Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What Makes You YOU?

Personality is another one of those psychological concepts that has made its way into the popular vernacular, lending itself to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. This is such a complex topic that many of the major schools of psychological thought have their own take on the subject. Thus begins another "series" of sorts. This time I will try to clarify some issues on and present some theories about personality, or what makes you YOU. Let's begin with a basic definition.

Personality: the unique and relatively stable ways in which people think, feel, and behave. In its most general terms, you are a combination of your way of thinking, your general emotionality, and the choices you tend to make. This also includes the situations that lead to your greatest comfort and your preferences, even in the face of behaviors in which you would rather not engage but still sometimes feel compelled to given certain circumstances. Personality is often confused with one's character.

Character: value judgments of a person's moral and ethical behavior. Your character is the judgment that others (and sometimes yourself) lay at your feet based on the observable data that you present to them. Note that character does not include your actual motivations or emotions concerning the matter, only the behaviors that others can see. This is due to the fact that the vast majority of humans (around 99.998%) are NOT psychic and cannot actually see into another person's soul or mind or heart. We infer people's motivations based on circumstantial evidence, but our character judgments are still flawed by the fact that we cannot know ALL of the relevant information involved that may or may not have had an impact on the resulting behavior of another. As my mother says, we judge others by how we live our lives. All subsequent character judgments are biased by our own personal lenses formed from our past experiences. Plus, character is based upon the behaviors that another person chooses to show others.

Temperament: the enduring characteristics with which each person is born. Temperament is really the baseline emotionality of an individual. This inherited part of personality, which is exhibited as early as day 1 of infancy, is simply a baseline upon which we build the rest of our personality--the cognition and behavior. Infants can generally be classified into one of four temperaments--easy, slow to warm up, difficult, or undifferentiated. The easy children tend to be generally happy babies who adapt to change and new environments readily. If upset, it doesn't take much to placate them. The slow to warm up babies tend to take their time in building their comfort zone. When in the comfort zone they are satisfied. Removing this infant from their comfort zone (changing routine, introducing something new) will significantly distress them, however, they will eventually adapt over time, so long as changes are introduced slowly and one at a time. The difficult baby seems to have his/her mind set from the get-go and is not willing to budge for anything. So long as the routine and the environment stay the same, they will be content. Any change will be met with extreme resistance and will very rarely be accepted. They do not like change at all. The rest of the children are born with an undifferentiated temperament. This means that they have not made up their mind yet as to how they will deal with change or new situations. Sometimes these infants exhibit characteristics of more than one temperament, sometimes they just don't have any clearly distinctive characteristics (of the aforementioned three types) until later in their infancy or childhood.

So, the bottom line is that, in a nutshell, your personality is what you do, how you feel, and your thought processes that make you unique. True, there are overlaps between individuals, yet there is no exact copy of the unique combination of all the components that make a person who they are. One of the reasons personality is so debatable from a theoretical perspective is the fact that we show different "faces" to different people we encounter. We never show every single nook and cranny of our entire being to any one person. We always keep something--sometimes a large part, sometimes only a tiny spark--in reserve for just ourselves. And there is even a part of our personality that we have not uncovered yet. Some theorists (Maslow, Rogers, Erikson to name a few) believe that we are constantly discovering new things about our own personalities as we encounter new life experiences, so we may never find everything there is to know about our self.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Does Personality Drive Motivation or Vice Versa?

Motivation: the process by which activities are started, directed, and continued so that physical or psychological needs or wants are met

Sometimes motivation becomes intertwined with the idea of personality (another "series" to follow on this blog). One of the more prominent motivational theories that appears to closely resemble a personality theory is David McClelland's needs theory. This theory states that there are some people who are driven by one, or a combination of, three distinct needs.

Need for Affiliation: an individual's need, desire, preference for socializing with other individuals. Someone with a high need for affiliation feels lost if left alone for too long. In some cases, the extreme need for socialization will outweigh any other motivators. It would not be uncommon for a person with a high need for affiliation to go to a movie they don't want to see or go out to eat even if they are not hungry if their friends are going. These individuals may sacrifice other comforts in order to satisfy their need to interact with other people. They may even associate with "despised" individuals if there appear to be no other options for socialization. In a team environment, these individuals tend to be the peace-keepers. They may not have a preference for what or how work is done, so long as they can get everyone working together.

Need for Power: an individual's need, desire, preference for being the one in control of situations and others. There are actually two sides to the power coin. The high need for power with a "pawns" orientation wants power for the sake of power. This is a Machiavellian individual who does not care how much they are liked so long as people do as they say. This is the darker side of need for power that sometimes turns people off of the idea of being in control. In a team situation, the "pawns" power would create a hierarchy structure that may accomplish nothing but frustration as the "leader" complains that no one does anything and the other team members complain that the "leader" won't let them contribute to the project. On the flip side, the high need for power with an "origins" orientation wants power so that they can maintain a smooth chain of command and power transition when the time comes. The "origins" power generates a leader who takes charge because they know they have the leadership skills and abilities that are needed, while at the same time they are training their predecessor so that the leadership can be handed over to a competent individual who will keep things running smoothly once the time comes to move on. In a team situation, the "origins" leader is the one who creates a game plan and then delegates responsibilities as needed. They will check in with the rest of the team from time to time and help out any team members as is warranted. This leader will also contribute to the actual work of the project, attempting to create an equal disbursement of duties among all the team members.

