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UN and International Issues Committee: 2nd Psychology Day at the United Nations

By Pete Walker, SPSSI UN Representative

“Psychology and Social Justice Related to the UN Global Agenda” was the theme for the Second Psychology Day at United Nations’ Headquarters in New York, held Wednesday, November 19, 2008, with a capacity registration. The event, co-coordinated by Florence Denmark, Ph.D., and Pete Walker, Ph.D., featured a keynote speaker and three panels, followed by a reception.

Herbert Kelman, Ph.D., (Emeritus Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Harvard University) was the keynote speaker. The focus of Professor Kelman’s work has been social influence and attitude change. His presentation addressed “A One-Country/Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” Given only a short time to address a complex situation, he pointed to the need for both parties to be perceived as credible negotiators and to see the mutual benefits from negotiations as outweighing the risks. He emphasized that a major step towards negotiation should be allaying fears and fostering hope.

The first panel of the program, “Human Behavior and Climate Change: A Social Justice Issue,” focused on an environmental issue now in the foreground of UN policy debates. Chaired by Pete Walker, SPSSI UN Representative, the speakers were David Uzzell, Ph.D., (Professor of Environmental Psychology, University of Surrey, UK) and Inka Weissberker, Ph.D., NGO Representative of the International Union of Psychological Science. Dr. Uzzell’s research interests in climate change and sustainable development center on social and critical psychological approaches to changing consumption and production practices. He spoke on the effect of climate change on facets of food security and migration. Dr. Weissbecker’s work is in the area of mental health and psychological issues in the context of disasters, civil unrest, and complex emergencies. Recognizing that there will be millions of climate refugees by 2010, she described a number of recommendations regarding capacity building; research and evidence-based practices; communications; and protecting vulnerable groups by capitalizing on their resilience.

Mary O’Neill Berry, Ph.D., NGO Representative of the International Associa-tion of Applied Psychology, chaired the second panel session, “Poverty Reduction and Social Justice: The Role of Psychology.” Panelists included Anthony Lemieux, Ph.D., (Assistant Professor of Psychology, Purchase College, State University of New York), and Anthony Marsella, Ph.D., (Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of Hawaii, Honolulu). Dr. Lemieux has studied applications of psychology across a wide range of topics, including terrorism, HIV prevention, and poverty. He described the problem of poverty, suggesting that it is not just an economic issue, but also an issue of prejudice and power. Dr. Marsella’s extensive work has focused on cultural and international psychology, psychopathology and peace. He offered a multi-dimensional picture of poverty, pointing to its complex context: geo-political and financial, socio-political, bio-psycho-social and moral.

“Psychological Perspectives on the Abuse of Power,” was the final panel of the day,chaired by Deanna Chitayat, Ph.D., NGO Representative, American Psychological Association. Panelists included Susan Opotow, Ph.D., 2008-09 President of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues; Stacey Sinclair, Ph.D., (Associate Professor of Psychology and African American Studies, Princeton Unversity); and Rita Chi-Ying Chung, Ph.D., (Professor, Graduate School of Education and the Department of Psychology, George Mason University). Susan Opotow is a social and organizational psychologist. Her work examines the intersection of conflict, justice and identity as they give rise to moral exclusion. She spoke on the scope of justice and the effects of moral exclusion – seeing others as eligible targets of discrimination, exploitation, hate, or violence. As an example, she used the period following the Civil War in the United States as a prime instance of a time in which it was necessary to establish a culture of human rights. Dr. Sinclair’s research examines how participating in different interpersonal interactions shapes our self understanding and evaluations of others. She described her research on reducing implicit prejudice. Her findings include the conclusion that although people cannot consciously control their level of implicit prejudice, this form of prejudice can shift as a function of even fleeting interpersonal interactions. Rita Chi-Ying Chung’s research focuses on social justice and multiculturalism in the areas of psychosocial adjustment of refugees and immigrants, interethnic group relations and racial stereotypes, and trafficking of Asian girls. She spoke on the abuse of power involved in trafficking in Asia, and described how many children become trafficked out of economic necessity, to make a financial contribution to the family.

The reception following this event was clearly a time to network and reflect on the challenging topics presented. It was also a chance for a group photo of SPSSI members attending the event.


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