Computer Science and Psychology? How does that work?

seamstress stitching clothing item on sewing machine

I have Masters’ Degrees in both Computer Science and Psychology. Weaving that fact casually into conversations is an excellent filter for finding other polymaths out there; the poor interdisciplinary souls that can’t help but wonder if exploring another topic will satisfy their endless curiosity. Another perk – and arguably more valuable – is the early priming to the value of the seams of disciplines.

It all started with my dissatisfaction with the Computer Science curriculum. After the second year, I started wondering:

“Do I really feel all that excited about the Dijkstra algorithm and balancing binary trees”?

I felt disappointed with the narrow understanding of what’s involved with producing software. Humans are running it; why aren’t we talking about them? Facebook was in its infancy; why aren’t we exploring where this is going? I decided to add the “human side” to my understanding (here are some tactical notes on how I managed to pull off 2 degrees at the same time). What did I find out?

Psychology and Computer Science really are quite similar

Psychology strives to dissect and understand the underlying principles of human thought and behavior. Computer Science aims to create the principles and algorithms for easier operation of the “thinking machines.” The only difference is that one deals with people – the other one with computers.

Am I suggesting that correlation between disciplines boils down to the similarity between humans and computers? To be honest, I haven’t seen an argument to the contrary.

  1. Behavioral Psychology assumes that when presented with a particular input, we can predict the outcome. In Computer Science, we call that a function.
  2. Sigmund Freud himself was heavily influenced by the dominant technology of the day: the steam engine. He concluded that the pressure and drive buildup could create issues in the “pipelines,” causing malfunctions. I’m sure he would be talking about algorithms were he born today.
  3. Cognitive Psychology is a newer branch, so it is already liberally borrowing concepts from Computer Science: Kahneman’s “Cognitive Resources” theory suggests that when certain cognitive resources (like memory or willpower) are taxed with too many demands, issues follow. Just the same way your Macbook freezes when you are trying to do too many things at once.
  4. Your brain evolved from a long line of less brilliant creatures. Many problematic behaviors (emotional reactions, self-sabotage, and craving sugar) can be traced to a conflict between the “lizard brain” and your conscious goals from the prefrontal cortex. In computer science, we would call this working with a legacy codebase.

The list goes on. Psychology can be better understood with a Computer Science lens and vice versa. For example, the concept of Intelligence was developed by the US Army to assess the “general aptitude” of their candidates. Psychologists to this day are not convinced the “General Intelligence” exists (It is defined as a result in the “Intelligence Test”). Extrapolating that into Computer Science, I don’t believe General Artificial Intelligence is possible because I don’t think Regular Intelligence™️ exists. 

The world wants you in a box.

Once I finished my studies, I expected to be highly valued in the job market due to my unique perspective (even more than all 20-year olds do). But employers didn’t really know what to do with me – there are no positions advertised in the overlap of computer science and psychology. On the one hand – the tech companies are searching for CS graduates, and on the other – a psychology degree can get you hired recruiting engineers for tech companies (like 30% of my classmates do).

It’s a shame because the overlap of computer science and psychology is uniquely positioned to solve a variety of connected worlds’ issues:

  • How do we ensure Social Media is helping mental health instead of hampering it?
  • How do we help people navigate the world of disproportionate leverage provided by technology?
  • How do we help find meaning, purpose, and psychological safety when the stable jobs are gone, and entire industries disappear every year?

These challenges are falling between the cracks of traditional disciplines – they are too “technical” for academic psychologists proud of their “Humanist” mindsets and too “Human” for average programmers, steeped in the precise world predictable world of math and physics.

Our most pressing problems started small but have been allowed to grow unhindered due to their transdisciplinary nature. They didn’t land in the purview of any single discipline, so we all ignored them as long as possible.

The challenges of the future are in the seams of things.

Studying computer science and psychology has primed me to understand the unique challenges of humans interacting with technology. We also need transdisciplinary experts in combinations of climate science + really anything, or technology + education. You probably don’t need formal degrees. Just start exploring.

Leave a Reply