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No, I-O Psychologists Are Not Therapists


by SIOP Administrative Office

SIOP Clarifies Recent Washington Post Article, Encourages Members to Openly and Respectfully Help Educate Others About the Field

No one understands what I-O psychologists do better than I-O psychologists.

A recent article published in the Washington Post (“For psychologists who tend to federal employees, there’s a lot to work through,” January 13, 2014) illuminates one of the common and pervasive misconceptions about the field of I-O psychology. The article has spurred quite a bit of feedback from I-Os, who have left comments and emailed the reporter.

The story is complimentary to the field, highlighting important work by I-O psychologists in the federal sector to the newspaper’s more than 474,000 readers. However, the reporter mistakenly refers to I-Os employed by government agencies as “therapists” and mentions that they offer “group therapy” for federal employees.

Statements like these may speak to an inappropriate generalization of psychology as a whole (“all psychologists are clinical psychologists”) as well as to a lack of understanding of I-O psychology in particular (“I’ve never heard of I-O psychology”)—and SIOP is aware of the common misperceptions and difficulties we face in ensuring I-O is portrayed accurately.

However, SIOP President Tammy Allen encourages members to view the exposure of I-O psychology on such a widely read platform as the Washington Post in a positive light.

“While the ‘therapist’ label was unfortunate, there are positive aspects of this exposure for the field,” she explained. “We are very pleased that the Washington Post takes an interest in I-O psychology, and we were happy to see several wonderful I-O initiatives and prominent SIOP members featured in the article."

When she read the recent article, SIOP Fellow Deirdre Knapp said she was chagrined to see the “therapist” language and may have wanted other edits, but mostly she was thrilled to see I-O psychology being discussed in the Washington Post.

“We’ve been looking for this kind of visibility for a long time,” she said. “We can never hope to control what is said by others, but this type of exposure gives us the mechanism to be part of a public conversation. Time will tell, but I think the good far outweighs the bad in this situation.”

SIOP continues to work hard to represent I-O and our members to the media, politicians, and the general public so that they are aware of the important contributions I-Os make to organizations, business, and society. Although it is to be expected that some members of the media and public will have more knowledge of I-O than others, there are steps SIOP members can take to help represent I-O in an accurate, positive way:

  • When being interviewed by a reporter, keep in mind they may know very little about the field of I-O psychology. Reporters often cover a variety of topics and operate on tight deadlines, so they may have very little time to learn what they need to for a story. It is important to speak clearly and avoid jargon or overly technical language that a non-I-O psychologist might not understand. Try to pause frequently when speaking and offer to clarify anything you think the reporter finds confusing.
  • Utilize the educational resources SIOP provides on our website. Refer the media to the resources on the SIOP Students tab, such as “What’s in a Name?” “Psychology at Work,” and our free webinars. You will also want to refer them to our brochures page for general information about I-O.  If you feel that you cannot provide the information the reporter is looking for, we encourage you to refer the reporter to the SIOP Administrative Office, which can be reached at (419) 353-0032.
  • Maintain a respectful demeanor, and understand that sometimes mistakes are made. Even after doing everything you can to be clear and informative, you may find that articles sometimes still contain errors. The reporter may have made an honest mistake or changes may have been made by editors down the line. Sometimes newspapers may even edit certain aspects of a story to fall in line with their specific grammar and style rules. If you find that there is misinformation in an article, contact the reporter and explain the situation in a respectful manner. Legitimate publications want to ensure they are accurate and may print a correction, retraction, or follow-up. Regardless of the response, maintain a professional attitude. It is important for SIOP to nurture positive relationships with the media, and members are the ambassadors of our brand!

In response to the misleading information in the Washington Post article, SIOP President Tammy Allen submitted a Letter to the Editor of the Post January 16 and also spoke with the reporter to help better inform her of our work.

The Washington Post has also published a follow-up story that clarifies the work of I-Os and expands the coverage of our field with more in-depth explanations of what I-O psychologists do.

“They don’t provide traditional therapy, meaning one-on-one talk in a warmly lit room, tissue boxes at the ready, a parent figure ready to blame,” the follow-up states. “Instead they provide science-based guidance to organizations—from the federal government to universities, Fortune 500 companies and nonprofit —on how to improve morale and employee resilience in their workforce. Think of it as the application of psychology to the world of work.”

You can read the entire follow-up article here.