Sunday, February 28, 2010

Choosing the Right Gift

The conclusion is inescapable. When you are choosing a gift for someone you are or wish to be involved with, choose it as though your relationship is on the line. Because it is. Especially if you are a woman and are offering a gift to a man.

The paper, "The Gift of Similarity: How Good and Bad Gifts Influence Relationships" demonstrates this point. Link here. Via Simoleon Sense.

What makes a gift good or bad? According to the researchers, gifts that demonstrate similarity of taste and interest are the best; gifts that suggest that the two of you are fundamentally in disharmony are often read as bad omens.

Surprisingly, when it comes to reacting to gifts, men are the more sensitive gender. If a woman buys a man a gift that he considers ugly or trivial or irrelevant or unamusing, he is likely to become pessimistic about the relationship's future prospects.

Women, on the contrary, are more willing to forgive and forget, either because they are a more conciliatory lot or because they are more prone to protect and defend the investment they have made in the relationship. If they have had sufficient dealings with men their expectations have likely been tempered in the crucible of experience.

I will admit to being somewhat puzzled by the notion of similarity here. So I will define it more precisely, according to my understanding of what makes for a good or bad gift.

A good gift fits the person who is receiving it. If you offer as a gift something you would like to receive yourself, or something that would be thoroughly appropriate for some other person in your life, then the recipient will first think to him or herself: Whom does he (or she) think I am?
Or else, who is he or she trying to make me into.

A woman with a button-down boyfriend should not go out and buy him a bunch of hip-hop gear, on the grounds that she is trying to expand his experiential horizons. If a man loves sports and his wife buys him tickets to the playoff game or an autographed basketball, he will be thrilled, not because he thinks that he and she have the same taste or interests, but because he will know that she respects his taste and interest.

If a husband who has no real interest in classical music invites his wife to the opera as an anniversary gift, she will likely react positively to his willingness to make a sacrifice to please her. I do not think that her happiness is based on the notion that the two of them have similar tastes.

If you do not know who you are involved with, then the other person is well within his or her rights to take that as a warning signal.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Does Depression Serve a Purpose?

In his article "Depression's Upside" Jonah Lehrer reports on new research that asks how a painful and debilitating condition like depression can serve an evolutionary purpose. Link here.

Of course, it matters whether we consider depression a condition or a disease. If some, but not all, depressions are maladaptive responses to events, then it is not so obvious that we should be treating them as diseases. It is one thing to say that someone is demoralized; quite another to say that he is sick.

For our purposes, it is significant that the researchers who are questioning the adaptive purpose of depression have also been led to offer treatment that is much closer to coaching than to psychotherapy.

Let me offer my own sense of what it means to be demoralized. When someone has suffered a trauma, either a psychological injury or a failure, he will naturally withdraw. The pain of trauma provokes an instinctual reaction: to avoid any and all threatening situations.

If your goal is survival and a situation threatens your survival, you will naturally want to avoid it.

But there's avoiding and there's avoiding.

If your job search keeps coming up empty, if you have been repeatedly rejected by prospective dates, if you have suffered from a series of bad investment decisions... your first reaction will be to take a step back, to withdraw from the fray, to reconsider.

If the pain of trauma is so intense that you cannot imagine ever going through it again, you might make withdrawal an end in itself. At that point you will fall into the category of what we usually call depression.

The theorists call the process of withdrawing to reconsider things ... rumination. I would rather reserve the term for the kind of overthinking that causes people to become dysfunctional.

Take an example. If an army attacks a city and is repelled, it will withdraw to reconsider its strategy. It might replace its leader; it might reconsider its strategy; it might call in reinforcements; it might work out a new plan of attack.

You can say that the army is ruminating, but I would prefer to think that it leaders are simply planning for a new attack.

But if after a period of taking stock and reconsidering what went wrong, the army cannot bring itself to attack again... for fear of being repelled or of taking more losses, then we may say that the adaptive advantage of replanning has become maladaptive.

There's thinking and there's overthinking. Usually rumination applies to the latter, not the former.

Depression becomes maladaptive when thinking becomes an end in itself, when it lasts too long, and when it loses, as Hamlet put it, "the name of action." When thinking becomes a substitute for action, you have a problem.

Darwin's definition of depression is consistent with this view: "Pain or suffering of any kind, if long continued, causes depression and lessens the power of action, yet it is well adapted to make a creature guard itself against any great or sudden evil."

Researchers who see depression as a condition and not as a disease are better equipped to treat it. Psychologist Paul Andrews makes the salient point: depression "... is usually a response to something real, a real setback."

Thus, treatment involves learning how to deal with the setback, the real situation that caused the psychological pain. In most cases trauma and failure cause people to feel shame. Thus, treating depression must always involve face saving strategies.

At the least, the research suggests that depression is not all in the mind. When Dr. Andy Thomson was treating a young assistant professor who was having trouble with his department: "Thomson helped the patient analyze his situation and think through the alternatives."

Note well that analyzing a situation and thinking through alternatives is not the same as analyzing your psyche, uncovering your past traumas, and getting in touch with your feelings. Dr. Thomson's approach is far close to coaching than to psychotherapy. In fact, it is my definition of coaching, as I defined it on my website.

Does it work? Dr. Thomson said: "Once you show people the dilemma they need to solve, they almost always always start feeling better." I doubt you can say as much about showing people that their problems are caused by not-good-enough mothering.

This approach also sheds light on the problems that arise when depression is medicated, as though it were a disease. A patient asked Dr. Thomson to reduce her medication, not because the meds were not working, but because they were working too well. They were making her feel much better, but as she said: "... I'm still married to the same alcoholic son of a bitchy. It's just now he's tolerable."

As Dr. Thomson says: "... the woman was depressed for a reason; her pain was about something."

Surely, there are some forms of depression that are diseases: the depression associated with bipolar disorder is one. Yet, as Dr. Thomson says, most depression involves behavior, a mode of conduct. You would never say that someone got the flu for a reason, or that diabetes was about something.

How should you approach depression or demoralization. Dr. Thomson might have been defining the approach that life coaches take: "Once you show people the dilemma they need to solve, they almost always start feeling better." Does this tend to make depression into an illness or into a maladaptive behavior?

