Keeping resolutions

Keeping a resolution is difficult in part because the act of making a resolution gives you the false sense that you’ve accomplished something meaningful. You’ve stated what you want to do, you’ve shown some degree of self-awareness, dedication to improvement, and strength… and I think this gives you a false sense of security. You can do whatever it is you’ve set out to do because you’ve said as much – you’ve written it down on paper or whispered it to yourself at midnight. You’re set, you think. You’re going to do it.

Only you don’t. Sometimes you don’t do anything beyond making the resolution; you forget about it completely or you put it off for too long, and then it starts to seem too troublesome, stupid or hopeless. Other times you get to work on it but slump back into your old ways before long and give up.

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I’ve set down resolutions before, and given up on them. Other times I kept to them and succeeded (or more accurately I am succeeding, because success has been a matter of changing various habits, and it’s an ongoing process and struggle instead of a fixed end-state). For me the successes are marked with these qualities:

I have a stake in the outcome
Giving up needs to matter. Maybe I’ll lose dignity, self-respect, money, esteem in the eyes of other people. Maybe I made a promise that would hurt to go back on. Something needs to be at stake. Beyond that, I need the will and conviction to follow through on the resolution. I need to feel that what I’m doing is right and necessary. Is it important to me? Really, truly?

I keep it realistic, concrete and specific
The resolution can’t be far-fetched and impossible to undertake. It can’t be couched as something like “I will adopt a healthier lifestyle” or “I will be a better person.” Those are admirable goals but they’re too abstract to work with on a practical level. So I need to get down to the practical details: list a few ways in which I can be better, and what’s required to accomplish those.

I don’t try to make too many changes all at once
Too much all at once might be overwhelming. Making change gradually also helps me evaluate my progress and adjust expectations or goals.

I make it a habit
Changes to thoughts and behavior are lasting when they become habitual. They replace older more detrimental habits that take time, persistence and vigilance to undo.

I’m aware of potential self-sabotage
As damaging as old habits may be, they’re tempting to fall back on. There can be something strangely comforting about misery if it’s familiar. And change is difficult and scary. So I might try to trip myself up by setting unrealistic goals and expectations that I’ll fall short of. I let the smallest setback make me skittish. I assume an all-or-nothing attitude that demands perfect progress and a 100% success rate and otherwise condemns my efforts as hopeless and worth giving up on. Success doesn’t mean perfection (repeat to self, ad infinitum: success isn’t the same as perfection). Failures and setbacks along the way are ripe opportunities for excuses – excuses to give up and sink back into the familiar unfulfilled and unfulfilling life, narrow and comforting as it is. I can backslide completely, wallow for a while, and then make new resolutions that I won’t follow up on. I don’t reach out to other people when I need to. All of this is self-sabotage.

UPDATE: Ongoing resolutions that I’m dedicated to (written here in a general way, and not with the concrete actions/steps associated with each).

Taking a break to enhance memory

Incorporate short breaks into your learning/studying/reading, and it’s more likely that you’ll retain the material better, even several days later.

However, not just any break will do. In the study cited at the link, the breaks involved “wakeful resting” – nothing too mentally taxing (the experimenters had participants sitting in the dark with eyes closed for ten minutes). In real life I guess you could sit back and relax for ten minutes but more likely you’d be checking email, answering the phone or getting up to walk around, and maybe some of those activities would interfere more with memory consolidation than quiet sedentary relaxation.

The study’s participants had to remember short stories. I’m not sure how long the stories were. Is it good to take breaks only after shorter chunks of material, or is this strategy still effective for bigger chunks? Does overall coherence of the material matter more than length? (e.g. where you’re stopping to take your break: mid-paragraph vs. mid-sentence?) Furthermore, the stories were presented aurally; would that make a difference – hearing the material you’re hoping to retain instead of reading it to yourself?

The participants in the study were elderly adults aging normally, a refreshing change from the usual practice of using college students (undergraduates are easy to recruit; you don’t even have to pay them, just make it mandatory for them to participate in research studies to fulfill some kind of course requirement). However at some point the experiment probably will be replicated with college students to see if all the results are generalizable to younger adults too.

Synaptic Sunday #10 – Mental Health and Life Expectancy

A mental health issue isn’t “all in your mind.” The mind arises from the brain, and the brain is a part of your body that closely interacts with the rest of your body.

