We share the planet with numerous creatures, and there’s a lot that we still don’t understand about them. For one example, watch this video from BBC Earth about a scientist’s unfathomable encounters with a humpback whale that saved her life.
There’s a short and funny YouTube video, Finnish Seasonal Depression, that compares a Finnish man in the despairing depths of winter to what he’s like on a summer day with some rare sunshine. (Clearly there are enormous differences, like the flower tucked behind his ear. As for the beer – it’s good for any season.)
Anyway, a question came to mind when I watched it: Can people get seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or seasonal depression, during the summer?
Apparently yes, though it’s not as common (or at least not as well-documented) as winter SAD. As discussed in Psychiatry Advisor, overbearing heat and humidity may trigger the summer variation of seasonal depression, and high pollen levels may be another environmental trigger. Also, it seems as though summer SAD is more common in tropical climates.
I wasn’t aware of this at all. Aside from sensing that intense heat and protracted exposure to sunshine can make someone feel sluggish (or put them at risk of dehydration or heatstroke), I never thought of SAD as an issue in the summer. It probably almost never is in Finland.
… and what they reveal about human limitations and strengths. Two quick examples:
Watch this video, which focuses on a picture book while asking important questions about how our brains work vs. how AI works. At what age will a young child understand what happened to the thieving rabbit? Can AI understand the story’s shocking conclusion?
And consider this recent article from CNET on the biases in algorithms (a topic I posted about before). People sometimes think that AI-based decisions will somehow be objective, free from biases and errors in judgment. But what data do algorithms get trained on? And who gets to say what’s a fair AI decision and what’s not?
I’m reading Influence by Robert Cialdini, and some parts of the book have been unsettling. Influence discusses strategies that are effective at changing people’s behavior and beliefs. Of course, not all techniques work on all people in all situations. But because they’re often effective enough, you’ll typically see them wielded by salespeople, political activists, cult leaders, and other folks who are deeply motivated to be persuasive.
One of the insights in the book is that people will often become the instruments of their own change. You nudge them towards a particular path, and they do the rest. Their brains begin to reinforce certain associations, build certain habits, and concoct rationalizations. People can easily overestimate how much control they have and can come to believe that an idea was their own all along.
I’ve also come across passages that provide insight into behaviors often seen on social media. The book initially came out in the 1980s, and the revised version I’m reading now was published in 2007. I think this was before the major social media sites became mainstream, so I don’t know if the author will bring them up at any point. But even though these excerpts don’t refer specifically to Twitter or Facebook, they’re still insightful about the way people often behave on those sites:
A few months ago I came across an article about a young Instagram star, only 9 years old, whose posts were suddenly deleted after evidence came out that her older brother might be feeding her lines in a video.
At the article, you can find a quote from a family spokesperson about how the child is currently undergoing “rebranding.”
Her old brand had her swearing and getting into feuds with other social media celebrities for the amusement of millions of people who don’t know her or care about her.
What does the new brand of 9-year-old look like? I didn’t check, because kids shouldn’t be undergoing “rebranding.”
Recently, an Instagram “mommy blogger” posted a picture of one of her children and lamented how he doesn’t get as many likes or comments as her other children. It was his birthday, so she urged her followers to send him “alllllll the likes,” and she sadly wondered if, when he’s older, his self-worth will suffer once he lays eyes on his Instagram stats. (Why would he be looking at these stats, though? Why should a child have to worry about this…? Why?)
On the Internet, every part of a child’s life can become part of their public persona. The camera follows these kids into all corners of their lives – as much as their parents permit, and some parents don’t seem to care at all how much gets revealed.
It’s not that child exploitation is a new thing, only that the Internet allows it to become even more pervasive and invasive. Imagine you’re a kid sitting down to eat a bowl of cereal in the morning. Without your understanding and consent, your cereal eating becomes public fodder. Strangers stare at the images and judge you, liking or withholding likes, and commenting of course (Cute hair! Aww, looks sleepy! Don’t mean to be rude, but that haircut is not flattering! Why isn’t he eating something more nutritious? Why does this kid look so grumpy?! Smile a little, come on! Awww, cute smile!)
And it doesn’t stop with cereal eating. It can be anything at any time – brushing teeth, playing on a swing set, picking clothes to wear to school, having a meltdown at a supermarket (with the right branding, the meltdown can be spun as funny).
