Monday, June 30, 2014

Undereducated Americans

How good are American universities? How can you tell?

In a well-documented article for the New York Times Kevin Carey explains that Americans lag the world in education. Receiving a degree is not the same thing as receiving an education.

Carey evaluates the evidence fairly, but this requires him to lead us through a series of studies, tests and evaluations.

It is true, he explains, that America has some of the greatest institutions of higher learning. But, that is for the 1%. When you look at the rest of the educational system, and especially how well educated Americans are, the results are far less sanguine.

It’s fine, Carey says, to rate universities by the number of Nobel laureates on their faculties, but if you test students and graduates themselves, you discover that they cannot compete with their peers around the world.

He writes:

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, for example, periodically administers an exam called PISA to 15-year-olds in 69 countries. While results vary somewhat depending on the subject and grade level, America never looks very good. The same is true of other international tests. In PISA’s math test, the United States battles it out for last place among developed countries, along with Hungary and Lithuania.

America’s perceived international dominance of higher education, by contrast, rests largely on global rankings of top universities. According to a recent ranking by the London-based Times Higher Education, 18 of the world’s top 25 universities are American. Similarly, the Academic Ranking of World Universities, published annually by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, gives us 19 of 25.

The Organization for Economic and Commercial development has tested adults around the world. The results, for America, are not encouraging.

Carey reports:

The project is called the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (known as Piaac, sometimes called “pee-ack”). In 2011 and 2012, 166,000 adults ages 16 to 65 were tested in the O.E.C.D. countries (most of Europe along with the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and South Korea) and Cyprus and Russia.

Like PISA, Piaac tests people’s literacy and math skills. Because the test takers were adults, they were asked to use those skills in real-world contexts. They might, for example, be asked to read a news article and an email, each describing a different innovative method of improving drinking water quality in Africa, and identify the sentence in each document that describes a criticism common to both inventions. The test also included a measure of “problem-solving in technology-rich environments,” reflecting the nature of modern work.

When the test was limited to college graduates, America did not fare very much better:

Only 18 percent of American adults with bachelor’s degrees score at the top two levels of numeracy, compared with the international average of 24 percent. Over one-third of American bachelor’s degree holders failed to reach Level 3 on the five-level Piaac scale, which means that they cannot perform math-related tasks that “require several steps and may involve the choice of problem-solving strategies.” Americans with associate’s and graduate degrees also lag behind their international peers.

American results on the literacy and technology tests were somewhat better, in the sense that they were only mediocre. American adults were eighth from the bottom in literacy, for instance. And recent college graduates look no better than older ones. Among people ages 16 to 29 with a bachelor’s degree or better, America ranks 16th out of 24 in numeracy. There is no reason to believe that American colleges are, on average, the best in the world.

Why does it matter? Because of what it portends for the international labor market.

We should worry less about government-mandated minimum wage levels and ask ourselves how much value an American worker can add to an enterprise. If, as Carey suggests, an undereducated American worker will add less value than a foreign worker, corporations will have an incentive to move jobs overseas. Why pay higher wages to workers who cannot make a concomitant contribution to their companies?

He concludes:

This reality should worry anyone who believes — as many economists do — that America’s long-term prosperity rests in substantial part on its store of human capital. The relatively high pay of American workers will start to erode as more jobs are exposed to harsh competition in global labor markets. It will be increasingly dangerous to believe that only our K-12 schools have serious problems.

Book Burning, Modern Style

We don’t burn the great books anymore. We don’t have to. No one reads them anyway.

The Nazis burned books. Maoists forbade everyone to read anything but the thoughts of Chairman Mao. We have done them one better: we make the great books available but tell people not to read them. So much for the free exchange of ideas.

It’s a totalitarian mindset, bent on the suppression of serious thinking.

Robert Maynard Hutchins was prescient when he wrote, more than six decades ago:

To put an end to the spirit of inquiry that has characterized the West it is not necessary to burn the books. All we have to do is to leave them unread for a few generations.

Hutchins wrote these words in his introduction to a fifty-four volume set of books called: Great Books of the Western World. It was published by the Encyclopedia Brittannica and sold door-to-door. With a starting price of $298—sixty years ago—it sold more than a million sets.

Writing in The American Spectator Daniel Flynn bemoans the fact that people no longer read. Surely, they no longer read the great books. In many cases they no longer read books at all.

Flynn explains:

According the Bureau of Labor, Americans spend about fifteen minutes a day reading. They spend about two-and-a-half hours a weekday watching television and nearly an hour playing games or messing about on the computer. The feds haven’t yet created a separate category for taking selfies or obtaining new tattoos, but anecdotal evidence suggests that their popularity exceeds reading, too.

At the least, we need to question this. How much of the time spent messing around on a computer involves reading newspapers, blogs and Facebook posts. It’s not all videogames.

True enough, Flynn notes, libraries give books away for free. Then again, so does Amazon. Most of works that were included in the Great Books are available for free on Amazon. If not on Amazon, through easily accessible pdf versions.

So, it does not feel quite right to blame the decline of reading, such as it might be, on gadgets. Nor does it feel quite right to slide effortlessly, as Flynn does, from the Great Books to Rob Sheffield’s Talking to Girls about Duran Duran.

Flynn would have a better argument if he noted that most people used to read and study the great books in high school and college. One does not, in normal circumstances, sit down willingly to peruse a volume of Leibniz. One has to be taught how to read such books.

