What Is an Agentic State?

by Kristen Knight

In the summer of 1961 at Yale University, social psychologist Stanley Milgram began a provocative experiment to test individuals’ willingness to obey orders from an authority.

In Milgram’s experiment, explained to the volunteer subjects as a study of the effects of punishment on memory and learning, each participant played the role of a “teacher,” who was instructed by an experimenter to deliver an electric shock to a “learner” for each mistake made when recalling word pairs. In fact, the learner was an aide of the experimenter—a confederate—who did not actually receive shocks for his many deliberate errors.

Milgram experiment v2 The shock generator included 30 switches, labeled with values ranging from a mild 15 volts to a dangerous and potentially lethal 450 volts. The learner sat in an adjoining room, unseen by the teacher once the test began. Surprisingly, 65% of participants were obedient to the instructions of the experimenter, continuing to deliver what they believed were shocks of increasing intensity up to the 450 volt maximum despite the vocal protestations and apparent suffering of the learner. The obedience of the teachers has been described as occurring in an agentic state, a psychological condition in which an individual, as a subordinate to a higher authority in an organized status hierarchy, feels compelled as an agent of that authority to obey the orders issued by it.

Milgram’s experiment remains indelible because of both his findings and his controversial methods—so much so that 54 years after those initial sessions at Yale, the man and his work are the subject of a new feature film called Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story, starring Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder. The movie touches on Milgram’s later work as well, which is also fascinating if less widely known.

Those interested in issues of compliance and authority also may turn to APA’s 2013 book The Psychology of Dictatorship by Fathali M. Moghaddam, which discusses the importance of psychological processes such as displacement of aggression, conformity, obedience, fear, and cognitive dissonance as tools that aid the development and maintenance of dictatorships. These have remained crucial topics since World War II, the horrors of which were only in the recent past when Milgram began his study at Yale.


Blass, T. (n.d.) Milgram basics. Retrieved from http://www.stanleymilgram.com/milgram.php

Elms. A. C. (2009). Obedience lite. American Psychologist, 64(1), 32–36. doi:  10.1037/a0014473

Moghaddam, F. M. (2013). The psychology of dictatorship. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Obeying and resisting malevolent orders. (2004, May 25.) Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/research/action/order.aspx

Singer, U. (Producer), Golombek, F. (Producer), Schoof, A. (Producer), Robbins, I. (Producer), Abeckaser, D. (Producer), Melita, P. (Producer), Almereyda, M. (Producer), & Almereyda, M. (Director). (2015). Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram story [Motion picture]. USA: Magnolia Pictures.

VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2015). APA dictionary of psychology (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

What Are Maximizers and Satisficers?

Timothy McAdooby Timothy McAdoo

Grocery-Shopping-30How do you shop? Are you a coupon shopper? Do you spend time online in advance comparing prices and features? Do you read as many online reviews as possible? Or, is your shopping more casual?

Dr. Barry Schwartz, who more recently wrote a chapter for APA Books about choice, freedom, and autonomy, coined the terms maximizer and satisficer in 2002 (according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology):

Maximizer: a type of consumer who wishes to make the very best decision. For example, a maximizer on a shopping trip in a grocery store is likely to carefully examine every single cereal before buying one. Generally, maximizers are considered more susceptible than the converse satisficers to all forms of regret leading to buyer’s remorse.

Satisficer: a type of consumer who is happy with a good-enough choice. For example, a satisficer on a shopping trip in a grocery store is likely to buy the first box of reasonably priced cereal he or she sees.

Which one are you? Does it depend on what you’re buying? Do you have too many choices?


VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2015). APA dictionary of psychology (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Hans Toch: On Policing

This is the second in a series of interviews with APA Books authors and editors. For this interview, Tyler Aune, Editorial Supervisor, interviewed Dr. Hans Toch, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, School of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York, Albany.

Note: The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors and should not be taken to represent the official views or policies of the American Psychological Association.

Toch cropped

Hans Toch is a social psychologist whose pioneering work with police departments and prisons in the US and abroad has led to reform based on humane principles and participatory change.  Of his book, Organizational Change Through Individual Empowerment, Criminal Justice Review noted “Toch’s ability to provide real examples of not only what is possible within the field of corrections and offender programming but the impact these programs can have on the lives of offenders and officers leaves the reader finishing the last page and eagerly wanting to know how they can be a part of these efforts too.”

His many books include Organizational Change Through Individual Empowerment: Applying Social Psychology in Prisons and Policing (2014); Cop Watch: Spectators, Social Media, and Police Reform (2012); Police as Problem Solvers (Revised Edition) (2005); Acting Out: Maladaptive Behavior in Confinement (2002), Stress In Policing (2001), and Violent Men: An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Violence (1992).