Need for Achievement: an individual's need, desire, preference for accomplishing goals. An individual with a high need for achievement is driven toward success, either large or small, but preferably meaningful. High achievers take calculated risks. Tasks that are too easily accomplished give very little satisfaction, while tasks with improbable odds may present too great a risk of failure. Moderately risky tasks present enough of a challenge to be worth the effort, and enough of a sense of accomplishment to warrant the energy spent in its pursuit. High achievers do not always need recognition for their efforts; the accomplishment of the task is often reward enough. In a team setting, it will be the high achiever who pushes the team forward from the background to ensure the success of the project. They may step forward to take on additional responsibilities, or even the leadership role, if they feel it is necessary to keep the project moving forward. The downside is that occasionally the high achiever may bear the majority of the project weight upon their shoulders because they are so concerned with seeing it completed successfully, so they may suffer burnout more often than someone with a high need for affiliation or a high need for power.

Of course, McClelland and his colleagues recognized that it was possible for an individual to have score high on more than one of these needs areas, or to even score low on all three. This theory begins to cross over from motivation into personality as it acknowledges that each person is unique in their level of needs in these three areas. Not everyone who is a leader is driven by the same need; not everyone who is accomplished is driven by a need to achieve. Personality is comprised of the unique qualities and characteristics that make you YOU. In McClelland's theory we begin to see that motivation may be tied to some core personal characteristic that drives someone toward certain behaviors or preferences.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Intimacy Is Psychological, Not Physical

I often hear people use the term "intimacy" as a euphemism for coitus or sexual activities. I think the first time it sunk in for me was when I noticed for the umpteenth time that Marge Simpson uses the word in this way in many episodes of The Simpsons when she wishes to "get physical" with Homer. After studying and teaching psychology for so many years, I see that this, like "antisocial" is yet another term that needs some clarification.

Intimacy: a psychological and emotional bond (NOT physical!) between two individuals. Said individuals do not necessarily have to be involved in a romantic relationship with one another. They could be blood relatives (siblings, parent/child, etc.) or very good friends. Intimacy means that you can "read" that person's mood just by looking at their facial expressions or body posture. If you can walk into a room and know that this is a good time to share a funny story, or a good time to give the person some space, then you have a high level of intimacy with that individual. The stronger your emotional and psychological bond with a person, the more intimate you are with them. This is separate from sex. While intimacy can make a sexual relationship more meaningful, it really has very little to do with any physical activities you engage in with another person. That is known as passion.

Passion: the emotional and physical arousal a person experiences when in the presence of another person. True, passion can run the gamut from hate (if extreme negative emotions and a desire to cause physical harm to another person occur in that person's presence) to love (if a desire to bring happiness to the person and a great concern for their well-being occurs in the person's presence) to lust (if you experience a physical draw and desire for physical sexual contact with the person). Passion is arousal (used here in the psychological sense). Intimacy is a bond between two individuals. And yes, a person can have a "passion" for a hobby or object. This means that the person experiences extreme emotions when thinking about or confronting said subject.

Arousal: activation of one's interest and increase in stress hormone levels. Arousal can be bad, in that great levels of extreme arousal can lead to too much stress and a person could suffer symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Arousal can also be bad if it comes in too little quantities. Think about how you feel when you are "bored to tears" because you just don't seem to have enough to do or enough motivation to do something. Arousal can also be good. A certain optimal level of arousal (dependent upon the individual and the task at hand) gives a person just enough reason to get up and get moving, while not overwhelming them. Arousal can be mental, emotional, and physical. Physical arousal is not always sexual in nature, either. A person can experience physical arousal when they succeed at a difficult task (think pride and a desire to celebrate) or when they are frustrated or suffer a loss (think about any time you felt angry enough that you wanted to punch something or throw something). Physical arousal occurs when our autonomic nervous system, specifically our sympathetic nervous system, triggers the release of stress hormones (e.g. adrenaline, cortisol, DHEA) so that we can enter our fight-or-flight mode in order to tackle whatever is causing the stress reaction. [I will post a future blog entry on basic stress definitions]. Sometimes this physical activation leads to arousal of the sexual organs, sometimes it does not.

In summation, intimacy is a close emotional and psychological bond, while passion is emotional and physical arousal. If a couple is engaging in sex, they may be increasing their intimacy, but essentially they are operating under a physical passion. Arousal usually means you are interested, though not always physically.

Monday, September 24, 2012

What Is Your Incentive?

Motivation: the process by which activities are started, directed, and continued so that physical or psychological needs or wants are met [See my previous blog post on the difference between a want and a need]. If you're reading this post, then you will hopefully have already read my past couple posts on motivation, so you know just how important this is as a topic to psychologists.

Actually, motivation is incredibly important to just about everything that we do. Unlocking the secrets to motivation would open up a whole world of possibilities. It would allow psychologists to find the elusive mathematical formula needed to "prove" to the other sciences that we too are scientists. We already are scientists, bound by the scientific method and necessities of critical thinking for both research and practice. Yet, we don't get the same respect in the realm of academia as other sciences. Most of that is due to the fact that, unlike other scientific fields, our subjects are much more unpredictable than theirs. Humans are exceedingly complex. Just when one theory seems to grasp the essence of human behavior, some human goes and throws off the whole statistical data set with their originality. [Please don't misunderstand me; I believe originality is fantastic, but it certainly does make it more challenging to find patterns.]

The realms of motivation and personality are two of the most complex topics in the world of psychology. After I run through a few more motivation topics, I may tackle some of the personality theories. My last post mentioned the subset of instinct theories of motivation, specifically the drive-reduction theory. This theory is great for its simplicity. It would seem that it has everything all wrapped up in a nice neat package. When we have a need, say hunger, for example, we are driven to fulfill it through some response, such as eating. That is pretty clear-cut and it makes perfect sense. Well, at least it does until you start getting into the many ways in which we can actually satisfy even a simple need. Why, for instance, do some people prefer to eat out for lunch and others prefer to have a home-made meal? Why do some people select one fast-food restaurant over another even if they both serve essentially the same food for similar prices? This is where the ideas of incentives and incentive values come into play.

