Author Archives: chorascholarette

Contemplating Climate Change: What Motivates Individuals to Act?

This weekend marks the end of the first week of climate change discussions in Copenhagen, Denmark. Leaders from around the world have congregated to discuss their goals for lowering emissions and to pledge financial assistance for developing countries to adapt to the consequences of climate change. While national leaders are negotiating their commitments, what changes are possible at an individual level?

In a recent study, Frantz and Mayer apply a popular model of helping to the issue of climate change and hypothesize as to what motivates individuals to take action (or not). Their model outlines where change can be encouraged and where barriers to change often exist at the individual and organizational level. For example, their findings suggest that the sheer magnitude of the climate change problem — and the fact that the personal resources of individuals pale in comparison — is one of the factors that leads individuals to “engage in defensive attribution” and thus deflect responsibility. They go on to suggest ways of engaging individuals with nature as well as helping them see ways they can participate in collective actions that increase their overall sense of efficacy.

In short, climate change is a complex issue to address — one that will require the efforts of nations, organizations and individuals. Social psychology has much to offer activists and organizers who need to consider the ways in which individuals rationalize action and/or inaction.

Frantz and Mayer, 2009, The Emergency of Climate Change: Why Are We Failing to Take Action?

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Secret Sharers: When Listening Takes Its Toll

The recent events at Fort Hood, Texas — multiple killings on an army base at the hands of a soldier — have people asking many questions. How could this happen in a protected space, such as an army base? How could it happen at the hands of a soldier? And how could it happen at the hands of a soldier whose job it was to help others with their own psychological distress?

The experiences of war are traumatic for the soldiers and those living in war torn areas. The cumulative effects of combat stress can lead to such disorders as PTSD. But is there a similar cumulative effect of listening, repeatedly, to soldier’s most traumatic experiences? Researchers have found that listening to traumatic stories from clients can cause psychological distress for the clinician. This phenomenon has been termed “vicarious traumatization” and, over time, it can lead to “compassion fatigue” in the therapist.

One study has shown that personal characteristics of the therapist, such as the extent to which they “practice what they preach” in terms of working through their own stress, is directly related to burnout and compassion fatigue. But as a recent NY Times article points out, in addition to the stress of listening to soldiers’ harrowing tales of war, the military psychologists are also dealing with the prospect of their own deployment. Although there is a built in “checks and balances” system to monitor those providing care, the authors point out that for an officer at his rank, Maj. Hasan would have been expected to seek help on his own if he felt he needed it. However, this philosophy does not align with previous findings which show that therapists often feel expected to shoulder the burden of traumatic stories and that there is a sense of pride in maintaining client confidentiality and personal composure.

These findings, coupled with another study that shows the social function of “collective remembering” — in which the “social sharing” of emotions related to a traumatic event have long-term benefits in terms of post-traumatic growth and social integration — make salient the differences between sharing trauma at a collective vs. individual level. Collective sharing and processing of emotions can help a society and its citizens work through traumatic events. Therapists clearly have a role in sharing the experiences and facilitating positive coping processes, but their own experiences and stresses cannot be neglected in the process.

Does the war end when the shooting stops? The psychological toll of war. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, July 2006

Factors affecting burnout and compassion fatigue in psychotherapists treating torture survivors: Is the therapist’s attitude to working through trauma relevant? Journal of Traumatic Stress, March 2007

Compassion fatigue: When listening Hurts. APA Monitor, September 1995

Painful stories take a toll on military therapists. NY Times, 11/7/09

Social sharing of emotion, post-traumatic growth, and emotional climate: Follow-up of Spanish citizen’s response to the collective trauma of the March 11th terrorist attacks in Madrid

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Collective Action in the Age of Twitter

How are technological advances that allow for the rapid dissemination of information, such as Twitter, changing methods of protest and collective action movements across the world? Although there is no single or simple answer, psychologists, sociologists and other interdisciplinary scholars are engaging the question.

