Archive for October, 2010


positives and negatives of psychological research – a case study of sorts

October 18, 2010

Not exactly sure what to make of this (click on the headline to get the article):

“War on terror” psychologist gets giant no-bid contract

The Army has handed a $31 million deal to Dr. Martin Seligman, who once blasted academics for “forgetting 9/11”

Here’s the short story as I understand it:

  • 1965 Seligman initiated research on “learned helplessness” – especially how feelings of helplessness tied to depression and a general breakdown of mental functioning
  • 1980s-1990s Seligman shifted focus and became very influential within the developing field of “positive psychology” – understanding the strengths of human psyche and how we can improve the lives of all people (not just those dealing with a mental illness)
  • 1998 Seligman elected as president of the American Psychological Association
  • 2001 Following 9-11, interest was piqued in both of his areas of expertise:
    • “Government documents say that the goal of Bush-era torture was to drive prisoners into the same psychologically devastated state through abuse. “The express goal of the CIA interrogation program was to induce a state of ‘learned helplessness,'” according to a July 2009 report by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility.” (from the article)
    • Seligman spoke at SERE training sessions in 2002 and hosted the behavioral specialists associated with the program in 2001 – SERE is “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape” training, providing elite soldiers the training they need to handle possible capture (and torture) by enemy troops. The behavioral scientists associated with the program developed the interrogation standards and practices that have been highly controversial and many feel cross the threshold of torture.
  • Recently, the University of Pennsylvania, where Seligman heads the Positive Psychology Center, was awarded a $31 million “no-bid” contract (based on the presumption that Seigman’s center was able to provide unique expertise and guidance) for the implementation of a program that would help soldiers deal with the stresses associated with multiple tours of duty.
  • Numerous individuals cry foul – they see the award as pay back for the “help” of Seligman in developing a program of torture
  • Seligman replies (from article): “In his correspondence with Salon, Seligman said the CIA and military appear to have hijacked his learned helplessness work without his knowledge or consent. ‘I am grieved and horrified that good science, which has helped so many people overcome depression, may have been used for such dubious purposes,’ he wrote in an e-mail. ‘Most importantly, I have never and would never provide assistance in torture. I strongly disapprove of it.'”

Science does not exist in a vacuum. When Seligman began his study of learned helplessness in 1965, it was somewhat by accident but surely with no eye to someday exploiting the theories and techniques to compromise the mental health of detainees. His work arguably improved the lives of many people suffering from depression – the insight that the helplessness associated with depression could be a learned state prompted new forms of treatment (Seligman later developed a counter to learned helplessness that he called “learned optimism”). His more recent focus on positive psychology has reflected a shift in how we think of mental illness and how psychologists see themselves as able to uphold the commitment to help people. The events that have unfolded since 9-11 illustrate how both of his areas of expertise can become entangled due to a single event. There is a clear theoretical link between the concepts of learned helplessness and positive psychology (two sides of the coin), but it is easy to lose sight of the relationship when individuals involved with the SERE training sought to exploit both the positive and negative aspects to gain some advantage in “the war on terror”. In their hands, it becomes one big mess of coercive interrogation and water-boarding and how American troops can be trained to handle the rigors of such experiences.

The article notes that Seligman holds a “conservative” political view, and he most definitely had connections to the SERE program and some of the individuals involved. He stated publicly that he thought scientists should avail themselves to helping win the war on terrorism. However, these facts together don’t make the contract to the Positive Psychology Center a “pay-off” for Seligman assisting the development of the Bush era torture program (unfortunately, the military is well-known for making contract awards that later come under scrutiny). Complicated times can complicate the science of the times. Or something like that.


if your friends don’t dance…

October 14, 2010

This is a fun read (article here). Some psychologists in England have been trying to pinpoint what makes a “good” male dancer and what makes for a “bad” male dancer. Just a couple of things to think about:

  1. Again, we see an evolutionary perspective rearing its head – the rationale for the study is grounded in the idea that dancing skills (like body shape and symmetry) can signal whether an individual is a “fit” potential mate. Also note, the researchers admit that they have a long way to go to show where the dance moves are coming from – meaning they have no idea what sort of biological basis would support such a claim about evolutionary pressures being a factor…
  2. The methodology is fun to consider. Have guys come into the lab to dance while wearing sensors. Transfer their moves via the sensors to a computer generated avatar. Have females come in and rate the dance moves via the avatars… Some interesting examples of controlling for nuisance variables and finding creative ways to test their ideas.
  3. At the very least, the article provides some empirically verified dance moves – or you can follow this advice.

Note: This is linked to an article published in the Guardian UK. Check out the fact that they have an entire section (online) dedicated to stories that have a psychological twist. SEE HERE.


who said that cognitive psychologists can’t be famous?

October 13, 2010

Here is a nice piece about my adviser from graduate school, Brian Ross. I think they didn’t follow up with enough hard-hitting questions about the great graduate students he has had the pleasure of working with over the years (especially between 1999 and 2004), but it is fun to see him lay out some of his ideas about cognitive psychology. Enjoy.


what we know and don’t know about mean, little girls…

October 10, 2010

This article (“The Playground Gets Even Tougher“) is worth reading because:

  1. It is all about social behaviors. Of little girls. (Basically, how they can be really mean.)
  2. It is about research. Are little girls getting more mean? How can we tell?
  3. If you ever have a daughter of your own, you should be ready. I have two.

science as goobledygook…

October 10, 2010

Check this out:

It really made me chuckle. Basically, you are given two choices – one is the title of actual, published bit of scientific research and the other is generated by a computer program that mashes together random “science words”. You have to identify the real paper. Harder than it sounds it turns out.

Have fun.


psychology as a science, a primer

October 5, 2010

John T. Cacioppo, the President of the Association for Psychological Science, has a nice piece in the APS Observer about how psychology “fits” within the he domain of science writ large. He describes some research that attempts to organize the various scientific disciplines as to how they relate to and influence one another based on various metrics (primarily patterns of the topics that each discipline has been publishing). Given these analyses, psychology is well positioned as a “hub discipline”, one that connects to and informs other more specialized areas of inquiry. This may come as a surprise to some, but those of us dedicated to psychological science it only makes sense. Dr. Cacioppo makes clear the implications of recognizing this:

“During a period in which our national leaders appear more likely to identify psychology with the work of Dr. Phil and Dr. Laura than with the thousands of scientists worldwide who make up the membership of the Association for Psychological Science, it is imperative that institutions of higher education make clear the centrality and influence of psychological science as well as the importance of maintaining and promoting its growth.”

Go (psychological) science!

Below is an illustration from Boyack, Klavans, and Börner (2005)* that provides a visual rendering of the positions various disciplines occupy within the domain of science. Note that the seven bolded disciplines represent the seven identifiable “hub sciences”:

*Boyack, K.W., Klavans, R., & Börner, K. (2005). Mapping the backbone of science. Scientometrics, 64, 351-374.


very interesting…

October 5, 2010

This is worth browsing – a website called “” asks interesting questions to various individuals to hear their ideas:

  • Oliver Sacks: “What is your biggest question about the brain?”
  • Michael Stone: “How is evil represented in the brain?”
  • Guillermo del Toro: “What is the cultural significance of monsters?”
  • John Cookson: “What is the neurobiological basis of religion?”

You can browse these brief videos and commentary by topic. There is something interesting just about everywhere even though it is not all psychology… if you are brave, you can even read the comments that readers attach to the topics. There are some very interesting ideas out there.