Psychology

At U of Toronto, professors debate whether academic freedom covers work some view as fake science

University of Toronto supports an “anti-psychiatry” scholarship and the professor who championed it, but some fear impact of institutional endorsement of what they view as fake science.

Florida governor wants to know why all psychology majors aren't employed

Florida's governor has called public university presidents to a meeting to ask why they can't be sure graduates in their most popular majors will all be employed. His prime target is psychology.

Psychology group objects to book's portrayal of its role in post-9/11 torture

The American Psychological Association objects to a new book's portrayal of its role in government-sponsored enhanced interrogation practices in post-9/11 years.

Author discusses new book on social science research in era of big data

Author discusses new book on social science research in era of big data.

Review of Claire D. Clark, 'The Recovery Revolution: The Battle Over Addiction Treatment in the United States'

Not long after moving into the building I’ve called home over the past 20-odd years, I heard that it had once been occupied by a cult. Longtime residents soon confirmed it, but they were hazy about the particulars. No one could remember the name of the group, only that its members were strange and menacing. Nor could my neighbors recall the circumstances under which the cult had departed. The latter struck me as a potentially important piece of information: if reclaiming the cult’s old property was part of an apocalyptic scenario, I wanted plenty of notice.

The millennium ended without incident, and in time the mystery slipped my mind entirely -- until just a few years back, when the solution turned up one day by surprise. It came from a book about Synanon, a drug-rehabilitation program that started in California during the late 1950s. It was inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous, as the name suggests, although Synanon went off on very much its own course by taking in heroin addicts and the abusers of other hard drugs. In handling such tough customers, Synanon modified AA’s therapeutic methods considerably. Another difference was that Chuck Dederich, the founder, was as eager to encourage publicity as Bill W. was to avoid it.

By 1965, there were two books about Synanon by academics as well as a Hollywood film (starring Eartha Kitt as a junkie) along with an enormous amount of print and television coverage -- all highlighting Synanon’s remarkable success in turning self-described “drug fiends” into sober, productive citizens. Just when and how the group went off the rails is a difficult question. But it did, and the effort to establish an East Coast headquarters by taking over my apartment building (noted in Rod Janzen's The Rise and Fall of Synanon: A California Utopia, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2001) was not even the most bizarre and disturbing thing Dederich and his followers did in 1978. That distinction would go to the attempt to silence one of the group’s critics in California by placing a rattlesnake (its rattle cut off) in his mailbox.

Synanon’s multifaceted and highly successful public-relations efforts during its first dozen years are recounted in detail in the first two chapters of Claire D. Clark’s The Recovery Revolution: The Battle Over Addiction Treatment in the United States (Columbia University Press). Clark, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Kentucky, leaves no room for doubt about the depth of Synanon’s influence. The group has been defunct since the early 1990s and is long since forgotten for the most part -- except for the rattlesnake incident, perhaps.

The group’s spectacular degeneration is incidental to Clark’s interest in it. She places Synanon in the wider history of American attitudes toward dependency on highly addictive substances -- swinging between framing the problem in terms of morality or of physiology, to be addressed as a crime or as a matter of public health. To simplify a bit, the high rate of relapse from medical treatment tends to bolster the sentiment that the one sure way to minimize addiction’s social cost is to lock addicts up, while the general effect of locking them up is to reinforce the subculture of addiction. (Another by-product of incarceration: addicts who leave prison with stronger criminal skills and connections.)

The genius of Dederich in creating Synanon was that it combined the therapeutic promise of Alcoholics Anonymous with his firsthand knowledge of addicts’ deviant socialization. Joining meant moving into group housing and entering “the Game” -- marathon therapy sessions in which participants ruthlessly challenged one another’s pretenses and defenses. For hours and sometimes days at a stretch, ex-addicts tore away the lies, rationalizations, self-pity and anything else that they recognized, from experience, could lead back to using. And it worked.

“The longer residents stayed in Synanon,” Clark writes, “the less likely they were to drop out: the dropout rate fell to 40 percent for those who stayed three months, 32 percent for those who stayed six months and less than 25 percent for those who stayed a year or longer. As of 1964, of the 1,180 members who had joined Synanon since 1958, 463 (39.3 percent) were in residence or had graduated in good standing. By the standards of Synanon’s contemporaries, that cure rate was more than respectable.”

Public attention to Synanon was not a result of its success rate alone -- or even of the founder’s willingness to let journalists, celebrities and the occasional sociologist sit in on the confrontational Game, though the voyeuristic appeal must have been a factor. In analyzing Synanon’s development from its founding in 1958 through roughly 1970, Clark brings into focus how the group exemplified, and sometimes anticipated, the cultural themes of the period. It was a counterinstitution, run on a principle of anti-expertise, without input from the medical or judicial professions, and the implication soon became clear that the Game was radically antiestablishment in spirit, demanding greater honesty and authenticity of participants than was the social norm.

