Sunday, March 31, 2013

Giving: The Antidote to Therapy

Chances are, you know someone who abides by the great therapy culture principle: What about my needs?

Somehow or other, after thousands of years of human civilization we have arrived at a principle that is self-obsessed, self-involved and downright selfish.

Score one for the therapy culture.

Ethical thinkers have always emphasized the value of doing good for others. The Bible tells us to do unto others as you would have others do unto you; Aristotle counsels benevolence; Confucius speaks of the value of magnanimity; John Kennedy exhorted Americans to ask what they could do for their country.

Extending a hand of friendship is always a good thing. In Zen Buddhism, it’s called: the sound of the one hand clapping. It is surely better than a fist of defiance or aggression. It doesn’t always work out for the best, but more often than not it does.

If you are married, your job is to make your spouse happy. Your spouse’s job is to make you happy. You are both in the business of ensuring mutual happiness and domestic harmony because your children depend on it, you community depends on it and your ability to function in the outside world depends on it.

Anyone who starts whining about “my needs” has probably had too much therapy. .

Today,  the New York Times Magazine offers a fascinating portrait of a Wharton professor named Adam Grant who has not only made giving selflessly a way of life but has taught the theory, done the research and written a book about the topic.

Grant suggests that we are more happy and more productive when we give and contribute than when we see ourselves pursuing mere self-interest.

We work more effectively when we see our work in a larger context. If we believe that our colleagues need us to do a good job, that our family is depending on us to succeed, that our customers would suffer if we do shoddy work… we will work harder, longer and more effectively.

Susan Dominus summarizes Grant’s idea in the Times:

The greatest untapped source of motivation, he argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.

Grant works in a field that has been thoroughly neglected by the therapy culture: motivational psychology.

Dominus offers an example that tends to demonstrate Grant’s point:

In one study, Grant put up two different signs at hand-washing stations in a hospital. One reminded doctors and nurses, “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases”; another read, “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.” Grant measured the amount of soap used at each station. Doctors and nurses at the station where the sign referred to their patients used 45 percent more soap or hand sanitizer.

Clearly, this is an important problem. It requires a solution. Grant seems to have discovered one way—surely not the only way—to motivate hospital staff in the right direction.

Obviously, he has his detractors. Dominus quotes one:

Jerry Davis, a management professor who taught Grant at the University of Michigan and is generally a fan of his former student’s work, couldn’t help making a pointed critique about its inherent limits when they were on a panel together: “So you think those workers at the Apple factory in China would stop committing suicide if only we showed them someone who was incredibly happy with their iPhone?”

This feels like a devastating counterargument. It isn’t.

We do not know whether Grant’s idea would improve worker morale at the Foxconn plant because, I suspect, it has never been tried.

Davis takes for granted that worker suicides have been caused by heartless managers forcing employees to perform mindless repetitive work under less than humane conditions. This might be true. It might not be true. Unless we know something about the individuals who committed suicide it is difficult to draw a general conclusion.

And, it is altogether possible, though not very Kantian, that Grant’s motivational technique works in some but not all situations.

Besides, there’s more to benevolence than giving a pep talk about happy customers. A benevolent employer does try to create work conditions that maximize performance and productivity. 

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review Grant describes the relevant research findings:

Consider a landmark meta-analysis led by Nathan Podsakoff, of the University of Arizona. His team examined 38 studies of organizational behavior, representing more than 3,500 business units and many different industries, and found that the link between employee giving and desirable business outcomes was surprisingly robust. Higher rates of giving were predictive of higher unit profitability, productivity, efficiency, and customer satisfaction, along with lower costs and turnover rates. When employees act like givers, they facilitate efficient problem solving and coordination and build cohesive, supportive cultures that appeal to customers, suppliers, and top talent alike.

One reason that people do not all embrace Grant’s approach is that they fear being exploited.

Some people believe that human beings are exploiting machines who want nothing more than to use each other for their personal benefit. Give them an inch, the saying goes, and they will take an arm.

While it is true that some people will take advantage of our kindness and generosity, it is also true that if all your friends are more take than give, you should do a better job of choosing your friends.

It should be obvious that not everyone will respond positively to a gesture of friendship or benevolence. Yet, Grant’s technique allows you, economically, to differentiate between takers and givers.

Dominus writes:

The most successful givers, Grant explains, are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. And they are strategic in their giving — they give to other givers and matchers, so that their work has the maximum desired effect; they are cautious about giving to takers; they give in ways that reinforce their social ties; and they consolidate their giving into chunks, so that the impact is intense enough to be gratifying.

No one imagines that every time you offer to help someone out or to do a favor you are going to receive recompense or even a thank you. But, most of the time you will, and even if you don’t you will easily know who is at fault. 

What quality was most likely to lead people to over-give? In his Harvard Business Review article Grant says that it’s "empathy." What a surprise!

Giving involves a transaction; it means following a rule. It's not the same as following your bliss. When you overrule the rule by trying to feel everyone else’s pain, you are more likely to less judicious in your selections. If someone betrays your trust or fails to acknowledge your benevolence you are not obliged to feel what he feels or to excuse him because he's having a bad day. 