No one is going to learn how to read Confucius on his own. Guided by a capable teacher, we are able to discover what the greatest minds of our civilization are trying to tell us.

Agree or disagree, you will improve your ability to think if you study the way the greatest thinkers went about the task.

Nietzsche once said that we learn more from the errors of great minds than we do from the truths of lesser minds. If he were alive today he would have had to modify his adage: we learn more from the errors of great minds than we do from the errors of self-important mediocrities.

It is not the fault of the gadgets. Let’s blame it on an educational establishment that no longer believes in the Great Books. Let’s blame it on teachers who would not know how to teach many of these books anyway.

Too often today, when educators bring the great books to the attention of students they want to show how they have promoted the hegemony of white males.

At best, today’s academics show students how to deconstruct the texts, find out signs of patriarchal attitudes and dismiss the enterprise as part of the vast conspiracy called Western Civilization.

Many years ago, when deconstruction was first gaining a foothold in the American academy, a professor friend explained to me that he did not have to read Plato’s works anymore because Derrida had deconstructed them.

People did not stop reading the Great Books because of Amazon. They did not stop reading philosophy because of Facebook. They stopped because their teachers taught them that they did not need to read such things. They stopped because their teachers taught them that the Great Books were part of a vast conspiracy to pollute their minds with logocentric, phallocentric, patriarchal, capitalistic, imperialist, colonialist thought.

It’s not the same as book burning, but, in the end it’s a more effective way to kill free inquiry and intellectual achievement.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Downside of Mindfulness

To me and many others meditation seems like a perfectly fine and beneficial practice. I do not meditate myself but I know people who have benefited from it.

After all, there are no chemicals involved. What could be wrong with a little self-exploration, or better, with a little added mindfulness?

Today, mindfulness meditation is one of the latest forms of psychotherapy. It tells you to slow down and smell the petunias, to focus on what you are doing, to live in the present and to relax.

What could be wrong with that?

Of course, there are many kinds of meditation.

Traditional psychoanalysis has always involved meditation. It does not include Buddhist chants but it encourages an introspective journey into your mind. (I discussed the point in The Last Psychoanalyst.) Psychoanalysis has never been a conversation between patient and analyst.

Now that psychoanalysis has faded from the scene, a more Eastern form of meditation has become more popular. And apparently more effective.

Yet, when something seems too good to be true, when it seems to provide an utterly risk-free path to enlightenment and mental health, we should ask questions.

Until I read Tomas Rocha’s Atlantic article, I had hesitated to ask such questions. I still do not know enough to do more than speculate, but the research performed by Brown University physician Willoughby Britton is certainly worth considering.

Rocha raises some important questions:

We have a lot of positive data [on meditation]," she[Britton] says, "but no one has been asking if there are any potential difficulties or adverse effects, and whether there are some practices that may be better or worse-suited [for] some people over others. Ironically," Britton adds, "the main delivery system for Buddhist meditation in America is actually medicine and science, not Buddhism."

As a result, many people think of meditation only from the perspective of reducing stress and enhancing executive skills such as emotion regulation, attention, and so on.

For Britton, this widespread assumption—that meditation exists only for stress reduction and labor productivity, "because that's what Americans value"—narrows the scope of the scientific lens. When the time comes to develop hypotheses around the effects of meditation, the only acceptable—and fundable—research questions are the ones that promise to deliver the answers we want to hear.

"Does it promote good relationships? Does it reduce cortisol? Does it help me work harder?" asks Britton, referencing these more lucrative questions. Because studies have shown that meditation does satisfy such interests, the results, she says, are vigorously reported to the public. "But," she cautions, "what about when meditation plays a role in creating an experience that then leads to a breakup, a psychotic break, or an inability to focus at work?"

Let us be mindful and slow down. Britton makes excellent points.

The first and most obvious is that mindfulness meditation should be led by a Buddhist monk. In today’s America it is often led by a physician. One imagines that this helps patients get their sessions reimbursed.

If you are practicing meditation with a Buddhist monk you will be aiming at something more than enlightenment. You will end up belonging to a new community.

If you are learning meditation from a physician, you would not have such a goal in mind.

One should consider the psychosocial difficulties that arise when your meditation cuts you off from your world and does not provide you with a new community.

Obviously, some people are so well grounded in their community--even their company-- that meditation might help them to function better within it. but, anyone who is detached and lost, who suffers from anomie, might be ill served by a meditation practice that detaches him further, that sends him into psychosocial exile.

Then again, even Buddhist meditation includes experiences that correspond to what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.”

I would hypothesize that this occurs when someone who is transitioning out of his old community has not yet arrived at his new community.

Rocha offers this version, from a Buddhist meditation teacher:

Shinzen Young, a Buddhist meditation teacher popular with young scientists, has summarized his familiarity with dark night experiences. In a 2011 email exchange between himself and a student, which he then posted on his blog, Young presents an explanation of what he means by a "dark night" within the context of Buddhist experience:

Almost everyone who gets anywhere with meditation will pass through periods of negative emotion, confusion, [and] disorientation. …The same can happen in psychotherapy and other growth modalities. I would not refer to these types of experiences as 'dark night.' I would reserve the term for a somewhat rarer phenomenon. Within the Buddhist tradition, [this] is sometimes referred to as 'falling into the Pit of the Void.' It entails an authentic and irreversible insight into Emptiness and No Self. Instead of being empowering and fulfilling … it turns into the opposite. In a sense, it's Enlightenment's Evil Twin. This is serious but still manageable through intensive … guidance under a competent teacher. In some cases, it takes months or even years to fully metabolize, but in my experience the results are almost always highly positive.

