Steven Kull, Psychology

Photograph of Steven Kull

Steven Kull

Psychology Alumni 1980

Steven Kull came to Saybrook in the late 1970s with an interest in collective awareness. Today he's one of the world's leading experts on global public opinion. It doesn't get much more collective than that.

Kull heads up World Public Opinion (WPO), one of only two or three organizations that conducts polling on a global scale. Twice a year WPO's researchers take a set of questions into the field in dozens of nations, gauging attitudes on issues as broad as climate change, the international economy, and human rights --- and as specific as oil prices, the U.S. presidential race, and Iran's nuclear weapons program. The results of these surveys inform decision makers at the highest level --- Kull periodically briefs the UN, NATO, and the White House on global opinion, and he sits on the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations.

"I came to Saybrook as a practicing psychotherapist," Kull explains, "and I was interested in taking models I had used in a psychotherapeutic context and applying them in a collective context. The core of my Saybrook education was learning how to make an objective study of experience and, from that, to illuminate collective dynamics."

The evolution from psychotherapy to public-opinion research occurred naturally: Where Kull once probed the mind of individual patients, he now delves into the public subconscious and endeavors, as he puts it, "to help the public communicate with itself."

"In the end," he says, "both professions are about asking questions and understanding why people behave as they do." And, he might add, about helping people better understand themselves.

Kull earned his Ph.D. from Saybrook in 1980, writing his dissertation on the desire for unity of experience. That led into his first major project after graduation, a study of policymakers in the field of international security. "I was interested in how violence and destruction could be a pathway to unity," he explains.

With the Cold War at its height and the arms race in full swing, Kull conducted long, in-depth interviews with security analysts in both the U.S. and Soviet governments. Those interviews laid the foundation for Kull's first two books, Burying Lenin: The Revolution in Soviet Ideology and Foreign Policy (1992) and Minds At War: Nuclear Reality and the Inner Conflicts of Defense Policy Makers (1998).

"I did hundreds of interviews," he recalls, "with the kinds of fundamental interactions that occur in the psychotherapeutic relationship. I found that people on both sides of the conflict were experiencing major cognitive dissonance. You had policy makers formulating scenarios that involved the use of nuclear weapons, and looking for ways to gain an advantage over the other side. They knew it made no sense, but they needed to keep acting as if it did make sense."

Kull also found dissonance between policy makers' perceptions of the public, and the public's actual attitudes. He began testing the latter in 1992 with the launch of the Program for International Policy Attitudes (PIPA).

"The common wisdom was that Americans strongly opposed foreign-aid spending," Kull says. "But we discovered that people overestimated the amount of our budget that actually goes to foreign aid. The U.S. spends less than 2 percent of the budget on foreign aid, but the public believed it was about 20 percent. So we asked,