1) Even Mild Mental Health Problems Linked to Reduced Life Expectancy

This was from a study of 68,000 adults ages 35 and over in the U.K.:

Their results reveal that people who experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression had a lower life expectancy than those without any such symptoms.

Even people with minor symptoms of mental health problems seemed to have a higher risk of death from several major causes, including cardiovascular disease, according to the researchers.

And it’s not just a matter of poorer health behaviors. The researchers did try to control for factors like weight, eating habits, exercise, drinking, etc. and still found associations between these mental health symptoms and disease. (Granted they didn’t control for all possible factors, but they did try to account for some basic lifestyle choices that strongly impact health.)

Having poorer mental health doesn’t automatically doom you to a shorter life. No one can say what your individual outcome will be. What the study is showing is that on average people with poorer mental health have a shorter life expectancy compared to people with good mental health. As a preventative measure, to increase the odds in your favor that you’ll live longer and with a higher quality of life, don’t ignore your psychological distress or any other symptoms indicative of poor mental health. The effects ripple out to all areas of your life.

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2) Psychological distress linked to life expectancy- experts respond

Here’s a post with some comments from a few researchers and doctors on the study in the first link; the post includes some comments on potential weaknesses in the study and what can be researched next (for instance, what are the best interventions?). There are multiple ways that psychological distress can be linked to poorer health and shorter lifespan. Chronic stress damages the body and increases the chances of physical illnesses. People with poorer mental health might be more isolated and have less of a social support network. Maybe when they’re physically healthy they can get by, but when they come down with a physical illness they may neglect to get it treated. This is a fruitful area of research.

Marching to the beat of your own drummer works…

… if you don’t mind making music all by yourself?

New research written up in a Science Daily article called, Dont Get Mad, Get Creative: Social Rejection Can Fuel Imaginative Thinking claims the following:

A study by a Johns Hopkins University business professor finds that social rejection can inspire imaginative thinking, particularly in individuals with a strong sense of their own independence.

(The emphasis in bold is mine.)

Some questions this raises for me:

1) What leads some people to develop a sense of strong independence vs. really hoping to be included? Can people who really long for inclusion become more genuinely independent? (not in a false way, where they pretend not to care, while seething with anger and forming little groups of their own from which they can reject people). Can people who start off independent get worn down and long for inclusion – if so, how does this happen?

2) How is social inclusion being defined here? Is it inclusion in terms of mainstream values? There are people who might not be bothered by rejection by the mainstream, but care very much about the opinions of a non-mainstream group. Does true independence hold in the face of all kinds of rejection, both mainstream and non-mainstream?

3) More from the article:

“Rejection confirms for independent people what they already feel about themselves, that they’re not like others. For such people, that distinction is a positive one leading them to greater creativity.”

What other qualities accompany this feeling of being proudly different from others? Positive qualities like resilience, focus and discipline. Possibly negative qualities like arrogance and contempt (are these conducive to creativity?).

If you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship…

I can’t speak for every situation, but at least some of these points will ring true to you if you’ve felt the effects of emotional abuse.

You aren’t meant to be your own person

In an emotionally abusive relationship, you become defined by how your abuser sees you and how you serve his or her needs. Your own hopes, dreams, hobbies, aspirations, needs, etc. are secondary or non-existent. The abuser knows what you need (knows you better than you know yourself). They know what you like and don’t like. They know what you are. Without them you won’t survive – that’s what they want you to believe. Without them you’re nothing. Who else would bother with you and look twice at you? Only them.

In various ways your life is subsumed by their behavior, moods, and demands. If they’re your parents for example they might want to make you entirely a reflection of themselves or their cherished ideals; your dreams are supplanted by theirs, and when you resist you meet with harsh consequences. Children become mere extensions of the parent, molded exactly to parental specifications, occasionally polished like a trophy when they succeed in pleasing but otherwise subjected to a barrage of negativity meant to fit them into a rigid mold, irrespective of who the child is as an individual.

Other times children become an item the parents have checked off on life’s to-do list. Great, we have a kid. Let’s give it some food, clothes, and video games to occupy itself with and turn our attention elsewhere. If it seems to need something more it’s just being a nuisance.

Or the kid becomes a punching bag for the parent. Parents see in the kid qualities they despise in themselves and go in for repeated attacks. It could also be that the parents need to feel powerful, or they feel threatened when something’s out of their control (other people’s independent minds are a source of potential upset and frightening variability); inside they may be hurt and angry and trying to defend their own wounded selves by lashing out. Maybe they’re imitating behaviors dished out to them by their own parents. Regardless of the reason, they don’t stop and think about the effect it’s having; they don’t stop and try to really see what’s going on with their own kids. Maybe they don’t care.

