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#6: How to Make a Career in Applied Psychology: An Interview with Dr Dennis P Stolle

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Image: Ratika Deshpande / The Metronome

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One of my goals for The Metronome was to expose students to careers in psychology that had nothing to do with becoming a therapist or a professor, and I got very lucky when Dr Dennis P Stolle, Senior Director of Applied Psychology for the American Psychological Association (APA), agreed to provide his insights for this magazine's readers.

At the APA, Dr Stolle oversees applied psychology initiatives across a variety of subject areas, including workplace psychology, legal psychology, human-technology interaction, and climate & sustainability psychology. Dr Stolle is also a licensed attorney. He received his PhD in social and personality psychology and his law degree from the University of Nebraska, where grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Science Foundation funded his research and writing.

Until his APA appointment, Dr Stolle was a capital partner in one of the largest US law firms and the president of an affiliated consulting firm, where he applied psychological science and methods to advise Fortune 500 clients on strategies relating to legal, business, and policy issues. Dr Stolle has published widely on the application of psychological science to solve real-world problems and to promote psychological and emotional well-being. He also frequently provides commentary for print and broadcast media, appearing for such sources as The Wall Street Journal, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time Magazine, Fortune, The Chicago Tribune, Law360, People Magazine, ABC News, NBC News Daily, and many others.

In this interview, Dr Stolle provides strategies for building a career in applied psychology and describes the role of psychologists in the courtroom as well as the concept of therapeutic jurisprudence, among other things. There are a lot of takeaways in this interview, so keep a pencil and pad handy.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your CV mentions that you focus on "therapeutic jurisprudence" and a "psychologically healthy legal system." Can you tell us more about what that means?

Sure. So I had been interested in psychology, really, since I was a high school student and then had also been interested in the legal system as it relates to psychology, kind of thinking about why is it that people follow the law and how is it that we have this whole complicated legal system that governs so much of human behavior?

I really got interested in that topic and then almost by chance got connected with a professor named David Wexler, who at the time was at [the] University of Arizona, and then a second professor named Bruce Winick, who is now deceased, but was at [the] University of Miami.

And they were both working on a concept called therapeutic jurisprudence, which is such a mouthful, but it basically is the idea of trying to use the legal system or think about the legal system in ways that would help promote people's emotional and psychological well-being.

And so it is thinking about what laws should be, not just to achieve certain economic consequences, for example, but to put into the mix as one consideration, would this law help people flourish in the world, psychologically? And if so, then that's a plus factor on why we ought to have that law. And if the answer is the opposite, that actually it would make people depressed or make it difficult for them to deal with things emotionally, then we should consider that as well. And as a minus factor, maybe it's not a good law for that reason.

Could you perhaps give a few examples of this in action, if it has been implemented in the real world?

Sure. One of the ways that the concepts of therapeutic jurisprudence have caught on and really been implemented the most, at least in the U.S., is in specialty courts. An example would be drug courts. We have such a problem of so many people getting wrapped up in the criminal justice system because of drug violations. And sometimes it's serious, but oftentimes they're very minor infractions and it's young people who we're talking about. And that involvement with the criminal justice system, though, can affect them for the rest of their lives. 

So to put them into a court system where they are essentially next to a serious criminal doesn't help them psychologically. It probably makes things worse. And so many states in the U.S. have actually created specialty drug courts so that these smaller, minor-possession type infractions will go to that court. And you have a judge who deals with these same kinds of issues all the time, sees the same kinds of people coming through, and has a better sense of, you know, is this somebody who's really going down the wrong path, or was this more of a one-time mistake type thing? And the result has been that many people come out of these courts feeling much more that they went through a process that was helpful, rather than a process that just potentially ruined their life.

Psychologists can get involved through program evaluations

What would be the role of a psychologist in this process? Do they work together with lawmakers to propose such laws? 

There are a number of different kinds of ways that psychologists can get involved. One important way is through program evaluation. 

So, for example, if a state or a city were to decide to set up a drug court, [that] would cost money, and they would want to know, “Is this working? Is it having the intended outcome?” 

And so then [they can] employ psychologists to maybe administer questionnaires and to study what's happening in the courtroom and so forth, to [...] look at the program over the course of the first two or three years, and then [...] to report back and say, “Okay, here's the statistics. Here's what we're finding people are saying about the process. Here's the statistics relating to whether crime is going up or going down in the locality where the court is located.” Those kinds of things.

