On the president's column

IN DR. ZIMBARDO'S March "President's column," he seemed to be attempting to answer a question which had not been explicitly asked, such as "What should we be doing with ourselves?" or "What are we doing wrong?"

Perhaps if we refine the question then answers will suggest themselves more readily. To use his analogy of the brain, for example, if the question is what to do with ourselves, the answer would seem to be to replicate ourselves. The function of any brain is after all to keep us alive long enough to reproduce and put us in as good a position to do so as soon as possible. The whys and wherefores of this process depend on the interactions between inborn potential and external circumstances, in complex ways which have not been explicated very well as yet.

So "success" for us would seem to consist of identifying and implementing the procedures which would produce as many "psychologists" as possible. This suggests to me that the most efficient use of our time would involve the direct persuasion of people to adopt a mindset which combines the empathy of clinical work, the scientific rigor of experimentation and the expressive and pedantic skills of teaching. Forums such as the APA Monitor may be employed to help us hone our skills in achieving this end with the general public. If everyone thinks like a psychologist, then we'll find out what human beings are really capable of, I'll bet.


Port Jefferson, N.Y.

I EXPERIENCED MUCH DISAPPOINTMENT in Dr. Zimbardo's comments about the post-9/11 world in his February Monitor column. His words sounded more like those of a politician than a behavioral scientist. To suggest the emerging of a "new-found wisdom and a surprising level of resilience" is rather premature. How would the United States be dealing with continued, unpredictable explosions in public places, a reality in other parts of the world? We have no evidence to suggest the resilience necessary to cope with such events.

To state that the compassion shown to those grieving losses from 9/11 reaffirms "the centrality of the human condition" and suggests we are making "kin of strangers" ignores the reality that Americans still pay little heed to the continued deaths of tens, even hundreds, of thousands of people around the world from hunger, illness and genocide.

Which leads to his observation that "our focus on material success and self-centered achievement...are being replaced by a more optimal time perspective." I see no evidence that Americans, on a significant scale, are being more focused on the importance of human relationships. Families still are overbooking their children in after-school activities, competing intensely to get their children into the "best" preschools and failing to create more downtime. Couples still find little time to talk and make love.

It is naive to expect that one event, no matter how traumatic, would change a society's attitudes and behavior. Psychology's leadership should not be contributing to unrealistic perceptions about human behavior.


Needham, Mass.

Placebo effect?

IN THE MARCH ISSUE, THE MONITOR HEADLINE "Placebo alters brain function of people with depression" is followed by a summary of a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. That study used two groups: those given antidepressant medication and others given a placebo. The findings were that 52 percent of the drug group (N=25) and 38 percent of the placebo group (N=26) responded to treatment. The response of the placebo group is the basis for the headline. However, one cannot draw any conclusion about the placebo group because a non-treated control group was not included in the experiment. I believe H. Eysenck many years ago concluded that if one did nothing with a clinical population one-third would get worse, one-third would remain the same, and one-third would improve. The 38 percent improvement of the placebo group is consistent with Eysenck's observation. Whether or not the "one-third rule" holds, it is still the case that no conclusion can be drawn about the effects of placebo unless a nonplacebo group is included in the experimental design.

University of Connecticut