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President’s Column

Craig Parks, Ph.D.
Craig Parks, Ph.D.

Kneeling, Disharmony, and Group CohesionAt this point, most Americans, and many who live outside of the United States, know that the National Football League is embroiled in a controversy surrounding players who choose not to stand during the playing of the national anthem.  The goal of this column is not to provide yet another analysis of the situation and subsequent appeal for each side to tolerate the other, but rather to take more micro focus on the impact of the controversy on the individual teams.  What has transpired provides a useful demonstration of the dynamics of group cohesion and harmony, and raises questions about how well groups of experts can overcome disharmony.

My focal point is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had a well-publicized snafu regarding how the players chose to handle the anthem.  Before a game in Chicago, they decided as a team to stay in the tunnel and not come out until after the song was over.  In this way, no one would have to reveal on which side of the debate he fell.  However, one player, offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva, was out on the field looking around when the anthem began.  A former soldier, Villanueva felt it disrespectful to walk away while the song was playing, so he stood, alone, at the entrance to the field.  The rest of the team joined him after the ceremony was over.  His actions misinterpreted as a protest against his teammates, and his statement at the post-game press conference, that he does not consider kneeling an affront to the armed forces, largely ignored, the team became a flashpoint for the issue, and internal dissensions appeared.  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said that he did not agree with the team staying in the tunnel, and wished he had not gone along with the plan.  Linebacker James Harrison expressed surprise that not everyone agreed with the plan, as he had been given to understand.  Offensive lineman David DeCastro and defensive lineman Cam Heyward each said that they had spoken with Villanueva to confirm that he was not trying to show up his teammates.  As a result of all of this, many observers expected the Steelers to struggle in succeeding weeks.  How can a team succeed if there are factions among the members?  In fact, as of this writing, three weeks after the incident in Chicago, the Steelers have not crumbled, sit in first place in their division, have the second-best record in their conference, and in their most recent game beat the only undefeated team left in the league.

This episode provides a nice demonstration of why group managers need to balance interpersonal relations with task focus.  Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has not melded the players’ differing viewpoints on Chicago, but rather has oriented them toward the task at hand, reminding them that they are professionals who need to work together to accomplish the task that they were brought together to perform.  While the players can differ in the locker room on the propriety of kneeling, when on the field all of that needs to be set aside so that the job can be done.  This makes me think of Fred Fiedler’s contingency model of leadership, which (among many other things) argues that certain situations require a leader whose focus is on interpersonal relations, while other situations require a leader whose focus is on task needs.  An example of the latter situation is one in which each group member has a structured, defined role and needs to know what to do to fulfill that role.  If successful collective performance offers the possibility of recognition, typically in the form of raises, promotions, and awards, and if group members feel the leader is moving the group is moving toward success, interpersonal disharmony will usually have little impact on the group.  This example clearly fits a sports team, and right now, the Steelers are moving toward successful task completion.  Thus, the Chicago controversy does not seem to have caused problems for the team.

While I would never argue that interpersonal relations within a group are always secondary—I am, after an interpersonal relations researcher—I think that we sometimes get too focused on the relational dynamic at the expense of task needs.  It is good counsel for a group leader to analyze what the situation demands and act accordingly.  Of late I seem to have been on far too many committees in which a major focus has been on making sure everyone gets to hang an ornament on the Christmas tree and no one feels unhappy with anyone else.  What the Steelers, or the 1970’s Oakland Athletics baseball team (three consecutive World Series titles despite regular fights between players in the dugout), or Abraham Lincoln’s “team of rivals” cabinet show us is that people who might not care for each other can and will pool their efforts and produce at a high level if the situation demands that they do so.

Recently Division 49 participated in a resubmission of a petition to the Education Directorate of the APA Commission for the Recognition of Specialities and Proficiencies in Professional Psychology (CRSPPP) to have Group Psychology and Group Psychotherapy receive designation as a specialty. This is a joint effort of your Division, the American Group Psychotherapy Association, the American Board of Group Psychology, the American Academy of Group Psychology, and the International Board of Certification of Group Psychotherapists. Together, these organizations developed the Group Specialty Council to prepare the petition. Members of the Division 49 Board did an outstanding job and have contributed to the petition, including: Sally Barlow, Martyn Whittingham, and Nina Brown. The petition is an impressive 500-page document outlining a cogent argument for the unique aspects of group work and why specialty designation is important. Anyone can see the document and comment – and we certainly encourage our members to do so at: http://apaoutside.apa.org/EducCSS/public/.

Below are my comments on the petition on behalf of our division.