And then that's critical information for the policymakers to then make decisions about: “Should we change the program? Should we cancel the program? Should we continue the program? Is it working?”

Memory does not work like a video camera

That's fascinating, because usually you don't think beyond criminal psychology when it comes to combining law and psychology. What did come to my mind when thinking about a psychologically healthy legal system was the myth that memory is infallible and how that had led to incorrect convictions in the court because eyewitness memory was considered to be flawless. So does that also come into play here?

There is a big role for psychology in exactly that space. And it touches a lot of different issues. 

Almost every case that goes to trial involves a witness in some form or another. And sometimes, [when you] think of a witness, you think of somebody who is at the scene of the crime, but even in a case that has nothing to do with the crime, there's a witness as to what happened that is causing everybody to be there in that courtroom to talk about a dispute.

And we know from psychological research that human memory does not operate like a video camera. We fill in the gaps and we kind of, I don't want to say make things up, but you know, we draw conclusions about what must have happened and then think that's what we're actually remembering. And so psychologists can play a number of different roles in that setting.

One is working with witnesses themselves. [An] example is the child witness. There's often, you know, unfortunate circumstances where you have a small child who was a witness to an accident or to a crime. And they're particularly susceptible to being led down the wrong path by questions.

And so if a psychologist can work with a witness like that, not to change their testimony, but to help them get the best possible answers that they can, and the most truthful answers that they can to the questions that they're being asked, it's very important. And also for psychologists to be available after the fact. So now we're starting to talk more about clinical psychologists to be available after the fact for counseling and so on. 

And then of course, there's a tremendous amount of research that is being done about how people process information about events and then relay that information later so that we can begin to understand what should the rules of evidence be in a courtroom to make sure that we're getting the most accurate information. And really, that's what the rules of evidence are supposed to do. And so informing them from the perspective of psychological sciences is really helpful.

Dr Stolle giving a Congressional Briefing in Washington DC on the impact of climate change on psychological well-being./ Image: Dr Dennis P Stolle

A day in the life of a behavioral scientist

You also are a behavioral scientist. How would you describe this role, as in, what does a day in the life of a behavioral scientist look like?

Sure. I'll give you two snapshots from my career. 

So before I worked at the American Psychological Association, I was working as a trial consultant. And so I was applying behavioral science, but I wasn't teaching, I wasn't doing therapy. I was helping teams of lawyers get their cases prepared for trial. I would do research just like the research that we see published in articles, but I was doing it privately for the purposes of preparing for trial. 

And so we would do things like surveys and focus groups and so on to learn how potential jurors perceive the case. And importantly, what things they might be confused about and therefore [need] a better explanation, or we need to have more information to give them because they have questions that perhaps at this point are still unanswered. 

And so it can help guide a trial team to try to figure out, “What is it that the jurors need to have? What do they need to understand in order to come to a correct decision?” And so it was really fun work, and I did that for two decades.

Now at the American Psychological Association, my goal is, really, to get the word out and to help facilitate people getting into careers in psychology that don't involve teaching and that don't involve therapy, but involve all the other places where psychologists can get plugged in. And there are so many of them because we have psychologists doing things with the military, doing things with sports teams, doing things in the workplace. So much is happening–artificial intelligence and user design and so forth. And psychology has so much to bring to all of those aspects because they're all ultimately human problems.

Can you give an example, as you said, that you need to get an idea of what the prospective jurors would respond to? Can you give an example of such a case?

Yes, so oftentimes the cases that I was involved in would be, the subject matter of the case would be something complicated and that most people wouldn't have any reason to know anything about. It might be a complicated piece of technology and there's a patent lawsuit about it, or it might be a complicated financial transaction that ended up going poorly. 

[Note: In the U.S., any person who is a registered voter or has a driver's license can be summoned for jury duty.]

One of the things that just seems to come up over and over again in those kinds of cases is the witnesses are people who are subject matter experts on that particular narrow topic. So when they get on the witness stand, they tend to speak with a bunch of jargon and [...] in a way that assumes that other people know what they already know. 

But what you have is jurors who are just, you know, they were just people who are picked off the street and they're smart people, but they don't know anything about this topic. And it can be surprisingly difficult to figure out what are the things that they're confused about because they just don't know that and we haven't explained it yet. 

And to be able to work with lawyers and witnesses to get them to the point where they understand, “Okay, I have to explain things starting at point A, not at point C or D or F.” Otherwise, people could draw the wrong conclusion because they just didn't understand what I was trying to say.

