When I hit the publish button for my last post Cognitive Conservatism, Moral Relativism, Bias, and Human Flourishing I felt a tinge of angst.  It took a few days for my rational brain to figure out (or perhaps confabulate) a reason; but, I think I may have.  Perhaps it should have been immediately obvious, but my outrage likely clouded my judgment.  Anyways, that angst wasn’t due to the potential controversy of the article’s content – I had previously posted more provocative pieces.  What I have come to conclude is that the nature of the controversy could be construed as being more personal.

 

It is not hard to imagine that there is a very real possibility that people I love may have been hurt by what I wrote.  This left me feeling like a hypocrite because what I have continually aspired to communicate is that “true morality” should promote human flourishing for everyone.  Although the overarching message was consistent with my goal, the tone and tenor was not.

 

I was inspired by a blog post written by a family member that touched the nerves of my liberal sensitivities.  Further, and more importantly, I believe that what he wrote was likely hurtful to others in my family.   A couple of my tribal communities (moral and kin) were assaulted, and I responded assertively.

 

The whole purpose of my blog How Do You Think? has been driven toward understanding such diverse and mutually incompatible beliefs that do in fact transcend my family and the world in general.  In this particular situation, however,  I placed several family members in the crux of just such a moral juxtaposition.

 

I am certain that much of what I have written over the last year may be construed as offensive to some from a variety of different tribal moral communities.  But one thing I am equally certain of, is that attacking one’s core moral holdings is not an effective means of facilitating enlightenment.

 

I responded to my relative’s pontifications with moral outrage and indignation.  I was offended and mad.  That is what happens when core beliefs are challenged.  We circle the wagons and lash back.  But this does nothing to further the discussion.  I should have known better.  And, that error of judgment may have lasting familial consequences.  This saddens me, and I am sorry.

 

So then, how are we to cope with such diametrically opposed perspectives?

 

If you have consistently read my posts you are likely to have come away with an understanding of the workings of the human brain, and as such, realize that it is an incredible but highly flawed organ.   What is more important to recognize, is that these flaws leave us prone to a variety errors that are both universal and systematic.  The consequences of these errors include Confirmation Bias, Spinoza’s Conjecture, Attribution Error, Pareidolia, Superstition, Essentialism, Cognitive Conservatism, and Illusions of all sorts (e.g., Attention, Cause, Confidence, Memory, Efficacy, Willpower, and Narrative).  The down stream consequences of these errors, paired with our tribal nature, and our innate moral inclinations lead us to form tribal moral communities.  These communities unite around ideologies and sacred items, beliefs, or shared history’s.  Our genetically conferred Moral Instincts which are a part of our Human Nature lay the ground work for us to seek out others who share our beliefs and separate ourselves from others who do not.  This is how the divide occurs.  And our brain is instrumental in this division and the subsequent acrimony between groups.

 

This is perhaps the most important concept that I want to share.  Systematic brain errors divide us.  Understanding this – I mean truly understanding all of these systematic errors, is essential to uniting us.  Education is the key, and this is what I hope to provide.  Those very brain errors are themselves responsible for closing minds to the reality of these facts.  Regardless, the hopes that I have for universal enlightenment persist and I hope to endeavor ever onward opening minds without providing cause to close them.   I fear that I  have taken a misstep – spreading the divide rather than closing it.

 

Please know that Human Flourishing for all is my number one goal.  Never do I intend to come off as judgmental, hurtful, or otherwise arrogant or elitist.  When I do – please push back and offer constructive criticism.   We are all in this together – and time, love, life, peace, and compassion are precious.   This is the starting point – something that I am certain we share.  Don’t you think?

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So really, what caused that earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan?  A quick Google search posing this very question yields a wide range of answers.  Fortunately a majority of the hits acknowledge and explain how plate tectonics caused this tragedy.  Sprinkled throughout the scientifically accurate explanations are conspiracy theories suggesting that the US government caused it through hyper-excitation of radio waves in the ionosphere (HAARP) and perhaps even planned radiation releases.  Other theories include the “Supermoon’s” increased tug on the earths crust due to the fact that it is at perigee (closest proximity to the earth in its cyclical orbit).  Solar flares (coronal mass ejections) were also blamed; and by some, the flares working in concert with the moon in perigee are believed to have triggered the quake.  Global warming also gets its share of the blame (but the proponents  suggest that real cause is the removal of oil from the crust leaving voids that ultimately trigger earthquake).   Some have even suggested that a comet or even God may have done this.

 

The problem with the scientific explanation is that plate tectonics is invisible to most of us.  Its motion is so gradual that it does not “on the surface” seem plausible.  We seemingly need a clear causal agent that fits within our understanding of the world.  Scientifically literate individuals are inclined to grasp the agency of tectonics because the theory and the effects do in fact, fit together in observable and measurable ways.  Others reach for causal explanations that better fit within their understanding of the world.

 

Our correlation calculators (brains) grab onto events temporally associated with such events and we then conjure up narratives to help us make sense of it all.  It is easy to understand why folks might assume that the moon at perigee, or increased solar activity, or even an approaching comet might cause such events.  Others, who are prone to conspiracy theories, who also have a corresponding belief that big brother is all powerful and sadistic, will grab onto theories that fit their world views.  The same is true for those with literal religious inclinations.  Unfortunately, this drive often leads to narrative fallacies that misplace the blame and sometimes ultimately blame the victims.