Psychological pain, the shame of trauma and failure, is trying to tell us something. It is also trying to motivate us to change our behavior. It is trying to tell you to be more efficient, more effective, and more successful.

For your part you have a choice. You can either heed the message or ignore it. You are, after all, a free individual.

If psychotherapy wants you to detach your feeling of shame from the real event that provoked it, thereby to attach it to your own personal history it will be doing you a serious disservice. It will be inducing you to overthink the problem, to imagine that you can diminish your pain by ruminating about it, the better to fit it into the narrative of your personal history.

Introspection is the royal road to depression.



Friday, February 26, 2010

Is the Era of Self-Expression Over?

Peter Kramer's article reads as a useful adjunct to the points I was making in my last post.

There I followed Julia Baird in suggesting that wronged wives should be cautioned about the cost of telling all about their perfidious husbands. Now, Kramer has written that free and open communication is far from being the best policy when conducting a relationship or marriage. Link here.

I very much like the preamble to Kramer's article: "Of all the advice that has drifted from psychotherapists' offices into couples' daily lives, the most overworked-- and, I suspect, the most destructive-- is the injunction to communicate. Be open, be honest, speak your mind, demand to be heard...."

As I have been trying to say, lo these many months of blogging, the forms of expression that psychotherapists encourage within the treatment setting have, for some time now, drifted out of those offices into the culture at large. They have become moral injunctions, promoted in the name of mental hygiene.

They are, as Kramer argues, self-defeating and even destructive. And they are not even very smart.

You cannot take one simple and simple-minded rule and apply it to all human communication. With some of the people in your life you will share more; with others you will share less. With some people you will speak your mind more readily; with others you will speak it less.

With one person there are times when you must speak up; and there are times when it is better to shut up.

A human life is made up of a multitude of different kinds of relationships. And any single relationship has moments where it is good to say your peace and other moments when it is best that you not.

When you start thinking that you must say whatever is on your mind, you have fallen into a purely solipsistic mindset. You are thinking that your emotional barometer is the sole authority for deciding whether to speak or not to speak.

Therapy has done us all a grievous disservice in telling us that what other people think, how they feel, and how they react to your words is a distraction from the true task at hand-- expressing yourself.

What matters in human communication is the effect you wish to produce on your listener. Are you trying to persuade him or to offend him? Are you trying to forge bonds of intimacy, or to put him off? Are you trying to develop a working relationship, or never to see him again?

And then there is the question of whether the two of you are on the same wavelength. If you are open and honest with someone who is closed and reticent your communication will undermine your relationship. And vice versa.

These are the issues in question in all human communication. At the least, it is far more complicated than the injunction to be open and honest. Communication is a social skill; it needs to be cultivated and developed. You need to work at it, and to work at it through many, many conversations.

The best rule I have ever found comes from Aristotle. He said that you should aim to say the right thing to the right person at the right time in the right place under the right circumstances.

Dare I say that it is easier said than done. This does not make it less true; it makes human communication more challenging.

Is It Therapeutic to Tell All?

When a woman discovers that her husband has cheated, she will feel humiliated. She will want to right the wrong she has suffered and to exact revenge on her husband.

Revenge may be the Lord's to dispense, but a wronged wife may happily elect herself his earthly agent.

How should she go about righting the wrong and exacting revenge? Should she write a tell-all memoir, where she displays all of their dirty laundry in public, thus subjecting him to the humiliation that he has showered on her?

Will she feel better once she knows that she has returned the favor, and that now he really knows how she feels?

These questions define the scope of Julia Baird's excellent column in the new Newsweek: "Our Era of Dirty Laundry: Do Tell-All Memoirs Really Help Heal." Link here.

Not only is Baird's column beautifully written and cogently argued, but it addresses many of the concerns that have animated this blog from its inception.

When a woman discovers that her husband is cheating she will weigh any number of possible responses. Often she will turn to the culture for guidance. By culture, I mean the customs and values that determine how community members ought to behave. The culture, as I am using the term here, tells you what is right and wrong and tells you the right way to behave.

As Baird notes, way back when, the culture dictated that a wronged wife should suffer in silence. It rejected the notion that she should abandon all pretense of modesty and air the couple's secrets in public.

This form of revenge was considered to be beneath her dignity.

But then two forces converged to cause a shift in the culture's values. As Baird says, these two forces were psychotherapy and feminism.

Psychotherapy introduced a value system and a new set of prescribed behaviors that can best be summarized in four words: repression, bad; expression, good.

People were told that if they kept their emotions bottled up inside they would become neurotic or depressed or get cancer. Therapy and the culture it fostered has insisted that you should express all of your feelings, regardless of the consequences.

As Baird describes its influence: "We often assume that public anger, spite, or exposure is a healthy form of self-healing, despite the fact that there is little evidence for this."

Then, Baird continues, feminism came along to introduce a variation on this theme. Feminists declared that women had been covering up for their men for far too long. Women had become complicit in promoting perfidious male behavior.

Feminism declared that it had to stop. It told women to step forth, to open up, to show the world what these men were really like, and to give them a taste of their own medicine.

Besides being consistent with the values of the therapy culture, this new rule makes women into avenging angels and allows them to exact a rough but true justice.

Surely, a woman who has been wronged by her husband's adultery needs to restore her dignity. She might also want to make her husband pay for his dereliction, but the two, as Baird says, are not necessarily the same thing.

In her words: "If the primary motivation after leaving a relationship is to embarrass someone who did not deserve your love, that's easily done. But if your goal is to heal, recover, and move on, is the confessional going to help, or will it deepen or extend your pain? It's rarely clear who really ends up benefiting from any kind of tell-all, and how long the satisfaction can last when you have exposed your family to even greater public scrutiny, prolonged widespread discussion of your marital problems, and further tied your identity to that of the man who failed you as a husband."

When a husband cheats the wife is not responsible for his behavior. When a wife writes a book she is fully responsible for her own behavior. Unfortunately, if she decides to tell all she will be compromising her own dignity, acting as though she is embracing the humiliation that her husband had visited on her.

As Baird suggests, this is not the royal road to cure.

