Several of my latest posts addressed evidence that challenged some of my long held beliefs about the relative value of parenting style on child outcomes such as mental ability and happiness.   In Ten Best Parenting Tips: But does it really matter? I challenged a recently published study in Scientific American: MIND touting the “ten best” parenting tips.  The relationship between parent reported child outcomes and parenting behaviors was measured using a correlation coefficient.  The author did not, however, control for heredity.  It is well known that genes play out in the expression of personality type and a broad array of complex behaviors.  So why would it not play out in the happiness, health and functioning capacity of children?  If you don’t control for heritability is it not possible that well functioning adults might just pop out well functioning kids?  Well it certainly is!  And might we wrongly attribute parenting style for something actually under the influence of genes?  Yes indeed!

 

I then explored Does Parenting Style Really Matter? and suggested that the current research from behavioral genetics provides a great deal of evidence concluding that the home environment, as it is influenced by parents, accounts for 0 to 10% of the variance in the personality and intelligence outcomes of children.  Heredity (genes) accounts for about 50% and the child’s peer group accounts for the remaining 40-50% of the variance (Pinker, 2002).

 

The major problem with the above referenced data has been the admitted narrowness with regard to the age and Social Economic Status (SES) of the participants.  For the most part, the studies on twins and adopted children were conducted on middle class families with little relative diversity.  On top of that, there is a dearth of research focusing on early childhood.  This narrowness limits the generalization of findings across different populations and across age levels.  Clearly, it is conceivable that parenting style will have varying levels of influence on child outcomes across the developmental lifespan.  Over-generalization may lead to faulty thinking and thus very dangerous policy decisions.

 

Throughout my training and subsequent professional development, as a psychologist, I have been exposed to data suggesting that there is a fairly strong positive correlation between Social Economic Status (SES) and mental ability.  The same is true with regard to academic achievement.  The underlying message had always been that environmental determinates were responsible for these correlations.  Again, the problem with this thinking is that the research upon which such beliefs were formed has largely lacked appropriate controls for heritability.  Correlation is not causation and all that jazz!

 

So what happens to the data when children across the SES spectrum are assessed using techniques that control for genes?  One particular study from 2003 suggested that “the heritability of cognitive ability in 7-year-old twins was only 10% in low-SES families but was 72% in high-SES families.”  (Tucker-Drob, Rhemtulla, Harden, Turkmeimer & Fask, 2011)  This suggests that the environment, including perhaps parenting style and experiential deprivation, play a much bigger role in hindering cognitive development in low SES children versus higher SES children.  Further research has found similar, although not so striking, SES differences.  Regardless, research within the field of behavioral genetics “suggests that the environment plays a substantial role in the expression of genetic variance in cognitive ability over the course of child development” (Tucker-Drob, et al., 2011).  Regardless, questions persist about the degree of influence SES plays in mental ability outcomes and about what point in time the shared environment might affect development.

 

In a new study just published in Psychological Science by Tucker-Drob, et al. (2011) the authors looked at the mental ability of 750 twins (25% identical, 35% same sex fraternal, and 40% opposite sex fraternal), at 10- and 24-months of age.  This sample closely represented US population statistics including a diverse cross section of children across the SES and racial spectrum.  And the results were quite different.

 

At ten months of age, the authors report that the shared environment (the home) played the dominate role in the variance of mental ability scores in all households – rich or poor.  There was very little apparent variation in mental ability attributable to heredity.  At 24-months however, things get a little more complicated.  For low SES children, the environment remains the key variable associated with differences in mental ability.  Perhaps as much of 70% of the variance in mental ability is attributable to the shared home environment.  While for high SES children, genes become the predominant variable associated with the differences in mental ability scores.  Environment still plays a role but much less so.  Smart parents have smart kids unhampered by environmental constraints.

 

Genes by SES

 

Looking at ability gains within individuals between the first assessment at ten months and the retest at 24 months, the high SES children made more gains than those from low SES homes.  The difference was modest; however, a child in poverty is likely, simply as a function of SES, to score one standard deviation below a very well to do child on the mental ability test.