Interestingly, Dominus describes Grant himself as something of a compulsive over-giver. He might be living proof of the fact that it is better to give too much than not to give at all. He hardly seems to be a victim of exploitation.

Yet, it is also true that if you give too much you might alienate the person who is receiving your largesse.

It is commonly accepted among those who study gift-giving that it is not necessarily a good thing to offer too much to people you do not know very well, if at all. And you should understand that giving too much will feel like a demand.

We are instinctively programmed to reciprocate generosity, so we should always try to keep our good deeds within the bounds of what another person can reasonably be expected to give back.

Human beings are not programmed to exploit each other—that’s a vile slander— but they are programmed to cooperate and to get along with each other.

Yet, Dominus arrives at an interesting point: what if Grant’s giving represents nothing more than a fear of disappointing other people.

In her words:

On the day I followed Grant as he hurried to his office hours at Wharton, I read something on his face that registered as more than just busyness; he seemed anxious. I wondered whether Grant was driven by the desire to help or a deep fear of disappointing someone.

But, how do you tell the difference. Doesn’t the therapy culture want us to think that behind every good deed lies a bad motive.

What is the practical consequence of thinking this way? If giving is a form of psychopathology then Grant should undergo some psychotherapy in order to get over his bad habit and to get back in touch with his basic greed.

Of course, we do not want to disappoint other people. It’s part of our connection to others; it’s part of what motivates us to do our best. It’s what you do when you have some self-respect and when you understand that your self-respect depends on the respect you show others.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Stirring in Her Loins

Have you ever wondered what turns on Naomi Wolf? Have you ever whiled away an afternoon trying to imagine what sets her loins aquiver?

OK… you haven’t.

Then again, have you ever tried to imagine what turns on Sheryl Sandberg?

If she is to be taken at her word, Sandberg, like Wolf before her becomes transported with lust at the sight of a man doing the dishes.

Sandberg draws erotic sustenance from the visions compiled by the Cambridge Women’s Pornography Cooperative—yes, there is such a thing. Among those visions are: “hunky guys vacuuming, dusting, and cleaning the kitty litter.”

Actually, the CWPC has put out a series of books filled with images that are supposed to excite women. On the cover of one we see a man vacuuming. Are the members of the CWPC excited by the nondescript male or by the oversize hose?

This leads to a more salient question. Since Sandberg is married to a corporate executive, what makes you think that he does the dishes? What makes you think that he has ever done the dishes? And besides, can’t these people afford to buy a dishwasher?

We are led to the regrettable conclusion that “dish washer” is a euphemism for what used to be called the “pool boy.”

For all I know these ladies are telling the truth about their own sexual arousal mechanism. As the saying goes, de gustibus non est disputandum—that is, there’s no arguing with taste.
But they are not telling the truth about female sexual response. They are merely trying to trick men into becoming feminist enablers.

You know it’s a subterfuge because you know that female erotic response has little to do with images. How do you know this? You know it because you know that women consume a relatively miniscule quantity of porn. In the porn world, the male gaze rules.

Speaking of the marketplace, women seem far more aroused by fictions like Fifty Shades of Gray than in feministically correct porn. For women, imagination trumps graphic images. The book has sold 70,000,000 copies. Could that many women be wrong?

In fact, the CWPC’s version of erotica,-- visions of hunky guys doing household chores—really belongs in the domain of gay male porn.

Remember the inscription on the portal of Apollo’s temple at Delphi: Know thyself!

Now, that wasn’t so difficult, was it?

Anyway, for those who will not accept this on my say-so, a couple of sociologists have done a study. Christina Hoff Sommers reported on it for Slate’s XX blog.

The truth of the matter is that men who do more housework get less sex than men who do less housework. Specifically, men who do what are traditionally considered women’s chores—dishes, laundry, vacuuming—are more often rejected in the bedroom.

Sommers explains:

In marriages where women performed all the typically female tasks (cleaning, cooking, shopping—called “core work” by the researchers), couples had sex 1.6 times more per month than couples where men carried out all these traditionally female chores. In marriages where men helped out but stuck to stereotypical male tasks (“non-core” work such automobile maintenance, yard work, bill-paying, and snow shoveling), couples had sex 0.7 times more than those where women performed the traditional male tasks. But, as the researchers point out, even in marriages where men did 40 percent of the "female" chores, couples experience "substantially lower sexual frequency than households in which women perform all the core [typically female] chores." Put simply: There appears to be an inverse relationship between husbands doing traditionally female tasks and sexual frequency.

Obviously, men need to do their fair share. But if they want to get more sex they should be doing tasks that are traditionally performed by men.

I don't want to speculate any more than I have about what turns on feminists, but when it comes to women, it appears that manly men are high on the list.

Even in our time when gender neuterdom is becoming the law of the land, the traditional sexual division of labor still rules.

Faking Orgasms

What would we do without NewYork Magazine?

Faced with a question that apparently anguishes more than a few women, the magazine did a survey of advice columnists.

To be fair, the article does not say that it’s a burning question for all women. It limits its scope to “the contemporary casual sex-haver….”

This last phrase tells us that the writer should get a grip on her language before venturing into other, more sensitive realms.

