AI in Psychology


Leadership consultants, executive coaches, industrial-organizational psychologists, and artificial intelligence all have the same goal: to help make people better at what they do. Do you agree? Recently on The Science of Personality, cohosts Ryne Sherman, PhD, chief science officer, and Blake Loepp, PR manager, spoke with Ted Hayes, PhD, a research psychologist in northern Virginia, about the implications of using AI in consulting psychology.

“AI is where the future is, and we are moving into the future. You can’t avoid AI,” Ted said.

Let’s dive into a comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of AI coaching and human coaching respectively, as well as our guest’s advice for coaches.

AI Transformation Is Inevitable

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and deep learning will become part of the fabric of just about every industry, including consulting psychology and leadership coaching. AI will affect our futures—and the outlook is bright. Ted pointed out that effecting successful technological change will draw upon the socioemotional skills of leaders to provide change management and psychological safety. It will also draw upon the expertise of psychologists during a time when every single organizational function is likely to be affected by AI.

Before we start imagining evil AI overlords dictating every minute of our working lives, it’s important to note that humans produce and control the content upon which AI is based. Ted explained AI “creativity” using two terms: generative AI and discriminative AI. Generative AI takes existing content and produces variations, such as ChatGPT inventing a comic book superhero based on Wonder Woman. Discriminative AI is a more predictive tool, which might identify employees who may become high-potential leaders or candidates who merit a second interview.

In the case of discriminative AI, an industry concern is that, while psychologists must follow guidelines, laws, rules, and regulations, AI tools behave the way they’ve been programmed. They don’t have accountability the same way that people do. Instead, AI has guardrails programmed into it by human engineers and data scientists who can choose to limit its access to information and its influence within the organization.

Reiterating that AI is answerable only to its programming, Ted observed, “On the one hand, AI won’t save us from ourselves. On the other hand, it’ll reflect the best of us if that’s how we set up its content, and we are in control of that.”

AI Coaching vs. Human Coaching

In the consulting and coaching realm, AI coaching can offer some benefits that humans cannot. Machines are excellent at providing unrelenting reliability and processing data. In terms of the inability to like or dislike, they lack bias. They can help to train and support leaders and teams with instruction or data analysis. “It could do a lot in terms of developing people—not because it likes people, but because its imperative is to make people better at what they do,” Ted said.

Other benefits are that AI is always awake and accessible. It can’t get tired or distracted. It can learn a lot about you and make recommendations based on the data you provide to it, including how to achieve career goals. The advice is personalized. Even if it can’t contextualize or react to your emotions, it can choose a different option based on your response.

Now, human psychologists, consultants, and coaches currently have and always will have certain advantages over AI. If AI has some tools, a human coach has a wealth of tools, including AI. Humans understand how to leverage those tools relative to client needs.

An AI coach is likely to advise more broadly than a human. A human’s emotions and life experiences will allow greater specificity. Put another way, some scenarios will be so specific that where the AI might rely on data about it, the human has lived it.

Learning to position AI effectively will be a process. “We’re right at the dawn of all this. We just don’t know how good it’s going to get,” said Ted.

The Human Connection

A one-on-one, human-to-human interactive coaching session isn’t possible with an AI-powered coach. Perhaps surprisingly, however, there are some positives to coaching without the human connection. First, AI is without emotion, so how it feels about you cannot affect how it behaves. Second, AI cannot decide to lie to you because it has no metacognition. It is also superior to humans in its capacity to process information as an analytical function and to present information as a pedagogical function.

On the other hand, there are drawbacks to losing that human connection. One drawback is that data are messy, and AI using messy data might discriminate or generate racist, sexist, or homophobic responses. AI-powered systems require constant vigilance to achieve positive outcomes, and this need for oversight can be a downside.

Another drawback to AI coaching is the very absence of emotion. People tend to humanize machines. An AI coach or assistant, however, simply cannot answer many of the questions we might ask it. It could rate the pros and cons of a decision, but it can’t always know what is right.

Data privacy is another negative association with using AI tools. If an AI system construed personality information from an interview, for example, then it would be essential for the human to know how those data might be used for selection. An AI that collects information about organizational citizenship across platforms over time is another potentially privacy-violating example.

The human connection remains essential. Assessment feedback from a coach or psychologist trained in dealing with people and organizations will necessarily be superior to that provided by an AI. An AI system only knows what’s in its database. It can’t notice a reaction from a person and couch information in a certain way to be supportive because it cannot care. “Humans still have the upper hand, especially psychologists, in leveraging their expertise relative to what an AI system can do in terms of working with people,” said Ted.

Advice for Coaches

Ted suggested how coaches and consultants should respond to new technologies with a mindset focused on those they support.

  • Challenge your thinking about how to partner with AI in your journey as a consultant, psychologist, or coach. Choose to learn about ways to apply AI.
  • Understand the ethical implications of working with AI systems in assessment and leadership development.
  • Imagine how you would function inside an organization that valued human behavior enough to understand it through an AI platform.
  • Add value to the individuals in organizations and societies that choose to build out their AI function.

“I understand the reasons to be pessimistic, but I don’t share them,” Ted concluded. “We can avoid issues like not accounting for algorithmic bias, for not treating people with dignity and respect as they deal with an AI system, for not understanding the possible environmental consequences of having an AI-based system. Because we are accountable, we can do that, and that sets us apart.”

Listen to this conversation in full on episode 71 of The Science of Personality. Never miss an episode by following us anywhere you get podcasts. Cheers, everybody!