Monday, November 21, 2011

Psychology of Climate Change: Political Debates and Cognitive Dissonance

     Scientists are often perplexed by the political nature of the climate change debate. After all, whether or not people accept the evidence supporting the existence of climate change has nothing to do with politics—it has to do with whether or not people accept scientific evidence.
     However, the truly political question—what should we do about climate change?—may be too contentious a topic when we consider the psychological need for consistency between our social and political identities, our morality, and our behaviors. The desire to avoid inconsistency may be driving our desire to avoid that second question—what should we do about climate change? Instead, people focus on whether or not climate change is real, hoping to avoid the ‘what to do about it’ debate entirely.
     I teach a course at the University of Hawai`i, Mānoa called “Cultural Community Psychology and Global Climate Change.” This course explores how human diversity affects the ways in which we respond to and are impacted by climate change. In the short video mini-lecture below, I discuss how the psychological concept cognitive dissonance may be increasing the politicization of the climate change debate.

Kati Corlew, M.A.
University of Hawai`i, Mānoa

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Resisting the Marshmallow: Community Psychology & Willpower

Though most famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment, social psychologist Philip Zimbardo was for a while more interested in talking about a much gentler-sounding (though similarly cruel) study: the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment.

In the marshmallow experiment, 4-year olds were presented with the choice of eating one treat (e.g. a marshmallow) immediately or waiting and getting two treats. Years later, those who had delayed gratification had a host of better outcomes, including significantly better SAT scores. Zimbardo was interested in this experiment as it related to his theories about time and future orientation, but most would describe it in terms of simple self-control.

Yet there is very little that is simple about self-control. This is the subject of a recent book by Baumeister & Tierny titled “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.” The title of the book sounds like it may have a simplistic “pull yourself up from your bootstraps” message, and indeed the beginning of the book reads like a rejection of the tenets of community psychology, and any other discipline that attends to societal influences on individual behavior.

But is the concept of willpower really at odds with community psychology?

The authors go on to explain how, in study after study, they found that willpower isn’t really what we think it is. It’s not really about exerting some extraordinary feat of energy and resistance. Rather, willpower is like a muscle, something that can be depleted in the short-term, but that can also be built up in the long term. Exerting willpower does take energy, in the form of glucose, which can also be depleted through decision making, but people who appear to have a lot of self-control use their willpower to build up habits that make it easier for them to make good choices without using up energy. The fact that willpower requires glucose is part of what makes dieting so difficult – the very thing that you’re trying to resist is also the source of what you need in order to resist temptation.

Individual agency is certainly the emphasis of the book. The authors present a number of useful tips for improving individual willpower, such as:
  • setting up a “bright line” – clearly defined limit of what you can and can’t do 
  • precommitting – deciding ahead of time what you’re going to do and making it difficult or impossible to do otherwise
  • monitoring – whether it’s your diet or your wallet, being aware of what you’re doing
  • positive procrastination – such as telling yourself “I can eat that cake later”
  • exercising – working out your willpower ‘muscle’ in small ways such as correcting your posture
  • eating – if you find yourself having trouble making decisions or pushing through on a task, consider how long it’s been since you’ve fed your brain, and stick to foods that will sustain in the long-term
Yet the authors also discuss contextual factors that influence an individual’s ability to successfully exert self-control (e.g. being in an orderly room makes one more likely to think about long-term rewards than being in a messy room). Furthermore, it stands to reason that if an individual is in an environment that provides numerous sources of ego depletion, there will come a point where, barring Gandhi-like reserves of willpower, they will snap.

Imagine the following scenario: You get up to go to work. You pass four fast food restaurants on your way to the bus, which is late. You finally get to work and your boss berates you for your lateness. You suck it up, repressing an emotional outburst, because hey, it's the boss. You then spend the next several hours persisting through a series of uninteresting tasks. At some point, your reserves of willpower will be gone - you'll have spent them resisting, repressing, and persisting. If you didn't have a good breakfast, this will happen much sooner. It may result in you losing focus on your job, being short with a co-worker, or overindulging at lunch, but at some point, it will happen.

As community psychologists, it's up to us to make these connections and help build environments and social structures that make it easier for individuals to make the best choices for themselves and their communities.

Gina Cardazone, M.A.
University of Hawai`i, Mānoa

Monday, November 7, 2011

Lets Talk About Sex...Education

Young people are having sex. Now, this may not come as news to most people in 2011, but many still ignore this concept when it comes to discussing it with youth. And who can blame them? It can be tough to talk about sex and sexuality with a teen or young adult. For some people it may feel dirty, wrong, uncomfortable, or unnecessary; I’m writing to state that in terms of community well-being, it is beyond necessary. So let’s talk “dirty” for a moment.

You might ask, “How does this relate to Community Psychology?” To which I say, “It does. Hold tight.”

Community Psychology as a discipline, from my perspective, is an amalgamation of several wonderful concepts and values. There are key focuses on social justice, empowerment and participation, respect for diversity, and—of particular relevance—individual and community wellness. So when I hear or read statistics that the U.S. teen pregnancy rate is one the highest in the developed world (and is more than double the rate in Canada and other parts of Europe), I start to wonder what has gone wrong. Then I think, “How is this affecting our communities?”

To be clear, we are talking about the number of unintended pregnancies—which is also directly associated to the high number of school drop-out rates. When you consider the reason for high rates of unintended pregnancy, high school drop-outs, and the spread of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), you need to consider access to education and resources. It is no coincidence that access to education and resources is directly related all of these things. It is even less of a coincidence that the higher the rate of pregnancy, drop-outs, STIs (including HIV) and drug use, the lower the income of the community.

In a 2009 study done in the New York City school systems, teens made up more than one in every four diagnosed cases of STIs. (It comes as no surprise that New York City also has a much greater number of unintended pregnancies than that of the entire nation). In 2004, a study found that over 75 percent of the New York City school systems did not meet even the most basic requirements for health education, let alone sexual health educationi. This deficit, without a doubt, is a community problem. If we are going to make individual and community health and wellness a priority, we must find ways to spread the knowledge of sexual health care, prevention and contraception to our communities.

If the numbers alone don’t paint a detailed enough picture, consider this fact:
In the past fifteen years, our government has spent over 1.5 billion federal dollarsii on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, all of which fail to teach the details of safe, preventive behavior. This abstinence-only policy has deprived students of information on the prevention of STIs, sexuality and sexual orientation, and options or access to contraception. Moreover, abstinence-only programs deny access to proper health care information for youth who have been sexually abused, have previously engaged in sexual behavior, or identify as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender).

People need information. Over the past few years, efforts to mandate universal sexual health education have become more of a priority in some of the nation’s major cities. New York is one of the latest to pass a policy for consistent, universal sex education curriculaiii. I question how and what we can do for the smaller cities, towns, and rural neighborhoods—not to mention the states that fight these policies. Within our communities, how can we spread information on sexual health education, prevention, and safety? For a start, we can talk to our legislators and push for policy changes, utilizing the examples of other cities as models for our own actions.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to have more discussion of sex, prevention, options, and resources. Parents, grandparents, friends, siblings, aunts and uncles, teachers, mentors: It is our obligation to spread the word about safety and good health. Ready…. GO!

Note: There are many online sites for suggested tips on how to talk to youth about sex, sexuality, and tough stuff alike. This is one.

Danielle Gemmell, M.A.
Planned Parenthood of New Jersey