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I-O Psychology on the World Stage


by Barbara Ruland, SIOP Communications Specialist

Using Research and Methods to Support United Nations Programs

SIOP members are playing a key role on the world stage, helping policy makers and directors of government agencies design and implement more effective programs through “pro-social” efforts applying I-O psychology research and methods for the benefit of others or society as a whole.

“SIOP members have always been involved in pro-social work, but it just hasn’t been quite as formalized or recognized until recently,” said Lori Foster, current chair of the SIOP United Nations Team.

About a decade ago, SIOP began organizing pro-social initiatives including the SIOP UN Team. Led at the time by John Scott, the SIOP UN team was officially accredited as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) with special consultative status with the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 2012. 

Since its inception, the team has created partnerships with UN agencies, undertaken initiatives supporting the UN Global Compact, and issued statements on a variety of topics. Read more about the work of the SIOP UN Team here.

A current focus of the team is working to help the United Nations achieve its recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Officially enacted on January 1, 2016 and called “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” the SDGs are a list of 17 aspirational “global goals,” which include ending poverty, hunger, and inequality; providing access to education and health care; and building resilient infrastructures while protecting the environment.

When Agenda 2030 was adopted, the UN Team provided a policy brief, adapted for publication in TIP, showing how I-O psychologists could support the decent work agenda. “We kept close tabs on the creation of Agenda 2030 as it evolved,” said Lori Foster, “now we’re bringing our science to bear on how policy makers are translating that agenda into action.”

A year after Agenda 2030 became active, the initiative is garnering a lot of attention. Since January 1, 2017, SIOP’s news monitoring service has recorded nearly 1,000 media mentions, an average of 21 mentions each day.

The UN recently published a progress report that highlights the positive impact the behavioral sciences have had on its Agenda 2030 pilot projects. “Public policy and programme officials around the world can achieve better outcomes — often at low or no cost — simply by leveraging our current understanding of human psychology and behavior,” the report notes.

Foster, who was also named a science advisor on the UN Behavioral Initiative, agrees and points out that the research methods used in I-O psychology are just as important as the theories.
“We understand what motivates people, how to select and train people, principles of leadership, and then we also have the methods to test what works and what doesn’t,” she said. “That’s not always the case in other disciplines, and it’s very valuable in an environment where accountability is key.”

“We understand how to test interventions,” she continued, “and how to collect the data and analyze it in a way that, at the end of the day, answers the question of whether a program or intervention worked or it didn’t.”

In addition to providing a policy brief, members of the UN Team, particularly Alexander Gloss and Drew Mallory, have been working to create an interactive tool to relate the UN SDGs to I-O psychology resources.

Mallory said Gloss did the initial work. “He found ways to correlate all of the goals to different subjects within I-O psychology. That created a huge matrix on the back end of this tool that we’ve been working with.”

The UN team is actively soliciting input from SIOP members because the UN has been asking for accessible information, presented in a way that non-psychologists can understand and use.

“So this is our way of moving toward that,” Mallory said. “We’re working to gather the best practices and the best researchers, distill the information and send it on its way.”

While one ultimate goal of the project is the creation of a resource guide for the UN, the tool will also be available to the people helping create it.

“This is not going to be something that’s only available to special stakeholders,” Mallory said. “We want this to be an interactive reference list for others.”

Foster believes the tool “aligns philosophically with how the UN team sees itself.”

“That is not to latch onto everything and anything UN for the team itself, but rather to look for opportunities to engage SIOP membership in helping the UN achieve the SDGs,” she said.

In addition to research citations, the team encourages I-O psychologists to upload information about their own work.

“We want to collect anything people know about the subject, really, because that information is not yet getting to the UN,” Mallory said.

SIOP members are invited to learn more about the tool in this short video and add information here. They are also encouraged to consider additional ways in which they and their employers can contribute to the accomplishment of the SDGs.

Applying I-O psychology to policy is not new. Foster pointed out that I-O psychologists have worked within U.S. government agencies for years.

“We have a lot of SIOP members who are doing amazing work in different federal agencies. That has been going on for quite a long time.”

In 2015, the White House created a Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST), which was highlighted in a recent New Yorker article about efforts to address the health crisis in Flint Michigan caused by lead water pipes.

The broader collaborative framework, which includes 17 Federal departments and agencies and 5 White House offices, was the new feature of the SBST.

“It was an effort to bring a range of social and behavioral scientists together-- psychologists, economists, political scientists and others to work across the different agencies—to apply both our theories and our methods to the challenges those agencies face, whatever they may be,” said Foster, who was a member of that team for two years. Read more about the mission and work of the team in its 2016 annual report.

Connect with Lori Foster and Drew Mallory on LinkedIn