The abuse manifests in multiple ways and can stem from any number of reasons, but the bottom line is, you’re not treated as your own person, which means of course that you don’t receive the respect accorded to a human being. Emotional abuse cuts you down and undermines your sense of self and your feelings of worth as a person. You’re diminished, a lesser humanoid, a projection of the abuser’s mind, a means to an end, plaything, a servant, a yes-man, a pawn, a possession, an inconvenience, a convenient scapegoat, an enemy and threat, a stand-in for something or someone else, or an extra appendage or extension of the abuser (or all of these things, at various points). Whatever it is they want you to be, you’re not fully you.

You aren’t supposed to exist outside of the reality of the abuser – how they define you and what they’ve made of you in their own mind. Think of how they react when you try to break out of their reality…

Your perceptions of reality are by default invalid

Abusers are great at caging you in their version of reality. They’re adept at rewriting reality to suit themselves and protect themselves from accountability. When you say that something happened, they say it didn’t, and that’s that. When you remember that in the middle of an argument you were angry but in control, raising your voice a little but otherwise in possession of your temper, they’ll tell you you were harsh, screaming, over-the-top, rude, disrespectful, etc. etc. (they’ll rarely or never remember any such thing about themselves though).

If you’re feeling a certain way they’ll tell you that it can’t be true. You really aren’t angry. You really aren’t hurt. What you are is sensitive/ungrateful/irrational, etc. Nothing is ever as bad as you say it is. Things usually don’t happen the way you remember them. The abuser is the final authority on what’s real and what isn’t, including your innermost thoughts and emotions.

Another possibility is that they do acknowledge your emotions or thoughts, but then tell you exactly why you’re feeling or thinking that way – because of some personal defect, or because you’ve been brainwashed by someone (hanging out with the “wrong people” who’ve planted “wrong ideas” in your head) or it’s some other external cause, anything but the abuser. It doesn’t matter what you say the cause is. Your explanations are automatically dismissed.

It isn’t long before you’re lost in self-doubt. It didn’t really happen that way, did it? Maybe I really am exaggerating. It couldn’t have been so bad. I’m a bad person for feeling this way. Other people may seem to confirm what your abuser is telling you (they might not know the whole story or may be inclined to believe your abuser over you for whatever reason, or they might not want to ‘stir up trouble’ or ‘make an issue’ out of it).

Remember also that abusive people don’t have to behave badly all the time. In fact some of them are well-intentioned; in their own eyes they’re doing what’s right, and they sincerely believe that you’re making life more difficult for them and for yourself by not changing who you are and what you do. You can have really good times with an abusive person – fun times, laughter – and they may behave helpfully in some respects. They can tell you they love you, and maybe they really mean it, at least in their understanding of what love is; you might love them very much in return. You may perceive their insecurities and troubles and feel bad for them. There are definitely people who abuse with deliberate malice and evil, and one weapon in their arsenal may indeed be to gaslight you. But abusers don’t have to act with consistent, deliberate malice in order to abuse.

So maybe you think they have a point, and you’re the unreasonable one; or you feel that you can stand to be even more accommodating than you already are. If it’s a little odd that you’re usually or always wrong while they’re always in the right, well, it’s just another sign that there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. You start to doubt your own judgment, perceptions, and emotions. Perhaps you question your sanity. You lose trust in yourself.

It also doesn’t help that you can’t fully account for what they do. They might blow up sometimes and remain calm on other occasions. They might threaten you or be cold or indifferent to you in the morning and in the evening behave in a warm and friendly way as if nothing had ever happened. No apologies or explanations. Maybe they tell you you’re forgiven. What a relief. The storm is over. It wasn’t as bad as you thought it was, right?

You’re entirely responsible for their emotions and behaviors

If they blow up in your face, criticize you relentlessly or lapse into an exaggeratedly dark and terrible mood, it’s all your fault. You shouldn’t have said or done XYZ, however minor it is; you shouldn’t be the way you are. If you’d only change and be perfect at all times, everything would be fine.