The magazine did not exactly do a survey; it assigned a reporter to read the varied responses that advice columnists have given to the question: Should a woman fake an orgasm?

The responses are as varied as the questions:

Is the practice common or uncommon? Should a woman fake it until she makes it? Should she confess to faking it? Should she be open and honest about all things, including when and if and how she came? Which strategy will lead to more, better ecstasy? And the best: if she fakes it will she be making other women feel inadequate?

A columnist named Cindy addresses the last point:

You are condemning every woman he goes on to sleep with for the rest of his life to be a victim, in her turn, of “But my last girlfriend had six orgasms in a row when I did that!” syndrome. Don’t do that to us. Teach him what really works.

Cindy does not tell us how many women that might be but apparently the number is very high, indeed.

But why should a woman expend time and effort teaching a man how to produce more, better orgasms when he will then use those same skills to enrapture a bevy of beauteous hookups?

Why doesn’t Cindy imagine that this male apprentice might want to continue to use his skills with his teacher?

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Bag Lady Complex

Certainly, women have come a long way. American women today have achieved career success that far surpasses anything their mothers and grandmothers could have imagined.

But, at what cost?

The Los Angeles Times reports on a new study of women’s greatest fears. The results are shocking.

The Times summarizes them:

Despite making enormous strides professionally and financially, almost half of American women fear becoming bag ladies, even many of those earning six-figure salaries, according to a new survey.

Six in 10 women describe themselves as the primary breadwinners in their households, and 54% manage the family finances, according to the poll by Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America.

Even so, 49% fear becoming a bag lady -- a homeless woman who wanders the streets of a city lugging her meager belongings in a shopping bag.

Most surprising, 27% of women earning more than $200,000 a year said they fear falling into such destitution.

Such concerns were most pronounced among single women (56%), divorcees (54%) and widows (47%). But even 43% of married women harbor such fears, according to the study.

Allianz polled more than 2,200 women aged 25 to 75 with minimum household income of $30,000 a year.

The study points up the conflicting emotions of American women toward money, and the disconnect among some between their generally promising financial reality and their deep-seated financial fears.

Obviously, it is betterr to listen to what women have to say than to assume that their views conform to this or that ideology. But it is best to pay attention to what women fear. For all we know, women’s emotions might be a leading market indicator.

There are many ways to interpret the data. At the least, American women are in a somber, even anguished mood. It is altogether possible that the women who were polled, most of whom are highly educated and well-informed, are in despair about America’s future.

Consciously, they might have bought the hopey/changey message, but in their hearts they seem to know that something is radically wrong with America.

Their emotions might be confirming a point that Mort Zuckerman has been making; that the employment situation in America is far worse than we have been led to believe.

One does well to pay heed to one’s emotions, especially when they do not appear to be connected to an ostensible reality.

But that is not the only disconnect here. A bag lady is radically disconnected from other people and from the life of society. She is alone, isolated, rejected, abandoned, homeless and friendless. She does not fit and does not belong. She is a poignant embodiment of a pervasive anomie.

This too is symptomatic of an American cultural failure. For all of our zealous pursuit of lofty ideals like truth, justice and equality we have forgotten how to get along with other people. Many of us no longer know how to work in a group, to cooperate with others or to function as social beings.

Prostrate at the altar of high ideals we have lost the art of producing and sustaining social harmony.

Many people do not even believe in social harmony. They believe that societies advance through a dialectical clash of opposing ideas.

The reject compromise and cooperation in favor of being oppositional. They contradict everything you say, subject your statements to an ideological litmus test, and revel in contemptuous and tendentious remarks. Their goal is to shed heat, not light on the problem.

That is the reason why out culture is cooked.

People who live to oppose are do not want to achieve a consensus, negotiate a compromise or find common ground. They have sacrificed the skills that would allow people to get along with other people, to feel like they belong to a group, to respect and honor other people in favor of their ideology.

Many people have bought into anomie because it they have been duped into seeing it as independence. When women feel that they must be independent and autonomous, when they are afraid of what will happen if they do not earn their own money they are saying that they do not believe that they can rely on anyone for anything.

If you tell people that you cannot rely on them you are also telling them not to rely on you.

If a woman insists that she does not need a man to support her she is more likely to attract men who cannot support her.

The Allianz poll did address the issue of “independence:

 Yet many also worry that financial achievement alienates both men and other women.

Forty-two percent said financially independent women intimidate men and run the risk of ending up alone, according to the survey. Almost one-third (31%) said those women are hard to relate to and don’t have many friends.

We do not know from the survey whether these successful women are hard to relate to and don’t have many friends because it’s lonely at the top—which is the hidden meaning of Sheryl Sandberg’s new book—because some successful women have sacrificed relationships to career success, because the culture is sexist, or because many of today’s very successful women tend to be ideologically committed.

It’s no secret that zealots tend to be insufferable.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Who Knows What Is Best for You?

As John Stuart Mill famously explained it, government can constrain your behavior when you are doing harm to others but it has no right to coerce you if you are merely doing harm to yourself.

Mill believed that individuals should be trusted to exercise personal freedom. Invariably they are most qualified to know what is in their best interest. And, they possess the knowledge to arrive at the best decisions. For the record, it's the principle behind the free market. 