On behalf of the Society for Group Psychology and Group Psychotherapy (Division 49 of the American Psychological Association) I endorse this Group Psychology and Group Psychotherapy Specialty Petition in the strongest possible terms. Increasingly, group work is playing an important role in the delivery of health and mental health care in a variety of organizations. Many settings (health care, education, counseling, workplaces) rely on group work to deliver effective and timely interventions, including psychoeducation and psychotherapy. The evidence is mounting that group psychotherapy works for a variety of disorders, it is as effective as individual therapy, and so it is cost effective. In 2017 alone there were 17 meta-analyses of group work, group factors, or group psychotherapy. Despite this evidence, it would be a mistake to assume that a practitioner who is solely trained as an individual therapist, for example, can effectively transfer their skills to a group setting. There is important overlap between knowledge of individuals and knowledge of groups, such as the role of individual psychopathology in treatment, for example. However, it is well known that groups have unique properties that diverge significantly from individual contexts. The multiple interaction networks that develop between individuals over time represent emergent properties of groups that impact outcomes, and these emergent properties cannot be predicted from knowing about the individuals alone. And so practitioners require specific skills and knowledge to manage the complexities that come with group work. These complexities are now reflected in and studied in the research literature. Novel methods of multilevel statistical modeling, for example, are opening up venues of new knowledge and scholarship about the unique functioning of groups, the impact of the group on the individual, the multiple levels of interactions that occur, and the specific skills required by a group leader to make the most of groups and their interactional properties. Lack of knowledge, expertise, and training in group psychology and in group psychotherapy could result in negative outcomes for clients and antitherapeutic events for social groups. And so it is imperative that this specialty designation is successful in order that public who seek or require the input of group psychologists receive the best possible of evidence-based care. This specialty designation will go a long way to ensure that trainees, therapists, practitioners, supervisors, training programs, the public, and funding partners are appropriately aware of the unique properties and effects of groups, and the skills and professional training required to lead groups.

 

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News

APA’s Board of Directors as the At-Large Member

Craig Parks, Ph.D.
Craig Parks, Ph.D.

APA’s Board of Directors as the At-Large Member

After much discussion with colleagues within the division, as well as with some key people at APA, I have decided to put my name in for nomination to sit on APA’s Board of Directors as the at-large member representing mid-career psychologists and the science/research community.  In my brief (300-word) nomination statement, I have emphasized not only my leadership of a division that spans the therapy and non-therapy worlds, but also my position as assistant vice provost at my university, the duties of which require me to develop solutions across a variety of constituent groups that don’t usually begin on the same page.  (My nomination statement is not privileged, so if for some reason you want to see the full text, just email me.)  My stated motivation for wanting to sit on the Board is to continue the work initiated by the past president, Susan McDaniel, to weld back together the research and practice sides of APA.  You simply cannot have one without the other.  I think both my division and professional experiences position me to help with this.  Also, as you know from my past listserv postings, the groups point of view is nonexistent in Association committees.  APA has rightfully pointed out to me that we have not done a good job of putting forth candidates for them to consider.  This year I am working hard to rectify this, and if I’m going to ask others to stand for consideration, I need to do so too.  

The Board of Directors consists of six officers and six at-large members, all elected by the general membership.  It supervises APA affairs as well as the lobbying arm of the Association, drafts a budget for member approval, and works with Sally and her colleagues on the Council of Representatives to steer the professional ship.  It’s a big job that APA equates to a quarter-time assignment.  Happily, my boss expects all of his vice provosts to remain scholarly engaged, and he supports my pursuit of this.  

I have no expectation that I will be selected as a candidate, if for no other reason than I think APA’s definition of me as mid-career is generous (though it did make my day).  But, as a means of continuing to push for APA to bring our point of view into decision-making, this is minimal effort and high gain.

As always, feel free to email me with questions, concerns, or if you want to know more.

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President’s Column

Craig Parks, Ph.D.
Craig Parks, Ph.D.

The Psychology of Building 20

I recently had the pleasure of reading about the history of a long-demolished building on the MIT campus, Building 20.  It existed from 1942 to 1998.  Building 20 has no place in the history of group dynamics, but it should.  

First, some background: Building 20 was constructed to accommodate MIT’s Radiation Laboratory in its need to expand its research into radar for World War II.  In fact, Building 20 was not so much constructed as it was thrown together: The architectural design was executed in an afternoon; its three stories were supported entirely with wooden posts; its exterior was covered with dark asbestos shingles, which absorbed heat; the flat roof was sealed with tar and gravel, which also absorbed heat; the ventilation system was insufficient for a building of its size; and the small windows did not fit well.  The building was thus hot and humid in the summers, which necessitated the installation of noisy, industrial-size ceiling fans.  Floor numbering, for unknown reasons, used the European system of the ground level being floor 0, the level above it floor 1, and the level above that floor 2.  The wings of the building were lettered, but not alphabetically.  To imagine how the building looked, open your left hand and dangle your fingers toward the ground.  Your palm is the “B” wing, little finger “A” wing, ring finger “E” wing, middle finger “D” wing, index finger “C” wing, and thumb “F” wing.  None of this was a concern, however, because the plan was to tear the building down once the war was over.  

The importance of the wartime work in this building cannot be overstated.  In a short period of time the scientists in the Radiation Lab developed the weather, aerial, naval, and undersea radar tools that are the bedrock of today’s systems.  And true to plan, at war’s end in 1945, MIT initiated plans to raze Building 20.  However, implementation of the GI Bill introduced space shortages at American universities, and MIT was no exception.  The administration decided to keep Building 20 for the time being.  The Department of Electrical Engineering, which was all that remained from the Radiation Lab, stayed, and a hodgepodge of other units got moved into the rest of the space: ROTC; the Ice Research Lab; the Particle Accelerator; the Tech Model Railroad Club; the Atomic Physics Lab; and the Department of Linguistics, to name just a few.  In effect, any unit that had unusual space needs moved out to Building 20.