At the same time, Synanon advanced what Clark identifies as a “retrograde moral philosophy” -- dedicated to hard work, frugality, self-control and maturity -- against the supposed “new morality” of the period, with its countercultural and consumer-society values.

It was quite a contradictory package -- and as such almost perfectly suited to meet, in the author’s apt phrase, “nonaddicted spiritual seekers’ seemingly conflicting desire: to transform society by dropping out of it.” Perhaps the least bizarre thing about Synanon’s course after 1970 (the point at which Clark rather abruptly drops the subject) is that it attempted to claim tax-exempt status as a religion.

The “second generation” of therapeutic communities -- as Clark calls groups that borrowed from the Synanon model without copying it exactly -- was more open to involving medical professionals; some combined group-therapy techniques with methadone treatment or other pharmacological interventions, while Dederich had insisted on a total break from substance use. A few post-Synanon therapeutic communities sustained the outlook at the American society was sicker than any junkie. (Some forged ties with the Black Panthers; at least one sounds like it might have joined up with the Weather Underground sooner or later, if not for attracting the attention of the FBI.) But other groups developed working relationships with judges and prison wardens, feeding into what is now an established if underfunded system of drug-treatment and mental-health centers.

As The Recovery Revolution's final pages suggest, it is possible to overstate how well-accepted or mainstream therapeutic communities have become. As the number of drug overdoses has spiked over the past 20 years, the rhetoric of punitive drug policy is always easier to generate than funding for treatment. The history Clark records is of an alternative that has inflicted some black eyes on itself over time, but that has also proven itself in practice and saved lives.

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Essay on the documentary “Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray” and Svend Brinkmann, “Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze”

The documentary Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray, shown at film festivals last year and broadcast on CNN a couple of months ago, is now available from Netflix, where it is certain to reach a much wider audience than Svend Brinkmann’s Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, a new book from Polity. But they came to my attention within a few days of each other and now seem linked. Let’s start with the film.

James Arthur Ray was at one point regarded as a rising star in the world of self-transformation, giving lectures and workshops on how to escape emotional pain, reach your full potential and so forth. Self-transformation is a crowded field and a competitive market. The pool of potential customers is constantly replenished (the human condition disappoints a new batch daily) but so are the ranks of self-help authors, life coaches and other varieties of freelance sage. Until about 10 years ago Ray had only a middling success. Then he came to the attention of Oprah Winfrey and was asked to appear on her program to discuss the life-changing wisdom of a book and film called The Secret, which teaches the importance of thinking positive thoughts while also taking care to avoid thinking negative thoughts. I’m not clear if there is more to it than that, but it seems the universe is compelled to turn those thoughts into reality, somehow.

Ray seems to have had a telegenic and plausible manner and was invited back by Winfrey, at which point the universe started coming across for him in a big way. He filled auditoriums and wrote a book that reached the New York Times best-seller list. Clients were willing to pay thousands of dollars for Ray’s weeklong marathons of intensive paradigm shifting. One of the more demanding features of these retreats was a sweat lodge. Attendees packed themselves into a restricted, tentlike space for long periods, breathing steam until it felt like their lungs were on fire. Ray’s claim to be following a Native American spiritual practice ought to have been viewed with skepticism: shamans do not traditionally get paid per head.

The obvious potential for disaster was finally realized in late 2009, when three sweat-lodge participants died and 18 more ended up in the hospital. Ray was convicted of negligent homicide and spent two years in prison.

Enlighten Us tells this story while following Ray after his release from prison, as he seeks -- against very long odds -- to re-establish himself professionally. It may sound appalling that he even tries. But the documentarians are quite effective in letting him rationalize his effort to stage a comeback, trying to convert his prison experience into a teachable lesson in the power of positive thinking. The cringe factor comes in large part from the gradual revelation that Ray is not really malevolent, just incredibly obtuse -- shallow all the way down, the power of positive thoughts inuring him to any sense of guilt or responsibility for a needless loss of life. As far as James Arthur Ray is concerned, the three deaths were a learning experience, at least for him.

