Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Fundamentals of Psychology
This is the first of several blog entries on psychology and how it is used or misused to educate the public about psychology or to manipulate people. This is also part of the series I have begun about a Truth and Education Commission; this has been included in that series since a large segment of the public still doesn’t understand how psychology is being studied for manipulation as well as for good things. When it is used to manipulate people this is much more effective if the majority of the public doesn’t have an accurate understanding of psychology starting with the fundamentals. In many cases simply understanding the fundamentals of psychology, or other applicable sciences, is enough for the public to realize when they’re being manipulated assuming they haven’t been raised in an authoritarian manner to believe what they are told by their leaders. In other cases it may take a little more thinking to realize whether or not psychology is being used for the right purposes or not but it will still be necessary to understand the fundamentals.
Simply relying on what psychologists tell us isn’t good enough since, in many cases, they can’t agree on many things about psychology themselves; so you might have one recommendation from one psychologists and a different contradictory one from another. Some of these psychologists may be mistaken or the problem may be that they have an incentive to mislead. There has been a significant amount of research done for sources like corporations that have an agenda, selling products or advancing the cause of a candidate or political party, that doesn’t involve the best interest of the public. When this happens then clearly one has to be wrong and it will be up to you to decide which one to believe; or run the risk, as some people do, of either believing both in a case of psychology doublethink or remaining ignorant. In many cases it may not be necessary to understand much about psychology; a good understanding of the fundamentals may be better than an advanced understanding based on false fundamentals.
This isn’t intended to be an authoritative description of the fundamentals of Psychology by a psychologist; instead it is intended to be a relatively simple basic description of the most important fundamentals described in a way average people can understand and confirm or refute on their own written by an average person. I also described additional Fundamentals in previous post about Why I’m a Fundamentalist; this doesn’t fit the more common description of Fundamentalism as often defined by religious fundamentalists.
The quick dictionary definition of psychology might be the study of human behavior. This is very similar to many other fields including sociology, anthropology, political science, psychiatry etc. there is a lot of common ground in these fields but the differences can be found in the details. The closest one that many people may have associated with psychology might be psychiatry which is intended to treat mental illness. In this case the emphasis is on the treatment not the study of behavior but some study is required in order to improve effectiveness. Psychologists are more likely to put the emphasis on the study but in some cases when they are studying an individual it would be unethical to simply ignore potential problems when the psychologist is in a position to help so a ethical psychologist would provide that help.
The biggest problem by far is almost certainly the downplaying or ignoring child psychology. Children start to develop psychologically from the moment they’re born and the behavior patterns that begin to develop tend to expand as they grow older in the same direction unless something is done to change this. This includes good or bad behavior patterns including violence or authoritarianism. If it involves violence it may escalate in school in the form of bullying and lead to escalating violence later in life. If the violence is done in a controlled disciplinarian manner it tends to teach children to believe what they’re told from their leaders without question. This is often done in strict disciplinarian homes including some that have strong religious beliefs. I discussed this more in previous blogs including one on authoritarianism and another on Dobson’s Indoctrination Machine.
If on the other hand children are taught to sort through problems without getting to emotional by patient parents then they learn to behave much more rationally and they develop much better critical thinking skills enabling them to sort through facts on their own. There are many researchers that have demonstrated how violence often used in the guise of corporal punishment, often escalates and including Alice Miller, author of ”For Your Own Good” and Philip Greven, author of ”Spare the Child.” In many cases the corporal punishment is so extreme that many people consider it child abuse not just corporal punishment. There are also many researchers and authors that have come up with much better and more effective ways to raise children than the strict disciplinarian ways recommended by James Dobson including Barbara Coloroso author of ”Kids Are Worth It”.