Incentive: something that lures an organism (usually a human) into a particular action. Incentives are usually external to an individual, such as a free sample or a coupon. The hope is that the investment is seen as minimal in comparison to the potential pay-out. It does not always work out so well, however. If it were a simple matter of cost-benefit maximization, then everyone who received a coupon for a new product would buy the item. Many people won't take the company up on their offer, though. Why is that? Part of the answer is found in the incentive value a person places on a potential choice.

Incentive value: The value of a goal above and beyond its ability to fill a need. If you remember, a goal is the reduction in a need (or the fulfillment of a desire) as the result of a response. Some people will place a large value on the "savings" offered in a coupon and will thus try the new product. Other people will place a large value on the "savings" they would experience if they avoid the product altogether. The difficulty for psychologists (and marketing gurus) is in attempting to place an actual mathematical or economic value on a person's incentive value. While we have a nice-sounding definition, the concept is all-too abstract. People are constantly placing arbitrary values on choices--do I want chocolate ice cream with sprinkles or vanilla ice cream with fruit topping? If you were to ask the average person what their "incentive value" is for two similar choices, they might not be able to identify a solid, consistent number that you could plug into a formula. Sometimes people just "feel like" one choice is better over another. Sometimes the choice is consistent, other times the decision changes. The incentive value for, say, a drink choice such as coffee versus tea may be consistent for one person who almost always drinks the same thing, but will oscillate wildly for another person who likes to randomize their beverages. [Perhaps a look at my previous post of stimulus motives may help a little here.]

The other thing that is so slippery about discovering an incentive value is that people often come up with arbitrary values for choices without even knowing much about the topic or without having much experience with an option. For example, my grandmother never ate fish, but she knew from an early age that she did not like it. Think about this: how many times have you heard a conversation in which one person swears they either love or loathe a movie when they never actually saw it, or a book and they never actually read it? I bet many of you can think of a book series (I'm not going to name the one that comes to my mind, one that created a huge divide on the Internet this summer between the lovers and the haters of the book; many haters admittedly never read the books because they assumed it was just awful) that seemed to be so popular and yet so many people insisted it was just drivel wrapped in a pretty and vapid package. The same thing happens with political candidates. People will place a value of sorts on each candidate before they vote. Oftentimes, however, the value is based on something superficial, such as "my friends all like this person" or "my boss/parent is voting for them" or "I like their wardrobe." I am not in any way criticizing the choices people make. I make many choices based on arbitrary incentive values, too, and those values tend to change often for me, as well (I have a moderately high need for exploration). This does, however, possibly explain why it is so difficult to generate accurate predictions on consumer choices or human behavior in general.

Expectancy value theory states that we cannot accurately predict, with full certainty, a person's behavior unless we first understand the incentive value that person places on the choices, the person's values and beliefs concerning the choices in general, and the importance those values and beliefs hold for that person at that moment in time. Those are really too many wildly changing variables to juggle in order to come up with a consistently accurate prediction. The best we can hope for at the moment is to introduce arbitrary incentives and hope that individuals place a high enough value on those incentives that we can introduce a modicum of control on their choices.

I did say this was one of the most complex and difficult topics in psychology. And I am only beginning to scratch the surface here. If there were any easy answers about motivation, then the world would be a whole lot less complex and an awful lot of people would have to find something else to do with their time and research efforts.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What You Want vs. What You Need

Motivation: the process by which activities are started, directed, and continued so that physical or psychological needs or wants are met.

I thought it would be prudent to differentiate between a need and a want before I delved any deeper into other motivation theories. This is one of the hardest lessons to teach children, but many adults also have a hard time distinguishing between what they want and what they really need. Let's take a look at the Drive-Reduction theory of motivation (an instinct theory).

Need: a requirement of some material, such as food and water, that is essential for survival of the organism. This is a biologically based necessity, usually instinctual in nature. Needs, true needs, tend to fall into the primary drives category. There are only a select few of these. Anything else can fall into the secondary drives category (at least according to instinct theory).

Instinct: biologically determined and innate pattern of behavior that exists in both people and animals. Instincts are unlearned, uniform in expression, and universal in a species. This is why there are only a few primary drives. Only a few things are unlearned and universal needs across ALL humans.

Drive: a psychological tension and physical arousal arising when there is a need that motivates the organism to act in order to fulfill the need and reduce the tension.This is essentially our psychological tipping point; when we can no longer ignore our deficiency (need), then we are moved into action in order to reduce our body's nagging insistence that we care for it.

Primary drives: those drives that involve needs of the body. There are only a few primary drives--things we must have in order to survive. The goals of primary drive satisfaction is to achieve homeostasis (a steady state or balance within the body). The only primary drives that exist are:
  • hunger
  • thirst
  • avoidance of pain
  • sex (important on a species level)
  • [honorable mentions: oxygen, sleep]
  • [pending more defined research and definition: love]
That's it. These are the only things that you absolutely NEED in life. Everything else is either a personality characteristic that is not universal to all humans (psychological drives, stimulus drives; [see related motivation posts]) or an acquired or secondary drive. Granted, life would be boring and not really fulfilling with only these basic needs, but these are the only true needs for humans. If anyone tells you otherwise, they are once again confusing the meaning of the words.

Secondary (acquired) drives: those drives that are learned through experience or conditioning. Somewhere along the way people learned that other things seem to be important (or perceived as such) for a human life. These things are wide and varied and you can argue that society has made then almost a necessity, however, there may be ways around them. Included in secondary drives are things like money, status, fashion, education, power, "stuff" and consumer goods (cell phones, tablets, Internet, etc.), and certain qualities of the basic needs, such as expensive food or drink. In all reality, no one needs a well-paying job. However, it is incredibly difficult to provide the basics, and some luxuries, for ourselves and our families without one. This is probably why it is so easy to confuse need and want. Many people want a car, for example, but it is possible--though not comfortable--to navigate the world without one.

