This is an essay I submitted for one of my lectures which I was quite proud of, the result of an obsessive look into macro-level societal phenomena from the spread of AIDS to the encroachment of the internet on human mental well-being, much of which had little to do with the module material. My lecturer liked it anyway.
Modern times have brought about the advent of the field of global health, which has an interdisciplinary focus on collaborative research and practice aimed towards achieving worldwide equity in health outcomes (Koplan et al., 2009). Traditionally, psychology has been a field concerned with the scientific study of the minds of individuals and groups of people, just as microeconomics studies the behaviour of individual consumers, firms and industries. To be of use to the field of global health, a psychology akin to macroeconomics must develop that can scientifically study broader trends in human psychology across cultures and globally, just as macroeconomics studies international and global economic trends (MacLachlan, 2014). This psychology can be described as macropsychology, in contrast to traditional psychology. What would a macropsychology to promote global health look like? To promote global health, macropsychology must be driven by strong scientific theory, bolstered by technological measurement and analysis tools appropriate to the scale at which it studies (Gomez-Marin et al., 2014). It must put significant effort into public engagement to spread knowledge gained into general culture, and must also have a moral vision that is explicitly shared among practitioners to allow for a truly global co-ordination of efforts. In this way, it can have influence through traditional scientific avenues, through governmental policies, and through driving cultural change around the world.
A Unified Theory of Macropsychology
Science typically progresses by carrying out experiments, interpreting the results, and designing new experiments to explore theories further. Forscher (1963) warns, however, of the danger of constant experimentation without combining the results of many experiments to build unified theories, describing the difference between these two practices as the difference between “building bricks” and “building edifices”. MacLachlan (2014) proposes that the focus macropsychology ought to be on “understanding up”, i.e. developing theories explaining the dynamic interaction between the mental states of the individual and the conditions and setting of the society in which they live. Given that these interactions are highly complex, how can they be reduced to build a relatively parsimonious theory? To simplify proceedings, Glass and McAtee (2006) conceive of human psychology as a lifecourse interaction between biological factors, social factors (called “Micro level (groups, family, social networks, etc)”) and factors relating to one’s larger social ecology that can range from “Mezzo level (e.g. worksites, schools, communities, healthcare) Macro level (National/state and large area dynamics) and Global level (Geopolitical, economic and environmental dynamics)”. These factors produce both opportunities and constraints on people’s behaviours, particularly in relation to health. Therefore, for macropsychology to promote global health, we must be able to describe the opportunities and constraints produced by factors at each of these levels.
Socio-cultural Influences on Psychology
Traditional psychology studies human behaviour at the Micro level of social causation, referring to interactions that can range from dyadic (two people interacting without direct external influence) to intergroup behaviours, and thus can be characterised under this updated view as micropsychology. To expand beyond the Micro level, macropsychology must broaden its focus to integrate the work of other social sciences. At the Mezzo level, every society in the world has its own community structure, hierarchy and dynamic. The typical intervention by charities to improve health is charitable aid, and for macropsychology it is important to note that any intervention cannot simply step outside of human social dominance dynamics. Inequalities in power and resources can often be understood by recipients as merely a display of social dominance by those giving charity (MacLachlan, Carr, & McAuliffe, 2010). To overcome this, macropsychology must be able to understand the dynamic of the community global health teams are interacting with. In the field of sociology, ‘social capital’ refers to the concept of “a collectively owned resource of local, regional, and national societies” (Offe & Fuchs, 2002, p. 189). This relates to a society or community’s degree of shared awareness of social and public matters, broadly-construed social trust, and association in formal and informal networks “such as sports clubs, environmental networks, religious associations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), or social movements” (Offe & Fuchs, 2002, p. 191). Increased levels of social capital are thought to increase the control that citizens have over the activities of their government and the economy by encouraging collective civic action. Thus conceived social capital can facilitate the implementation of policies and interventions in an effective way that will improve societal living conditions, a hypothetical example of the Mezzo level of social causation influencing the macro level. Therefore, the interconnectedness and types of connection within a society may significantly influence the effects of health interventions, dependent of the cultural beliefs and ideologies shared through these social networks (which can have positive or negative effects, as seen in the facilitation of the spread of Nazi ideology by social capital; Satyanath, Voigtländer, & Voth, 2013). At the Macro level, these Mezzo level factors will decide what type of government and policies come into effect, and in turn the government and its policies will define much of the Mezzo level factors regarding how communities are organised and the resources that are made available to them. Macropsychology would need to link up with political science to develop an understanding of the dynamic interactions between public opinions and the campaigns of governing bodies, such as the influence that task framing can have on public opinion and later voting on issues related to that task (Aroopala, 2012). This could influence what kind of health policies are favoured, particularly in democracies, and therefore is important for the field of global health.
