Saturday, April 30, 2011

Social Responsibility for Psychological Public Statements Made by Non-Psychologists

by Guest Blogger, Kevin Arnold, Ph.D. ABPP

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.

Claim Our Expertise. We psychologists have clearly defined expertise in the application of psychological constructs and research to everyday problems. We helped developed highly effective prevention programs for health, such as the smoking cessation program at the University of Rhode Island (e.g., Stages of Change), and regularly advise courts on issues ranging from parenting to violence potential. Unfortunately, non-psychologists lay claim to our constructs and theories when they write or make public statements as if experts on clearly psychological topics. Sometimes those writings or statements are benign, while at other times they can create the opportunity for harm. When the latter occurs, we must lay claim to our field, and take an active stance that our education, experience, and training give us unique capacity to apply psychology that others simply do not have. If psychologists fail to own our field, we could both lose our identity and allow pseudo-psychology to harm society. 

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. 

Correct Mis-representation of Psychological Research. Books, published articles, and media statements often rely on psychological research, or sometimes junk-science masquerading as psychological research, to appear authoritative. In my own experience, the articles and book by the “Tiger Mom” argued that research findings validated her claim that the majority of Asian parents in Asia used, essentially, authoritarian parenting while parents in the United States used overly permissive parenting. She further argued that research showed that her “Tiger Parenting” produced better academic outcomes. However, research specifically on the topic provided findings often either more equivocal than her statements or contradictory to her position. When psychological research is mis-represented, we must actively correct the errors in public statements. Psychologists have a social obligation to protect society against the mis-use of our research so that evidence drives public policy, not pseudo-science.

A Final Thought. I remember former president of APA, Ted Blau, once saying that graduate school often left psychologists with little self-confidence, and without the skills to speak authoritatively. He might have been right; and if so, many of us avoid or ignore the mis-use of psychology by others. But, our education is extensive, our experience accumulates knowledge, and our training is well-supervised. We learn psychological theory, social science statistics, complex research designs, and clinical application methods. Psychologists, most of all, speak with authority on psychology’s role in addressing social problems. Socially responsible psychologists strive to be heard over the din of talking heads and pundits who sometimes use our field to serve their own self-interests.

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