Undesirable behaviors occur for many reasons.  In order to reduce problematic (negative) behaviors we first must come to an understanding of why they are occurring.  I can’t emphasize this enough – UNDERSTANDING WHY IS THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING.  The WHY guides WHAT WE DO.  As we always tell our staff “In order to reduce a problematic (negative) behavior, we must first understand why the child is doing it, and then we must change our behavior accordingly.”  There is almost always something going on in the child’s world that spurs on negative behaviors.   Many of those things, we as the adults can, and must change.

 

There are common themes among the reasons why children misbehave. These include:

  1. ESCAPE/AVOIDANCE – Often children misbehave in order to escape or avoid having to do something undesirable (e.g., having to come inside after playing outside, having to sit to eat, having to go to bed, having to do school work).
  2. TO GET ATTENTION – Some negative behaviors occur because the child wants attention and doesn’t care whether it’s positive or negative attention. Sometimes negative behaviors occur because s/he is not being attended to for positive behavior, and/or the child actually enjoys getting adults upset.  One common example: there is nothing more fun than running away from an adult and being chased. 
  3. TO GET AN ITEM OR ACTIVITY – Some children discover that if they misbehave they get what they want. The classic example is throwing a temper tantrum at a store to get a toy or a piece of candy.
  4. TO GET SENSORY INPUT – The negative behavior may itself provide enjoyable feelings (e.g., running, climbing, and hand flapping or rocking may be naturally reinforcing – they just feel good or make them feel better).

 

It is important to determine whether any or all of these are occurring in such a way that encourages the problematic behavior.  But it is also important to understand whether:

  1. The child understands that the negative behavior is unacceptable
  2. The child understands what to do instead of the negative behavior (e.g., has the skills to do what we want to see)
  3. The child has rational control over his/her behavior
  4. Our expectations are appropriate for the child (e.g., Can s/he do what we want him or her to do?, Are we expecting too much?, Is the circumstance too overwhelming for the child?, etc.)
  5. There is sufficient motivation/incentive for the child to do what we want? Is the reinforcement for the negative behavior greater than the reinforcement available for what we want to see?

 

Whenever I am asked to help staff or parents address a negative behavior – I always investigate all of the above issues.  I also look into the following things:

  1. Have there been any major changes in the child’s life (e.g., changes in living circumstances including where home is, the birth of a sibling, parental discord or separation, an absence or illness of a major care provider, more stress at home, and a major change in the routine of life)? It is important to note that even changes in daylight savings time or the chaos of the holidays can be very disruptive.  Another major change, as is certainly the case now, includes major breaks from school.
  2. Is the child suffering with an illness or unusual discomfort (e.g., an infection, GI Issues, dental issues)?
  3. When did the behavior start?
  4. What is the trend (e.g., is it getting worse)?
  5. When is the problem behavior occurring the most and when is it least likely to occur?

 

It is important to investigate all of these issues and to do so thoroughly.  Only through such an analysis are we likely to come to an understanding of WHY the behavior is occurring and what we can effectively do to reduce the behavior.  Here are some Key Thoughts to keep in mind as you conduct an analysis of your child’s problematic behavior:

 

  1. Always try to look at the above issues from the child’s perspective
  2. Journal the behavior using the following guidelines on the Negative Behavior Journal
  3. LIMIT YOU EFFORTS TO ONE BEHAVIOR AT A TIME.

 

The following guidelines are designed to help you journal the negative behavior.  I highly advise that you document each occurrence of the negative behavior on the Negative Behavior Journal immediately following the behavior, paying special attention to each of the following:

  

Setting/Activity:

  • Specify:
    • The physical location of the difficulty
    • The activity the child was involved in prior to the difficulty
  • Pay attention to the things going on that likely affect the child (e.g., demands, environmental stimuli, automatically reinforcing behaviors)

 

Antecedent:

  • The antecedent is the stimuli or event that happened immediately prior to the negative behavior. It is important to note that the connection between the antecedent and the negative behavior are not always immediately clear.  Journal the behavior over a period of time (at least one week).
  • Examples of possible Antecedents (triggers):
    • A desirable activity was terminated (you took away something fun)
    • A desirable activity asked for by the child, but you said “No.”
    • A demand for work was placed on the child
    • Something aversive (unpleasant) occurred in the environment or entered the environment
    • The child had to transition away from a highly desirable activity to a less preferred or unpleasant activity

 

Behavior:

  • What specifically did the child do? (e.g., hit, scream, drop, head bang, bite, run away)

 

Consequences:

  • From the child’s perspective – what occurred in the environment in response to his or her behavior that may encourage or discourage the negative behavior itself? For example did the child:
    • Escape a demand or at least avoid it for a while because s/he engaged in the negative behavior?
    • Did s/he get to sustain involvement in the desired activity for a longer period of time because s/he engaged in the negative behavior?
    • Did s/he capture you attention (positive or negative) or get something s/he wanted because s/he engaged in the negative behavior?
    • Did s/he get pleasure out of agitating the care-provider or his/her peers?
    • Have to deal with you calmly asserting a demand with escalating insistence until s/he did what you wanted? (generally a good thing)

 

Comments:

  • Think about both the immediate circumstances and the long term implications of the interplay between the environment, the antecedents, his or her behavior, and the consequences of the negative behavior.
    • Is the environment set up to facilitate positive desirable behaviors (success) or negative behaviors (failure)?
    • Does the child know what positive behavior is expected in place of the negative behavior?
    • Is the reinforcement for the desired behavior strong enough to actually motivate him/her to do it?
    • Did my response increase or decrease the likelihood that the problematic behavior will occur again in the future?
    • What natural (automatic) reinforcers are at play here?
    • Really, what is the child getting from this situation?

 

Do the best you can to understand the WHY of the behavior and journal the negative behavior for at least one week.  Doing so will help you understand more thoroughly the dynamics in place that contribute to the negative behavior and perhaps inadvertently encourage it.  Use the following Negative Behavior Journal to record every occurrence of the negative behavior targeted for reduction.  Try to be honest about your behavior and inconsistencies (if any).  Nobody is perfect and this is a learning process.  Success in this process comes when you:

 

  • Behave as if you are a detective attempting to uncover the clues to a great mystery
  • Make substantial efforts to enter the mindset of the child and attempt to look at the world through his or her eyes (and other senses)
  • Accept that:
    • Most negative behaviors occur for a reason – they DO NOT tend to occur out of the blue (for no particular reason)
    • For each negative behavior there may be several reasons WHY – pay attention to the behavior over time and consider all possible functions of the behavior. For example the child may run away from you when you set a limit (tell him or her “NO!” ) or when they want your attention (e.g., want to play a cat and mouse chase game).
    • Children tend to do what works for them – We must learn WHY it works for them and then change WHAT works for them
    • There may be things in the environment that trigger the behavior (e.g., sounds, people, demands)
    • In order to change your child’s behavior, you will first likely have to change your own behavior and/or expectations
      • There may be things that you do that inadvertently encourage or maintain the behavior
      • There may be changes necessary with regard to your expectations
    • The most efficient way to change a negative behavior is to do the hard work to understand what is truly going on. You will also have to accept that it takes time and effort to understand WHY – there are no short cuts
    • Once you think you understand WHY, it takes time to develop a good intervention plan – take the time to do so carefully with investment and input from ALL care providers
    • A shared parenting plan is essential – inconsistency across parents will definitely weaken the intervention
    • If you are inconsistent in your dealings with the behavior across time, it will take even longer to reduce the negative behavior itself
    • Most negative behaviors serve a purpose for the child. Our job is to make the negative behavior less purposeful – and make a desirable behavior more purposeful for the child.  If the negative behavior “works” for the child just now and then, it will take much longer to eliminate the negative behavior. 
    • Behavior change takes time – your plan may start to work right away – but there is a good chance it will get worse for a while – so don’t give up right away – some children with very challenging behaviors are particularly skilled at getting the adults around them to give up on behavior change plans