 

History is filled with stories drawn up to explain such tragedies.  In the times of ancient Greece and Rome, many tales were spun to explain famine, plagues, and military failures.  All of this occurred prior to our increasingly complex understanding of the world (e.g., germ theory, plate tectonics, meteorology), and it made sense to blame such events on vengeful gods.  How else could they make sense of such tragedies?  This seems to be how we are put together.

 

A study published in 2006 in the journal, Developmental Psychology, by University of Arkansas Psychologists Jesse Bering and Becky Parker looked at the development of such inclinations in children.  They pinpointed the age at which such thinking begins to flourish.   They also provided a hypothesis to explain this developmental progression.  This study was summarized in a March 13, 2011 online article at Scientific American by the first author titled: Signs, signs, everywhere signs: Seeing God in tsunamis and everyday events.

 

In this study of children ages three to nine years of age, the psychologists devised a clever technique to assess the degree to which individuals begin to assign agency to events in their environment and subsequently act on those signs.  What they found was that children between three and six years of age do not read communicative intent into unexplained events (e.g., lights flickering or pictures falling from the wall).  But at age seven, children start reading into and acting on such events.  So why is it that at the age of seven, children start inferring agency from events in their environment?  Bering suggests that:

 

“The answer probably lies in the maturation of children’s theory-of-mind abilities in this critical period of brain development. Research by University of Salzburg psychologist Josef Perner, for instance, has revealed that it’s not until about the age of seven that children are first able to reason about “multiple orders” of mental states. This is the type of everyday, grown-up social cognition whereby theory of mind becomes effortlessly layered in complex, soap opera–style interactions with other people. Not only do we reason about what’s going on inside someone else’s head, but we also reason about what other people are reasoning is happening inside still other people’s heads!”

 

So as it turns out, this tendency to read signs into random events is associated with the maturation of cognitive processes. Children with less mature “Theory of Mind” (click here for a very basic description of Theory of Mind) capabilities fail to draw the conclusion that a supernatural being, or any being for that matter, knows what they are thinking and can act in a way that will communicate something.

 

“To interpret [capricious] events as communicative messages, … demands a sort of third-person perspective of the self’s actions: ‘What must this other entity, who is watching my behavior, think is happening inside my head?’ [These] findings are important because they tell us that, before the age of seven, children’s minds aren’t quite cognitively ripe enough to allow them to be superstitious thinkers. The inner lives of slightly older children, by contrast, are drenched in symbolic meaning. One second-grader was even convinced that the bell in the nearby university clock tower was Princess Alice ‘talking’ to him.”

 

When a capricious event has great significance, we are seemingly driven by a ravenous appetite to look for “signs” or “reasons.”  We desperately need to understand.  Our searches for those “reasons” are largely shaped by previously held beliefs and cultural influences. Divine interventions, for example, have historically been ambiguous; therefore, a multitude of surreptitious events, can be interpreted as having a wide variety of meanings. And those meanings are guided by one’s beliefs.

 

“Misfortunes appear cryptic, symbolic; they seem clearly to be about our behaviors. Our minds restlessly gather up bits of the past as if they were important clues to what just happened. And no stone goes unturned. Nothing is too mundane or trivial; anything to settle our peripatetic [wandering] thoughts from arriving at the unthinkable truth that there is no answer because there is no riddle, that life is life and that is that.”

 

The implications of this understanding are profound.  We are by our very nature driven to search for signs and reasons to explain major life events, and we are likewise inclined to see major events as signs themselves. The ability to do so ironically depends on cognitive maturation. But, given the complexity and remoteness of scientific explanations, we often revert to familiar and culturally sanctioned explanations that have stood the test of time.  We do this because it gives us comfort, regardless of actual plausibility.  As I often say, we are a curious lot, we humans.

 

References:

 

Bering, J. (2011). Signs, signs, everywhere signs: Seeing God in tsunamis and everyday events. Scientific American.  http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=signs-signs-everywhere-signs-seeing-2011-03-13&print=true

 

Bering, J., & Parker, B. (2006). Children’s Attributions of Intentions to an Invisible Agent. Developmental Psychology. Vol. 42, No. 2, 253–262

 

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Narrative Fallacy

13 March 2011

Evolution has conferred upon us a brain that is capable of truly amazing things.  We have, for thousands of years, been capable of creating incredibly beautiful art, telling compelling tales, and building magnificent structures.  We have risen from small and dispersed tribal bands to perhaps the dominate life force on the planet.  Our feats have been wondrous.  We have put men on the moon, our space probes have reached the outer limits of our solar system, and we have people living and working in space.  We have literally doubled the life expectancy of human beings, figured out how to feed billions of people, and eradicated some of the most dreadful diseases known to human kind.  We can join together in virtual social communities from remote corners of the world, and even change nations using Facebook and Twitter.  This list could go on and on.  We are very capable and very smart beings.

 

Our mark on this planet, for the moment, is indelible.  Yet, despite our great powers of intellect and creativity, we are incredibly vulnerable.  I am not referring to our susceptibility to the great powers of nature as evidenced in Japan this last week.  I am referring to an inherent mode of thinking that is core to our human nature.

 

It is pretty certain that nature-nature will destroy our species at some point in the future, be it via asteroid impact, super-volcanoes, climate change, microbiome evolution, or the encroachment of the sun’s surface as it goes red giant in five billion years.  Of all the species that have ever lived on this planet over 99% have gone extinct.  What’s living today will someday be gone – there really is no question about it.  But the question that remains is: “Will nature-nature do us in – or will human-nature do it first?”

