Feature

It's started again. For three days in a row, ABC television raked behavioral research over the coals. "You paid for it!" they declaimed to their audience. The hosts look at one another seemingly bemused and ask such "common sense" questions as, "Why, oh why, are we spending money to find out why people smile or whether they smile more to superiors or inferiors at work? Why are we looking at depression in monkeys, when it is people who need help?"

My first reaction was to tell them how ignorant they are. But the fact of the matter is they are doing this to attract an audience and increase their revenue. As psychologists, we know that sort of thing constitutes a powerful reinforcement contingency.

Clearly, what we need is to provide a reinforcement contingency to produce a better description of our research. We need to show people how basic research, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, through inspiration, turns itself into something practical.

What you can do

As you may know, APA President Philip G. Zimbardo is seeking to compile a compendium of psychological research that has made a difference in saving lives and money, prolonging life and making it more pleasant. 

Here, I urge you to sit down and write that op-ed piece that I have been asking you to do these many months. While I'm at it, let me thank those of you who have already come through. It's wonderful when we can write up those experiments that over the years provided us with the basis for producing what society badly needed. Indeed, what might be most useful would be to provide examples of "silly" basic research that nevertheless formed the basis for significant work later on.

An obvious example is found in behavior therapy. Imagine what our television anchors would have done to E.L. Thorndike and his experiments with cats. I can hear the television host: "So, they get together in the attic, put this cat inside a box, locked it up, left some food right outside and waited for what the cat would do. Can you imagine, grown men sitting waiting for a cat to make its first move? Well, I told my cat about this and you should have seen Murgatroyd hiss and carry on." All would have had a good laugh and gone on to say "On a different matter entirely, another mother drowned her children this morning."

Then the following morning, we might have been treated to a TV analysis of Pavlov's work with the introduction: "Just so you should not think that silly experiments are entirely an American thing, here's a story of a Russian professor who collects the spit of dogs to produce a process he calls 'conditioning.'" The other anchor, no doubt, would have added remarks about "spitting image" and "not worth the spit...", followed by "On an entirely different matter" and the announcement that starvation in Africa was once again hitting incredibly high levels.

As we all know, these two giants of psychology have done research that continues to influence what we know today about conditioning and learning. Through such other greats as B.F. Skinner we have improved our teaching, not to speak of producing behavior therapy. Robert Ader has made use of the conditioning paradigm to investigate conditioning of the immune system--research that is still developing but has important implications for the control of immune diseases. John Garcia has worked to demonstrate bait shyness, which can be used to make coyotes so sick with the consequence that they stop preying on sheep and do not have to be killed to protect the herds. Successful treatment of anxiety is another area indebted to conditioning and learning. Conditioning of speech in children who had no speech first came from a simple minded following of operant conditioning.

So, get busy

Research that might seem silly or useless or obvious often turns out to be most helpful. We know of such examples; let's tell the world about them. Get advice and write your op-ed piece today. Write it for any newspaper. It does not have to be The New York Times or The Washington Post. Any small newspaper, which is probably more likely to accept it, is worthy of your effort. Even a small audience is worthy of education, and, besides, all newspapers are put in a data bank that media people then consult to get ideas of what to write about or produce for television.

Oh yes, you want to know what all this has to do with Gugelhupf. Nothing. It was just a cheap, shameless way to get your attention. Thank you for reading my column.