feedback about what the work environment is really like. Gaining this kind of information quickly and easily enables industrial-organizational psychologists to get the data they need to develop ways to enhance the experience in workplace settings.

These are but a couple of examples of how technology is changing this specific field of psychology. But it’s important to note that the impact of technology goes well beyond these examples.

In fact, technology and its relationship to IO psychology has expanded so much in recent years that some institutions of higher learning are recommending students complete secondary courses of study in computer programming or other technology-related fields in preparation for becoming IO psychologists. That is how important technology has become to the practice of industrial-organizational psychology.

Technology is Bringing Neuroscience and Psychology Together

Technology is Bringing Neuroscience and Psychology Together

Another way in which technology is influencing psychological studies is in the field of neuroscience.

In the past, neuroscientists were confined to a brain imaging lab to do their studies – after all, one can’t pick up an MRI scanner and take it into the field. But now, neuroscientists are using technology to study brain mechanisms and processes in the field both quickly and easily.

The setup is simple: scientists at the University of California at San Francisco’s Neuroscape Center developed ACE, a cognitive assessment installed on a tablet that is used to study executive functioning in children.

ACE included a variety of video games that use adaptive algorithms to adjust how the game proceeds – and how difficult it is – based on the childrens’ input. This allows researchers to collect extremely precise data on cognition across a range of ages and levels of cognitive development.

Using this data, researchers at UCSF hope to gain deeper insights into the structures of the brain and their functions. The goal of all this is to identify interventions that can be deployed to help children in the development of their executive functioning. This, in turn, can help children learn, do better in school, and set them up for greater success later on in life.

Computerized Testing

Changes in testing have significantly changed many aspects of psychology. Personality assessments and IQ tests that were once completed with pencil and paper are now completed on computers.

As computer technology has developed, tests have developed as well. Test takers using computers can be fed different questions based on their answers of previous questions. Research psychologists and diagnosticians take advantage of this to create more accurate assessments. The more accurate an assessment, the better-equipped a psychologist is in devising methods to take action and facilitate change in their clients’ lives.

But computerized testing also comes with disadvantages. Online testing, for example, can’t be done if internet service goes down. Technical difficulties like a computer that constantly freezes can skew test results. Likewise, physical conditions of the test-taker like color blindness can impact the results.

As a result of these and other issues, today’s psychologists need to understand the potential problems with computerized testing and address them in order to more accurately diagnose disorders, identify personality traits, explore interests, and determine intelligences, among other things. Technology isn’t an end-all, be-all for assessment and diagnosis, but when used in the right manner and when its limitations are taken into account, technology can be of great benefit for the purposes of assessment.

What Does the Past Tell Us About the Future of Technology and Psychology?

From the psychological effects of electronic games to new mobile apps geared at improving mental health, the impacts of technology thus far on psychology are profound.

It has changed the way that psychology is taught. It has changed the way psychology is practiced. It’s even changed the way that psychology is evolving as a scientific field of study.

Whether you choose to pursue a career in industrial-organizational psychology, become a counseling psychologist, seek to discover new and better understandings of human behavior in research, or something in between, technology will play an important part of your future in this field.

The technology already in use today and emerging technical possibilities in the near and distant future will greatly affect both your preparation and your practice in the field of psychology.

If what has already occurred in terms of technology’s impact on psychology is informative of the future, it tells us that the tools that will be available for education, practice, and research will be highly useful in delivering improved services. Some of these technologies might make it easier for people to access mental health care. Technology might also help solve mysteries of human behavior or even assist researchers in finding better treatments for mental disorders.

Many exciting things are happening today in the world of technology. Psychologists are influenced by technological advancements in many ways, however the impacts of technology on psychology can be both beneficial and detrimental. As technology develops, clinicians, counselors, researchers, and human resources specialists must all be prepared to handle both the good and bad issues created by technology.

Though we don’t know what the future holds, we can be certain that technology will play an increasing role in psychology. And if the past is any indication, the future of this relationship is bright.

Sean Jackson

B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming

M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming

B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts

Updated June 2021

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