If it happens that an individual, out of ignorance, is harming himself, Mill would allow the government to intervene on his behalf.

In many areas of life we allow government to impose some degree of regulation. We accept bans against driving without seat belts and taxes on tobacco products.

The question is whether these exceptions should become the rule. It’s one thing to say that individuals might be constrained by government, but we should also accept that government should be constrained from encroaching on individual freedom.

Since our personal judgment is not infallible, we occasionally make mistakes. If we are acting freely we are free to accept responsibility for our errors. If we accept responsibility we are free to change our behavior.

But, we are also free not to change our behavior. We might believe that change is too costly. Or we may refuse to cave in to those who wish to control our decisions.

In a free society we are free to do so. Our human dignity depends on our exercise of free will.

Behavioral economists beg to differ. They are worried that we make so many mistakes. They are concerned that we are so often prone to err.

Many behavioral economists consider this to be crucial. They conclude that if we are statistically prone to give in to temptation, as it used to be called, we are therefore lacking in free will.

Of course, they are in error. The idea of free will, which antedates John Stuart Mill by several millennia, accepts that we are often tempted and even that we often yield to temptation. We might well eat more when there is more on the plate, but that does not mean that we are not responsible for our choice.

Led by former Obama administration regulatory czar and current law professor Cass Sunstein behavioral economists have been arguing that we are so feeble minded and prone to error that we need the government to steer us in the right direction.

Thomas Sowell has responded cogently that government is made up of individuals and that there is no reason to believe that these individuals are of sturdier moral timber than the rest of us.

Clearly, he is right. His view highlights the fact that Sunstein and company see government as a benevolent agency that knows what is best for us and that is qualified to intrude on our personal decisions.

Why would government bureaucrats know what is best for us? Sunstein implies that they are basing their decisions on science. And, as disinterested public servants they want nothing but our good.

Sunstein sees government officials as an enlightened “guardian class,” as Plato called them. Somehow or other the great minds of behavioral economics cannot imagine that government officials can be self-interested and that their decisions are influenced by their wish to keep their jobs.

Is it unfair to say that public employee unions are out for themselves? Do they support political candidates who will offer them generous wage and benefit packages because they are disinterested public servants?

The proponents of expansive government are defending a class interest. The greater the power of government, the more important their jobs. The more important their jobs the more they gain prestige and income.

Behavioral economists want bureaucrats to push us toward or away from certain behaviors. They want to help us to do what they think we should do. But, David Hume famously declared, there is no science of “should.”

So, behavioral economists base their prescriptions on a number of moral principles.

Now, everyone agrees that good health is a good thing. Everyone agrees that increased longevity is a good thing. No one seems to consider that some things might be more important than longevity and that people who sacrifice their lives in service of the nation believe that there is something more important than living to be 112. 

Be that as it may, bans on transfats and the Big Gulp are designed to improve our health and to ensure longer life.

So we are being nudged toward good health all the time. And a goodly number of Americans are pushing back.  The country obsesses constantly about fat, but is also the most obese on earth.

Perhaps this proves that people value their dignity and their freedom more than their health. Perhaps they would not feel very good about themselves if they sacrificed their freedom on the altar of paternalistic government?

And then there’s this: James Taranto pointed out that the regulatory zeal of the behavior economics crowd stops at the boudoir. A group that wants to regulate more and more of your individual behavior—in the name of good health and the common weal-- refuses to lay a paternalistic glove on your sex life.

In Taranto’s words:

An even better example is this observation from Sunstein's review: "Because hers is a paternalism of means rather than ends, she would not authorize government to stamp out sin (as, for example, by forbidding certain forms of sexual behavior)."

What a staggering cop-out. The past 50 years or so have seen a massive deregulation of personal behavior in the sexual sphere, a revolution of law, technology, custom and economics, all in the name of personal autonomy. Never mind "sin"--this has had bad consequences for public health (AIDS and other new sexually transmitted diseases), for children (far more of whom are born out of wedlock and reared without fathers), and even for the future of the welfare state (since declining fertility makes old-age entitlements unsustainable).

Sunstein is talking about Sarah Conly’s refusal to authorize government to nudge us away from sin. Both he and she ignore the fact that government discourages the sins of alcohol and tobacco consumption through heavy taxes.

Yet, Taranto has clearly identified the Achilles heel of this enterprise, especially as it involves policy.

Sexual behavior satisfies all of the predicates that Sunstein and Conly lay down, but for reasons that are obscure, they refuse to consider its deregulation to be a problem. 

How much of a problem is it?

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control lays it out:

According to new data released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 19.7 million new venereal infections in the United States in 2008, bringing the total number of existing sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the U.S. at that time to 110,197,000.

The 19.7 million new STIs in 2008 vastly outpaced the new jobs and college graduates created in the United States that year or any other year on record, according to government data. The competition was not close.

It’s nice to know that Americans are still competitive at something.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The French Pursuit of Unhappiness

As a country go, France has much to recommend it. The food, the wine, the cheese, the fashion and the art… what could be wrong with that?

And for those who believe in welfare-statist social democracy France is a beacon.