Of course, you might not want an insight into emptiness and the void. It is not too encouraging to think that it might take years to “metabolize” the breakdown you experience when you get so completely into your mind that you are completely lost to other people.

For my part, I suspect that an individual who throws off his old community will lose his sense of identity. He will no longer know who he is or even if he is.

Philosophers and psychologists assume that your identity is a state of consciousness that tells you that you are who you are.

And yet, I suspect, again as I argued in The Last Psychoanalyst, that identity depends far more on how we look to others. If one day you wake up and go about your daily routines, but no one you know recognizes you, you will start wondering who you are. If people are all calling you by a name that is not yours, you will start feeling that you do not know who you are and that you do not exist as the person you were.

It is not an accident that some people, when they join holy orders change their names.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Medical Marijuana Ruse

America is having something of a libertarian moment. At a time when we are being governed by a statist administration that takes its own word for law, young Americans are finding their way to the libertarian cause.

In one sense, this is a great thing. Someone needs to defend free markets, free expression, free enterprise and even free will. If young people do not do so they will suffer the consequences.

In another sense, they risk, as I wrote in my book, The Last Psychoanalyst, confusing freedom for responsibility with freedom from responsibility. After all, if you want to see what freedom from responsibility looks like you need only look to the White House.

In the proper circumstances, free will, which has lately been under attack by behavioral economists does not lead to a free-for-all.

One understands that young people are flocking to libertarianism because they like the Republican Party but do not like social conservatism. They consider it intrusive and inhibiting.

And yet, true freedom does not lie in the other extreme. True freedom is not a synonym for debauchery.

Riding the wave of libertarianism is the movement to legalize marijuana possession. Without taking sides on the issue, it is worth examining Catherine Saint Louis’s excellent New York Times report about the campaign to legalize week. In it, she explains that those who are arguing that marijuana has distinct medical benefits are, as the saying goes, blowing smoke.

If marijuana contributes to debauchery and if young people want to debauch themselves without fear of punishment, they might say so. To pretend that marijuana should be legalized because it is a medicinal agent appears to be largely a ruse.

Saint Louis explains this well:

New York moved last week to join 22 states in legalizing medical marijuana for patients with a diverse array of debilitating ailments, encompassing epilepsy and cancer, Crohn’s disease and Parkinson’s. Yet there is no rigorous scientific evidence that marijuana effectively treats the symptoms of many of the illnesses for which states have authorized its use.

Instead, experts say, lawmakers and the authors of public referendums have acted largely on the basis of animal studies and heart-wrenching anecdotes. The results have sometimes confounded doctors and researchers.

The lists of conditions qualifying patients for marijuana treatment vary considerably from state to state. Like most others, New York’s includes cancer, H.I.V./AIDS and multiple sclerosis. Studies have shown that marijuana can relieve nausea, improve appetite and ease painful spasms in those patients.

But New York’s list also includes Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and epilepsy, conditions for which there are no high-quality trials indicating marijuana is useful. In Illinois, more than three dozen conditions qualify for treatment with marijuana, including Alzheimer’s disease, lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome,Tourette’s syndrome, Arnold-Chiari malformation and nail-patella syndrome.

She is not saying that marijuana is never helpful for any patient at any time. She is saying that we need to rely more on science and less on PR:

Patients with rheumatoid arthritis, for instance, qualify for marijuana treatment in at least three states.

Yet there are no published trials of smoked marijuana in rheumatoid arthritis patients, said Dr. Mary-Ann Fitzcharles, a rheumatologist at McGill University who reviewed the evidence of the drug’s efficacy in treating rheumatic diseases. “When we look at herbal cannabis, we have zero evidence for efficacy,” she said. “Unfortunately this is being driven by regulatory authorities, not by sound clinical judgment.”

New York considered including the chronic inflammatory disease on its list, a development that astonished Dr. Mary K. Crow, an arthritis expert at the Hospital for Special Surgery, in Manhattan. People with rheumatoid arthritis have higher rates of certain respiratory problems, she noted.

That’s right. Our solons want to make it possible for patients with rheumatoid arthritis to smoke weed… even though they notably have respiratory problems.

It does happen, Saint Louis explains, that marijuana sometimes helps:

Amanda Hoffman, 35, an information technology specialist in Basking Ridge, N.J., struggles with ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease. She has tried steroids and Remicade, an intravenous infusion, but no drug has given her as much relief from frequent daily diarrhea and abdominal pain as her homemade cannabis caramels.

And then there is glaucoma. One often hears that marijuana is a good treatment for that condition.

Saint Louis puts the argument in proper scientific context:

Since at least 2009, for instance, the American Glaucoma Society has said publicly that marijuana is an impractical way to treat glaucoma. While it does lower intraocular eye pressure, it works only for up to four hours, so patients would need to take it even in the middle of the night to achieve consistent reductions in pressure. Once-a-day eye drops work more predictably.