There is widespread belief now, as there was among some in the ’60s and ’70s, that police unfairly single out and brutalize minorities.   In your book Cop Watch: Spectators, Social Media, and Police Reform, you show how social media has amplified what was once common knowledge only on the street. 

The belief that you allude to is indeed widespread, and unfortunately is especially prevalent among members of minority groups, for whom the perceived risk of being victimized by the police is far from an academic question.  Persons who hold this view about the police being a malevolent threat to them are apt to cite many instances of horrendous encounters with actual, real-life police officers that document their point.  Even where many such persons may not be able to recall having been recently singled out and victimized by the local constabulary, they can easily come up with a convincing humiliating encounter or two involving a relative, friend, or close acquaintance.

Has public perception of these issues changed over time?

This sort of intimate personal documentation is obviously very powerful documentation, even if it may rest—as it usually does–on statistically unrepresentative experiences.  And such documentation is much more available nowadays than it used to be decades ago.  The fact is that while accounts featuring the proverbial brutal or racist cop have always been widely available (largely because brutal and racist cops have always existed to some measure in most police departments, despite efforts not to hire them if possible, or to screen them out), the dissemination of the predations of such officers via social media has provided us with mountains of incriminating documentation.

In other words, what we have seen is not a proliferation of deployments of widely excessive force but a huge change in the availability of incriminating illustrative material, compared with the days in which comparably tragic or farcical exemplars of police malfeasance had to be drawn from newspaper headlines or individually passed on by word of mouth on street corners, in barber shops and play areas, and among intimates across the dinner table.

Many today are calling for changes in the way police departments operate. You have worked with police departments that made good strides toward reform.  What was that process like?  

Longstanding practices are always hard to modulate or to modify.  And I believe that the worst way to attempt to get anyone, anywhere to change is to issue peremptory edicts or orders, and to back these with threats.  Unfortunately, police departments pride themselves in being “paramilitary” organizations, and are therefore attracted to this approach.

Operating in this fashion turns out to be a mixed bag.  It might get you initial compliance and give you the illusion that you are making headway.  But what you are getting is surface conformity, which invariably invites lots of grousing and lingering resentment.  And you are very likely to eventually end up back on square one.

I suspect the second worst way to try to institute police reform or any other kind of reform is by lecturing to folks in classrooms, which is how I happen to have spent most of my working life. The sad fact here is that one cannot change people’s deep-seated habits by preaching to them—no matter how informative and how scintillating and entertaining one might think one is.

And yet, “training” is by far the most frequent recommendation you will run across in police reform proposals—or any other reform proposals.  “Training” is the prevailing mantra, and to be sure, classroom training can do no one any harm.

After the riots of the sixties, you and Doug Grant worked directly with individual cops most prone to provoke violence, creating a way for them to examine what set them off and come up with more constructive behavior.

I think the long and the short of it is that you get people to change [by getting] them to face and to understand the problems they may be creating through their current maladaptive behavior—very much including problems for themselves—and to help them to discover and rehearse more appropriate responses to the situations they are likely to run into on the job.  In relation to off-putting police practices, this means working with rank-and-file officers who intersect with citizen on daily basis, and getting them involved in the process of improving the way they operate in relating to citizens (including suspects) on the street.

This also has come to mean doing counterpart work out in the community, to get the customers of police service to react with less blind hostility in responding to police officers– to give the officers a chance to establish positive relationships with citizens.

This two-pronged approach to reform is called “community policing,” and it has been available as a successful reform strategy for several decades.






The Mid-Semester Blues: No Student is an Island

by Kristen Knight

This fall more than 20 million people will attend American colleges and universities, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. They will likely experience the satisfaction of learning new things and getting to know peers, among many highlights.

But students also can face a range of challenges, from financial and academic pressure to social and emotional stresses. In fact, the American College Health Association reported in 2014 that about 44% of college students surveyed said they felt above-average stress within the last 12-month period, about 47% said their coursework had been very difficult to handle, and about 86% felt overwhelmed by their responsibilities at some point in the past year.

Even without looking at the statistics, anyone who has ever attended university or helped someone prepare for college recognizes that the beginning of the school year can be exhilarating, but stressful. I know from experience that it is easy to feel rudderless at times. In the midst of the confusion, you may not realize that you don’t have to figure it all out on your own. It’s important to remember that there are many resources to help along the way.

APA author Donald Foss has supplied one such source. After decades spent teaching and in administration at the university level, Dr. Foss took a closer look at the factors that determine success in college. His evidence-based book, Your Complete Guide to College Success: How to Study Smart, Achieve Your Goals, and Enjoy Campus Life (2013), provides students with up-to-date information and insights about how to flourish in school and post-graduation.