Making a career in applied psychology

You said that your goal is to encourage people to get into careers other than teaching and therapy. What does that look like in action?

Very often the applied psychology work that people are doing is psychology and something. And so an important piece of thinking about a career in applied psychology is filling in that blank on what is the something. So, for example, most of my career was spent [in] psychology and law. For others, it may be psychology and technology or psychology and sports or psychology and military. 

A flashcard with the words "psychology and blank" written on it
How will you fill in the blank? Image: Ratika Deshpande / The Metronome

And so I think that for a person who is thinking about that kind of a career, one of the great things is that you may have some interest area separate from psychology already. Like I had a separate interest in legal issues.

So if you're both learning psychology and learning the substantive area at the same time, then you start to see the connections and see how the one overlaps with the other. And you can really begin to speak the language of the people who you want to be working with and kind of get into their world and their culture. For people who are doing psychology and technology, for example, it's critical for them to really begin to understand things like artificial intelligence, not at a level where they're building it, but at a level where they can have an intelligent conversation with others about the details of it.

Build connections

So as you said, you fill in the blank simultaneously. So when it comes to giving advice on career, do you mean that students take up two majors at the same time? Is it also a part of your job to recommend career paths? 

I think that the dual majors can be useful, for sure. I don't think that it's necessary though. 

The pathway can be so unique to each individual that sometimes it's hard to give any blanket advice. And I think that some of the best blanket advice is to make connections in the world

Reach out to people who you see who are already doing something that looks like, “Boy, I'd like to be doing that someday.” And having the courage to just reach out to them and say, “Hey, I read something about your work. It's really interesting. I know you're busy, but would you have 15 minutes sometime to talk to me?” And beginning to build those connections [...] in my experience, gives people early in their career a sense of what the possibilities are. And also sometimes reveals to them that someone who may appear to have had it all planned out sort of fell into the spot that they're at. And that's okay too, if you just keep looking for those opportunities.

Join organizations and get involved

Other than conducting research, how can students who are currently pursuing psychology at the undergraduate or postgraduate level get involved in promoting applied psychology? Any other tips besides what we have already discussed?

Sure. There are lots of organizations. So obviously American Psychological Association is one. But there are similar organizations in other countries all across the world. And there are smaller regional organizations within different countries all across the world.

Getting involved with those organizations is really a great first step, especially thinking not just about becoming a member, but thinking about becoming a member and then trying to volunteer and become known within the organization and maybe begin to get some leadership positions within the organization. And then that builds a fantastic support network. Because once you do that, you may get assigned to a committee or a project where you meet people you would never otherwise meet. And they'll tell you about opportunities and things that they're working on that otherwise you never could have possibly known about. So just diving in there and getting involved in those ways, I think, is critical.

And then [...] just going back to the concept of psychology and something, it's not just the psychology organizations. If you are a person who is interested in, you know, [....] industrial/organizational psychology, you might also want to get involved in an organization that focuses on human resources or something like that. Because there again, [...] you're beginning to connect the dots, see the opportunities, meet people, and begin to form a pathway forward. 

The importance of introductory psychology

Looking back on your career so far, is there anything that you wish you'd done differently?

[Pause] Boy, that's a tough question. [Pause] I don't know anything that I wish I had done differently, though I would say that just the fundamentals are so important. And I find myself always coming back to the fundamentals. 

When I say the fundamentals, I'm talking about the things that every psychology student is taught in some of the earliest classes that you take. So the basic research methods, the concepts behind that, some of the basic psychological principles that you learn even in your introductory psychology course. Those things just tend to, I find, they come up over and over and over again.

And if you are well-versed in the fundamentals, you always have something to fall back on. You've got an answer there because you have this strong foundation. So I would say that if I could change anything, maybe I should have spent more time returning to those fundamentals and kind of going over once again the things that I thought maybe I already knew, but you look at it again and you reinforce it and you get new insights from it and you begin to realize just how important it was.

A screenshot of Dr Stolle and two news anchors from NBC News. A headline at the bottom reads "More companies offering workers mental health days"
Dr Stolle in an interview with NBC News / Image: Dr Dennis P Stolle

Work-life harmony

I also wanted to know how you balance your work and life; what's your approach to it?

I think that the term work-life balance is, I think, being replaced—and I'm glad it's being replaced— with the term work-life harmony

And so I think it is critical—you can't have a scale where work is on one side and life is on the other side and they're perfectly even. That just tends to not be the way life works, in my experience. 

