Monthly Archives: May 2013

International symposium on Arab youth identity summary

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This week the psychology department at my university held a symposium on the topic of Arab youth identity that focused on both challenges across cultures, as well as integration challenges in cultures that have substantial immigrant populations.

Dr. John Berry, a highly regarded and frequently cited intercultural psychologists, gave the keynote address as well as a lecture on cross-cultural and intercultural research methodology. There were also two days of panel speakers from Canada, United States, Lebanon, and Egypt who covered topics like youth civic engagement (only 2% of youth in Egypt volunteer in the community!), sexuality, how parents pass on memories to their children of historical events that they experienced (i.e. war), parental practices, resiliency, forgiveness, anxiety, substance abuse, immigration and mental illness, and more.

To me, and several other researchers, this seemed like a rather broad topic for a symposium, especially because studies on “Arab youth” from both across the Middle East as well as those who are now living in North America were included. The symposium closed with a panel of community organization representatives who talked about what kind of research they would find helpful in order to provide programming to this demographic. By that point it was apparent that youth across these different cultures are experiencing vastly different challenges. Though the symposium organizers hoped that the roundtable discussions would spark a collaborative research agenda among attendees, it was clear that each community will need to assess the needs of their own population as a starting point.

We did have a fruitful discussion about the challenges of reaching the population that we are trying to study. While conducting research on youth IN the Middle East is likely exponentially harder than it is in Canada and US, it is still a confusing challenge here as well. Youth are notoriously hard to convince to participate in research. Youth from a group that is more insular is even harder. It was disappointing that none of the student groups on campus were in attendance at the event, as their input would have been incredibly valuable. But it is also not at all surprising, and illustrative of the challenge that researchers face when reaching out to this group.

My personal research interests lie in immigrant adjustment in Canada, and my impression from the panels and the roundtable discussions was this: acculturation, or adjustment to a new culture, is a process that is experienced by both the immigrant and the mainstream individual that interacts with the immigrant. Research and programs have made substantive efforts to address both, by focusing on helping the immigrant integrate more smoothly, and by providing diversity training to individuals in the mainstream culture. Our efforts now need to focus on actually encouraging the two to interact in a productive way. Some organizations are beginning to make headway on that front, such as the ALLIES mentorship program that matches Canadian professionals with newcomer immigrant professionals. I have not heard of similar large-scale programming for youth, but I am sure something like it exists in various communities. For example, a project for which I am a research assistant, Engaging Girls, Changing Communities, just funded a youth-led initiative that will pair up Muslim young women with mentors who work in the community (so far United Way, the public library, and Rose City Islamic Center are on board) to help get them involved in the community, learn how to network, and meet professional women that they can talk to. It is my hope that we make a lasting contribution to this community and maybe set the stage for something that can be implemented more broadly.

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Ignoring climate change

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A current story circulating in the press about the battle of words between Joe Oliver, the Canadian natural resources minister, and various Canadian scientists has certainly gotten the attention of some Canadians. It started when Joe Oliver publicly shamed a renowned NASA scientist for “exaggerating” claims that the tar sands will have devastating environmental consequences for the whole planet. He was quoted saying “The oil sands represent one one-thousandth of global emissions. You’re talking about, from a relative perspective, a minuscule amount. So people like James Hansen who says, ‘If you develop oil sands, it’s game over,’ he’s talking nonsense.”

For many Canadians the tar sands are a hot button issue, and opinions tend to divide along what province you live in and whether your income is related to tar sand development. An American Gallup poll also suggests that when it comes to climate change denial, men and conservatives (and conservative men especially, I’m guessing) are most likely to argue that environmental claims are exaggerated (Saad, 2012).

Not surprisingly these groups have motivations for this denial, something social psychology researchers have dubbed system-justification motivation, essentially the drive to maintain status quo. While maintaining the status quo is nothing new, exploring the motivations to do so is an important area of many areas of social psychology, as it is relevant to many issues beyond climate change, such as prejudice for example. For an excellent overview of system-justification motivation head over to The Situationist.