And this is where it gets interesting.  The weird layout of the building meant that residents often got lost (remember, the first floor is above you, and wings A and E are next to each other) and wandered by a lot of rooms where people were doing a lot of different things.  Further, that people just got put wherever there was open space meant that the lab next to yours might be from a very different discipline than you.  This led to an amazing array of spontaneous group discussions and idea generation.  For example, Amar Bose, an MIT graduate student in engineering in the 1950’s, was frustrated with the speakers in his home hi-fi system.  His office just happened to be next to the Acoustics Lab, so he wandered in one day, started asking questions about sound production…and ended up founding the Bose speaker company.  Noam Chomsky’s theory of the deep structure of language was influenced heavily by his interactions with the computer scientists and biologists who had labs in Building 20.  At the more nefarious end, students in the Model Railroad Club who were responsible for wiring the track’s relays and switches began talking with the computer scientists about better ways to do this; these conversations were a prime impetus to the development of hacking.  

Further, because MIT had no interest in updating the building, users modified the building to meet their needs, usually without asking permission.  (Jerrold Zacharias, developer of the atomic clock, removed the two floors above his lab so that he had a 30-foot ceiling clearance.  As a useful contrast, ask your department chair what would happen if you painted your office without permission.)  A common modification was to move walls to create group conversation areas that could be used for continuation of the spontaneous discussions.  These discussions were so fruitful, and led to so many novel cross-disciplinary ideas, that Building 20 came to be known at MIT as the “magical incubator.”  As well, the building’s status as an unpretentious, ignored structure cultivated in its users a wonderfully creative mindset, on the grounds that they could do and try pretty much anything, and MIT administration would never know.  

This narrative conveys much of what I love about the dynamic of groups.  Unstructured encounters led to the formation of interpersonal connections, emergent groupings, idea generation, and enhanced performance.  Group members altered their physical space to facilitate these experiences.  The unusual circumstances fostered a subgroup norm that benefitted the process, as well as a sense of ingroup-ness, yet also inclusiveness.  Status differences were minimized.  Yes, the denizens of Building 20 were far more capable than the average person, but in my view this had the potential to be a hindrance rather than a help.  As we introduce students to the groups arena, we might want to teach them about life in Building 20 as a case study of the potential of the group setting.

If you would like to learn more about the history of Building 20, I recommend Stewart Brand’s book How Buildings Learn, and the web site MIT created on the eve of Building 20’s demolition, now archived at https://libraries.mit.edu/archives/mithistory/building20/ .

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Welcome

President’s Column

Craig Parks, Ph.D.
Craig Parks, Ph.D.

Getting Along in Groups

Regardless of which side of the political aisle you favor, I think we would all agree that civility between groups is in diminishing supply right now.  Every group seems to be mad at some other group(s).  This has led to calls, again on both sides of the aisles, for a return to calm, mannered conversation.

One can question how nasty the interaction truly has been.  Republicans in 1800 called John Adams a hermaphrodite, and the Federalists in turn labeled Thomas Jefferson an atheist who was hell-bent on opening the borders to foreign radicals.  In the 1884 election, James Blaine was called the “Continental Liar from the State of Maine” because of his past history of questionable business dealings, and James Garfield was exposed as having fathered a child out of wedlock.  And nothing we saw this year rivals 1828, when John Quincy Adams was alleged to have served as a pimp while ambassador to Russia, and Andrew Jackson was portrayed as a mentally unstable illiterate whose mother was a prostitute for the English Navy, and whose wife was a bigamist because she had allegedly married Andrew before her divorce was finalized.  Indeed, this campaign was so brutal that historians generally agree it was a major factor in Jackson’s wife dying of a heart attack a few weeks before Andrew’s inauguration.  But all of this aside, it is certainly clear from polling data that most Americans were unhappy with the tenor of the 2016 election season, and would like to see decorum returned to the process.

This, then, raises a question for me: How important is it for opposing groups to be calm and friendly while discussing their differences?  My colleague in Political Science here at Washington State, Cornell Clayton, is receiving media attention at the moment for suggesting that civility between disputing groups is not only not essential, but may be problematic for resolution of the disagreement.  His argument is that groups that feel powerless make their greatest strides toward rectifying the injustice by being belligerent, forceful, and in your face rather than polite.  By way of comparison, Cornell cites the unrest of the late 1960’s, which was considerably more vicious than today, and was marked by violence and assassination.  In 2016, the Democratic upstart who challenged the presumptive heir was not murdered, cities did not burn as a result of protests by African-Americans about mistreatment by law enforcement, campus buildings were not firebombed, and protesters did not get beaten at the political conventions.  Cornell notes that we emerged from that turbulent time with a centrist outlook that persisted for 40-plus years.