Parents who subject their kids to this onslaught of attention may argue that they don’t actually value their kids based on likes and other social media stats. However, they’re still focused on making their family brand look as good as possible, at all times, to as many strangers as possible. The kid picks up on this, even before they understand Instagram algorithms. The mom whose son needs more birthday love (from strangers?) is troubled by her kid’s Instagram performance, even if she publicly blames herself rather than him. “My insufficiency caused this statistical deficit,” she wrote.
What she meant by ‘insufficiency’ is unclear. Did she use the wrong filters for her son’s photos? Did she fail to capture him at the best angles? Is her son going to wind up feeling guilty and inadequate as his mother sighs about social media insufficiencies?
(Oh, that dear boy. It can’t be him. It’s me! And yet… my other children perform well, so… but no, he’s a dear boy, even if he can’t keep up with the others. But what makes him less likeable?)
Moving right along… how about this dad and stepmom who received five years of probation for child neglect after posting YouTube videos of their “pranks” on their kids. Anything for likes, clicks, and subscribes, right?
A while ago I read reports of a “social credit system” China is developing to rank citizens publicly by the value they have, as measured across dimensions that include wealth and social connections. Much as we shake our heads about how dystopian it all is, hopefully something we’ll never see in the US, we’re already priming ourselves and our kids psychologically to more easily accept a society where: a) you’re monitored a lot, maybe round-the-clock b) any behavior is up for scrutiny and judgment c) records of your images, words, thoughts, and deeds, are archived and can be dug up at any time, even decades later, and d) your value is indeed measured by ‘likes.’ Here we might think of it as personal branding rather than good citizenship, but it’s a mindset where you can find no worth outside of being seen and judged favorably by other people. And it’s a mindset inculcated in people from a young age. Even when parents don’t actively push it, the culture is still steeped in these values.
In the third chapter of his book, On Becoming a Person, Carl Rogers talks about some of the qualities of a healthy helping relationship. Although his focus is on therapists and patients, he also notes how these qualities could apply to other relationships, such as parent-child or teacher-student. Here are some:
1) A sincere desire to understand the other person. This doesn’t mean saying “I understand what’s wrong with you and now I’ll fix you” or “I understand what’s wrong with you because I had a similar experience and this is how I felt about it” or “I understand all right, but your concerns aren’t serious.” It’s important to try to see an issue as the other person sees it, not how you see it. Even if you don’t always succeed in understanding, people at least pick up on the sincere effort.
2) Genuineness. This isn’t license to be rude and insulting (for instance, there are ways of expressing anger that don’t involve humiliating another person; and I’m making this point from the start because I know people who are brutally hurtful, then claim it’s ok because they’re just being themselves).
With genuineness, you aren’t constantly giving off conflicting messages – ‘nicey nice’ words with anger in your eyes, a compliment spoken in indifference, contempt or resentment – as these generate mistrust. You’re aware of your thoughts and feelings, and aren’t always compelled to put on a show in front of everyone. To be more genuine requires self-acceptance; you’re willing to take the risk of being more exposed. You do not need to appear ‘perfect’ and express the ‘perfect’ sentiment at all times. Self-acceptance also means that you have less fear of others and what kinds of reactions they might provoke in you; you’re more accepting of their presence as well, and less defensive about what they say or do.
3) Allowing yourself to feel warmth and caring. You can care about the other person, while knowing full well that there’s always the possibility that they’ll flake out on you, try to take advantage of your good will, make terrible mistakes, stab you in the back, or disappoint you. The alternative is to remain cold or completely impersonal, which usually closes off communication in these kinds of relationships (though it does give you the sense that you’re protecting yourself).
4) Reminding yourself that you’re distinct from the other person. Do you fear losing yourself in their emotions? On the flip side, are you trying to control them, needing them to slavishly follow what you say or be dependent on you? You really have to respect that the other person is distinct and separate from you, and you from them.
5) Unconditional acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean you’re automatically condoning everything the other person does. It means that you keep regarding them as they are, instead of completely spurning them or twisting their words and behaviors to be more palatable to you. Or can you really only see the other person when they show you the kinds of things that are easiest and least disturbing for you to see?