Click here for the Negative Behavior Journal (pdf)

 

THERE IS A LOT TO THINK ABOUT HERE.  FOR GUIDANCE AND SUPPORT, PLEASE REACH OUT TO YOUR CHILD’S TEACHER OR THERAPIST.  PERHAPS THEY CAN ASSIST YOU OR LINK YOU WITH A BEHAVIOR SPECIALIST.

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The use of Video Conferencing to teach young children is a new challenge for everyone involved.  In order for it to work, YOU and the teacher or therapist (instructor) MUST FIRST TEACH YOUR CHILD HOW TO LEARN IN THIS NEW WAY.  Teaching this new skill will likely be the first thing the instructor will want to work on.  Without the ability to attend to and participate in instruction, your child will not likely benefit from video conferencing.  The acquisition of this new skill requires careful planning and thoughtful instruction. 

 

Strategies that will help make this work:

  1. Set the Environment Up for Success. There are several extremely important objectives here:
    1. The instructor must be very clear with you about their goals, objectives, and expectations. You will be the instructor’s eyes, ears, and hands, so if you need help or support – please ask for it!
    2. Work through the technological barriers FIRST. Download the necessary apps and/or programs as guided by the instructor and be prepared to practice with the instructor before your child is asked to participate.  Getting the technology set up and working can be the most challenging step in this entire process.  Patience is important.  You should also know in advance what device will be used, how it will be used, and where it will be used.   
    3. Set up the environment in order to eliminate competing distractions. The specifics of this will depend on your child and your home, but your child will need a good learning environment (e.g., a quiet room, no siblings watching TV or playing nearby, and minimal access to distracting toys, etc.).
    4. The instructor may suggest using visual schedules, When-Then contingencies, and preceding the session with sensory activities that increase focus. The instructor should help you get these things set up.
  2. The Instructor will likely want to start slowly and focus on making it fun. Once the technology is working, you know what to expect, and the environment is set up for success, the instructor will likely start by having fun with your child.  They will minimize demands so that your child learns that this video conferencing thing is fun and that their instructor is just as fun on the screen as in person.  The early sessions may be kept short (perhaps very short).  This will require pre-planning – you will likely have to help the instructor know what your child enjoys at home so that they can tap into those interests.
  3. Use Positive Behavioral Strategies. The instructor will want to work out a plan for ongoing reinforcement of appropriate attending and participating behavior during the session.  You may be asked to provide those reinforcers during the session.  They may also suggest that you follow the session with a special activity, toy, or treat to reward their hard work (even if it was just play).  This too will require advanced planning and ongoing communication with the instructor.  Please understand that these rewards are for success during the session and that they are important tools in teaching this new skill set.
  4. Demands will be placed gradually. The instructor will SLOWLY start folding in small demands as your child’s attending and participation skills improve.  The instructor should initially prioritize making your child feel successful during this new type of instruction.
  5. Be Attentive. Both you and the instructor should continually attend to the child’s level of interest in the activities, his or her level of focus, and how conducive the environment is to learning.  It may be necessary to adjust and modify expectations throughout the session.  The instructor will try to end the session before the child’s interest and motivation disappears.  Also they will want to end it on a positive note.  Talking about how the session went, at the end of the session, will be important to the ongoing success of this approach. 
  6. Continually Adjust Strategies and Expectations. It will be important to continually assess, adapt, and adjust the strategies, as well as everyone’s expectations throughout each session.  The same is true regarding the quality of the learning environment and the use of reinforcers. 
  7. Have Fun & Make it Fun! Brainstorm games, the use of favorite toys, stories, and songs, as well as activities (including physical movement) that can be implemented while video conferencing.  Be creative, be silly, and remember that rule number one is: Have Fun!

 

Developed by Dr. Gerald T. Guild, PhD, Licensed Psychologist and Behavior Specialist at The Children’s League in Springville, New York and by Kimberly Guild, MS, SLP-CCC, Speech Language Pathologist at Cattaraugus-Allegany BOCES in Olean, NY

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The use of Video Conferencing to teach young children, particularly those with disabilities, is fraught with many NEW challenges.  In order for it to work, the instructor MUST FIRST TEACH THE CHILD HOW TO PARTICIPATE ADAPTIVELY.   It is essential to prioritize gaining the instructional control of the student over implementing other IEP objectives.  Consider instructional control in this context, as a new skill-set that is foundational: necessitating careful planning and thoughtful instruction. 

 

Key Strategies:

  1. Set the Environment Up for Success. There are several extremely important objectives here:
    1. Be explicit with caregivers about your goals, objectives, and expectations – they are your key allies and instructional assistants in this process (i.e., your eyes, ears, and hands) and you absolutely need them to work with you to make this happen. This is new to them too, so you must teach them how to teach, and you must keep them on your side.  They will need your guidance, support, and compassion. 
    2. Work through the technological barriers FIRST. Help the caregivers acquire the necessary apps and downloads, and learn the procedures necessary to video conference BEFORE attempting to meet with the child. Practice with the caregiver first, as these challenges must not be underestimated.
    3. Teach the caregiver how to set up the environment in order to eliminate competing reinforcers and distractions. The specifics of this will depend on the child and the resources within the home, but you must discuss with the caregiver what device will be used, how it will be used, where it will be used, and they must understand that their child absolutely needs a conducive learning environment (e.g., a quiet room, no siblings watching TV or playing nearby, and minimal access to competing reinforcers, etc.).  
    4. Also consider the use of visual schedules, When-Then contingencies, and prior to the session, sensory activities that will likely increase the child’s level of focus.
  2. Start Small and Focus on Pairing with Reinforcers. Once the technology is working, the caregiver understands what to do, and the environment is set up for success, start by having fun with the child.  Minimize demands at first and just focus on making sure that they have fun with you.  Teach them that this video conferencing thing is fun and that you are just as fun on a screen as you are in person.  Remember to keep it short (perhaps very short).  This will require pre-planning, knowing what the child enjoys at home, and tapping into their inherent interests.
  3. Use Positive Behavioral Strategies. Work out a plan for ongoing reinforcement of appropriate attending and participation during the session and follow the session with a contingent highly potent activity, toy, or treat.  This will require advanced planning and ongoing communication with the caregiver as they are the likely providers of the tangible reinforcers.
  4. Carefully Approach Demands. Once you have a happy participant (which may take many short and fun visits), SLOWLY start folding in small demands – addressing skills they have already mastered at school.  It will be important to prioritize making them feel successful in order to maintain the child’s motivation.
  5. Be Attentive. Continually attend to the child’s motivation, focus of attention, the environment, and the needs of the caregiver as you “work” with the child. Adjust and modify your expectations as the session evolves, try to end it before the child’s interest and motivation disappears (end it on your terms AND on a positive note), and debrief with the caregiver following the session. 
  6. Adjust Your Strategies and Expectations Continually. Always assess, adapt, and adjust your practice, your expectations, the environment, and your use of reinforcers. 
  7. Have Fun & Make it Fun! Brainstorm games, the use of favorite toys, stories, and songs, as well as activities (including physical movement) that can be implemented while video conferencing.  Be creative, be silly, and rule number one: Have Fun!
  8. Ramp Up Demands Slowly and Carefully. As Grandfather Guild always said “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get!

