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Airline crashes and nuclear mishaps are as often the consequence of human error as of specific equipment failure. Perhaps only when technology is sufficiently advanced to eliminate the need for human decisionmaking will the study of psychology no longer be important to these areas.
I think the list could go and on and while highlighting these areas may make it seem almost arbsurdly obvious to all of us that social and behavioral factors do play a significant role in the major problems that face us today, the enormous strides that research in these areas has taken may be far less evident.
This is unfortunate for those of us who wish to reflect on the unique importance of the social and behavioral sciences, but it is hardly surprising, for we work in an arena in which there are really patentable discoveries, often no objects or three-dimensional outcomes.
Our commodity is ideas, often intangible ones. Our science contributes to the domain of general knowledge being drawn upon by educators, the medical and legal community, political influencers and the media.
Perhaps the areas in which we work seem less important because they are so close to our own personal experience. To most of us, the thought of discovering how to put a man on the moon is exquisite and mysterious. By contrast, discovering the factors that determine how people like or influence one another may seem frightfully mundane. Since many of our world problems are affected by interpersonal communication and influence, the latter topic may be far less catchy but far more important.
Just as our colleagues in the physical sciences, most of us are involved in the process of the acquisition of knowledge, whether it be basic or applied. We study human behavior from the level of neural processing up through the level of human groups and cultures.
Most of us are not the problem solvers. While we do not apply the knowledge, we recognize that it is essential for the advancement of science and the solution of social problems to maintain effective communication between the scientists and the problem solvers, and some of our basic research activities are directed to this end.
Perhaps we are worthy of blame in not writing the abstracts of our grant proposals in a language that conveys our science in the best light. But I hope the solution will not be to cut off the research, but to demand that we become more accountable and do a better job of selfpresentation. I'd like to try a little of that for you today.
Throughout the recent history of psychology we have been studying problems of vital concern, developing basic knowledge that has paid off, often being applied to areas unthought of when the initial research began.
For example, social psychologists became interested in how information, especially events involving people, was processed by the brain, how it was stored in memory and how it was retrieved. This was an intriguing question since we sought to learn whether information processing was the same for letters or numbers as for people, who arouse feelings in us, to name only one obvious difference.
The answer is that the processes are remarkably similar, and thus a whole body of cognitive psyhcology and computer technology becomes applicable to understanding how humans encode and remember the things that one another do.
From this we learned not only that eyewitness accounts are extremely vulnerable, but we now understand the specific mechanism by which they are influenced and how memory can change even by the way the question is asked.
In one study, people were shown films of auto accidents and they then answered questions about events in the films. Asking the question. “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” elicited a much higher estimate of speed than when the words hit or collided were used in place of smashed.
But even more significant, a week later, the people who had been given the verb smashed were more likely to answer yes to the question, "Did you see any broken glass ?” even though broken glass was not present in the film.
Early studies of the processes of attention, many originally undertaken to determine how the circuitry of the brain was operating, eventually solved the problems faced by air traffic controllers who often had to respond to several messages all coming in at the same time. Literally hundreds of lives may have been saved because of this work.
Sometimes basic research in psychology is actually suggested by real-world problems and here the evidence of value is easier to find. Newspaper accounts of apathetic bystander behavior even when no danger is involved led to important research into its causes. Riots and mob violence have received similar systematic investigation and today I am aware of several major police departments using the results of these studies in their training.
Another basic research issue confronted by social psychologists in the last decade is the question of the explanation that people give for feelings of unexplained arousal, physical symptoms and even events in their environment. Studies have shown that the labels people provide for these feelings states in fact determine their effects.
What is surprising is just how malleable these labels actually are. It has even been shown that if I take a drug whose side effects are to lead to the arousal of emotion and I am unaware that these feelings are being caused by the drug, I may attribute them to other things going on in my life, for example, how my husband is treating me, and then I would overreact for the wrong reasons.
