Searching the Social Processes

From the Air Corps to the Peace Corps, M. Brewster Smith explores the psychology of groups

TO find the office of M. Brewster Smith, you wend your way among the giant sequoias on the University of California campus. You go up a flight of concrete stairs and down a narrow corridor past the Psychology Department office. You see students everywhere - reading on the floors outside classrooms, talking across outdoor cafeteria tables, lounging in the sunlight. Even inside Professor Smith's small office, there's a sense of being part of a world rich in the busy complexities of humanity - the kind of world he obviously relishes. That hasn't always been the case. As a freshman at Reed College in the 1930s, Smith remembers being ``a self-conscious adolescent,'' socially awkward and two years young for his class. Asked why he majored in psychology, he answers simply, ``I think I looked to psychology for self-understanding.''

In retrospect, that strikes him as typical. ``I think that's so often the reason kids go into our courses: They hope to learn something about themselves that will take care of their wonderings about `Who am I?' and `Does everybody else have the same problems?'''

At Reed, and later at Stanford, where he received a master's degree, he was ``very much involved in the radical activity of the 1930s,'' and remembers ``looking to psychology for something that would help me understand social processes.'' That led him to social psychology, which he defines as ``the psychology of groups, of how the individual is shaped by participating in a social life, of how we become people by being members of society.''

Then, in 1942, having just arrived at Harvard to pursue a PhD, he was drafted into the Army - and, surprisingly, into the beginnings of his career. His first assignment was to help develop tests to determine the psychological readiness of Air Corps officers. He then went on to personnel surveys dealing with the factors leading to psychoneurotic breakdown, venereal disease, and recurrent problems between enlisted men and officers.

Returning to Harvard after this taste of psychology in the real world, he enrolled in an interdisciplinary psychology program and earned his PhD. Even after going into teaching, however, he continued his involvement in the world beyond the academy.

His studies of racially motivated behaviors, for example, led him to be called to testify in an early federal desegregation case. In those days, he recalls, the nation was ``very much concerned about prejudice and whether people liked each other.'' Now, he says, Americans are properly ``much more concerned with justice and equity. The liking is secondary. It's nice if people like each other, but the important thing is that they deal with each other with respect and decency.''

He also spent considerable time helping to select and study the first group of Peace Corps volunteers, who went to Ghana in 1961. Visiting them in the African towns and villages, he was able to ``examine in depth what was involved in young people adapting to a radically new situation, and what were the features that made them unhappy or ineffective.'' He learned along the way that psychiatric tests to determine mental health had ``no predictive value whatsoever'' in determining which volunteers would succeed in the Peace Corps. Nor did prior teaching experience.

Instead, he discovered that success was related to a volunteer's view of the future. Those who thought that the future was ``something that just happened to them'' were apt to wash out. Those who saw the future as challenging and as ``something that they themselves brought about'' tended to succeed.

NOW, as a former president of the American Psychological Association and professor emeritus here at Santa Cruz, he looks at contemporary American culture through the lens of his varied experiences. Among his concerns:

Self-esteem. The difficulty facing many young people, he says, is a feeling of being ``out of it'' that leads them to ``want to be outrageous'' in their behavior. Sometimes, he says, those who feel that they are ``not being taken seriously, that they're losers, compensate by wanting to be glorious losers.''

Targeting that problem, California set up a state commission to study self-esteem. ``I think the basic idea is right: If people feel lousy about themselves, they're not going to have the guts to stand back and not grab kicks when they're available.''

He worries, however, that the commission may be oversimplifying the issue. ``Self-esteem is a byproduct of a lot of other things,'' he warns. ``You can't just lay it on people and say, `Feel better about yourself!'''

Ethics. Though he admits to being deeply interested in ethics, he notes that psychologists have generally failed to ``come up with a psychological basis for ethics that goes beyond what any other thinking person can come up with.''

He worries, for instance, that ``an awful lot of psychology has been developed in blithe disregard of the rest of the world.'' As a result, it has overlooked the fact that the ``me first'' mentality of American culture is ``way off on the individualistic extreme in terms of world societies.''

``I think we have been selfish, self-preoccupied, and I think psychologists have fed into it with some of our theories and certainly with the human potential movement. I think that was awfully focused on developing `me' rather than [developing] caring relationships.''

Such behavior won't suffice in the future, says Smith, because ``the world we're moving into is one of considerable interdependence at all levels - environmental and economic.'' Neither individuals nor nations, he says, will be able to ``go it alone,'' but will need a sense of community. And communities, he observes, require a ``coherent commitment to a common ethical frame.''

Today, however, he is concerned about the loss of ``the sense of day-by-day, moment-by-moment moral support of a network of people who expect moral behavior of us. If people get the idea that anything goes - and that `If it feels good, do it, as long as it doesn't hurt somebody else' - this is literally de-moralizing. People are not happy in that state of affairs.''

In the future, he sees psychology evolving into several separate areas, ranging from neuroscience to ``human psychology.'' Despite the current fascination with neurophysiology and with computer models for mental activity, however, he sees ``a core of human psychology'' remaining that will deal with ``the emotional life, affectivity, feeling.'' That side of life, he says, is ``just not very well dealt with'' in the current studies of information processing and cognitive psychology.

However the field develops, he sees psychology providing meaningful approaches to several major 21st-century problems, including changes in family life and in human behavior toward the environment.

``These problems are going to be there,'' he says, ``and this field of knowledge is going to be there. Whether it splits into a variety of different hunks, or whether it's still all going to have a capital `P' in front of it, is not necessarily very important.''

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