Yet glaucoma qualifies for treatment with medical marijuana in more than a dozen states, and is included in pending legislation in Ohio and Pennsylvania. At one point, it appeared in New York’s legislation, too.

The moral of the story is that the public debate about marijuana legalization is filled with false scientific claims. In many ways it would be better if we were debating whether or not we want to legalize a party drug.

But then we would have to address the real question: how much harm does it do to growing and developing brains? If a fourteen-year-old does not care about whether he is damaging his brain by smoking weed, ought he to have the freedom to do so?

The Downside of Oxytocin

I’m with Robert Sapolsky. I may not be as high-minded as he is, but I too cannot resist “a feeling of malicious, chortling pleasure” when I see someone or something with “a reputation for saintly purity tarnished by warts and blemishes.”

Whose reputation has recently been tarnished? Why, the pituitary hormone: oxytocin.

Oxytocin is a human binding hormone. When women climax they produce extra oxytocin. The result: they feel closer to their lovers. When women give birth their bodies produce oxytocin—presumably, the hormone facilitates childbirth. (The world itself comes from Greek words that mean: swift birth.)  Oxytocin also promotes lactation and maternal instincts.

Sapolsky does not mention that the hormone is associated with women. The male body also produces it, but oxytocin seems to be responsible for the fact that women are, supposedly, more cooperative, more caring, more loving and less competitive than men.

When certain people say that if women ruled the world there would be peace everywhere they are, in part, basing their conclusions on the power of oxytocin.

Further research has outlined some of oxytocin’s other benefits.

Sapolsky summarizes them:

Oxytocin facilitates the formation of mother/infant bonds and of male/female pair bonds. Among humans, couples who are administered oxytocin (versus a placebo) have fewer intense fights, and the men rate their partners as more attractive and spend less time looking at other women.

The hormone's reputation got even better. Studies found that oxytocin lessens stress and anxiety; fosters trust, cooperation, forgiveness and generosity; and makes people more attuned to others' emotions. True believers in oxytocin proclaimed it the "love hormone" in some scientific journals. It seemed that if oxytocin were dumped in the water supply, everyone would lie down between lions and lambs.

Think of it: science has discovered a love hormone, an empathy hormone… drop it in the water supply and the Age of Aquarius will dawn on the earth.

It won't be very long before an enterprising behavioral economist decides that we must all be forced to drink up a certain amount on a daily basis. 

But there are problems. Enough to make Sapolsky chortle.

Oxytocin makes you feel all warm and fuzzy toward members of your own group, but it increases your hostility toward those who belong to other groups. It produces xenophobia.

Uh oh!

Sapolsky is too kind to put it in these terms, but oxytocin seems to make people more racist.

When test subjects in Holland were asked whether they would push someone under a trolley to save five other people—a standard psycho text—those who were juiced on oxytocin were more likely to sacrifice someone with a foreign name.

They were happy to throw Helmut or Abdul under the trolley but would have saved Luuk or Maarten.

Uh oh!

So much for peace on earth. So much for solving all the world’s problems with biochemistry.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. Another test revealed that oxytocin is more likely to make you lie and cheat… especially when it benefits your team.

Sapolsky describes it:

Subjects were told that they were part of a team of three volunteers (with no further information about teammates). Then each person played a virtual coin-toss game, with winnings to be divided among the three. The game was a great chance to lie: Players only had to report whether they had correctly guessed outcomes beforehand. Of course, guessing yields a 50% success rate, so the higher someone scored above 50%, the more likely it was that they were cheating.

Control subjects cheated plenty, claiming an average success rate of 66%. With oxytocin, cheating rose to 79%. Moreover, oxytocin dramatically increased the number of outrageous liars. Among control subjects, 23% reported an outcome with only a one-in-a hundred chance of occurring—a success rate of more than 90%. And subjects on oxytocin? The majority made this absurd claim.

So, oxytocin makes you more loving, more caring, more peaceful and more empathetic. But it only makes you feel close to those are belong to your own social group. It makes you feel more than willing to sacrifice outsiders in favor of those who are your own, but it also makes you more likely to cheat to help your team win.

Anything to be feel like a member in good standing of the group.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Therapy Dogs

As a rule I always try to keep up on the latest trends in therapy. It’s what this blog is really about.

Now, American colleges have taken a step toward providing better mental health services for their students. They have gone beyond Prozac, beyond nicotine, beyond hookups, even beyond cognitivist homework exercises to broach a new frontier in mental health treatment: therapy dogs.

Bloomberg reports:

While pet therapy has long been common in nursing homes and hospitals, gifting college students with puppy time is “a fairly new concept, but one that has been well received,” wrote two University of Connecticut staff members in the research journal College & Undergraduate Libraries.

“College students face many of the same issues as the elderly, such as living away from home, often leaving pets behind and adjusting to an impersonal institution,” they wrote. “Studies have shown that interacting with an unknown dog reduced blood pressure, lowered anxiety, and reduced self-reported depression among college students.”

If it works for students in Harvard Medical School, it might even work for you:

Harvard Medical School’s library has a Shih Tzu named Cooper, available for playtime with students two days a week. Cooper has his own reservation page on Harvard Library’s website. “He enjoys fetching his squeaky toys and stuffed animals, as well as a good game of tug. Should you have a good cry or even feign a whimper near Coop, you are guaranteed to get lots of kisses,” according to his owner’s description.