 

We have evolved over billions of years to our current homo sapien (wise man) form, and for the vast majority of that evolutionary period, we have had very limited technology.  The development of primitive stone and wooden tools dates back only tens of thousands of years; and reading and writing dates back only several thousand years.  What we do and take for granted every day has only been around for a minuscule amount of time relative to the vastness of incomprehensible evolutionary and geological time. These facts are relevant because our brains, for the most part, developed under selective pressures that were vastly different than those we live under today.

 

Much as our appendix and coccyx hair follicle are remnants of our evolutionary past, so too are some of our core thought processes.  These vestigial cognitions play out both as adaptive intuitions and potentially quite destructive errors of judgment.  We would like to think that as an advanced thinking species, our ability to use reason, is our dominate mental force.  Unfortunately, this most recent evolutionary development, takes a back seat to lower and more powerful brain functions that have sustained us for millions of years.  I have previously written about this reason versus intuition/emotion paradigm so I won’t go into this issue in detail here; but, suffice it to say, much of what we do is guided by unconscious thought processes outside of our awareness and outside our direct control.  And again, these life guiding processes are mere remnants of what it took to survive as roaming bands of hunters and gatherers.

 

Ours brains came to their current form when we were not in possession of the tools and technologies that help us truly understand the world around us today.  Early survival depended on our ability to see patterns in randomness (pareidolia or patternicity) and to make snap judgments.  Rational thought, which is slow and arduous, has not played out in a dominate way because it failed to provide our ancestors with the survival advantages that emotional and rapid cognitions did.  As such, our brains have been programmed by evolution to make all kinds of rapid cognitions, that in this modern time, are simply prone to error.

 

We are uncomfortable with randomness and chaos and are driven to pull together causal stories that help us make sense of the world.  Our brains are correlation calculators, belief engines, and hyperactive agency detection devices – all inclinations of which lead us to develop polytheism to help explain the whims of “mother nature.”  All cultures, for example have also developed creation myths to help explain how we came to be.  We are a superstitious lot driven by these vestigial remnants.

 

It is easy to see how powerful this inclination is.  Look at the prevalence of beliefs about things like full moons and bad behavior.  And how about bad behavior and acts of nature?  Pat Robertson blamed Katrina on homosexuality and hedonism.  One wonders what the Japanese did to deserve their most current tragedy.  I’ve already heard talk of the attack on Pearl Harbor as an antecedent.  Like mother nature would align with the United States to punish long past deeds against us!  If mother nature cares at all about herself, I wonder what we have coming for Nagasaki and Hiroshima?  Likewise, people blame vaccines for autism and credit homeopathy for their wellness.  I could go and on about our silly inclinations.  We are prone to Confirmation Bias, Spinoza’s Conjecture, Attribution Error, Illusions of Attention, and the Illusions of Knowledge and Confidence.  In the same vein, we are manipulated by the Illusion of Narrative also known as the Narrative Fallacy.

 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (a philosopher, author, statistician) coined the phrase “Narrative Fallacy,” which is an encapsulation of this very discussion.  We have a deep need to make up a narrative that serves to make sense of a series of connected or disconnected facts.  Our correlation calculators pull together these cause and effect stories to help us understand the world around us even if chance has dictated our circumstances.   We fit these stories around the observable facts and sometimes render the facts to make them fit the story.  This is particularly true, for example, in the case of Intelligent Design.

 

Now that I am aware of this innate proclivity I enjoy watching it play out in my own mind.  For example several weekends ago I went cross country skiing with my wife, Kimberly.  We were at Allegany State Park, in Western New York, where there are nearly 20 miles of incredibly beautiful and nicely groomed nordic ski trails.  Kimberly and I took a slightly different route than we normally do and at a junction of two trails, we serendipitously ran into a friend we hadn’t seen in quite some time.  It was an incredible and highly improbable meeting.  Any number of different events or decisions could have resulted in forgoing this meet-up.  Such events compel us to string together a narrative to make sense of the sheer randomness.  Was it fate, divine intervention, or just coincidence?  I am certain it was the latter – but it sure was fun dealing with the cognitions pouring forth to explain it.

 

I would really like to hear about your dealings with this inclination.  Please post comments detailing events that have happened to you and the narratives you fomented to make sense of  them.  This is a great exercise to help us understand this pattern detection mechanism, so, have some fun with it and share your stories.  At the very least, pay attention to how this tendency plays out in your life and think about how it plays out in your belief systems (and ideological paradigms).  I’m guessing that it will be informative.

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We all love a good story.  Children are mesmerized by them and adults, whether through books, TV, movies, sports, gossip, tabloids, or the news, to mention a few, constantly seek them out.  It is core to our identity, and a vital part of our nature.  It is both how we entertain ourselves, and how we make sense of the world.   This latter tendency troubles me.  Why?  Specifically because we are inclined to value narratives over aggregated data, and we are imbued with a plethora of cognitive biases and errors that all mesh together in a way to leave us vulnerable to believing very silly things.

 

This may be hard to swallow, but all of us, yes even you, are by default, gullible and biased: disinclined to move away from narratives that you unconsciously string together in order to make sense of an incredibly complex world.  Understanding this is paramount!

 

I have discussed many of the innate illusions, errors, and biases that we are inclined toward throughout this blog.  I have also discussed the genetic and social determinates that play out in our thought processes and beliefs.  And throughout all this I have worked diligently to remain objective and evidence based.  I do accept that I am inclined toward biases programmed into my brain.  This knowledge has forced me to question my beliefs and open my mind to different points of view.  I believe that the evidence I have laid down in my writings substantiates my objectivity.  But I am also tired, very tired in fact, of making excuses for, and offering platitudes to, others who do not open their minds to this not so obvious reality.

