Wednesday, December 19, 2012

In the media

Since I've been a bit on the busy side, I neglected to update you regarding the interview I had with The Guardian's Daniel Hernandez, where he tapped into some of my expertise on the weapons effect. Mr. Hernandez published his article at the end of November: Vegas gun ranges target thrill-seeking tourists with ever bigger weapons. Other than reversing my name - I've contacted him to see if he would be kind enough to correct that error - he did capture the essence of the weapons effect based on our conversation. Given the recent string of massacres involving firearms here in the US, the research on the weapons effect is timely - and it is a topic I shall return to in my next post.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Mental Illness and Violence

Since I am not a clinical or counseling psychologist, I typically avoid discussions of mental illness. However, since I am a social psychologist who studies aggression, I do occasionally get questions about the potential link between "subject variables" such as mental illness and aggressive behavioral outcomes. The question has been again brought to the fore in the aftermath of the most recent gun-related massacre, since the young man who committed the mass murder appeared to have had a troubled life. My main concern is that this latest incident will merely perpetuate a stereotype of the mentally ill as "psycho killers" rather than lead to a much needed discussion of the factors that facilitate gun-related violence in the US relative to other nations.

Recently, a woman blogged about her own kid, under the title "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother: A Mom's Perspective On The Mental Illness Conversation In America". When someone close to me asked me my opinion of the article, I told her that I thought it missed the point. The author managed to make a number of assertions about her son's future as a potential violent criminal that I found quite harmful to the kid in question, and could amount to something of a self-fulfilling prophesy to the extent that her behaviors toward her kid (given her apparent attitude) likely betrays any of a number of hostile appraisal biases (in particular hostile expectancy and perception biases). That aside, the author makes an assertion about mental illness and violence that does not hold up under careful scrutiny. In essence, it would appear that having a mental illness is not in and of itself sufficient as a predictor of violence. One needs to consider other factors, such as socioeconomic status, age, substance abuse, etc. as well.

I want to close with some lines from "You Are Not Adam Lanza's Mother," as it expresses quite nicely a perspective that I share:

3)      The article complains about mental illness stigma while reinforcing it by explicitly tying it to violence, and in particular, mass killings. The reality is that there is no such observed link: “after analysing a number of killers, Mullen concludes, ‘they had personality problems and were, to put it mildly, deeply troubled people.’ But he goes on to add: ‘Most perpetrators of autogenic massacres do not, however, appear to have active psychotic symptoms at the time and very few even have histories of prior contact with mental health services.’” And most people with mental illness are not violent, although they are far more likely to be victims of crime (see here, for instance).

4)      The article, with this link established, implies a desire to stop violent crime allegedly perpetrated by those with mental illness should motivate better care and provision for those with mental illness, and not, say, the lower life expectancy, unemployment, isolation, suicidality, homelessness, victimization or in general the suffering endured by those with it. The continual disregard for this reality perpetuates stigma on all levels of society and further exposes those with mental illness to harm.

5)      Antipsychotics and antidepressants are not designed for children and most of them are not indicated for disruptive behaviour in children. Zyprexa, the prescription given to the child in the article, is not indicated for disruptive behaviour or autism in the US.  This sort of willy-nilly prescribing with little real knowledge of or regard for the long-term consequences, particularly for those whose brains are not fully developed yet, is potentially extremely damaging, and it’s not unlikely that a forever-changing cocktail of unwise psychotropic prescriptions contributes to worsening psychological problems. However, there is no criticism of psychiatric or pharmaceutical practice in the article: merely a cry for more of the same.

6)      You are NOT Adam Lanza’s mother. The sort of quasi-solidarity expressed in “We are [oppressed people]” or “I am [dead person]” appropriates the experiences of people who are unheard, in this case the victim of a mass homicide, and uses that to bolster a narrative that doesn’t even attempt to discover or represent the experiences of those they claim to speak for. Don’t do that.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Speaking of authoritarianism

I would be remiss if I did not make some mention of Bob Altemeyer's research. Altemeyer's work is, after all, the reason I got interested in authoritarianism in the first place. Most of his original research can be found in a number of peer-review journal articles, as well as in three books: Right-Wing Authoritarianism, Enemies of Freedom, and The Authoritarian Specter. The first two of those titles are out of print, but any decent university library will have them in its collection (or at least can get them to you via interlibrary loan). The last of those titles is still sold via Amazon and other book dealers. Altemeyer also has a free ebook, The Authoritarians, which provides a nice capsule summary of his work and its importance for a lay audience. Actually, even his scholarly work can be easily handled by those whose background might consist of little more than an introductory psychology course - he really is that good of a writer. Of course his own work builds upon the groundbreaking research of Adorno et al. (1950), whose book, The Authoritarian Personality, summarized their own extensive research program. A number of researchers still use their F-Scale, although its psychometric properties are somewhat questionable.

For a long time, I used Altemeyer's RWA questionnaire, although in recent years I have switched to the one developed by Funke (2005) - namely because the latter is briefer, and has better psychometric properties than either Altemeyer's RWA scale or the F-Scale. I have found from some pilot data that findings obtained with Funke's scale largely replicate findings I have obtained using Altemeyer's scale (plus I have the benefit of actually directly measuring authoritarian aggression, submission, and conventionalism).


Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper & Row.