Goal: target of motivated behavior. This is usually the reduction of a need or the satisfaction of a desire. We are goal-oriented in nature, so we constantly create goals to achieve when our bodies do not provide a natural deficiency to satisfy. For many people, satisfaction of primary drives is taken for granted. This could explain why it becomes increasingly easier to fall into the trap of believing that secondary drives are necessities as well. We are hard-wired to constantly fulfill deficiencies. When we have no real deficiencies, then we seek to create new ones so that we can continue responding [response: an action or series of actions, usually with the purpose of reducing a need].

Friday, September 14, 2012

Sensation Seekers Are Not All Death-Defiers

I am sure many people have heard of sensation seekers, or adrenaline junkies. The research we have on these individuals is based mostly on the work of Marvin Zuckerman and his collaborators, though some of the information on stimulus motives can be traced to Harlow's work in the 1950s.

Motivation: the process by which activities are started, directed, and continued so that physical or psychological needs or wants are met [I will create a future blog post on the different between a want and a need]. Motivation is essentially what "moves" us, what inspires us, what gets us to do things. Motivation is the "holy grail" of psychology and marketing. To accurately and scientifically unlock the secrets of human motivation would allow us to not only predict human behavior more consistently (no more "average" or "mean" statistics, but actual precise numbers!), but it would also allow us to consistently and successfully direct behaviors. Perhaps the potential evils would outweigh the benefits and this is why we have not cracked the code yet.

One school of thought on motivation comes in the form of arousal theory. Arousal theory, stemming from the Yerkes-Dodson law, proposes that every person has an ideal/optimal level of arousal or psychological tension needed for our best performance. This optimal level of arousal is determined by 1) an individual's personality and 2) the particular task at hand. One of the personality factors to look at is whether or not the individual seems to be driven by stimulus motives.

Stimulus motive: a motive that appears to be unlearned but causes an increase in stimulation. Many stimulus motives have been mentioned in the research literature. Four main categories seem to stick out a bit more than the others, however.
  • Need for information: the drive to satisfy one's curiosity, to gain knowledge, to constantly learn and gather more information. Someone with a high need for information is something of a data or news junky (I count myself in this category). This person can get lost for hours on the Internet reading, research, collecting articles and information. They may be the first to learn the latest gossip. They hate feeling left in the dark about certain (sometimes all) subjects.
  •  Need for exploration: the drive to try something new, to avoid routine. A person with a high need for exploration becomes depressed if their life starts to take on too much routine. Don't get me wrong; they can handle some stability such as getting to work and home and such each day. However, the way things are done are often changed. For example, they may pick a new route to work or decide to make their phone calls before answering emails or pick a new place to eat lunch. Someone with a need for exploration likes to mix it up when things start to look too similar. And, contrary to popular belief, it does not always have to be something entirely new that satisfies them. It could be watching a movie that they haven't watched in years. If it was a long enough gap between experiences, then that is usually acceptable. A high need for exploration will also encourage people to go over a similar area in the hopes of finding something new that they did not notice before.
  •  Need for manipulation: the drive for hands-on experiences. An individual with a high need for manipulation does not like to sit back and receive life. They like to actively engage in it. This person would much rather stick their hand in a mysterious box than observe and hypothesize about what the box might contain. They occasionally dive in feet first to see what would happen. Planning is not nearly as important as experiencing. They may have a tendency to experiment, though not necessarily in new ways, as someone with a high need for exploration might do. Experimentation for a person with a need for manipulation may involve engaging in the same activity multiple times, especially if the first trials were successful. They don't mind confirming their discoveries again and again. As far as entertainment goes, they would much rather participate than watch, even if they have done it dozens of times before.
  • Need for sensation or sensory input: the drive for sensory stimulation (touch, taste, hearing, sight, smell). Someone with a high need for sensory input does not like feeling bored. They relish entertainment and excitement. They are capable of finding satisfaction in passive entertainment, so long as it is entertainment; it does not have to be actively engaging as it would be for a high need for manipulation. Yes, some sensation seekers are adrenaline junkies. The rush of stress hormones (primarily adrenaline) that a person gets during a free-fall or a roller coaster drop or loop does bring satisfaction to many sensation seekers. However, a person with a high need for sensory input can also find satisfaction for their needs through good food (taste), music (sound), action sequences in a movie or TV show (visual & auditory stimulation) or with enough decoration on a room's wall (vision). The sensation does not have to be overly exciting all the time, it just has to be there. Boredom leads to depression for a sensation seeker. You may come across someone who is a sensation seeker with acrophobia (fear of heights). They would satisfy their need for sensory input not by putting themselves in danger, but by finding other sources of entertainment such as a concert with a lot of special effects.
The thing to remember about these stimulus motives is that they are an unlearned part of a person's personality. Your personality is something that is partially genetic, partially a culmination of your life experiences and your interpretation of those experiences. Your personality is also something that is extremely difficult to change. Unless it is maladaptive and a real danger to yourself and others--personality disorders--there is no reason for anyone to apologize for who they are or for what they find motivating in life. The more we accept people, the less we try to "convert" them into copies of us, the richer life and this world will be.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Nightmares vs. Night Terrors

Sleep appears to be a slightly mysterious phenomenon, despite the fact that all humans experience it. One of the greatest sources of confusion seems to come from a misunderstanding of the different stages of sleep and the kinds of disorders that can occur during sleep. I will not give interpretations of dreams or attempt to give meaning to various dream symbols on this blog. Dream interpretation is a very personal thing that is driven by each individual's beliefs and life experiences. A wonderful guide (NOT a dictionary!) for dream interpretation is Dream Language by Robert J. Hoss. You can also research Sigmund Freud's theory of dreams, the activation-synthesis hypothesis, or the activation information mode model (cognitive theory). The purpose of this post is to hopefully clear up some misconceptions about sleep disturbances. But first, let's review the 5 stages of sleep.