 

I am absolutely convinced that there is no resolution to the core political, economic, religious and social debates that pervade our societies, unless we can accept this reality.  Perhaps, the most important thing we can do as a species is come to an understanding of our failings and realize that in a multitude of ways, our brains lie to us.  Our brains deceive us in ways that necessitate us to step away from our gut feelings and core beliefs in order to seek out the truth.  Only when we understand and accept our shortcomings will we be open to the truth.

 

Because of these flawed tendencies we join together in tribal moral communities lending a blind eye to evidence that casts doubt on our core and sacred beliefs.  We cast aspersions of ignorance, immorality or partisanship on those that espouse viewpoints that differ from our own.  I cannot emphasize this enough, this is our nature.  But, I for one, cannot, and will not, accept this as “just the way it is.”

 

We as a species are better than that.  We know how to over come these inclinations.  We have the technology to do so.  It necessitates that we step back from ideology and look at things objectively.  It requires asking questions, taking measurements, and conducting analyses (all of which are not part of our nature).  It necessitates the scientific method.  It requires open peer review and repeated analyses.  It requires objective debate and outright rejection of ideology as a guiding principle.  It requires us to take a different path, a path that is not automatic, one that is not always fodder for good narrative.

 

I am no more inclined to believe the narrative of Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi suggesting that “his people love him and would die for him” than I am to accept the narrative from Creationists about the denial of evolution or those that deny anthropogenic global warming based on economic interests.  Likewise, I am not willing to accept the arguments from the anti-vaccine community or the anti-gay marriage community.

 

My positions are not based on ideology!  They are based on evidence: both the credible and substantive evidence that backs my position and the lack of any substantive evidence for the opposing views.

 

Granted, my positions are in line with what some may define as an ideology or tribal moral community; but there is a critical difference.  My positions are based on evidence, not on ideology, not on bronze-age moral teachings, and certainly not on fundamental flaws in thinking.  This is a huge and critical difference.  Another irrefutable difference is my willingness to abandon my position if the data suggests a more credible one.  Enough already! Its time to step back, take a long and deep breath – look at how our flawed neurology works – and stop filling in the gaps with narrative that is devoid of reality.  Enough is enough!

 

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It has long been known that children from homes at the lower end of the Socioeconomic spectrum do more poorly on intelligence and achievement tests than well off children.  These less fortunate children also tend to do more poorly in school, have increased learning and behavioral disorders, and increased drop out rates.  A great deal of effort has been directed toward understanding these differences, and mounting evidence points squarely at the effects of environmental deprivation.  You might think that this conclusion is a “no brainer,” but, for some time, it has not been so clear.  Some researchers have found evidence to implicate genetic factors for these differences.  Over the last several years more conclusive evidence is pointing at environmental rather than genetic determinates.

 

Last week I discussed some ground breaking evidence from behavioral geneticists that asserted that environmental determinates play a crucial role in mental ability scores, but only for Low Socioeconomic Status (LSES) children.  I noted that “For [LSES] 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 (HSES)] 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.

 

Questions have persisted for quite some time as to what factors influence these differences.  Research to date has implicated variables like parental attention, number of words spoken in the home, access to books, and familial stressors; however, the actual physiological or anatomical mechanisms (e.g., neurocognitive processes) that result in these discrepancies have remained elusive.  You see, many factors have been found to correlate with the underachievement of LSES children, but not until a study by UC Berkley Neuroscientists, did we have conclusive direct evidence of how these factors may actually produce neurological differences that play out in these cognitive, achievement, and behavioral gaps.

 

Scientists at UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and School of Public Health report in a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience that typically developing nine- and ten-year-olds who only differ in terms of SES,  have detectable differences in prefrontal cortext responsiveness.  The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is known to be involved in problem solving and creativity.

 

In a press release about this study it was noted (Sanders, 2008):

 

Children of high  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. (M. Kishiyama/UC Berkeley)

Brain function was measured by means of an electroencephalograph (EEG) – basically, a cap fitted with electrodes to measure electrical activity in the brain – like that used to assess epilepsy, sleep disorders and brain tumors.

 

“Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult,” said Robert Knight, director of the institute and a UC Berkeley professor of psychology. “We found that kids are more likely to have a low response if they have low socioeconomic status, though not everyone who is poor has low frontal lobe response.”

 

Previous studies have shown a possible link between frontal lobe function and behavioral differences in children from low and high socioeconomic levels, but according to cognitive psychologist Mark Kishiyama, first author of the new paper, “those studies were only indirect measures of brain function and could not disentangle the effects of intelligence, language proficiency and other factors that tend to be associated with low socioeconomic status. Our study is the first with direct measure of brain activity where there is no issue of task complexity.”

 

Co-author W. Thomas Boyce, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of public health who currently is the British Columbia Leadership Chair of Child Development at the University of British Columbia (UBC), is not surprised by the results. “We know kids growing up in resource-poor environments have more trouble with the kinds of behavioral control that the prefrontal cortex is involved in regulating. But the fact that we see functional differences in prefrontal cortex response in lower socioeconomic status kids is definitive.”