Macro Influences on Psychology
Glass and McAtee (2006) also describe the Global-level, and here macropsychology must be truly interdisciplinary in its approach by undertaking to assimilate elements of history, geography, anthropology and economics in describing how factors of such proportions can influence and be influenced by individual behaviour. Cultures across the globe have been deeply shaped by their geography, with environmental factors strongly influencing technological advancements of some societies over others, thus facilitating unequal power distributions and ultimately determining to a large degree success in warfare and colonialism (Diamond, 1999). Culture continues to be shaped by geographical factors into modern times, as can be seen in the differences on scores of collectivism vs. individualism between Chinese cultures whose primary food sources are based around rice paddy fields or wheat agriculture, respectively (Talhelm et al., 2014). Other, more intricate relationships between geographical and historical context have been theorised, of particular interest for global health is Schmidt’s (2005) evolutionary theory that pathogen stress in an environment influences the human population’s tendency towards polygamy, which may relate significantly to the finding that the cultural practice of having multiple concurrent sexual partners is one of the most significant risk factors in the transmission of HIV/AIDS (Morris, & Kretzschmar, 1997). A complete macropsychology would require a way of integrating the influences that all of these levels of causation have on human psychology, and vice versa, from Micro to Mezzo to Macro to Global levels.
Big Data and its Implications
When building large scale theories of human psychology, it is important to be able to make predictions based on those theories to prove that they are useful. How can macropsychology collect and manage enough evidence to test theories at the incredible scale of global psychological trends? The emergence of Big Data processing offers compelling hope that technological advancements will allow such large-scale data collection and analysis. Big Data refers to datasets that are so large as to be practically impossible to analyse using traditional statistical toolkits. Snijders, Matzat and Reips (2012) note that the structure of these extremely large data sets based on online (and offline) networks typically obeys a power law, that is, the data set displays proportional relationships between the different “nodes”, or categories of data. To make sense of this real-world data, and to understand the micro-processes producing these lawful relationships, they propose that social scientists collaborate with computer scientists to use laws from social science to allow these big data sets to be mathematically modelled to test which social micro-processes produce these network structures that are being found.
Big Data in Psychology
One example of how this brand-new field is beginning to manifest comes from Eichstaedt et al. (2015), utilising huge datasets of posts on the social media website Twitter by people in the USA. Based on established theories of the influence that negative and positive affect have on physical health, linguistic analysis produced broad categories of positive or negative emotion expressed in Twitter posts. When these language topics were used in a regression model by county to predict heart disease rates, the model was significantly more accurate than a model produced to predict heart disease rates by county based on the incidence rates of the top ten medical factors increasing one’s risk of heart disease, including smoking, obesity and diabetes. Their analysis produced a meaningful profile of the trends in community characteristics of the different counties in the USA in a way that basic health risk factors and their incidence rates per county could not capture. Similarly, a wide-scale intervention through the social media website Facebook affecting hundreds of thousands of users found that manipulating the amount of emotionally positive or negative posts that appeared in users’ news feeds significantly affected the content of their own posts via emotional contagion (Kramer, Guillory & Hancock, 2014). Users for whom negative posts were removed from their feed produced more positive posts and less negative posts, whereas users who had positive posts removed from their feeds produced less positive posts, and more negative ones. The implication is that their intervention into the Facebook algorithms could significantly impact the mood of users, and by extension that the algorithms Facebook already uses may have a strong impact on the mood of users as it stands. This creates a moral conundrum. Is Facebook morally obliged to improve the mood of its users, and thereby potentially decrease heart disease rates around the world? Or should it remain neutral and respect users’ freedom to control the contents of their own newsfeeds, even to the detriment of their health?