What implications does this line of argument have for those of us who work with small groups?  Quite a few, I think.  It implies that hostile behavior within the group needs to be investigated before it is suppressed.  It implies that group norms need to be periodically revisited and questioned as to whether they remain (or ever were) appropriate for the group.  It implies that different points of view need to be heard and processed, and if they cannot be acted upon, the inaction needs to be justified.  It implies that the majority preference is not always the best preference.  While these might seem common-sense statements to you, we know from much research that they do not often describe what occurs in a group.  Dissenters are pressured to conform, ostracized, and sometimes expelled from the group.  Group members who seek revenge and engage in vengeful acts are usually sending a message to group leaders that a situation needs correction.  Groups hang onto norms long past their sell-by dates, often to the group’s detriment.  Procedural injustice, or the sense that one is not being heard or taken seriously, is the form of injustice that individuals are most likely to report experiencing in a group.  “Majority rules” is by far the most common form of group decision-making rule.  This is not to say that groups need to be in a state of constant revision, or that majorities are never right, or that rebels are always right, rather my point is that too often groups get stuck in their ways, and this might occur with less frequency if we could arm groups with some tools that would encourage self-study and assist with modification of how they go about their business.  Our colleagues in organizational psychology have been working on this problem for a while, and have made small strides, but there remains much room for innovation.

My university has its accreditation review this coming fall, and so our self-study report is due over the summer.  As I write this, our Board of Regents is going over the (hopefully final) draft.  As a member of the team that assembled our magnum opus, I am proud of the report.  It tells a good story about WSU, highlights our successes, documents what we next need to work on.  But getting people to contribute to it was a headache.  Not because of the workload—most contributors had to write no more than a page or two—but because people did not want to engage in the analysis.  “Things are fine, so why do we need to do this?” was a common complaint I received.  How do we get past this mindset?  How do we encourage groups to take a step back, look at what they are doing, and listen to others who have thoughts about different ways to operate?  It’s not a problem that can be solved with one study, or even one series of studies, but it is a problem that we are well-positioned to tackle.

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President’s Column

Craig Parks, PhD
Craig Parks, Ph.D.

Mr. Carlin, RIP

At the end of August, the actor Jack Riley passed away.  His death occasioned a phone call to me from a newspaper reporter who was inspired by Mr. Riley’s passing to do a story on portrayal of group therapy in the movies and television, because perhaps Mr. Riley’s most notable role was as Elliott Carlin, the chronically downcast member of Bob Hartley’s therapeutic group on The Bob Newhart Show.  (For those of you with children of a certain age, Mr. Riley was also the voice of Tommy’s dad on Rugrats.)  I declined to speak with the reporter because I had no idea what I would say, and I don’t know if the article has been produced, though an internet search of “group therapy Jack Riley” and the name of the newspaper with which the reporter is affiliated turns up nothing.  But it did get me thinking about the question of how group processes are represented in visual storytelling.

One of the most famous depictions of a group in action is the 1957 movie 12 Angry Men, in which a 12-person jury debates the innocence of a young man from a low-income background who has been accused of murdering his father.  At the outset, 11 men feel he is guilty and want to convict right away, and one feels the case should be deliberated.  The movie documents how the men eventually reach a unanimous not-guilty verdict, and brings in stereotyping, ostracism, and memory retrieval processes.  While a riveting movie, the group process it depicts—a lone minority producing unanimous conversion—is just not supported with research.  Rather, the research shows that most “unanimous” groups are truly not unanimous, but rather are a 2/3-majority, with the minority simply capitulating.   Thus, a real group in this situation would likely have reached a guilty verdict immediately after that first vote.  Admittedly, this would make for a short and boring movie.  Interestingly, legal analysis of the movie has shown that the jurors rely almost entirely on inadmissible speculation, which gives it a second procedural flaw.

Then there is The Experiment, a 2010 film that depicts a prison experiment in the manner of Phil Zimbardo’s study.  Here, though, the researchers ultimately decide to let the experiment run.  Violence, homicide, and insanity ensue, and the scientists try but fail to intervene.  Recognizing the entertainment value of this storyline, it is still the case that the narrative does the science a disservice.  We in fact have a good idea of what happens when experiments like these are completed.  In 2006, Steve Reicher and Alex Haslam ran an entire prison study in the basement of the BBC building.  They found the prisoners to be the troublesome group, becoming rowdy and uncontrollable, while the guards largely shrank from their assigned roles.  I acknowledge that I may sound curmudgeonly here, but in the wake of the movie I had undergraduates approach me wondering how long it would take a non-experimental group to devolve into violence, so my concerns are at least somewhat valid.

At the other end of the spectrum is the 2003 movie Manic, about a therapy group in a juvenile ward and the therapist who leads it.  An apparently under-the-radar movie despite having some well-known actors, I did not discover it until a couple of years ago.  The director, Jordan Melamed, wanted to portray the group therapy setting as realistically as he could, with an emphasis on how challenging it is for the therapist.  As such, he and one of his lead actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, spent time with therapists and therapy groups to learn how sessions are conducted, and the actor who plays the therapist, Don Cheadle, is the son of a psychologist.