 

These scientists suspect that “stressful environments” and “cognitive impoverishment” are responsible because in previous research on animals, these very factors have been shown to affect development of the prefrontal cortex. “UC Berkeley’s Marian Diamond, professor of integrative biology, showed nearly 20 years ago in rats that enrichment thickens the cerebral cortex as it improves test performance.   And as Boyce noted, previous studies have shown that children from poor families hear 30 million fewer words by the time they are four than do kids from middle-class families.

 

These factors lead to important differences in brain functioning.  As the lead author noted in an interview:  “Those from low socioeconomic environments showed a lower response to the unexpected novel stimuli in the prefrontal cortex that was similar to the response of people who have had a portion of their frontal lobe destroyed by a stroke.” (Sanders, 2008)

 

One question that arose in my mind as I reviewed this paper was whether something other than SES was responsible for this effect. I asked Dr. Robert Knight this question:

 

The HSES and LSES kids differed in both prefrontal cortex response level and standard scores on intelligence test subtests [Intelligence data was also collected as part of the study. On multiple incidences LSES children obtained significantly lower subtest scores than HSES children.] Is it not possible that genetic traits (i.e., lower IQ) might be responsible for the lower prefrontal cortex activity level, not SES?

 

Dr. Knight referred this question to the led author, Dr. Mark Kishiyama, who responded in personal correspondence:

 

This study was designed to reveal the effects of poverty on brain function rather than to identify specific causes. While we cannot rule out the potential effects of genetic factors, on the basis of prior evidence, we proposed that the primary influences were environmental (e.g., stress and a cognitively impoverished environment). There is considerable evidence in both human and animal studies indicating that stress and environmental factors can contribute to disruptions in brain development. In addition, we believe that these effects can be reversed with early childhood interventions (see also Raizada & Kishiyama, 2010).

 

The implications of these findings are profoundly important and grim. If we accept these results and do nothing, then we all are complicit in perpetuating the cycle of poverty.  We know that there are important differences in how LSES and HSES children are raised.  Education, training, and intervention programs must focus on narrowing this gap.  I contend that parent education programs like Baby College administered by the Harlem Children’s Zone must must be closely examined and if shown to be effective, replicated on a broad scale.  I also contend that programs like Early Head Start and Head Start should focus their efforts on proven strategies that close these gaps.  This is essential in order to build a just society whereby we all get a more fair shot at rising up and contributing fully to society.

 

References:

 

Kishiyama, M. M., Boyce, W. T., Jimenez, A. M., Perry, L. M., and Knight, R. T. (2009). Socioeconomic Disparities Affect Prefrontal Function in Children. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 21:6, 1106-1115.

 

Sanders, R. (2008). EEGs show brain differences between poor and rich kids. UC Berkley Press Release.

 

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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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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The human brain is a curious organ.  We are continually learning new and very exciting things about this incredibly complicated masterpiece of evolution.  But, every now and then, we learn something that shakes to the core our understanding of accepted concepts.  This has been the case recently with our understanding of placebos.

 

Placebos as I’m sure you know, are fake substances, treatments, or procedures that, in and of themselves, have no active ingredient or direct effect.  Regardless of the inert nature of placebos, they can and do elicit some powerful responses.  This has long been attributed to a person’s beliefs and expectations about the legitimacy of effect.  One Japanese study, for example, showed that people who believed they were being exposed to real poison ivy (but were actually exposed to a placebo), developed a painful response that mimicked the actual reaction to legitimate poison ivy (Blakeslee, 1998).  In this study, only the subjects’ belief was responsible for the skin rashes.   The mind’s powerful capacity, in this case, produced very real and painful responses regardless of the presence of any true irritant.

 

This is the placebo effect.  Again, attribution lies in the person’s beliefs and expectations rather than in the substance, drug, treatment, or procedure.  It is important to note that although the beliefs and expectations emanate from one’s mind, the bodily responses can be very real.  Scientists use placebos in trials to evaluate treatment efficacy because of this innate gullibility.

 

The gold standard for evaluation of treatment efficacy (in drug trials) involves double-blinded, randomized, and placebo controlled procedures because, people seem to get better simply from getting attention and/or treatment regardless of form (within limits).  This is only true where psychological factors overlay the manifestation of symptoms (Crislip, 2006).  Placebos do little to reduce serious medical issues like MS, stroke, or cancer; but people with particularly subjective experiences of pain, affective disorders, and psychologically mediated disorders can and do report improvements when unknowingly taking placebos.  Formerly, it was presumed that the patient had to believe that the sugar pill was indeed an actual drug.  This presumption is what has been recently questioned.  What if the patient knows it is a placebo, will that reduce the treatment efficacy?  Recent evidence suggests not!

 

We must consider a few important things about placebos.  The American Medical Association says that “the use of a placebo without the patient’s knowledge may undermine trust, compromise the patient-physician relationship, and result in medical harm to the patient.”  Regardless, Kaptchuk et al (2010) noted “a recent national survey of internists and rheumatologists in the US found that while only small numbers of US physicians surreptitiously use inert placebo pills and injections, approximately 50% prescribe medications that they consider to have no specific effect on patients’ conditions and are used solely as placebos (sometimes called “impure placebos”).  “Prescribing placebos necessarily involves deception and this brings the practice into question.  But deception may no longer be necessary!

 

Researchers at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts just published a startling study (Placebos without deception: A randomized controlled trial in irritable bowel syndrome) in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE (Kaptchuk, 2010).  And as the title suggests, placebos were knowingly used to evaluate their effectiveness in treating irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).   Participants were recruited from advertisements for “a novel mind-body management study of IBS” in newspapers and fliers and from referrals from health care professionals.  The authors note that the symptoms of IBS constitute one of the top 10 reasons people seek primary-care treatment.