 

Developed by Dr. Gerald T. Guild, PhD, Licensed Psychologist and Behavior Specialist at The Children’s League in Springville, New York and by Kimberly Guild, MS, SLP-CCC, Speech Language Pathologist at Cattaraugus-Allegany BOCES in Olean, NY

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Very little is normal today and it can be very hard, even for the youngest among us.  Perhaps the hardest thing for your children is the departure from the regular routine of going to school and being with their friends and teachers.  Even harder still may be the pressure on you to provide for your family’s safety and well-being – oh, and keeping the kids happy and learning.   Some children will respond to these times with increased behavioral challenges, sleep problems, toileting regression, and heightened general agitation.  Sound familiar?  Here are TEN TIPS to help you get through this.

  1. TAKE CARE OF YOU! – Your children need you – not only in the home, but also your strength and reassurance. This means you need to stay healthy both physically and emotionally.  Do the things that promote physical and emotional well-being (e.g., avoid the virus, exercise, get adequate sleep, avoid excessive screen time, and focus on the positive things you can control).  If you are struggling to cope with all this, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Disaster Distress Hotline at 800/985-5990 or and the Crisis Text Line, an anonymous texting service available 24/7. Starting a conversation is easy. Text GOT5 to 741741
  2. MAINTAIN REGULAR ROUTINES – Although going to school is no longer an option, it is important for your children to have some predictable NEW ROUTINES. Keep bedtime routines the same everyday, build some structured learning time into their day, and perhaps most importantly, actively play with your child everyday – at regularly scheduled times. Consider talking with your child’s Teacher and/or Speech Therapist – they may be able to help you build a daily visual schedule.
  3. PROVIDE REASSURANCE – Your children may need to be reassured – although they may not comprehend the full scope of what is going on, they do know that something is different. They may also absorb your stress – so try to keep your cool in their presence, listen to them, speak kindly, and assure them that you are doing all that you can do to keep them safe.
  4. PAY LOTS OF ATTENTION TO THE BEHAVIORS THAT YOU LIKE – Often children use the most efficient strategies to get your attention, regardless of whether it’s positive praise or getting yelled at. If they are seeking lots of negative attention – try to refocus your attention on the good things they do – making it easier for them to get your positive praise and attention – and ignore (to the degree you can) the negative attention seeking – making undesirable behavior a less efficient way to get your attention.
  5. PLAY WITH AND READ TO YOUR CHILDREN – These are very powerful educational tools that also help manage behavior – use them a lot. Make it part of the routine.  As I say at the preschool where I work: “Rule #1 – Have fun with the kids.”  Silly play routines are also engaging and FUN.
  6. RUN ‘EM RAGGED – Physical exercise is another powerful tool to decrease anxiety and promote good sleep routines. This is true for you as well.  For kids, this means active physical play (e.g., chase play, supervised outdoor play, scheduled and supervised jumping and climbing activities).
  7. LIMIT SCREEN TIME – Media coverage of COVID-19 is extensive and overwhelming. Check into the news two times a day and entirely avoid exposing your children to it.  Also, avoid using excessive screen time to entertain your children or escaping yourself when you could be positively attending to your children.
  8. PRACTICE GOOD HYGIENE – Lots of information out there on this – wash your hands a lot – routinely avoid unnecessary social contact – disinfect frequent contact points – teach good hygiene – model good hygiene
  9. BE A GOOD ROLE MODEL – Stay calm – Focus on what you can control – Your children will follow your lead.
  10. HAVE A CONTINGENCY PLAN – Develop a plan in case you or someone in your family gets the virus.

We are all together in this – but not.  Although you may not be able to get face-to-face support at this time, there are other ways to get support from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Disaster Distress Hotline at 800/985-5990 and the Crisis Text Line, an anonymous texting service available 24/7. Starting a conversation is easy. Text GOT5 to 741741                 

 

Remember tip number one: TAKE CARE OF YOU!    

 

Compiled by Dr. Gerald T. Guild, PhD, NYS Licensed Psychologist and Behavior Specialist.  This information was drawn from reputable sources like the CDC, WHO, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
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There are numerous barriers to the provision of tele-therapy for educational purposes.  Among the most challenging issues are Technological Problems and the level of Student Cooperation.   This Trouble Shooting Guide addresses these barriers.

 

Technological Problems

There are many technological challenges that may be a product of the platform used (e.g., Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom, FaceTime, Skype, etc.) and the technical skills of the users (including you, the parent, and the student).  Other issues that may contribute to the challenges are the devices used (e.g., smartphone, tablet, and/or laptop/desktop computer), the operating system used (e.g., Windows 10, Apple iOS), and cell phone receptivity or internet broadband width.  Variations among these variables will affect the quality and consistency of interaction through this medium.

  1. Platform Issues – Various platforms have different capabilities making them either quite basic (e.g., Microsoft Teams, Skype, FaceTime, Facebook Messenger) or sophisticated (e.g., Zoom). The basic platforms are good for one-way teaching (e.g., lectures, storytelling, guided movement, counseling, or consultation).  Zoom for example, is capable of more interactive back and forth instruction using videos, boom-cards, and instructional apps and games across multiple devices.  These capabilities offer significant instructional advantages; however, they require more technical skills from the teacher/therapist and even the parent/child.  The bottom line is that you must:
    1. Choose the platform that is best for the purposes you have in mind.
    2. Learn how to use the platform(s) you choose (e.g., through online training videos and practice).
    3. Know which web browsers and devices support your platform of choice (e.g., Zoom works best on a computer using Chrome as a web browser as opposed to phones/tablets that have reduced interactivity).
    4. Help the parents make appropriate accommodations, downloads, etc.
  2. Anticipate that there will be problems based on the variation in devices, operating systems, web browsers, and the bandwidth available to each individual, and PLAN ACCORDINGLY. You will have to adjust your expectations based on the reality of the resources available in the student’s home.
  3. Work through all these issues with the parent first before trying to teach your students.
  4. Adjust your plans and expectations based on the tools and skills available. Technological hiccups during instruction have the effect of degrading the quality of instruction, as well as the willingness of the learner.

