Science Directions

As many of you know, APA's Practice Directorate has for some years been engaged in a consumer education campaign ("Talk to Someone Who Can Help") to persuade the public that psychologists are effective practitioners. And they are effective, of course, because the therapy they do is based on research, and the choice of therapy is based on evaluating its effectiveness. In the early days, when new forms of psychotherapy were introduced, the innovating psychologists were often both scientists and practitioners.

As the years have gone by, however, scientist/practitioners have too often split into two camps: those who do research and those who do practice, and "never the twain shall meet." I will not deal with that problem in this column except to say that in the Science Directorate, we are particularly interested in strengthening the scientist/practitioners who teach their graduate students to engage in science while doing practice. In this column, I will describe the work of scientists in fields other than psychopathology who can help. Scientists can save the world; they can help us understand how and why we do the things we do and how to improve the way we do them.

Take, for example, the problem of luggage inspection at airports. We know that no matter how good our machines are, they still require a pair of eyes and that attention be riveted on what the machines display. The problem of ensuring unremitting attention to visual displays has been with us for many years. We faced it when radar was first invented; we face it now when operators inspect the computer displays indicating train routes, nuclear power plant operations, air traffic routes and hand luggage screened for sharp objects. All require someone to look and someone to act, often to avert a horrible accident. Years ago, J.G. Holland demonstrated that observing behavior is a function of its consequences. If the event you are looking for almost never occurs, you stop looking. If it occurs in a predictable pattern, you accommodate to it--that is, you look in patterns that reflect the pattern of occurrence of the sought-after object. What are the implications of this for ensuring that luggage inspectors remain vigilant? If contraband or guns and knives do not occur naturally with sufficient frequency, then we must plant contraband objects to maintain the inspector's attention at a high level. At the very least, the number of planted contraband objects missed can tell us how well inspection is going. We can also make it a requirement that no more than, say, one planted object a week is ever missed. We can determine to what extent missing such objects is a function of inspectors' fatigue as opposed to inspector distractibility.

Or look at the problem of telephone numbers. Our ability to remember numbers and passwords, which are ubiquitous now, could profit from the help of a scientist/psychologist who knows the memory literature. We know, for example, as George Miller told us, the limit of the number of items that we can easily remember, and we know from that research that chunking information into larger units improves memory. The fact that telephone numbers are no longer comprised of letters with numbers (with the letters originating from easily remembered words) is unfortunate for memory. This is not generally a problem because our phone numbers are seven units long, except for area codes. When in an emergency, however, we are more likely to forget a critical telephone number, with sometimes unfortunate consequences. Yet all is not lost because our research tells us that more can often be less when it comes to memory. That is, attaching a story or other mnemonic device to what is to be recalled improves our memory. Other research, such as Martin E.P. Seligman's on learned helplessness, shows us that conditions sometimes produce environmental contingencies that train people to freeze rather than to escape from aversive situations. When government officials announce an imminent catastrophe without suggesting what can be done specifically, is that an example of such a condition? Finally, we can show that people's belief (independent of the actual situation) that they have no control over a situation can be debilitating to them, causing both anxiety and lack of response.

Although many continue to show surprise about what looks like people's disregard for what they see with their own eyes in order to comply with a majority's judgments, we long ago learned from experiments carried out by Solomon Asch that this can happen.

A classic experiment by Stanley Milgram demonstrated dramatically that one can persuade people to engage in a reprehensible act by simply asking them to do so. A more recent article on obedience by John Martin, Brian Lobb, Greg C. Chapman and Robert Spillane showed that adolescent boys were ready to follow instructions that could have resulted in their inducing a 50 percent hearing loss in themselves! Anybody see any relevance to current events?