Positive Reframing or Negative Validation

What do you say to a friend who is depressed and anguished?

Psychologists offer two approaches: positive reframing or negative validation.

A recent study, reported by Jesse Singal in New York Magazine, does not really discuss therapeutic tactics, though both of these approaches come to us from one or another kind of therapy.

When you engage in positive framing you are putting a failure in a different, more positive context. Basically you are saying: Suck it up and move on.

Jesse Singal describes positive reframing:

There's a deep well of encouraging phrases most people turn to when trying to cheer up a friend or loved one: "You'll do better next time." Or "It's not really that bad, is it?" Or the relatively straightforward "Come on — cheer up!" 

The study shows, reasonably, that sometimes this works and sometimes it does not. It depends on the person you are addressing.

When you use positive reframing with someone who has what the researchers call high self-esteem, your words will make failure appear to be a one-off event, something uncharacteristic.

Which is the way someone who is confident sees failure.

He will weigh his failure against his past successes and will be receptive to someone who rejects the notion that he is defined by a single failure.

But, the research shows, positive reframing does not work when people are generally depressed, or, as the researchers say, suffering from low self-esteem.

Singal summarizes positive reframing in relation to both negative events, like failures, and anxiety:

They found that so-called "positive reframing," which, as the name suggests, is an attempt to put negative events in their "proper" perspective, not only doesn't resonate with people with low self-esteem, but can actually fully backfire and make the comforter feel worse about themselves because their comforting is not working, potentially damaging their relationship with the person they're trying to comfort.

And then:

Taking the example of someone positively reframing their partner's anxiety about a job interview, the researchers write that positive reframing "may suggest to some ... that their anxiety about the upcoming event is unfounded and that their relationship partner does not truly understand or accept their feelings." The comforter may then react negatively to the comfortee's lack of responsiveness, leading to a negative cycle.

Let’s be clear. Comforting someone who has flunked calculus is not the same as talking with someone who feel anxious about an impending performance. The first is a failure; the second is an anticipation of a possible failure.

Someone who has less confidence will see his failure as part of a pattern. He will not see himself as someone who has failed, but as someone who is a failure. Thus, a friend who tries to cheer him up will not be connecting because he will not be recognizing the way he sees himself.

Yet, even if positive reframing does not work well with people who see themselves as failures, a good therapist will usually try not to underwrite the person’s sense that he is a failure. He will try to help the person to amass evidence that tends to contradict the sense of being a failure.

When it comes to performance anxiety, things are different. It is not very helpful to tell someone who is anxious about a performance that he has no reason to be anxious. A more helpful response, Singal suggests, is to recognize that the emotion might well be suited to the situation. One finds it hard to imagine, however, that anyone, faced with a friend who is anxious about performing in an important game will say that the performer has no reason to feel anxious.

In a different context, when a friend is grieving the loss of someone near and dear, you acknowledge the appropriateness of the emotion. If the person tells you that he or she is anxious about the future, you will readily agree that the emotion is appropriate.

For the record, negative validation is not really negative. It affirms that an anxious or depressed friend has reason to feel the way he feels. Thus, that his emotions are reflecting something about his situation or circumstances. 

In cases where people are anguished and do not know why they are feeling what they are feeling, one should always assume that the emotion suits their real life circumstances. Perhaps your suffering friend does not know why he is feeling what he is feeling, but still, you must assume that he is anxious about something, not nothing.

Singal explains why negative validation works with some people but not with others:

"Negative validation" — that is, "support behaviors that communicate that the feelings, actions, or responses of the recipient are normal and appropriate to the situation" — did resonate with people with low self-esteem, on the other hand. (People with high self-esteem tended to respond well to either positive reframing or negative validation.)

It is important to underscore, as Singal does, that people who have high self-confidence can respond well to either positive reframing or negative validation.

(Perhaps I am being persnickety, but if you tell someone that his emotions are appropriate to his circumstances, you are offering what I would call an affirmative validation.)

Finally, if you try positive reframing with someone who has low self-confidence, you are not, the researchers say, suffering from a lack of empathy.

People with high self-esteem tend to assume that others also have high self-esteem. Thus, they assume that if positive reframing works with them it will work with others. You might say that they are failing to recognize the low self-esteem in their friends or you might say that they are giving their friends the benefit of the doubt.

It seems also to be true that people with high self-confidence gravitate to those who also have high self-confidence. They choose to associate with others who see life in more optimistic terms and avoid those who do otherwise. Typically, they avoid people who bring them down. That is one way to maintain high self-esteem.

Singal summarizes:

None of this is to say the cheer-uppers are bad friends or partners, or that they lack empathy. The authors point out that it's simply hard for people who have high self-esteem to slip into a properly empathetic mode when dealing with people who lack it — they even cite research showing that people who know when to steer clear of positive reframing have a tendency to slip into it nonetheless. It can be exhausting dealing with someone who appears to simply refuse to feel better. Even if you're well-versed on mental-health issues and know this not a helpful response, at a certain point it's extremely tempting to say, "Get over it! The sun will rise tomorrow. Let's go get a beer."

The example becomes less interesting when Singal offers an example of what you should say to someone with low self-esteem:

So, to take a practical example: If you're trying to console someone with low self-esteem who is convinced a bad grade on a grad-school paper is a disaster that highlights how lazy and stupid they are, you'll likely be a lot more successful with a line like "That must really suck to feel so down about your grade," as opposed to reassuring them they'll do better next time.