 

These findings suggest that for very young children, environment matters a great deal.  This is particularly true for infants rich or poor; but it becomes much more important for poor toddlers.  Poor kids are more vulnerable to the adversity associated with deprivation.  Many factors have been examined in order to explain this discrepancy.  The author of this current study wrote:

 

“…compared with higher-SES parents, lower-SES parents spend less time with their children (Guryan, Hurst, & Kearney, 2008), are less able to allocate time spent with children in accordance with their children’s developmental needs (Kalil, Ryan, & Corey, 2010), and are less sensitive in responding to their children’s signals (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002; De Wolff & Ijzendoorn, 1997).”  (Tucker-Drob, et al., 2011).

 

One particularly illuminating study published by Hart and Risley in 1995 reported “that at age 3, children in professional families heard an average of 2153 words per hour, while children in working class families heard 1251 words per hour and children in welfare families heard only 616 words per hour.   In professional families, parents not only talked more but also used more different words and provided a greater richness of nouns, modifiers and verbs. Parents spent a lot of time and effort asking their children questions, affirming and expanding their responses and encouraging their children to listen and notice how words relate and refer in order to prepare their children for a culture focusing on ‘‘symbols and analytic problem solving’’ (see Hart and Risley, 44 p 133). On the other hand, parents on welfare spent less time talking while they more frequently initiated topics and used more imperatives and prohibitions. These parents were more concerned with established customs such as obedience, politeness and conformity. Working-class families showed a mixture of the two cultures using imperatives and prohibitives while using rich language to label, relate and discuss objects.” (Duursma, Augustyn, & Zuckerman, 2008)  The net effect is that poor children hear 30 million fewer words than do children of professionals by the time they reach their forth birthday.

 

The implications of these differences are profound.  Replication of this research is necessary, but we also need greater clarification of the environmental attributes that culminate in the mental ability discrepancies.  Should these SES differences stand up to the rigors of scientific scrutiny through replication it will be absolutely essential to invest further in early childhood programs.  Jonah Lehrer (2011)  likewise noted that: “Such statistics have led many researchers to highlight the importance of improving the early-childhood environments of poor children. Economists such as James Heckman, a Nobel laureate at the University of Chicago, have long advocated for increased investments in preschool education, but this latest study suggests that interventions need to begin even earlier. One possible model is the “Baby College” administered by the Harlem Children’s Zone, which seeks to equip brand-new parents with better parenting skills.”

 

These findings also reinforce the importance of programs such as Head Start and particularly Early Head Start.  It is concerning that these very programs are often the most vulnerable to budget cuts in difficult times.  I can’t help but wonder if we would prioritize early childhood development differently if the masses and our politicians were truly aware of these issues.  Perhaps we should learn more about this and help spread the word to friends, family, and our representatives.  Are we as a society really willing to passively submit to this self perpetuating cycle of poverty?

 

References:

 

Duursma, E., Augusta, M., & Zuckerman, B. (2008).  Reading Aloud to Children: The Evidence. Archives of Disease in Childhood.  Vol 93 No 7.

 

Epstein, R. (2010). What Makes a Good Parent? Scientific American MIND. November/December 2010. (pgs 46-51).

 

Hart, B. & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

 

Lehrer, J. (2011).  Why Rich Parents Don’t Matter. Wall Street Journal.com.  1/22/11

 

Pinker, S. (2002).  The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.

 

Tucker-Drob, E. M., Rhemtulla, M., Harden, K. P., Turkheimer, E., & Fask, D.  (2011). Emergence of a Gene × Socioeconomic Status Interaction on Infant Mental Ability Between 10 Months and 2 Years. Psychological Science. 22(1) 125–133.

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Schadenfreude

22 January 2011

As I think back about my childhood there are a few dark memories that elicit some shame.  The specifics of these rare events are vague in my mind, but I do recall my reaction and the subsequent feelings aroused deep within.  Part of my shame stemmed from the certainty that I alone was so inclined to find humor in the misfortune of others.  Come to find out, later in life, the Germans have a very specific word for my inappropriate reactions.  The word, Schadenfreude, has no English equivalent, but imagine my relief to learn that my strong compulsion to laugh when a playmate injured himself was not some deep seated character flaw.  I like to consider myself a sensitive and caring guy; generally, pretty empathetic.  That was true, I am told, even when I was a child.  But, on occasion, I really struggled with a deep and overpowering reflexive drive to heartily laugh when one particular friend of mine managed to hurt himself.  When anybody else got hurt I tended to writhe with a sick feeling in my knees.  Not so with this guy.  He was older than I and although I loved spending time with him, I also experienced a fair amount of envy in his presence.   I admired him for his confidence, competence, and he seemed to possess all the wondrous possessions of my dreams.  As I’ve come to learn more about schadenfreude, I now realize that this envy probably played out in the expression of this emotion.