What happens if you internalize this attitude? In addition to the pain your abuser inflicts on you, you’ll also experience the pain you inflict on yourself as you put most or all of the blame on your own shoulders, second-guess what you did, wonder what you could have done differently, spend time wishing you could be better, and perhaps come to despise yourself for being such a deficient person. You’ll feel guilty. Nothing like a good strong dose of guilt to corrode your thoughts about yourself. In fact after a certain point you might live in a state of perpetual guilt. Why can’t I be as good and worthy as they want me to be?

You might make excuses for them: they work so hard or do so much/they must have a personality disorder/they’re hurting themselves too/they’re damaged inside/you know that there’s good in them and they’re trying, really, it’s not as if they’re like that all the time… and so forth and so on. The excuses keep you focused on them and what they might be thinking and how you can predict what they’ll do, while you ignore your own long-term well-being. If the relationship remains in its current abusive state, you’ll have to keep contorting yourself and tiptoeing around them so that you don’t make them do the bad things they’re prone to doing. Because it’s all your fault, isn’t it? If you feel drained, angry and stressed from having to deal with their behaviors, it’s your fault for not being a better person to begin with.

They refuse to acknowledge that they give you pain

Even as they tell you that you’re responsible for their every angry flare-up, critical attack, or low mood, they refuse to acknowledge that they have any negative impact on you whatsoever. If their speech or behavior hurts you – if in response you’re sad/angry/stressed out or wish to avoid them – it’s because you’re deficient in some way. They’ll tell you you’re too sensitive or have poor control over yourself. That you’re foolish or irrational and tend to overreact. The best is when they sincerely believe (or profess to believe) in their own good intentions and tell you that you lack the wisdom and maturity to see how beneficial their relentless criticism or other corrective measures are. Everything they do is GOOD and RIGHT. Why can’t you appreciate that? What is wrong with you? they say. Everything, you reply. Everything is wrong with me; haven’t you always told me so?

You’re manipulated and controlled

What you wear, how you look, what you do, who you hang out with, what you believe in, what you are in your entirety… everything is up for grabs.

The control they exercise can be violent and aggressive, but not necessarily in a physical way; for instance, an abuser could scream at you or relentlessly pick on you or humiliate you to get you to change or to keep you in line.

Abusers may also be passive-aggressive, giving you the cold shoulder or silent treatment, or becoming deeply despondent or emotionally volatile every time you do something they don’t want you to do. (Remember, you’re supposed to be in charge of their every emotion!) They convey to you that you’ve deeply deeply disappointed them. (Your response? GUILT. Lots and lots of guilt.) Even if you aren’t doing something they disapprove of, they may want to throw you off balance by behaving as if you’ve gravely wounded or offended them. (Remember, you’re supposed to be doubting yourself and your perceptions of reality!) Inconsistent behaviors, rules and expectations are also great for keeping you off-balance and keeping your mind on the abuser and how to anticipate what they’ll do next.

They might make threatening pronouncements: “You’d better not do that, or else!” The retribution they threaten might come from their own actions, or it could be the promise of some general disaster in your life (“if you do that, you’ll fail out of school and no one will love you and ten lightning bolts will hit you on the way home, mark my words!”) Fear is potent. Fear is the friend of an abuser. Anything to make you meek, nervous, jumpy and stressed. You might be unhappy with the abuser, but the wider world is so much more scary, right?

When it comes to parent-child relationships people say, “Aren’t parents supposed to control their kids?” Well, what do you mean by that? Ideally, parents want their kids to grow up to be good, non-abusive people. They want their kids to be well-functioning, able to take care of themselves and possessed of resources (including important emotional and mental resources) that will help them handle life’s challenges. They want their kids to be healthy, happy and fulfilled. Do parents sometimes need to discipline their kids? Sure. Do they have to set some boundaries? Of course. But that doesn’t necessarily make a parent controlling. What are some signs of controlling parents?