At the least, this example is strange. It is not negative validation. It is not even validation. It does not tell the person that his emotions are normal, given the circumstances.

And, there’s nothing empathetic about it either.  The speaker is saying that he does not feel the way his friend does and has no idea what that feeling is. In fact, the sentence says something like, It must suck to be you, and thank God, I am not you.

This is not only off-putting… it disrespects and disconnects.

Some people will fail to show empathy by treating you as though you are more self-confident that you are. Others will fail to show empathy by refusing to connect with you.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Achievement vs. Empathy

Maybe it’s not as bad as we think it is.

According to a Harvard University study most parents want their children to be high-achievers and to gain happiness through achievement. Of course, the researchers find this to be bad news.

It seems that parents pay lip service to empathy—the pseudo-value that most educators want children to acquire—but they are really more like Tiger Moms.

Of course, if this were as true as the study suggests it is, the nation would have risen up with one voice to praise the Tiger Mom.

It didn’t, so we take all of this discussion skeptically.

It might be that parents value student achievement, but perhaps they do not value it enough. Or perhaps their feelings do not translate into the kind of parenting that will produce the desired results.

Of course, parents are only one side of the equation. The study also suggests that schoolteachers also value achievement over empathy, but what are they teaching these children?

Are they teaching the value of achievement? Are they helping children to hone their skills to compete with children in the rest of the nation and the world? Or are they paying lip service to achievement while teaching self-esteem and empathy?

As it happens, the Harvard study tells us that empathy is not being ignored. It is simply being put in second place. For all I know, children would be happier if empathy were put in fourth place.

The Atlantic’s Jessica Lahey writes:

If there is any good news to be found in this report, it is that while we may value other things above empathy, we still care about it, and want our children to value it. While only 22 percent of the students surveyed ranked caring first on their list of priorities, almost half of them students ranked caring second, and 45 percent thought their parents would rank caring second as well.  

But, this is not necessarily good news. Perhaps it explains why American schoolchildren, on the whole do poorly on international tests of math and language.

Lahey explains:

While 96 percent of parents say they want to raise ethical, caring children, and cite the development of moral character as “very important, if not essential,” 80 percent of the youths surveyed reported that their parents “are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others.” Approximately the same percentage reported that their teachers prioritize student achievement over caring. Surveyed students were three times as likely to agree as disagree with the statement “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my class than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

Note well that the educators identify moral character with empathy. It’s a sleight-of-hand. They are so viscerally opposed to competition and achievement that they do not understand that sports, for example, builds character by teaching children to play the game by the rules and to show good sportsmanship.

They also fail to see that, for someone who is competing in the arena or the marketplace or the battlefield, empathy is counterproductive. If you feel for your opponent and feel badly for him when he loses you will become a weak competitor.

The educators at Harvard are distressed that their efforts to indoctrinate parents have not been more successful, but perhaps it’s a good thing that parents are unwilling to sacrifice their children’s success in favor of being caring and compassionate.

According to Lahey, Harvard educators want:

As the report shows, simply talking about compassion is not enough. Children are perceptive creatures, fully capable of discerning the true meanings in the blank spaces between well-intentioned words. If parents really want to let their kids know that they value caring and empathy, the authors suggest, they must make a real effort to help their children learn to care about other people—even when it’s hard, even when it does not make them happy, and yes, even when it is at odds with their personal success. 

The educators are willing to sacrifice success in favor of doing charity work, giving to the neediest. They want to live in a nation of social workers, not a nation of entrepreneurs. They are not teaching empathy as much as they are teaching guilt. What they call empathy seems to be a way to assuage guilt for being a capitalist oppressor.

Of course, it is not self-evident that the less fortunate will profit from more compassion and caring. Perhaps they would do better to learn how to gain happiness through achievement and success.

The educators and psychologists are purveying empathy. They see it as the supreme moral value and believe that it solves all problems and produces happy well-adjusted children. We note, yet again, that empathy is not a moral value at all and that it is so poorly defined that it could mean just about anything, from feeling someone’s pain to getting along with others.

Psychologist Michele Borda argued for empathy:

Studies show that kids’ ability to feel for others affects their health,wealth and authentic happiness as well as their emotional, social, cognitive development and performance. Empathy activates conscience and moral reasoning, improves happiness, curbs bullying and aggression, enhances kindness and peer inclusiveness, reduces prejudice and racism, promotes heroism and moral courage and boosts relationship satisfaction. Empathy is a key ingredient of resilience, the foundation to trust, the benchmark of humanity, and core to everything that makes a society civilized.

Of course, these values are anything but neutral. They are intrinsic to liberal and progressive politics. Whatever else you think of Borda, she is trying to enlist parents and teachers in the daunting task of brainwashing children to make them more like her, to affirm her values.

Unfortunately, this hodge podge is anything but true. Being civilized means following rules, communicating clearly, showing respect for others and competing fairly in the arena. The nation's great master of empathy, Bill Clinton was happy to feel everyone's pain, but that did not prevent him from inflicting some on hapless young women.

We are currently living through a period in our history where we have an empathetic government. We have a government that cares for people, but we also have a government that prefers to keep people in a position where they need to be cared for.

