Psychology by Machine? Not for a While.

Technology can fly planes, drive cars; heck, virtually perform remote surgery (pun, not intended). Some believe that literally all jobs, even those that involve deeply personal competencies pertaining to psychology, will eventually be performed by technology. For them, if a “machine” isn’t already doing it, just wait. (Note: This is an extreme view).

Technology is changing the world faster than ever. If you agree with Moore’s law, it will only continue to increase its impact even faster over time.

Will technology take my job?

Probably so, and I don’t deny that likelihood for some aspects of psychology as well. But don’t quit yet! If you’ve been around a few years, like I have, it’s likely that technology has already “taken” all or much of the job you had 10 years ago. You’ve simply changed to stay in front of the technological evolution.

What does science say?

A recent study looked at the rise of technology in relation to the probability of it overtaking more than 700 jobs catalogued in O*Net, a public database of jobs and the various knowledge, skills and abilities required for their performance. The researchers (Frye and Osborne, 2013) reasoned that the probability of technology overtaking a given job is closely related to the time it will take for this to occur. As such, they created a list rank ordering the probability that these 700 jobs will be overtaken by technology in 20 years.

The study is now a few years old, but seems to have already made some accurate predictions. For example, you’ve probably received a “robocall”, a task once was performed by a person.

The crux of the study is in the researchers’ identification of three key job characteristics they refer to as “bottlenecks to computerization.” The degree to which a job encompasses one or more of these “bottlenecks” predicts the probability (and time) required for technology to be able to perform that job. These three bottlenecks include: 1) Fine Perception and Manipulation, 2) Creative Intelligence and 3) Social Intelligence.

Two of these three “bottlenecks” clearly relate to psychology: creative intelligence and social intelligence. But there’s more…

These three bottlenecks were further broken down into seven more discreet tasks. Of these seven tasks, social intelligence encompasses a majority of four – and psychology is integral to social intelligence.

The practical implication is that if your job requires you to “read” people or influence them, particularly in emotional ways, you’re likely safe from seeing a robot at your desk one morning anytime soon.

Specifically, the study predicts that social workers, therapists and teachers should have relatively long careers as far as “automation threat” is concerned. Psychologist, is also in the top 20 of the 700 jobs ranked according to the difficulty of automation.

Although this research is new, the issue isn’t. Psychological assessment has long been a topic of technological debate: Can a personality assessment alone more accurately predict behavior than an expert in psychological assessment?

My point of view

Even with the help of highly sophisticated psychometric instruments, psychological assessment is both complex and difficult. Beyond the frequently quoted — if not factually documented — claim that people have more brain cells than there are stars in the universe, it is true that a multitude of factors influence people’s behavior. And although “man vs. machine” contests have been set up many times, these studies miss the mark.

Above all, psychological assessments are tools, and tools need operators — especially for a purpose as complex as psychological assessment. No robots or vast databases mined by computers capable of “big data” analytics will soon usurp the expert’s contribution to psychological assessment.

If you really want to know people, you should involve someone who really knows people.

Psychological assessments in the hands of an expert yield the best prediction of human behavior. Just as great tools (e.g., paint, canvass, brush – and, yes, even robots) can’t yield creative masterpieces independent of the artist, so goes the science of psychological assessment. Even the best psychometric assessments are notably improved when an expert in psychology is involved in their interpretation.

Personality inventories have come a long way — and some are very good. However, if you really want to know people, you should involve someone who really knows people.

Psychology at work: It really makes a difference.

Psychways is owned and produced by Talentlift, LLC.

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