The Guardian reports:

The country has a generous welfare state, plus universal and free access to healthcare, hospitals, public schools and universities. It also has a 35-hour working week and many foreigners aspire to make it their home – 150,000 Britons have chosen to live there.

What could be wrong with that? Doesn’t the French way of life represent everything that the Obama administration and Paul Krugman hold in high esteem?

And yet, for all that, the French are miserably unhappy. A cynic might believe all the government programs are sacrificing human happiness, to say nothing of freedom in favor of material comfort.

Surely, it’s demoralizing to be told that you cannot take care of yourself. In a culture that systematically demoralizes everyone it makes sense that everyone would lack confidence in his ability to compete in an open market.

Now, Claudia Senik, a professor at the Paris School of Economics has studied the problem. Her report linked here. The Guardian reports her striking conclusions:

Yet the French are gloomy. A recent WIN-Gallup poll found that their expectations for the coming year ranked lower than those in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The World Health Organisation notes that the suicide rate in France is much higher than in any of the "old European countries", with the exception of Finland. Suicide is the second biggest cause of mortality among 15-to-44-year-olds after road accidents, and the primary cause among 30-to-39-year-olds.

Read through her report and you will see that Senik blames the culture. Correctly so. She explains that it begins in the public schools. The French educational system teaches students the habit of misery from an early age.  

But, we should also consider the possibility that mental health professionals are contributing to the problem. Surely, they are not helping to solve it.

We emphasize the outsized influence that psychoanalysis continues to exercise in France, not only within the walls of analysts’ offices, but on the culture at large. At a time when psychoanalysis is a relic in America it is a thriving enterprise in France.

Last year, many of us were surprised to discover that the French mental health profession continues to use psychoanalysis to treat, or to mis-treat autism. While the rest of the world now uses the cognitive therapies that have worked the best on this condition, French psychologists and psychiatrists still insist on psychoanalysis.

If the French are depressed and demoralized, if they are nay-saying complainers, we will have to accept that some of the credit goes to psychoanalysis. Where else would people have learned that human desire is based on saying No and that relentless self-criticism is the proper treatment for psychoanalytically-induced guilt?

Is the Economic Recovery a Grand Illusion?

It’s not just that economic recovery is elusive; it's illusive.

As Mort Zuckerman explained in the Wall Street Journal this morning the American economy is stagnant. True, the media is touting a great recovery and the stock market keeps rising, but, Zuckerman suggests, the recovery is a “Grand Illusion.”

In his words:

The Great Recession is an apt name for America's current stagnation, but the present phase might also be called the Grand Illusion—because the happy talk and statistics that go with it, especially regarding jobs, give a rosier picture than the facts justify.

The country isn't really advancing. By comparison with earlier recessions, it is going backward. Despite the most stimulative fiscal policy in American history and a trillion-dollar expansion to the money supply, the economy over the last three years has been declining. After 2.4% annual growth rates in gross domestic product in 2010 and 2011, the economy slowed to 1.5% growth in 2012. Cumulative growth for the past 12 quarters was just 6.3%, the slowest of all 11 recessions since World War II.

Zuckerman has been reporting on the story for years now. He has not been fooled by the rosy scenarios painted by the media and the politicians.

He continues to try to give us some needed perspective on our economic conditions.

February's headline unemployment rate was portrayed as 7.7%, down from 7.9% in January. The dip was accompanied by huzzahs in the news media claiming the improvement to be "outstanding" and "amazing." But if you account for the people who are excluded from that number—such as "discouraged workers" no longer looking for a job, involuntary part-time workers and others who are "marginally attached" to the labor force—then the real unemployment rate is somewhere between 14% and 15%.

Other numbers reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics have deteriorated. The 236,000 net new jobs added to the economy in February is misleading—the gross number of new jobs included 340,000 in the part-time, low wage category. Many of the so-called net new jobs are second or third jobs going to people who are already working, rather than going to those who are unemployed.

The number of Americans unemployed for six months or longer went up by 89,000 in February to a total of 4.8 million. The average duration of unemployment rose to 36.9 weeks, up from 35.3 weeks in January. The labor-force participation rate, which measures the percentage of working-age people in the workforce, also dropped to 63.5%, the lowest in 30 years. The average workweek is a low 34.5 hours thanks to employers shortening workers' hours or asking employees to take unpaid leave.

Of course, the stock and bond markets seem to be telling a different story. If Zuckerman is right, the markets are simply not telling the truth.

We know that the bond market is being propped up by the Federal Reserve. Given how low interest rates are, investors seeking a return have had to rely on stock dividends. We also know that American markets have been attracting foreign assets because they are the safest alternative. 

Would you rather keep your money in a European country that might decide to confiscate it tomorrow or in the United States, where such an eventuality seems far less likely?

Therapy That Works

If you ask most psychologists and if you look at the surveys conducted by the American Psychological Association you will learn that all forms of psychotherapy work.

Were you expecting them to say anything else?

Now, the New York Times reports that some therapies work better than others, but that the ones that work best are not very easy to obtain.

According to the Times, the evidence-based cognitive-behavioral therapies are the most effective at healing what ails you.