REM (rapid eye movement): paradoxical sleep; an altered state of consciousness occurring during sleep in which the brain is very active. This is typically the stage in which dreams occur. The body is paralyzed so that we do not thrash around while we are not fully aware of reality. This is also the time during which our body undergoes its mental maintenance. If we push ourselves, pulling too many all-nighters, then we may experience REM rebound. When this occurs, we will directly enter the REM state of sleep before any other stages in order to help "clear the cobwebs" so that our mind can function normally and later engage in the physical maintenance of the rest of the body during the other stages of sleep. In extremely rare cases--less than 10% of the world-wide population--an individual may suffer from REM behavior disorder, which means that their body is not paralyzed during the dream state. This can be quite dangerous, as the individual would be able to act without full conscious control of their behaviors.

N-REM stage 1: the first stage of regular sleep. This is light sleep in which the brain waves begin to change slightly in preparation for deeper sleep. A person may be partially aware of the reality surrounding them, but they are not paying full attention, so there may be some momentary confusion, combined with possible hypnogogic images and/or hypnic jerks, if awakened at this point.

N-REM stage 2: relatively light sleep, deeper than stage one, in which the body's temperature begins to drop slightly and the brain waves continue to change in quality. A person is less aware of their surroundings at this point. Waking someone in stage 2 is slightly more difficult than in stage one, though not impossible. It may take the individual more time to reacclimate to their surroundings if awakened during this stage and they may be disoriented.

N-REM stage 3 & 4: deep sleep; brain waves have changed over to primarily theta waves, indicating loss of consciousness. The individual is no longer processing sensory input, but rather switching into physical maintenance mode. The brain sends out test signals to ensure the nervous system is intact. Cellular damage is repaired. Body chemicals such as neurotransmitters and hormones are replenished. It is very difficult to wake someone in these stages. If you do manage to rouse the individual, then there is a good chance that they will be in fight-or-flight mode and they may scream in fear or lash out without knowing what they are doing. It will take a person much longer to gain full consciousness of their surroundings if roused during stage 3 or 4.

Note: the body is not paralyzed during the N-REM stages. That means we can move around when we are not dreaming.

Light sleepers tend to progress through the N-REM stages more quickly and deep sleepers tend to spend more time in stages 3 and 4 when they sleep. All healthy individuals progress through each stage of sleep at least once during the night; it is necessary for normal bodily maintenance. With the exception of REM behavior disorder, all sleep disturbances occur during the N-REM stages, primarily stages 3 and 4. Also, most sleep disturbances occur when a person is experiencing a period of great anxiety and/or stress. Sleep disturbances do not typically exhibit themselves when the individual is happy and healthy or relaxed.

Nightmare: this is NOT a sleep disturbance. A nightmare is a dream, occurring during REM sleep, that is interpreted negatively by the person experiencing it. Usually accompanied by feelings of fear or anxiety, a nightmare is subject to personal perception. One man's nightmare is another man's fantasy. It's all in how you view it. Unless a person suffers from REM behavior disorder--which is very rare--any thrashing about in their sleep is most likely not due to a bad dream.

Night terror: a parasomnia that occurs during N-REM stage 4 (sometimes stage 3). The individual is not paralyzed, as they are in a N-REM stage. They are essentially experiencing a severe hallucination, typically of a traumatic flashback or their worst fears "come to life." A person experiencing a night terror may scream and/or fight against what they believe is threatening them. Any individual who enters the room of the sufferer will become incorporated with the hallucination and will most likely be attacked in turn. Most episodes last around 20-30 minutes. It is best to leave the person alone to fight out their anxieties. Contrary to popular media presentations, night terrors do not typically occur each and every night. Rather, they may exhibit themselves during a time of significant anxiety or distress for the individual. Yes, they are a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, but they are not always tied to it. A child can suffer night terrors without suffering from PTSD. Night terrors are more prevalent in children than in adults and they are overall pretty rare.

Narcolepsy: a dyssomnia in which an individual falls directly into a REM state during normal daily activities. [Remember, we are naturally paralyzed when in REM, which is called cataplexy when it occurs as part of narcolepsy.] Regardless of how much sleep the individual experiences at night, they may have moments when they fall immediately and unexpectedly into a dream state. Upon waking, they usually have no notion of the lost time and tend to continue their activities and/or conversations as if the episode never happened.

Sleep walking (somnambulism): a parasomnia in which an individual moves about during N-REM stage 4 sleep. The person is unconscious, completely unaware of their surroundings. They tend to enact part of their routine, such as attempting to fix a meal, without actually paying attention to their surroundings. Once they believe their task is accomplished, they will then return to their bed to continue normal sleep. A sleep walker may have a tendency to open their eyes, but due to the fact that they are in deep sleep, they do not usually process any visual stimulation, instead relying upon past experiences to navigate what they believe is the world they are moving through. The experience is similar to a non-threatening hallucination.

Sleep talking: a parasomnia, occurring in N-REM stage 3 or 4, in which an individual may respond to verbal stimuli. A person can carry on a seemingly coherent conversation, but because they were in deep sleep they will not recall any of it.