Obviously, it depends on what you call caring. A government that really cared about people would make it easier to create jobs. A government that really cared would be more interested in job creation than in handouts.

Who Profits from Casual Sex?

What would we do without the Daily Mail? Yesterday, that wondrous publication reported the latest findings on casual sex. That is, on casual sex on college campuses. The conclusions: for certain students, it can enhance self-esteem; for others, not so much.

As you might have guessed, those who are most likely to get a self-esteem boost from casual sex are males. Not just any males, but among college age students: self-involved, narcissistic, athletic males. It also helps to be politically liberal.

Obviously, these are also the males who are most likely to have access to casual sex. After all, politically liberal men are more likely to spend time with politically liberal women and this latter group—sex-positive feminists-- might, for all we know, be most susceptible to casual sex, that is, they might be the least likely to respect themselves.

Meantime, the Daily Mail reports:

Dr Vrangalova, a professor of psychology at New York University, also defined key character traits of people who constantly want casual sex.

'They are generally extroverted, sensation-seeking, impulsive. avoidantly attached' males, who also invest less in romantic relationships and are more likely to have cheated on a romantic partner,' she told journalist Ryan Jacobs.

'Among men, they are also more likely to be physically strong, and especially among college men, also more sexist, manipulative, coercive and narcissistic. They also tend to be “unconventional, attractive, [and] politically liberal.'

As it happens, people who are drunk when they have casual sex are more likely to regret it. Who knew? Obviously, the report is not about just any people. It should be common knowledge by now that women who indulge this habit are more likely to need to get drunk to participate.

They are not, dare I say, exercising their freedom.

Things being as they are, we needed a serious research study, from Emory University, to learn that men are more likely to enjoy casual sex than are women and that women are more likely to orgasm when their sexual activities exist within the context of a relationship.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

When Women Say They're Sorry

It’s really all about the shampoo. Specifically, it’s about Pantene shampoo. Its latest ad promises women that if they stop saying that they are sorry they will have shinier hair… or something. Apparently, Pantene wants women to associate shiny hair with strength. 

Of course!

In fact, the ad is exploiting the feminist effort to teach women to be more like men, to lean in and to act as though they are strong. Because, you know, the more you say you are strong the stronger you become.

For a woman, of course, hair matters. It matters enormously. The reason is simple: something like 70% of a woman’s pheromones—her sexual attraction hormones—are in her hair. That is why some women let their hair grow out.

It appears that the folks who conjured up the Pantene ad are trying to exploit women’s willingness to follow the lead of the Pied Pipers of feminism. If women really want to be more like men—and less attractive to men-- they should wear their hair short, very short. But, in that case they will be using less shampoo.

For my part, perhaps because I was well brought up, I do not believe that women are especially prone to pathological behaviors. I do not see them as mindless tools of the patriarchy. I do not tell women how to dress, for example, and do not believe that the fashion and cosmetics industries are patriarchal conspiracies designed to prevent women from fulfilling themselves as assembly line workers.

If women choose freely to wear cosmetics or fashionable, who am I to denounce them? Why would I lay a guilt trip on them?

And why does anyone imagine that a woman will gain more confidence if she is constantly being criticized by other women for acting like a woman?

If your reasoning is based on the specious notion that men and women are really the same, you will constantly be deriding women for not acting more like men. And you will be setting them up for failure: a woman who acts more like a man will be pretending to be something she is not.

Take the current cacophony about how many times women use the word “sorry.” Clearly, feminists take this behavior as an offense against their efforts to brainwash the world into thinking that women are just as strong as men. Feminists believe that if you keep saying that women are stronger women will become stronger.

Obviously, feminists are missing a few little grey cells.

Now, imagine that women are physically weaker than men. If so, they are more vulnerable to aggression and less capable of defending themselves. If that is true, a woman’s being more conciliatory would count as adaptive behavior.

If a woman is induced by her feminist mistresses to stop saying "sorry" and "excuse me" she risks becoming more confrontational. Then she will be exposing herself to more danger.

Then, these women who have followed feminist advice will find themselves in more dangerous and abusive situations. Naturally, they will blame the patriarchy.

Of course.

In the midst of the usual cacophony about how many times women say “sorry” Megan Garber of The Atlantic offered an exceptionally clear-headed analysis of the problem.

She alone, to my knowledge, emphasized the difference between the everyday use of the term “sorry” and a formal apology.

Garber explains:

Anyway, "sorry" is … semantically supple. It can be meaningful, but only in a particular context. It can indicate, depending on the circumstances in which it's deployed, deep regret—I'm sorry I lied, I'm sorry I cheated, I'm sorry I ate your plums—but it could also indicate contrition of a much more casual variety. I'm sorry I bumped into you. I'm sorry I yelled at you, but the skinny latte I ordered had obviously been made with whole milk.

As Garber suggests, it is wrong to believe that every time a woman uses the word “sorry” she is a sorry excuse for a feminist.

Here, the question is degree, not kind. Some apologies are seriously meaningful expressions. Others are casual attempts to promote social harmony.

In some cases an apology represents an admission of failure. But that is only true in specific ritualized contexts.  A CEO who presents himself to the public to express his deep shame for having failed at his job is not doing the same thing as you are doing when you jostle someone on the street and say that you are sorry.