 

So what is this schadenfreude response and where does it come from?  First, what is it?  The word itself is derived from schaden, which in German means adversity or harm and freude, which means joy.  Literally the term means deriving pleasure from another’s misfortune.  Although people rarely acknowledge this feeling, it is very common and probably as old as humankind.  It drives the infatuation people have with celebrities and politicians particularly when it comes to their foibles and faux pas.   It also drives the success of slap stick comedy and the humor derived from the ubiquitous home videos of men being unexpectedly struck  in the private parts.  Who has not seen and laughed at least one of these videos?  This response transcends all of human kind and it certainly keeps the tabloids and paparazzi in business.

 

Schadenfreude has of late become an area of scientific inquiry.  Little by little we are acquiring more and more information about this phenomena.  Studies of empathy using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) mapped out, in real time, active centers of the brain as individuals were exposed to another person’s pain. The fMRI detected activity in the frontoinsular and anterior cingulate cortices.  These areas of the brain are associated with pain responses and the subsequent emotions.  Empathy is likely a brain-based response whereby the witness re-lives the negative emotions of pain without actually enduring the physical stimuli.  A surprising result of this research was that when some subjects (men in particular), witnessed unfortunate things happening to bad people, the left nucleus accumbens (NAcc) tended to light up.  The NAcc is a collection of neurons within the striatum, which is thought to be a major reward center in the brain.  The striatum play important roles in our experiences of pleasure, laughter, reward, and even addiction and aggression.

 

We have learned even more from the work of neuroscientist Hidehiko Takahashi and his colleagues at Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences.  They asked 19 adult volunteers to read scenarios describing the successes and misfortunes of fictional characters and to report their feelings about these people as they were undergoing an fMRI. They discovered that reports of envy were associated with activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (the same pain center noted above).  Envy, it seems, like empathy, is an unpleasant experience, processed in the same way as is physical pain. On the other hand, the feelings of pleasure associated with another’s misfortune were associated with increased activity in the striatum (pleasure center).  In contrast to empathy and envy, schadenfreude actually feels good.  Another person’s misfortune can trigger the same positive feelings as those associated with eating a great meal, hearing a really funny joke, or watching your team win the big game.

 

So, it seems, we are hard wired to feel schadenfreude.   There must have been some evolutionary advantage conferred to those who experienced this emotion.  Or perhaps, it may simply be secondary to some other traits that did offer selective advantages.  Emily Anthes (2010) in an article in Scientific American: MIND noted “from an evolutionary standpoint, schadenfreude makes a lot of sense.  The world is a competitive place, and an individual benefits, for instance, when a sexual competitor breaks a leg or a hunting rival falls ill.”  There is a certain degree of social relativism at work here.  Another’s misfortune stands you in better relative position for limited resources and thus survival. That’s the evolutionary psychology angle.  Although the survival piece is certainly less relevant today, sexual selection and economic competition still are.

 

As it turns out, one is more likely to experience schadenfreude when one envies or harbors disdain for the victim of misfortune.  And lack of personal familiarity with the victim also seems to be at play.  Familiarity is most likely to elicit the empathy response.  So, I guess there is no need for me to feel shame for this particular dirty little secret.

 

Speaking of dirty little secrets, I only felt a modicum of shame about the pleasure I experienced upon learning of the downfalls of Senator Larry Craig and Pastor Ted Haggerd.  These self-righteous men publicly and vociferously professed the immorality of homosexuality while privately partaking in same gender sexual activity.  I’m guessing that hypocrisy like true evil holds a special schadenfreude spot in our NAcc.

 

For a humorous spin on this concept listen to the song on this subject from the racy Broadway play called Avenue Q.

References:

 

Anthes, E. (2010). Their Pain, Our Gain: Why Schadenfreude Is Best Enjoyed in Groups. Scientific American: MIND.

