Psychology and human rights

Joy Icayan charts a personal journey from taking a degree in psychology, to market research, to human rights work in the Philippines

I work as a human rights researcher in an NGO called Philippine Human Rights Information Center (PhilRights). Over the previous years, PhilRights has been involved in researching and monitoring issues such as mining, children involved in armed conflict, economic social cultural rights and restorative justice.

Studying psychology
I studied psychology in the University of the Philippines Diliman. As a child, I wanted to be a psychiatrist. This dream was mainly born out of my fascination with Hannibal Lecter and movies I watched growing up, like Girl, Interrupted and K-Pax. As an undergraduate, I learned that psychology is more than the study of deviant behaviour. I was particularly interested in the areas of biopsychology and social psychology.

In college I was part of an academic organisation that sought to use a cultural psychology (sikolohiyang Pilipino) framework when conducting field studies. This method taught students to be critical of adapting Western findings and methods (such as the use of Western-developed IQ tests) too quickly in the local Filipino setting. It encouraged an interdisciplinary approach to studying human behaviour, borrowing from anthropology, linguistics and other disciplines, and emphasised the need for psychology, or any branch of science, to empower individuals. This entails an active participation of the researcher to bring back research results to the community or the participants. This method receives a lot of valid criticism from psychologists and scientists in the Philippines – for example, the possible lack of objectivity in the role of observer, and the very real danger of exoticising the subject matter. These are very real critiques, and we bring these to mind whenever we conduct research, but the approach helped me learn to view psychology as something that exists in settings outside the laboratory.

I wanted to continue doing field studies after college but there were limited options for that – either work in academia or join an NGO. I couldn’t see myself staying in the university, and I didn’t have enough research credentials to go into full NGO research work. I wanted to get more experience, and applied to become a market researcher.

Market research
I conducted studies on product meanings and associations and market behaviour trends. Market research provides a picture of human behaviour, particularly how perceptions and associations do or don’t translate into behaviour. Market researchers ask questions to gauge how a product can be changed to increase client or market satisfaction, profit or improvements in quality. As a market researcher, you learn to ‘own’ a product, whether you like it or not. You watch it grow.

The field lets you decipher the motives and emotions behind consumer behaviour. It was exciting work, but I had some reservations. I didn’t feel too comfortable attaching more emotional power to brands and products than was necessary, especially in a less well-off country. Having grown up with little concern for brands, I didn’t have the passion of my colleagues.

I applied for an internship with Isis Manila, an NGO looking at women’s issues, and after that had two other brief jobs, one in a government agency. Then I decided to go back to research.

Working in the Philippines
As a research associate in a human rights organisation, I help conduct qualitative and quantitative studies on themes and issues that the organisation is involved in. Recently these have been economic, social and cultural rights; mining; and children involved in armed conflict. We go to different project sites around the country for interviews, focused group discussions and surveys. Reports on these activities become the bases for recommendations to community partners and state agencies.

Human rights work poses difficult, fundamental questions. A recent massacre in Maguindanao involved the systematic murder and desecration of at least 57 people. It raises issues about empathy and the human capacity for brutality: what are human beings capable of, given the circumstances? In attempting to answer these you go back to rules of behaviour – how these are applied and broken within a group. In a way this is like any laboratory experiment, except there may be no quick definite answers. Asking questions, in itself, helps to highlight the issue.

There is a certain wonder and fulfilment in seeing how theory can be applied in a setting outside the laboratory. Prejudice, for instance, is fostered by a lack of significant contact with outgroups, and prejudiced attitudes become even more polarised when they are only exposed to similarly minded people, thus resulting in groupthink. During a peace camp conducted for children in Mindanao, we observed some children displaying negative attitudes towards children and facilitators of a different group/religion. Their stereotypes of the outgroups were unfounded, and yet they held them strongly. This effect can be attributed to the recent armed conflict in the surrounding areas between the military and non-state groups, reinforced by the attitudes of adults. However, placing children from different groups/ religions together in one isolated setting – letting them play, talk and eat with each other – helped them relate to each other better and to form friendships.

This work creates challenges and low-points. The more superficial ones include having to defend the work against friends who wonder if  I do anything other than go to rallies and cause traffic jams while they’re on their way to real work, or who wonder if being involved in advocacy work is just an extension of a life crisis! Popularising human rights concerns creates real difficulties. Extrajudicial killings, and state-sanctioned human brutality do capture peoples’ attention; it’s more difficult to raise public awareness about more general issues, like lack of access to education and health, demolition of houses, suppression of speech. People see human rights issues as the territory of human rights advocates, the legal system or academe.

However, I find enough motivation in believing that psychology has a huge place in the field of human rights, and there is much to be done and looked into. Professor Chei Billedo of the University of the Philippines Diliman states that behaviour modification is one of the basic reasons we want to learn more about ourselves and why we want to delve into our psychology. Human rights workers want to modify this too, and to affect areas such as policies, laws and social practices. Working with individuals who come from different fields, who bring with them different frameworks for analysis, different perceptions, provides the necessary idealism that comes with the work. That, of course is its greatest reward.

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