 

Student Cooperation

Tele-therapy necessitates the development of new skill sets for both you as a teacher (as you well know) and for the students as learners.  Provided your skills are at a point where you have started instructional tele-therapy, and you have taken the steps to facilitate the technology in your student’s home, your first job should have included teaching the child how to be a remote learner.  If not, you will have to back up (more on this in a minute).  Success is also dependent on building and sustaining rapport with the parent.  They are your allies in the instructional process – your eyes, ears, and hands.  They will facilitate or hinder your access to the student and they are absolutely key to your success. 

  1. If you have both good access to the child and caregiver support, but you are struggling with maintaining student engagement and/or attention, you must assess whether the problem is:
    1. environmental (e.g., struggles with competing distractions, struggles with equipment interface), OR
    2. behavioral (e.g., the child doesn’t have the skills or motivation to attend).
  2. If the problem is Environmental – based on barriers within the home environment, use the Tip Sheet I’ve developed for helping the parent set up the environment for success (https://bit.ly/3btkNpc).
  3. If the problem is Behavioral – the child is struggling with sustaining attention and/or following instructions appropriately during instruction, I highly recommend that you use the Tip Sheet I’ve developed for teaching instructional control (https://bit.ly/3bzAECy).
  4. The keys to success are mastery of the technology, having the parents as collaborative teaching partners, fostering a good learning environment, and well planned lessons that are realistic in terms of the technological limits in place, the capabilities of the child, and the demand load you place on the child.

 

Developed by Gerald T. Guild, PhD, Licensed Psychologist and Behavior Specialist
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My wife (Kimberly) and I decided to make and share a top ten list of our favorite TV Shows from the last 5 years (some reaching back further in time).  The task of consolidating them down to merely ten shows proved more challenging than we anticipated – so we employed a multi-tiered ranking system and both of us independently ranked each show within that tier.  Although ultimately our list includes 37 shows, you can infer the top ten, because they are in rank order under categories of The Very Best, Excellent, Very Good, Good, and Good but Faded.  The latter category includes shows that were initially captivating, but they lost our interest over time. 

 

We have watched each of these shows, and all of them left us wanting more at the end of each episode.  That longing for more is what made, in our opinion, these shows binge worthy.  The Very Best and Excellent shows and even some of the Very Good shows truly captivated us and we found ourselves talking or thinking about the characters the next day.  Production quality, artistry (as in The Handmaid’s Tale), and both character and plot development played important roles in sustaining our interest.  Epic stories with multiple characters and big complicated story lines elicited intrigue, confusion, and the formation of hunches that we absolutely needed to see unfold.

 

The average IMDb score on our list was 8.2 out of 10 and the average Rotten Tomatoes (and in a few cases Percent of Google Users liked) score was 86.5%. A close (statistical) look at these ratings indicates that there is a diminishing trend of score quality from our top rated shows to those at the bottom of our list.  It appears that professional and lay people think highly of most of these shows, and overall, they concur with our ranking system.  We have also included the Genre and TV rating level for each show.  Most of our preferred shows are Action/Adventure/Dramas, many with a SciFi twist.  Our preferences also trend toward shows for Mature Audiences (MA) only, but there are several family friendly or TV-14 and/or PG shows. 

 

The Very Best

  1. Game of Thrones (HBO) IMDb 9.3/10 89% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) – Action/Drama/Adventure
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu) IMDb 8.5/10 88% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) – Drama/Sci-Fi/Thriller

Excellent

  1. Black Sails (Starz and Hulu) IMDb 8.2/10 81% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Adventure/Drama – This TV Show is a fictional prequel to the book: Treasure Island
  2. Madam Secretary (CBS) IMDb 7.6/10 92% Google Users Like (Family) Political Drama
  3. Outlander (Starz) IMDb 8.4/10 91% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Drama/Fantasy/Romance
  4. Mr. Robot (USA Network, Hulu) IMDb 8.5/10 94% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Crime/Drama/Thriller
  5. Chernobyl (HBO) IMDb 9.4/10 96% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Drama/History/Thriller
  6. Mars (National Geographic, Netflix, Hulu) IMDb 7.5/10 95% Google Users like (TV-PG) Adventure/ Drama/Sci-Fi
  7. Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime Video) IMDb 8/10 84% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Drama/Sci-Fi/ Thriller
  8. Counterpart (Starz, Amazon Prime Video) IMDb 8.1/10 100% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Drama/Sci-Fi/Thriller
  9. Fleabag (Amazon Prime Video) IMDb 8.7/10 100% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Comedy/Drama
  10. Travelers (Netflix) IMDb 8.1/10 100% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi/Thriller
  11. Carnival Row (Amazon Prime Video) IMDb 7.9/10 57% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Crime/Drama/Fantasy/ Mystery/Thriller
  12. His Dark Material (HBO) IMDb 8.5/10 94% Rotten Tomatoes (TV-14) Adventure/Drama/Family/ Fantasy
  13. Blue Planet II (BBC America) IMDb 9.4/10 97% Rotten Tomatoes (TV-G) Documentary                                                                                                                

Very Good

  1. The Expanse (Amazon Prime Video) IMDb 8.5/10 93% Rotten Tomatoes (TV-14) Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi/Thriller
  2. Justified (Hulu) IMDb 8.6/10 97% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Action/Crime/Drama/Mystery/Thriller
  3. Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan (Amazon Prime Video) IMDb 8.1/10 71% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Action/ Drama/Thriller
  4. Westworld (HBO) IMDb 8.7/10 85% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi/Western
  5. Homeland (Showtime, Hulu) IMDb 8.3/10 85% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Crime/Drama/Mystery/Thriller
  6. The Outsider (HBO) IMDb 8.0/10 82% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Crime/Drama/Mystery/Thriller
  7. Hunters (Amazon Prime Video) IMDb 7.2/10 63% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Crime/Drama/Mystery
  8. Marvel’s Agents of Shield (ABC, Netflix) IMDb 7.5/10 94% Rotten Tomatoes (TV-PG) Action/Adventure/Drama/Sci-Fi/Thriller
  9. Altered Carbon (Netflix) IMDb 8.1/10 76% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Action/Drama/Sci-Fi/Thriller
  10. The Deuce (HBO) IMDb 8.1/10 93% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Drama
  11. Ozark (Netflix) IMDb 8.4/10 81% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Crime/Drama/Thriller
  12. Mindhunter (Netflix) IMDb 8.6/10 97% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Crime/Drama/Thriller
  13. The Mandalorian (Disney+) IMDb 8.7/10 93% Rotten Tomatoes (TV-PG) Action/Adventure/SciFi

 

Good

  1. The Blacklist (NBC, Netflix) IMDb 8/10 91% Rotten Tomatoes (TV-14) Crime/Drama/Mystery/Thriller
  2. Hanna (Amazon Prime Video) IMDb 7.5/10 97% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Action/Drama
  3. The OA (Netflix) IMDb 7.9/10 84% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Drama/Fantasy/Mystery/Sci-Fi
  4. The Witcher (Netflix) IMDb 8.3/10 67% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Action/Adventure/Drama/Fantasy/Horror/Mystery
  5. Nightflyers (Syfy, Netflix) IMDb 5.9/10 35% Rotten Tomatoes (TV-14) Horror/Sci-Fi

