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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 12/19/11

Four Psychologists at the Gates of Hell

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"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master -- that's all."

             -- Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll


This is a story of four siblings with improbable names: Safe, Legal, Ethical, and Effective. Just as improbably, they all grew up to become psychologists, each with a different area of professional focus. Over many years of independent practice, the four gained considerable recognition for their expertise. Eventually, they joined together to form a high-profile, all-in-one firm in which each sibling's specialized contributions complemented the others.'  

Brother Safe was an expert on risk. Nothing was more important to him than protecting his clients from harm. His siblings speculated that this passion was due to his having been a small, insecure, and fearful child, always lacking in confidence compared to his peers. Regardless, whenever a new psychological treatment began to gain popularity, it was Safe who carefully "read the fine print," reviewed the potential adverse reactions and side effects, and then recommended whether the siblings should add the approach to their set of interventions. As a result of Safe's meticulousness, the siblings were renowned for how rarely their clients suffered therapeutic setbacks that left them worse off than when treatment began. This was a source of tremendous comfort for those who sought the firm's help.

Sister Legal was long considered the smartest of the siblings, and nobody was surprised when she obtained a law degree along with her doctorate in psychology. Growing up, Legal was a nitpicker, and she would worry about even the most trivial rules and infractions in the games the siblings played. Her brothers and sister were often irritated by this obsessiveness. But they also recognized how helpful it was whenever the four of them teamed up against neighbors in friendly competition. As professionals, having a talented attorney in the family business was a real advantage in avoiding potentially costly lawsuits. Legal made sure that the firm was always on the right side of the law. Her consistent recommendation was simple: stay away from the gray areas and keep a sufficient distance from the lines that should never be crossed -- that way you can't accidently stray where you shouldn't go.

Brother Effective was the youngest of the siblings, and he grew up feeling he wasn't quite on equal footing with his brother and sisters. His response was to become hyper-competitive, always looking for an advantage wherever he could find one. Later, when Effective became a psychologist, he found his edge by dedicating himself to using only those therapeutic approaches that had the strongest theoretical and empirical support. He spent hours each week poring over the latest research findings and meta-analyses to determine which methods the firm should embrace -- and which should be avoided because there was insufficient evidence to support the claims of their overly enthusiastic proponents. As a result, Effective and his siblings were able to consistently report outstanding treatment successes.  

Sister Ethical garnered considerable respect from Safe, Legal, and Effective for being the oldest of the four. But throughout their lives they also had found her tiresome, due to her incessant reminders about the importance of "doing the right thing." During their childhood years, the siblings abandoned many a mischievous plan for entertainment or profit because Ethical's overbearing lectures were simply too steep a price to pay. Nevertheless, as psychologists they appreciated having a member of the firm with such a reliable and finely honed moral compass. Ethical could always be counted on to discern in advance the potential ethical entanglements in any case. She knew all of the standards, and she was able to cite relevant passages whenever needed, including distinguishing enforceable code sections from those that were merely aspirational. In short, although Ethical wasn't much fun, the firm's public recognition as an exemplar of the ethical practice of psychology was a point of pride for all of them.  

The siblings' talents and hard work made their shared practice of psychology enormously successful. All four of them lived very comfortable and rewarding lives, which included the pleasure of working together and offering their unique perspectives on the many challenging cases that routinely came to the firm. The combination of expert insights on matters of safety, legality, ethics, and effectiveness seemed to be a special elixir. They consistently produced clear strategies and policy guidance in a professional world where many of their peers struggled amid competing considerations. By discussing each of their favorite questions -- "Is it safe?", "Is it legal?", "Is it ethical?", and "Is it effective?" -- the siblings rarely found themselves stumped or uncertain about the best path forward.

But one afternoon everything changed.

Several large men, a few of them in uniform, paid an unexpected visit to the siblings at their downtown DC offices. They quickly dispensed with pleasantries. One of the men spoke in serious and sometimes whispered tones about an immediate, short-term, and highly lucrative consulting opportunity "related to matters of national security." Even before hearing all of the details, the siblings began discussing which of the four of them could clear their schedules on such short notice. But their conversation was interrupted when one of the men firmly said, "Stop. We need all four of you. If any of you turn down this offer, you won't hear from us again. I strongly believe you'd regret that. Think of us as the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs. We have a plane waiting for you at the airport." At that point, he reached into his briefcase and placed four glimmering golden eggs on the conference table. "One for each of you -- consider them a down payment."  

Tragically, as it would turn out, all four siblings had a soft spot for golden eggs, authority figures, and special recognition. A few hours later Safe, Legal, Ethical, and Effective were together on the plane, and after a very lengthy trip they arrived at their destination the following evening, without any clear idea of where they actually were. Immediately upon disembarking they were hurried to a warehouse facility where very large men were barking orders to other men almost as large. The siblings felt a strange mixture of fear and pride when the very largest man approached them, extended his hand, and said, "Your country thanks you." He then led them to a private room with an elaborate video console.

As soon as they were all seated, the man began his brief presentation. "Welcome. I hope your trip was comfortable. What we need from you is really quite simple. I'm sure my colleagues explained on the flight over that, among other responsibilities, we're in the interrogation business." After they nodded, he continued. "This work is crucial for our nation's security, but we recognize it may not be popular with everyone. So our marketing people have developed a slogan for us, one that has tested very well in several focus groups. We want to advertise our interrogations as "safe, legal, ethical, and effective.' It's going to become a memorable phrase. Our analysts are confident that, with repeated use and mass exposure, it will silence even the most stubborn doubters."  

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Roy Eidelson is a psychologist who studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. He is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, a member of (more...)

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