It is, however, a way for her to make herself a martyr in the culture wars. She will have sacrificed her dignity to advance a cause, here, the cause of indiscretion and social dislocation.

Baird also examines another question that has been of great import for this blog. Does psychotherapy work? Do you do better to enter into the kind of therapy that will teach you that repression is bad and expression is good, or would you do better to employ your own considerable moral resources to solve your problems.

Citing research about grief counseling, Baird asserts that those who undergo counseling after having lost a loved one did worst than do those who do not.

In her words: "A study undertaken in 2000 found that almost 40% of the people who were grieving a loved one felt worse after going through therapy; they were more depressed, their grief lasted longer and was more acute than those who had no counseling."

This tells us that Shakespeare was right when he said that: "The better part of valor is discretion." Isn't he saying that it takes more courage and more character to be discreet than to be indiscreet?

Shakespeare may not be telling a wronged wife what to do when she discovers that her husband is cheating, but at least he has told her what not to do. He has simply said that you cannot restore your own sense of dignity by sacrificing it to avenge a wrong.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The New York Times Portrays Obama as Weak and Ineffectual

Jennifer Rubin called it: "a rather jaw-dropping look at the inability of Obama to do his job." Link here.

She was referring to Sheryl Gay Stolberg's New York times article on Obama's leadership style... or better, his lack of same. Entitled, "Gentle White House Nudges Test the Power of Persuasion," it provides evidence that, even in the New York Times, truth eventually will out. Link here.

The Times has never gone out of its way to make Obama look bad. Quite the contrary. It has been a tireless cheerleader for him. Now, however, Stolberg shows us how a weak and ineffectual president failed to fashion an agreement on health care with Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.

Since this meeting took place a mere five days before Scott Brown won a Senate seat from Massachusetts , it offers a glimpse into the last real effort to pass health care reform.

Stolberg opens her article with the picture of Obama, at 1:00 a.m. trying to provoke agreement by making a grand, theatrical gesture and walking out of the meeting.

Which raises an important question: what if you, the putative leader, left a meeting and no one noticed?

However much Stolberg tries to spin it, the gesture was empty theatrics, not true leadership.

It reminds us of John McCain's suspending his presidential campaign to rush back to Washington to deal with the financial crisis. With a single empty gesture McCain managed to make Obama look presidential.

No small feat that.

As for the January meeting reported by Stolberg, I will mention that there were no Republicans present. It was Obama with members of his own party.

You do not have to do too much in depth analysis to figure out that if Obama cannot exercise leadership over the senior members of his own party, he can hardly be expected to work effectively with the opposition party or even independents.

While reporting on the debacle, Stolberg tries to put the best face on it. She describes a leader who is just too darned nice, just too smart, too good, and too easy-going to deal with the semi-corrupt curmudgeons that make up the Democratic Congressional leadership.

Of course, sometimes you can lead by nudging and cajoling people. At other times you have to be more forceful and direct. What you cannot do is lead by imitating leaders. Because then, you will simply not know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.

As I said, the fact that Lyndon Johnson had a specific leadership style does not mean that the same style will work for Obama. Ronald Reagan was an effective leader; so was Bill Clinton. They had different styles; they led in different ways.

If Obama had studied Lyndon Johnson's leadership style and had seen that it involved throwing an arm around a Senator's shoulder, drawing him in close, and whispering sweet threats in his ear... if he had seen that and concluded that he needed merely to do the same with a recalcitrant senator you would find the exercise risible.

Lyndon Johnson had spent years in the Senate; he was the majority leader. He had made deal after deal with his fellow senators; he had worked closely with them on bill after bill; they were his friends and colleagues.

When LBJ threw an arm around someone's shoulder it was not just some community organizer throwing just any arm around just any Senator's shoulder

When it comes to leadership substance always trumps style. More than that, the proof of leadership does not lie in the ability to wave your hand this way and that; it does not lie in soaring rhetoric or soft touches. The proof of effective leadership lies in getting things done, in a well-organized group.

If a leader is asleep at his desk while his company is humming along efficiently and effectively, he is a capable leader. To observe that scene and conclude that you can become a great leader by napping at your desk is fatuous.

Of course, Stolberg is trying to paint a picture of someone who is too good to lead. If you read the article closely, you will see that one primary reason is that Obama is perceived, by members of his own party, as functionally weak.

In fact, the charge of weakness hands over the article like a fog. People spend so much time denying that Obama is weak that you end up thinking that it must be true.

To me it feels like Obama is a man who does not wear his suit; he is being worn by his suit. He does not seem to know who he is and where he is. When Stolberg compares his leadership style to marriage counseling, bells should have gone off in everyone's mind.

I pass over the fact that Obama has no experience as a marriage counselor. Unless he is preparing himself for a new career-- as a same-party marriage counselor-- you wonder why he does not understand that a meeting to negotiate a compromise on health care has nothing to do with reconciling feuding spouses.

Of course, some people believe that Obama is really an aspiring autocrat. They believe that he does not want to work with Congress on health care or any other legislation, but wants to impose his will on it. Obama will negotiate with any petty tyrant or tin horn dictator; he draws the line, not just at Republicans, but at Congressional Democrats. Could it be that he sees himself in the company of autocrats more than he sees himself in the company of Democrats.

Some might even say that his timidity and general weakness belie a ferocious will to power.

As it happens, the question does come up in Stolberg's article. She quotes Obama's advisor David Axelrod explaining that in our political system Obama cannot simply impose his will on everyone else. He has to work with them, however ill-suited he is for the task.

Does this mean that Obama aspires to the role? Not entirely, but it certainly highlights the fact that, given Obama's lack of leadership skills, imposing his will on the country is probably the only way he will ever get anything done.

Why would he so thoroughly misinterpret the message of the Massachusetts Senate election and not drop his health care reform effort, but double down by wasting the nation's time and attention on a health care summit?

And if you watch the summit-- I saw a few glimpses of it-- you will see that Obama is not even well suited to lead the summit. He acts more like a professor than a political leader. He is conducting a seminar, not a summit. He is trying to give people a teachable moment, not a sense that politicians are getting together to do business.