Very recently, the FDA, in becoming aware of this research, sought to require written warnings of the psychological as well as the physical side effects of drugs.
In my own work, we are now at a point where we, too, have a chance to make an important contribution to an area of major concern. But our earliest work did not even hint at this end and I wonder whether close observation of my first abstract would have withstood the scrutiny of the negativism of the current climate in the lay community.
In those first studies, to investigate differences in the eating behavior of overweight and normal weight people, we varied whether experimental participants were offered shelled or unshelled walnuts or drank milkshakes from containers that either did or did not reveal how much had been drunk.
These manipulations were intended to see whether overweight people relied more than normal weight people on cues in the environment than on internal phsysiological signals to determine how much they ate. We've come a long way since these early studies. Our work can now explain how the physiological consequences of being fat actually promote and maintain the obesity and the disordered eating behavior.
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We understand how insulin influences hunger and how insulin treatment may help prolong the obesity associated with diabetes. We have been able to identify infants on the first day of birth who are at high risk for obesity and we can now clearly specify some of the major factors that appear critical in the prevention of obesity.
All of this research has been funded by the behavioral and neural sciences divsion of the National Science Foundation. I choose to receive funds from NSF because their peer review system is exacting and I find the feedback valuable.
I believe that the behavioral and social sciences can and will be in the vanguard of crucial, basic scientific discovery-not as pointable-to as nuclear fission perhaps, but ultimately as critical to the solution of many of the problems of our times. I urge you to support NSF in providing funds for this endeavor.
Mr. Brown. Very eloquent testimony, Dr. Rodin. I think I have to ask the same question that we asked this morning. How do you, in your own mind, justify the Federal role in supporting your science ? Is it a case where you would not be able to do your research if there weren't Federal funds available?
Is there no other source for it? It's not something that could be done within the purview of normal budgetary constraints of your institution? You understand that this kind of question is what we are asking about most Federal programs today—why the Federal financing.
I think we need your input on that.
Dr. Rodin. The amount of funding that it takes from project to project varies enormously. And so, I think that some of the earlier studies that I did where we were simply spending money to buy milkshakes and walnuts would not have required very much funds and Yale could have supported it.
I think that as our research technology evolves, as our laboratory enterprise grows larger, as we educate more graduate students to train them to also develop research activities that add to basic knowledge, we must request funds from the Federal Government. There simply is no other place that has the resources to support basic research.
I have tried to demonstrate to you in this testimony that there are areas that ultimately have great and important applicability to problems of public concern. Some of them were more obvious in the beginning than others and I suspect that maybe for the more immediately relevant ones, there would be other, smaller sources of funding.
But for the ones where the payoff, at least in the initial year, was not as obvious in terms of its application to social or economic problems, I think we must rely on the Federal Government to support the acquisition of basic knowledge with the hope that much of it will in fact pay off in the solution of these problems.
Mr. Brown. You described your research on the matter of overweight people, which is of great personal concern to me. (Laughter.]
What did you find out with regard to us, that we relied more heavily on cues in the environment or on internal physiological sig. nals to determine how much we eat?
Dr. Rodin. On cues in the environment, but the reason is that the obesity itself, and the consequences of becoming fat, change your metabolism in a way that influences your experience of hunger and disregulates your system so that you are no longer able to rely on internal signals. We have also demonstrated that most of the metabolic changes associated with obesity, which the medical community believed were causes, are in fact consequences.
Changes in thyroid level, sluggish metabolism, all of these occur as a consequence of obesity. And, they support the obesity once it develops.
The tendency towards external responsiveness can be developed in newborn infants independent of their birth weight and has some relationship to the degree of overweight of their parents. We are currently investigating that area very heavily.
I could not do newborn infant research without Federal funding. Mr. Brown. Why not?
