From the CEO

As a field and an association, it is vitally important for us to demonstrate the importance of what we do to lay audiences. The public does not always have a clear grasp of the importance of psychology and psychologists as it does other professions such as law, medicine or dentistry. Yet pick up a newspaper almost any day, and you will find that there is some psychological research that is relevant to interpreting or understanding the essence of most stories that are reported. There was no clearer example of this than the stunning news this past April of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military personnel.

As many of you know, there is a large body of research that helps explain why people often do cruel things to other human beings. Because of this research, many APA members and the staff of APA's Public Affairs Office realized that psychology could play an important role in helping people understand how the abuses captured in those awful photographs could have happened. I want to devote this column to illustrating how our Public Affairs Office worked to ensure the public heard the psychological perspective on this tragedy.

As the news of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military personnel broke, APA's media relations staff went to work. Led by Rhea Farberman, executive director for Public and Member Communications, and Pam Willenz, Public Affairs manager--the staff began contacting media to recommend interviews with psychologists who have studied prisons, group behavior and wartime atrocities.

A major foundation of the association's media relations program is to "stand ready" to link psychological research and expertise to a breaking news story. News outlets are anxious to talk to people and book guests who can help explain the events that make up the day's headlines. This is a natural and important opportunity for psychology to not only help people understand current events and put them in some context, but also to educate the public about psychology and the psychological research process.

On Tuesday, May 4, our media relations staff arranged for APA former president Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo to be interviewed on CNN to talk about the striking similarities between his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment and what had taken place at Abu Ghraib. That first interview launched a process familiar to our media relations staff--link psychology to a national news story and be prepared for dozens of interview requests. Later that afternoon, Zimbardo did a lengthy interview on the National Public Radio program "Talk of the Nation" and over the next six days some 50 interviews with national media including The New York Times, the Associated Press, "Nightline" and Time magazine.

APA staff were also instrumental in setting up interviews for a number of APA members with expertise in group or military behavior. Dr. Clark McCauley, a professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College, told the Washington Post, "At the bottom of this behavior is not out-group hate, it's in-group love. It's doing what you think is dirty work, but someone's got to do it for our side." Furthermore, Dr. Rona M. Fields, director for cognitive science at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies at George Washington University, told that in war "the enemy is not represented as a similar human being to oneself, but rather a brute who is savage and single-minded in destructive intentions."

APA's highly successful Web site ( is another important vehicle for linking psychology to current events and educating the site's thousands of daily visitors about psychology. Working with staff in APA's Science Directorate, the APA Public Affairs staff created a public information document on psychological research that helps to explain what the public was hearing and seeing. The document, "How Psychology Can Help Explain the Iraqi Prisoner Abuse," explains such famous psychological research as the Stanford Prison Experiment and Stanley Milgram's learners/teachers shock experiment, and what they teach us about human behavior.

As our Public Affairs staff likes to say, "News happens," and psychology will often have a role to play in helping to explain events or give advice to people and institutions to help them make good decisions about life events, family relationships, health issues or challenges in the workplace. One important mechanism our staff uses to connect the news media with topic experts is the association's media referral service. If you are interested in more information about this news referral service, contact APA Public Affairs.