And he is showing the world the one thing that he believes above and beyond all else... that he did not cause the election defeat, that it was not his fault, but that he has merely been misunderstood.

Anyone who thinks that Obama's failure to lead involves Republican intransigence should read Sheryl Gay Stolberg in the New York Times.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Uses and Misuses of Psychiatric Medication

Many moons ago, when I was training to become a psychoanalyst, my supervisor told me that since I was not a physician I should not be offering an opinion about psychiatric medication.

The advice was sound then; it is sound now.

My supervisor had good reason to insist on this point. As I was learning, any time anyone declares that psychiatric medication is bad for you, the people who are quickest to latch on to the message are those who need it the most: schizophrenics and paranoiacs, thus, psychotics.

When I was training many people were enraptured by the anti-psychiatry of R. D. Laing and David Cooper. As it happened, Laing and Cooper were physicians. Yet, when they encouraged psychotics to refuse treatment they caused far more harm than good.

For the record, Laing and Cooper felt that schizophrenics were not insane; they were expressing truths that had been repressed by capitalist-imperialist-warmongers. They believed that psychiatrists wanted to medicate schizophrenics to shut them up, to silence their inconvenient truths.

The issues surrounding the use and misuse of psychiatric medication are difficult to grasp because we often do not make the most important distinctions.

On one side psychiatrists deal with psychotic patients whose problems, current research suggests, derive from defective brain structure. Schizophrenia and paranoia would thus not be psychological disorders.

Psychiatrists also treat those who suffer from bipolar illness, which is now considered to be a metabolic disorder, not a psychological disorder.

In those situations medication is imperative; no psychological treatment has ever been shown to work. No one should ever suggest that these patient groups should ever forgo medication.

Aside from these extreme cases, psychiatrists also treat patients whose conditions have a biochemical component, and thus, that can often respond to medication, but that can also respond to other forms of treatment.

Take the example that opens Louis Menand's New Yorker article: "Head Case: Can Psychiatry Be a Science?" (link here.) A man has been laid off from his job. He becomes withdrawn, demoralized, and dysfunctional.

From a psychiatric perspective he is suffering from depression. If you hook him up to a PET scan you will discover that his depression manifests itself in inhibited brain functioning. We will grant that there are medications that will alter the chemical composition of his brain to the point that he will feel better.

(As Menand explains, the last point is controversial. For the sake of argument, I will grant it.)

It is true that medication might help this man. But then again, so will a new job. Since inactivity and joblessness are an important cause of depression, Dr. Richard Mollica of Harvard Medical School once famously asserted that: "the best anti-depressant is a job."

Let's say that for someone who is jobless a new job will cure depression. We might even add that for someone who is socially disengaged, a new circle of friends, a new group membership, coupled with activities might produce the same effect.

Let's imagine that such "cures" produce an improvement in brain chemistry.

But what about the patient who cannot, of his own volition, get off the couch and start looking for a job. Perhaps his depression is so severe that it must be medicated. But it might also be the case the he has been taught by the culture that if he does not feel that he really wants to start looking he should not force himself to get up and get out.

I have said it many times before, this piece of accepted cultural wisdom makes an important contribution to the persistence of depression.

Of course, a job is not the only thing that can produce an improved biochemical balance in brain chemistry. If I recall correctly, cognitive treatment can also produce these effects, while improving mood, attitude, focus, and concentration. We also know that aerobic exercise also improves mood, attitude, focus, and concentration. And finally, many forms of psychotherapy have also been shown to ameliorate a depressive condition.

(I will mention in passing that therapy helps depressed patients if the patient and therapist make a human connection, if they converse and show each other mutual respect. Dare I say that classical psychoanalysis would never allow such a thing, so that when someone like Menand says that psychoanalysis can help a depressed patient, he should have added that this is only true if the psychoanalyst (or the therapist, for that matter) is functioning more like a life coach and less like a therapist.)

These thoughts raise some pertinent questions. If a job is the best antidepressant for a man who has just lost his, why would Prozac not be part of his treatment? Surely, it might have a place, but it does not function in the same way that a job does.

Prozac will make the man feel better whether he has a job or not, and we can ask ourselves whether that will make him more or less likely to do what it takes to find work.

Even if we grant that Prozac will improve your mood, it does not supply you with social skills. It does not contain a program that will naturally impel you to do the right things in your job search. You may need medication to get up off the couch, but you will surely need a clearer action plan if you are going to solve your unemployment problem.

Anyone who imagines that Prozac alone will cure you of joblessness or of social isolation and anomie is simply being naive. It is simply not true that social and work skills are lying dormant in your mind, only needing the prod of Prozac to be awoken and put into action.

I would add that taking pills is basically a passive experience. You are not doing what you must do to get a job, and thus feeling that you have earned your better mood. When you rely on Prozac you are passively allowing a chemical substance to induce an improved mood that has nothing to do with your own efforts. Then we might ask that a cheery attitude that you have not earned by working for it, whether on the job or following a plan for improving your life, is really yours.

If Prozac provides people with the impetus to go out and do what they have to do, then it surely has a place. If it works wonders for people who do not respond to anything else, then, well and good. But if it creates a false impression that taking a pill is all you have to do, and that it will help you to feel good about being unemployed, then it is not working for you. It is working against you.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Winning or Losing: What Makes the Difference?

If this blog had a daily theme, today's would have been the perils of self-esteem.

For those who believe that I was being too alarmist in suggesting that a generation of young people has been adversely influenced by a self-esteem movement that has wrung the competitive fight out of them, and that, by shielding them from the shame of failure, has deprived them of the joy of success, I would offer some anecdotal evidence to support my contention.

I did not gather the evidence from a scientific study. I read it in Brett Steenberger's blog. Link here.

Steenberger is a renowned trading coach. He works with people who trade financial instruments for a living. His goal is always to guide them to better performance.

As he tells the story, a year or so ago he was addressing a room full of traders-- over a hundred-- and ended his talk with an offer that, you might think, no one could refuse. Anyone in the room could ask him for advice and counsel and he would give it to them for free. All they had to do was ask.

After the talk one man walked up to Steenbarger to express his concern. Wasn't the coach worried that he was going to be swamped with demands for free consultations.

