APS Observer Online
Volume 14, Number 6
July/August 2001

From eyewitness testimony to health care to post-genocide healing
Successes and Surprises in the Application of Psychological Science

By Jill D. Kester
APS/AAAS 2001 Media Fellow

We are in an era when physical and engineering technologies have become relatively less important," Robert Bjork muses, suggesting that in contrast, "advances in behavioral sciences have become relatively more important."

Presidential Symposium
Successes and Surprises in the
Application of Psychological Science
Robert A. Bjork, UCLA, APS President
Ervin Staub - University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Judy Olson - The University of Michigan
Gary Latham - Iowa State University
Albert Bandura - Stanford University

"The most fundamental answers to a range of individual and societal problems that characterize our times, tend to lie in the behavioral sciences," he asserted in opening remarks at his presidential symposium at the APS convention in Toronto.

The truth of Bjork's assertions was borne out as the symposium unfolded: five distinguished speakers discussed ways in which scientific psychology has been uniquely able to address real world problems beyond the scope of physical and engineering technologies. Each of the talks also revealed the variety of ways in which the field of psychology has interacted with other areas of science and technology, often with surprising results.


Conflict and violence between social groups is a problem that has been faced by humans since long before the dawn of modern technologies. Recent genocides such as occurred in Rwanda give evidence to how little this aspect of the human condition has been changed by advancing technology. Ervin Staub, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, has spent many years of his life studying the origins of genocides and mass killings. Together with colleagues, he has ventured into the world armed with what he has learned, in the hopes of helping to "break the cycle of violence to a small degree at least."


Among the cultural characteristics that Staub believes to contribute to the likelihood of violence by groups against others is past victimization. Victims of group violence suffer numerous aftereffects, he explains, including a "tremendous sense of vulnerability in the world a sense that others are dangerous, others cannot be trusted." When new conflicts arise with other groups, victims of past violence may feel the need to strike out in order to defend themselves, and in so doing become perpetrators of violence.

Healing from the trauma of genocide is therefore extremely important to the prevention of recurring violence. According to Staub, an essential aspect of healing is reconciliation: "When the two groups, the perpetrators and the victims, continue to live together you cannot progress very far without some kind of reconciliation beginning between the two groups, because healing implies some sense of security." Staub further explains that in order for reconciliation to take place, both victims and perpetrators must heal.

"Perpetrators tend to be wounded in the first place, which contributes to their perpetration, but secondly they are likely to be deeply wounded by what they have done." Without the process of healing, members of the perpetrating group "are likely to continue to devalue their victims, to blame their victims for what they have done to the victims, to surround themselves with some kind of shield that protects themselves from their guilt."

Staub and his colleagues are attempting to facilitate the healing process in Rwanda by educating victims about the origins of genocide, trying to help them understand how it works as a "human process." Victims are encouraged to discuss their experiences, and apply Staub's model of genocide to their own situation. For many of the victims, this process proves to be transformative. They come to see that what happened to them was not unique, and open the door to reconciliation. "Rather than seeing the perpetrators as evil beings, [the victims] tend to see them a little more as human beings affected by a whole array of things, impacting them, resulting in their violent behavior."

The success of Staub's intervention program is revealed by measures of traumatic symptoms, administered two months after the end of treatment. Trauma scores were significantly lower for a group that received treatment through integrated community programs, relative to a control group. Similarly, the treatment group showed a change in their orientation towards other social groups, what Staub refers to as "conditional forgiveness:" a willing to forgive the perpetrating group, conditional upon acknowledgment of what they have done.


Like intergroup violence, the prevention and treatment of disease is a problem that has preoccupied humans for thousands of years. Unlike genocide, however, the delivery and effectiveness of health care has been significantly influenced by technological developments.

One outcome of improved medical practices is that people are living longer. The quality of this extended life is determined in large part by psychosocial factors, Albert Bandura points out. Lifestyle habits such as eating, sleeping, exercising, and stress management have a considerable impact on health and well being, and are all under individual control.

"If the huge health benefits of these few habits were put into a pill," Bandura postulates, "it would be declared a scientific milestone, in the field of medicine, worthy of Nobel honors." However, it is up to psychologists, ineligible for Nobel prizes, to harness the potential of behaviorally based preventative medicine.

Drawing from the principles of social cognitive theory, Bandura and his colleagues have developed a self-management model for health promotion and disease reduction. The model combines psychology with computer technology to provide intensive, individualized training in self-management. For example, in one implementation of the model, employees took part in a workplace program aimed at lowering cholesterol by altering eating habits. Participants set their own goals and monitored their own health habits, submitting computerized reports on the changes that they were making. Personalized reports were e-mailed back, with detailed feedback on progress toward subgoals. The program, implemented by a single nutritionist at minimal cost, succeeded in improving the health habits of large numbers of employees.

