Skip to content Skip to navigation

Tackling Social Psych's Last-Mile Problem

January 05, 2016
By Alana Conner, Ph.D.
 
Like many fields, social psychology struggles with a last-mile problem: Researchers do a great job of stocking academic warehouses (journals and conferences) with their wisdom, but fall short of covering the “last mile” to reach policymakers, educators, nonprofit leaders, and other practitioners. As a result, too many practitioners never learn about the social psychological insights that could help them do their work. And without feedback from practitioners, social psychologists often produce research that does not apply to real-world problems.
 
A new center at Stanford aims to cover this last mile between academic social psychology and the practitioners who need it the most. Founded by Nalini Ambady in 2012, the Center for Social Psychological Answers to Real-world Questions, or Stanford SPARQ, is not just a think tank. Instead, we are a “do tank” whose mission is to create and share social psychological innovations with people working to improve society.
 
The Start of SPARQ
 
When Nalini Ambady joined the Stanford Psychology Department in 2011, she successfully lobbied for seed funding to start a center that would help practitioners apply social psychology’s insights to their work. She enlisted social psychologists Hazel Rose Markus and Jennifer Eberhardt as her associate directors, and hired me to guide strategy and communications.
 
For a year, we worked with Stanford’s Social Area faculty to hone our mission, vision, and goals and to prototype our programs. And then, tragedy struck. After eight years in remission from leukemia, Nalini was diagnosed with a recurrence of the blood cancer. On Oct. 28, 2013, we lost Nalini. Although we are still devastated by the passing of our leader, colleague, and friend, we pressed ahead with the official launch of SPARQ on Feb. 10, 2014. One way we are honoring her legacy is by pursuing SPARQ’s mission, with Markus and Eberhardt now serving as  the center’s faculty co-directors.
 
Be the Donor
 
One of SPARQ’s first projects grew out of the inability of Nalini’s doctors to locate a bone marrow donor. Bone marrow transplants have saved the lives of thousands of cancer patients. But donors and recipients must “match” on several genetic markers for the transplant to succeed. Because too few people of color register to become bone marrow donors, South Asian cancer patients like Nalini (who hailed from Kerala, India) often have difficulty getting matched.
 
In addition, Nalini learned, the process of converting mere matches to actual donors is not always smooth. She identified many areas where donor centers could improve this process by applying social psychological principles and techniques.
 
Through a SPARQ Special Project called “Be the Donor,” we are now testing these and other ideas to increase the recruitment, retention, and conversion of ethnically diverse bone marrow donors. Our partners for “Be the Donor” are Delete Blood Cancer, the world’s largest donor center, and the Stanford Law and Policy Lab, which ensures the legality and ethicality of our proposed interventions.
 
“Working with SPARQ is an exciting opportunity to better understand how to motivate behavior and encourage engagement,” says Chris Kuthan, chief executive officer of Delete Blood Cancer. “SPARQ’s commitment to helping us reach our goals has fostered a true partnership, and I trust their guidance to help us recruit more diverse donors and save more lives.”
 
Social psychologists also benefit from these partnerships, notes Geoff Cohen, a Stanford social psychologist and research director for Be the Donor: “This is a vehicle for getting the science into the real world and getting the real world into the science.” 
 
The Solutions Catalog
 
Special Projects are admittedly small-batch, high-touch programs with big impacts, but limited reach. To take social psychology to a much larger audience, SPARQ has created a practitioner-focused, searchable online database of proven-effective social psychological interventions in seven areas: education, health, law & justice, peace & conflict, the environment, parenting, and relationships. Our goals are first to answer the questions practitioners already have in clear, engaging, and jargon-free language. We then aim to offer a deeper understanding of social psychology by explaining when, how, and why these interventions work.
 
“The Solutions Catalog demonstrates the power of basic psychological processes to address socially important problems and the need for a distinctly psychological account of those problems,” says Greg Walton, the project’s scientific director. “In an environment in which many have questioned the value and replicability of our science, these findings are a breath of fresh air.”
 
The Solutions Catalog also benefits social psychologists by providing a new platform for distributing their findings to both the public and their colleagues. Researchers can use a short submissions form to share the results of their published or in-press randomized controlled trials. We are also developing a taxonomy of social psychological processes that will help practitioners find related interventions, and also drive social psychologists to make clearer theoretical connections.
 
“We hope the Solutions Catalog will bring social psychologists and practitioners together to solve problems and advance science,” adds Walton.
 
Alana Conner, Ph.D., is the executive director of SPARQ. This article is reprinted from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology's blog, Character and Context.