Social responsibility is a broad term, defined on Wikipedia as “ethical ideology or theory that an entity, be it an organization or individual, has an obligation to act to benefit society at large. This responsibility can be passive, by avoiding engaging in socially harmful acts, or active, by performing activities that directly advance social goals” (Wikipedia). Psychologists act socially in both passive (e.g., decline to advise on effective torture methodology) or active (e.g., deliver behavioral programs to increase child car restraint use by parents) ways. For some psychologists, the opportunity to benefit society is ever present, such as when a psychologist writes for the public media. This blog provides three tenants regarding socially responsible public statements when confronting pseudo-psychology in the media or press.
Provide Reasonable Alternative Ideas. Far too often, non-psychologists (and sometimes psychologists) overstate the validity of psychological theories in media statements. For example, I have often heard attorneys say that witnesses will not admit to something that is against their interest unless the admission is true. Several psychological theories exist to explain the motivation to meet a task demand under stressful conditions. For example, suggestibility theory argues that false ideas can be implanted through leading questions or exposure to non-factual narrative descriptions. Drive reduction theory (most recently captured in Barlow’s concepts of escape and avoidance) explains efforts to reduce stress cause counter-intuitive behaviors (ala the Milgram experiments). Functional behavior analysis would argue that statements against one’s interests can function to provide social attention and rewards even when such statements are not true. Socially responsible psychologists have an obligation to actively inform the public of these alternatives to thwart the mis-perception that theory is truth, when in fact theory is but plausible explanation of data.