Here is the alarming part of this spat between scientists and the current Canadian government: much as we would like to believe that people can be persuaded by facts and research, and thus trust scientists as the “experts” on the subject, the fact of the matter is that many people are more likely to be more persuaded by dismissals, such as Joe Oliver’s above, than they are by the scientific consensus, and for a few different reasons:

1. People are reluctant to believe “dire” messages about the future.

A study by Feinberg and Willer (2011) found that people who have a “just-world” belief that bad things don’t happen to good people (for example, most people don’t think a serious illness like cancer will happen to them) become very skeptical of apocalyptic climate change messages. So even though intuitively it may seem like the best strategy to try to show people that the damage we are currently doing to the environment will have dire consequences, it is in fact, counterproductive. This is also exacerbated by:

2. Companies with vested interest in tar sand development are conducting their own “research” and then claiming that there is no consensus among scientists.

Though many of the corporate scientists have questionable credentials and a clear motivated agenda, the media has helped to frame the this issue as a “battle” between two camps of scientists, instead of reporting it for what it is. This strategy is surprisingly effective because it creates doubt. But rather than creating the kind of doubt that makes people uncertain about the issue and causing them to research it for themselves, it creates doubt whether scientists actually know what’s going on. This allows people to ignore or dismiss the whole issue. Kevin O’Leary of Dragon’s Den fame, who also co-hosts the business program the Lang and O’Leary Exchange on the CBC is notoriously persistent at pushing this climate-change research doubt agenda. The sad, and not entirely unexpected, part is that even though Amanda Lang’s part is to counter O’Leary’s arguments, she never really, with any conviction, calls him on it. If our beloved “impartial” CBC is doing this, I doubt other popular media is a whole lot better.

3. Motivation to maintain the status quo makes individuals unconcsciously misremember facts

So while scientists and corporations/government are duking it out with loads of “facts” on both sides, which facts are more likely to stick? According to a series of studies that asked participants to watch an educational video about climate change, found that:

“High system-justifiers recalled the information to which they had been exposed as less serious (i.e., remembering smaller increases in global temperatures, lower sea levels, and less reliable historical data concerning climate change) than did low system-justifiers. Poorer recall was associated with skepticism about climate change. Thus, individuals who misremembered the evidence provided in the video to be less severe were less likely to support efforts to address climate change (Hennes, Feygina, & Jost, 2011).

So if you have a stake in the tar-sands (and Stephen Harper would like us to think that we all do because it’s “good for the economy” and “creates jobs”), and you haven’t been particularly riled up to start doing your own research, the government would like you to keep doing what you are doing, since it works in their favour.

As for scientists, how can they communicate the urgency of their message without falling on deaf ears? Though no one has it figured out for now, an overview of research on climate change communication by Moser (2010) suggests the following:

  • Because climate change is hard to grasp for several different reasons, it needs to be communicated using clear and simple metaphors and imagery
  • Because climate change is not perceived as urgent by the general population because of its distant impact and our general isolation from the environment, we need to provide clear and consistent signaling (which I think would be difficult without government on board)
  • Scientists need to receive media and public outreach training and engage their communities in conversation and debate
  • Scientists need to use a combination of one way and two-way communication, and learn how to interact using popular media outlets

References

Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2011). Apocalypse soon? Dire messages reduce belief in global warming by contradicting just world beliefs. Psychological Science, 22, 34–38.

Hennes, E. P., Feygina, I., & Jost, J. T. (2011). Motivated evaluation, recall, and tactile perception in the service of the system: The case of anthropogenic climate change. Paper presented at the Princeton University Conference on Psychology and Policymaking, Princeton, NJ.

Moser, S. (2010). Communicating climate change: History, challenges, process and future directions. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 1, 31-53.

Saad, L. (2012). In U.S., global warming views steady despite warm winter. Gallup Poll. Retrieved April 25, 2013, from http://www.gallup.com/poll/153608/Global-Warming-Views-Steady-Despite-Warm-Winter.aspx