But you can strive for work-life harmony where maybe you're working a lot for a period of time and you're recognizing that and carving out space to take time off to do that. And so that's not exactly a balance at a snapshot in time, but it is a harmony. And also trying to achieve work that you truly care about and enjoy doing, so that it enhances the rest of your life and you don't have to worry that somehow doing more of it is going to take away because you love doing it and so it's adding to [your life].

So what does work-life harmony look like for you?

Well, for me, I work from home. The American Psychological Association is headquartered in Washington D.C. I live in the middle of the country in Indiana. I go to Washington D.C. only about four times a year to go to the office. 

Working from home is not for everyone, but it works well for me. And for the position that I have, because I do a lot of meetings like the one that we're having right now, which work very well over Zoom, it would be extraordinarily difficult for you and I to travel to do this conversation. So that's one piece of the work-life harmony for me is the flexibility that comes from working from home. 

And also the ability to think about [...] some of the topics that I just find personally interesting, that if I was sitting on the couch in evening and I was just going to read something I want to read about anyway, and then I look for ways—how can I fit that topic into my work-life so that I'm learning about that and getting paid for it at the same time? So that just then makes things fun.

Psychology is much more than therapy

Do you find your work meaningful or fulfilling? And is there anything that you feel that it lacks?

I find it very meaningful. I very much enjoyed the career that I had in legal psychology. I find that it was the right time for me, though, to leave that and go to this position at APA to try to promote the idea of more people finding careers like that one. And so I love getting a word out there about it. I love it when people, especially students, recognize for the first time, “Oh, psychology is about a lot more than just somebody who's doing therapy.” It touches all kinds of aspects of our life and when they recognize that, it's such an important skill because the understanding of human nature is maybe unlikely to ever be replaced by technology. So it's a pretty solid career to have if you're good at it and if you can make it have practical applications. And that practical application of course is key because for better or worse, the economy makes the world go round. The economy requires people doing practical things that other people are willing to pay for. And fortunately there's a lot of that in the psychology space if you're creative and think about it.

So concerning that last part, do you think that's specific just to the U.S. or does that apply to other parts of the world as well, that people are willing to pay for careers like this? Because when you were speaking I was thinking of the situation in India where therapists are really struggling because mental health is still quite a taboo and there's very limited information on the scope of psychology [beyond therapy]. 

I know the most about the U.S. and so I know less about what's happening in other countries and I would suspect that there's definitely differences between countries. And my speculation is that there are some areas of psychology that will probably be better received in other countries than other areas of psychology. 

So industrial/organizational psychology, to take that as an example, has pretty wide appeal especially if you connect it to the bottom line and to business profits. If you can show that implementing a different program with employees that makes them happier causes them to be more productive and more innovative and causes more profit for the company, that's widely appealing regardless of what country you're in.

And sometimes it may require speaking the language of the audience that you're trying to influence. So to go back to [...] therapeutic jurisprudence and I said that that term is a mouthful and it is. And so that's not necessarily the word that you would want to use with somebody who doesn't know what that is and might be resistant to that. And, you know, you could use some other term like “creating a healthier legal system” and that sounds a lot more appealing, you know, broadly to everyone. And so sometimes it's just sort of adjusting to fit your audience.

Rapid Fire

I have a few rapid fire questions for you because, again, a person is so much beyond what they do [for work]. 

So what would you have done for your career if not this?

[Pause] I'd probably be an economist. I've always liked economics. And maybe I would have been a behavioral economist which isn't much different than what I am, right? [Laughs] But it's a little bit different.

A fun fact about you?

I have a green thumb. You can probably see all the plants over my shoulder here. [Laughs] Which is another benefit of working from home!

A picture of Dr Stolle at his home. There are three large windows and various plants in the background.
Dr Stolle and his plants Image: Dr Dennis P Stolle

One book that you think every person in psychology should read.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

Some of the findings that [Dr Kahneman] mentioned in the book have come under criticism. So would you suggest that book even after considering those drawbacks?

Yes, I would. And I think that it's critically important to keep those caveats in mind and to think broadly about replication and how some of the research could be done better and to come at it with a critical mindset. But I still think that it is a wonderful book.

So it would, I guess, both be entertaining and also be an exercise in thinking critically about things.


A book that's not related to your work that you'd recommend.

I would recommend anything by Kurt Vonnegut just because I love Kurt Vonnegut. [Laughs] I find his stories just wonderful.

One thing not related to work that you're looking forward to.

I am looking forward to an upcoming vacation to see my son, who is a farmer in Georgia.

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