During the protests in Iran Twitter was hailed as a powerful medium that was able to engage supporters across the world as well as serve as one of the only news outlets that could permeate efforts of censorship. Months later, however, Twitter was again implicated in protest action in the United States. Although this time it was grounds for arresting an activist who was using Twitter to inform protesters about police location.

These two examples show both the ingenuity of protesters who make use of new technology and the subsequent need for those in positions of power to develop new ways of regulating or suppressing collective action. The most recent issue of Journal of Social Issues looks more closely at the social and psychological components of collective action and asks a number of questions about what motivates individuals to participate in movements and what steps are involved in engaging individuals to move from sympathizers to more active members of a movement. The authors also examine social movements formed around race, gender, class-status, and political opinion and note the things we can learn from seeing how these movements operate differently. At Queens College, in New York, scholars are also gathering to understand and theorize on the ways in which governments are changing their methods for dealing with protests and collective action.

In what ways do you think technology, globalization, and the economy have changed collective action and protesting? Does individual motivation to join a movement seem more or less likely in this era than in the past? How has the role of the “state” shifted in response to these changes?

square-eye Journal of Social Issues, The Social and Psychological Dynamics of Collective Action

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Marriage and Parenting: For Better AND For Worse

Couple_01 A recent New York Times Science article documents the efforts that family clinics and parenting groups are making to get fathers more involved in parenting. However, the issue is not only getting them involved, but in getting the mothers to let them be involved in their own ways. The biological connection that a mother and child share is undeniable but, as the article explains, our social and cultural constraints on fathers, and what is expected of them, can often make parenting confusing and unbalanced.

This article comes only a few days after another article on family relationships in the Times Magazine — one documenting the Obamas’ marriage. That article presents the Obamas as committed to one another but also not afraid to have conflicts, experience difficult times, and turn them into “teachable moments.” As a recent article in Social Development argues, conflict can actually be productive — if it occurs under the right circumstances. As the authors explain, both the type of conflict (constructive or coercive?) and the type of relationship in which it occurs (positive or negative?) can help predict the consequences of conflict.

So, whether the task is negotiating a balanced parenting arrangement in a society with fairly prescribed gender (and parental roles) or negotiating a marriage, psychology reminds us that conflict can be productive, and the process of working through the conflict can be beneficial to the relationships in the family.

square-eye Laursen and Hafen (2009). Future directions in the study of close relationships: Conflict is bad (except when it’s not).

square-eye Fathers gain respect from experts (and mothers). New York Times.

 

square-eye The Obamas’ Marriage. New York Times.

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Don’t worry, Be happy?

On September 30 Wiley-Blackwell announced the winner of their inaugural Wiley Prize in Psychology — Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania and Director of the Positive Psychology Center. While his career contributions are certainly immense, other scholars and, most recently, popular authors, have turned a critical eye to positive psychology.

In an 2008, Dana Becker and Jeanne Marecek published an article questioning positive psychology, particularly its emphasis on individual success and development and what they perceive to be a disconnect with the realities of social institutions and sociocultural power.  Popular author Barbara Ehrenreich has a new book coming out this month, “Bright-Sided”, in which she questions the entire “happiness” movement, including positive psychology and the way in which it has taken self-help into the academic realm.

While Becker and Marecek are not against the idea of “human flourishing,” they see it “not as a matter of private satisfaction, but as a matter of the collective welfare.” This idea is particularly relevant in the current global recession and the discourse of individualism is also prominent in U.S. debates on healthcare. In the U.S., where “boot-straps” philosophy reigns supreme, Becker and Marecek argue that the suggestion “that self-help excercises can suffice in the absence of social transformation is not only short signted but morally repugnant.”

Thus we, as humans living in our societies and bound by institutions, have to ask ourselves the extent to which personal happiness and a sense of fulfillment is tied to broader social influences. Can we “will” ourselves to be happy through the use of affirmations, or are we simply creating convenient illusions to persevere through difficult times?

square-eye Becker and Marecek. (2008). Dreaming the American Dream: Individualism and Positive Psychology.

square-eye Wiley Prize in Psychology Announcement