Many of the weird behaviors we witness in others (or experience ourselves) during sleep take place when a person is almost completely unconscious, and thus not aware of his/her actions or their consequences. As a species, with the exception of REM behavior disorder, we do not act out our dreams during the night. Instead we seem to be prone to stress-related hallucinations. Because we are not fully conscious we cannot identify them as fantasy at the time. Incidentally, I have only described a few of the commonly known sleep disturbances. If you would like me to post information about more, please leave a comment or send me a message and I will add more posts on other sleep disorders in the future.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Psychologists Are Not Psychics

Psychology: the scientific study of behavior (overt, visible behavior) and mental processes (hidden, covert behavior).

Psychology is a science, bound by the use of the scientific method in order to obtain and analyze real-world data about humans and animals. Psychology is not just the study of the mind, but also of any and all behaviors affected by the mind, which is basically everything we do [see previous post on BEHAVIOR]. Psychologists are trained to be objective. This is not easy, as we are humans studying other humans, often motivated by our own life experiences.

Psychologists identify concepts that they wish to study and seek ways to generate operational definitions of such concepts that lead to testable and measurable circumstances. While overt behaviors are the easiest to objectively quantify, covert behaviors, with a solid operational definition, can be studied vicariously through overt measurement and effective research methods (such as a survey or interview). Psychologists make logical inferences, not leaps of faith, when proposing hypotheses and formulating theories.

Psychic: the proposed ability to "read" another person's mind and/or tap into a real of mysticism that is beyond a humans standard five senses--sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. A psychic typically deals with things that cannot be quantified, thus making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to study in a scientific manner. Psychics have a tendency to "read" a person's future, discerns their thoughts nonverbally, "commune" with other-worldly phenomenon such as spirits.

Psychologists are NOT trained to read a person's mind. If you come across a psychotherapist who seems to be able to "read" you, it is most likely a case in which the therapist is highly experienced and really good at making fairly accurate inferences based on that experience. One of the reasons studies are replicated and a body of research builds around a specific area (e.g. the work of Elizabeth Loftus on eye-witness testimony) is that we begin to detect patterns and then test out our ideas to confirm the existence of those patterns. Please do not ask a psychologist to read your mind. Do not expect all psychologists to be highly intuitive, especially people who are just starting out in the field. From studies of intuition (yes, it can be scientifically, objectively studied), we know that it is actually a skill that develops over time. Some people are more intuitive than others mostly because they are more observant and analytical than others. They combine information in more unique ways, also.

Incidentally, not all psychologists are psychotherapists, either. True, the majority of psychology graduate students enter a clinical psychology program. However, a quick trip over to the American Psychological Association list of divisions will show you that there are many pathways a psychology major can take, even at the undergraduate level. I, for one, decided early on in my academic career that I did not want to be a therapist or a counselor. That is one of the many reasons I chose Industrial/Organizational psychology for my undergraduate focus and graduate studies.

Psychiatrist: an individual with a medical degree (M.D.) whose medical training focused on the mind and the defects and disorders associated with the mind. NOTE: Some psychiatrists also hold an academic doctorate in clinical psychology, so their training is a bit more extensive.

Psychotherapist: an individual holding a doctorate (typically Ph.D. or Psy.D.) whose graduate focus was on mental defects and mental disorders and therapies associated with treatment of such. Without an M.D., this person CANNOT prescribe medication [a couple states in the U.S. are/were considering altering this restriction, though].

Psychologist: an individual with a graduate degree (M.S., M.A., Ph.D., Psy.D., Ed.D., etc.) whose graduate school training focused on a specific area of psychology. Not all psychologists need a doctorate to "practice" in their field. That is dependent upon the area you enter. For example, an animal behaviorist typically needs only a master's degree in order to be considered ready for employment or as a consultant in the field.

So, here are two assumptions to avoid when meeting a psychologist: the person can read your mind; the person is a therapist. The first one will almost always be wrong. The second one, while statistically within your favor, is still a risky bet to make.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

How Do You See Your Self?

The idea of the "self" is an incredibly important, yet complex concept. I'm sure that when I talk about "self" everyone has a vague notion of what I mean, but it is not exactly easy to put into words. Let us take a look at some of the more common psychological ideas surrounding the notion of self.

Self-concept: your idea (conception) of your persona. This includes the parts of your personality, skills, abilities, knowledge, etc. that you show the world and the parts that you keep hidden from others. When someone asks you to describe yourself, you are tapping into your self-concept.

Self-esteem: your overall evaluation of your self. You may have an overall positive view, overall negative view, or even a neutral view of your self. People often tie their self-esteem to many irrational things, such as the viewpoints of others. People even tie their value to unrealistic characteristics that are beyond their control--not everyone can be #1, but that somehow doesn't stop many people from trying to reach it.

Self-image/public self: the "face" you show to other people. Each and every one of us, even the nonconformists, cultivate an image that we project to others. Everyone wants to be accepted for who they are, though many individuals often try to achieve this acceptance by manipulating the face that others see. We  hope to garner their respect by showing them what we think they want to see, rather than taking the risk of showing our real self.

Private self: the part of our persona that we keep hidden from others. We may reveal pieces of our private self to a select few. We typically hold back at least a small portion of our self, however, in order to hang onto at least a small amount of control over ourselves. Introverts tend to have a much larger portion of their self in this private segment than extroverts.

Real/true self: every facet of our persona; the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. Our real self includes not only our strengths but also our weaknesses. This houses our "shadow," that darkness within, the flaws that make us human and the qualities that help us rise about our frailties. When we are completely honest with ourselves and others we can acknowledge our true self. We tend to spend a lot of time denying parts of our self, however, which could lead to doubts and/or depression.