When a CEO apologizes he is saying that he deserves to be sanctioned for his behavior. He should, in the best cases, resign his position and retire from public life for a time.

When someone apologizes in the strong sense he is publicly admitting to having failed a significant duty. He is saying that he will never do it again, and that he does not deserve to be treated as a respectable citizen. He will accompany his apology by a resignation and by a temporary withdrawal from public life.

When you jostle someone on the street or interrupt a meeting by opening the door at an inopportune moment, you are saying that you made a mistake and that the mistake was unintentional. You are not saying that you are unfit for human intercourse or that you will retire from public life for a time.

Garber distinguishes casual from severe apologies. We can also call them weak and strong apologies:

They assume that when I apologize for my clumsiness or my lateness or my plum-eating (they were delicious, by the way), I am tacitly admitting to some kind of profound character flaw….

My casual apology—I'll just speak for myself here—is not a castigation, of myself or my self-worth or my gender; it is not necessarily—asa Jezebel article, presuming to speak for all of us, put it last year—an indication of "our guilt complexes and inner Pollyannas."

The real question is whether one or another rhetorical strategy works. And, what works for you might not work for someone else.

Sometimes indirect expressions, expressions laden with niceness and charm are more effective than sentences that are direct and straightforward.

Deborah Tannen explained that in Japan a manager might choose not to be very dominant or aggressive, but might prefer to couch a request in something that sounds like an apology.

If an indirect expression—I’m sorry to have to ask you this-- the expression that does not really signify contrition, motivates the employee, why do something else?

Some women tell us that they have profited from leaning in. Others have lost out on job or promotional opportunities for mistaking empty self-assertion with effective communication.

If women feel that “sorry” or “excuse me” are effective conversational lubricants, they should continue to use them. If they systematically remove such expressions they might find that their relationships become more harsh and more disagreeable… at the least.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Parental Dereliction

Tiger Moms do not want their children to be cool. They do not even want their children to be popular. They want their children to work hard, to persevere and to build good character. They want their children to develop the skills that will serve them as adults in the real world.

As you know, many parents reject Tiger Mom parenting. They do not want their children to be raised according to strict disciplinary standards. They want their children to be cool, to be hip, to have fun and, especially, to be popular. They justify it by saying that they want their children to be free-spirited and creative, not repressed grinds.

Who’s right?

Jan Hoffman reports on recent studies that examine what happens when children are allowed to grow up too soon. Specifically, the studies target children who adopt adult behaviors in middle school, at around age 13.

Strangely, Hoffman makes very little mention of the role that parents might be playing in these cases. She does not ask about whether these 13-year-olds receive any parental supervision. Are they just allowed to run around and party? Or are they encouraged to do so?

Again, where are the parents? Are these children unsupervised? Are their parents are so anxious that their children be “popular” that they allow them to pretend to be adults? Wherever did their parents get the idea that children need to learn how to excel at partying?

Hoffman hints at parental dereliction:

At the same time, other young teenagers were learning about soldering same-gender friendships while engaged in drama-free activities like watching a movie at home together on a Friday night, eating ice cream. Parents should support that behavior and not fret that their young teenagers aren’t “popular,” he said.

One suspects that parents are playing a more active role in encouraging this pseudomature behavior.

As for the children, Hoffman describes them well:

At 13, they were viewed by classmates with envy, admiration and not a little awe. The girls wore makeup, had boyfriends and went to parties held by older students. The boys boasted about sneaking beers on a Saturday night and swiping condoms from the local convenience store.

They were cool. They were good-looking. They were so not you.

How did they turn out? In most, but not in all cases, not so well.

Hoffman writes:

“The fast-track kids didn’t turn out O.K.,” said Joseph P. Allen, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. He is the lead author of a new study, published this month in the journal Child Development,that followed these risk-taking, socially precocious cool kids for a decade. In high school, their social status often plummeted, the study showed, and they began struggling in many ways.

It was their early rush into what Dr. Allen calls pseudomature behavior that set them up for trouble. Now in their early 20s, many of them have had difficulties with intimate relationships, alcohol and marijuana, and even criminal activity. “They are doing more extreme things to try to act cool, bragging about drinking three six-packs on a Saturday night, and their peers are thinking, ‘These kids are not socially competent,’ ” Dr. Allen said. “They’re still living in their middle-school world.”

The children tended to live lives that best corresponded to what the media defined as cool. Or better, they lived lives that would entertain others:

A constellation of three popularity-seeking behaviors characterized pseudomaturity, Dr. Allen and his colleagues found. These young teenagers sought out friends who were physically attractive; their romances were more numerous, emotionally intense and sexually exploring than those of their peers; and they dabbled in minor delinquency — skipping school, sneaking into movies, vandalism.

As they turned 23, the study found that when compared to their socially slower-moving middle-school peers, they had a 45 percent greater rate of problems resulting from alcohol and marijuana use and a 40 percent higher level of actual use of those substances. They also had a 22 percent greater rate of adult criminal behavior, from theft to assaults.

The children might have received encouragement, overtly or covertly, by parents who wanted them to grow up faster, be more popular and never be alone.

Strangely, a child who pretends to be an adult cannot be anything but alone. If a child is acting like a character in a play, he cannot enjoy the everyday and, as Hoffman mentioned, non-dramatic everyday socialization.

A pseudomature child will learn how to act out, to play a role, but will never learn how to function in the world.