Tag Archives: Psychology

Our Contemporary Notion of Self-Esteem Was Born — Surprise! — in 1980s California

Image via Pixabay (CC0)

The connection between how we feel about ourselves and how well we do (at work, in school, in our personal lives) feels unshakeable. Doesn’t it seem intuitive — if not axiomatic — that confidence in our abilities begets success? Not so fast. In an excerpt from his recent book, shared at the Guardian, Will Storr uncovers the recent history of self-esteem — including its origins in shaky science that was expertly packaged and marketed by John “Vasco” Vasconcellos, a California legislator on a mission:

In the mid-80s, the notion that feeling good about yourself was the answer to all your problems sounded to many like a silly Californian fad. But it was also a period when Thatcher and Reagan were busily redesigning western society around their project of neoliberalism. By breaking the unions, slashing protections for workers and deregulating banking and business, they wanted to turn as much of human life as possible into a competition of self versus self. To get along and get ahead in this new competitive age, you had to be ambitious, ruthless, relentless. You had to believe in yourself. What Vasco was offering was a simple hack that would make you a more winning contestant.

Vasco’s first attempt at having his task force mandated into law came to a halt in 1984, when he suffered a heart attack. His belief in positive thinking was such that, in an attempt to cure himself, he wrote to his constituents asking them to picture themselves with tiny brushes swimming through his arteries, scrubbing at the cholesterol, while singing, to the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat: “Now let’s swim ourselves/ up and down my streams/Touch and rub and warm and melt/the plaque that blocks my streams.” It didn’t work. As the senate voted on his proposal, Vasco was recovering from seven-way coronary bypass surgery.

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Don’t Fear the Painter, or the Tyranny of Whiteness

the inside of an empty factory building, all painted in shades of white
Photo by Lars Myregrund via Flickr (CC BY-ND-NC 2.0)

White Noise publishes an excerpt of David Batchelor’s book, Chromophobia, an exploration of color theory and, as he argues, the West’s historical fear of color. In the introduction, he recalls a visit to the home of an art collector whose décor was an aggressive rejection of color—although that’s not how the home’s architect would describe it.

There is a kind of white that is more than white, and this was that kind of white. There is a kind of white that repels everything that is inferior to it, and that is almost everything. This was that kind of white. There is a kind of white that is not created by bleach but that itself is bleach. This was that kind of white. This white was aggressively white. It did its work on everything around it, and nothing escaped. Some would hold the architect responsible. He was a man, it is said, who put it about that his work was ‘minimalist’, that his mission was to strip bare and to make pure, architecturally speaking, that his spaces were ‘very direct’ and ‘very clear’, that in them there was ‘no possibility of lying’ because ‘they are just what they are.’ He was lying, of course, telling big white lies, but we will let that pass for the moment. Some would hold this man responsible for the accusatory whiteness that was this great hollow interior, but I suspect that it was the other way around. I suspect that the whiteness was responsible for this architect and for his hollow words.

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There Are Reasons We Can’t Handle the Truth

Photo by ReignMan (CC BY 3.0)

Julie Beck, in The Atlantic, digs deep into news silos, alternative facts, and cognitive dissonance. When we believe things that are counterfactual, it’s not because we’re getting news from biased sources (although we are) we’re lying to ourselves (which we also are), but because the actual truth of a statement is no longer what’s important.

In one particularly potent example of party trumping fact, when shown photos of Trump’s inauguration and Barack Obama’s side by side, in which Obama clearly had a bigger crowd, some Trump supporters identified the bigger crowd as Trump’s. When researchers explicitly told subjects which photo was Trump’s and which was Obama’s, a smaller portion of Trump supporters falsely said Trump’s photo had more people in it.

While this may appear to be a remarkable feat of self-deception, Dan Kahan thinks it’s likely something else. It’s not that they really believed there were more people at Trump’s inauguration, but saying so was a way of showing support for Trump. “People knew what was being done here,” says Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale University. “They knew that someone was just trying to show up Trump or trying to denigrate their identity.” The question behind the question was, “Whose team are you on?”

In these charged situations, people often don’t engage with information as information but as a marker of identity. Information becomes tribal.

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We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Screen: On the Addictive Escapism of Video Games

Screenshot from the game "Incredipede" by Colin Northway (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In Vulture, Frank Guan, an avid gamer himself, digs deep into the appeal and addictive qualities of video games in an effort to understand the psychology that undergirds hard-core gaming — and whether it has an impact on or can predict our politics.

I wouldn’t trade my life or my past for any other, but there have been times when I’ve wanted to swap the writing life and the frigid self-consciousness it compels for the gamer’s striving and satisfaction, the infinite sense of passing back and forth (being an “ambiguous conduit,” in Janaskie’s ­poignant phrase) between number and body. The appeal can’t be that much different for nonwriters subjected to similar social or economic pressures, or for those with other ambitions, maybe especially those whose ambitions have become more dream state than plausible, actionable future. True, there are other ways to depress mental turnout. But I don’t trust my body with intoxicants; so far as music goes, I’ve found few listening experiences more gratifying or revealing than hearing an album on repeat while performing some repetitive in-game task. Gaming offers the solitude of writing without the strain of performance, the certitude of drug addiction minus its permanent physical damage, the elation of sports divorced from the body’s mortality. And, perhaps, the ritual of religion without the dogma. For all the real and purported novelty of video games, they offer nothing so much as the promise of repetition. Life is terrifying; why not, then, live through what you already know — a fundamental pulse, speechless and without thought?

