This paper was first published in the Journal of International Social Psychiatry; 19th June 2013. (copyright agreements permit the publication of pre-print versions such as this)
The role of the psychologist in social change
Institute of Psychology, Health and Society
University of Liverpool
Liverpool L69 3GL, UK
Keywords: Martin Luther King, social change, civil rights
The author has received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors in respect to this paper.
The role of the psychologist in social change
On September 1st 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 (King, 1968 and online as “King’s challenge”, 1999). With eloquence and passion, Martin Luther King championed the civil rights struggle and spoke to the interests of his audience. Martin Luther King stressed how behavioural scientists could and should support the civil rights movement. King’s eloquent and passionate speech is still relevant today; explaining how psychologists and other mental health professionals could help address today’s pressing social issues.
In 1967, Martin Luther King stated; “…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…”
Martin Luther King’s words are still relevant today. While many try to speak out on issues as human rights and torture (Kinderman, 2007a; 2007b) we have been all but silent on other issues. Many of us say and do little about the social circumstances that determine the well-being and mental health of our clients. Many of us collude with the social pressures that blame victims, atomise people from their social contexts, medicalise and diagnose what are essentially social and psychological problems.
In 2013, just as in 1967, clinical psychologists and other ‘behavioural scientists’ have a role in fostering positive social change. We should engage with positive social change and express optimism and vision. We should speak out (even though it is painful) when we observe injustice. We should 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 should analyse the psychological mechanisms of the major social problems facing humankind..
In 1967, Martin Luther King identified a number of key issues that should be the focus for behavioural scientists; urban riots, the Vietnam war, unemployment and civil disobedience. It is remarkable how well these issues have persisted over two generations. Today, we have mass unemployment, economic recession, urban riots on the streets of major UK cities in the very recent past, and military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali. Martin Luther King’s speech still resonates.
Poverty, unemployment and the debt crisis
One of the most striking social issues of 2013 is the continuing economic crisis and the impact of the consequent austerity policies. These are not just economic or political matters; they are crucial psychological issues too. Quite literally, these are matters of life and death – between 2008 and 2010, there have been a thousand more suicides in England and Wales than would be expected on purely historical trends, and many of those deaths can be attributed to rising unemployment (Barr, Taylor-Robinson, Scott-Samuel, McKee & Stuckler, 2013). Clinical psychologists, whose professional role is the promotion of well-being and the prevention of such distress, have a responsibility to speak out about those social, economic and political circumstances that impact on their clients and the general public..
In 1967 King spoke about links between racism, unemployment and living conditions (King referred to “ghettos”). Today, too, we should speak out, make it clear that political, economic and social policies impact directly on individuals, and bring such evidence to politicians and policy-makers. While it is reasonable to assume that most politicians offer solutions that they honestly believe are in the best interests of the public, it is clear that choices exist. To give one example, the President of Iceland, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, has recently taken action – unlike policies in other major industrialised nations – to refuse calls to pay off debts incurred by major banks and instead (in his words, disputed by others) to invest in working people (“Iceland President”, 2012).
Grimsson is also interesting because, like Martin Luther King, he stressed a role for academics: “…our universities should give us advice, lighting a way that is paved with the results of research…” (“New Year Address”, 2013). Scientific analysis of the banking crisis must, of course, involve a range of disciplines. But psychologists may have a specific role in analysing people’s behaviour, attitudes, beliefs and choices. Essentially, why do people act as they do? Why are many people selfish? Why are some altruistic? Under what circumstances can altruism be facilitated, and when does selfishness prevail? The sub-discipline of behavioural economics specifically addresses these and other psychological issues in the worlds of economics and finance. We know something – through scientific, psychological, analysis – of the ways in which contingencies of reinforcement, heuristic reasoning and (semi-rational) beliefs drive trading behaviour in the international money-markets, and how these processes can often maintain behaviours that benefit bankers (especially in bonuses) but have little real-world impact on economies other than disrupting the flow of credit and impoverishing the already poor. Psychologists, then, should – to echo Martin Luther King – speak out about the unacceptable, and use their particular skills and knowledge to understand the psychological aspects of the problem, and psychological insights into possible solutions.