There are web sites at which you can search for movies that have psychological principles as a theme, and these engines turned up a surprisingly large number of movies that apparently incorporate concepts from our discipline.  Psychmovies, a website maintained by Brooke Cannon of Marywood University, is a major repository.  In browsing Dr. Cannon’s extensive catalog (for example, she identifies 68 films for which treatment is a primary theme), one wonders how many of these filmmakers employed an expert consultant to advise on the fidelity of what was being portrayed.

Donna Nelson, a chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma and the current president of the American Chemical Society, famously volunteered to be the science consultant on Breaking Bad to ensure that the processes used by Walter White and Jesse Pinkman were as chemically accurate as possible.  Would most viewers recognize that aluminum mercury is indeed an effective reducing agent for methylamine?  Probably not.  Does the accuracy matter?  Absolutely.  This is another area of outreach that, in my view, is worth pursuing.

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President’s Column

Craig Parks, PhD
Craig Parks, Ph.D.

Difficult Times and What to Do About It, Part II

In my last column I discussed how the controversy over APA’s purported easing of ethical standards so as to allow psychologists to participate in enhanced interrogation techniques has negatively impacted perception of our discipline. I noted that those of us who work with groups have seen critiques of our expertise increase: We subject people to peer pressure so that they will do thing that they don’t want to do, we force people to reveal intense personal information during group therapy sessions, and so on. Further, many of these critiques are coming from experts in other areas, so we cannot simply dismiss the words as being from uninformed laypeople. In this column I want to talk about some ways in which we can connect with other disciplines to help build awareness of what we do, the scientific basis of our inquiries, and the ways in which we contribute to betterment of the human condition.

The BECC (Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change) Conference is a yearly event at which academics, industry, and government people come together to talk about climate-related research and problems. The 2015 (ninth) conference was attended by over 700 people, with 100 of these being research academics. BECC has become a key event, perhaps the key event, for fostering a mutual understanding of how to synthesize research, practice, and policy on energy consumption behavior and its impact on the environment. Given how many different entities are interested in group-based phenomena, it is not inconceivable that a similar yearly event could be developed around groups. I fully expect that many would greet this idea with skepticism, but it is worth pointing out that the original BECC organizers, a group of 15 from academics, government, and industry, had attendance far in excess of what was anticipated. I acknowledge that energy and climate are urgent and visible topics, certainly more urgent and visible than the kinds of things we investigate, but the point remains valid that a lot of people came out of the woodwork to search for common ground on energy issues. There is no reason to think the same could not happen for a conference on groups.

One could argue that there are already sessions devoted to complementary perspectives and common concerns on groups. This is true, but these meetings are oriented toward collecting researchers from different disciplines who are all interested in groups. I am aware of no meetings (no regular meetings, anyway) at which a psychotherapist who is an expert on leader dynamics in therapy groups can talk to a state government official who is seeking interventions to help his governmental subcommittees be more functional, or a sport psychologist who is studying social comparison in cardiovascular rehabilitation groups can compare notes with a US Army official who is trying to understand how social comparison impacts members of a platoon. (And make no mistake; there is a lot of common ground underneath the individuals in both of my examples.) A yearly conference of this type could be enormously fruitful for identifying research connections, as well as opportunities to extend the practice of group psychology into realms that would like it, but do not know best practices, nor have the time or resources to acquire that knowledge. At our end, regular interaction with those in the industry and governmental sectors would give us the chance to hear about emerging challenges that we could study. And of course, an annual meeting would give us the chance to show that group’s research, and psychology in general, is a rigorous and careful science that generates valuable insights and recommendations. In my last column I encouraged you to conduct a search on “psychology sham science” to see who criticizes us. Noticeably absent from those criticisms are representatives of the energy sector. BECC has shown them that psychology has a vital role to play in their world.

I have begun some informal conversations with some industry and government people to assess their level of interest in such a meeting. I will continue to work on this in the coming months, and I hope that I find a sufficiently strong level of interest that I can begin looking more formally into arrangement of at least a small get-together. I hope to have information on this to share in Denver.

And speaking of Denver, the Division 49 hospitality suite will be at the Hyatt Regency. Please join us at one of our events for food, drink, and conversation. I hope to see you there!

 

 

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Welcome

President’s Column

Craig Parks, PhD
Craig Parks, Ph.D.

Difficult Times and What To Do About It, Part I

I’m sure APA members are well aware of the ongoing controversy surrounding the Hoffman team’s investigation into whether APA relaxed its ethical standards as they apply to psychologists involved in abusive interrogations. Much has been written, and no doubt will continue to be written, about the report, and 8 months on emotions continue to run high among both those who believe psychology should have a strict no-involvement policy with regard to abusive interrogation, and those who feel that, if such approaches are going to be used by the government, a mental health professional should be present to monitor the proceedings. My intent here is not to discuss the report or my views on it. Rather, it is to look at the collateral damage from the incident and how that damage is reverberating into the groups world.