Harriet Brown reports:

Over the last 30 years, treatments like cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy and family-based treatment have been shown effective for ailments ranging from anxiety and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders.

She continues:

C.B.T. [cognitive-behavioral therapy] refers to a number of structured, directive types of psychotherapy that focus on the thoughts behind a patient’s feelings and that often include exposure therapy and other activities.

You would think that highly professional and highly credentialed practitioners would be enrolling in programs that would teach them cognitive-behavioral treatments. If you did, you would be wrong. Most therapists prefer to offer what Brown calls a “dim-sum approach:”

Instead, many patients are subjected to a kind of dim-sum approach — a little of this, a little of that, much of it derived more from the therapist’s biases and training than from the latest research findings. And even professionals who claim to use evidence-based treatments rarely do. The problem is called “therapist drift.”

“A large number of people with mental health problems that could be straightforwardly addressed are getting therapies that have very little chance of being effective,” said Glenn Waller, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Sheffield and one of the authors of the meta-analysis.

What do therapists have against cognitive treatment? They find it to be too standardized, too impersonal and too scientific. You see, most therapists got into the field because they are people-people. They believe that empathy cures. Thus they reject any approach that does not allow them to effuse empathy and compassion.

And many therapists consider their work to be an art, not a science. All of their advanced training in scientific disciplines has convinced them that they are artists.

In Brown’s words:

According to Dianne Chambless, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, some therapists see their work as an art, a delicate and individualized process that works (or doesn’t) based on a therapist’s personality and relationship with a patient. Others see therapy as a more structured process rooted in science and proven effective in both research and clinical trials.

“The idea of therapy as an art is a very powerful one,” she said. “Many psychologists believe they have skills that allow them to tailor a treatment to a client that’s better than any scientist can come up with with all their data.”

Of course, if therapy is an art, what are patients? Are they blocks of marble, blank canvases, cans of play doh or balls of silly putty… waiting to be molded into who-knows-what by these therapist-artists?

Monday, March 25, 2013

David Mamet's "Phil Spector"

The most surprising thing about David Mamet’s “Phil Spector,” which debuted on HBO last night, was how good it was.

If you, as I, had read the reviews you would have thought that the movie was an uninteresting mess with some good acting thrown in.

I'm sure you know by now that the movie revolved around the relationship between accused murderer Phil Spector and his defense attorney, Linda Kenney Baden. It made for compelling drama. Better yet, it was well acted, well written, well plotted and well constructed. All told, an excellent work. 

Reviewers, however, decided to judge the movie as though it were an investigative report about about the trial of Phil Spector. They wanted to see Spector destroyed and Lana Clarkson emerge as a martyr.

Since Mamet was looking at the case through the eyes of defense attorney Baden, the story placed a greater emphasis on the possibility that Spector might not have murdered Lana Clarkson. It did not omit other damning evidence, but it did introduce enough other information to produce a reasonable doubt.

The critics did not see it this way. They were more worried about the possibility that someone could doubt Spector’s guilt than they were with the artistic merit of the film.

Movie critics, like all art critics, are supposed to judge the aesthetic value of a work of art. When they denounce a film for not affirming their opinion they are judging it as a form of propaganda. 

One cannot help but thinking that some critics were making themselves judge and jury at the trial of David Mamet. They were so offended that Mamet abandoned liberalism in favor of conservatism that they blinded themselves to his film's artistic merits. 

Strangely, most of them contended that since the movie was inspired by real people, it had to be judged according to how faithfully it corresponded to the reality.

If art, as Aristotle said, imitates life it is foolish to say that art should be judged on the basis of verisimilitude. Art has its own rules; it has its own organizing principles. The fact that something happened in the real world does not make it great art. To take an easy example, in the last two episodes of "Girls" Hannah plays out a plot line wherein she punctured an eardrum with a cue tip. The line has nothing to do with anything. It does not add anything to the show's narrative. As I understand it, Dunham included it because the same thing had happened to her. The reasoning is amateurish and unpersuasive. The cue tip episode was simply an artistic error.

When critics take things a step further and denounce a movie because it does not conform to their own beliefs, they are saying that aesthetic value is propaganda value, or better, that they are so convinced of the truth of their opinions that they cannot tolerate anyone who thinks differently. 

If the movie is social commentary, then it might really be about how  Hollywood treats those who deviate from its groupthink. The object of their derision is more David Mamet than Phil Spector.

Some critics also complained that the movie did not give enough attention to Lana Clarkson. Apparently, they know nothing about classical tragedy. 

The film is the tragedy of Phil Spector. He qualifies as a tragic hero because he has fallen from a great height. A tragic hero falls because he suffers from hubris. He sees himself as a god and is brought low by gods who resent his presumption. Such is Aristotle's definition and there is no reason to discard it. Spector's tragedy is the vision of a man who was arguably the greatest music producer of his time being incapable of defending himself when he is tried for murder. 

The film does not end with the jury verdict. It ends when lawyer Baden concludes that Phil Spector is simply too unhinged, too wigged out, too out-of-control to be put on the witness stand.

That is his tragedy. To see it otherwise is to fail to understand the nature of Greek tragedy.

