[Current Topics in Psychology]

A.P.A. Convention Highlights

American Psychological Association
115th Annual Convention - San Francisco, CA
August 17-20, 2007

[Humanizing an Inhumane World]
Left to Right: P.DeLeon, F.Denmark, R.Sternberg, F.Farley, M.Seligman

Humanizing an Inhumane World

This panel clearly was quite worldly in perspective, as seen in the course of a wide-ranging discussion on global trends and events. One panelist (Pat DeLeon) is very involved as chief of staff to a Congressman and another (Florence Denmark) is part of an advisory group to the United Nations. Others have been doing research and implementing studies in other countries as well as the U.S. As became clear -- and with diverse perspectives ranging from Martin Seligman's focus on "positive psychology" to Robert Sternberg's observations about how basic recreation and learning activities have been changing within our culture -- our world is becoming an increasingly warring, traumatizing place, with so much INhumanity that the problem clearly extends beyond any one organization (like APA) or any single approach, or single country. So ultimately presenters shared their own orientations towards the *psychological* realities underpinning things ranging from hate and bullying on one hand, to creating positive, caring societies on the other, with many points in between.

Frank Farley, President of the APA Division of Humanistic Psychology, moderated, introducing the speakers and beginning the discussion with an allusion to the end line of "Apocalypse Now" - "the horror" - citing today's many horrors which have engulfed so much of life for so many of the world's people.

Pat DeLeon spoke about his background in politics and law, underscoring how much of our political system is run by lawyers (of which he is one) and how "lawyers think differently" than process-oriented psychologists typically do. DeLeon suggested that leaders need to hear more from people like Seligman, about how people are really thinking. He noted that in the case of so much violence, "trauma seems to be most relevant only to those who are personally touched" by it.

Florence Denmark was introduced as "APA's point person at the U.N." and Dr. Farley wondered if she might be able to have some positive role in helping the UN to "humanize the world". Dr. Denmark clarified that she is in fact part of a team, and underscored that there are many people and organizations concerned with the welfare of the world's dehumanized/traumatized populations. "The NGO's [Non-Governmental Organizations] are quite concerned with humanitarian issues", she observed, but "it's very different when you get to the top" in terms of trying to influence large policy decisions, for example in the UN General Assembly. She has seen some good things come out of various committees-- for example the committee on aging which she chairs -- and sometimes policy influence can lead to things like spearheading support for women's issues and the rights of children. Unfortunately, while most countries have signed onto these doctrines, amazingly (or not?) the United States has not. The efforts continue: Coming up this fall there will be a "Psychology Day" at the UN, with several panels on topics such as conflict resolution and response to national disaster.

Robert Sternberg (famed for his work in "intelligence" and "the new 3 R's") began by reflecting on a recent visit to his old neighborhood in a New Jersey suburb, and being struck immediately by the absence of children playing on the street. Why? Well, probably they have "much better things to do, like watching Baby Einstein on DVD". Dr. Sternberg mentioned the recent study which demonstrated that time spent on such passive video/DVD activity rather than social/physical activity actually results in LESS verbal ability rather than more.

Sternberg went on to extend that notion to that of "preparing" students through a process of SAT studying. As Dean of Tufts University, he was discomforted by the over-reliance on a particular tool such as SAT's, which research has shown are best at predicting success at taking similar tests, and not necessarily much more generalizeable than that. (Even "IQ" is not necessarily predictive of "success" Sternberg noted, as there is evidence of people who make big impacts on the world being "creative", "practical", and "wise".) Sternberg did a study at Tufts, taking a bit of a risk in altering the admission process by requiring applicants to write creative essays such as "Confessions of a Middle School Bully" or "Suppose Rosa Parks had given up her seat" in addition to showing how well they could score on SAT's. In the end, though he was unsure how it would turn out, SAT scores actually went up, and the accepted students had a unique experience, and a positive one. In his view, "a goal was to increase the humanity of the application process". One example of taking action on behalf of humanizing daily experience.

Next to make introductory remarks was Martin Seligman. He began by sharing that once upon a time "I had the idea that if you get rid of a patient's anxiety and depression you'd have a happy person", but he found out that's not true. "Often you end up with an *empty* person." Similarly, he has concluded that there is a difference between making efforts at "ending inhumanities" and (positively) "humanizing the world". He noted that Tracy Chapman (the singer/songwriter) presents songs which are "all about ending inhumanity", but not necessarily pointing the way to *creating* a humanistic world. "Roses don't grow on their own if you simply clear space for them". They need to be planted and nurtured too. Seligman noted how there is currently some discussion in Europe/UK/Australia along the lines of: "Should there be an index, not only of Gross National Product, but also of Gross National Wellbeing?" He cited Nietzsche's 3 stages, of (1) the camel, who bore suffering; (2) The rebel who said no ("our past 200 years"); and (3) the child who is reborn, and says yes. So from his perspective the challenge is to learn "what we can do to diminish the negatives; what we can do *positively*; how to foster more purpose in the world; and how to bring about more accomplishment and success."

Seligman finished by sharing a bit of the origins for his evolving thinking in terms of "positive psychology", describing how even from the beginnings of his interest in psychology, "I didn't want to get rid of disorders; I wanted to promote wellbeing".

Dr. Farley, returning to Sternberg's comments on the changes in suburban culture, asked "What do we tell kids to do which is positive, rather than having "helicopter moms" hovering over them telling them what NOT to do?

