Major Global Crises Call for Psychologists to Take the Stage

Gloria Gordon

For several years I have kept a folder on my computer desktop for items relating to my admittedly grandiose plan to deliver a jolt to human behavior experts in the U.S. that will focus their attention on the planetary crises we face in this era.

In sorting through the contents of the folder I find that among its 684 documents there appear two categories of useful files. One set features authorities talking/writing about Big Problems predicted to hit home in the coming decade or two (climate change, economic disaster, global violence, food and water shortage). What is special about these files is that, in the midst of their analyses, these authorities toss in an explanatory mental/emotional cause.

Some examples: when the economy crashes, they throw human greed into their comments; when climate change is featured in the news Al Gore points to emotion-driven thinking habits that we have slipped into since television became a dominant part of our culture; recently James Cameron, director of the film Avatar, tells us that we humans are in denial about the seriousness of the way we have degraded the environment–and that our denial is caused by our fear of the huge mess the planet is in and the dangers that lie ahead: food and water shortage, displaced populations, disease, world violence.

Human failings along these lines are well known, of course, to human behavior experts. But what is remarkable is that these public observations are being made not by psychologists, psychiatrists or anthropologists but by economists, politicians and movie directors.

Another set of files in my folder features experts/researchers in human behavior, based mainly in academia, who are writing or talking in the media on topics such as new research on how the human brain works, findings on how emotions trump rationality, or other weaknesses in the way we humans think and act. For example, Predictably Irrational by Dan Arieli was published about two years ago, as was Drew Westen’s The Political Brain. And yesterday Amazon (ever alert to my interests) suggested that I would like to buy A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, authored by Cordelia Fine in 2006.

What I notice is a disconnect between the two batches of files. They are not talking to each other. Greed, irrationality, denial, short-term vs. long-term rewards, intellectual/emotional/moral development–these are stamping grounds of psychology, behavioral economics, anthropology, education, psychiatry. But are experts in human behavior engaging with experts monitoring the catastrophic dangers facing the planet? Perhaps they are doing it deep inside academia. If so, I believe that we need to push these discussions out into the daylight.

In the 1950s I was active in the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information. It was part of a national “information movement” to spread scientific facts to the public for the first time about nuclear testing, fallout, and the effects of nuclear war–via everything from local PTA talks by scientists and physicians to the Linus Pauling petitions to end nuclear testing, signed by thousands of scientists. At that time the U.S. government may not have understood, and did not disclose, the radiation hazards to the general public (for children especially) from atmospheric nuclear testing in Nevada. But the information movement made Strontium 90 and Iodine 131 household words in St. Louis and other areas downwind from the Nevada test site.

Just as the 1950s called for wide public education by nuclear scientists and medical researchers, the current era calls for energetic discussion by experts in human behavior to address an obvious question: Are we humans with our paleolithic mental/emotional/moral limitations in over our heads in facing the huge issues now looming? And more importantly, given the way we are hard-wired, what steps can we take (individually and socially) to help ourselves think more clearly and make more effective decisions? How can we upgrade our minds to face the future with a fuller deck of cards? How can we find new ways to improve human decision making in the face of daunting challenges?

Is it time to restart multidisciplinary public teach-ins on college campuses (and/or their internet equivalents) to address our current challenges? To show the public how to use our brains well in addressing specific global issues? To make proposals for how we can do better at this, using knowledge we already have? To dream up new studies designed to find more effective ways of upgrading our minds to face current global realities? Experts from varied fields have the capacity to put forth a huge range of themes, information and opinions, which would stir controversy and get this challenge out on the table.

I am looking for and eager to work with others to create a significant boost in public-oriented communication on these themes by human behavior experts.

PsySR member Gloria Gordon is a psychologist who lives in St. Louis, MO. Now retired from research and teaching, she trains and supervises support group peer leaders, and also takes part in the peace movement. Gloria can be contacted at gordon.gc@gmail.com

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5 Responses to “Major Global Crises Call for Psychologists to Take the Stage”

  1. Lamar Freed, Psy.D. Says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful essay. The need for intervention in all manner of ways has never been more clear. Like on the global level, where the most impoverished are damaged most by climate change, changes in the United States will also be felt most keenly among those who are the poorest and most powerless. Public health psychologists, at the least, ought to be paying attention to this.

  2. Phil Schoggen Says:

    One good place for anyone to start on this is to carefully read the book by Lester Brown entitled “Plan B-4″ in the revised edition. Really takes a global perspective.

  3. Bill McConochie Says:

    I am currently seeking subjects for a study of 66 psychological traits of liberal and conservative worldviews. Subjects go to my non-profit web site and complete 4 questionnaires. Professors can get a group code number from me so I can tell them which of their students participated for extra credit. Participants get their scores immediately upon finishing a questionnaire, on the traits measured. Their professor gets a report of the overall study findings before the end of the term, if enough participate to warrant data processing (usually a minimum of 40). Please the the Publications page of my web site for the sort of studies completed. Polilticalpsychologyresearch.com I believe the study described above will provide very interesting information re: how to mobilize citizens politically to get sufficient government voice to address serious world problems. The citizens already know about and care about the problems, well over 50 percent think they need attention. The problem is not lack of awareness and concern. The problem is that governments are controlled by small minorities of monied special interest groups that are indifferent to environment, etc. in the interest of short-term profit. They use their money to buy government legislation that keeps them free to indulge for profit. Until the majority of citizens are effectively empowered politically, the big environmental problems will be ignored by governments.

    Please help with my research efforts, which are aimed at empowering the majority voice with empirical data. Each study has an informed consent form at its beginning (re: IRB concerns).

    Best regards, Bill McConochie. Bill@politicalpsychologyresearch.com

  4. Jean Roth Jacobs Says:

    This well-reasoned, wise article indicates a split in our thinking about global and environmental issues among disciplines. It is interesting to me that economic and legislative efforts call upon a psychological response to global concerns, perhaps trying to indicate that individuals are responsible for these social ills.

    I often think this is a cop-out to get us to think these matters are for individual concern while capitalist and militaristic endeavors continue merrily on their way. It is true that we can have an effect in smaller ways on what happens globally and environmentally. But suggesting that individuals are going to make the primary difference in what happens is ludicrous, I feel.

    Based on her life activities, I’m sure Dr. Gordon is working psychologically and politically to improve these situations. I’ll be interested in hearing more of her thoughts. Thank you!

    • Gloria Gordon Says:

      Thank you, Jean, for raising a key discussion that I did not touch upon in my brief essay. What is the value of making interventions at the individual/psychological level to address global concerns, when changes are needed at the societal systems level—including the military-industrial-financial complex that pervades our current era of U.S. history? 
      The reality is that practitioners within these systems have always utilized human vulnerability at the psychological level to control human behavior via advertising, political campaign messaging, and wartime propaganda.  In contrast, individuals can develop insight on how they are being manipulated by a system and change their thinking and behavior.  For example, liberation movements empower people at the psychological level to take part in social change movements. I hope we can stir up more discussion on how these two levels of action interact.


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