In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Psychological Literacy

  • Introduction
  • What Is Psychological Literacy?
  • PL as the Outcome of Psychology Education: Making the Case
  • National/International Perspectives on PL as an Outcome of Psychology Education
  • Programmatic Approaches to PL as an Educational Outcome
  • PL in Other Disciplines/Professions: Training and Practice
  • PL in Pre-tertiary Education
  • PL as a Pedagogical Philosophy

Psychology Psychological Literacy
Sue Morris, Kimberley Norris, Jacquelyn Cranney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 November 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0291


Until 2010, the phrase “psychological literacy” (PL) was used sparsely and in a variety of ways, including to refer to (a) a student’s grasp of the major concepts of the different topic areas of psychology, (b) a call to action for psychologists to contribute to increased psychological knowledge and skills in the population, or (c) a nation’s general capacity to apply psychological principles in everyday life. In 2010, PL was defined in terms of the intended outcome of undergraduate (UG) psychology education, delineating nine capabilities, broadly categorized as discipline knowledge and its application, critical thinking and research skills, and the valuing of ethical behavior and of diversity. A call to action to educate “psychologically literate citizens” was also made. Several studies have evaluated the impact of educational interventions in relation to those capabilities. A more recent and general conceptualization of PL appears to revert to some of the earlier understandings, being defined as the capacity to use psychology to achieve personal, professional, and societal goals. The broad aim of this bibliography is to identify existing and topical themes from the literature on PL. A significant proportion of the literature has a focus on psychology education. Nevertheless, there is some diversity in the themes identified. Note that there are many papers that make mention “in passing” of the modern conceptualization of PL. Although these are indicative of the general acceptance of the concept, these were deemed to be less central to the reader’s understanding of this topic. How were the themes identified? A literature search was conducted with standard databases, then additional literature was independently identified (e.g., through the examination of reference listings). In terms of what was selected for consideration, specific criteria were applied (e.g., English language only, no conference abstracts). During this process, themes emerged, and a coauthor consensus was iteratively reached regarding (a) the major existing and topical themes and their relevance, and (b) exemplars for each. Each of the sections covers one of the themes identified, except where sections are organized by subthemes.

What Is Psychological Literacy?

Early conceptualizations of psychological literacy (PL) include that of Boneau 1990 in terms of subject matter only, whereas the redefinition of McGovern, et al. 2010 in terms of graduate capabilities also includes skills and attitudes that the authors argue are necessary for the 21st century. This latter paper integrates disciplinary and transdisciplinary “state of the nation” higher education reports within the United States, Europe, and Australia, and the issues and arguments are still relevant. Beins, et al. 2011 suggests that further work on PL should involve “establishing what psychological literacy is and the standards that identify psychological literacy; obtaining buy-in from stakeholders; developing meaningful assessments that measure psychological literacy; offering curriculum resources known to promote psychological literacy; providing professional development opportunities so that educators can put these literacy efforts into practice; and fostering a spirit of reform within the discipline” (p. 11). The broader description of PL in McGovern, et al. 2010 as having the ability to “apply psychological principles to personal, social and organizational issues in work, relationships and the broader community” (p. 11) is reflected in the more global conceptualization of PL found in Cranney and Dunn 2011a and Cranney and Dunn 2011b. Cranney and Morris 2011 couches PL within a developmental ecosystem, and points to the different domains in which PL is apparent (self, local, global). Karandashev 2011 provides an interesting cultural challenge to these definitions. Cranney, et al. 2012 defines PL as “the general capacity to adaptively and intentionally apply psychology to meet personal, professional and societal needs” (p. iii). Newstead 2015 provides a constructive critical analysis of the term, pointing to the need for improved conceptualization and measurement (see Measuring PL). Murdoch 2016 defines PL as the “ethical application of psychological knowledge and skills” (p. 189). Cranney and Morris 2021 (cited under PL as a Pedagogical Philosophy) proposes a 2 x 2 matrix with two dimensions: possession (or not) of foundational/theoretical knowledge underlying an evidence-base strategy, and the use (or not) of that strategy. In summary, there appear to be two current approaches to defining and operationalizing PL: (a) as a set of capabilities—knowledge, skills, and attitudes–that students should acquire during their psychology education, and (b) as a general capacity to intentionally apply psychology to achieve personal, professional, and societal goals. Regarding the former, although there is some consensus regarding what constitutes the set of capabilities, further development is required. Regarding the latter, practical implications, challenges, and opportunities require further exploration. Psychological Literacy is a website that includes a reference listing and other resources.

  • Beins, B., E. Landrum, and D. Posey. 2011. Specialized critical thinking: Scientific and psychological literacies. Presidential Task Force on Psychological Literacy White Paper. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    These authors posit a hierarchy whereby PL is part of scientific literacy, which in turn is part of critical thinking, all of which are “not natural to most people” (p. 2). On the basis of a review of other literacies, the authors usefully specify a series of steps forward, from “establishing what psychological literacy is” to “fostering a spirit of reform within the discipline” (p. 11).

  • Boneau, C. A. 1990. Psychological literacy: A first approximation. American Psychologist 45.7: 891–900.

    DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.45.7.891

    C. Alan Boneau is, to the best of our knowledge, the first English-language scholar to coin the phrase “psychological literacy.” The author’s focus is on discipline knowledge (i.e., subject matter, including methodology and statistics), that he argues should be general knowledge within the psychological community, including psychology students. Using psychology subfield textbook author surveys, he defined, in each of ten subfields of psychology, the hundred most important facts and concepts.