The sweat-lodge calamity must not have made the news in Denmark, where Svend Brinkmann is a professor of general psychology and qualitative methods at the University of Aalborg. Otherwise he surely would have mentioned it as a cautionary tale in Stand Firm, first published in Danish in 2014. James Arthur Ray embodies the very cultural trend that Brinkmann wants to resist:

The buzz all around us is about development, change, transformation, innovation, learning and other dynamic concepts that infuse the accelerating culture …. The upshot of this is that most of us are easy marks for all sorts of guidance, therapy, coaching, mindfulness, positive psychology and general self-development. In spheres like diet, health and exercise, a veritable religion has emerged that constantly churns out new edicts to follow and regimes to live by.

The mention of an “accelerating culture” driving the self-transformation craze comes from Brinkmann’s use of the social theory of Zygmunt Bauman, who died in England in January. I wrote about Bauman’s work in this column a while back and will forgo trying to boil it down any further now. Suffice to say that for Brinkmann, we are under pressure to be flexible, adaptable and affirmative toward the constantly changing and unpredictable demands that Bauman analyzed under the heading of “liquid modernity.”

You go with its flow, or else. “If you can’t stand the pace,” Brinkmann writes, “… the prescribed remedies are coaching, stress management, mindfulness and positive thinking.” And that’s just the short list: the coping technologies are just as subject to flux as anything else in liquid modernity. Brinkmann is not content to identify trends and complain about them, however, and recommends something even older than sweat lodges as well as considerably safer: the doctrines and practices of the Stoic philosophers.

Where positive visualization is preached nowadays (think of all the things you want to achieve!), the Stoics recommend negative visualization (what would happen if you lost what you have?). Where you are now encouraged to think in terms of constant opportunities, the Stoics recommend that you acknowledge and rejoice in your limitations. Where you are now expected to give free rein to your feelings at all times, the Stoics recommend that you learn self-discipline and sometimes suppress your feelings. Where death is now considered taboo, the Stoics recommend contemplating your own mortality on a daily basis, in order to nurture gratitude for the life you are living.

With tongue in cheek, he presents a seven-point plan for how to stop changing yourself and just get on with life. Despite the parodic gesture, Brinkmann is perfectly serious about trying systematically to undermine grandiose expectations regarding the self’s mutability, efficacy and entitlement. There is a dignity that comes with acknowledging limits; that is Brinkmann’s point in brief.

While reading Stand Firm, I thought of interviews with some of James Arthur Ray’s adherents in the documentary. They recalled how they discovered him while “ready to reach the next level in life” or to “go beyond everything that’s been holding me back.” They all seemed to have reached a fairly comfortable position in life (enough so to spend up to $10,000 in search of whatever wisdom they thought Ray had to teach) and it was hard to tell what they hoped to transform themselves into, exactly. Brinkmann’s book would seem to suggest they might not know that themselves, but some of them died, pointlessly, trying.

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American Statistical Association seeks to usher in new era of statistical significance

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The American Statistical Association seeks to embrace science's inherent complexity and push for more data transparency by rejecting a common, oversimplified measure of statistical significance.

Author discusses stone soup college social experiment

It wasn't the Stanford Prison Experiment, but a research project at U of California San Diego quickly created two student societies and plenty of conflict to analyze.

Researchers at UW Madison hope their work will optimize teachers' time with students

Professors at U of Wisconsin at Madison hope to find a way to revolutionize teaching, helping teachers find out exactly how their students learn and the best ways to teach subjects students may struggle with.

Review of Franco Berardi, 'Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide'

A few hours after last week's murder of a television reporter and her cameraman in Moneta, Va. -- broadcast live, as it was happening, on a local morning news program -- the killer released his own video. Evidently recorded with a digital camera carried at eye level, it puts the viewer in his place as he walks towards his victims. Once at point-blank range, the gun in his right hand enters the bottom of the screen, moving unsteadily for a few (very long) seconds, taking aim and firing.

The killer made sure this unsettling document went public via social media. Before long, someone had combined it with footage of the shooting as it had aired on television to create a synchronized split-screen record of the event, like a scene in a Brian De Palma movie. I've read about this mash-up but not seen it, and won't, and will refrain from speculating on why anyone considered it a potential worth realizing. (Watching the TV clip and the killer's point-of-view video on the day of the shootings left me feeling morally compromised enough, thank you very much.)

But the whole obscene spectacle echoes a number of points made by Franco Berardi in Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, published by Verso this spring -- a book I have considered discussing in this column for a couple of months now, while also wanting to avoid it for reasons that the author himself would clearly understand. “Crime, mass murders, suicide -- these are not subjects for a good-natured guy,” he writes. “I’m not a morbid person …. Nevertheless, at the end of summer 2012, I started writing this text almost in a state of rapture, half-consciously, dragged by a sort of excitement and curiosity, and primarily driven by the perception that here, in these dark subjects, there is something peculiar to the spirit of our time.”