Richard Suinn Richard Suinn widened the cultural perspective by sharing his observations in China, where he drew upon the *stories* he heard which included many metaphors for various life activities. He mentioned a legend of a temple's 30 steps, where "if you get to the top in one breath you were assured immortality". (He did it himself! In excellent shape and looking youthful and vigorous, he shared that he is now 74 years old.) He told the story of a prince who had everything, but upon seeing affliction and poverty, gave it all up. ("Maybe he was the first Buddha") His point, he said, was that "traditions are embedded in stories". And so we might reasonably look to our modern stories for reflections on our traditions. However, we no longer have oral traditions so much as our stories coming from TV. And what is popular culture as portrayed on TV? The Sopranos? "What are the values being transmitted?" Similarly, what do we learn from repeated experience with popular video games, many of which repeatedly "engage you in *aggressive* interactions"?

Suinn mentioned that the next day he would be involved in discussion with legendary social psychologist Albert Bandura, who is "working with Mexican TV trying to teach self-efficacy" as a way to empower women. He also notes a basic need for what he called "human connectedness", and mentioned some examples of the difficulties, in sports (his specialty) and even in the room now, where the room was mostly homogeneous (white). Suinn underscored the importance of being able to interact with a diversity of peoples, comfortably, and how that would contribute to humanizing our world.

Continuing with the Q&A segment, the panel was next asked "what to do".

Sternberg said that he has been engaged in teaching leadership courses, with real-world leaders interacting with the classes and focusing afterwards on "what makes a good leader". What seems clear is that there are in fact some common factors which seem to describe what makes a *!%#%y [bad] leader. And these are:
  1. Egocentrism- whether on the part of a President, CEO, Attorney General, referee, or whatever.
  2. A sense of false omniscience ("We know everything.")
  3. Omnipotence: "We can do whatever we want", and then announce "mission accomplished".
  4. False sense of invulnerability - no one can get back at them.
  5. Ethical disengagement - "Ethics are for other people", but they are exempt.
  6. When making mistakes, dig in deeper rather than learning from them.

Martin Seligman responded to a question about research methodology, observing that "there's been a tension between internal versus external validity. I think we erred badly on the side of internal validity".

Seligman mentioned that this summer 93 middle school teachers were trained in the UK, to employ positive psychology. Soon the same will take place in Australia as he goes there with a team of experts, for 6 months. "If we apply what we know to the real world, there will be a better chance at humanizing the world."

Dr. Suinn spoke of his reaction upon going to an MD when he had a knee problem and hearing a fancy-sounding diagnosis. He reacted that this was interesting "but what do you *do* about it? That is where we need to focus!" One issue he is concerned with is that of "attitude change". He recalled the change in attitude towards joggers and others who regularly work out, once having been seen as victims of "exercise addiction", but now accepted ("humanized"?) due to changes in attitudes, within our culture.

Dr. Denmark commented that one thing which she regrets is that "people don't really know what psychologists do", and probably should.

Dr. Farley added that he has "serious doubts" about the extent to which psychology has in fact acted to "humanize the world", although he thought some meetings with leaders do find a receptive ear. But there are also ingrained cultural/societal roadblocks to truly "humanistic" society. Why, for example are 25% of the world's prisoners found in the U.S.? What's wrong with our culture to produce a society of incarceration?

Dr. DeLeon underscored the importance of humanization in nursing homes, and the need for mental health services in the armed forces, and in schools. (Two members of the audience spoke to the horrific and shameful status of the NY City Schools, even post-9/11, where "psychological services" are not at all in evidence, an abysmal state of affairs in our country's largest school system.) One audience member reflected on the attitude in some circles of our (national) attitude of being "king of the hill" after the fall of the USSR.

Seligman replied that "what we're missing is not a public policy, but a public figure " who can bear the mantle of leadership in promoting a humane/humanistic world. He mentioned again that in the UK there is more of an overt attitude that "society is not [only] about wealth, but about wellbeing".

Other audience comments/questions ranged from slight annoyance ("So what do we do, specifically, besides saying the world sucks?") to more specific questions about where to start, and how to address cross-cultural barriers and differences.

Seligman mentioned a study of 70 nations which identified common factors among more humane societies: prudence, modesty, and self-control.

In the end, it was clear that there is no simple solution, politically or internationally, though education and communication do appear to play key roles. And in this era of endemic cruelty and violence and aggression at every turn, it is at least hopeful to see some of our greatest and most respected psychological thinkers engaged in trying to stimulate dialogue, research, and the quest to find common ground in thinking about both the problems and solutions.

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INDEX OF 2001 APA Convention Articles:
Behavioral Telehealth | E-biz of Mental Health | 2001: A Cyberspace Odyssey

INDEX OF 2002 APA Convention Articles:
CyberSex & Cyber-Infidelity | Beck & Ellis 2002 | Behavior Therapy | CyberPsychology | E-Ethics

2003 Convention Highlights: Full Text | Beck 2003 | Quality of Online Health Info | Sternberg's Vision

2005 Convention Highlights:   Opening Session | Pioneers of Behavior Therapy
Distinguished Elders of Psychotherapy | Legends Discuss Psychology | Online Clinical Work | Town Hall Meeting

2006 Convention Highlights:
Opening | Online Psychotherapy & Research | Psychological Vital Signs | Advances in Cognitive Therapy
Brok on Chaplin | Conversation with Aaron T. Beck - 2006 | Dr.Phil | 21st Century Ethics | Media: Town Hall '06

2007 Convention Highlights:
Humanizing an Inhumane World | Opening Session | Albert Bandura | Linehan, on Suicide
Psychology's Future | Conversation with Aaron T. Beck - 2007 | Evil, Hate, & Horror


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