Self-management programs aimed at encouraging adherence to behavioral and drug therapies in patients suffering from heart disease have proven similarly successful. Patients aided in self-management by nurse implementers display a considerable decrease in number of risk factors, and an accompanying increase in cardiovascular function. When compared to standard medical care received by patients who are at risk of a heart attack or recovering from a heart attack, the self-management system appears to be significantly more effective. "By linking the interactive aspects of the self-management model to the Internet," Bandura observes, "we can vastly expand its availability to people wherever they may live, at whatever time they may choose to use it."

Interactive electronic technologies have been creatively enlisted for health promotion in other ways as well. Video games have been developed to help raise children's perceived self-efficacy and ability to manage chronic health conditions such as diabetes, asthma and cystic fibrosis. Bandura describes one such game in which children learn about asthma "by helping a dinosaur named Bronchiasaurus stay strong and healthy while on a risky mission in an environment riddled with allergens." In this way, children can increase their knowledge about asthma, learn to take control of their condition by avoiding asthma triggers, and improve their use of medication.


While Bandura and his colleagues have capitalized on interactive technologies to implement behavioral programs, Judy Olson has focused her research on a whole a new challenge created by the existence of such technologies: the facilitation of collaborative work between people living in widely disparate geographical locations.


Videoconferencing, internet chat rooms, and the ability to send documents by e-mail have all made it possible for scientists and business people to collaborate with colleagues from around the world without ever leaving home. Just because it is technologically possible, however, does not mean that it is always successful. To help them work more effectively at a distance, corporations and laboratories have turned to researchers like Olson, a professor of human computer interaction at the University of Michigan who studies group processes.

Several factors predict the success of what Olson and other refer to as "collaboratories" or laboratories without walls. It is important for people to share common ground - to know about the same kinds of things - and for the work to be easily divisible into components that can be worked on separately.

People's willingness to work together is a third important factor. "Space physicists are great collaborators," Olson notes, while "the HIV/AIDS researchers are not. They are sparring for Nobels and they don't want to share their data."

An additional factor influencing collaboratory success that Olson and her colleagues are just beginning to explore is trust. Emotional trust is significantly correlated with the number of non-work discussions that people share. "When we're talking long distance with people, and we're just talking about a task, not about what's happening in your life and other emotional things, it will strongly affect how much you trust people in the future."

To study the issues around trust, Olson has used laboratory tasks similar to the prisoner's dilemma. Participants in these tasks are rewarded for cooperative behaviors, but risk being betrayed by other participants who do not cooperate and choose to act selfishly instead. When participants are able to interact face-to-face, they are more likely to cooperate, compared to a condition where communication between participants is limited to remote "text chat." Video and audio communication between participants results in levels of cooperation similar to the face-to-face condition. Seeing photos of other participants, or having social text chats beforehand also boosts cooperative behavior in the text-chat condition. However, Olson presented intriguing data suggesting that trust built up through remote communications may be more fragile and shorter lasting than trust based on face-to-face interactions.

Olson sees her research in this area as a departure from the traditional model of research as a linear process beginning with basic research and progressing toward application in the field. "We're not just taking things that have already been done and applying them to the real world," she explains. Instead, her research can be characterized as a hybrid of basic research, driven by a particular application setting. "[We are] investigating the real world with as much as we know, and then filling in the holes."

For additional information on Olson's work on distance collaborations, please visit http://intel.si.umich.edu/crew/Investigators/jolson.htm.


In addition to solving problems created by technology, psychology is often needed to solve problems that other forms of technology have failed to address. Early in his career as an organizational psychologist, Gary Latham worked with the American Pulpwood Association. The association was interested in increasing the productivity of the loggers it employed, and originally appealed to engineering for a solution. "If we could simply develop equipment and mechanize logging, the human problem would be eliminated," Latham explains the logic. When this approach failed, Latham was called in as director of "non-physical factors."


Latham's solution was deceptively simple. He asked the loggers how many trees they were going to cut down each week, and then kept a tally of how many trees actually were cut down. Surprisingly, productivity increased within the first week. "All of a sudden, what was perceived as relatively meaningless hard work, we turned it into a game," Latham explains.

