Herewith, occasional and largely informal
commentary on issues relating to psychology as a discipline and
a profession, including mental-health policy issues.
When I was in college at
Colgate University (1966-1970), I joined a fraternity -- the
Greek houses were the basis of campus social life, and Colgate
didn't, at the time, offer much by way of housing for
"unaffiliated" upperclassmen (it does much better now, partly
by buying up the houses themselves and pretty much abolishing
the Greek system, which is a good thing). But it wasn't
that kind of fraternity: it housed an eclectic
collection of swimmers, liberals, and gays (though this last
was pretty much unspoken), and there was no blackball system
-- new members were chosen by random selection from interested
freshmen. And there was no hazing, either.
Instead, each new member was given a task to perform.
Colgate separated its semester by a "January Special Studies
Period", now abandoned, in which students pursued some
individual or group project under the auspices of a faculty
member. I was deeply involved in music (singing base in
the Glee Club, playing French horn in the orchestra), and also
very involved in the Episcopal Church, and I got it into my
head that I would compose a Mass. In one month.
With no particular knowledge of music theory -- though I did
buy Walter Piston's treatise on Orchestration.
It was an entirely stupid idea, and the final product was
execrable. But it is a tribute to Colgate, and to Donald
Wheelock (now teaching at Smith), the music professor who
supervised the project with good humor, that I was put on a
Anyway, when the older
members found out about this, I was assigned to compose a song
as a pledge project -- on the theme of "Raccoon Shit is Blue"
(this was a fraternity, after all, and it was the 60s).
I ended up composing only the verse, which I sang to the tune
Gets in Your Eyes" (originally written by Jerome Kern
and Otto Harbach, and famously recorded by The Platters):
asked me how I knew
My true love was true
I of course replied,
"Something here inside
Cannot be denied"
They said someday you'll find
All who love are blind
When your heart's on fire
You must realize
Smoke gets in your eyes
So I chaffed them and I gaily laughed
To think they could doubt my love
Yet today, my love has flown away
I am without my love
Now laughing friends deride
Tears I cannot hide
So I smile and say,
"When a lovely flame dies,
Smoke gets in your eyes"
Smoke gets in your eyes
asked me how I knew
Raccoon shit was blue
I looked up and said,
"Horseshit you've been fed,
Raccoon shit is red"
They threw me on my ass
Out upon the grass
Saying "Join us too,
Join the motley crew,
Raccoon shit is blue"
Through the day and through the night
We kept discussing
All the time omitting facts
And mostly cussing
Now, sadly I replied
"This I can't abide,
I just can't agree
With what you just said,
Raccoon shit is red"
Raccoon shit is red
There was a
time when academics would mail postcards to each other
requesting reprints of journal articles. Well, not so much anymore. Most journal
articles are available
on line, and most of the very few reprint requests
academics receive now come over very prosaic
email. But once in a while, you receive a reprint
request that is so striking that you hang onto it.
Link to a few of my favorites.
Link to a letter to the editor published in the New York Times (December 15, 2001), and expanded commentary.
Link to a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal (submitted June 20, 2002).
A very ill-conceived idea. Link to PDF.
On January 13, 2005, I circulated a message to three listservs, the Society of Experimental Psychologists, the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology, and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, inviting listmembers to contribute short lists of fondly remembered, perhaps life- or career-changing textbooks, read either as undergraduates or graduate students, along with a sentence or two about the effect they had on them. Link to the results of the poll.
Does Neuroscience Constrain Social-Psychological Theory? Link to an invited commentary published in Dialogue, the newsletter of SPSP (2006).
Regarding my chapter in the volume, Evidence-Based Practices in Mental Health, a few individuals have written to question my strong position favoring EBPs.
I don't mean to imply that palliative treatments aren't effective and not respected. When a disease is incurable, palliation is one possible approach. But I think that the goal of medicine, including mental health, should be to move beyond palliation with all deliberate speed -- to cure disease when possible, and when it is not, to maximize symptom relief; actively help the patient manage chronic illness, and promote rehabilitation where appropriate. In many cases, there is much more that we can do besides palliation, and when there is, we should do it. And I think that where palliation is the choice, the provider has the obligation to make sure that the palliative treatment actually -- well, palliates. So even in the case of palliative care, we need EBPs to make a rational choice among treatment options in the best interests of the patient. Palliative treatments that work are beneficial. Palliative treatments that do not work are not, and should be abandoned.
Yes, but hospice care is an extreme measure, to ease the situation of a dying patient for whom nothing more can be done. Excepting suicide, nobody dies from mental illness, so hospice care is not a good analogy. Whether MD or PhD, the doctor's first task is to do no harm; his/her second task is to make the patient well, or at least better. Now, it may be that in some cases of chronic mental illness, long-term hospitalization is the best alternative for the patient, and these costs should be reimbursed by third-party payers, just as long-term hospitalization for, say, polio or tuberculosis would be (it is clear now that it was a mistake to empty the state mental hospitals, instead of improving the conditions of the patients housed in them). But even in that case, I believe that there is an obligation to deploy EBPs directed toward management and rehabilitation (which is what should have been done).
