Soviets Miss Summit on Human Potential : Psychologists Probe Methods, Attitudes of Two Superpowers

Times Staff Writer

It was either heart trouble. Or the Cold War. Or both.

Whatever the reasons, two representatives of the Soviet Union failed to make appearances in Los Angeles over the weekend, depriving U.S. psychologists gathered here of what they hoped would be a meeting of the minds between the two countries.

The non-appearance of the Soviets at a seminar on human potential in the U.S. and Soviet Union followed a week in which the two superpowers were more at odds than usual--over U.S. resumption of anti-satellite weapons testing, charges that the Soviets had used a toxic chemical as a tracer on American embassy officials in Moscow, and the State Department's refusal to allow Soviet consulate officials in San Francisco to travel a few miles outside that city to attend a U.S.-Russian volleyball game in Daly City. The latter was in retaliation for travel restrictions imposed on U.S. diplomats in Leningrad.

Best Face Possible

The American psychologists who showed up for the session tried to put the best face possible on the suddenly unilateral meeting--one of many on varied topics held as part of the American Psychological Assn.'s convention here. Several noted that other Soviets invited to the meeting had bowed out well before the latest downturn in U.S.-Soviet relations.

Nonetheless, the non-arrival of the Soviets seemed to underscore a major theme of the conference--peace. Sessions touching on psychological issues related to nuclear war, disarmament and political violence dot the agenda of the five-day convention that ends Tuesday.

In announcing the no-shows, the association's Steven Kennedy said the Soviet's excuses may have been true. "Apparently heart trouble is not going around in Russia, he really did have it," said Kennedy, referring to the regrets sent last Monday (before the eruption of last week's controversies) on behalf of Stanislav Roschin, a psychologist and member of the Soviet Union's prestigious Academy of Sciences. As for Roschin's substitute, Peter Gladkov, currently with the Soviet Embassy in Washington, Kennedy told the audience of about 75, his travel plans were derailed later in the week by a bureaucratic standoff.

Gladkov needed a special exemption from the U.S. State Department to fly to Los Angeles on short notice, Kennedy said. Gladkov didn't get it, Kennedy explained, because the State Department told him it wouldn't grant the exemption unless the Soviet Embassy requested one and the Soviets "didn't want to ask for a favor." Later, Kennedy said the week's events probably played a role in the imbroglio. "I think that's a part of it," he said.

Left to carry the ball on their own, the American members of the panel recounted their own experiences in the Soviet Union and with Russian colleagues in an attempt to live up to the symposium's billing as a discussion of "the concept of human potential in the United States and the USSR."

Sheila Cole, who traveled to the Soviet Union with her husband--the symposium's chairman, psychologist Michael Cole--last year described her discovery of "family clubs" that she said are springing up all around the European Soviet Union. Such clubs, she said, provide Soviet families with an alternative way of rearing and educating children. Members of the clubs follow the teachings of "a Russian Dr. Spock," which stress very early education in such subjects as reading, electricity and chemistry. Many members of these groups are also non-drinkers and vegetarians, both rarities in Russia, she said.

Higher Birth Rate Promoted

Most families in these clubs have two, three or more children--far above the norm for European Russians, she said. One reason the clubs may be officially tolerated despite their non-conformist nature, she said, is that the Soviet government wants to promote a higher birthrate in this segment of its population, which lags far behind the rate of other ethnic groups within the Soviet Union.

Cole, a free-lance journalist, said she has written at length on the family clubs but has been unable to have her work published because the subject is overshadowed by interest in "war and public policy." Like other panelists, she blamed current superpower tensions with the cutting off of many channels of communication that might lead to greater understanding, especially in such non-political areas as child care.

Extraordinary Powers

Stanley Krippner of the Saybrook Institute in San Francisco told the audience that "the Soviet concept of 'hidden reserves of personality' and the American concept of 'human potentials' " are similar. Both are "typically ignored by psychologists in both countries" because they deal with seemingly extraordinary powers in ordinary human beings.

For instance, Krippner cited one Russian scientist who claimed to improve the performance of students and professionals by telling them, under hypnosis, that they were historical figures.

"Physics students would be told that they were Einstein, art students would be told that they were Rembrandt and they performed extremely well," Krippner said.

Widespread use of such techniques may eventually be possible in "psychology, psychotherapy, education, sports training and creative problem-solving," Krippner said, though noting that "systematic research" will be needed to prove their validity.

Teaching Methods Differ

Urie Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University urged greater open-mindedness toward "those aspects of Soviet life that make sense in our culture." The Soviet way of teaching reading, which relies on the country's poetry and literature, may be better than American methods such as the television show "Sesame Street," he said.

A Soviet colleague once asked him in amazement why Americans preferred "the short segments" of "Sesame Street" to "Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain and "Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger, Bronfenbrenner said.

Not all comment was favorable to the Soviet Union, however. At meeting's end an audience member asked panel members about their stance on the treatment of dissidents such as physicist Andrei Sakharov.

Thomas Greening, editor of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, responded that groups he has traveled to Russia with have been split over the issue but "we have a policy of not dealing officially" with dissidents. And Michael Cole of the University of California, San Diego, said "the issue of internal problems of other countries" can be a two-way street.

While it may have been a sign of the times internationally, the non-appearance of the Soviets was barely noticeable at the huge psychology gathering. About 12,000 of the American Psychological Assn.'s 61,000 members are jammed into downtown Los Angeles through Tuesday for the group's 93rd annual convention, which includes more than 1,000 seminars, symposia and lectures on topics ranging from burnout to drug abuse, stress to sleep.

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