  • They might need their kids to be a certain way (to love the same things the parent loves, to be the parent’s best friend/confidant(e)/pawn, to be a good little scapegoat, etc.) or turn out a very specific way, regardless of what the children’s individual inclinations are (you’re going to be a business executive or die trying! You’re going to get married by the time you hit 25, or else!)
  • They don’t stop at setting some reasonable boundaries for behavior, but police the minutiae: exactly how the child spends their time, exactly what they wear to school every day, exactly who they spend time with… they do their best to deny their children any meaningful choices or respond negatively to any choices their children do make.
  • They infantilize the child. They do things like tie their child’s shoelaces, help them wash their hair, help them get dressed etc. past an age when a child would require such assistance. A nine year old is treated like a five year old. A sixteen year old is treated like a nine year old. No gradual increase of responsibilities, privileges and overall independence. Remember, the child isn’t supposed to really grow into a separate human being. They can also mess with the child’s head by treating them in an infantile fashion in some ways but making adult demands on them in other ways.
  • They try not to let the child get too close to other people, including other adults who might be parental surrogates or other children who are potential friends. Other people may introduce a different reality than the one the abuser is trying to cage the child inside. (You see this in adults who are abused too – their abuser may hate it if they get too close to others or have any other meaningful relationships at all in life.)

You regularly feel two inches tall

An emotionally abusive person doesn’t have to do all of the following things; even a couple of these tactics, used regularly over time, can wear you down:

  • Neglect and dismissal. They ignore your needs, and dismiss what’s important to you. They might not even notice you’re around. Your triumphs and disappointments mean little to them. You’re there only when they feel like noticing you or require something from you that will satisfy their own needs. Sometimes the attitude of neglect is more pronounced – a deliberate cold shoulder or silent treatment or pointedly turning away from you when you enter a room. They might regularly talk over you when you try to be heard.
  • Relentless put downs and criticism. There are so many kinds. Cutting remarks, insults, sarcastic glee, compliments delivered in a patently insincere or backhanded way, a running commentary about your deficiencies, regular use of hyperbole (e.g. various aspects of your appearance, behavior or overall self are deemed the “worst ever” or exaggeratedly horrible), heavy doses of “advice” that repeatedly highlight your shortcomings. The put-downs don’t have to be verbal: facial expressions and body language eloquent of disgust, distaste, disappointment, anger, or dismissal also do the trick.
  • Humiliation. Forget feeling two inches tall, why not feel like nothing? They exploit your vulnerabilities, push you towards tears and blind insensible pain, and subject you to degrading circumstances. When done in front of other people, one effect this has is to convince you that you’re small in everyone’s eyes. Everyone is a witness to your profound defects. Everyone is laughing at you or repelled by you.
  • Constant comparisons to others. Why can’t you be more like someone else: a sibling, your best friend, a work colleague, or an abuser’s former spouse or romantic partner? Look at how they do things; they never screw up or have a bad day or look less than stellar. If only you weren’t you. (This tactic is great by the way at fostering resentment between you and other people – between family members and friends and co-workers. The resentment can distance you from those other people, putting you more firmly in the abuser’s power or making you feel utterly and totally alone.)
  • Overreactions to your mistakes, however minor. If you forget your umbrella at the park, break a dish while washing up after dinner, pick up the wrong thing at the grocery store, get a lower grade than you expected on a quiz, overcook dinner or miss an exit on the highway, a federal case needs to be established against you. There might be interrogations and summary judgments. Over-the-top emotional reactions are typical: shouting, exaggerated irritation or despondency, nasty moods or iceberg coldness. Your past crimes might be aired and re-examined, to remind you that everything you do is wrong. Even if it’s something like coming down with a cold, you’ll be berated for not taking care of yourself; if only you’d taken some 100% effective preventative measure you wouldn’t be sitting there miserably sniffling. All the while you think to yourself, “If this is how they react to minor screw-ups or misfortunes, what will happen if I mess up big time?” Hello, anxiety!
  • Intimidation and threats. Maybe they use physical violence, but they don’t have to. Shouting and screaming may be sufficient to produce a cowed silence. Or they crowd you in and lean over you, threatening you with the possibility of imminent violence. They may threaten you in other ways, or threaten your loved ones, or tell you they’ll hurt your pet or damage a valued possession. Maybe they’ll act on some of those threats.
  • Cultivating unrealistic expectations that you’ll fall short of. When you do fall short, you’ll feel diminished, sad, unworthy, and angry. If you internalize these unrealistic expectations, even normal setbacks and errors will feel like the end of the world. These expectations are often framed with the words ‘should’ and ‘must’ – I must always do XYZ, my life should be a certain way, other people have to behave in a specific fashion…
  • Encouraging various cognitive distortions. These include all or nothing thinking (either you’re perfect or you’re worthless and hopeless), magnification of errors and minimization of achievements, focusing on negative details while ignoring the positives, blaming yourself for things outside of your control, and not being able to really believe or accept other people’s compliments, however sincere.
  • Lying. They lie outright about you, including to other people. Your protests are dismissed as delusional or dishonest. They may lie about what other people said or did to you, sowing dissension between you and others and fostering mistrust.