 

Gorman, J. (2006). This is Your Brain on Schadenfreude. New York Times

 

O’Connor, A. (2004). Brain Senses The Pain Of Someone Else’s ‘Ouch!’.  New York Times.

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 | Posted by | Categories: Neurology |

Tragedies like the events of January 8th in Tuscan shake the nation.  We grieve for the victims and struggle to make sense of it all.  The dialogue that has followed the event is not surprising.  People want and need to understand why a person would do such a thing.   These events are mind boggling and the human brain does not tolerate the ambiguity and senselessness of such acts.  We gain solace by filling in the blanks with assumptions about the gunman’s sanity or motives.

 

We respond by presuming that only a mad man could commit such heinous acts.  Or, we conclude that because the principle target was a politician, that his behavior must be ideologically driven.  These assumptions provide a framework within which the event is easier to comprehend.  The notion of insanity simplifies the situation: mental illness becomes the culprit.  The notion of it being a politically motivated act also allows us to point a finger.

 

In fact, however, we don’t know what brought this young man to make such a terrible choice.  The incomplete mosaic of the shooter’s life drawn from disparate snapshots by relative strangers suggests erratic behavior and disjointed thoughts.  Was he abusing substances or evidencing symptoms of psychosis?  As of right now we just don’t know.

 

We do know, however, that he and his family lived a reclusive life and that he struggled to exhibit sufficient adaptive skills to successfully navigate the worlds of work and college.  I suggest that although it may be easy to conclude that Loughner is deranged, it is important to remember that insanity is not a prerequisite for such atrocious behavior.  You may assume that only insane people would commit such crimes – but the reality is that ordinary people are capable of doing equally terrible things if their beliefs and their culture condone it or even honor it.

 

It is for example quite wrong to assume that the 9/11 terrorists were insane.  Their faith in their god and the teachings of their religious book as well as the value put on such beliefs by the narrow sect of their particular extremist culture made them heroes and martyrs, destined for eternal bliss.

 

There are other situations where the sanity line is a bit murkier.  Timothy McVeigh was apparently paranoid and quite capable of rationalizing his behavior by revising or cherry picking historical facts: but he too was highly motivated to act out his own form of justice for crimes that he believed were committed by the Federal Government (e.g., Waco, Ruby Ridge).  His perspective about right and wrong was different than most of ours, but that doesn’t necessarily qualify him as insane.  We don’t understand or align with his thinking and thus conclude that he must be mentally ill.  The brutality of his behavior certainly bolsters such a conclusion.  But recall that he was a decorated soldier in the Gulf War.  He was a trained killer.  The enemy, at some point following his discharge from the Army, shifted from Saddam Hussein to the US Federal Government.  His beliefs justified his behavior in his eyes.

 

There are legitimate examples of heinous crimes committed by individuals with clear mental illness issues such as Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, and John Wayne Gacy.   Seung-Hui Cho (of Virginia Tech) also comes to mind.  Jared Loughner on the surface appears to be more in this category, but it is a presumption at this point.  There is no evidence that he was driven by a different set of moral imperatives spurred on by rancorous political hate speech.

 

Regardless, as many pundits have proclaimed, there is a fear that the vitriol that abounds in our political discourse may inspire and incite the Timothy McVeighs of the world.  Frankly, my first assumption was that the attack on Giffords was inspired by the very hate and fear emanating from the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.  Again, it is imprudent to draw such conclusions, but when someone has a differing political perspective and you target them as enemies of the state, destined to destroy America, then you have touched your toes on the line!  And when you incite hate and associate the opposing side with Hitler and Soviet Stalinists, then you have crossed the line.  Compound such rhetoric with images of violence and you have become grossly irresponsible.

 

I implore all US citizens to embrace civility and reject those that employ hatred to further their ideology.  We have all too real and tragic examples of the consequences of this behavior.  Lets devote our attention to civil dialogue about the issues that challenge our people and our planet.  The issues and we the people, deserve better!