If children are taught to submit to the pressure of the crowd in elementary school and then it is reinforced again in middle school, high school and college they are much more likely to go along with the crowd as an adult when it comes to joining political parties or supporting wars based on lies. If children are taught to support the cool kids and ignore it when they pick on the nerds as children and this is reinforced throughout their childhoods they may learn to go along with the rich and powerful or to trust the opinions of their favorite celebrities or talking heads. Or if they don’t trust the rich and powerful they may only follow a charismatic leader that speaks for the poor, or at least pretends to speak for the poor and leads them astray one way or another. If a child learns to get his way by using bullying tactics or lies and this is reinforced they will learn to do this as an adult and in many cases these children grow up to be the most powerful people assuming they have the right connections.
Whether or not children are raised properly in the first place has an enormous amount of long term implications. This doesn’t mean that if they’re abused at an early age that they’re beyond help, especially if they address the problem sooner rather than later. In many cases they have found ways to turn around bad behavior if they understand it; however one of the most important things to do is to stop the abuse or strict disciplinarian behavior before it escalates too far. Regardless of whether or not the early upbringing is good or bad it will have a major impact on adult psychology; to ignore how children develop when addressing psychology would be highly unscientific yet there are many academic sources that seem to do just that.
A close look at how some children are raised and how they develop as adults can help to recognize a pattern and enable a good psychologists to make rough predictions about how children are more likely to develop if they're raised right; or if the psychologist sees the adult without background they may have the ability to make some rough predictions about how the child was raised.
Some of the academic sources that have been doing this for years include the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit. Some of them, including John Douglas, have had a surprising track record at developing psychological profiles of suspects without even meeting them; instead they look at the details of the crimes they have committed. Many of these behavioral scientists have published many books for the public on this subject and they have put the emphasis on many successes; however their critics have pointed out many of the incidents where they haven’t done so well. Presumably by sorting through the details it would be possible to sort out the middle ground; and theoretically when they haven’t done so well it would be either because they haven’t perfected the science, because they haven’t had accurate or complete enough data to base their conclusions or a combination of the two with other possible contributing factors.
The methods that the psychology world use to study psychology and how they cross check their conclusions should also be considered an important fundamental. This should also involve fact checking from other related fields. Some related fields may include Sociology, Psychiatry, History, Political Science etc. It may be necessary to come to preliminary conclusions before they have complete research from many different disciplines to base decisions, at least temporarily, but once they have time to check additional facts they may find the new data either confirms or refutes their findings; and any good researcher will be willing to adjust findings if they find data that contradicts their assumptions. To refuse to acknowledge relevant data should be considered a sign of incompetence or insincerity.
In my blog about Human research Subjects I described the basics of how they use several basic methods of studying people the most common are field research or controlled research. The basic difference between the two is that in field research they study the way things are naturally without influencing the subject; in controlled research they try to limit the circumstances so that hopefully they can isolate cause and effect. That blog goes into greater detail about some of this and it includes some examples that are related to psychology.
Psychology or related subjects are often researched either by taking a narrow look at a large number of people or taking a close look at a small number of people or perhaps a single individual at a time. Many psychologists conduct in depth research into the complete life of a subject often looking into childhood upbringing and checking facts through independent witnesses and criminal or hospital records or any other records that are available. This is probably much more common in extreme cases where the subject is involved in serious crime and the psychologist wants to understand how they turned out this way; however there are certainly cases where it is also done for other cases where the subject seeks help from a psychoanalyst. In this case they are usually not used for the benefit of public or often even academic research since the objective may be to help the patient however some psychologists may use their experience to generalize anyway.
When they do this they often change names or remain vague so the privacy of the subject will be protected which means that it may not always be subject to scrutiny. This may still be helpful if they have enough evaluations from a large variety of sources and they confirm a pattern. There have also been some cases where the subject being studied has agreed to allow the information gathered to be used for certain purposes which enables closer fact checking. Many psychologists often consider this more reliable but it has its limits since it only tests a small percentage of the public and many people aren’t studied at all.