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Rorschach’s Inkblots Are Part of Art History

Image by zeh fernando (CC BY-ND 2.0).

At The New Republic, Merve Emre looks at the enduring visual power of Hermann Rorschach’s inkblots while reviewing Damion Searls’ new book on the German psychiatrist and his work. Along the way, she highlights a fascinating aspect of this (largely discredited) psychological assessment tool: its place in a centuries-old conversation about the power of art to expose our inner lives.

To achieve their desired responses, the blots themselves had to function like works of art — an unusual ask for a psychological test. Rorschach was not the first or even the second to try his hand at designing inkblots. Klecksography, the study of inkblots or “blotograms” as they were once called, originated with the German poet and physician Justinius Kerner. Unlike Rorschach, Kerner was neither a scientist nor an artist but a mystic. He believed his inkblots to be “incursions of the spirit world,” magical images that spoke to him in the voices of the dead; voices he ventriloquized in the gloomy poetic captions he added to his blots. More popular than Kerner was the French psychologist Alfred Binet, who drew his inspiration for his inkblots from Leonardo da Vinci, who, it was said, had once thrown a bucket of paint at a wall and divined his next painting from the shapes he saw before him. In keeping with this backstory, Binet’s inkblots — messy, asymmetrical things — were used to measure a person’s imaginative capabilities: the greater the number of distinct forms the respondent saw in the inkblots, the greater his creative powers.

By contrast, the power of Rorschach’s inkblots derived in large part from their painstakingly crafted designs, refined through much clinical trial and error to give them the appearance of naturalness — as if the shapes had not been crafted at all, but rather “had made themselves,” Searls writes. The point was neither disordered inspiration (as it was for Binet) nor spiritual connection (as it was for Kerner), but technical perfection. There could be no trace of the artist’s hand in the thickness of the brushstrokes or the shading of the ink; nothing to rouse suspicion among Rorschach’s paranoid patients that the inkblot had been created to elicit a particular response from them. There could be no captions, no border, nothing to distract respondents from the lines, the curves, the colors. Only the aesthetic impersonality of the blot could reveal the personality of its viewer.

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Law and Order, Coffee Shop Edition

Photo by Crew, via Unsplash

In Broken Pencil, Susan Read shares short fiction centered on a Kafka-esque interrogation in the back room of a coffee shop — you know, the one where they wear the green aprons — that’s a stinging indictment of the byzantine policies, procedures, and psychology of being a low wage employee.

I wonder if my manager thinks I did this. If my friends think I did this.

I mean, I would think I did this, if I wasn’t me.

It’s hot and I feel anxious and I feel angry and I feel…guilty.

And then I feel even angrier, and I think about how hard I have worked for Tarsucks, how I am probably the best barista at my store, and instead of a farewell party, I will be walking out of this place with my tail between my legs, and my head down, hoping that no one will notice the tears that are now readily streaming down my face in fear and anxiety and frustration.

I take a sip of water.

I lift up the form I was handed and notice another beneath it.  It has a similar format: fill in the blanks and sign your name, we’ll take care of the rest.

I _________ do hereby permit __________to ________ me up the _____.

Actually, the form authorizes Tarsucks to compensate the stolen money directly from my paychecks until full restoration of funds is received.

It is a confession, typed up and waiting for me to sign.

I sit back in my chair, crying a little but no longer fidgeting, still sweating in that tiny back office, which I am free to leave at any time.  I wait for my tribunal to reconvene.

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The Marshmallows that Gave Us the Modern Notion of Self-Control

From “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” to “Just say no,” we live in a culture that focuses on individuals’ choices at the expense of the structural forces that shape them. At Nautilus, psychiatrist Carl Erik Fisher launches a full-on attack on our understanding of willpower — a concept that almost became obsolete before mid-century psychologists breathed new (and often sinister) life into it.

In the 1960s, American psychologist Walter Mischel set out to test the ways that children delayed gratification in the face of a tempting sweet with his now-famous “marshmallow experiment.” His young test subjects were asked to choose between one marshmallow now, or two later on. It wasn’t until many years later, after he heard anecdotes about how some of his former subjects were doing in school and in work, that he decided to track them down and collect broader measures of achievement. He found that the children who had been better able to resist temptation went on to achieve better grades and test scores. This finding set off a resurgence of scholarly interest in the idea of “self-control,” the usual term for willpower in psychological research.