Dr. Foss draws on research and the knowledge of professionals in the field—including his own—to address topics across the student-life spectrum, from academic success to career interests. The Guide begins with an “orientation,” covering the basics about the book and college life in general as well as personal space and time management, and it moves on to include sections on acing academics; managing goals, attitudes, and planning; using university resources, such as tutoring and staff expertise; dealing with challenging courses; and addressing specific facets of campus and commuting life.

I wish I’d had access to this book as a new college student. About studying, for example, Dr. Foss writes, “There is no need . . . to rely on trial and error to discover what works best. I’ll provide those pointers in this chapter and the following ones. The good news is that studying smarter is much better than studying longer.” Good news, indeed.

Later on in the book, Dr. Foss tackles attitudes and emotions and how they affect college life and academics. Wisely, he notes that “academic and personal issues can lead to restless nights and worse. Even positive emotions—especially affairs of the heart—can result in loss of focus to the point that class work suffers . . . we’ll take a closer look at your feelings and attitudes, and examine how you can make them work for you, even the feelings that start off being unpleasant.”

In fact, I feel I could still benefit from the book’s advice in my life as a “grown up.” Depending on where you are along the way in your educational journey, you may find one of APA’s many other student-oriented publications just as useful.


American College Health Association. (2014). American College Health Association National College Health Assessment II: Reference Group Executive Summary Spring 2014. Retrieved from http://www.acha-ncha.org/docs/ACHA-NCHA-II_ReferenceGroup_ExecutiveSummary_Spring2014.pdf

Foss, D. J. (2013). Your complete guide to college success: How to study smart, achieve your goals, and enjoy campus life. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). Fast facts: Back to school statistics. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372

Good Design is in the Details (With Plenty of White Space in Between)

by Kristen Knight

Released in March 2015 with approximately 1,200 pages and 26,000 entries, the APA Dictionary of Psychology, Second Edition, is a behemoth of a book by any definition. But it was the smaller details in the text that garnered the attention of judges when they awarded it first prize in the typographic text category (large nonprofit) of the 2015 Washington Publishers Book Design and Effectiveness Awards.  Those details included good column width, the use of guide words and rule at the top of each page, and cleanly executed thumb tabs for easy navigation.

“We gave the nod to your dictionary because the design is technically effective and successful in all of the ways that dictionaries need to be,” said awards judge John Guthrie, who is the managing editor of the book program at the American Diabetes Association. “I’ve worked on dictionaries before, so I am fully aware that the apparent simplicity of a well-designed dictionary belies the amount of planning, skill, and expertise that goes into creating an effective one. We commented frequently during the judging process about how good design also exhibits restraint. The design of the APA Dictionary of Psychology represents creativity, attention to purpose, and restraint.”

Guthrie also praised the dictionary’s effective use of font size, boldface, italics, and small caps, along with the “incredibly descriptive” guide to format for readers, which appears in the front matter of the book.

DoP2 Award_Inside spread graphicFor you font nerds out there (yes, they exist!), this second edition of the dictionary was typeset in 9-point Photina. The design and composition of the text were produced by Anne Kerr at Market House Books, Ltd., in Aylesbury, England. With almost 45 years of experience in creating specialty dictionaries for various publishers, Market House is perhaps the premier reference compiler in the United Kingdom.

“The font was selected for clarity and economy of space,” Anne said about the design. “I think the font is easy to read and, as using this font meant we needed less space for the text, we were able to increase the interentry space. From the design point of view, the white space is as important as the text itself!”

Anne typically offers APA reference editors several samples to review prior to the production phase for a dictionary. “Generally, there will be different typefaces and variations in type size, leading, and kerning from which to select,” explained our Reference Director Ted Baroody. “For the APA Dictionary of Psychology, Second Edition, we chose the specs that seemed most generous for ease of reading while also being most closely aligned with our desired overall page length. It was a great plus for APA and Market House Books to be able to land on such an aesthetically pleasing set of specs.”

The collaboration between APA and MHB goes back more than 16 years, dating to work on the critically acclaimed first edition of the dictionary and encompassing several subsequent derivatives, among them the well-received APA College Dictionary of Psychology and APA Dictionary of Statistics and Research Methods. Ted describes the partnership this way: “It is certainly not overstated to note that APA Reference staff has learned substantially about the profession and art of lexicography from our English colleagues, and, perhaps, MHB staff has even learned a little bit about psychology from us!”

As you might guess, producing such a considered and inclusive second edition required years of effort on the part of a large team of psychologists and allied health professionals, editors, and designers. The reference team at APA is pleased that the Washington Publishers Association award recognized the result, and specifically the way in which all of that knowledge is so effectively presented for readers.


VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2015). APA dictionary of psychology (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.