Altemeyer, B. (1981). Right-wing authoritarianism. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

Altemeyer, B. (1988). Enemies of freedom: Understanding right-wing authoritarianism. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Altemeyer, B. (1996). The authoritarian specter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Funke, F. (2005). The dimensionality of right-wing authoritarianism: Lessons from the dilemma between theory and measurement. Political Psychology, 26, 195-218.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Right-Wing Authoritarianism

Since this is an area of interest for me as a social psychologist, I thought it would be worthwhile to bookmark this particular page. In general the author of the wiki does a decent job of providing the gist. The same author appears to be in the process of conducting some qualitative research that might be relevant to those interested in better understanding authoritarianism. Of course my own work is strictly quantitative. Speaking of which, I will probably have a few things to say about authoritarianism and some of my own data once I can clear some time in my schedule, and can take a look at some more of the data that I and my research team have gathered this semester.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

2012 elections a vindication for unbiased data analysis

One take-home message from the wake of this year's elections is fairly simple: a data-driven analysis of voter attitudes and intentions is far preferable to that of relying on gut feelings or wishful thinking. I know that Nate Silver, whose 538 blog has been a must-read for me for several years (it is one of the few I have considered to be essentially reliable, and whose author makes sure his posts are well-researched prior to publication), had taken a lot of heat this particular cycle, and guess what: once it was all over but the crying (or celebrating depending on one's perspective) it was the poll aggregators such as Nate Silver who for all intents and purposes got it right. Those who know me personally know that I was not the least bit surprised that Obama won his re-election bid, or that the Democratic Party maintained its majority in the US Senate. That's what the data were suggesting for several months. I could also tell folks from my current home state that it was going to be a nail-biter in the state legislative races, but it would end up at least mildly disappointing for anyone who considered himself or herself a partisan Democrat. Sure enough, the elections broke about as the polls would have suggested. I'm an advocate of following the evidence, the data that have been collected via well-designed research. Although the numbers may not exactly "speak for themselves," they at least point us to the most valid range of possible interpretations.

Here's Brad DeLong:

The best pollsters, Silver said, “let the sample tell you what it is by themselves.” The ones who didn’t “put their finger on the scale” and didn’t make assumptions about the voting public were most successful.
Just going with what the data said instead of making assumptions is usually the best practice whenever you're doing any kind of scientific survey and that worked again this year…. I’m a pro-horserace guy. I’m more interested in diagnosing 2016 now than Benghazi, for example, because that’s where my bread is buttered. But if you’re going to do horserace, then do it the right way because it can be more data driven.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

In the media

Occasionally I get interview requests given my areas of expertise. In the spring of 2011, I spoke with  Oakland Ross about the psychology of those who commit genocide - drawing upon my research on and understanding of authoritarianism and destructive obedience. Today, I was interviewed by a journalist interested in my expertise on media violence and the weapons effect. Once that article is available, I shall share the link.

In general, interviews give behavioral and social scientists an opportunity to share our work with those outside of the academic world - outside of our labs and outside of our classrooms.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Social Psychology Teaching Tools This Election Season

Since I am teaching my unit on attitudes and persuasion right around the time of the upcoming election, I am always eager to find good, solid nonpartisan materials that can supplement the theoretical and empirical research that we discuss in class. Try Social Psychology Network's "The Election Challenge".

Sunday, October 7, 2012

My most famous article on the Internet

In a way, I'm a bit surprised that this brief research report, garnered the attention it did. I would really like to think that my contribution to the data collection and write-up to the second experiment in this paper (which demonstrated that weapon images prime aggressive cognitions), or my analyses and write-up of the first two studies in this paper (in which I computed the factor analyses leading to a revised attitudes toward violence scale) would have been of more substance. If someone would have told me that this minor validation study would have been cited in ten or more articles and dissertations, I would have been skeptical. I won't complain, though. I'm pleased that other scholars have found that particular article of some value. I hope more do.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

About Me

I am Dr. James Benjamin, a social psychologist. My main area of expertise is human aggression - specifically the influence of situational cues on aggressive cognitions, affect, and behavior. I have a secondary research interest in political psychology - specifically the relationship between authoritarianism and various political attitudes.

I have been hesitant to start a blog, and had an unfortunate experience with a blogger a few years ago that left me very jaded regarding bloggers and blogging in general. The bottom line is that I learned the hard way that anyone with internet access can assume whatever identity he or she pleases, regardless of the real personal consequences for the person whose identity is taken; and that anyone else can, through anonymity or pseudonymity, subsequently lob accusations at the real person whose name has been assumed, with potential damaging professional consequences for that real person. My own experience as a victim left me questioning a good deal about how much information on blog platforms is actually real, and about the lack of editorial oversight and basic journalistic ethics currently endemic within the confines of what is called the blogosphere.

So why engage in an activity that I generally find useless? I suppose my main hope is to use this space as a sounding board for some ideas that I am working on, and perhaps by offering an informed, data-driven perspective on some issue on which I have some legitimate expertise, I can contribute to improving the quality of what is available on the so-called blogosphere. My secondary purpose is to get my identity back, so that those who from this day forward see my real name associated with blogging, they have some assurances that I am the person who wrote the words they are reading.

I won't post often, but when I do, whatever is written will meet what I consider crucial to good writing within this particular format: my conclusions will be based on existing data (either data that I have collected or data that others have collected and published in peer-review journals) and within the mainstream of my academic discipline. I often tell my students that any crackpot can start a blog. I have a short fuse when it comes to crackpots. In a sense this is a place to beta-test some thoughts, and perhaps set the stage for blogging via a more legitimate science blogging platform (such as is offered through the APA).

Nor will I post much (if at all) about my politics. Obviously, I have opinions on such matters, but they have little to no bearing on my research interests, and are so well within the mainstream as to be largely uninteresting to those looking for controversial reading material. Regardless, I seem to have taken a page from Bob Altemeyer, a social psychologist whom I know only through his writings, and chosen to compartmentalize my beliefs and my scholarship - preferring instead to follow the evidence wherever it may lead.