Some reviewers complained that the movie’s action was constricted in time and space. Again, they were showing their own ignorance of classical tragedy. Didn’t Aristotle advise that playwrights respect the three unities: of time, place and action?

Mamet does not do it as well as Sophocles did with Oedipus Tyrannos, but the movie focuses on a single relationship. It compressed the time of the trial and strictly limited the number of places. 

Better yet, the movie contains a Greek chorus of protesters lusting for Spector’s blood.
Reviewers who jumped all over David Mamet for not presenting the story as they wished became part of this chorus.

And then there is the unseen chorus, the Los Angeles jury pool. The defense attorneys are constantly working to discover how they can get through the a Los Angeles jury. 

After all, as Baden and Spector keep mentioning, a Los Angeles jury found O. J. Simpson not guilty of murder. A jury from that city acquitted Michael Jackson of child molestation charges. Still another refused to convict Robert Blake of murdering his wife.

From the beginning of the movie, Baden is pessimistic. She says that Spector is going to serve as a scapegoat for jurors who feel guilty about those other acquittals. This makes sense: isn't a tragic hero a scapegoat, someone whose sacrifice serves to atone for crimes?

Clearly, Phil Spector is less of a household name than any of the other three. Members of a younger generation do not even know what a 45 rpm record looks like. But still, as Spector’s greatest hits waft through the film, you do come to appreciate that he was one of the most important music producers in history.

But then, what was there about Phil Spector that elicited such a harshly negative reaction? If it were merely the fact of having committed murder, the O. J. trial would have elicited a similar reaction. If it were merely his having committed a horrendous crime, the Michael Jackson trial would have provoked similar outrage. If it were merely about killing a woman in cold blood, the jury in the Robert Blake trial would have provoked a chorus of protest.  

We are left with a question, the question that haunts the mind of a Phil Spector who claims that he was innocent and who does not believe that anyone could possibly believe otherwise: What was there about Phil Spector (and David Mamet) that provoked such hostility?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Shame of Brené Brown

Normally, I would not comment on Brené Brown’s blog post on public shaming.

Were I to tell you how bad it really is I would risk looking disrespectful and uncharitable.

Yet, Brown, whose name I first heard a couple of days ago is a star on the TED circuit and claims to be speaking for the latest in psycho research on shame. This makes it more difficult to remain silent.

The truth is, if Brown’s essay had been written by a college sophomore it would be barely acceptable. Written by a college professor it is barely excusable.

Brown was especially agitated over the recent New York City subway campaign that has tried to stigmatize teen pregnancy. Our mayor recently put up a number of posters that try to discourage unmarried teenage girls from having babies. It has not threatened girls, but has asked them to take a cold hard look at the reality of teenage pregnancy.

Many people applauded the effort, myself included. Richard Reeves wrote an excellent column in the New York Times explaining how shame can be used to sanction bad behavior and to encourage good behavior.

Brown objected to what Reeves said, because, in her mind shame is bad.  It is all bad all of the time. It makes people feel bad; it makes them do bad things; it causes every kind of bad behavior.

Brown may call it science, but she is trafficking in mindless moral absolutes.

If she were consistent she would be promoting shamelessness, but that would require more thought than she has apparently put into the issue.

Of the two great emotional sanctions, shame and guilt, Brown clearly prefers guilt. She even believes that people change behavior because they feel guilty.

In her words:

The majority of shame researchers agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between “I am bad” and “I did something bad.” Shame is about who we are, and guilt is about our behaviors.

When we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends to others, or change a behavior that we don’t feel good about, guilt is most often the motivator. Of course, you can shame someone into saying, “I’m sorry,” but it’s rarely authentic. Guilt is as powerful as shame; it just doesn’t have the paralyzing and debilitating impact that prevents shame from being an effective agent of meaningful change.  

Clearly, the majority of shame researchers should be looking for another line of work.

I apologize to those of you who have read this before, but apparently one needs to repeat oneself.

Guilt differs from shame because guilt involves breaking a law. True enough, guilt comes from bad behavior, but no one feels guilty about bad manners.

Guilt is a form of anxiety. It is the anticipation of physical punishment. When criminals are pronounced guilty and punished the punishment attenuates the guilt feelings. The punishment for crime is most often physical, as in incarceration.

Someone who wishes to palliate guilt might practice self-flagellation, or its moral equivalent: self-criticism.

You pay the debt of your guilt by being punished. Palliating your guilt does not involve changing your behavior.

It is fair to remark, because the point confuses everyone, that when a criminal is brought to trial he suffers both guilt and shame.

For his malefactions he is tried and incarcerated.

But, since a trial is a public spectacle, he will also experience shame.

Shame might attach to criminal behavior, but only in the sense that an embezzler, for example, has not only committed a crime; he has failed to fulfill a basic fiduciary responsibility.

If guilt is about committing crimes, shame is about failing to do one’s duty.

When a commanding general fails, he will feel shame, not guilt.  

Moral individuals have a sense of shame. They know when they have done something wrong and set out to correct it. They apologize and resign and pledge to improve their character.

When Japanese businessmen fail they offer shamefaced apologies. They are not apologizing for having broken a law. They are not going to be indicted, tried or incarcerated… unless their failure involves criminal behavior.