I had some early, semi-personal exposure to its effects. James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the psychologists who contracted with the CIA to advise on interrogation tactics, were practitioners in Spokane, Washington, a little more than an hour from my home campus of Washington State University and where WSU’s health sciences campus is located. Formerly educators at the Air Force survival school at Fairchild AFB in Spokane who taught pilots how to resist harsh interrogation tactics, about 10 years ago they began consulting on how to defeat the very resistance techniques they were teaching. When news of the controversy broke, my department chair received a number of calls from news organizations assuming that Mitchell and Jessen had some kind of connection to our department. While some of the callers made polite inquiries and excused themselves when my chair said that she did not know who Mitchell and Jessen are, others were provocative: One asked her why Mitchell and Jessen’s actions were supported by the clinical psychological community in Spokane (they weren’t); another wanted to know if Mitchell and Jessen had partnered with our Experimental faculty to conduct tests of interrogation techniques (no—again, we don’t know them, and in any event we wouldn’t conduct such research); yet another wanted a list of our Clinical graduate students who had done internships with their consulting firm (none—once again…). Luckily nothing blossomed from these questions, but for a brief period we were braced for a news story that speculated on the strength of Mitchell and Jessen’s WSU connections.

Our discipline is feeling similar types of collateral effects. Many articles and commentaries, written by experts outside of psychology, appeared in the wake of the Hoffman Report, to take us to task as a sham science that pursues sensationalist research questions with shoddy methodology, and purports to better the lives of citizens by applying flavor-of-the-week therapies that are not grounded in reality, with all of us having a shared enjoyment of human suffering, because if humans aren’t in anguish, psychologists won’t have jobs. Some have gone so far as to argue that APA’s apparent easing of its ethical standards was driven by a desperate desire to gain credibility as a discipline with value. While our first reaction might be to not dignify such statements with a response, I think this is a bad strategy. A consistent finding in social psychology is that people equate silence with consent, so by not responding, we run the risk of leading people to think that yes, we have come to the realization that we are charlatans. We need to work hard to explain to the public that our work is careful, empirically based, and oriented toward resolution, not prolonging, of human problems.

Some have reserved special comments for those of us who work with groups. We are “touchy-feely.” We see no value in privacy, because when we conduct a group therapy session, we expect people to share everything with everybody, and scold them when they do not. Research on group processes is all about subjecting people to intense peer pressure to do things they do not want to do, agree with things they actually do not like, and make them feel incompetent when they see that they cannot perform as well as others. So while we all suffer from the general misperception of psychology, those of us who work with groups have an extra need to share our work, our outlook, and our goals.

The reactions that I have briefly reviewed for you (and rest assured there are many, many more than I have noted here—do an online search of “psychology sham science” and see what you turn up) are not coming from crackpots. They are appearing in respectable media and forums connected to other disciplines. This phenomenon is not new. For example, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman famously referred to psychology as a cargo-cult science in his 1974 Caltech commencement address. This was based on his visits to a conditioning lab when he was at Cornell in the 1940’s, and his insight that the researchers were overlooking an obvious alternate explanation for how the rats were able to learn the maze. But such comments have historically been confined within small subgroups. Now we are seeing questioning of the value of psychology at a breadth that I have not experienced in my years in the field.

I noted in one of my president-elect columns of last year that I have a strong interest in outreach and connection. Then I was referring to connecting Division 49 to other divisions within APA that share interest in group processes. We still need to do this, and we have efforts underway, as you will see when you attend the division meetings this August. But I think we also need to go beyond this, and begin working with other disciplines to show them what we do, how we do it, and how we add value to the human enterprise. In my next column, I will talk about how such an initiative might be undertaken.

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President-Elect’s Column

Craig Parks, PhD
Craig Parks, Ph.D.

What Good Are Groups, Anyway?

I’m writing this on a Wednesday at noon. I have just come from my 10th meeting of the week, have another one this afternoon, five on Thursday, and three on Friday. (This is an occupational hazard of being an Assistant Provost.) Most of these meetings are a half-hour, so the time commitment is not bad, but it’s mentally exhausting. Fair play, a typical week for me does not include 20 meetings, but the norm—10 to 12—is still a lot. Looking at my calendar for this week reminded me of a quote from Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak: “I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

That quote likely seems odd coming from a leader of Division 49. But Wozniak raises a good point—do we really need to do everything as a collective? Some of the meetings I’ve attended could have been avoided if the convener would have just sent me a summary document and let me read it. One of my favorite emerging lines of research comes out of the Marketing literature, where Terri Barr, Andrea Dixon, and Jule Gassenheimer have documented a “lone wolf” trait. Quite simply, a lone wolf is someone who prefers to complete a task alone, even if that task could be easily divided among group members. The lone wolf well-understands the difficulty of the task s/he is taking on, and devotes full attention and resources to completing it with quality comparable to that which a group would produce. Further, force a lone wolf to work in a group, and s/he will be essentially useless: Motivation goes to zero, s/he refuses collaboration, and may even become obstructive. Barr and colleagues have shown how to measure the tendency, and have found it to be predictive of behaviors in education groups and sales teams. My students and I are in the process of testing it with ad hoc task groups, and are getting the same results.