6) The ability to create an unthreatening environment. Are you subjecting the other person to the threat of constant evaluation and judgment? Do they always feel as if they’re trying to prove themselves and are falling short? Or are you helping them establish their own standards of behavior, their own sense of what’s acceptable or not, and helping them take responsibility for themselves without the constant need of a punishment or harsh judgment hanging over their heads?
7) Perceiving the other person as constantly developing. Instead of seeing them purely bound to their past and what they’ve always been to you (often in unforgiving terms: an ignorant student, an immature child, a neurotic mess, etc.) you see them in the process of becoming, of daily changes and development.
Most of the time what blocks us from developing these qualities to any extent is fear – of being hurt and exposed, of being wrong. Another pitfall is all-or-nothing thinking: “I fail to be genuine all of the time, so I won’t bother.” Then there’s mental laziness, which can lead us to taking shortcuts in understanding and helping another person. The take home point is that to be in a position to consistently help others, you need to work on your own psychological maturity – so as not to use other people and their problems for your own purposes, and obscure them in a dense cloud of your own thoughts and feelings.
Read this excellent article that looks into the ethics of researching cognitive and neural development in Romanian children who live in orphanages. Even when adequate food, shelter, and medical care are provided, the children suffer from neglect; from a young age, they don’t interact much with caretakers, which stunts their development.
What practical benefit will this research have for the kids? Will the research itself be enough to change state policies? What is the research telling us that’s new? We already understand that growing up in these orphanages increase the chances of hurting cognition, emotional development, and other aspects of psychological health. What benefit will it bring to science, and to the kids, to investigate the effects on their brain, which includes decreased white matter?
Participating in sports can help young kids and teenagers strengthen self-discipline, strategic ability, and the skill of working well with others, not to mention giving them more opportunities to be physically active.
Throughout the U.S., however, athletes are often worshipped or zealously protected. The fans cheering them on come to identify with them, fighting vicariously through them against ‘the enemy’ (whether it’s another school or town’s team, with tensions rife even in some little league games); this is especially true if the athletes are boys, and if the sport is super-popular, like football or baseball.
Another problem concerns the darker side of the traits cultivated in athleticism – when physical strength and aggression aren’t tempered by moral and mental strength. When aggression and domination are held up as the most worthwhile qualities – and in the case of boys, the qualities that most strongly define them as men. Sports becomes about crushing and humiliating others to show off your own perceived strength.
The Denver Post recently published an article about a 13-year-old boy attacked by upperclassmen at a wrestling meet:
At the state high-school wrestling tournament in Denver last year, three upperclassmen cornered a 13-year-old boy on an empty school bus, bound him with duct tape and sodomized him with a pencil.
In this case, the victim’s father, who was the school’s principal, reported the attack to police. And the community turned on them. The father wound up leaving his job. The boy’s schoolmates harassed and bullied him and openly supported the attackers.
The article goes onto to detail other sexual assaults (often part of so-called ‘hazing rituals’) perpetrated by boys against other boys. In some cases, teachers or coaches know and shrug it off. They expect the victims to take it silently and shrug it off too (‘boys will be boys,’ and all that). And there’s a price – of social ostracism and vicious bullying and harassment – when the victim does speak out or press charges.
I’m reminded of the Steubenville rape case, which concluded with two football players charged with raping a teenaged girl. Many people in their community and school supported them, and those same folks turned on the victim, spreading around photos of the rape and harassing her. They victim-blamed and slut-shamed her – a far too common response to rape victims. But ultimately I think what fueled their rage was that she was proof of a strain of ugliness in the culture of the community, a town known to prize its football players and identify with them. Many in the community felt that by exposing the depravity of these particular players, she was calling into question the decency of the community as a whole; a slur on the players was a slur on them. And rather than examine themselves, and look at a culture that mindlessly celebrates aggression and domination, they defended the players.
Yes, I know this isn’t limited to sports. When people identify with an athlete, a celebrity, a religious figure or organization, and there’s evidence of terrible behavior on the part of any of those figures or entities, they might feel a flicker of doubt about themselves. “I’m a good person, so could I really have identified with something or someone evil?” As a form of protecting themselves, and their beliefs about themselves, many people will then deny the evil and turn on the victims of it. (See my post on the book, Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me.) In athletics, this way of thinking, combined with the encouragement athletes receive to dominate others in a humiliating fashion, creates a culture where sexual assault is more likely to occur and then be defended or excused.