In 1967, urban rioting was a key element of Martin Luther King’s speech. There were, at the time of his address, significant riots in American cities, with interweaved themes of poverty, the Vietnam war and racism. Martin Luther King stated clearly that the riots should be seen as: “…social phenomena…”. He commented that the riots were: “….not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions… They are a distorted form of social protest….” King did not, then, see the rioting as an issue of personal morality or criminality so much as a social phenomenon. He spoke of citizens being “…enraged and deprived …” and seeking to “…take hold of consumer goods … the experience of taking”. “But…” King says, the rioters are “… most of all, alienated from society…” and that there are “… elements of emotional catharsis in the violent act…”.
The riots in UK cities in August 2011 seem to have involved a large element of acquisitive criminality (rather than political or revolutionary motivation), but this must be set against a background of a great deal of disillusionment with politicians and the political and capitalist system more generally. The Riots Communities and Victims Panel (2012) reporting officially, but independently, for the UK Government, itself cited “lack of opportunities for young people, poor parenting, a lack of shared values and sense of responsibility among some, an inability of the justice system to prevent re-offending, concerns about brands and materialism and issues relating to confidence in the police” as causal factors. This speaks to a social and psychological analysis; seeing civil discontent as a socially-determined phenomenon, not a example of atomized, personal morality. This was what Martin Luther King was saying in 1967, and it has relevance today.
The Vietnam… Iraq… Afghanistan… Malian … war
In 1967, Martin Luther King devoted some of his speech to the war in Vietnam. He felt this war had left his country: “…politically and morally isolated in the world …” and concluded: “…As I looked at what this war was doing to our nation, and to the domestic situation and to the Civil Rights movement, I found it necessary to speak vigorously out against it.”. The world is different in 2013. But we are still, again, at war abroad. Although perhaps a political point, psychologists can – and arguably should – speak about dialogue, collective action, of parliament and the rule of international law and the role of the United Nations and the pre-eminence of human rights.
In 1967, Martin Luther King stated that: “…although it is historically imperative that our society take the next step to equality, we find ourselves psychologically and socially imprisoned.” He was – and sadly is – right. In terms of violent crime and low life-expectancies, physical health, obesity, substance misuse, education, crime and violence, and mental health, more equal societies almost always do better (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). It is relatively easy see how psychological mechanisms mediate this social or political impact on our health and well-being. In Martin Luther King’s words, then, we should refuse to adjust to this inequity but, rather, speak out against it.
Psychology is action
In 1967, Martin Luther King both offered generous praise for the role of ‘behavioral scientists’ and set us a challenge. I fear that the key social problems he described two generations ago have not been solved, and I fear that psychologists, in particular have not really risen to his challenge. We should.
“There are some things in our society, some things in our world, to which we should never be adjusted.” Psychologists uniquely study why people behave as they do. We are uniquely placed to help understand and address some of the most pressing problems facing humankind. We should – following Martin Luther King’s lead – speak out about those issues that demand a voice. We should be clear that human beings are products of our society, and explore, using our distinctive science, the psychological mechanisms that lead to problems as well as those psychological mechanisms that could offer solutions.
Albert Camus, the Nobel prize-winning intellectual and philosopher, was distinctive in that he actively resisted the Nazi occupation of France, editing “Combat”, the clandestine newspaper of the Resistance. In his private notebook for May 1937, Camus wrote: “Psychology is action, not thinking about oneself”. Albert Camus reminds us that the point of psychology is to do something useful; Martin Luther King explains what we need to do.
Barr, B., Taylor-Robinson, D., Scott-Samuel, A., McKee, M. & Stuckler, D. (2013) Suicides associated with the 2008-10 economic recession in England: time trend analysis. British Medical Journal. 345:e5142.
Iceland President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson wins fifth term (2012) 1 July 2012. Retrieved February 12th 2013 from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18660579.
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Kinderman, P. (2007b) Abusing the profession: Why hasn't there been more of an outcry from professional psychologists about the practice of torture in the 'war on terror'? guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 13 February 2007.
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New Year Address by the President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson (2013) New Year Address by the President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson 1 January 2013; Retrieved 12th February 2012 from http://english.forseti.is/media/PDF/2013_01_01_NewYearAddress.pdf).
Riots Communities and Victims Panel (2012) After the riots. London: Riots Communities and Victims Panel. Retrieved April 10th 2013 from http://riotspanel.independent.gov.uk/
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