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Presidential Blog

Psychologists speaking out in a changed world

16 November 2016 | by Peter Kinderman

On 1 September 1967, the Nobel Prize-winning civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr delivered a speech entitled “the role of the behavioral scientist in the civil rights movement” to the American Psychological Association.

Martin Luther King argued:

“There are some things in our society, some things in our world, to which we … must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence. … There comes a time when one must take a stand that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular. But one must take it because it is right.”

The world is probably teetering towards a better future. But our collective journey is clearly a staggering walk; with dramatic shifts in policy and, particularly now, dramatically divergent visions.

I am particularly worried by a political discourse which seems to be moving away from the “Golden Rule” – the 4000-year-old idea that moral and political decisions should be guided by the principle best expressed by Confucius as; "Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself."  

One-sided ‘free’ trade deals, immigration rules, extradition treaties, rules for military engagement and conditional acceptance of the democratic process. These overt political appeals to self-interest worry me hugely.

All of us legitimately expect our politicians to improve our living conditions. But for me, at least, it is worth reflecting on whether we are espousing policies that would ensure that these improvements are available to everyone, not just our own community.

We live in turbulent times, of rapid social change, mass unemployment, economic recession, urban unrest and continuing large-scale military conflicts. As the then President of Iceland said in his 2013 New Year’s message. “our universities should give us advice, lighting a way that is paved with the results of research”. 

And psychologists are anything but silent on these issues, although we may fall somewhat short of Martin Luther King’s 1967 appeal. We continue to engage with positive social change and express optimism and vision. We do speak out (even though it is painful) when we observe injustice.

We acknowledge and help others understand the social determinants of human behaviour – how people’s behaviour is (at least in large part) shaped by social factors. We analyse the psychological mechanisms of the major social problems facing humankind.

Psychologists uniquely study why people behave as they do, and so we have our own particular and distinctive responsibilities in helping analyse and understand these collective social hiccups.

The world appears to be able to offer my grandson a better future than we have ever experienced before… but only if we give ourselves space to reflect on some core psychological and humanitarian principles.

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