 

Eighty, primarily female (70%) subjects with a mean age of 47 years (±18 yrs.), diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), were randomly assigned to one of two groups for a three week trial.  One group was an open-label placebo group where the treatment provided was acknowledged to be placebo pills “made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.”  The second group received no-treatment but they did receive the same quality of interaction with health-care providers that the open placebo participants received.   Several standardized measures of IBS symptom severity were used.

 

The subjects knew they were taking inert pills – but the suggestion was made, by the physician, that the pills have resulted in significant improvements in previous clinical trials (which was true and due to placebo effect).  As it turns out, the open-label placebo produced significantly higher mean global improvement scores at both the 11-day trial midpoint and at the end of the three week treatment.

 

Of the participants in the open- or honest-placebo group, 59% experienced adequate relief versus 35% of those in the no treatment group.  The authors concluded that “Placebos administered without deception may be an effective treatment for IBS. Further research is warranted in IBS, and perhaps other conditions, to elucidate whether physicians can benefit patients using placebos consistent with informed consent.”  The difference between the groups is substantial.  Although 35% of the subjects in the no treatment group experienced adequate symptom resolution without any treatment, they were the recipients of some physician attention. Such attention alone is associated with improved outcomes.  Further, the 24 point difference is unlikely to be explained by differences in the natural history of the disease (the natural ebb and flow of symptom presentation) or regression toward the mean (the natural tendency for repeated measures to move more closely to the average value) (Crislip, 2006).  Because subjects were randomly assigned to the groups, these latter effects are likely to cancel each other out.

 

So, as it turns out, taking an honest-placebo may substantially reduce IBS symptoms in over half of sufferers.  How does this happen?  I suggest that because an authority figure suggested that the pill had resulted in significant symptom reduction in previous trials there remains a high probability of the expectancy effect.  I question whether it should be considered an “Honest-Placebo.”

 

So we have the attention provided by the physician, the expectancy affect, and the added ritual of taking the pills.  The authors suggest that this latter factor may play an important role in the effect.  Regardless, the sugar pill appears to have done something.  Perhaps this helps explain why billions of dollars are spent annually on vitamins, “natural remedies,” and homeopathy despite lack of biological plausibility or evidence of treatment efficacy.   We are, it seems, inherently gullible people.  Placebos work, because the mind is a powerful thing – simply thinking you’re being treated, can make you feel better.  Also on the plus side – no long list of scary side effects – although, we could get them, I suppose, if doctors were to imply the possibility.

 

References:

 

Blakeslee, S., (1998). Placebos Prove So Powerful Even Experts Are Surprised; New Studies Explore the Brain’s Triumph Over Reality. New York Times 10/13/98. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/10/13/science/placebos-prove-so-powerful-even-experts-are-surprised-new-studies-explore-brain.html?scp=1&sq=poison+ivy+placebo&st=nyt&pagewanted=all

Crislip, M. (2006). QuackCast 5. Placebo Effect. Alt.med effects are often attributed to the placebo effect. .5/22/06

 

Kaptchuk, T.J., Friedlander, E., Kelley, J. M., Sanchez, M. N., Kokkotou, E., et al. (2010). Placebos without Deception: A Randomized Controlled Trial in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. PLoS ONE 5(12).  http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0015591#aff1

 

Knox, R. (2010). Fake Pills Can Work, Even If Patients Know It. National Public Radio Health Blog. 12/23/10.

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I have learned some things of late that have congealed in such a way, so as to leave me in a bit of an existential crisis. One of my most precious beliefs, specifically, the importance of parenting style, as it pertains to child intelligence and personality outcomes, has been relegated to the proverbial dust heap alongside the id, the wandering uterus, and the Oedipus complex.

Why would the salience of parenting style even come into question? It seems ridiculous to pose such a question. Of course parenting style matters! It is widely believed that parents can and do shape and mold their youngsters in a meaningful way that plays out in the formation of an adult. But, and this is a big but, the reality is that the impact of what you do as a parent has a much narrower impact than you might think.

I discussed this last week in my post Ten Best Parenting Tips: But Does it Really Matter? where I shared the Parent’s Ten (Epstein, 2010) and laid out a question of the quality of the research used to delineate these ten great tips. In that post I noted that:

“We are lead to believe, based on the results of [the Epstein study], that we, as parents, can shape our children, and thus by engaging in The Parent’s Ten, produce happier, healthier, and wiser children. But can we really? Is there an illusion of cause here? Are these simply correlations? The findings of behavioral genetics would suggest that this is an illusion – that these variables vary in predictable ways based on the influence of a third variable – genes.”

Genes are the sticking point. Epstein did not control for the effect of shared genes in this study. It is likely that children who have well functioning parents will be likewise well functioning, not because of the parenting style employed by their parents, but because of their shared genes. Well functioning and happy adults breed happy and well functioning children. Ultimately, parenting style, seems to have little impact on such outcomes.

The current research from behavioral genetics provides a preponderance of evidence leading to the same conclusion: 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%. A long standing question about the remainder has ultimately pointed in the direction of the child’s peer group whereby they account for 40-50% of the variance on personality and intelligence outcomes (Pinker, 2002). As it turns out, peers are the nurture influence in the nature and nurture interplay.