Steenbarger was not so sure. Two weeks later, he sat down to count up the number of requests his offer had elicited, and came up with... One.

How did he explain this strange response? He did it by noting that only a small fraction of those who consider themselves traders, who trade for a living, are willing to put in the work necessary for success. And he added that those who are not willing to do the work are also unwilling to take any advice.

Such would be the expected fallout from rampant self-esteemism.

Here is Steenbarger's conclusion: "Traders can repeat positive affirmations and invoke positive images, but nothing replaces the hard work associated with preparation, practice, and focused work on one's craft."

As for the sole trader who called Steenbarger after the lecture and asked for help, last year he made well over a million dollars trading.


Has the Self-Esteem Movement Damaged a Generation?

The thought feels just a tad alarmist, but I don't see how you could not be alarmed by the findings reported by Don Peck in his great Atlantic Monthly article, "How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America." Link here.

The article is long, comprehensive, and well worth the most serious attention. But I am going to follow Dr. Helen Smith's lead and focus on the effects self-esteem programs have had on a generation of young people. Link to Dr. Helen's post here.

After all, the only way we are going to get ourselves out of the Great Recession is through hard work. And the young generation, its mind filled full of self-esteem, doesn't seem to know that there is even a job to be done.

As Peck put it, young people: "seem temperamentally unprepared for the circumstances in which they now find themselves."

Peck follows the research of Prof. Jean Twenge and points out that young people have an exalted view of their own merit and ability, that this view has never really been put to any meaningful test, and that therefore it has no real correlation with reality.

They have been told they are great, over and over, by teachers, parents, and the media. So much so that they believe it. They have not really had to do anything to receive these accolades, so they do not see the point in doing anything to maintain them... beyond an occasional exercise in self-congratulation.

They think that they are every bit as good as they think they are, because, didn't you know, thinking makes it so, ?As Peck reports, when these young people receive perfectly good job offers, they turn them down because they know they deserve better.

If the marketplace has not yet recognized how great they are, they need merely wait for the end of the recession and the advent of a New Age where their greatness will be recognized and rewarded.

For the moment they are unemployed and living with their parents.

If you detect the stale odor of idiotic ideas, you would be right. As Dr. Helen points out, this young generation has been exposed to a steady stream of: "PC feel good ideas as opposed to useful practical ones."

But given their enhanced self-esteem, I would also think that, more often than not, they have become immunized against the influence of useful, practical ideas. If they ran into a good idea, they would recognize it and would not know what to do with it.

And the worst part of it is, as Dr. Helen adds, with a full measure of irony: "People suffer from some of these idiotic ideas but at least they feel good about themselves while they do."

This is, effectively, what self-esteemism has wrought in a generation of American youth. It is the direct consequence of a therapy culture whose pernicious influence I have often been at pains to point out.

If you ban as many forms of childhood competition as you can because you do not want any child to feel the sting of failure, you are also ensuring that these children never experience the joy of success.

And if, as Dr. Helen remarks, these unemployed young people, a generation of slackers, still feel good about themselves, then they have also lost touch with their emotions.

Numbed to the judgment of reality this generation can no longer access its own pain and suffering. It remains stubbornly optimistic, soaking up the hopey-changey rhetoric, imagining that the world is going to come around.

Too many of them do not have to get up off the parental couch and they are not going to take an initiative to do so. If shame is the great motivating emotion, and if they have been deprived of their ability to feel it, then they will remain unmotivated.

As Peck points out, and as I have occasionally railed about, the young generation has lost any sense of a work ethic. It does not know that you have to work to succeed. You cannot just lie back on the parental couch and await the Messiah.

Still and all, casting such a harsh judgment on an entire generation feels slightly over the top. And, in fact, it is. But that does not make it inapposite.

Surely, we all know of children who are attending schools that have not succumbed to the idiocy of the self-esteem movement. These children have engaged in competition, have learned how to work hard, and have known both failure and success.

No one wants to belittle their achievement or the achievement of their teachers and parents.

Yet, if an increasingly larger part of our young people feels that their greatness does not need confirmation in the real world, the small number who go out and work, who get the job done, will eventually form an oligarchy of the wealthy and successful.

To me this does not feel like good news.




Monday, February 22, 2010

'Shaming Your Way to Weight Loss"

The title belongs to economist Daniel Hamermesh. It leads his post about weight loss on the Freakonomics blog. Link here.

The incident that provoked the post is anecdotal. It does not present the result of a scientific or academic study. And yet, since economists tend to see human behavior in terms of cost, that is of rewards and punishment, the fact that Hamermesh's colleague is trying to control his appetite with shame merits some attention.

Especially since I have often defended the idea that fear of shame, not fear of guilt, is one of the most important motivating factors in human psychology.

For the record, when you use guilt to control your deviant impulses, you must be afraid of the punishment that would ensue upon your breaking the rules. But, if you figure out that you can pay the price or do the time, the deterrent effect of guilt diminishes.

Shame, however, is its own punishment. There is no price to pay for the loss of reputation that accompanies shame. Once you have compromised your reputation it is far more difficult to rebuilt it, to allow people to see you as reputable.

Here is the incident: an economist who tends to overindulge his love of chocolate-covered popcorn is controlling his passion by placing the treats in a colleague's office.

Hamermesh interpreted the behavior by suggesting that he was trying to limit his consumption by raising the cost of each treat. "Cost" in this case involved the number of extra steps he hadto take in order to access the popcorn.

Hamermesh saw a flaw in this system. Why would the economist not lower the cost by eating extra popcorn on each trip to his colleague's office.

The economist replied that he could not do so because it would be embarrassing to pig out in front of a colleague.

Thus, Hamermesh concludes that the fear of shame trumps opportunity cost as a deterrent to binging.

The moral of the story: if you have trouble controlling your appetite, eat with other people. If you are living alone, and tend to pig out in front of the refrigerator, try taping one of your binges, then replay it later. Actively visualizing oneself behaving badly is an excellent deterrent to bad behavior.

Did We Just Send the American Competitive Spirit into Therapy?

Last week Tiger apologized. The event was so momentous that trading briefly stopped on the New York Stock Exchange as everyone tuned in to Tiger.