 

Good but Faded Over Time

  1. Jessica Jones (Netflix) IMDb 8.0/10 83% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Action/Crime/Drama/Sci-Fi/Thriller
  2. Girls (HBO) IMDb 7.3/10 89% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Comedy/Drama
  3. Peaky Blinders (BBC, Netflix) IMDb 8.8/10 92% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Crime/Drama
  4. Love (Netflix) IMDb 7.7/10 94% Rotten Tomatoes (MA) Comedy/Drama/Romance
  5. Stranger Things (Netflix) IMDb 8.8/10 93% Rotten Tomatoes (TV-14) Horror
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Fake news is an abundant commodity in public discourse these days.  The reality of the situation is that all of us are hurt by it.  By acknowledging the existence of untenable facts, it gives permission to everyone to ignore hard and fast evidence, and thus justification to hunker down in the echo chambers of their political and moral beliefs.  Believe it or not, it is these moral and political underpinnings that give fake news its leverage.  Here is a  surprising real fact – the root of the problem is in your head in the form of a cognitive bias.

The scientific term for this bias is called Motivated Reasoning.  Before I explain it, let me state that Motivated Reasoning is universal and automatic; therefore, regardless of who you are, how intelligent you think you are, and what your political perspective is, YOU are vulnerable to it’s impact.

Here are some definitions of Motivated Reasoning:

  • Motivated reasoning is a form of reasoning in which people access, construct, and evaluate arguments in a biased fashion to arrive at or endorse a preferred conclusion.1

  • Motivated reasoning leads people to confirm what they already believe, while ignoring contrary data. But it also drives people to develop elaborate rationalizations to justify holding beliefs that logic and evidence have shown to be wrong.2

  • … motivated reasoning, … describes our tendency to accept what we want to believe with much more ease and much less analysis than what we don’t want to believe.3

Here are the key things to keep in mind about Motivated Reasoning:

  1. this bias leads us to accept what we want to believe
  2. we do so while ignoring contrary evidence, and empirically established facts
  3. we do so while developing elaborate rationalizations in order to justify such biases
  4. we do it with ease, meaning that it is automatic – it is occurring subconsciously

I have written about related concepts that serve as the foundation of this tendency.  First, there is the concept of Confirmation Bias which is the automatic inclination to take in, and accept as true, information that supports our belief systems, and miss, ignore, or discount information that runs contrary to our beliefs.4   It leads us to “believe” things like that full moons directly influence people’s behavior (which is not supported by empirical evidence).  “It shapes our religious and political beliefs, our parenting choices, our teaching strategies, and our romantic and social relationships.  It also plays a significant role in the development of stereotypes and the maintenance of prejudices.”Secondly there is Spinoza’s Conjecture.  “Benedict Spinoza, a 17th-century Dutch philosopher, wrote with great insight that “mere comprehension of a statement entails the tacit acceptance of it being true, whereas disbelief requires a subsequent process of rejection.”  What this suggests is that we are likely to accept, as true, a statement that makes immediate sense to us. But we can also infer that we are, in general, unlikely to critically scrutinize such logical statements.  A further implication is that we are likely to reject statements that don’t make immediate sense to us.”5

By appreciating the concepts of Confirmation Bias and Spinoza’s Conjecture one is inclined to gain a deep understanding of Motivated Reasoning.  At the basis of each of these concepts are one’s beliefs or what one believes to be true.  A belief is defined as “an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof.” Belief is something that often necessarily involves a leap of faith, like a belief in God, or the acceptance of a particular political ideology.  Beliefs are generally thought to be influenced by morality.  And with regard to politics, there is evidence to suggest that political beliefs “… are often guided by our Moral Foundations.7”  According to Jonathon Haidt, a prominent Social Psychologist, there are five universal moralsHaidt’s research has indicated that liberals tend to value two of those morals (care and fairness), at a higher level than their conservative counterparts, and likewise compared to conservatives, hold a lower valuation of the other three (ingroup loyalty, authority and purity/sanctity).8   In related research Haidt9 has found that liberals value the rights and welfare of all individuals and tend to express “widespread human concern about caring, nurturing, and protecting vulnerable individuals from harm.”  Conservatives instead, express moral proclivities that “emphasize social cohesiveness and social order with a focus on loyalty, obedience, duty, self-restraint, respect of authority, piety, self-sacrifice for the group, vigilance for traitors or free-loaders, and orderly cultural boundaries.”

Another difference between those with liberal versus conservative ideological notions is related to future focus as opposed to a nostalgic one.  Whereas liberals tend to be inspired by “Hope and Change,” with a focus on making things better than they have ever been, conservatives tend to be nostalgic, seeing society’s trajectory as being regressive.  Conservatives tend to value the past and want to get back to it (e.g., “Make America Great Again“).

Granted, these are just a few of many variables that drive Motivated Reasoning.  The point is that there are a number of complicated factors that set people up for opposing beliefs.  These differences in perspective fuel our cognitive biases, and greatly affect what we are likely to accept as true.  From this evolves the concept of “truthiness” whereby people, regardless of ideology, accept information as being true, particularly if it supports their already held beliefs, and reject as “Fake” those facts that place their beliefs in doubt.

So how do we get around this automatic inclination?  The first step is to accept the concept of Motivated Reasoning as being real.  If you do not, facts and truth are irrelevant to you, and you are beyond hope.  If you can accept this reality, then you need to be willing step back from your deep convictions and open yourself up to seeing how those convictions shape your ingestion and acceptance of information.  Secondly, you need to critically evaluate the sources of your information.  There are news organizations out there that prosper from feeding Motivated Reasoning.   Here’s the rub, your Motivated Reasoning will distort your perspective on what news sources to trust.  Again, at the risk of being redundant, I urge you to keep in mind that your deeply held beliefs set you up for erroneous thinking.  It is ideology that is the culprit.  Finally, you must embrace evidence, and gather facts from sources that value evidence over ideology.

All of this is difficult, necessitating much cognitive effort, and the process is likely to make you feel uncomfortable.  Here is a hint, avoid cable news, particularly those networks with clear political objectives (you know who they are).  Below I have listed a few articles and sites to help you in your efforts to overcome your natural brain biases.  By gathering evidenced based information, and by avoiding inherently biased news, you will expand your understanding of the complexities of our world.  The discomfort you will likely experience by doing so, is called cognitive dissonance.  It is avoidance of that dissonance that keeps you in your echo chamber and susceptible to alternative facts.  The only way around this bias is to push through the pain: and only by experiencing that discomfort, will you be able to accurately reject fake news.