This latter notion runs counter to nearly everything we have been taught regarding human development over the last 100 years (Gladwell, 1998). Freud first put parents at the core of the child’s personality and neurosis development, and there they have remained. Mothers in particular have fielded more than their share of blame with regard to the pathology of their offspring. Cold maternal parenting style, after all, had been blamed for autism. And perfection seeking mothers have been blamed for the development of anorexia in their teenage daughters. We know that these relationships are unfounded. Regardless, the thinking persists, and bad outcomes are attributed to bad parenting whereas good outcomes are the fruit of sound parenting. The problem with this type of thinking is that the research has not born it out.

The Minnesota studies of twins and the Colorado Adoption Project have made it clear (Harris, 1998): parents contribute their genes and that seems to be it. When it comes to personality variables such as openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion-introversion, antagonism-agreeableness, and neuroticism, parents affect this only through heritability. Factors like IQ, language proficiency, religiosity, nicotine dependence, hours of television watching, and political conservatism/liberalism are all hugely influenced by genes (Pinker, 2002).

How do we know this? Adopted children resemble their biological parents not their adoptive parents (Gladwell, 1998). Also, as Steven Pinker (2002) points out, “Identical twins reared apart are highly similar; identical twins reared together are more similar than fraternal twins reared together; biological siblings are far more similar than adoptive siblings. All this translates into substantial heritability values…”

And consider smoking. Who can forget the TV ad portraying a child watching and pondering the emulation of his father’s smoking behavior. The slogan was something akin to “like father like son.” They had it right, but the smoking behavior in front of the child was not the culprit. Children of smokers are two times more likely to smoke as children of non-smokers. What we see is that nicotine addiction is heavily influenced by genes. Adoptive children of smokers do not have elevated rates of smoking, and this greatly diminishes the role that modeling plays in the equation.

The psychologist Eric Turkheimer pulled together the unusually robust evidence from extensive studies of twins (fraternal and identical) reared together and apart as well as studies of adopted children relative to biological children and concluded that there are three important laws that help explain the development of personality characteristics and intelligence.  Steven Pinker suggests that these laws constitute the most important discovery in the history of psychology (2002). The three laws are as follows:

  1. All Human traits are heritable;
  2. The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes; and
  3. A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.

So does this mean that what we do as parents doesn’t really matter? And does it mean that my role as a child psychologist helping parents manage very difficult children is a waste of time? This is my crisis.

Well … it does matter! How a parent treats and manages a child will affect how the child behaves and how the child feels about the parent. These are important issues. If poor parenting results in difficult feelings for the parent, “these feelings can last a lifetime – but they don’t necessarily cross over into the life the child leads outside the home” (Harris quoted in Gladwell, 1998).  Here is the important point “whatever our parents do to us is overshadowed, in the long run, by what our peers do to us” (Harris quoted in Gladwell, 1998). The home environment is very important for all involved – and parenting style can greatly impact that environment. So parenting style does matter – if only for the establishment of sanity in the home.  It seems to me that treating a child well is an ethical obligation. But if that’s not enough encouragement for treating another human being well, perhaps you should do so in hopes that when you are old and frail, your children may treat you well (Harris paraphrased in Gladwell, 1998).

Pinker (2002) adds an important provision:

Differences among homes don’t matter within the samples of homes netted by these studies, which tend to be more middle-class than the population as a whole. But differences between those samples and other kinds of homes could matter. The studies exclude cases of criminal neglect, physical and sexual abuse, and abandonment in a bleak orphanage, so they do not show that extreme cases fail to leave scars. Nor can they say anything about the differences between cultures… In general, if a sample comes from a restricted range of homes, it may underestimate effects of homes across a wider range.

We do know that parenting style can have adverse consequences when a child is subjected to neglect or abuse.  This is hugely important!  It’s not that parenting style doesn’t matter.  It matters greatly!  Parents can establish a happy encouraging environment, provide for the development of essential skills and knowledge; BUT, again, over the long term, it seems that these contributions do not shape the personality or intelligence of their children.  Their gene’s are responsible for those outcomes.  What seems to be more important, when it comes to shaping the genetic contribution, is where a parent raises their child. It’s the peer group that finishes the job. Now that is scary! And I thought my crisis was over.

References:

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

Gladwell, M. (1998).  Do Parents Matter? Judith Rich Harris and Child Development. Annals of Behavior. The New Yorker.

Lehrer, J. (2009). Do Parents Matter? Scientific American. April 9, 87http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=parents-peers-children

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

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What makes a good parent?  Really?  What can we do to ensure that our children grow up happy, healthy and wise?  There is a lot of advice out there – some of which, on the surface seems quite sage.  But history is replete with really bad advice – some based in moral authority and some in the ill formed wisdom of so called experts.  New advice is commonplace and how often have you been confused by the contradictory nature of yesterday’s and today’s tips?  There are enough schools of thought out there to confirm and satisfy almost any advocate of any “reasonably sane” parenting approach and even some not so prudent approaches.  There is a pretty good reason for this variability and I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, lets look at a recent article from Scientific American MIND that provides a summary of a scientific analysis resulting in a list of the top ten most effective child rearing practices.