There are thus some tasks that can be completed just fine by a single, motivated person. We don’t need groups to do everything. But we do need groups to do a lot of things, hence the motivation for this column: We need to make sure the baby doesn’t get thrown out with the bathwater, in that the growing reaction to unnecessary group tasks doesn’t become a reaction against groups.

If you have read Susan Cain’s 2012 book Quiet, you will know that she calls for better support of those who prefer to work alone (like Wozniak), and argues that in at least American culture, there is an overemphasis on group work, beginning in elementary school, to the point where we are biased against the lone wolf. The book is an interesting read, well-grounded in science. Now that the book is three years on, I recently ran some searches to see what kind of impact it is having in both the scientific literature and popular writing on group work. What I found dismayed me. One of the top human resource management web sites used it to argue that group work is nothing more than “shared incompetence” and that one should question the capability of anyone who suggests a collective approach to tasks. A leading publication for math educators identified group work as a prime culprit for the decline in interest in mathematics among students, suggesting that kids are so used to working in groups that they get frustrated when they discover that math is ultimately a solitary enterprise. (Indeed, I was especially bothered to come across a number of trade publications for K-12 educators that questioned whether group-based learning overall does more harm than good.) A trade publication for nurses suggested that the emphasis on being able to work in groups can blind mental health nurses to the needs of introverted adults and children. I could provide more examples, but these serve the point. Much harder to find was the argument that groups are perhaps overused, a point that Cain herself makes.

Trying another line of inquiry, I contacted a friend of mine who is a leading researcher of virtual groups and has an active consulting business helping organizations set up and manage such groups. What he told me was no more encouraging. His work has dropped considerably, replaced by requests to help set up and manage dropbox systems whereby individual workers can upload their ideas and input on an issue for a project manager to collect and use, or to implement a best method for disseminating information and conducting electronic votes via a secure listserv.

In my last column I talked about my interest in offering workshops on group-related phenomena. I think the discoveries I’ve shared with you here underscore how important such outreach is. Let’s talk to the health and business and education practitioners about the many situations for which we know, empirically, that collective effort is preferable to individual effort. Let’s help them find a balance between having too many meetings and not enough. Let’s try to give them tools that will identify who will thrive in a group setting, and who is best left to go off and work alone. Making connections in these worlds will not be hard to do, and we should give it a try.

I’d love to write more, but I have to leave for my next meeting. Fingers crossed that it’s productive.

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Welcome

President-Elect’s Column

Reaching Out as a Division

Craig Parks, PhD
Craig Parks, Ph.D.

“[He] is a poster child for the notions of positive psychology and resiliency in teaching and coaching small groups.” This quote is from Martin Seligman, about someone, not a psychologist, whose job is to improve performance by small groups. This person has been lauded by others, within our profession and his, for his grasp of the psychology of group and interpersonal dynamics, and his application of cutting-edge research to his work environment. He lists Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers as the book that has had the greatest influence on his professional life. His methods have been the subject of at least one empirical study (Thelwell, Weston, Greenlees, & Hutchings, 2008). And finally, his approach has been so successful within his profession that others are rushing to adapt his methods to their own work environments, and other professions are trying to figure out how to integrate his ideas into their task groups.

For now I’ll let you ponder who this is. (Full disclosure: Some of you will not recognize his name, but I’m confident the majority of you will know of his employer, if not him specifically.) The point I want to make is that this is someone outside of psychology who saw a connection between what we do and what his situation needed, and tried to link the two worlds. The success of this person offers a real opportunity for us to build bridges outside of our discipline. We can all think of real-world groups that might benefit from the theories that we work from, and to my mind the time is right for us to connect to such groups. Like him or not, the popularity of Gladwell’s books demonstrates that the lay public wants to know more about what we do and how it can benefit them. The prominent success of our mystery person, and his readiness to attribute that success to the application of psychology, group and individual (our colleagues who do mindfulness research hold him up as a conquering hero), opens the door wide for us to get involved with other types of groups.

I’m sure at this point, some of you are rolling your eyes and thinking, “Here’s another call to share our expertise that forgets about the hurdles we face in our jobs to outreach.” I assure you I’m well aware of the difficulties inherent in what I’m calling for. A colleague in my department has received awards from the university and our state legislature for his efforts to help kids in challenging home situations to thrive in school, yet he remains an Associate Professor, because a good chunk of his work is not readily publishable. My suggestion is that we work as a division to initiate some extension efforts. I am thinking in particular of our sponsoring workshops on topics related to group functioning to which professionals and budding professionals (i.e., graduate students) are invited, with an accompanying registration fee. Division 5 (Measurement, Evaluation, and Statistics) does this to great effect, regularly advertising one- and two-day workshops on all manner of analytical techniques, usually held at the presenter’s home institution or nearby. The registration fees are first used to pay for the facility and for an honorarium for the presenter, and whatever is left goes to the division. Having participated, as both attendee and presenter, in such workshops, I can say that they are popular, and draw a good number of people from outside of the discipline. The presenter’s time commitment is relatively brief, certainly not at the level of a single person contracting with an agency or organization, and so should not impinge on his/her employment duties. Some work would need to be done to establish contacts with managers of real groups in order to circulate workshop announcements, but there are many professional listservs that look for educational opportunities for their members, and are easy to work with.