Checking a large number of people to check their conclusions and find trends that can’t be found is also helpful in filling in the blanks. This often involves taking a lot of telephone surveys or personal surveys that cover a much larger percentage of the public. This can create a much greater statistical advantage but there are always flaws in the results since it does very little to explain cause and effect. Large groups can also be studied by reviewing the way they behave in a crowd in many reports in the news and through a good study of historical reports to find trends and fact check things through different methods.
Another common way of studying psychology is through situational psychology which involves testing the way people behave in certain situation. A couple of the most famous of these studies are the Obedience to Authority study by Stanley Milgram and the Stanford Prison experiment by Philip Zimbardo; however there appear to be many more that the public is much less familiar with and even in these two examples the majority of the public is probably not aware of the full extent or purpose of the research studies. These research projects have included studying the way people react when they see an abandoned car in different kinds of neighborhoods; studying whether or not people will return lost property that is left intentionally for people to find; studying the way people respond to a wrong number that was made by a person with an obvious accent to indicate that they are from a certain racial background and many other things. In many cases when this is done the research is done on false pretenses.
The Milgram study involved telling the subjects they were here to study the way people learn but they were actually studying Obedience to Authority. They were supposedly informed of the true nature of the research after the fact; however there may be some doubt about that. If a research project is done on false pretenses then in order to receive the full scientific benefit the real reasons and any potential biases have to be disclosed. If the full truth of the research isn’t revealed then there should be some doubt about what the research is being used for.
These research projects have been widely reported within the academic world but they have rarely been mentioned in the press where the majority of the public would have an opportunity to learn about it. In some cases people that willingly participate in the research based on the assumption that it will help society; however judging the way the research is disclosed to the public and used to make important decision there should be serious doubt about whether or not this is actually the case. Some studies were done over thirty or forty years ago like Melvin Kohn’s study on Class and Conformity with the volunteer help from people that agreed to be interviewed.
This was financed by tax dollars but the vast majority of the public isn’t aware of it and for the most part it isn’t taken into consideration when developing public policy at all. In some cases some academic researchers compile a lot of data from a large variety of sources to come up with academic work that will help make recommendations for better policy. They present this to the media who report on it briefly and often inaccurately; then demagogues and people with political interests speak load and clear when they don’t support their prejudices and the research is often condemned without addressing the details or corrupt research done by those with an agenda is used to confuse the subject and ensure that the public won’t receive the truth. This might raise doubts about why this research is being done at all. It should also raise some questions about how the public is educated. Not only is this research often not taught to the public but in some cases it is partially or completely financed by the government and copy-written so that the distribution is controlled and only those that can afford or are inclined to look in the right source for the research can benefit from it. This should be considered especially important when you consider the fact that some researchers including John B. Watson and many others believe that a major goal of psychology is to control behavior often for the benefit of those in power. If this is the case, and I think a closer look will indicate that it is, then psychology research could and almost certainly is being used to subvert real democracy by manipulating a large percentage of the public to support causes that aren’t in their best interests.
Since psychology is clearly being used by some to manipulate others it may be advisable to consider the incentives that psychologist have to do their job and how they work in our society. The Capitalist system doesn’t provide any financial incentive for psychologists to warn the public about how manipulation tactics are being used against the public; instead it does the opposite in many cases. The multi-national corporations have been hiring psychologists and sociologists etc. to help them do marketing research to help sell their products. This doesn’t necessarily involve being honest; marketing involves convincing the public to buy as much as possible in a manner that enables the corporations to maximize their profits. Essentially this means that despite the enormous amount of advertising that tells the consumer that they can save money they are actually trying to convince the public they’re giving them a good deal for a product that the public needs even when this clearly isn’t true. To put it bluntly the corporations are hiring psychologists to help with a sophisticated fraud. This is no better than a corner scam artist playing Three Card Monte; if anything it is worse since due to the sophistication and the fact that it is backed up by many powerful institution it seems more credible and the corporations get away with much more.