Ideal self: the "ought" or "should" or desirable qualities that we think we need to possess. The ideal self comes from within and from others. Many parents tell their children that they should do this or that, they ought to behave in such a way or achieve certain goals in life. We run into psychological problems when our real self and our ideal self do not overlap significantly. Think of Dr. Zoidberg from Futurama. He grew up wanting to be a comedian, but his mother pushed him into medicine. One of the results was a lingering doubt, low self-esteem, and a perpetual unhappiness with his life. This is just a fictional character, but there are many real people out there who have been handed (or chosen for themselves) unattainable goals and they live with the reality that those goals will never be met.

Self-worth: the value that you place upon yourself in the context of a larger social setting, such as a distinct group of people or within society at large. Many people who seek their identity do so in order to increase their perceived self-worth within the reference groups of their choice.

Self-efficacy: your belief in your ability to accomplish a particular task. Self-efficacy is roughly equivalent to self-confidence and it is task-specific. We develop our notion of self-efficacy as we attempt new tasks, confronting the unknown. This does not necessarily affect our self-esteem. You may have low self-efficacy in spelling, for example, believing that you could not spell to save your life, but feel overall positively about yourself. The effect of self-efficacy on self-esteem is moderated by the importance we (and others whom we consider important to us) place upon tasks. For example, let's take a look at two different adolescents. Both of these teens are not very athletically inclined. For teen A, sports are not important as they have decided to pursue a life of academia. For teen B, sports mean the world because their parents place too much value on physical achievements. Teen A may feel embarrassed by their inabilities in gym when they are in gym, but overall they don't let it affect them negatively because it's seen as unimportant. For teen B, however, this lack of athletic skill is seen as a personal failure in life, an inability to meet the unrealistic demands of an unreachable ideal, so their self-esteem is bottomed out by their perceived failures.

Self disclosure: the process of sharing personal information about our self with others. Self disclosure begins simply at first--an exchange of names, telling someone what you do for a living--and gradually increases as the intimacy in the relationship grows. [Intimacy, in this case, is psychological closeness; it is a measure of how well you know a person and how well they know you.] Typical relationships start off with equal self-disclosure. One person shares a bit of information and the other reciprocates with the same level of disclosure. After a time is becomes natural for one person to share slightly more than the other. Sometimes a person will share too much deeply personal information too quickly and the relationship may become stunted. Sometimes one person will refuse to share any information about themselves and the relationship will stall.

Are there more "self" notions out there? Definitely. I will leave you to explore some of these ideas on your own. The pursuit to understand one's self, according to humanism, is a life-long journey. The more you learn about your self, the more you will discover that you do not know. In the end, it is up to each individual to decide how to define their personal self.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Do You Have a Super Ego?

Although many people scoff at Sigmund Freud's theories, often without taking into account the sociocultural context surrounding his work, there are many aspects that have made their way into the common vernacular. As a result, they have also been distorted and diluted to the point that few people understand the original meaning behind these concepts. The ego is a prime example. This is originally one part of Freud's conception of the human consciousness (psyche to some).

Psyche: the mind, soul, or spirit of a person. It contains though, emotion, motivation and consciousness. It is separate from, and yet intertwined with, the body. From a philosophical standpoint, the psyche is the mystical energy the makes the body function. From a psychological standpoint, the word is used as a short-cut to illustrate all the properties and qualities of one's mind.

Id: the primitive part of one's psyche, according to Freud, that is present at birth. It represents the dual basic instincts of Eros (to create--not just lust or animalistic sexual urges) and Thanatos (to destroy--aggression and control). In infancy we have no concept of others or their needs; we are concerned only with our personal survival. All actions of infants are geared toward satisfying basic needs and pleasures. It is only as we age and engage in social interactions, as we grow in empathetic wisdom, that we move beyond this "id only" dimension. However, there are some individuals who seem to be more id-driven than anything else. Look up Freud's theories--his actual writings or a psychology textbook--for his ideas on how this extreme id shapes personality.

Superego: the socialized part of one's psyche, according to Freud, that develops through interactions with society, especially one's parents. It represents the internalization of the "rules" of society. When we follow the rules we feel pride in ourselves for doing what is "right." When we break the rules, we feel guilt and/or shame for falling short of perceived expectations. The superego is NOT an inflated sense of self, as was illustrated in the Duck Dodgers episode "A Lame Duck Mind." The superego is your conscience, constantly berating and correcting or patting on the back. Some individuals have an over-developed superego, often as a result of strict parenting or literal internalization of the "Dos and Don'ts" they encountered as children. Some people have a very underdeveloped superego, resulting in a very self individual who tends to not worry about the consequences of their actions, so long as their needs and desires are met. Then there is the extreme case of the antisocial personality disorder, which Freud believed was the result of no development of superego.

Ego: according to Freud, the part of one's psyche that develops out of necessity in order to maintain a balance between the id's desires and the superego's constant pressure for perfection. This term is intermingled with one's sense of self as well, so it can sometimes get to be a little confusing. In the Freudian sense, the ego is the moderator between the other two portions of the psyche. It is driving by the reality principle; it is the only portion of the psyche that is mostly conscious, so it makes the decisions. The ego constantly tries to find a way to satisfy the id while not violating the demands of the superego. Sigmund Freud believed that most psychological disorders, especially anxiety disorders, were the result of either the id or the superego pushing too far against the ego for the ego to handle it rationally. In a non-Freudian context, "ego" is used as a synonym for one's self-concept, which should not be confused with self-esteem or self-efficacy. I will create another post to differentiate between these "self" terms. Suffice it to say, your ego can be viewed as "who you think you are" and it can be fragile or strong, depending upon your personality and world-views. The ego, from Freud's view, however, is the part of us that is stuck dealing with reality. Sometimes you have to cut yourself some slack if you don't fully measure up to your superego or if you decide to indulge once in a while. The key to balance is moderation and understanding, not immobility or excuses.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Emotional or Moody?