There’s probably more I can add to the list, but I’d like to move on…

What to do?


There isn’t one simple way of dealing with and recovering from emotional abuse.

I think it’s necessary to identify that there’s a problem and then to start establishing and fortifying your own perceptions of reality and your own sense of self, fighting your way out of the diminished and degraded definitions the abuser has boxed you into. You’re piecing yourself together again.

You can start getting a stronger sense of self by gaining support from people who treat you well (including a good therapist); they can give you different and more positive and realistic perspectives about yourself that run contrary to your abuser’s negative treatment and viewpoint. They can help you understand the tactics of your abuser, and possibly how to counter them or sidestep them, while also developing yourself into a mentally healthier person. Other perspectives are key, including from people who’ve gone through similar things and have dealt with it in positive ways.

Being able to recognize that there’s a problem, and stepping back and regarding the situation as if you were an outsider, can be helpful. Words and actions that had once seemed absolutely true or sane to you lose some of their power; regarding the abuser with clarity, as someone who behaves in deeply flawed and damaging ways – and not as god-like or kind enough to put up with you or deeply insightful about your nature (“the only one who understands you”) or whatever other inviolable position they occupy – can take away from their hold over you and their power in defining you. Achieving psychological distance (and ideally physical distance) from the abuser is key. (If the emotional abuse is accompanied by physical and/or sexual violence, it’s imperative that you remove yourself physically from the abuser, including calling on intervention from law enforcement.)

It can take years to work on unhealthy mental and emotional patterns/habits if you’ve been in an abusive relationship long-term, particularly parent-child (a child’s sense of the world and of themselves is so strongly shaped by parents), but it’s possible to have a good life. It takes a willingness to work on healing yourself. Sadly this willingness may be undercut by existing poor feelings of self-worth, negativity, and discouragement – “I’m a hopeless case” you might say, even though you’re not.

In some cases people who emotionally abuse others may be willing to undergo therapy and effect positive changes in their behavior, but don’t count on it. Regardless of whether they’re working on themselves or not, put yourself first and work on yourself; you’ll need to in order to rebuild and redefine yourself in healthy ways and regard yourself as a full human being. (Also be vigilant about your own behavior. You might be treating others abusively, diminishing them and yourself, as you perpetuate patterns of behavior and thought you’re familiar with. You’re not doomed to repeat what’s been done to you.)

Here’s an additional article to read on recovery from emotional abuse. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Reading comprehension shortcuts

After a plane crash, where should the survivors be buried?

a. at sea
b. in their hometowns
c. it’s up to the loved ones, not a matter of general opinion!
d. why would a survivor need to be buried?

Did you realize before getting to choice D that the question was problematic?

If as a reader (or listener) you want a brief discussion of why it’s a good idea to concentrate on the text and avoid distractions, turn to this article.

If as a writer you realize that readers are going to skim anyway, and you want to reduce the chance that they’ll make comprehension errors, read the article for a few insights.

One important thing to realize about sentence processing is that as we’re reading a sentence our brains are already coming up with likely interpretations or meanings based on the sentence context and on our past experiences with language and the world at large. Sentence interpretation is an ongoing process – we don’t wait until we reach the end of a sentence to come up with a meaning for it. As we’re coming up with possible meanings, the sentence keeps unfolding, and some of those potential meanings have to be discarded in favor of new ones… that’s assuming we detect and process the words that contradict our favored meaning. When we’re tired or distracted, we might latch onto a likely meaning based on the general context of the sentence and ignore any word that contradicts it.

With the question on airplane survivors, many of us ignore the word ‘survivor’ in part because the phrase ‘plane crash’ at the beginning has already conjured up scenarios of mass death and no survivors, so we might skim over the word ‘survivor’ without truly processing what it means; the word ‘buried’ at the end seems to strengthen our initial interpretation of 100% fatalities and that the question must be entirely about people who have died.

Synaptic Sunday #8 – The Internet Anger edition

1) A Scientific American article asks: Why is Everyone on the Internet so Angry?

Is everyone angry? Sure, there are regular “flame wars” online, but from what I’ve seen, all it takes is a relatively small number of very angry hateful people to leave a nasty taste in your mouth if you’re reading through a comment thread. Sometimes they pile on in greater numbers if they’re targeting someone (usually for political or religious reasons) or on certain sites that seem to welcome them or encourage their anger, but all it takes is one or two to derail a comment thread (and some of them don’t do so out of anger).