Political parties also hire a lot of consultants and political scientists have often worked with psychologists to study how to convince the public to vote for their candidate even when that candidate isn’t looking out for the best interest of the public. A couple of the highest profile examples of this right now may be Carl Rove and Frank Luntz, a republican pollster and advisor to many politicians. They are studying how to get as many votes as possible without actually looking out for the best interest of the public. They aren’t psychologists but they almost certainly have studied some aspects of psychology and consulted with real psychologists when it suits their purposes.
There are also cases where political pandering the beliefs of the public may also lead to corruption intentional or not in the academic world of psychology. The clearest example of this may be when lawyers seek expert testimony from psychologist to support their case either to defend criminal clients or to prosecute them. Regardless of which position they have the system is set up so that they can and often do shop for a psychologist or other expert witness to testify for their client. There are supposed to be some ethical standards to prevent the corruption of these exerts by these incentives but they don’t involve complete removal of the incentives that could lead to potential bias. There are many cases where the defense is often accused of hiring experts for profit however unless the client has a lot of money this is unlikely since the system doesn’t provide as much money for the poor as many people seem to imply and they can’t afford it themselves. In fact for the poor the opposite is more likely to be true and the experts on the side of the prosecuting side are often more likely to cater to the needs of the prosecutor often when it is a high profile case or when the politicians, either the prosecutors, judges or those that appoint them, are running campaigns as tough on crime candidates that often cater to the emotions and beliefs of the public even when these beliefs aren’t accurate or good for public policy. And of course there are rich clients that may be able to hire a lot of experts assuming they have testimony that supports their cause.
Ethics boards within the psychology community can help reduce these biases but if it is run by those that may potentially have a conflict of interest then it may not be effective enough. Additional accountability can occur if they do a better job explain the details of psychology to the public starting from the basics in a way that isn’t appealing to emotion or prejudices; this would enable the public to participate more based on a more accurate understanding of the subject. There are still many good psychologists that have participated in the system without catering their work to the interests of the client and they have been willing to show the work that led to their conclusions; they could help with this effort.
If the public understand how these pollsters, political scientists, psychologists or any other type of manipulator scams the public, intentionally or not, it will be much easier to avoid falling for fraud. Several sources have created lists of what some people call fallacies. These lists are available on the web at Nizcor or nobeliefs.com. I have also created my own list, which I refer to as indoctrination tactics, as well as a blog entry about Manipulation tactics. these lists are relatively simple and easy for most people to understand. Once people get accustomed to recognizing them then the political, marketing or other manipulators will no longer be able to get away with deception and they will be much less likely to even try.
These manipulation tactics are often part of a broader effort to control the public from birth. One of the earliest researchers in what is referred to as behaviorism in modern history is John B. Watson, who believed that he could train an infant to become anything he chose if he had the resources. Watson once wrote, “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select- doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.” He first wrote this in 1930. This may be one of the most widely cited principles of behavioral psychology. This involves the belief that the leading factor in deciding the behavior of any given person is the way they were taught as they were raised. Some people go even farther and claim that their upbringing is the sole contributing factor without any contribution from biology. Others seem to go to the opposite extreme and assume that people are born with certain traits in their genes and that their upbringing has little or no impact. This is often referred to as the nature versus nurture debate. The truth is almost certainly somewhere in between; and I suspect the vast majority of researchers agree although some may be more inclined to lean in one direction or another.
Not all psychologists or other academic researchers are inclined to use research to learn how to manipulate the public but many are. A large amount of the research done in the psychology community could be used for better or worse; however if it isn’t presented to the public in an efficient manner in many cases those with the most money that want to use it for worse may wind up with the advantage; assuming they don’t take it too far which they seem to be doing right now for one reason or another.
Many descriptions of the fundamentals of psychology may start with the history of how psychology was studied. I haven’t done that because I think that principles should stand on their own merits and any good science should focus more on the principles and how they can be confirmed. The history of psychology is often considered to have been founded by Sigmund Freud. Among the majority of the public many people probably believe that his work has been widely accepted although at least some aspects of it have been disputed within the psychology community. Both Philip Greven and Alice Miller have indicated that Freud may have downplayed the damage done to children by strict disciplinarian child rearing methods or even the sexual exploitation of children due to pressure from a large segment of society. Michael W. Eysenck has also indicated that there are problems with some aspects of Freud’s work as well. By looking at this from a scientific manner and showing the work starting with the basics it should be easier to sort out the flaws in his theories which is why I believe we should focus more on the principles than on the source when it is possible to take the time to sort through the details.