I think there is much potential here. Imagine, for example, a workshop in the Maryland-Virginia-DC area run by Dennis Kivlighan on the unique and beneficial aspects of co-led groups, or a session led by Verlin Hinsz on how information-processing errors and biases magnify in groups. Workshops like these would be attractive across the spectrum of types of groups, would provide a real service to society, and would be beneficial to the division.

I’m interested to hear what you think of this. Catch up with me in Toronto. If this still sounds like too much of an intrusion into our work lives, tell me so. If it sounds like it has potential, let’s talk about that too.

And to unveil the mystery person: It is Pete Carroll, coach of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, winner of two one Super Bowls.

Categories
Columns

President-Elect Column

The Ubiquity of Groups

Craig Parks, PhD
Craig Parks, Ph.D.

One of the many attractive features of Division 49 to me is that we are one of the few divisions that focuses on an entity that everyone deals with: Groups. It is impossible to get through your day without performing as a group member, often many times a day. Most of us work with other people. Almost all of us are part of teacher-student or therapist-client (or both) relationships. We all regularly engage with our groups of friends. We get involved with community groups, special-interest groups, political associations, recreational teams…the list goes on.

Despite this, the research on group processes and dynamics is in silos. The social psychologists (my cohort) are over here looking at why group discussion is so inefficient. The group therapists are over there studying therapist-client interaction dynamics. The organizational psychologists are in the far corner looking at work groups. The sport and exercise researchers are back there testing whether particular compositions of exercise groups are better or worse at encouraging members to stick with the workout program. The especially unfortunate result of such isolation is that we miss golden opportunities to work together and learn more about principles that are common across the various types of groups that intrigue us. It would be fascinating, for example, to know whether composition is as influential on member behavior in a workplace group as it is in a workout group. Does Leader-Member Exchange theory describe how a group therapist interacts with his/her clients as well as it does a work supervisor and his/her subordinates? Could Yalom’s ideas about the therapeutic factors associated with group psychotherapy be used to help social psychologists move past the stubborn problem of task group inefficiency? Dozens more cross-domain questions like these can be generated without too much thought. Yet it is rare to see such projects undertaken.

The groups’ area has not always been so segmented. In the mid-1950’s, Morton Deutsch augmented his research into the social psychology of conflict by becoming a licensed therapist, in order to better understand the entire spectrum of human behavior. Deutsch’s advisor, Kurt Lewin, helped lay the foundation for modern group therapy with his development of T-group procedures. In writing The Social Basis of Consciousness, Burrow drew upon a number of concepts that would be familiar to a social psychologist today: Power differentials, socialization of norms, trans active memory, shared cognition. Rogers wrote about how his person-centered therapy approach could be applied to problems of group conflict, leadership, and more broadly, interpersonal relations. How these connections fell apart is too complicated of an issue to take up here, and at any rate is mired in more philosophical politics than any of us cares to think about. The important point is that a call for those who are interested in different types of groups to start looking at each other’s bodies of work is hardly unprecedented.

The response that many researchers might have to such a suggestion is that it is a huge challenge to keep up with all of the developments in one’s area of focus—how can one possibly also keep abreast of what is being published in these other areas? This is indeed an issue. I am to the point where I consider myself “up to date” if I have merely scanned the tables of contents of the many journals that I receive. I only visit clinical, counseling, sport, or management journals on rare occasions. But this is exactly why I place such value on Division 49. I know that every year at APA I will get to spend time with other members, who are studying groups of types other than those that I study (groups of unacquainted individuals who are confronted with mixed-motive collaborative tasks, in case you were wondering), and hear about what they have been working on. I am consistently struck by how easily I can ask questions about their work, and how many suggestions for my own projects they provide to me. As importantly, I consistently come away from our conversations with a different perspective on the dynamics of human cooperation, and some of these perspective shifts have been profound. At one of my first divisional meetings, I was telling someone, a counseling psychologist, about my interest in learning how to encourage people to be more cooperative more frequently, and he asked me whether Carl Rogers’ ideas were of any value for the problem. All I knew of Rogers was what I had learned as an undergraduate, so I collected some references from my new friend. The outcome of this reading was a conviction to more strongly integrate personality variables into my thinking, which eventually resulted in my contributing a chapter on the interface between personality and social-group processes to the Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology. This is a piece I would have never dreamt of producing before my chance encounter.

I would love for Division 49 to become a place where, once a year, all of the psychologists who are curious about any type of group come to share ideas and learn from one another. Undeniably there are hurdles that have to be cleared in order for this to happen. Those philosophical issues I alluded to earlier will not dissipate overnight. But I am convinced that some outreach on our part, some effort to show members of other divisions that we share common ground, can indeed result in more people coming into our tent. My goal for my year as president is thus to start building these connections. Such would benefit not only those of us in the division, but psychology as a whole.