  • Cranney, J., L. Botwood, and S. Morris. 2012. National standards for psychological literacy and global citizenship: Outcomes of undergraduate psychology education. Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales.

    Final peer-reviewed report of ALTC/OLT National Teaching Fellowship. The authors report the outcomes of this stakeholder-centered fellowship as (a) a greater focus on “the operationalization, adoption and implementation of psychological literacy” (p. iv), (b) promotion of PL as the primary outcome of UG education, and (c) global citizenship as a desirable transdisciplinary graduate capability. These outcomes are reinforced in recommendations, which also include increased emphasis on career development learning, cultural responsivity, capstone experiences, and alternative professional psychology-relevant career options.

  • Cranney, J., and D. S. Dunn. 2011a. Psychological literacy and the psychologically literate citizen: New frontiers for a global discipline. In The psychologically literate citizen: Foundations and global perspectives. Edited by J. Cranney and D. S. Dunn, 3–12. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199794942.003.0014

    These authors provide in-depth analyses of the concepts of “literacy,” “psychological literacy,” “citizen,” “global citizen,” and “psychologically literate citizen.” They define PL as “psychological knowledge that is used adaptively” (p. 8), and argue that PL “implies a relatively well integrated and functional set of schemas that across individuals may show some variability in expression, but in terms of central tendency, can be recognized and assessed as ‘psychological literacy’” (p. 8).

  • Cranney, J., and D. S. Dunn, eds. 2011b. The psychologically literate citizen: Foundations and global perspectives. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199794942.001.0001

    Written by fifty authors from eight nations, the twenty-three chapters are grouped under: Introduction, Curriculum Perspectives, Global Perspectives, Integrative Perspectives. Authors all make reference to McGovern, et al. 2010, and so a major (but not exclusive) focus is PL as the core outcome of UG psychology education. To date, it is the core reference on PL. Many, but not all, chapters are featured in this bibliography.

  • Cranney, J., and S. Morris. 2011. Adaptive cognition and psychological literacy. In The psychologically literate citizen: Foundations and global perspectives. Edited by J. Cranney and D. S. Dunn, 251–268. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199794942.003.0063

    These authors couch PL in terms of “adaptive cognition,” defined as “global ways of thinking (and subsequently, behaving) that are beneficial to one’s (and others’) survival and wellbeing” (p. 251). The approach draws on developmental psychology, evolutionary psychology, cultural psychology, and human ecology. The authors illustrate different domains of application with PL (self and immediate others, local communities, global perspectives).

  • Karandashev, V. 2011. Psychological literacy goals in psychology teaching in Russian education. In The psychologically literate citizen: Foundations and global perspectives. Edited by J. Cranney and D. S. Dunn, 206–219. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199794942.003.0055

    Karandashev states that in Russian scholarship a decade prior to McGovern, et al. 2010, “psychological literacy” was defined as a “knowing and understanding of psychological knowledge” (p. 207), whereas the concept “individual psychological culture of behavior” (p. 207) is more akin to McGovern et al.’s broader definition. Karandashev indicates that in Russian psychology education, the acquisition of these competencies is considered more important for those not proceeding to careers in professional and academic psychology.

  • McGovern, T. V., L. A. Corey, J. Cranney, et al. 2010. Psychologically literate citizens. In Undergraduate education in psychology: Blueprint for the discipline’s future. Edited by D. Halpern, 9–27. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    DOI: 10.1037/12063-001

    The authors redefine PL as encapsulating nine graduate capabilities that UG psychology major students should acquire, including discipline knowledge and its application to personal, professional, and societal contexts; developing scientific, critical, and creative ways of thinking; and behaving in an ethical and diversity-respectful manner. The authors highlight the necessity for all psychology educators to reexamine their pedagogical orientation in terms of taking into account our graduates’ global future.

  • Murdoch, D. D. 2016. Psychological literacy: Proceed with caution, construction ahead. Psychology Research and Behavior Management 9:189–199.

    DOI: 10.2147/PRBM.S88646

    Murdoch’s constructive critical analysis places emphasis on the “ethical application of psychology knowledge and skills” (p. 189), and identifies gaps/barriers/cautions regarding the operationalization, measurement and development of PL, including (a) the need to identify what is uniquely psychological in the context of generic capabilities (his analysis offers a useful solution), (b) the need to develop reliable and valid measures of PL, and (c) ethical challenges.

  • Newstead, S. E. 2015. Psychological literacy and “the emperor’s new clothes.” Psychology Teaching Review 21.2: 3–12.

    Newstead categorizes definitions of PL into “knowledge literacy” (that every psychology graduate should have acquired), “skills literacy” (recent emphasis on generic “personal” graduate skills, which some may acquire), and “cultural literacy” (new aspirational generic graduate capabilities underlying “global citizenship”). He argues that these three literacies are hierarchically interrelated. He calls for greater conceptual clarity, identifies gaps in the literature and in teaching and assessment practice, and suggests ways forward.

  • Psychological Literacy.

    This website presents an introduction to the concept of PL, as well as other concepts such as “global citizenship.” There is a list of citations that includes the phrase “psychological literacy,” as well as compendia of teaching and assessment resources.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.