Global Trends in Big Data Application
In China a new system of “social credit” is being developed as a means of rewarding taxpayers who are “honest” and punishing those who are “dishonest” through surveillance of their history of paying taxes, the kinds of purchases they make, and external information gleaned from their use of government-affiliated websites (General Office of the State Administration of Taxation, 2014). One of the organisations currently developing these credit systems, Sesame Credit, has been reported to be utilising Big Data tools to pull information from China’s biggest online retailer, Alibaba, and that the resulting credit scores are being used to influence people’s profiles on China’s main dating website, Beihe (Hatton, 2015). The rule of law in China is superseded constitutionally by the authority of the Communist Party (Pils, 2006). In contrast, American technology companies are collaboratively utilising legal measures to deny the American government access to the data of users of their websites, citing “bedrock principles of privacy, security, and transparency” (Steele, 2016). In this case, the legal system is being challenged to look at and overcome moral challenges, to decide what policy will ultimately be the best for American society. This means that the laws are changing. If global health is to be truly global, how can macropsychology navigate this moral terrain considering the fact that legal systems around the world provide different rights, responsibilities and restrictions to their citizens?
Public Engagement and Policy
One of the primary goals of a macropsychology to promote global health must be to influence global governmental policies (MacLachlan, 2014). The influence that academics can have over government policies, however, can be extremely limited. Therefore, for macropsychology to influence the policy of governments with an aim to promoting global health, it must develop mechanisms for disseminating its findings to the general public. Besley (2015) found, however, that scientists typically are highly reluctant to engage in publicising the results of their research, particularly online through social media, websites, or blogs. Those who did often engage with the public in these ways were most often motivated by self-efficacious beliefs (both that their knowledge will be effectively communicated and that they manage their work time in their schedules effectively to incorporate engagement with the public), and moral beliefs that science ought to contribute to contribute to the public debate. ESConet is a series of science communication workshops that are in continuous development, aimed at providing scientists with the knowledge and the skills to wade into public debates and questions about science effectively, and generally it has been found of the scientists that “They felt they had learned useful skills, they felt more confident about their abilities to discuss science with their fellow citizens, and they had started on the path of genuine engagement with the public” (Miller & Fahy, 2009). A common theme in these studies of the public engagement of scientists is that of moral values impelling them to engage, generally internally felt. Therefore, for macropsychology to have influence and to promote global health, it must train its academics to engage with the public effectively, and to develop a culture where academics feel that it is their duty to influence public opinion.
Morality in Psychology
The morally problematic questions that arise from macropsychological research, however, cannot be overcome through merely waiting for others (e.g. lawyers) to resolve these moral dilemmas such as those raised by Big Data. For macropsychology to have a global reach in its influence, practitioners of its disciplines must have a shared moral framework through which they collectively engage with their science and the public and policymakers about how best to promote global health. The moral problem of whether policymakers should promote the freedom of individuals, or intervene to promote their health, is one that can be answered from multiple competing moral frameworks. The language of human rights stems from deontology, the moral philosophy of rules binding human behaviour, wherein breaking the rules (i.e. not upholding people’s human rights) constitutes immoral behaviour. Other proposed rules might include those of the moral value of equity, or else equality, as in the morality of fairness typified by Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance (Rawls, 1999). An alternative, however, is that of utilitarianism, in which the net effects of one’s actions or inactions on human well being and suffering designate whether action or inaction is moral or immoral. A new field is now emerging: hedonic psychology (or happiness economics), which means the quantified psychology of human happiness (Read, 2007). This could represent a significant means of moving beyond differences of opinion and towards the scientific quantification of how to provide the best possible outcomes to the people of the world. If upholding rules, such as that of fairness, comes at the cost of a decrease in overall human well being and an increase in suffering, how should one decide the correct course of action? Macropsychology must develop the means to answer the most difficult questions about how we ought to respond to the problem of human suffering and ill-health across the globe, and this can only be done through a strong, coherent moral framework.
The development of the field of macropsychology represents a monumental task. The difficulty of building a unified theory is difficult enough at the smallest level of analysis, e.g. that of physics. To develop theories uniting the individual scale to the community scale to the societal scale to the global scale will mean attempting to overcome the problem of the butterfly effect in chaos theory, but such unified theories will be key to a macropsychology that seeks to promote global health. These theories are finally beginning to be built, in part thanks to technological innovations improving the toolkit available for experimentation and data collection such as the Big Data movement. To promote global health, macropsychology must have influence, and this influence should extend from academics out to both the general public and through them to policymakers. This influence will depend on the moral vision that underlies all of global health’s efforts to promote the best outcomes for the people of the world. By starting to understand the human psyche and how it operates in patterns that transcend individual, local and national borders, macropsychology can share its insights with the people who can act to make the world a better place, truly promoting global health.