PSYCHOLOGIST MARK KOLTKO-RIVERA '78 WINS APA AWARD, DEDICATES ADDRESS TO FORMER PROFESSOR
After a miserable senior year marred by illness, Mark Koltko-Rivera ’78 didn’t expect to graduate, let alone become a respected research psychologist, up-and-coming expert in the psychology of religion, and winner of the 2006 Margaret Gorman Early Career Award from the Division of Psychology of Religion in the American Psychological Association (APA). But what he is today, he says, is testament to the strength of Haverford’s faculty—particularly former Professor of Psychology Douglas Heath, to whom Koltko-Rivera dedicated his Gorman Award address last August. After spending the two years following his senior year as a Latter-day Saint (Mormon) missionary in Japan, Koltko-Rivera returned to Haverford in the spring to complete his studies and pursue a second independent senior research project required of all psych majors. His potential topic was inspired by his overseas colleagues: “The people with whom I worked who had their spiritual lives in order were more effective at everything they did.” While abroad, he had been communicating with Heath, whose work in personality and behavior was most closely related to Koltko-Rivera’s interests. Before returning to campus, he asked Heath to mentor this senior research project. Back on campus, the first day of spring semester, the professor sat Koltko-Rivera down and made him repeat a single sentence until he could recite it without error: “A clear understanding of the problem prefigures the lines of its solution.” (These words are credited to Margaret Mead.) “This was my introduction to Doug Heath’s style of scholarly research—his way of taking an interest in a topic and structuring it into a researchable problem,” says Koltko-Rivera. At the time, there was relatively little taught or published anywhere in the country about the psychology of religion. “It was a hothouse flower of a sub-specialty,” says Koltko-Rivera. “Psychology has always had a difficult relationship with religion in general.” However, Heath introduced Koltko-Rivera to the scientific literature of Abraham Maslow and his studies regarding the psychology of transcendent experiences (“when people feel pulled out of themselves, connected to something bigger, like a work of art, nature, a relationship, the Divine”). Koltko-Rivera fashioned his senior project as the exploration of the relationship between two constructs: peak experiences and personal maturity.
“People who integrated their spiritual experiences more adequately handled the tasks of life, regardless of age,” he says.
After presenting his research at the end of the term and, at last, graduating, Koltko-Rivera went on to earn a master’s in counseling from Fordham University and a doctorate in counseling psychology from New York University. He practiced psychotherapy for 16 years, but never lost interest in the connection between psychology and religion, especially as it related to his research on the psychology of worldviews.
“Anais Nin said, ‘We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are.’ We apply our own set of preconceptions to the world,” he explains. “The concept fascinated me.”
In 2004 he published the first comprehensive psychological treatment of worldviews in an article that won him the George Miller Award from the Society for General Psychology (APA Division 1). That paper attracted attention from leading experts in the psychology of religion, and set Koltko-Rivera on his new course of study, which he detailed in his Gorman Award address last summer in New Orleans. He began his talk by pointing out that many scholars have researched psychology’s influence on religion, but not much has been written about religion’s influence on psychology; that is, the way that religion affects individual and social psychological functioning.
“There have been many books explaining religion away, as a delusion,” he says. A number of psychologists believe that ancient humankind’s adaptive pressures were the basis for religious doctrine: “People survived by pulling together, and one of the foundations for religion is this spirit of altruism.” Others say that certain brain patterns are specific to meditation and mystical experiences; these are neurochemical events, not acts of God.
“Every human activity has a neurological signature, so why should religious experiences be any different?” says Koltko-Rivera, who gets irritated with “bad professional practice and fuzzy thinking in psychology.”
In his Gorman Award address, Koltko-Rivera discussed how his study of religion’s influence on psychology gels with his work on worldviews and multiculturalism. “There is a problem in mainstream psychology with dismissing differences between ethnic groups as simply ‘cultural differences,’” he says. “Culture is multidimensional, and so is religion. The question is, to what dimensions and mechanisms do we attribute cultural or religious differences?” He concludes that religion affects an individual’s worldview, therefore influencing a person’s sense of reality; in turn, worldviews shape one’s cognition and behavior.
Koltko-Rivera affirms that there is a mounting interest in the psychology of religion; the division of APA devoted to this topic is small, but steadily growing, and there are plans to publish a core journal. He suggests that anyone who wants to know more about this field visit the Division 36 Web site (http://www.apa.org/divisions/div36/) to download newsletters and information. He attributes this rising interest to the state of the world today: “We went through a period of intense materialism in the 80s and 90s, and now there is a backlash. People realize that we live in a world with horrifying problems, and we’re not dealing with the big questions. If we don’t address them, we’re sunk. This field has a great deal of promise to promote understanding.”
Promoting understanding is part of Koltko-Rivera’s current job as executive vice president and director of research at Florida-based Professional Services Group, Inc., a company that performs contract research in psychology for corporations and the federal government. Koltko-Rivera has lectured to NATO about the use of psychology against terrorism, using methods that will ensure protection of civil liberties. “The Department of Defense is now interested in funding efforts to help the military understand different cultures and worldviews, but this should never have been a new thought. This is an aspect of antiterrorism that can prevent attacks before they occur.”
He also has a contract for a book about the psychology of worldviews, to be published next year by APA, and is working on a proposal for a book (for which he seeks an agent) responding to the scholars who have tried to “explain religion away;” it is tentatively titled Anti-God: The Irrational Logic of Today’s Militant Atheism. None of this would have been possible, Koltko-Rivera maintains, without the mentorship of Douglas Heath. “If he hadn’t agreed to take me on for that project…He took a chance, took me in, built on my classwork to give me his own rigorous introduction to the practicalities of research design and statistics. Without him, and people like [Professor Emeritus of Psychology] Sid Perloe and [Professor of Psychology] Doug Davis, I wouldn’t have this career.”