The author, who also goes by the nickname Bifo, teaches the social history of communication at the Accademia di belle Arti in Milan and worked with Radio Alice, the now legendary pirate radio station that broadcast in Italy during the mid-1970s. (He gave an interesting interview about Radio Alice in 2010.)

The summer of 2012, when Berardi started writing the new book, was also when James Holmes opened fire on the audience of a late-night screening of a Batman film in Aurora, Colo., killing a dozen people and wounding many more. Holmes entered the theater wearing paramilitary gear (gloves, gas mask, helmet, etc.) and a number of survivors remarked that their first thought was that he was engaged in a publicity stunt or some kind of fan role play. One patron resorted to a cinematic reference to describe the scene after Holmes opened fire: “The guy looked like the Terminator. He didn’t say anything. He was just shooting and shooting and shooting.”

Berardi followed the news, struck by the idea that Holmes “wanted to eliminate the separation between the spectator and the movie; he wanted to be in the movie.” And in that regard Holmes belongs to a subset of the spree killers of recent years -- those who document themselves, leaving behind diaries, written or video, as well as detailed explanations for why they are doing what they do. They don't just kill people at random and then, usually, themselves. They prepare press kits first. (Holmes did not kill himself, but suicide by cop seems at least a very probable outcome of any such incident.)

Other cases Berardi writes about are Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine killers, and Seung-Hui Cho, who massacred 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007. But the phenomenon is not strictly American, and Berardi also discusses Pekka-Eric Auvinen, who killed eight people and himself at his high school in Finland, and Anders Breivik, who massacred 77 people in Norway.

The book might well have included Elliot Rodger, who recorded a smirking rant on video and circulated an interminable autobiographical statement called “My Twisted World” before killing six people and himself in Isla Vista, Calif., last year. And now we have Vester Flanagan, also known as Bryce Williams. His innovation went beyond merely explaining himself (he faxed a lengthy suicide note after the shooting), by giving the vast, anonymous Internet public his point of view on the crime, in as literal a sense as possible.

In calling his book Heroes, Berardi is both indulging an especially dark sense of irony and pointing out something at least as horrifying as the crimes. “Roaming in the blogosphere,” he says, “I read texts of young students who declare to be admirers of [Seung-Hui] Cho because they feel the same hatred for the bullying that they have endured for years.” From a little supplementary roaming, one learns that Cho expressed admiration for the two Columbine killers -- while Vester Flanagan paid his respects to all three in his suicide note.

Only parts of the written and video communications Cho sent to NBC News were made public at the time -- a decision that Berardi guesses was made “because they sounded too much like a frightening manifesto for the frail people of the precarious generation, a call to explosive suicide launched to all the lonely young nerds of the world.” Clearly the effort at containment did not work, and today no gatekeeper can prevent the killer’s statement from circulating in full and immediately.

But overt bullying of the traditional sort -- the harassment and torture, verbal and physical, of one’s peers -- forms only part of the experience of shared misery that Berardi considers. more pervasive are the strains of precarity (a labor market geared to temporary work, without benefits and even the minimal continuity of personnel that makes friendship or sociability possible) and of constantly being drawn into the digital vortex:

“The individual is a smiling, lonely monad who walks in the urban space in tender continuous interaction with the photos, the tweets, the games that emanate from a personal screen. The social relation is transformed into a cabled interconnection whose rules and procedures are hidden in the coded linguistics of the web.” (Think of the like button on Facebook as an example.)

The point here is not, of course, that YouTube and instant messaging have spawned robotic psycho killers programmed to avenge themselves on society by going on suicide missions. Berardi’s larger point is that most of the suffering involved never reaches the point of exploding into violence -- and when it does, the violence tends overwhelmingly to be self-inflicted. In a classic sociological study, Emil Durkheim characterized some forms of suicide as anomic, resulting from feeling disconnected from or unnecessary for social life. But anomie is the new normal. “According to the World Health Organization,” Berardi writes, “suicide is today the second cause of death among young people, after car accidents, which is often a disguised form of suicide.” He also cites a report from WHO that indicates a 60 percent increase in the suicide rate over the past 45 years.

The resentment, narcissism, scapegoat seeking and rage of those who use mass media and mass murder to remind the world that they exist are pathological. But they are also, in Berardi’s analysis, extreme forms of “a paralysis of empathic relations and an increasing fragility of the common ground of interpersonal understanding [that] are becoming common features in the psycho-scape of our time.”

An empirical-minded social scientist would probably dismiss all of this as so much impressionism and speculation. But it reverberated in my head after seeing Vester Flanagan’s video a week ago, and I’m all too certain that won’t be the last time.

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