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President’s Column: Irvin Yalom and the Fiction in Stories of Group Therapy

Giorgio A. Tasca, Ph.D.
Giorgio A. Tasca, Ph.D.

At this year’s APA convention I will have the honour to introduce Irvin Yalom at a special conversation hour on Thursday August 9 at 11am. Dr. Yalom will receive an award from our Division celebrating his lifetime of work as it pertains to group psychotherapy, and acknowledging the great influence he has had on the field of study and practice. My first initiation to Yalom’s writings was as an intern back in the 20th century. I was given his book The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy (3rd edition), and told to read it by my supervisor because I was to participate in an inpatient group with her the next morning. Well, for those of you who know The Book, it’s not a volume that one reads in a day, rather one studies it over many days/weeks/months/years. Nevertheless, I gamely pored over it, understanding some but not much of the content. All I remember from the next day’s group was that most of what happened went over my head, and that my supervisor seemed to know what she was doing, though I didn’t know why. Maybe that is why it felt that the post-group discussions that day (and others in which I’ve participated over the years) seemed like fiction to me – that is, narratives constructed by therapists to make sense of what had occurred. I wonder if that is why Irvin Yalom turned to fiction particularly later in his career when trying to bring to life the complexity and mystery of what occurs in human interactions and group psychotherapy in particular. In Every Day Gets a Little Closer, Yalom told a true (?) story of treating a young writer, Ginny, who had writer’s block and limited funds to pay for treatment. They struck a deal in which Yalom and Ginny wrote parallel journals of each therapy session. Sure, there were some similarities in what they wrote, but there were also striking disparities that showed how widely two people can diverge in their narratives of the same events. Was this two people simply telling their versions of what occurred or was this fiction? What happens when you put 8 people together in a group – do we get 8 versions of events? Recently, a member of one of my groups, Jim, retold a distressing incident that occurred several weeks ago, but this time he described the event with considerably less distress and even flippantly. Another group member piped up and said: “that’s not how you described it last time!” What ensued was one of those discussions in group therapy about who said what, that as an intern I would have found pointless. Except it’s not pointless. People construct narratives (fictions?), and the narratives say something about who we are and how and what we need to do to manage. And just as importantly, the construction of the narratives tells us something about the nature of the relationships we are in when recounting the story. Jim needed to retell the story to his self and to the group differently this time, and to some extent this said something about his relationship to the group. In his novel When Nietzsche Wept, Yalom writes in part about the start of modern psychotherapy through a fictional encounter between Friedrich Nietzsche and Joseph Breuer. Psychotherapy, or psychoanalysis, likely had its start with Studies in Hysteria by Breuer and Freud – including the Case of Anna O. So, why did Yalom write of a fictional encounter between two historical figures to describe the birth of “the talking cure”, when perfectly good case studies written by the founders already existed? Was Yalom’s fiction more compelling or instructive than Breuer and Freud’s truth (can one even say that Studies in Hysteria was the truth)? Similarly, what I wrote in a few lines about Jim and my group was a distillation of a 90-minute session and a longer history of relationships between group members – how “true” can that be? (Should we go down that rabbit hole?). Irvin Yalom has had an important impact on my work and on my outlook on what I do as a group psychotherapist and group researcher. Some of that impact has come from his scholarly work (especially The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy), but his fiction and his “non-fiction” has had an equal impact. I will try not to gush when introducing him on August 9th, but I may not be able to help myself – and that’s the truth, I think.

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Columns

President’s Column

Giorgio A. Tasca, Ph.D.
Giorgio A. Tasca, Ph.D.

President’s Column

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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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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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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Welcome

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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Welcome

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.