Tools for assessing the veracity of your preferred news outlets:

  1. Forbes 10 Journalism Brands Where You Find Real Facts Rather Than Alternative Facts10 
  2. Media Bias Fact Check11
    1. Pro-Science
    2. Least Biased
    3. Left-Center Bias
    4. Left Bias
    5. Right-Center Bias
    6. Right Bias
  3. FactCheck.org12

References

  1.  Motivated Reasoning Psychology Reference and Research: https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/attitudes/motivated-reasoning/
  2. Motivated Reasoning The Skeptic’s Dictionary: http://skepdic.com/motivatedreasoning.html
  3. Psychology’s Treacherous Trio: Confirmation Bias, Cognitive Dissonance, and Motivated Reasoning Why We Reason: https://whywereason.com/2011/09/07/psychologys-treacherous-trio-confirmation-bias-cognitive-dissonance-and-motivated-reasoning/

  4. Confirmation Bias How Do You Think? https://geraldguild.com/blog/2010/01/29/confirmation-bias/

  5. Spinoza’s Conjecture How Do You Think?  https://geraldguild.com/blog/2010/01/22/spinozas-conjecture

  6. Definition of belief: English Oxford Dictionary: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/belief
  7. Haidt, J. (2008). What Makes People Vote Republican? http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html
  8. Moral Foundations Theory How Do You Think? https://geraldguild.com/blog/2010/09/24/moral-foundations-theory/
  9. Graham, J., Haidt, J., and Nosek, B. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 5, 1029–1046
  10. Forbes 10 Journalism Brands Where You Find Real Facts Rather Than Alternative Facts
  11. Media Bias Fact Check
  12. FactCheck.org
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There is an Indigo Girls song called Galileo that references a fear of motion (00:01:19 into the song) and suggests that the source of this particular fear is from “some other fool across the ocean years ago [having] crashed his little airplane.”  In the song, the means of transmission of this fear is reincarnation, which according to dictionary.com is “the belief that the soul, upon death of the body, comes back to earth in another body or form.”  Such claims lie outside the measurable parameters of science and are dubious.  However, recent research is suggesting that perhaps some fears are indeed transferable across generations.  How can this be?

 

First, lets consider the life-cycle of a butterfly which commences as an egg laid by a mature butterfly.  The egg hatches and a caterpillar (the larval stage) begins consumption of copious amounts of foliage (molting as he grows) in preparation for one of life’s most mysterious transitions.  When the caterpillar is ready for its amazing metamorphosis, it cocoons itself into a chrysalis.  During this phase the caterpillar essentially digests itself becoming a sack of ooze.  It doesn’t transition from caterpillar into a butterfly by simply sprouting wings.  Nope, it breaks down into a primordial soup and starts a remod from component cells called imaginal discs.  These stem cells of sorts, comprised of just a small number of organized cells, ultimately reconfigure the sack of melted ooze into a fully functional butterfly.  Although the imaginal discs have their beginnings in the egg stage, they remain essentially invisible but preparatory for the butterfly stage throughout the larval stage.  They jump into rigorous reconstruction mode while in the chrysalis.  This same process occurs in moths as well.

 

Life Cycle of a Butterfly

Life Cycle of a Butterfly

 

Life itself ceases for the caterpillar as it pupates in the chrysalis.  It stops breathing, its heart stops beating: its muscles, skin and brain, legs, and antennae, all melt down, becoming liquid fodder for the resurrection.  It’s not simply a transition – it’s a death and a rebirth.

 

So, you may be asking, how is this relevant?  Let’s consider some amazing research by Martha Weiss, an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at Georgetown University.   Her research focuses on evolutionary ecology, plant-animal interactions, butterfly and wasp learning, and caterpillar behavior.  One of her studies looked at whether learning during the caterpillar stage would make it across the pupal stage and be evidenced by the moth, despite the death and liquefication of the entire caterpillar.  Such maintenance of memory was largely considered impossible.  In her study, Dr. Weiss exposed caterpillars to a clearly distinguishable, but neutral odor, and then she paired the odor with a mild electric shock.  Pretty quickly, after many repeated pairings,  the caterpillars developed an aversion and a subsequent escape behavior, associated with the odor.  They came to fear it.

 

Following the pairing sessions and demonstration of learning, the caterpillars pupated.  Just over one month later, as mature moths, when exposed to the conditioned odor, the moths demonstrated a strong aversion to what would normally be a neutral stimuli.   In this study there were also subjects that constituted the control group.  The control moths were, when in the caterpillar stage, exposed to the odor but were not shocked.  They never exhibited a definitive aversion to the odor (as caterpillars or moths).  The caterpillars that were shocked, when presented with the odor, sustained the aversion even after pupating.  The memory made it through the metamorphosis even though the caterpillar had died and the brain turned to goo in the meantime.

 

This is remarkable – and suggests that memories are capable of being sustained across the death of the caterpillar and the rebirth (probably as a result of the data sustained in the imaginal disks).  As amazing as this is, such memories were not transmitted from adult moths through to the egg and onto subsequent generations of  caterpillars.   So memories can transcend metamorphosis, but is there any evidence of the capacity to sustain memories across generational lines like that implied by the Indigo Girls?

 

Researchers Brian Dias and Kerry Ressler from Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta used a similar research design with mice, whereby adult mice were trained to have an aversive response to the aroma of cherry blossoms.  They repeatedly paired this particular odor with electrical shocks and the mice subsequently learned, through classical conditioning, to fear the conditioned odor.  Unlike moths, mice procreate through intercourse, gestation, and give live birth to baby mice.  There is no metamorphosis, although gestation is a pretty amazing process in its own right.  Anyways, Dias and Ressler breed the mice who had developed the aversion and tested to determine whether their offspring also feared the conditioned stimuli (aroma of cherry blossom).

 

As it turns out, the offspring and their offspring evidenced an aversion to the cherry blossom odor despite never having been exposed to it or shocked.  The fear appears to have been handed down across generations through a process called epigentics.  Epigentic methylation results in changes in the DNA of the parent prior to conception that are then conferred to their offspring through sexual reproduction.

 

Granted this has not been scientifically evidenced in humans as yet, but the implications of these findings are staggering. This suggests that DNA is not immutable: that in fact, what happens to a parent prior to conception, can alter his or her DNA, and that those changes can be handed down across multiple generations.  Epigentics is well established and this process is increasingly understood.  But evidence of trans-generational fear responses have not been likewise so well substantiated.  This ability had been seriously doubted.  It is now conceivable that a survivor of a plane crash may later produce offspring who themselves have a subsequent fear of flying.  This may explain human phobic responses to spiders, snakes, heights, and other irrational fears that were previously unexplainable.

 

This makes me think of my previous article titled Irrational Fear: It’s Just an Alief.  In that article I wrote:

 

Philosopher Tamar Gendler has coined the word “alief” to describe this cognitive phenomenon.  She fashioned the word around the word “belief,” which is a conscious manifestation of how we suppose things to be.  An alief is a deep and powerful feeling of sorts that can and does play an important role in decision-making, but it is not based in reason or evidence.  Beliefs can be more susceptible to such rational forces.  But aliefs defy reason and exert powerful influence despite one’s attempts to rationally dispel them.  This voice is intuitive and its origins are outside your awareness.  They typically appear in an attempt to facilitate self-preservation.