In What Makes a Good Parent? the author, Robert Epstein, shares the results of a study on parenting skills that he carried out at UC San Diego, with a student (Shannon Fox).  The results were presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association this past summer.  Epstein and Fox looked at parenting techniques advised by experts, strategies commonly employed by parents, and strategies that seemingly had efficacy in the real world.  They collected their data online from nearly 2000 parents who volunteered to take a test of parenting skills at Epstein’s website: http://MyParentingSkills.com.  The test was devised by Epstein based on the literature, whereby ten parenting techniques that had robust evidence with regard to good outcomes were selected and measured.   Epstein had the 10 skills assessed by 11 parenting experts to further evaluate their validity.    The participants answered 100 questions pertaining to their agreement (on a 5 point agree to disagree scale) with the ten parenting variables (e.g., “I generally encourage my child to make his or her own choices,” “I try to involve my child in healthful outdoor activities,” “No matter how busy I am, I try to spend quality time with my child.”).   In addition to these questions the test asked questions pertaining to important variables such as income and educational levels of the parents, marital status, parenting experience, age, as well as questions regarding the happiness, health and functioning capacity of their child/ren.

The results, coined by the author as The Parent’s Ten, make perfect sense to me as a parent of three reasonably well adjusted, happy and successful college students.  They also gel with my exposure to the literature and my experiences guiding parents within my professional capacity as a child psychologist over the last 16 years. Here is an excerpt from the article:

Here are 10 competencies that predict good parenting outcomes, listed roughly in order from most to least important. The skills – all derived from published studies – were ranked based on how well they predict a strong parent-child bond and children’s happiness, health and success.

  1. Love and affection. You support and accept the child, are physically affectionate, and spend quality one-on-one time together.
  2. Stress management. You take steps to reduce stress for yourself and your child, practice relaxations techniques and promote positive interpretations of events.
  3. Relationship skills. You maintain a healthy relationship with your spouse, significant other or co-parent and model effective relationship skills with other people.
  4. Autonomy and independence. You treat your child with respect and encourage him or her to become self-sufficient and self-reliant.
  5. Education and learning. You promote and model learning and provide educational opportunities for your child.
  6. Life skills. You provide for your child, have a steady income and plan for the future.
  7. Behavior Management. You make extensive use of positive reinforcement and punish only after other methods of managing behavior have failed.
  8. Health. You model a healthy lifestyle and good habits, such as regular exercise and proper nutrition, for your child.
  9. Religion. You support spiritual or religious development and participate in spiritual or religious activities.
  10. Safety. You take precautions to protect your child and maintain awareness of the child’s activities and friends.

Although you may not find these results all that surprising, Epstein suggests that they are because if you look closely at the list you’ll see that the vast majority of the skills are parental personality and/or life skill issues.  As this study suggests, a child’s well-being, it seems, is most closely associated with how a parent treats oneself (e.g., manages stress and maintains a healthy diet and exercise regimen), how one gets along with the co-parent (e.g., maintains and models important healthy relationships), as well as the efficacy of one’s life skills (e.g., sustains income and plans for the future), and how deeply one values education.

These “skills” constitute a full 50% of the list and when weighted, based on the degree of association, likely account for a huge and disproportionate amount of the influence on child happiness, health, and adaptive functioning outcomes.  And several of the other “skills” (e.g., affection, respect for the dignity of children, degree of parental control imposed, and even level of spirituality) really are behaviors that are known to vary associated with one other crucial, yet unmentioned variable.

You see, the presumption here is that children are brought into the world as malleable blank slates that we can mold through the type of parenting we employ.  The reality is that parents who employ these skills likely do so as a function of their intelligence and personality, which are heavily influenced by their genes.  The truth of the matter is likely that children whose parents care for themselves, have good social skills, and plan for the future will have happier, healthier, and wiser children, but not because of the parenting skills employed during their upbringing, but because of their shared genes.  Epstein did not control for the effect of shared genes in this study.  And neither have most of the researchers looking at the relationship between parenting behavior and children outcomes (Pinker, 2002).  The current research from behavioral genetics suggests that the home environment, as it is influenced by parents, accounts for 0 to 10% of the variance in the wellness outcomes of children!  Heredity accounts for about 50% and the child’s peer group accounts for the remainder (40-50%) (Pinker, 2002).

Epstein asks what parental characteristics are associated with good outcomes and finds that women produce only slightly better outcomes then men.  Likewise they found that married individuals produce slightly happier children then divorced parents.  Gay individuals actually report slightly happier children then do straight individuals.  And no differences were noted associated with race or ethnicity, but more educated individuals had the best outcomes.  He notes that “Some people just seem to have a knack for parenting, which cannot be easily described in terms of specific skills.”  He’s got that right!  That knack, although unacknowledged by Epstein, is largely a function of one’s genes.  Temperament is a personality trait that we know is hugely influenced by genes and Epstein notes that “Keeping calm is probably step one in good parenting.”

So we have another conundrum.  We are lead to believe, based on the results of this study, that we, as parents, can shape our children, and thus by engaging in The Parent’s Ten,  produce happier, healthier, and wiser children.  But can we really?  Is there an illusion of cause here?  Are these simply correlations?  The findings of behavioral genetics would suggest that this is an illusion – that these variables vary in predictable ways based on the influence of a third variable – genes.

Next week I’ll delve into this notion of whether how one parents really matters.  This exploration comes with significant discomfort for me as I am a behavioral child psychologist with 11 years of training and 16 years of practice steeped in the belief that I can help parents make a difference in the lives of their children.  I have long accepted the notion that the nature-nurture debate is not an either-or issue.  I see in my life and practice that outcomes are clearly the result of the influences of both nature and nurture.  Regardless, I have held the notion that it is parenting to a large extent, that accounts for a large portion of the nurturing influence.  Now I have to look carefully at the evidence, be willing to shed the ideological notion that we are blank slates, and accept the reality of the situation, no matter how hard and contrary they are to my beliefs.  This necessitates true intellectual honesty and deep scientific scrutiny.

References:

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

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

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