Granted, sexual assault isn’t the only way to humiliate or dominate someone, but it’s particularly potent and damaging. There may be some differences in how people perceive the victims; girls will frequently be shamed as ‘promiscuous’ or ‘sexually damaged,’ while boys will have their masculinity fundamentally called into question. But there are many similarities too in what’s expected of the victim: chiefly silent shame and diminished personhood. The expectation is that the victim exists to give others a power trip; it’s never only about sexual release, because in a number of cases, as with the boys’ hazing rituals, the attackers don’t experience sexual release – and the people witnessing and cheering it on don’t either. It’s the heady sensation of being able to use and hurt without regard for the will of another person; other people are yours for the taking, and there’s nothing they can do about it, because you’re stronger (physically, anyway). Notice also how in the rape of boys, the victims are essentially ‘feminized.’ The attackers, by penetrating a male victim, treat him as ‘not male’ and assert their manhood over him; he’s expected to bear this silently and maybe, if he isn’t ‘weak,’ become a man in spite of it and pretend it never happened – maybe even prove how manly he is in the future by doing it to someone else. Until then, he needs to ‘know his place.’ (In this culture, a victim who’s a girl will have to also stay silent, but forever accept that she’s now ‘in her place,’ reduced to a discarded ‘plaything’ – someone who couldn’t possibly be able to hold her head up high as a person.) It’s all part of the same culture of toxic aggression and warped ideas of masculinity. The victims have a role to play in this culture – and when the victims step out of that role and refuse to be silenced, they face a communal backlash.
Are all athletes like this? Of course not. But there are too many of these incidences – sexual assaults, along with various forms of extreme bullying and humiliation. And while the perpetrators are relatively few in number, they’re championed by crowds of enablers. If the perpetrators were shamed instead of the victims, they would be far less likely to do these reprehensible things. But ultimately, it’s not enough to just use shame against people. We need to look at the behaviors that parents, teachers, and coaches are modeling for athletes. What are these young people really learning about strength and what it means? What are they learning about power, status, and the sense of entitlement towards other people’s bodies – their use of other people’s bodies for personal amusement, power trips, and gratification? Enough with the excuses and the callousness from bystanders, the unthinking identification with people. Enough with saying ‘boys will be boys’ (which, when you think about it, is such an insult to boys – many of whom are kind and decent people). Participation in athletics could be, and often is, a positive part of people’s lives. It doesn’t have to be enmeshed in this warped culture.
What motivates you as you go about your life? Is your attitude more of approach or avoidance, the willingness to go for a reward or the desire to avoid harm?
I know it isn’t strictly either/or for anyone, but it’s helpful to think of your motivations in different situations and how they affect your thought processes, including your creativity and memory.
I came across an interesting study from 2001, The Effects of Promotion and Prevention Cues on Creativity. It centers on an experimental set-up where you have to get a cartoon mouse out of a maze by finding a route through the maze to the exit.
In one condition, there was a piece of cheese drawn outside of the maze, suggesting that if you successfully found the correct route out, the mouse would get the cheese. This condition was meant to evoke a style of thinking focused more on promotion: you complete a task in order to attain something new and nurturing.
In another condition, there wasn’t any cheese; instead, an owl hovered above the maze, making you think that if the mouse didn’t get out, the owl would eat it. The style of thinking evoked here was based on prevention: more about risk aversion and vigilance, avoiding bad outcomes.
So what happened in the experiment? The participants did well on solving the mazes (one would hope, given they were college students), but the interesting difference between participants who were in the promotion vs. prevention condition emerged later, when they were all given another task to complete. In one version of the experiment, they got a task that required them to detect images of simple objects embedded in a noisy visual. In another version, they had to come up with a list of ways that they could use a brick. In yet another, they had to complete word fragments by coming up with whole words that matched.
Independently of how much they enjoyed any given task, it seemed that overall, the participants in the promotion group were able to think more broadly and more creatively during the follow-up tasks. In contrast, an attitude of avoidance/prevention tended to make their thinking narrower. (And this wasn’t even tied to anything personal – the participants themselves weren’t going to enjoy the cheese or avoid a monster owl about to attack them, though they may have identified with the mouse; basically they were just cued into thinking within a certain framework, promotion vs. prevention).