One of the greatest individual competitive athletes of our time, a man who was a hero and role model to businesspeople everywhere, had been brought down, at least temporarily, by scandal.

Tiger had cheated... on his wife. He did not cheat at golf. He was not dysfunctional in any real sense of the word. But he had been condemned by the media and by no small percentage of the populace for having gotten down and dirty with a few too many women.

For now I wonder what Tiger's downfall says about America. Tiger Woods was not just a guy who played a lot of great golf. He symbolized the American spirit, better yet, an American competitive spirit that had garnered a series of extraordinary successes.

As I watched and listened to what appeared to be a PR-driven apology, I was shocked to hear Tiger indulging therapy-speak, I could not help asking myself: Did we just send the American competitive spirit into therapy?

At a time when we need to restore our competitive fight, when we need to buckle down to restore the nation to its former greatness, we need role models. We need people who have fought and won, who have exhibited qualities of hard work, focus, and concentration. And who shown how to win. We need people like Tiger Woods.

And now, thanks to the therapy culture, we don't have him ... for a while.

We all do well to recall that many people in this country believe that our nation's success, its competitive spirit, its can-do attitude, its lust for victory covers a dark secret. Such people believe that America's success is tainted, that we could not have won fair and square, but that we exploit the less fortunate and oppress anyone we can.

Those who think such thoughts prescribe penance as the proper solution to the problem. They think that we need to be punished, the better to pay for our sins. In that way we will redeem our souls and get used to coming in second or third.

As I said I was surprised to hear Tiger invoke therapy. Personally, I hope he was just paying lip service to our culture's values. As Ann Althouse noted, therapy has become, if not an adjunct to, a substitute for, religion. Link here.

Surely, this is all somewhat confusing. In principle, Tiger Woods is doing sex addict rehab. I have already expressed my doubts about that. Link here. Since I want to keep some hope alive, I even accepted the reports that Tiger has been a less than willing participants in the 12 step-inspired meetings.

But many people mistake 12 step programs for psychotherapy, so it is worth the trouble to distinguish them. First, 12 step programs guide people to change their behavior. They do not concern themselves with examining root causes or true issues that lead to addiction. Second, 12 step programs, when they exist outside of a medical facility, are not led by health care professionals. Nor are addicts' sponsors required to be health care professionals. Most often they are not. Third, 12 step programs aim at a spiritual re-birth. Therapy presumably seeks something akin to medical treatment or cure.

So let's hope for Tiger's sake that he has not succumbed to the siren song of therapy. About the American competitive spirit I am not so optimistic.









What's Wrong with Journalism?

I couldn't have said it better myself. And it wasn't for lack of trying. In a post a few days ago (link here), I tried to explain what has gone wrong with the American media. This morning Alison Gopnik outdid me in Slate. Link here.

In her first paragraph Gopnik demonstrates, in a nutshell, what is wrong with American journalism today.

In her words: "It is a truth verging on truism that journalism is about telling stories. But what exactly is it that narratives-- good stories-- do for us? Stories work because they explain important or unusual or compelling events in terms of our everyday psychology-- the causal principles that we all understand by the time we are 4. A good journalism explains why the health care bill failed, for example, by telling us about the beliefs, desires, and emotions of the wavering senators."

What's wrong with this statement? A great deal, as it happens.

Begin at the beginning. Instead of arguing for a point of view Gopnik presents her opinion as a self-evident truth, as though it were axiomatic, and as though only a fool would dare disagree.

Asked what journalism is about, most of would say that it is about fact more than story, about information more than narrative coherence?

As I have suggested, one of the most important problems with journalism today is that it has lost track of facts, and gotten caught in a web of well-constructed narrative fiction.

Can a good journalist weave the facts into a compelling narrative? Surely, he can. But when he does so he will always run a significant risk, because the rules for constructing a compelling narrative are not the same as the rules for reporting the facts accurately and objectively.

As for objective reality, Gopnik has no real interest or concern. She would likely not accept the action of the editor of the Atlanta Progressive News-- firing a reporter for believing in objective reality (link here)-- but she is on the same page. When she says that stories relate everyday events to everyday psychology, she is saying that we cannot understand facts and events within an historical context. She believes that we must personalize everything, make it relevant to our everyday lives.

Do you really believe that events around the world are unintelligible unless we can see how they are affecting us personally? I don't.

As for what Gopnik means by "everyday psychology," I do not have a clue. She appears to be saying that a journalist must tell stories because we all think like 4 year olds and 4 year olds relate to stories better than to facts.

For my part I believe that most adults have put away the toys of their childhood and have learned more adult mental functioning, to the point where they can think of events in terms of something other than their personal experience. I also believe that adults can grasp objective realities even if they are not quite as entertaining as good stories.

Finally, Gopnik feels that good journalists must explain why the health care bill failed by revealing the emotional make-up of the "wavering senators."

Wow. And more wow. Only the truest of true believers would say that the problem with the health care bill was the emotional health of the "wavering" senators. Gopnik seems to imply that the health care bill would have passed if certain senators had had more therapy!

Has it never crossed Gopnik's mind that these senators might have been deliberating, not wavering, and that in a deliberative democracy, this is a right and proper thing to do. And why would it not make to sense that some senators voted against the bill because they believed that it was not in the best interest of the country.

Shouldn't journalism tell us what is in the health care bill, what it would cost, what it would mean in terms of the national economy, and whether or not we can afford it? The more reliable information we have the less we will rely on stories to fill in the gaps.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Do We Really Need "The Rules?"

Every time I read a column by Jag Carrao, aka Malibu Rules Girl, I am struck by how sound and sensible it is. Maybe I am becoming sentimental with age, but I find it refreshing to read a coach who is consistently offering good advice about dating... and who is not trying to recruit young women into a cult or indoctrinate them in an ideology. Link here. Carrao bases her coaching on The Rules.

Ever since Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider published The Rules some fifteen years ago, they have been targeted by what Alex Witchel called: "talk show firing squads of feminists." Link here. To say the least, Fein and Schneider struck a nerve.

For reasons that deserve some serious thought, the notion that women could retake control of their dating lives by acting more like ladies, or better, by treating their femininity as an asset, was an offense against everything that feminism held sacred.

