Denial Is Certainly More Than a River in....So Say The Psychologists

The New York Times has a thought-provoking article today by Benedict Carey on the role of denial in the daily social lives of ordinary people. So much more than the relatively primitive defense mechanism described by Freud and his adherents, denial appears to be central to the ways in which our social lives are rendered tolerable. The crucial summary in Carey's article notes

Yet recent studies from fields as diverse as psychology and anthropology suggest that the ability to look the other way, while potentially destructive, is also critically important to forming and nourishing close relationships. The psychological tricks that people use to ignore a festering problem in their own households are the same ones that they need to live with everyday human dishonesty and betrayal, their own and others’. And it is these highly evolved abilities, research suggests, that provide the foundation for that most disarming of all human invitations, forgiveness. In this emerging view, social scientists see denial on a broader spectrum — from benign inattention to passive acknowledgment to full-blown, willful blindness — on the part of couples, social groups and organizations, as well as individuals. Seeing denial in this way, some scientists argue, helps clarify when it is wise to manage a difficult person or personal situation, and when it threatens to become a kind of infectious silent trance that can make hypocrites of otherwise forthright people.

I could not help but be struck by the way in which this article suggests in preliminary fashion an understanding of how scandals may arise among those in positions of authority or by those who "should have known better." I am thinking both about what goes on in the political world as well as the religious one as well. The doleful news that the Jesuits in the Oregon Province have just agreed to a $50 million settlement for the abuse that went on in the Alaskan mission during the past forty or so years is haunting. The painful reality that the victims experienced seems so obvious now that a final explanation of malice and sheer injustice by Jesuit superiors seems almost inescapable. But, if the work cited by Carey here among social psychologists is accurate, then a more nuanced understanding may eventually begin to emerge to explain the failure of the Church and its superiors in this horrendous scandal. Toward the end of his report, Carey summarizes: "In short, social mores often work to shrink the space in which a conspiracy of silence can be broken: not at work, not out here in public, not around the dinner table, not here. It takes an outside crisis to break the denial, and no one needs a psychological study to know how that ends." This seems like something that we'll need to think about very hard in the years ahead.


Carey, B. (2007, November 20). Denial makes the world go round (Electronic version). New York Times. Retrieved from

The Internet and Children: What's the Impact?

The November, 2007 issue of the Monitor on Psychology, the monthly magazine sent to all members of the American Psychological Association, has a set of articles exploring various ways in which the Internet is influencing the development of children. The articles include
  • "It's Fun, but Does It Make You Smarter?" (Internet use and academic performance)
  • "Socially Wired" (Instant messaging & email; friendships; how much is too much?)
  • "Web Pornography's Effects on Children" (Development of unhealthy attitudes toward sex)
  • "Creating a Place for MySpace" (Advice for parents)

APA San Francisco (Fri): The Question of Torture

APA Welcome to San Francisco
Well, the annual APA convention has gotten underway in San Francisco at its usual venue downtown, the Moscone Center South (and West) plus some of the local hotels. I've been out in this area of California since almost the beginning of the month and, for the last week, have been visiting friends in the City. It has been an extraordinary August, so far: the fog has been minimal or absent in the mornings and the rest of the days have been sunny and warm. A rebuke to the supposed remark of Mark Twain ("the coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco") which he may or may not have said.
The pressing issue of this convention turns out to be the question of the torture of prisoners by the United States government's forces in places like Guantanamo Bay, the involvement of psychologists in developing or advising about interrogation techniques which are torturous, and the ethical lapses or failures of both these psychologists and the American Psychological Association itself in rejecting such activities. My first session this morning involved a symposium/discussion on the topic: "Ethics and Interrogations-Confronting the Challenge: What Does the Research on
Panel on Ethics & Interrogations @ APA
Interrogations Tell Us?" The room for this session was both filled with listeners and a host of people from the media who are here to cover the conference's various sessions on this topic. Indeed, I don't think in the 20+ years I have been attending APA meetings I have ever seen as many reporters and writers as I did today. Mark Costanzo (Claremont-McKenna) led off by describing what we know about coersive interrogation techniques and false confessions in the forensic/criminal justice world. He demonstrated the frequent occurrence of false confessions and the inability of the interrogators to identify when suspects are lying or not. Charles Morgan (Yale Medical School) offered a defense of many techniques and quibbled with notions like "do no harm" or objections to coersion, deception, and other similar issues which, he claimed, physicians routinely carry out in order to help their patients. He was later attacked by an questionner from the audience as a apologist for the government. Shara Sand (Yeshiva) read through the report of the Office of the Inspector General of the Defense Department about the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistence, and Escape) program and its supposedly sole use as a defensive, rather than offensive instrument by the American military. She detailed the connection between recent work on programs like SERE and early work (in the 1950s) on brainwashing and mind control by the CIA and DOD under the help and direction of psychologists and other behavioral specialists, the so-called MKULTRA program. Finally, Phil Zimbardo (Stanford) gave an incredibly lively and empassioned talk on the history of interrogation research (including his own very early, but ignored work in the 1950s) and made a sharp distinction between the positive findings of social psychology on how to foster rapport and a willingness to confess by suspects and the uniformly negative findings about interrogations employing coersive and abusive techniques. These, he stressed, regularly result in poor information and are often utterly a waste of time. The moderator/chair of the symposium, Bradley Olson (Northwestern), offered somewhat extended comments after each speaker despite his disclaimer that he would not be an "activist chair" (though he was). And while I agreed with many of his points, the structure of these off-the-cuff comments tended to wander and seemed to be out of place.

Demonstration against Torture @ APA San Francisco Meeting
APA: San Jose Says Stop the Torture

Later in the day, there was a demonstration in the Yerba Buena Gardens across from Moscone South by Psychologists for an Ethical APA. The crowd it attracted seemed to me to consist of about 200-300 pretty committed and enthusiastic. On Sunday morning, the APA Council of Representatives is going
APA Coersion is the Cloak of Cowards APA Psychologists for an Ethical APA APA A.P.A.THETIC traitors, Torture is Wrong
to take up a resolution which moves toward (but not quite endorse) the notion that there should be a moratorium by psychologists cooperating with the government in detainee interrogations (see these documents on this matter submitted to APA). The rest of the convention is going to have programming detailing different aspects of this topic (Ethics and Interrogation) through to Monday afternoon. It will be intriguing to see what the final outcome is going to be. Stay tuned.

Eyewitness Testimony Again Challenged

A new story by Adam Liptak in the New York Times (behind the TimesSelect wall) entitled, "Story of Wrongful Convictions Raises Questions Beyond DNA" points once again to the weakness of "eyewitness" testimony. As the story notes:

Brandon L. Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia, has, for the first time, systematically examined the 200 cases, in which innocent people served an average of 12 years in prison. In each case, of course, the evidence used to convict them was at least flawed and often false — yet juries, trial judges and appellate courts failed to notice.“A few types of unreliable trial evidence predictably supported wrongful convictions,” Professor Garrett concluded in his study, “Judging Innocence,” to be published in The Columbia Law Review in January.

The articles goes on to say that

The leading cause of the wrongful convictions was erroneous identification by eyewitnesses, which occurred 79 percent of the time. In a quarter of the cases, such testimony was the only direct evidence against the defendant.

Once again, naive belief in the accuracy or superiority of so-called "eyewitness" testimony is shown to be dangerous and grossly misplaced.

Target Article: Liptak, A. (2007, July 23). Study of wrongful convictions raises questions beyond DNA. New York Times (Electronic version).