APS Lifetime Member Profile: Herbert C. Kelman

Herbert Kelman, who calls himself a “political psychologist,” came to the United States from Vienna during World War II. As professor of social ethics, emeritus, and chair of the Middle East Seminar at Harvard University, his research focuses on conformity and obedience, nationalism and national identity, ethnic conflict and its resolution, and the ethics of social research. “The moral responsibility of the individual is to resist the demands of an unjust structure,” Kelman said. “It is the obligation of a citizen to take a stand on issues, particularly in relationship to peace and justice.”

From the onset, Kelman’s science had social implications. In his PhD thesis (Yale, 1951), Kelman looked at conditions under which conformity produces lasting attitude change. His subsequent studies showed that the proverbial nine-out-of-10-doctors were more persuasive than just statements of fact: Social influence depends, in part, on an individual’s relationship to the influencing agent.

Although he admits to doing early research that was “dependent on deception of subjects,” even in the 1960s he was uncomfortable with the use of human subjects in social psychology. In 1965 he wrote, “The social scientist today — and particularly the practitioner and investigator of behavior change — finds himself in a situation that has many parallels to that of the nuclear physicist. The knowledge about the control and manipulation of human behavior that he is producing or applying is beset with enormous ethical ambiguities, and he must accept responsibility for its social consequences.”

He said that researchers need to ask whether their research produces any harm. “In most cases it is relatively harmless, but not all cases. At the very least it creates short-term stress. And there is the question of dignity. Should you deal with other human beings this way? What kinds of patterns are you introducing into society?”

Some research by social psychologists, he said, “contributes to a social environment where people can’t trust what they are being told. By manipulating human behavior, we contribute to the knowledge of how to manipulate people.”

His research has tended to be more “contextual” or “societal” than psychological, he said. It reflects, perhaps, his own impetus to action. While a postdoc at Johns Hopkins in the early 1950s, he helped found the Baltimore chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (and courted his wife, Rose, at sit-ins).

In fact, Kelman’s work on social issues — particularly the social environments that allow torture — did not begin until the early 1970s, when he and his student V. Lee Hamilton looked at public perception of Lt. William Cowley and the My Lai massacre. “That was a turning point in his career,” said Hamilton, now at Duke University. “He changed from lab social psychology to action-oriented, peace-oriented work.”

It was at that time that he created the Program on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard, to teach interactive problem solving to “politically influential people” in the Middle East — journalists, members of parliament, politically active academics, and leading figures in political movements — to help ameliorate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In his workshops, people “learn what it would take to move the other side from rejecting to accepting a proposal, and learn what it would take to bring that to their communities; they are learning something that can be transferred to the policy process either directly or by influencing public opinion,” he explained. The program ended in 2003 after 30 years.

“Much of his work has concerned moral themes at several levels,” said APS Fellow and Charter Member Alice H. Eagly, Northwestern University. Eagly, a former student of Kelman’s, organized a Festschrift for him in 2000 along with Hamilton and APS Fellow and Charter Member Reuben M. Baron, University of Connecticut.

Kelman continues to raise consciousness about the importance of human dignity. An updated version of his 1995 paper, “The Social Context of Torture,” reflecting events like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, is about to appear in the International Review of the Red Cross. “This is wrong and not what our country ought to be doing and not what we stand for,” he said. “We need to oppose it any way we can.”

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