This simple solution is an example of goal setting theory in action. According to this theory, people with specific, difficult goals will have higher productivity than people with no goals, or even general goals such as "do your best." Latham reports that goal setting theory has been successfully applied in both blue collar and professional work settings. "Variables such as [level of] participation and decision-making, monetary incentives, competition, feedback or praise have no effect on performance, unless they lead to the setting of and commitment to a specific high goal," he expounds.

"Nothing is so practical as a good theory," Latham asserts, and his successes in applying theories from social psychology to the workplace prove this to be the case. He has borrowed from a wide variety of research, including social modeling, mental practice, and self-talk, all in the service of increasing productivity, improving work relationships between managers and staff, promoting team playing, and helping laid-off employees find new work in mid-career.

Latham, who holds joint appointments at the school of management and the department of psychology at the University of Toronto, points to these successes as evidence of the need for a "boundary-less psychology"

"Too many of us focus almost exclusively inward within our divisions in psychology without taking advantage of the theoretical frameworks and the learning from outside our various disciplines," he says.


Perhaps one of the most stunning success stories in the application of psychology involves laboratory studies of eye-witness testimony. "Eye-witness researchers . . . have been arguing for over 20 years that a significant proportion of eye-witness error can be attributed to criminal justice investigation techniques," relates Gary Wells, an APS Fellow and professor of psychology at Iowa State University. Thanks to the concerted efforts of these researchers, and a confluence of fortuitous circumstances, significant changes are occurring throughout the legal system in the United States.


Wells' research interests are in social and cognitive psychology, especially at the interface of psychology and law. Much of his work has been directed at eyewitness testimony with an emphasis on how to improve the accuracy of such testimony. In addition, his work examines judgment and decision-making processes in such domains as perceived likelihood, perceived causality, and judgments of regret.

One major problem with the way eye-witness identifications are obtained relates to people's tendency to use relative judgment on identification tasks. When presented with a line-up or photo spread, people will compare the candidate suspects and select the one that looks the most like the perpetrator, relative to the other candidates. In laboratory simulations, people can be reasonably accurate in selecting the correct perpetrator from a line-up. However, when the perpetrator is removed from the line-up, most people will identify "the next best guy" as the perpetrator, even when they are told that the perpetrator may not be in the line-up. "Some member of the lineup always looks more like the perpetrator than the other members of the lineup," explains Wells.

To address this problem, Wells developed an alternative, sequential procedure for obtaining witness identifications. In this procedure, candidate suspects are shown to the witness one at a time. For each candidate, the witness must answer "yes" or "no", to the question, "Is this the perpetrator?" Only if the witness says "no" is the next candidate presented. According to Wells, the sequential procedure requires witnesses to "dig deeper; they [must] compare each face to their memory, which is what we want them to do."

Laboratory experiments indicate that this procedure significantly reduces false identifications, without reducing correct identifications. Wells refers to the development of this procedure as "one of the jewels in our area," noting that it has been widely replicated in countries around the world.

Armed with solid research on the factors that influence witness identification accuracy, psychologists mounted a multi-modal attack on the legal system. They wrote position papers, provided expert testimony in the courtroom, and made friends with the media. The response of the legal system, however, was unimpressive. "The legal system is a huge beast," Wells says, "and in general I say that if it's going to change at all, it's at subglacial speed, and it's hard to even see that change."

Finally, in the later 1990s, two crucial factors came together that dramatically sped up the process of change. First, then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno was alerted to the work of eye-witness researchers by a consensus-position paper put out by the American Psychology-Law Society. Second, the recent development of forensic DNA technologies was revealing more and more cases of faulty convictions based on mistaken identifications. In his analysis of DNA exoneration cases, Wells found that mistaken identification accounted for more faulty convictions than all other factors combined.

Thus, in 1997, Janet Reno convened a panel of psychologists, including Wells, prosecutors, defense attorneys and members of law enforcement to address the issue of eyewitness identification. The outcome was an authoritative guide setting national standards for the collection and preservation of eyewitness testimony in criminal cases. The guide is available on-line, and is the most downloaded document in Department of Justice history. A companion police training CD is being sent to every police force in the United States, well over 13,000 police forces.

Wells suggests that some important lessons on the application of psychology in the real world can be learned from the experiences of eyewitness researchers. Solid science is necessary, but not sufficient to effect changes in established structures such as the legal system. "Scientific data drive scientists," he observes, "but vivid individual real world cases drive policy makers. We had to show the specific real people being harmed." His final take home message resonates with the experiences conveyed by all the speakers at the presidential symposium: "Events outside of science are going to determine when change happens, but good science can determine the nature of that change."

For more information on eyewitness memory research, visit Gary Wells' homepage at http://psych-server.iastate.edu/faculty/gwells/homepage.htm.

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