These studies also set the stage for the modern definition of willpower, which is described in both the academic and popular press as the capacity for immediate self-control—the top-down squelching of momentary impulses and urges. Or, as the American Psychological Association defined it in a recent report, “the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.” This ability is usually portrayed as a discrete, limited resource, one that can be used up like a literal store of energy. The limited-resource concept likely has its roots in Judeo-Christian ideas about resisting sinful impulses, and it seems like a natural analogy to other physical functions like strength, endurance, or breath. In the 1990s, the psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted a key experiment to describe this capacity, which he labeled “ego depletion”: A few undergraduate students were told to resist the urge to eat some fresh-baked chocolate cookies and instead eat from a bowl of red and white radishes, while others were allowed to snack freely on the cookies. Students who were made to exercise self-control performed worse on subsequent psychological tests, suggesting that they had exhausted some finite cognitive resource.

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“Modern Life Is Not Violent Enough,” Said Nobody — But They Thought It

football field

GQ published an excerpt from Chuck Klosterman’s book But What If We’re Wrong? last May — and while it’s nominally about football, violence, and why the sport isn’t going away anytime soon, it’s also a prescient analysis of current U.S. politics.

There’s an embedded assumption within all arguments regarding the doomed nature of football. The assumption is that the game is even more violent and damaging than it superficially appears, and that as more people realize this (and/or refuse to deny the medical evidence verifying that damage), the game’s fan support will disappear. The mistake made by those advocating this position is their certitude that this perspective is self-evident. It’s not. These advocates remind me of an apocryphal quote attributed to film critic Pauline Kael after the 1972 presidential election: “How could Nixon have won? I don’t know one person who voted for him.” Now, Kael never actually said this. But that erroneous quote survives as the best shorthand example for why smart people tend to be wrong as often as their not-so-smart peers—they work from the flawed premise that their worldview is standard. The contemporary stance on football’s risk feels unilateral, because nobody goes around saying, “Modern life is not violent enough.” Yet this sentiment quietly exists. And what those who believe it say instead is, “I love football. It’s the last bastion of hope for toughness in America.” It’s not difficult to imagine a future where the semantic distance between those statements is nonexistent. And if that happens, football will change from a popular leisure pastime to an unpopular political necessity.

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Why Our Ignorance Makes Us Overestimate How Much We Know

Impostor syndrome has been covered extensively in recent years. Its inverse, known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, is at least as pervasive: our innate tendency to confidently claim expertise in topics we know very little about, sometimes to embarrassing (if not tragic) results. Writing for Pacific Standard, David Dunning, who led the first studies of this phenomenon, explores the ways in which our inflated sense of knowledge is a defining attribute of human nature.

The way we traditionally conceive of ignorance—as an absence of knowledge—leads us to think of education as its natural antidote. But education, even when done skillfully, can produce illusory confidence. Here’s a particularly frightful example: Driver’s education courses, particularly those aimed at handling emergency maneuvers, tend to increase, rather than decrease, accident rates. They do so because training people to handle, say, snow and ice leaves them with the lasting impression that they’re permanent experts on the subject. In fact, their skills usually erode rapidly after they leave the course. And so, months or even decades later, they have confidence but little leftover competence when their wheels begin to spin.

In cases like this, the most enlightened approach, as proposed by Swedish researcher Nils Petter Gregersen, may be to avoid teaching such skills at all. Instead of training drivers how to negotiate icy conditions, Gregersen suggests, perhaps classes should just convey their inherent danger—they should scare inexperienced students away from driving in winter conditions in the first place, and leave it at that.

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Taking A Different Approach to Kids and Bad Behavior

Students in class, 1932. Photo via Iowa Digital Library

Writer Katherine Reynolds Lewis, in Mother Jones, examines the latest approaches to addressing children and discipline—most notably, that timeouts, negative consequences, and other traditional punishments might not be as effective in many cases as helping kids manage their own emotions. It’s based on “Collaborative and Proactive Solutions,” a program that was developed by psychologist Ross Greene (author of The Explosive Child):

In 2004, a psychologist from Long Creek Youth Development Center, a correctional center in South Portland, Maine, attended one of Greene’s workshops in Portland and got his bosses to let him try CPS. Rodney Bouffard, then superintendent at the facility, remembers that some guards resisted at first, complaining about “that G-D-hugs-and-kisses approach.” It wasn’t hard to see why: Instead of restraining and isolating a kid who, say, flipped over a desk, staffers were now expected to talk with him about his frustrations. The staff began to ignore curses dropped in a classroom and would speak to the kid later, in private, so as not to challenge him in front of his peers.

But remarkably, the relationships changed. Kids began to see the staff as their allies, and the staff no longer felt like their adversaries. The violent outbursts waned. There were fewer disciplinary write-ups and fewer injuries to kids or staff. And once they got out, the kids were far better at not getting locked up again: Long Creek’s one-year recidivism rate plummeted from 75 percent in 1999 to 33 percent in 2012. “The senior staff that resisted us the most,” Bouffard told me, “would come back to me and say, ‘I wish we had done this sooner. I don’t have the bruises, my muscles aren’t strained from wrestling, and I really feel I accomplished something.’”

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