You always have to be cautious when applying the results of one study to day-to-day life, but this does get me thinking about the implications. I’m more in the habit of avoidance than approach, which I don’t think always serves me well; while I don’t want to change this orientation completely, I don’t want to skew too much towards it either. Having risk-avoidance as a dominant approach may not be good in the long-run, in terms of thinking big and developing ideas creatively over time; it might limit you more to narrower, tried-and-tested paths.
In her book Red Flags or Red Herrings? Predicting Who Your Child Will Become, Susan Engel raises three main points:
1) Parents can’t redesign their children’s basic personality and intelligence.
2) A number of behaviors that parents are quick to label as ‘red flags’ in young kids are usually normal; instead of ‘red flags’ they’re ‘red herrings,’ leading parents to make incorrect predictions about their child’s future or worry about minor or nonexistent problems.
3) The means to distinguish between red flags and red herrings can be derived from research. We’ve accumulated a body of research to-date that can help us distinguish between normal or less damaging circumstances and patterns of behavior, and those that are actually worrisome.
Regarding points 1 and 2, Engel presents some convincing arguments throughout the book. For instance, intelligence is a fairly stable trait; a child of average intelligence isn’t going to become a genius. However, this doesn’t mean that environmental influence doesn’t have an impact. A child’s intelligence can be enhanced or dampened. For instance, parents who give their children opportunities to learn, give them books, talk to them, help them discover things they love doing, and show their kids the importance of perseverance increase the chances of the kid succeeding later in life, more than if they fuss over IQ numbers and whether their kid is the most gifted one in the class. They give their kids the opportunity to behave intelligently, expand their knowledge and skills, and live to their fullest potential. This is in contrast to kids who, regardless of what their intellectual potential is, don’t get very many opportunities to grow and may start to behave unintelligently, suppressing their natural potential.
In regards to the third point, the books is less convincing. Engel covers a lot of research, much of it interesting, showing how what we consider ‘red flags’ may not necessarily hobble a child for life; for instance, children who grow up in unstable homes but have certain protective factors in their life may still become well-functioning adults. The tricky part comes in when Engel tries to show how you can make predictions about an individual child’s life based on the research. What are the problems with how she lays out her approach?
a. There are individual differences, and noise in the data, when it comes to any study, especially when you’re looking at complex traits such as shyness and intelligence, or studying various factors that influence development. Granted, I don’t think Engel ever says that you can predict 100% how your child will turn out, but I think the case is overstated in the book.
b. She doesn’t devote enough time to discuss the research methodology or study limitations, including possible flaws in study design. In a couple of places she does point out the issue of individual differences, but I think that for a book that is so heavily based on research, she should have spent more time discussing and explaining the research. Readers who don’t have familiarity with research methodology in this area are particularly in need of understanding the limitations of the work to help them make sense of the data and understand what it can and can’t tell us.
c. In each chapter, Engel mixes research results with individual ‘case studies’ of kids who seemed to have red flags but turned out ok (or children whose red flags went undetected). Though she talks a lot about how you can use the existing research to help you decipher the clues in your child’s life, her case studies rely on hindsight; she knows how the kid turns out, so it’s simpler for her to trace the course of his or her life to see what might have gone right or wrong, and what were possible influences. Even then, with the benefit of hindsight, she doesn’t always make the developmental trajectory clear; I didn’t always understand why it was a given that a particular child would turn out ok, while another child wouldn’t. For people who don’t have the benefit of hindsight, it’s not easy to “decipher the clues,” given that a kid’s developmental trajectory is influenced by a complex combination of factors; I don’t know how you can always tell, in the present moment, whether something is a red flag or a red herring.
The bottom line is, I wish she’d gone more into explaining the research, which is interesting, and developing her discussions of it; her chapters were sometimes a hodgepodge of research examples and personal examples that didn’t mesh well or develop into a clear argument (the chapter on adult romantic relationships comes to mind).
But ultimately, the message that parents can’t completely remake their kids’ personalities, but instead can help enhance strengths and give their kids tools to cope with potential weaknesses, is a reasonable one, as it encourages parents to see their kids as they are, and not constantly measure them against other kids or against some parental ideal that may be narcissistic at heart.