Wednesday, July 22, 2015

APA and Torture: Fallout From the Hoffman Report Begins

Earlier this month, the Hoffman Report, an independent review of the American Psychological Association (APA) and its role in facilitating the practice of torture, was published. Needless to say, it's a huge document that takes considerable time to digest. That notwithstanding, there have been plenty of APA critics who had been keeping the public as informed as possible with regard to a number of serious ethical breaches that in addition to the resulting well-documented harm inflicted on those unfortunate enough to get thrown into any of a number of sites like Guantanamo Bay, has done serious damage to the legitimacy of the APA. I would certainly invite you to read the most recent post by Jeffrey Kaye for a summary of the findings, as well as the initial comments by Stephen Soldz and Steven Reisner about the document, its meaning, and some ways for the APA to move forward if it is to have any hope of rehabilitating itself. Indeed, rehabilitation for the organization may be a tall order. Time will tell. Back around seven years ago, I included a statement on my Social Psychology Network profile urging my colleagues to boycott the APA (i.e., withhold membership dues). Although I removed that statement some time ago, after the Withhold APA Dues campaign ran its course, I have no intention at this time of rejoining unless at bare minimum the conditions Soldz and Reisner recommend for reform are met.

At this point, the fallout is still somewhat unclear. We do know that the findings in the report were sufficient to cause a handful of APA senior officials (including Norman Anderson, the CEO) to lose their positions, not long after Stephen Behnke (APA ethics chief) was let go. Whether they are merely the sacrificial lambs or their "resignations" and "retirements" are a harbinger of a bigger shakeup remains to be seen. We do not know if some of their current leadership's statements are merely attempting to come across as anti-torture as a form of damage control or if an earnest reexamination is forthcoming. We don't yet know if those psychologists who enabled the DoD and CIA to engage in torture will themselves face criminal charges, although it is a possibility. We do know that apologies to those who criticized the APA from within, and who were essentially bullied because of it, will require more than apologies after the fact.

What we do know is that psychology in the US and abroad will never be looked at in quite the same way, and reestablishing faith in the field will take considerable effort, as others have duly noted. Whether APA is truly up to the task is questionable. The organization has experienced a sharp decrease in membership over the last half decade, and it is an open-ended question as to whether they will return. After all, there are other national and international organizations that serve sufficiently similar purposes, and many APA divisions are at least semi-independent. One can, for example belong to the Society for the Study of Personality and Social Psychology (aka Division 8) without being an APA member. For those of us whose specialties are more research-based, the Association for Psychological Science is a viable alternative without APA's baggage. Those of us who moved on, may have done so for good.

If what comes out of this whole human rights nightmare that a once-respected professional organization allowed itself to become entangled is a much more clearly defined set of ethical standards for those in both research and practitioner settings, perhaps some good will come of it. We're a long way from that particular happy ending, however. Rather, it is a work in progress, and one requiring the continued critical eye of the watchdogs who served us well (e.g., Kaye, Soldz, Reisner, and Arrigo, to name only a few) this past decade. What I do know is that we as a profession are much better than the actions of the APA leaders and members who are implicated in the Hoffman Report.

What the discovery of fraud says about the state of academic scientific research

The upshot is that we're doing just fine. The article was written by the political scientists who blew the whistle on a fraudulent study by Michael Lacouris (remember I mentioned it this past spring). Bottom line is that those of us who conduct research today are doing so in an environment that makes discovering fraud easier, and that the norms in place in the academic disciplines of which I am aware (those in the behavioral and social sciences) offer positive reinforcement for those who discover mistakes and outright fraud. So, the increase in retractions as a result is actually one that can be interpreted as a positive development. When we publish, there are more watchful eyes than ever. Of course there are some potential headwinds, including a push by policymakers to decimate public funding for social science research, for example, that would push more of us into research environments that are privatized and proprietary (and in which secretiveness in the name of profit may become a primary consideration). Barring something catastrophic, we should be okay. If anything, I expect more of a push toward encouraging (if not compelling) researchers to publicly archive data sets that accompany published research, as well as discourage authors from HARKing (i.e., hypothesizing after the results are known). Expect such trends to strengthen over the coming decade or so. If you are starting your career, you will already be socialized to this new set of realities. For those of us who are veteran academicians, the trends toward more transparency are welcome.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Think venting will calm you down? Think again.

Here's a news article summarizing some research done on venting - we might call it tests of the catharsis hypothesis. Contrary to the old catharsis hypothesis, the bottom line is that venting does not work. Individuals given a chance to vent end up feeling angrier and behaving more aggressively than if they had not done so in the first place. This is research that is especially timely given all the ways we have at our disposal to vent thanks to the miracle of mobile devices and social media. Venting may even feel good at the time. Unfortunately, as decades of research show, venting has damaging consequences.

So where does this idea of venting come from? I mentioned the so-called catharsis hypothesis. It was initially an idea of Freud's regarding emotional energy. Presumably, emotions such as anger would be discharged, hence leaving the patient feeling better. The idea was picked up by neobehaviorists (in particular the Yale Group back in the 1930s and 1940s) as a means of examining the potential reinforcement value of certain motivated behaviors. In order for catharsis to work when it comes to a powerful emotion, such as anger, one needs to demonstrate that individuals are demonstrably less angry and behave less aggressively than they were before they started venting their anger or rage. However, as research by Russ Geen, Brad Bushman, and others has shown in experiment after experiment, what actually happens is that anger and aggression levels increase. What appears to happen is that when a person vents, they are rehearsing the same negative behaviors that we'd ordinarily want to avoid (e.g., screaming, yelling, etc.). When such behaviors are rehearsed they become more frequently used in the future.

By the way, these are effects that we can observe very easily in our own daily lives if we are willing to look. I spent some time, for example, in training retreats for leading peer counseling groups in which many of the techniques we practiced were ones that included venting (many of our faculty supervisors were Freudian in orientation, as it turned out). One thing that I noticed repeatedly was that sessions where individuals would act out their anger tended not to calm down but rather become more intensely angry. The outcome would be best described - in the parlance of our times - as a fail.

So what to do? The usual advice my professional friends and colleagues will give is to count to 10, take a relaxing walk, unplug (i.e., get away from the computer or mobile) or practically any relaxing activity other than vent anger. Take some time to calm down, and then tackle whatever issue is in need of tackling when you are thinking more clearly and can control impulses. I see nothing wrong with stating that something is angering you, but then taking the focus away from the intensity of the emotion experienced and instead concentrate on finding solutions to the anger-inducing situation. In other words, it is one thing to experience emotions such as anger and to have those experiences validated. That is actually healthy. It is quite another thing to act on the impulses created by anger. As an old friend might have put it a couple decades ago, when in doubt, chill out.