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Expert Panelists Gather at the Second Annual Psychology Day at the United Nations: Psychology and Social Justice

The theme of Psychology Day was particularly fitting in the context of the 60th anniversary, on December 10, 2008 of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

By Amena Hassan

An interdisciplinary and diverse audience of psychologists, behavioral and social scientists, United Nations officials, NGO colleagues, students, and media representatives assembled on the afternoon of November 19, 2008 to discuss how psychology promotes social justice, the theme of the second annual Psychology Day at the United Nations. The conference was held in the Dag Hammarskjold Auditorium in the UN headquarters in New York. It featured a keynote address on conflict and peace, followed by three expert panels addressing the psychological effects of climate change, the psychological effects of poverty reduction, and psychological perspectives on the abuse of power.

The theme of Psychology Day was particularly fitting in the context of the 60th anniversary, on December 10, 2008 of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Florence Denmark, PhD, the APA/NGO Main Representative at the UN, and co-chair of Psychology Day, opened the meeting by recognizing representatives from the broad array of psychological associations and organizations at the UN. Merry Bullock, PhD, senior director of the APA International Affairs Office, welcomed the audience on behalf of APA CEO Norman Anderson, PhD and 2008 APA President Alan Kazdin, PhD, who congratulated the organizers for the second Psychology Day and stressed the importance of ensuring a psychosocial perspective on the UN agenda.

A keynote address, delivered by Herbert Kelman, PhD, professor emeritus of social ethics at Harvard University, initiated the conference. Kelman discussed the challenges and obstacles within the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and proposed a one-country/two-state solution for resolving what has often seemed to be an intractable and difficult path on both sides. Pete Walker, PhD, Main Representative for the Society of Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) to the United Nations, and co-chair of Psychology Day, introduced the first panel on human behavior and climate change. David Uzzell, PhD, from the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom, spoke on the direct and indirect effects of climate change, including psychological impacts such as stress, anxiety, interpersonal conflict, and PTSD. “We have a serious problem, he stated. “I think we are living on and looking over the precipice and don’t have much time. We need policies to slow down and reverse the current trajectory, and yet collectively we behave as if we believe the opposite.”

Inka Weissbecker, PhD, NGO representative from the International Union of Psychological Science to the UN and an MPH candidate at the Harvard University School of Public Health, continued to discuss mental health aspects of human behavior and climate change. She noted how present day behavior could negatively impact the world decades later and expanded on her research on the mental health implications of the loss of infrastructure, access to health care, and the breakdown of social systems and support that accompany the results of negative climate change. Weissbecker also noted the unequal balance between those countries producing negative climate change, mostly in the northern hemisphere, and those who suffer from these changes, mostly in developing countries. “In the 1990’s, ninety-five percent of the deaths that occurred because of disasters occurred in developing countries,” Weissbecker affirmed. “And that is because there are fewer resources to deal with disasters and climate change. This is also true of mental health resources.”

Discussant Ani Kalayjian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, president of the Association for Trauma Outreach and Prevention, and UN representative from AIWA (Armenian International Women's Association), talked on the emotional impact of the “existential vacuum” that occurs when those responsible for climate change ignore the relationship between science and nature.

The second panel addressed poverty reduction and social justice, moderated by Mary O’Neil Berry, PhD, UN/NGO representative from the International Association of Applied Psychology. Anthony Lemieux, PhD, of Purchase College, State University of New York spoke on how the biases of people in power impact on the economy and people living in poverty . Lemieux applied the Social Dominance Theory to explain how membership in a socially recognized group determines power or status. “When one party is more powerful than the other, it prevents resource exchanges and prevents truly egalitarian relationships”, stated Lemieux. “I argue that poverty is both created and sustained by inequalities in power and this makes it much more difficult for people to gain an equal footing…victims of prejudice and poverty, people who are without power tend to suffer more from economic fallout.”

Anthony Marsella, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology from the University of Hawaii in Honolulu and past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, presented his research on the subject of global poverty, human rights and psychology. He stressed how human rights and psychology have an inseparable relationship and urged psychologists to assume more responsibility addressing issues of poverty. He closed with several recommendations. “Unless we adopt a uniformed, united front we are not going to be able to make [the] changes,” he said. “We as psychologists tend to distance ourselves from the poor. We do this for a number of reasons. Even if we start off poor we soon become middle class (or if you’re a successful practitioner, upper class) and all of a sudden poverty is not part of the problem.”

Deanna Chitayat, PhD, APA NGO representative at the UN, introduced the third panel on psychological perspectives on the abuse of power. Susan Opotow, PhD, professor of sociology at John Jay College and President of SPSSI, covered the subject of abusing power with a discussion that covered the post-war period, peace accords, and the study of war and its impact on history. In addition to this she covered the cross-racial contact before and after the civil rights movement and during the efforts to end Jim Crow laws within the United States. Stacey Sinclair, PhD, of Princeton University contrasted explicit or more evident, reportable prejudice, and implicit prejudice, a bias of which people are often not aware and which is more indirect in its effects. Sinclair also went on to describe her in-depth studies on implicit bias and prejudice.

The final presentation of the third panel and the concluding speech of the day was by Rita Chi-Ying Chung, PhD, psychology professor at George Mason University. She discussed the abuse of power, cultural values and beliefs and their connection to poverty and environmental issues with examples from trafficking and commercial sex within Asia. Chung discussed cultural and economic factors that enable trafficking and gave examples from interviews with women involved in prostitution and the “web of abuse”. “I really want to reiterate that although I’ve used the Asian culture and human trafficking as an example, [problems related to] the abuse of power can be applied to any culture,” stated Chung. She stressed harsher consequences for traffickers of commercial sex in the international arena. Reminding the audience of Marsella’s earlier suggestions, she recapped the need for psychologists to become more involved in preventing such unfolding scenarios amongst populations such as women and children.

The 2008 Psychology Day ended with a lively audience discussion that was continued at a reception in a nearby restaurant.Ψ