Archive of 2009 PsycCRITIQUES® Sample Searches Podcasts

December 2009

The Tribe Has Spoken

The United States recently has been beset by high-profile cases of people behaving badly—very badly—because they allegedly wanted to participate in a reality television show. Reality television does indisputably offer a fascinating glimpse into pockets of human behavior. Suppose an instructor was looking for a text to use in a class discussion of the psychology of reality television, what relevant information could he or she find in PsycCRITIQUES?

Restricting the search to the past 2 years and searching with the APA Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms "television" and "reality," our instructor would find a 2008 review by Stuart Fischoff entitled "Survivor: A Human Social Petri Dish—Hollywood Style." In the review, Fischoff takes an in-depth look at Richard Gerrig's (Ed., 2007) The Psychology of Survivor: Leading Psychologists Take and Unauthorized Look at the Most Elaborate Psychological Experiment Ever Conducted…Survivor! Fischoff noted that "the show was and continues to be a genuine media phenomenon." A phenomenon that has now increased exponentially by the new shows (or "reality spawn," per Fischoff) swelling the reality category.

Not only, say Fischoff, is Survivor a magnet for audiences and journalists, it is "catnip" to psychologists. In a "post-Zimbardo/Milgram era of experimental rectitude," a reality show is an unmatched opportunity for observing humans in a "petri dish of cooperation, competition, and conniving." Gerrig's book has 16 chapters by 17 authors, 15 of them psychologists, and explores the show from multiple perspectives.

Each of the book's chapters also draws upon selections of psychological theories concerning a welter of motivational, psychodynamic, and trait constructs, for example, arousal, identification, thrill seeking, Machiavellianism, affiliation, self-interest, dissembling, guilt, and ego idealism. Informed discussions of these constructs ground the authors' observations in scientifically based individual and group dynamic frames of discourse.

While Gerrig noted that reality television may "serve as a road map" for what Eric Fromm cautioned against: "do not adapt to an insane society lest you learn to limp into a moral, ethical oblivion!," Fischoff notes that his book offers practical and educational value and would certainly contribute to a lively class discussion about "the psychological variables involved in succeeding and floundering in a stressful, challenging environment."

October 2009

PsycCRITIQUES and Parapsychology: Suddenly There Came a Rapping

We are currently spinning toward Halloween and the long, dark stretch of the year during which perhaps a scholar's studies may turn from the well-traveled roads of behavioral science to its less explored footpaths. One such path is parapsychology, which is robustly represented in the PsycCRITIQUES review database in both books and film.

There are, of course, many subjects within parapsychology, but suppose our researcher to be a stickler for tradition and to want to know about phenomena such as ghosts and other ephemera. He—for let us further assume a man, thin, tubercular, and with a rather large and intractable bird, perhaps a raven, somehow loose in his house and maybe not entirely avian—would be well advised to run a search in the PsycCRITIQUES database using the term finder feature. By doing so, he would find parapsychological phenomena and, limiting his search to the past three years, find a body of recent research on ghosts and their insubstantial kin.

For example, in a 2009 review of Unbelievable: Investigations Into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, From the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory, by Stacy Horn (2009), reviewer Etzel Cardeña noted that parapsychological phenomena have been studied seriously by literary luminaries, such as Upton Sinclair and Aldous Huxley; eminent research psychologists, such as William James; and even by Nobel prize winners, such as Brian Josephson, physics. They have not, however, with a few exceptions (e.g., the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia), made much headway in mainstream academia in the United States, though he noted that the study has expanded considerably in Europe over the past few decades. The reviewed work is one of a number of scholarly books that have come out recently that are beginning to reverse that trend.

Cardeña stated that all of the recent works support the case for the validity of at least some parapsychological phenomena and refute many unfair or unfounded criticisms. Author Horn gave as the impetus for her work her long-term interest in whether our loved ones survive death. Her most important contribution in this work is her discussion of 700 boxes of archival material stored at the Rhine Institute, a parapsychology research program that Joseph Banks Rhine conducted at Duke University between 1930 and the 1980s. A media darling of his day, Rhine was consulted in such cases as that on which The Exorcist book and film was based. However, as a dogged and meticulous researcher, he committed many years to exploring a research field that is often marginalized.

Another notable recent work is the 2009 multivolume Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal, by J. Harold Ellens (Ed.), and specifically, Volume 3, Parapsychological Perspectives, reviewed by Brick Johnstone. Johnstone noted that

Several chapters from the third volume are very well written and discuss topics that are infrequently discussed in standard psychological journals… For example, Suedfeld and Geiger's "The Sensed Presence as a Coping Resource in Extreme Environments" provides a very interesting description of the occurrence of "sensed presences" (i.e., feelings that others are present) throughout history by persons who are typically in extreme and unusual environments (e.g., mountain climbers and shipwreck survivors). These experiences are universally described using similar descriptors and suggest a neurophysiological basis to the experience of feeling the presence of others when people are in fact alone and in extreme conditions.

And when our scholar turns to other media reviews to shed light on his topic, he would find with his search terms a 2007 review of Pedro Almodóvar's film Volver titled "Ghosts Also Cry," by Etzel Cardeña, in which the reviewer notes that though the blackness may engulf us at the end, the film shows a circle in which the living taking care of the dead and the dead taking care of the living.

Which should give our scholar some points to ponder. Evermore. Have a happy Halloween.

September 2009

Film Review of UP

PsycCRITIQUES is an excellent resource for many purposes. For example, suppose you were interested in recent films available to help young children understand the grieving process and how the death of a partner can affect the behavior and attitudes of the person who has experienced that loss. By searching the thesaurus for situationally appropriate index terms "grief" and "widower," searching the natural language for the term "child," and limiting the search to Document Type Review–Media, we find a review of the Pixar movie Up.

In a review titled "The Journey is the Adventure," reviewer Mardi Allen starts out with the observation that the film hero, Carl, is "sad, not mad." Allen goes on to give a quick overview of the plot, in which a 70-year love story is encapsulated into the first few minutes, giving the viewer a sense of the couple Carl and Ellie's life together and Carl's loss and grief when Ellie dies.

The film centers on Carl's life in the aftermath of that loss, as he struggles first to retain the home he shared with Ellie in the face of an attempt by urban planners to tear it down for a new neighborhood. In true Pixar fashion, he escapes the situation by attaching helium-filled balloons to his house and breaking away, unknowingly taking along 8-year-old wilderness explorer Russell. They journey to a mostly imaginary South America, where Carl can fulfill a promise he made to his wife.

The review states

Up's thematic core is about the devastation of grief and mourning, not about a cantankerous old man and a plump eight-year-old's adventures. Up is a movie about downs. Carl's heart is weighted down with grief. As gravity pulls us down, keeping us grounded, our aging bodies begin to stoop over, leaning down toward the ground. . . . The survivor must seek a new place in his or her life for the departed, making needed adjustments extremely hard for some. Coping with grief may be particularly hard for the aging, and Carl is no exception.

[C]hildren's responses to Carl's unhappy, square face with a drooping frown, along with his slightly irritated voice and behavior, offer opportunity for broaching the subject of grief and mourning. Hopefully, adults will tenderly defend and interrupt the curmudgeon.

The film offers the opportunity to teach children that the unique emotional ties to a person lost and validation of one's self-worth through love cannot be easily replaced. It does so in a colorful, action-packed adventure that Carl and Russell experience together and in a way likely to foster discussion of how aging and grief can impact the people in a child's life.