Anyway it usually isn’t anger alone that’s the problem; it’s anger channeled into an aim to attack and destroy. It’s anger that defies all attempts at reasoning or having a real conversation (which, as the article points out, is difficult enough to do on the internet). But there are many civil people too who can disagree without frothing at the mouth or inflicting deliberate hurt, and there are also quite a few people who rarely or never comment on sites or post anything of their own so it’s hard to tell what state of mind they’re in as they surf the web; people who comment regularly are only a part of the huge population of internet users.

The internet is great for letting people get on a soapbox and deliver an angry rant. Is this always psychologically destructive? I think it depends on the rant. Sometimes ranting can feel good and be beneficial to your health, especially if the anger is gotten over with quickly and you haven’t damaged anyone else with it. The question is – why are you ranting publicly where anyone can see you? Why do you need the audience?

I can see people doing it to get support or open up a real debate, without necessarily being nasty. But other times these angry rants are just vile foaming-at-the-mouth attacks on others, done to slander, demean and misinform. Some people take joy in spreading misery (and in knowing that they’re out of reach of people who’d want to sock them for it). Or for whatever reason they don’t care. Maybe they underestimate the impact of their words; people often don’t consider the ramifications of what they do, and you can publish anything on the internet, instantly, without pause for reconsideration.

I agree with the point in the article in how staying anonymous yourself and not interacting face-to-face with others is a situation that encourages more verbal abuse and less accountability. It’s also a great way to get attention: saying over-the-top things drives traffic to sites and generally gets people to respond to your comments more (including with nasty comments of their own). To some there’s the satisfaction of knowing they can say or do things they’d hesitate about in everyday life – and people will listen! It’s out there. You have a voice, even if it’s shrill and hateful and rude.

A lot of the angry hateful people behave abominably when coming up against people with viewpoints or lifestyles (or biological makeups) markedly different from theirs. Online and offline they might inhabit their own enclaves of like-minded people, but inevitably they come across others and, unlike strangers offline, they get exposed online to the thoughts and feelings of these “Others”; this can be threatening and upsetting, too much to take in and too much of a temptation not to try and crush. These ‘Others’ are the enemy and must be torn down; they must be schooled and scolded and screamed at and insulted to within an inch of their life.

Do you think people are ever completely different online than they are offline?

2) Here’s a related link, with a business angle:Why We Get So Angry Online and How to Deal with the Rage

There’s a standard saying online that time passes more quickly, a lot can happen in an Internet minute. Part of the issue with rage online is that it may pass very quickly for a person who is angry, but the effects of their actions may last longer.

Synaptic Sunday #5

Psychology/neuroscience link roundup centered on a particular topic – this week, some links on what makes people productive.

1) Would this work for anyone? (If something like it has worked for you, speak up):

Helen Oyeyemi advises writers to download the Write or Die app onto their computer (or does she write on an iPhone?). In ‘kamikaze mode’, if you stop writing for more than 45 seconds it starts deleting the words you have already written.


That sounds like a nightmare to me. Whenever I’d stop to think (or to just sit quietly for a little bit, staring out the window and letting my brain do whatever it does when I appear to be unproductive), I’d be too busy watching the clock to let my brain work.

2) It can be good to let your mind wander! (As long as you’ve put in some focused mental effort beforehand.)

3) When our thoughts and attention wander, the brain isn’t as passive as we imagine it to be: …an interesting study published in a 2009 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that daydreaming also activates parts of our brain associated with ‘high-level, complex problem-solving’ including the lateral pre-frontal cortex and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.”

I don’t think day-dreaming, and its potential creative benefits, can be forced (then you’re too self-conscious – attending too much to your own thoughts); it also isn’t beneficial when done excessively. But to dismiss it as wasted time is a mistake. And to chain productive and creative thinking to strict time intervals strikes me as useless (and horrifying).

Weeding out the less gullible

A report from Microsoft investigates why “Nigerian” scam artists and their ilk usually send out emails that might as well have “scam” written all over them: claims that they’re from Nigeria and other third world countries, bad spelling, outlandish and melodramatic stories.