When someone apologizes he expresses regret for his actions, takes sole responsibility for his failure and vows to behave differently in the future. 

Since apology covers failure, not criminal activity, it requires an individual to adopt new and more constructive behaviors.

Embarrassment is a milder form of shame. You will feel embarrassed if discover that you have bad table manners. The embarrassment will cause you to rectify your table manners. You do so because you want to participate in a social ritual and promote dinner table harmony.

It is not a crime to slurp your soup or to use the wrong fork. You would not expect to be punished for doing so.

Take the example of a young woman who binge eats. Which would be more likely to induce her to change the behavior: her punishing herself for binging or her watching a video that shows what she looks like when she isr binging?

Actually, girls who binge do feel guilty and do punish themselves: they induce vomiting. The result: they can binge again.

The shame that a girl will feel while watching herself binge is a far better deterrent than the self-punishment she will feel while vomiting.

Brown offers an example to illustrate what she means when she says that shaming people is very, very bad.

In her words:

A man shakes a bottle of pills in his wife’s face, “Look around you! Your pill-popping is destroying our family. Our son is failing out of school and our daughter is literally starving herself for attention. What's wrong with you?”

An exasperated husband is trying to get through to a wife who is out of control. He is saying, reasonably enough, that she needs to see what her habit has being to those who are near and dear to her.

Keep in mind, this man is trying to reach his wife through a drug-induced haze.

To Brown the man is in the wrong. Somehow, her addled moral sense has blinded her to the fact that the pill-taking wife is in the wrong and is destroying her family.

Brown is thus scrupulously non-judgmental, except when it comes to blaming the husband for his wife’s bad behavior.

She does not want to sanction the wife with bad feelings; she wants to sanction the husband for showing insufficient empathy. He does not feel her pain.

Do you think that the wife should feel ashamed of herself? Brown does not. Do you think that the husband is responsible for his wife’s pill popping because he is showing her insufficient empathy? Brown does.

I think it far more likely that the drug addict wife has been receiving too much empathy and understanding.  

If you don’t think that you are doing anything wrong, the chances are good that you will never think about changing what you are doing. If you are getting positive reinforcement via empathy you are likely to believe that you are not doing anything wrong.

Also, we live in a culture that prescribes pills for just about everything. How is this husband to counteract the message that the culture is sending if he does not, perhaps, raise his voice?

Will the wife in question try to numb her shame by taking more pills? Perhaps. But there is nothing about shaming that forces her to take pills.

The sad truth is that when psychologists tell people that the only way they can deal with shame is with pathological behavior it is leading them down precisely the wrong road.

You know and I know, and perhaps Brown knows, that the way to overcome shame is to improve your behavior. If a man feels embarrassed by his bad table manners he has a good alternative: good table manners.

If people mention that he is making a fool of himself they are doing him a favor.

But, if he follows what appears to be the latest psycho research he will double down on boorishness and denounce everyone for being judgmental.

Under normal circumstances guilt does not incite you to change your behavior: it can be dealt with by accepting your punishment. Also, note well that shame involves your public face while guilt aims at the state of your rather private soul.

If you have committed a sin you can confess and do penance in private. This allows you, strangely enough, to go forth and sin again.

At its best, guilt might inhibit your impulse to commit crimes or sins, but it does not, in itself, induce you to adopt new, positive constructive behaviors.

Take an example. From the time of Moses adultery has been forbidden. The Seventh Commandment is unambiguous.

And yet, throughout the course of Western Civilization people have happily committed adultery. In some cases adultery has been institutionalized in official mistresses, courtesans, concubines, favorites and courtly lovers.

Since most of this behavior took place with the context of Christian Europe we have good reason to suspect that adulterers were confessing their sins and receiving forgiveness.

Placing adultery with a guilt/penance system did nothing to deter adultery. It seems to have helped sustain the practice. After all, many people are attracted to something that is forbidden.

When some Western cultures wanted to lower the incidence of adultery they decided to stigmatize it. The practice is now identified by the infamous “scarlet letter.”

If, as is reasonable to believe, the guilt based approach produced more, better adultery and the shame-based approach reduced the amount of adultery, which was the more effective deterrent?

One needs to understand that when you destigmatize a behavior you get more of it. Destigmatize unmarried teenage motherhood, as we have been doing, and you get more unmarried teenage mothers. Destigmatize out-of-wedlock childbearing and you get more of it. Destigmatize divorce and you get more of it. Destigmatize teenage sexting and you get more of it. Destigmatize drug abuse and you get more of it.

America is awash in unwed teenage mothers and unwed millennial mothers because we followed the advice of psychologists and destigmatized the behavior. One appreciate Brown's interest in not shaming teenage mothers. She does not want them to feel bad, because, after all, nothing is worse than feeling bad.

Yet, the ads are not directed to unmarried  teenage mothers; they are directed at potential teenage mothers. I suspect that the current crop of unmarried teenage mothers is receive far too much empathy and understanding. Could that be the reason that they are doing it more than once? Could that be the reason that now in America, in a country where we no longer judge anyone's behavior, an obscenely large number of children are being born out of wedlock, to women who are not teenagers.