When considering the history of psychology and how it could be influenced by the pressure from the public it may help to consider non-academic psychology which is much older than most current research. A simple example of non-academic psychology could be found in just about any high school in the country; when teenagers are trying to learn how to fit in with the crowd or in some cases become the leader of the crowd they may be experimenting with some simple examples of psychology. They often experiment with certain facial expressions or sayings which some members of the crowd may think are cool at any given time. These trends are constantly changing and in many cases whether or not any given activity becomes the “new cool,” may depend on whether or not the source is part of the in crowd or he or she knows how to present it well. In some cases if a saying like the way a young girl on a Verizon ad says “sweeeet” comes from a cool girl it could be a big hit but if it comes from someone in the out crowd it could just as easily be the subject of ridicule. The fact that this saying made it into a national television advertisement indicates the fact that there are many researchers from the marketing industry consulting with psychologists and in some cases non-academic psychology done by young children may be mixed up with academic psychology studied by those hired by the corporations.
Non-academic psychology may have had a large impact on our foreign policy and other activities of our government and many others for thousands of years. In “Policing America’s Empire” Alfred McCoy demonstrated how several covert agencies developed starting with the conflict in the Philippines and escalating especially during war time and after the creation of the CIA. This involves a lot of attempts to manipulate people in covert ways that often involved preying on the superstitions or bigotry of others including those of the people conducting espionage. Those that understand how to manipulate the public most effectively have often obtained power using these tactics and kept a large segment of their activities secret. These have often led to basing many of the most important decisions in foreign or domestic policy on lies; and the results have often been disastrous. The CIA has been consulting with Psychologists since they began and they may have sought psychologists that might be more inclined to cater to the beliefs of those in power. This may have led to multiple competing factions within the CIA that may not know what each other are doing and it may have led to academic work that has been influenced by the CIA. McCoy also addressed some of this in “A Question of Torture” where he reviews how the CIA has been using psychologist to help them conduct their torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and other locations. Many psychologists that haven’t been influenced by the CIA have indicated that using torture to conduct these interrogations are counterproductive.
The understanding of non-academic psychology must go back much farther; there are many reports of demagogues in ancient Greece and Rome. There are also evidence of the understanding of psychology in many sophisticate architectural structures like those in Egypt or the baths of Mohenjo-Daro. The mere fact that these structures exist indicates that someone understood how to organize their people and motivate them to work together. This could not have been done without some understanding of psychology. When there are records of these wonders of the ancient world they often indicate that they also had class societies where the ruling class generally benefitted from the work of the working class; and they must have understood how to convince the working class to submit to authority and accept their status. This presumably must have been done by providing different educational opportunities for the different calluses and ensuring that the working class didn’t fully understand how they were being manipulated.
Clearly this should indicate that in any sincere democracy the public should have access to educational opportunities that include psychology in order to avoid being manipulated by those in power.
The following are additional posts in the Psychology series:
Truth and Education Commission
Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, Stanford Prison Experiment
Corruption or Bias in the American Psychological Association
Eli Roth’s Milgram/Obedience experiment much more extensive than most people realize
Political Psychologists are Suppressing Democracy
For additional information about the fundamentals of psychology from psychologist see the following cites about how it was interpreted in 1924 as well as more modern research:
fundamentals of psychology by W.B. Pillsbury 1924 Haiti Trust
fundamentals of psychology by W.B. Pillsbury 1924 Google Books
fundamentals of psychology by Michael W. Eysenck 2009 sample chapter
(For more information on Blog see Blog description and table of context for most older posts.)