Nicholas Mang, Psychology

Photograph of Nicholas Mang

Nicholas Mang

Psychology Alumni/a

His whole life, Nicholas Mang has gravitated to community organizing and support.

That drive eventually took him to Saybrook, where he received his PhD in Psychology with a concentration in Social Transformation, but before that you could find him out in communities, making a difference.

He’s helped build community centers, community development work, and business incubators for local communities – and it was all good work.

The trouble was, no matter how much good work he helped to do, he kept seeing communities making the same mistakes that got them in trouble in the first place.

“I would see that a lot of people were doing good work in the communities, trying to get things done, and yet there was very little on changing thinking or behavior … so a lot of what we were doing was creating new techniques for solving the same problems over and over again,” he said. “And eventually I realized that this was happening because we weren’t working on our own internal development, how we think or how we learn.”

He wanted to learn how communities can change their underlying attitudes in order to better solve problems, and so he went to school to get a graduate degree in Psychology – and found it incredibly frustrating.

“At (the Institution I was studying at), the field of psychology focused exclusively on the self, the individual – so they were trying to force me to change from someone who was always trying to change the world to someone who was trying to focus on the self,” he says. “That was a complete disconnect from what I wanted to look at. I kept trying to bridge the gap, and they kept telling me ‘no, you can’t do that, you’ll study what we tell you to.’”

He tried to bridge that gap – and found his passion as a researcher. He discovered that there were a few model cities around the world, like Curtiba, Brazil, where systemic change really had happened: it wasn’t just that they were solving problems, it was that they solved problems systemically, in a way that kept them solved, and brought everyone together.

“What I wanted to know,” he explains, “is not ‘what did they do?’ – we know what they did. That’s well documented. I wanted to understand ‘what happened, psychologically, in this community to put everyone in the frame of mind where they could look at solving problems this way?’ There’s very little research on that, and I think it is a psychological issue.”

But when he told his department that he would make this the subject of his dissertation, they put their foot down.

“They were telling me that this wasn’t psychology. I had to study an individual experience. So I got into this huge philosophical debate about what psychology is, and in the end I was told that I either had to change my topic or leave my school … and at this point I was so passionate that I left.”

That was when he found Saybrook – and went from faculty telling him “you can’t do this” to telling him “we can help.”

“I came from a college with a lot of bureaucratic walls: individual professors or departments may have been very rich, but the structure, the way it you had to do things, was really dehumanizing,” he says. “Saybrook, by contrast, has really built up systems that are integral, that make sense: the university is designed to be much more flexible and much more student-centered, so that everybody benefits: I’ve been very pleased with that.”

He’s connected to the professors he’s approached, and says they’ve offered him real help and support to follow his passion: he’s now writing his dissertation.

But it’s not just about academics for Nicholas: he’s still a community organizer at heart, and is glad that Saybrook is a home for that, too.

“Saybrook has a much stronger emphasis on application to the world … looking at what people are already doing in the world and looking at how they can use their education to bring added value and improvements to that,” he says. “Education can be so narcissistic, really can become an ivory tower, if we lose sight of the fact that this research should be good for people: Saybrook never loses sight of that, they stay really grounded.”