The report’s answer, which involves a lot of math, is fairly simple: scammers only want really gullible people to respond to their initial query. These scams are complicated—they involve lots of negotiations, charm, and conning… it’s going to make his life much easier if his claim is so ridiculous—and so easy to debunk through Bing or Google—that only ten, and not a hundred, potential suckers respond.

So who falls for these emails, and why?

Some people equate gullibility with stupidity, which may play a part, but there’s more to it than that. I bet you know smart and experienced people who’ve fallen for ridiculous claims before. (Plus “smartness” and “stupidity” are complex traits, and people who demonstrate great intelligence in one area of life may show a lack of it in other areas.)

Maybe gullibility involves a lack of awareness of risk or danger? Greater impulsivity? Pronounced ignorance in a given area? A need to believe in something, especially if it comes from a particular source? A stronger-than-average tendency to maintain a belief even when presented with clear evidence refuting it? (What would constitute clear evidence for them, anyway?) A need to believe that there’s a shortcut or simple trick that will bypass years of work and effort for a clear shot at success? A stronger-than-average tendency to draw incorrect conclusions from current evidence and from past experiences? Pronounced gullibility is also a possible symptom of dementia.

We all have a tendency towards gullibility but what makes it so much stronger in some? So far I haven’t found that much research exploring the topic, only some counterintuitive findings: that suffering through harsh experiences while growing up may make you more gullible (you can come to mistrust your own judgments) and that people who are generally more trusting can be better at spotting liars, as opposed to thinking that everyone is full of good will and sunshine.

Here’s some advice on how to protect yourself from your own gullible tendencies. Even though you might not succumb to obvious scams, there are still more subtle ones. For instance, people who quickly detect the phoniness of a wildly spammy scam email and discard it may think that a much more legitimate-looking email is ok – an email that looks like it comes from the bank, asking you to quickly reply with just one key piece of information, or to log onto your account through the link they’ve helpfully provided you.

Synaptic Sunday #4

This Sunday, links on the flexibility of our moral choices:

1) Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things

I wonder what the definition of a bad person would be within the framework of the article. Someone who’s instructed to think ethically (given an ethical framework about a set of choices) but still makes unethical choices? Someone who’s never sincerely repentant? This line also jumped out at me:

In general, when we think about bad behavior, we think about it being tied to character: Bad people do bad things. But that model, researchers say, is profoundly inadequate.

I think it’s still tied to character, but not in a cartoonish way – shining superheroes vs. dastardly supervillains (though there are individuals who closely resemble each). Everyone has various weaknesses and temptations, not to mention the capacity for self-delusion – to think about an evil act in a more benign way, rationalizing it. The ability to fight rationalizations and temptations, and recognize them before they take root and become mental habits, is an essential part of having a stronger character. The success may be mixed. It’s usually not as simple as thinking of character having two settings: pure good or pure evil.

So the question ‘Why do Good People Do Bad Things?’ still brings you back to the point on what the authors here mean by a ‘good person’ (or a ‘bad person’). Good people may do bad things, but they also do good things? They do certain kinds of bad things but not other kinds? They do bad things from a good motive that they sincerely feel minimizes the bad or makes it a grudging ‘necessary evil’ rather than something undertaken with supervillainish glee? (But so much destruction and evil have stemmed from well-intentioned policies, ideological principles and motives.) They operate out of ignorance more than cold calculation? (A line from the article: (“and if we want to attack fraud, we have to understand that a lot of fraud is unintentional.”) How ignorant are they? How unintentional is it?

The article ends with some proposals to make people in business environments less susceptible to perpetrating fraud. After listing some proposals the article ends with:

Or, we could just keep saying what we’ve always said — that right is right, and wrong is wrong, and people should know the difference.

Well, shouldn’t they know? That doesn’t mean that people aren’t more susceptible in some situations to committing evil, even outside of their awareness. Developing awareness of those susceptibilities and temptations, developing the discernment to see them even when they seem to slip unknowingly into one’s behavior (including when they’re in the guise of good deeds), and rectifying their ill effects as soon as possible are all at the heart of having a good character.

2) Wearing Two Different Hats: Moral Decisions May Depend on the Situation

“We find that people tend to make decisions that may conflict with their morals when they are overwhelmed, or when they are just doing routine tasks without thinking of the consequences,” Leavitt said. “We tend to play out a script as if our role has already been written. So the bottom line is, slow down and think about the consequences when making an ethical decision.”

The scripts can be different depending on the role we’re playing (are we thinking like a medic or a soldier?) More on this research here.