 

To call such fears an Alief just gives it a name.  The underpinnings of such fears have been vague and speculative.  The findings of Dias and Ressler provide a testable hypothesis for such phenomena.  And now, when I stand at an intimidating precipice, I can speculate that my fear stems from an incident experienced by unfortunate kin rather than from random bad karma.

 

References:

 

1. Blackiston DJ, Silva Casey E, Weiss MR (2008) Retention of Memory through Metamorphosis: Can a Moth Remember What It Learned As a Caterpillar? PLoS ONE 3(3): e1736. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001736

 

2. Dias BG, Ressler KJ (2014). Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations. Nature Neuroscience (17):89–96. 

 

3. Jabr F. (2012) How does a caterpillar turn into a butterfly? Scientific American

 

4. Radio Lab (2014)  Black Box.

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 | Posted by | Categories: Biology, Genetics, Memory, Uncategorized |

Although I did not make a substantial number of posts in 2013, the traffic to my site remained relatively vigorous.  Throughout 2013 my blog had 24,007 hits from 21,042 unique visitors, accounting for nearly 30,000 page views.  I had visitors from every state in the US and 158 nations around the world.  Visitors from the United States accounted for the vast majority of those hits, but the UK, Canada, Australia, India, China, and Germany also brought in large contingents.

 

Of my posts published in 2013, none made it to this year’s top ten list: five were from 2010,  four were published in 2011, and one was from 2012.  This year the top ranked article (The Moral Instinct) was a 2010 review of a very popular 2008 New York Time’s article by Steven Pinker.   This perennially popular piece ranked 5th last year, 4th in 2011 and 3rd in 2010.   Its bounce to the top this year is more of a testament to Pinker and the popularity of his piece that explores the universality of morals.  In that piece I wrote:

 

Pinker delves into the neurological factors associated with morality and the evolutionary evidence and arguments for an instinctual morality. He reviews several important studies that provide evidence for these hypotheses. But, he argues that morality is more than an inheritance – it is larger than that. It is contextually driven. He notes: “At the very least, the science tells us that even when our adversaries’ agenda is most baffling, they may not be amoral psychopaths but in the throes of a moral mind-set that appears to them to be every bit as mandatory and universal as ours does to us. Of course, some adversaries really are psychopaths, and others are so poisoned by a punitive moralization that they are beyond the pale of reason. ” He further contends “But in any conflict in which a meeting of the minds is not completely hopeless, a recognition that the other guy is acting from moral rather than venal reasons can be a first patch of common ground.

 

This article may have also remained popular because of its relevance with regard to the state of affairs in today’s political arena and the application of Jonathon Haidt’s increasingly popular work on the Moral Foundations Theory.  

 

The 2013 number two ranked piece Nonmoral Nature: It is what it is, is a review of one of Stephen Jay Gould’s most famous articles where he argued that there is no evidence of morality in nature, that in fact “nature as it plays out evolution’s dance, is entirely devoid of anything pertaining to morality or evil. We anthropomorphize when we apply these concepts. Even to suggest that nature is cruel is anthropomorphizing. Any true and deep look at the struggle for life that constantly dances in our midst can scarcely lead to any other conclusion but that nature is brutal, harsh, and nonmoral” (Gould).  Historically this has been a controversial topic and remains so in certain circles today.  This piece has remained popular over the years – ranking 4th last year and 2nd in 2011 and 2010.

 

Brain MRI

Brain MRI

Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures – the 3rd ranking post this year ranked 2nd last year and 1st in 2011. This very popular piece takes a pragmatic, comparative, and colorful look at the various ways of measuring brain activity.  My 2012 article Happiness as Measured by GDP: Really?  is finally getting some attention.  Although it ranked 10th last year, it has climbed into the number four slot this year.  I contend that this is perhaps one of the most important articles I have written.

 

Proud as a Peacock  By Mark Melnick

Proud as a Peacock By Mark Melnick

My critical article on the widely used Implicit Associations Test ranked 5th this year, 6th in 2012, and 4th in 2011. Last year’s number one piece on Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail  is one of my favorite pieces.  It addresses our inherent drive to advance one’s social standing while actually going nowhere on the hedonic treadmill.  It delves into the environmental costs of buying into the illusion of consumer materialism and its biological origins (the signaling instinct much like that of the Peacock’s tail).

 

I am excited to report that Poverty is a Neurotoxin is also finally gaining some traction.  Published in 2011 it has never achieved a top ranking; although, in my humble opinion, it is no less important.  Rounding out the top ten of 2013, my Hedgehog versus the Fox mindset piece ranked 8th this year, 9th last year, and 10th in 2011. One of my all time favorite posts from 2010,  What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule made it back to the top ten list this year coming in 9th.  It was 7th in 2011 and 8th in 2010.  My 2011 post Where Does Prejudice Come From? ranked 10th this year, 7th last year, and 5th in 2011.

 

So here is the Top Ten list for 2013.

 

  1. Moral Instinct  (2010) 4182 page views since published – All time ranking #5
  2. Non Moral Nature: It is what it is (2010) 4616 page views since published – All time ranking #3
  3. Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures (2011) 7941 page views since published – All time ranking #1
  4. Happiness as Measured by GDP: Really? (2012) 1719 page views since published – All time ranking #8
  5. IAT: Questions of Reliability and Validity  (2010) 2572 page views since published – All time ranking #6
  6. Conspicuous Consumption & the Peacock’s Tail (2011) 7677 page views since published – All time ranking #2
  7. Poverty is a Neurotoxin (2011) 960 page views since published – All time ranking #18
  8. Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox?  (2010) 1702 page views since published – All time ranking #9
  9. What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule (2010) 1381 page views since published – All time ranking #12
  10. Where Does Prejudice Come From?  (2011) 1625 page views since published – All time ranking #10

 

Rounding out the top ten All Time Most Popular Pieces are:

wicked-poster

 

These top ranking articles represent the foundational issues that have driven me in my quest to understand how people think.   This cross section of my work is, in fact, a good starting point for those who are new to my blog.

 

There are several other 2013 posts that ranked outside this year’s top ten list; regardless, I believe they are important.  These other posts include:

 

  1. get out of jail free cardMind Pops: Memories from out of the Blue
  2. Who Cheats More: The Rich or the Poor?
  3. Crime, Punishment, and Entitlement: A Deeper Look
  4. Cheaters
  5. American Exceptionalism: I’m all for it!
  6. Partisan Belief Superiority and Dogmatism as a Source of Political Gridlock

 

Maintaining relevance is an article, published in 2012, The Meek Shall Inherit The Earth: Our Microbiome, pertains to the collection of an estimated 100 trillion individual organisms (bacteria for the most part) thriving in and on your body that account for about three pounds of your total body weight (about the same weight as your brain).  These little creatures play a huge role in your physical and mental well being and we are just beginning to understand the extent of their reach.  Modern medicine in the future, will likely embrace the microbiotic ecosystem as a means of preventing and treating many illnesses (including treating some mental illnesses).  I have continued to update this piece with comments including links to new research on this topic.