Many women read "The Rules" and followed its precepts. Others ignored them. By and large, the therapy culture did not like the rules. It persuaded many women that following rules was like playing a game, and they if they started playing games they would be compromising their hearts.

Both feminists and therapists have franchises to protect, and protect them they did.

On the one side Fein and Schneider were attacked for being reactionaries and for being tools of the patriarchy. On the other, they were denounced for not being experts, and for not having formal training in psychology.

This latter is more than passing strange. The truth is, if you spend so much time dating that you become an expert in the field, then the chances are very good that you have never had a durable relationship. And if you try to study dating in a psychology program you are not going to learn very much about the realities of the new rituals.

I prefer to think of "The Rules" as a form of folk wisdom. Fein and Schneider succeed where experts have failed. In this way they remind me of 12 step programs. What expertise, what degrees did Bill Wilson have when he sat down with Bob Smith to create the 12 steps?

When Wilson and Smith founded Alcoholics Anonymous the great minds of the therapy profession had little or nothing to offer to addicts. Moreover, they were threatened by a treatment program that was being given away for free.

Does the same apply to relationship advice? I would conclude from the popularity of The Rules, that therapists had not been doing a very good job offering dating and relationship advice.

Better yet, just as 12 step programs offer a way for addicts to replace bad habits by good ones, so do "The Rules" offer a series of concrete behaviors that can, with practice, become good habits replacing bad ones. As I wrote yesterday, you cannot overcome bad habits with an epiphany; you need to work on building your character. Link here. And building character always involves learning to follow rules.

Even today, when you read the comments Carrao's column elicited (after the column linked above) you see that the old therapeutically-correct version of dating and mating still holds sway in many a mind.

Thanks to the therapy culture and feminism too many people can no longer wrap their minds around the fact that men and women are not the same thing. If you enter into a relationship with a member of the opposite sex you must recognize that that person will not always be thinking, feeling, and acting in the same way that you do. You do not need to know a lot of Darwin to accept this, but you do have to know some.

However much they protest to being men and women of science, therapists have concocted a therapeutically-correct version of relationships that ignores a lot of basic Darwinian facts. In their view a relationship is formed when two fully-actualized and thoroughly neutered human persons achieve a meeting of the mind, body, and soul.

Why anyone would claim this to be science is beyond me.

The therapeutically-correct relationship can be formed when people are true to their hearts, when they are open and honest to love, and when they have undergone enough therapy to become fully actualized human potential.

Of course, this is hokum. Or, if you like, snake oil. As Carrao is at pains to point out women who open up too much or too quickly often get hurt. Her rules-based advice is designed to allow women to take their time, to let a relationship develop, and not to rush into relationships as though they were desperate for any kind of soul mating.

When therapists say that you need not play by the rules so long as you open your heart to love, it sounds too good to be true. It is.

And think about this: what happens when a teenaged girl receives this message about complete openness and honesty and concludes that to have a boyfriend she must starting texting him pictures of the more intimate areas of her anatomy?

Or when the same girl has learned from talk shows that it is bad to feel ashamed of her body, and decides to demonstrate that she is sufficiently adult to overcome shame and starts sexting?

Or what happens when she gets slightly older and decides to reveal all of her feelings and secrets on her blog or Facebook page?

Doesn't this talk about openness and honesty, this attack on modesty and decorum, encourage, directly or indirectly, behaviors that are going to prevent young women from developing good relationships?

Certainly, a girl who engages in sexting is not playing games or being manipulative. Clearly, she is not a Rules Girl. But why does the culture insist that a young woman who retains control over her intimacy, who does not give it away willy-nilly, is playing games, compromising her heart, and being manipulative?

Before demeaning the notion of playing games, keep in mind that the alternative is protracted psychodrama, accompanied by soul-scorching anguish. What else would a woman feel after she has given everything she has to someone she did not really know?

As Carrao explains in her recent column, people need to step back, to take a deep breath, and keep something in reserve, before plunging into the deep end of a relationship. She advises a measured exchange of information and feelings, where one person does not open up completely while the other keeps his or her counsel. It may feel like an effort to hold something back, but if your partner is not on the same page, you are out on a limb sawing it off.

Therapeutically-correct relationships are a mirage. They are trotted out to play off the insecurities of women. They do not lead to good relationships where equals attract and settle down with equals in situations where there are no rules. (Between us, a situation where there are no rules and no prescribed behaviors is called anarchy. It is not happy valley.)

In truth, the reality of the current dating scene has no real resemblance to what therapy has prescribed. In denouncing "The Rules" feminists and therapists have not opened the door to better and more meaningful relationships; they have made the world safe for hook-ups.

The most important recent invention in the dating game is the hook-up... nothing more or less.

Open, honest, free spirited, in touch with their sexuality at levels their mothers never imagined, many of today's young women have become expert in the art of the kind of anonymous random sexual encounters that are called hook-ups.

But is it really new? Does hooking-up really represent an advance in human social interaction? I have already written about this, and I have already said that I do not believe that the new dating rituals are very original or are very good for women. Link here.

Is hooking up a new social institution, up there with marriage, courtly love, and Victorian courtship? Hardly. When you have a woman in a sorority who is hooking up with a man who has already hooked up with five of her sorority sisters-- that she knows of-- it is not really a new thing. I agree that she is not a rules girl; she is behaving like a harem girl.

Before you set off on the path to liberation, and before you accept that you are advancing the good of women, think about how well it has turned young women into harem girls.

When women live together as sisters, and when a different one is proud of being chosen for one night to have sex with the kind of imitation alpha male who is now called a pick-up artist, you are seeing something that closely resembles a harem.

After the hook-up the harem girl goes back to her sorority, to the company of other women. Or she may go back to her consciousness-raising group. The important point is that she is not expecting to have a relationship with the man; she may not even desire one. Her circle of sisters provides the emotional ballast that she needs. Especially if the women spend their time complaining about the emotional immaturity and inconstancy of men.

