Seeking Answers from Social and Personality Psychologists: 10 Research Questions in the Torture/Interrogation Debate

Bradley Olson

As someone trained in personality and social psychology—and now also working as a community psychologist—it’s clear to me that social and personality theory and research make essential contributions to understanding social justice issues.

I’ve long been an activist on the American Psychological Association (APA) torture issue and a member of Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR). This led to an invitation to participate in a session chaired by Chris Crandall at the 2009 Society for Experimental Social Psychology conference in Portland, Maine. The session involved presentations of several excellent studies related to U.S. torture and interrogation. My role was to act as a discussant and to suggest what other areas, as an activist, I thought should be studied empirically.

For several decades, the horrors of WWII and the racism that led to the civil rights movement inspired the work of U.S. social and personality psychologists. As several participants mentioned at the session in Portland, the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and Guantanamo can have similar influences on the discipline in the years ahead. I agree. From my perspective as an activist, here are 10 questions I would love social and personality researchers to help answer:

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In Praise of Shared Outrage

Roy Eidelson

“We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity and opportunity for all.” These were the words of Lord Brian Griffiths, Goldman Sachs international adviser, when he spoke at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral last fall. With inequality at historic levels here in the United States and around the world, it’s a reassuring message we all might wish to be true.

Unfortunately, scientific research reveals a sharply different reality: inequality is a driving force behind many of our most profound social ills. The Equality Trust reviewed thousands of studies conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and the World Bank. Consistent patterns emerged, both between and within countries. Inequality is associated with diminished levels of physical and mental health, child well-being, educational achievement, social mobility, trust, and community life. And it is linked to increased levels of violence, drug use, imprisonment, obesity, and teenage births. In short, Lord Griffiths’ claim–despite the venue–was a self-serving fiction.

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Nuclear Power: A Psychological Perspective

Marc Pilisuk and Gianina Pellegrini

Note: A print version of this essay will be available in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of the Peace Psychology Newsletter of APA’s Division 48.

With the danger of global warming quite great and the demands for energy use increasing, new arguments in favor of the development of nuclear energy are being heard. Claims are made that despite some notable accidents, nuclear power is typically safe, provides a major source of energy without producing greenhouse gases, and has been effectively used in France and Japan. The transportation and storage of nuclear wastes, while not resolved in the US is viewed as a problem with a technological solution. But psychologists are particularly aware of the use of fear and crisis, or shock, as an excuse to implement solutions without full appreciation of the consequences.

Some progressive environmentalists like Stuart Brand and some environmental scientists like James Hanson are advocating increased use of nuclear power, particularly for the development of “4th generation” thorium reactors, which are claimed to be significantly safer, more efficient and producing much less waste than the reactors now in use. The claim is that 4th generation reactors completely burn the uranium and can also burn the long-lived nuclear waste, which would “solve the nuclear waste problem.” Support by Bill Gates has helped to popularize this view. The Obama administration also seems willing to move in this direction.

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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.

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Psychological Insights for the Health Care Reform Debate

Marion Steininger

healthcareQuite apart from our personal views about what health-care reform should look like, psychologists can help to educate legislators, people we know, and groups we address about several factors with regard to human behavior that, if understood, will be less likely to continue standing in the way of progress on this issue.

Most basic, perhaps, is the very human tendency to want to eat our cake and have it too. In this case: “Lower my taxes, but don’t remove any services.” Sometimes just becoming aware of this tendency encourages us to think more carefully.

As psychologists, we are also very familiar with the power of labels, such as “death panels,” or “socialism”. Many commentators have pointed out that those on the political right make superb use of this power, while those on the left seem to be less adept. We could help encourage people to ask that speakers be very specific about what they have just labeled. Or perhaps, some would want to help their own “side” come up with better labels. My opinion is that the former is more ethical than the latter.

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On the Road to Change: The Psychology of Progress

Roy Eidelson

highwayThe morning after last November’s historic election, triumphant chants of “Yes We Did” drowned out the Obama campaign message of “Yes We Can.” Now only four months later enthusiasm has waned, and last Friday the President felt the need to reassure reporters on Air Force One, “I don’t think that people should be fearful about our future.”

The striking contrast highlights the fact that any long and difficult journey should be measured in two parts – the distance already traveled, and the distance still left to go. Both measurements are necessary to really understand how much progress you’ve made toward reaching your destination. Neither one alone is sufficient.

This simple idea – appreciated by many a parent during road trips with young children repeatedly asking “Are we there yet?” – has special relevance for progressives as we contemplate where we stand today. On the one hand, we rejoice that the previous administration’s unprecedented incompetence, corruption, secrecy, and lawlessness are fading in our rear-view mirror each day. On the other hand, we are sobered by the realization that the horizon ahead is clouded by a crippled economy, an inadequate healthcare system, and multiple wars with no clear end in sight.

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The Christian Case for Gay Marriage

David Myers

gay-flagEarlier in my adult life I probably would have supported the various state gay marriage bans. No longer. My reading of psychological science, my revisiting the biblical foundations of my religious faith, and my engagement with real people’s life stories have together drawn me to a different place. In the nine short chapters and an appendix of What God has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage, Letha Dawson Scanzoni and I together derive these ten conclusions for our audience: Christians who are wrestling with same-sex partnerships and the ordination of gays and lesbians to church offices.

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