I stand by my statement. Patients have a right to seek out any treatment they wish, and to pay for it out of their own pockets; but providers have an obligation to provide treatments that are effective, and third-party payers are under no obligation to pay for treatments that are ineffective.
My position is very simple: the status of clinical psychology as a profession, including its autonomy from psychiatry and its eligibility for third-party payments, depends on its adherence to its scientific base. Or, put another way: if someone had cancer, or heart disease, they'd insist that their doctor try a proven method. Why would anyone treat their mind differently than their body?
I agree that clinical trials pose some difficult statistical
issues, epitomized by the difference between statistical and
clinical significance, and the fact that we're dealing with
average outcomes, which may hide the fact that even an effective
treatment doesn't work for everyone who gets it. But these
problems shouldn't serve as an excuse for doing nothing about
the scientific basis of clinical practice -- which, frankly, is
the position taken by a number of leading figures in the
American Psychological Association, some of whom are authors in
the Norcross book. As I've said many times, clinical
psychology owes its professional status, including its autonomy
from psychiatry and its eligibility for third-party payments, to
the assumption that it's practices are justified by a firm
scientific base. But all too many of the leaders in
clinical psychology want to practice business as usual.
I'll defend the Rosenblatt/Atkisson cube as a model for representing consumer interests in EBP. Yes, they focus on severe mental illness, but their basic point is that in any case of mental illness, there are a number of different consumers -- the patient him- or herself, his/her family, employer and colleagues, neighbors and the larger community, all of whom have an interest in whether the patient gets well. Whoever the consumer is, beginning with the patient, consumer interests are best served by providing services that are both effective and cost-effective. And the only way we have to identify those services is scientific research, modeled on clinical trials.
Link to some comments on the "godfather" of cognitive psychology, who died on February 17, 2012.
On July 14,
2012, I sent the following letter to the Editor of the New
York Times Book Review, concerning a review by Daniel
Menaker of Free Will by Sam Harris. It was never
published, but the point it made remains
Daniel Menaker seems too willing to accept Sam Harris’s conclusion that free will is an illusion – and not even a necessary one, at that (“Have It Your Way”, July 15, 2012). But the relevant science does not support Harris’s view. Benjamin Libet is no longer alive to defend his experiment, but the latest evidence indicates that his results were wholly an artifact of his procedures. And while a host of evidence in cognitive and social psychology shows that automatic, unconscious processes play some role in our experience, thought, and action, none of it demonstrates that they overwhelm conscious control. So Harris's arguments about free will are based more on ideology than evidence. How free will works is indeed a problem for neuroscientists. But they’ll never solve it so long as they keep denying it.
and I didn't have too much in common: I barely can do a
t-test, after all. But he was a great colleague during my time
at Harvard. I was appointed in the Personality and
Developmental Studies area, at a time when the Department was
just being put back together and those institutional
distinctions actually still meant something. But the only
available office space was on the 9th floor of William James
Hall. A big corner office, and I was happy to have it, but it
was embedded in the Laboratory of Psychophysics, where I felt
a little like a fish out of water. Maybe it was the Penn
Connection, but Duncan and Dave Green (and Douwe Yntema and
Edwin Newman) were very friendly and supportive, and even
invited me to their Fechner Day celebrations held on April 19.
Later, after I had left Harvard, I had the privilege of
working with Duncan on an NRC project to identify the "Leading
Edges in Behavioral and Social Science". There I learned just
how broad Duncan's interests were -- it turned out that we had
more in common than I had imagined at the outset.
The following Letter to the
Editor was published, in edited form, in The Economist
(04/14/2018). The high-school in question was Horseheads
High School, from which I graduated in 1966, and the choir in
question was directed by Joseph Crupi (I was a tenor, then a
baritone, then a bass). Like many American school choirs,
we sang a lot of spirituals, and other "folk" music, to acquaint
us with America's musical heritage -- an aspect of cultural
literacy, alas, quickly going the way of the passenger pigeon
with the current emphasis on STEM subjects.
Your article about Martin Luther King, “Like a Mighty Stream” (March 31, 2018), implies that MLK borrowed the phrase “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty we are free at last!” from a 1939 novel by Zora Neale Hurston, rather than “an old Negro spiritual”. But my (all-white, rural upstate New York) high-school choir sang that very spiritual (among others) in the 1962-1963 academic year, and it has been traced as far back as John Wesley Work’s 1907 collection of American Negro Songs: New Jubilee Songs and Folk Songs of the American Negro. Most likely, Hurston herself got it from there.
In January 2019, Russ Poldrack of Stanford University posted a query to the listserv maintained by the Memory Disorders Research Society concerning Ernst Clapraede's classic paper on "Recognition et moiiete (1911). In response, I wrote a little postscript to the ensuing thread.