The sad part is that when women do not follow the rules, men are not going to treat them very well. Too much exposure, too fast, usually leads men to shut down. They see exposure as a demand and suspect that it masks desperation. When your date jumps into the deep end, you might feel that you want to rescue her, but more likely, you will feel put upon, and want to get out of there as quickly as possible.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Diversity and/or Meritocracy

Believe me when I tell you that I get no special thrill when I find sloppy thinking in a David Brooks column.

Brooks is an insightful commentator on our politics and culture. Often he offers incisive analysis of the passing scene. When he does, and when he has, I have happily posted about it.

His Thursday column on "The Power Elite" does not count among his finest efforts. Addressing the question of why the nation does not trust its elites, those who exercise power and authority, Brooks seems puzzled.

To his mind we are more meritocratic than ever. The corridors of power are more diverse than ever before. In his mind the best and the brightest rule the world and lesser mortals somehow do not trust or respect them.

Brooks asserts that in the bad old days white Protestants ruled the world. They perpetuated their authority by handing down power and authority to their semi-literate children.

Of course, this is a caricature and a canard. It is not exactly true to say that fifty years ago America was ruled by a white Protestant elite. Surely, Brooks knows that major Jewish investment banks were thriving five decades ago, that the publishing business and the garment industry were diverse, and that an Irish-American family like the Kennedys exercised considerable power and authority.

Besides, if the system worked well way back then, and if the power elite was respected, perhaps the people who inherited businesses were more competent than we give them credit for. Business do not run themselves. However you make your way to the executive suite, you still have to do the job.

One thing that we did have fifty years ago, and that barely exists today, was a code of gentlemanly conduct that determined the way people behaved in business. This code, which probably dates to the early days of the Republic was designed to deal with social mobility, with a diverse workplace where different people from different communities would get together to do business. Coupled with strict rules of etiquette this code allowed people from diverse backgrounds to play by the same rules and to show each other respect.

The social code did not make a fetish of diversity; it was designed to fulfill the more important goal of engaging in ethical business practices, making profits, and treating other people with respect.

In place of codes of correct social behavior, we now have sensitivity training. It is surely one of the principle reasons why people do not get along as well as they used to and why they no longer seem to know how to behave themselves.

The second instance of Brooksian sloppy thinking lies in the notion that the power elite has become more diverse and more meritocratic.

Brooks ought not to torment himself over this seeming inconsistency. The only inconsistency exists in his mind. For years has the nation been engaged in an ongoing debate about the merits of diversity. For years we have heard the defenders of affirmative action declare that diversity is such a good thing that it can supplant merit in college admissions and in hiring and firing practices. A true meritocracy does not discriminate, but it does not reverse-discriminate either.

If we have attained to a diverse workplace, one that looks like America, we have done so at the expense of pure meritocracy. How many of those who walk the corridors of power owe their positions to diversity quotas? If they do, or if there is a presumption that they were promoted for reasons that had less to do with accomplishment, or competitive test scores, and more to do with their race or ethnicity... why should it be so shocking that they do not command the full measure of the nation's trust.

As Shelby Steele once wrote, the saddest part of the diversity industry is that those who would have competed successfully without gaining any advantage through affirmative action see their achievements tainted by the presumption that they were not playing by the same rules as everyone else.

If you want to find a real meritocracy look to the world of sports. Sixty or so years ago the world of sports practiced discrimination. It was surely a great achievement when sports teams overcame it and opened their rosters to everyone, equally and fairly.

Now these sports teams have overcome all considerations of race or ethnicity. No one really thinks about the racial make-up of a baseball or football team. No one sits back and says that we need a couple of players from this or that ethnic group because we want the team to look like America.

As happens in a true meritocracy, sports teams are concerned with great performance and with winning games. It will probably comes as news to David Brooks, but elite athletes are respected for their performance on the field. Even by people who do not belong to the same ethnic or racial group.

The notion that you cannot root effectively for your team if it does not have a certain number of players who resemble you is another bad idea that we would well to discard.

Coaching Lessons: How to Overcome Bad Habits

For those of us who have absorbed the lessons of the therapy culture the notion of overcoming bad habits feels... dare I say... simple-minded.

It feels how-to. And that is clearly well below your IQ and your intellectual competence.

Nevertheless, if you are willing to suspend disbelief for a few minutes, let's give some thought to Dan and Chip Heath's new book: "Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard." For a review, follow this link.

Surely, change is hard. Habits become like old friends. Discarding them causes severe psychic fallout... to the point where you are sure to start questioning your wish to change them.

Unfortunately, the therapy culture makes it even harder to change bad habits. It teaches us that they are meaningful experiences, that they express past traumas or unspeakable thoughts, and that we can only overcome them when we discover the hidden message and translate it into words.

By that time the bad habit will no longer be a bad habit. It will be a bad impulse. Worse yet, it will have been shown to reveal a fundamental truth. Once you accept that it contains a truth, you no longer have a real incentive to change it. How can you deny a sordid truth without being accused of being simple-minded and weak-willed?

Surely, this contains a high level of theoretical elegance. It makes for a good narrative. In practice, it never works.

Even those who defend this theory most vigorously will tell you that the best you can do is to engage in an endless struggle with the bad impulse. You will keep trying to suppress it and it will keep popping up.

As I said, this is theoretically sophisticated. And if you like to attach yourself to serious theory, regardless of whether it works in practice, be my guest.

The alternative is not, in fact, an exercise in simple-mindedness. I hope I am not being too defensive if I argue for the habit-changing approach by bringing out the big guns. Actually, the biggest theoretical gun of them all... Aristotle.

According to Aristotle repeated bad behavior is a habit, not a meaningful experience, and not the expression of some basic truth about our or human nature. A bad habit does not express anything that we should want to know.

But if that is true, then we do not need to learn to live with it or to learn to control it. Life is not and should not be an interminable struggle against bad habits of impulses.

According to Aristotle, we overcome bad habits when we replace them with good ones. In fact, that is the only way to conquer a bad habit.

But then, how do you do it? According to "Switch" you make a plan; you develop a program; you establish rules, and define certain attainable tasks. And then you go out and follow the rules and complete the tasks... one by one.

Of course, it's easier said than done. And it is far more difficult to do than to undergo years of psychotherapy in the hope that one day you will have an epiphany that will make it all make sense and still allow you to keep your old friend, your bad habit.