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Have you ever heard someone make an argument that leaves you shaking your head in disbelief?  Does it seem to you like some people are coming from a completely different reality than your own?  If so, then this blog is for you.  I have spent the last year trying to develop an understanding of the common thought patterns that drive the acrimonious spirit of our social and political dialogue.  I am continually amazed by what I hear coming from seemingly informed people.  I have assumed that some folks are either deluded, disingenuous, or downright ignorant.  There is yet another possibility here, including the reality that different moral schema or belief systems may be driving their thinking.  And if this is the case, how do these divergent processes come to be?  I  have learned a lot through this exploration and feel compelled do provide a recap of the posts I have made.  I want to share with you those posts that have gathered the most traction and some that I believe warrant a bit more attention.

 

Over the past year I have posted 52 articles often dealing with Erroneous Thought Processes, Intuitive Thinking, and Rational Thought.  Additionally, I have explored the down stream implications of these processes with regard to politics, morality, religion, parenting, memory, willpower, and general perception.  I have attempted to be evidenced-based and objective in this process – striving to avoid the very trappings of confirmation bias and the erroneous processes that I am trying to understand.   As it turns out, the brain is very complicated: and although it is the single most amazing system known to human kind, it can and does lead us astray in very surprising and alarming ways.

 

As for this blog, the top ten posts, based on the shear number of hits, are as follows:

  1. Attribution Error
  2. Nonmoral Nature, It is what it is.
  3. Multitasking: The Illusion of Efficacy
  4. Moral Instinct
  5. Pareidolia
  6. IAT: Questions of Reliability
  7. Are You a Hedgehog or a Fox?
  8. What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule
  9. Illusion of Punditry
  10. Emotion vs.Reason: And the winner is?

What started out as ramblings from a curious guy in a remote corner of New York State ended up being read by folks from all over the planet.  It has been a difficult process at times, consuming huge amounts of time, but it has also been exhilarating and deeply fulfilling.

 

I have been heavily influenced by several scientists and authors in this exploration.  Of particular importance have been Steven Pinker, Daniel Simons, Christopher Chabris, Jonah Lehrer, Bruce Hood, Carl Sagan, and Malcolm Gladwell.  Exploring the combined works of these men has been full of twists and turns that in some cases necessitated deep re-evaluation of long held beliefs.  Holding myself to important standards – valuing evidence over ideology – has been an important and guiding theme.

 

Several important concepts have floated to the top as I poked through the diverse literature pertaining to thought processes. Of critical importance has been the realization that what we have, when it comes to our thought processes, is a highly developed yet deeply flawed system that has been shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution.  Also important has been my increased understanding of the importance of genes, the basic element of selective pressures, as they play out in morality and political/religious beliefs.  These issues are covered in the top ten posts listed above.

 

There are other worthy posts that did not garner as much attention as those listed above.  Some of my other favorites included a review of Steven Pinker’s article in the New York Times (also titled Moral Instinct,) a look at Jonathon Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory in Political Divide, as well as the tricks of Retail Mind Manipulation and the Illusion of Attention.  This latter post and my series on Vaccines and Autism (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) were perhaps the most important of the lot.  Having the content of these become general knowledge would make the world a safer place.

 

The evolution of understanding regarding the power and importance of Intuitive relative to Rational Thinking was humbling at times and Daniel Simons’ and Christopher Chabris’ book, The Invisible Gorilla, certainly provided a mind opening experience.  Hey, our intuitive capabilities are incredible (as illustrated by Gladwell in Blink & Lehrer in How We Decide) but the downfalls are amazingly humbling.  I’ve covered other topics such as  happiness, superstition, placebos, and the debate over human nature.

 

The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways.  First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought.  Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe.  These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival.  Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force.  Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the everyday illusions impede us in important ways.

 

Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to put blind-folds on adherents.  Often the blind- folds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology.  And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized.  As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in.  The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.

 

Because of our genetically inscribed tendencies toward mysticism and gullibility, we must make extra effort in order to find truth. As Dr. Steven Novella once wrote:

“We must realize that the default mode of human psychology is to grab onto comforting beliefs for purely emotional reasons, and then justify those beliefs to ourselves with post-hoc rationalizations. It takes effort to rise above this tendency, to step back from our beliefs and our emotional connection to conclusions and focus on the process.”

We must therefore be humble with regard to beliefs and be willing to accept that we are vulnerable to error prone influences outside our awareness.  Recognition and acceptance of these proclivities are important first steps.   Are you ready to move forward?  How do you think?

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