Children of high socioeconomic status (SES) show more activity (dark green) in the prefrontal cortex (top) than do kids of low SES when confronted with a novel or unexpected stimulus. (Mark Kishiyama/UC Berkeley)

Children of high socioeconomic status (SES) show more activity (dark green) in the prefrontal cortex (top) than do kids of low SES when confronted with a novel or unexpected stimulus. (Mark Kishiyama/UC Berkeley)

 

Although, not among the most popular articles this year, my pieces on the pernicious affects of poverty on child development from 2011 warrant ongoing attention.  If we truly wish to halt the cycle of poverty, then we need to devote early and evidenced based intervention services for children and families living in poverty.  As it turns out, poverty is a neurotoxin.  Knowing the information in this series should motivate us, as a society, to truly evaluate our current political and economic policies.

 

 

The bottom line:

 

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 (intuitions) have sustained us, and in many ways they still do, the subsequent 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 blindfold its disciples.  Often those blindfolds 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 these innate tendencies, we must make additional effort to step away from what we believe to be true in order to discover what is indeed true.

 

The Hand of God as an example of pareidolia.

The Hand of God as an example of pareidolia.

 

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Are you sick and tired of politicians and their antics throughout the United States? Regardless of your political orientation, this is likely the case.  Over the last 20 years there has been a rising tide of bitter partisanship, leaving a large contingent of US Citizens feeling frustrated and disenfranchised.  Meanwhile both parties point their fingers at their adversaries proclaiming that it is the ideological extremism of the other party causing the divide.   The liberals are accused of promoting socialistic policies while the conservatives are accused of acquiescing to religious and corporate interests.

 

Underlying this partisanship are two driving concepts, dogmatism and belief superiorityDogmatism is generally conceptualized as ideological rigidity.  This is characterized by the holding of beliefs as “incontrovertible and sacrosanct,”with a conviction that the beliefs cannot, and should not, be abandoned.  Belief superiority, on the other hand, is self defining but it lacks the rigidity factor.  One can hold a belief as being superior to the beliefs of others, but be willing to modify that belief based on evidence or changing societal values.

 

Some contend that both liberals and conservatives at the polar ends of the political spectrum are ideological extremists and thus are more likely to be dogmatic.  This position is known as the Ideological-Extremist Hypothesis.  Another perspective, held by many, is the Rigidity of the Right Hypothesis, that contends that conservatives tend to score higher than liberals on measures of dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, and closed-mindedness.  Naturally, the issue is more nuanced than this.  These issues have been studied and published in a paper by Toner, Leary, Asher, and Jongman-Sereno (2013) titled Feeling Superior Is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority.   Toner et al., (2013) contend that:

 

“Not only do individuals – liberals and conservative alike – vary in the issues about which they feel superior, but also evidence suggests that liberals and conservatives may be dogmatic about different issues.  For example compared to conservatives, liberals are more dogmatic about global warming, equally dogmatic about civil unions, and less dogmatic about affirmative action.” 1

 

Measuring both belief superiority and dogmatism, Toner and her colleagues attempted to assess the veracity of both the Rigidity of the Right and the Ideological Extremism Hypotheses.   They did this through an online questionnaire service whereby they collected data on 527 subjects (55% male, 49% with some college, ages 18-67 years with a mean age of 30.7).  Three questionnaires were completed by each participant including: 1) an issues oriented set of questions quantifying attitudes on nine contentious political topics –  thereby determining their political sensibilities on a conservative-liberal spectrum; 2) a superiority of belief measure assessing the degree of certainty of correctness on each issue, and 3) a measure of dogmatic thinking.  Co-author Mark Leary  noted that they: “… examined whether those who endorse the extremes of conservative and liberal viewpoints demonstrate greater belief superiority than those who hold moderate views.2

 

Consistent with previous research findings, those espousing more conservative attitudes scored significantly higher on the dogmatism scale.   Thus the Rigidity of the Right Hypothesis was supported while the Ideological Extremism hypothesis was unsubstantiated.  In other words, extreme conservatives scored much higher on the dogmatism scale than did extreme liberals.  With regard to belief superiority, both conservatives and liberals demonstrated this attribute, but on different topics (see Figure 2 below from Toner, et al., 2013).  Specifically, people who endorsed conservative attitudes expressed greater belief superiority than did liberals when asked about voter identification laws, affirmative action, and taxes.  Liberals demonstrated greater belief superiority on the issues pertaining to the role in government in helping the less fortunate, the use of torture on terrorists, and the basing of laws on religious teachings.  The more “extreme” one’s attitudes were, the greater their belief superiority tended to be.

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 6.54.54 PM

As this study and a number of previous studies have provided evidence for, dogmatism tends to be associated with those at the conservative end of the spectrum.  Meanwhile, belief superiority is more specific to the issues and is evident at both ends of the spectrum.  Toner et al., (2013) note:

 

“… belief superiority does not include the unchanging, inflexible element implied by dogmatism.  Thus, people who endorse extremely liberal views may feel as equally superior in their beliefs as those endorsing extremely conservative views, but they might be more likely to adjust their views over time with changes in evidence, social norms, or other people’s influence.”1

 

History is filled with travesties perpetrated by extremists at both ends of the political spectrum promoting egalitarian (liberal), individualistic (conservative), and/or religious agendas.   As Toner et al., (2013) suggest, strong beliefs based in evidence may be reasonable and justified.  It is dogmatism, regardless of what belief system that it emanates from, which constitutes danger. Dangerous yes, but more relevant today is the reality that such bombast results in gridlock.  These mindsets help explain the current US governmental stalemate as Toner noted in an interview for Duke Today: “These findings help to explain why politicians with more extreme views can’t reach across the aisle.  As more extreme candidates get elected to Congress, compromise becomes more difficult and deadlocks increase because those with more extreme views are more certain that they are right.”2

 

Although certainty and confidence are attractive in leaders, it is exactly these very attributes that render politicians ineffective.  Life and society are complicated.  There are no easy solutions.  What I took away from this study is that we need collaboration among diverse and intelligent thinkers who are unencumbered by dogmatism and extremist ideology.  We, as a people, must stop feeding into the vitriolic nature of politics and look for leaders who are more willing to work together to solve complex problems.  We must stop feeding the monster, before it eats us up.  One important way to end this is to stop attending to extremist political pundits who stir up hatred and polarize politics.  We all know who these pundits are.  The reality is that media driven hatred and fear mongering drives these phenomena and it is commercial Television and Radio that gives these pundits a platform.  Perhaps it is time to hit their corporate sponsors as they are complicit in spoiling the well.

 

References:

 

1. Toner, K., Leary,  M. R., Asher, M. W., & Jongman-Sereno, K. P. (2013).  Feeling Superior is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority, Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797613494848

 

2.  Duke Today. (2013). Belief Superiority is Bipartisan

 

Also See:

 

American Exceptionalism: I’m All For It!

 

The Illusion of Punditry

 

Political Divide

 

Moral Foundations Theory

 

Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox?

 

 

 

 

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