Dr. Rodin. Two important reasons. First, the expense, which I have already discussed, and I would like not to continue to re-echo that. Second, I think that the Federal guidelines demand a good deal of accountability from investigators and that's terribly important in the scientific community, especially when one is studying newborn infants.
It forces us to go through a great deal of self-examination and I find that thoroughly healthy. So I think that the interaction is more than needing you for funding. I feel the demand of accountability is welcome and healthy as long as it doesn't go in the wrong direction.
Mr. BROWN. Mr. Scoville ?
Dr. Rodin, following up that thought you had there, I think is the idea that the social scientists should do a better job of self-presentation. This scheme was brought up this morning in the hearing.
To your knowledge, is the Science Foundation doing anything now or is there anything that it could do to improve this process of selfpresentation to the public as you put it?
Dr. Rodin. I don't know what the Science Foundation is doing currently in this domain, but I think they certainly could, in terms of demanding that some sections of our grant proposals be written in a way that allows a better form of self-presentation.
It's really very hard to write a grant proposal that is acceptable to your peers and at the same time is something that's creditable and understandable to someone in the lay community. We have somehow presented the same document for both purposes and maybe the Science Foundation could ask a secondary kind of analysis of one's line of research in order to make it more accountable to the community that is supporting it.
That does not necessarily mean that one has to point out the immediate application or relevance of one's research. In fact, all grant proposals now have a significance section. So, we do think in that regard. What I mean is to make it more understandable and to define the parameters along which one should be interested in that research.
I think that is very clear right now.
Mr. Brown. You probably are not familiar with the General Accounting Office report which just came out recommending the improvement in communication with regard to grant titles and abstracts and so on. I think this is an area in which we obviously can make some improvements. But, you have almost committed the cardinal sin in your own presentation when you use the language, we need to learn ways to re-educate the public. If
you read Dr. Atkinson's editorial in Science, he points out that social science is caught on the horns of this dilemma. Either they are engaged in basic research which obviously is not relevant to any practical thing, or they are engaged in some form of behavior modification which is anathema to the public.
You are suggesting that you are going to take the horn that says we are going to modify behavior.
Dr. Rodin. I disagree with my friend Dr. Atkinson in that regard. I don't think there is anything antagonistic about basic research and the application of knowledge. I said in my testimony that many of us are not the ones who are doing the application—which by the way is much more than behavior modification—but I'm not certain in all cases that that has to be true.
My own personal experience is now to use what I know from my obesity research for the general public. We are developing programs in local school systems. We are working with pregnant women providing recommendations based on our findings. I think that that's my own personal goal for accountability and I don't consider myself any less good a basic scientist. In fact, I'm enriched by the contact of that application.
Mr. Brown. But if it is true that you see obvious and important applications of the research that you are doing, these will obviously have to do with you say in the case of obesity research, anyway, the improvement of human health. The question arises then as to why isn't this kind of research more appropriately funded in an agency whose mission is the improvement of human health?
Dr. Rodin. Yes. The National Science Foundation does not fund my applied research. They have funded the basic research that led to these issues, all of them being very basic. I don't think that they would pass a grant proposal at the moment where I was asking for money to develop health programs in the school systems.
In fact, we are able to do that through support of the local school systems who are grateful for the service. So, I do see those two as being funded differently. I just don't see them as being antagonistic to one another conceptually or strategically.
Certainly, you don't mean that NSF money funding basic knowledge shouldn't be leading to application. I mean that, in a sense, is the goal. It may not be possible for all research, nor should we ask it of all research, but we certainly can't eliminate research that may have that because NSF's mission is basic science.
Mr. Brown. We don't want to get too far into that discussion. (Laughter.]
There was an interesting press report the last few days with regard to a lady who, as I recall the details of the story—I wasn't following it too closely—she repented of her sins and got religion and was able to lose 40 pounds immediately.
Do you consider that a researchable problem?
Dr. Rodin. Mr. Brown, that's a very leading question. I'm terribly interested in people who are able to lose weight and I love talking to