Claparede’s 1911 article was first translated
by David Rapaport (Claparede,
1911/1951), and published in his anthology, Organization and Pathology of
Thought (Rapaport, 1950). Rapaport was a
psychoanalytic ego-psychologist who tried valiantly to integrate
psychoanalysis with scientific psychology, and he was particularly
interested in what we could learn from psychopathology (including
neurological syndromes) about normal mental life. The book is a real gem,
and can probably be found in most academic libraries who haven’t
de-accessioned their books to make room for computer terminals and
Rapaport’s translation wasn’t complete, unfortunately, so Bill Banks commissioned a full translation, by Anne-Marie Bonnel and Bernie Baars (Claparede, 1911/1995), which was included in a special issue of Consciousness and Cognition devoted to implicit memory (Banks, 1995). Self-promotion alert: the new translation was accompanied by a commentary by yours truly (Kihlstrom, 1995), perhaps because Bill knew that I relied heavily on Claparede in my 1993 Carnegie Symposium paper on the role of the self in consciousness and explicit memory (Kihlstrom, 1997).
In a second special issue on implicit memory (W.P. Banks, 1996) published the first-ever translation of a paper by Korsakoff (Korsakoff, 1889a/1996) which had been cited by Dan Schacter (Schacter, 1987) as the first notice of spared implicit memory in amnesia. Bill did the translation (with Sandra Jade Karam), and wrote the accompanying commentary (W. P. Banks, 1996).
It’s good to have a full translation of the Claparede paper, though I regret the change in title. “Selfhood” may be technically correct (I don’t know French), but “me-ness” has more… more… je ne sais quoi.
For some reason, the C&C version of
Claparede and Korsakoff doesn’t turn up in a PsycInfo search
(though Rapaport’s does). Neither
do Bill’s prefaces to the two special issues.
I have performed a paragraph-by-paragraph
comparison (not sentence-by-sentence; I have my limits) of the
translations in Rapaport's anthology and in Consciousness
& Cognition. There are differences in
paragraphing, but I can't find anything in the C&C
version that isn't in the Rapaport version. On the
contrary: not only does the C&C version lack
Rapaport's extensive notes (no surprise), but it also,
apparently, lacks a couple of footnotes (to references) that
appeared in the original. For scholarly purposes, I'd
recommend the Rapaport version, just for his very erudite, and
Banks, W. P. (1995). Implicit memory. Consciousness & Cognition, 4(4), 369-370. doi: https://doi.org/10.1006/ccog.1995.1043
Banks, W. P. (1996). Implicit memory, Part 2. Consciousness & Cognition, 5(1), 1. doi: https://doi.org/10.1006/ccog.1995.1043
Banks, W. P. (1996). Korsakoff and amnesia. Consciousness & Cognition, 5, 22-26. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1006/ccog.1996.0003
Claparede, E. (1911/1951). [Recognition and me-ness]. In D. Rapaport (Ed.), Organization and pathology of thought: Selected sources (pp. 58-75). New York: Columbia University Press.
Claparede, E. (1911/1995). Recognition and selfhood. Consciousness & Cognition, 4(4), 371-378. doi: https://doi.org/10.1006/ccog.1995.1044
Kihlstrom, J. F. (1995). Memory and consciousness: An appreciation of Claparede and Recognition et Moiite. Consciousness & Cognition: An International Journal, 4(4), 379-386. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1006/ccog.1995.1045
Kihlstrom, J. F. (1997). Consciousness and me-ness. In J. D. Cohen & J. W. Schooler (Eds.), Scientific approaches to consciousness (pp. 451-468). Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum.
Korsakoff, S. S. (1889a/1996). Medico-psychological study of a memory disorder. Consciousness & Cognition, 5(1-2), 2-21. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1006/ccog.1996.0002
Rapaport, D. (Ed.). (1950). Organization and pathology of thought. New York: Columbia University Press.
Schacter, D. L. (1987). Implicit memory: History and current status. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 13, 501-518. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0278-73126.96.36.1991
Stoner on the Academic Life
For six years at Berkeley,
I took a turn teaching a course on "Teaching Psychology",
required of all graduate students before they could serve as
teaching assistants (we called them "Graduate Student
Instructors"). In that course, I described the pleasures,
and instructive value, of reading academic satires -- though, to
my regret, I didn't actually assign any of them to be read (I
always had a fiction assignment in my upper-division
undergraduate courses: Thinks... by David Lodge for my Consciousness course,
and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by
Mark Haddon for my Social
Here, for a record, are some of my favorites:
And then there's Stoner
(1965) by John Williams -- not exactly a satire, but a much
darker, almost existentialist representation of academic
From the first page of the book:
William Stoner... did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taking his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library.... An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner's colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.
And from almost the last page, as Stoner is dying:
Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be....
A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.
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