Aside from the stereotype of females being overly emotional and teenagers being moody, many people think they understand these concepts, yet they have a tendency to confuse them. These words, mood and emotion, are not exactly synonyms, though they do stem from similar psychological origins.

Emotion: a brief intense psychological state that includes a) physiological, b) cognitive, and c) behavioral components. The physiological component of any emotion comes from a reaction in the autonomic nervous system--change in heart rate, change in respiration, change in blood flow and/or body temperature. The physiological reactions are similar for most emotions. In fact, feelings of hate and intense love lead to almost identical responses in the body's autonomic nervous system. The reason we can tell them apart comes from the cognitive and behavioral components. The cognitive component of emotion is your individual interpretation of your responses. This comes from memories, past experiences, social and environmental contexts, and your own attitudes regarding the object (person, place, thing, news, etc.) to which you are reacting. Sometimes a person can confuse one emotion for another, which could lead to interesting social implications. The behavioral component is how you communicate to others (and yourself) what it is you are feeling. This portion of emotion includes facial expressions. We are capable of over 20,000 different facial expressions, which might explain why it is not always easy to "read" someone else's emotions just from their face. Body posture, tone of voice, and even proxemics (the physical distance between individuals) also play a part in the behavioral component of emotion. All three of these--physiological, cognitive, and behavioral--come together so that we can experience a brief (not usually lasting more than a few seconds, rarely longer than a few minutes) emotion. The main reason emotions are so short lived is that our sympathetic nervous system cannot maintain a state of excited activity for too long without tapping out our body's reserves. It is our emergency fight-or-flight system, not meant to stay "on" all the time.

Mood: an extended, mild psychological state that persists after the intensity of an initial emotion ebbs. A mood is much milder than an emotion. While "happy" as an emotion only lasts a few seconds, the "happy" mood (contentment) can last several hours or even a few days. You no longer have the hyper energy you had the instant you found out that you won the lottery, but you remain pleasantly content in the days following your good fortune (barring some other even to lead to another emotion and then mood). Physiologically, your body continues to produce the hormones and/or neurotransmitters that lead to the initial emotion, but in much smaller doses. This mechanism allows us to slowly and safely back away from the chemicals that flooded our bodies in order to return to a state closer to homeostasis (balance) without the shock of "a drought following a flood."

An "emotional" individual, from a technically psychological perspective, is someone who experiences varied extreme reactions to life events in rapid succession. This often leads to exhaustion, as the body cannot maintain such excitability for too long. Yes, some individuals are naturally more excitable than others. No, excitability is not tied into gender. It is a personality trait--neuroticism. This trait is the sensitivity a person has to changes, good or bad. High neuroticism tends to mean more extreme emotions experienced more easily. Low neuroticism tends to mean fewer extreme emotional responses to life events, and more moderate emotions; a go-with-the-flow kind of person.

A "moody" person tends to hold on to the lingering effects of an emotion longer than the standard few hours or couple of days. They often do this by dwelling on the event that led to the initial emotion. This is one of the reasons depression and mania are "mood" disorders and not emotion disorders. The sadness (depression) persists for an extended period of time, usually more than 6 months for a conservative diagnosis. The excitability and irritability (mania) continues longer than "normal," often leading to irrational behaviors.

So, females are not necessarily emotional, but individuals scoring high on neuroticism have a tendency to experience extreme emotions more readily. Teenagers are not really moody, however, anyone who has a hard time letting go of events runs the risk of getting stuck in a mood rut.

Oh, and when you are "in the mood" for something, like chocolate or an action movie, that's a craving. In that case, the idea seems appealing to you, but it's not necessarily due to an emotional state. It could just be from suggestions (advertising, conversation, etc.) or motivation (internal or external, but most likely internal), or curiosity.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

In Mourning, During Bereavement, Feeling Grief

I know death and all of the psychological aspects surrounding it are a very taboo topic, especially in America. We tend to have a high rate of death anxiety--feelings of apprehension surrounding anything to do with death to the point of attempting to avoid the topic all together. I recently wrapped up a course on human development, so it happens to be fresh on my mind.

Bereavement: a state of existence, such as being married or being single, that occurs when one has lost someone from one's life. Bereavement is not an emotion or a psychological state. It is simply what we call the time after a loss. The length of bereavement can technically be the rest of your life. However, it tends to have stronger social implications and limitations. Some cultures place an unwritten limit of one year. Some have longer periods, some shorter, in which a person suffering a loss through death is given sympathy and understanding.

Grief: the (sometimes intense) emotional and psychological response to a death. Many individuals experience profound sadness, shock, anger, apathy or indifference (usually as a defense mechanism, not necessarily because the person is callous), or a myriad of other emotional states upon experiencing a loss. The degree of grief felt is dependent upon many factors--the survivor's personality, the relationship with the deceased, age of the survivor, age of the deceased, cultural expectations, and many more considerations. Some people grieve quietly inside, some people make a huge show of "grief" even though they don't actually have any deep feelings for the deceased. When you "give someone grief" you are finding a way to make their life miserable, often attempting to heap guilt and sorrow into their hearts in order to lower their self esteem. Usually, this is a tactic of people who like to manipulate others to do their bidding. If you've ever experienced a "guilt trip," then you know how powerful (and scummy!) this practice can be, and how much damage it can cause.

Mourning: the formal process following a loss. Including funeral rites and body disposal rituals, mourning also encompasses the steps that a person takes in reconciling with the loss and continuing on with his/her life. When someone is in mourning, they are dealing with a death. They may be coming to terms with the reality of the loss. They may be handling the finances that surround death--medical costs, funeral costs, insurance paperwork, inheritance. They may be digging up old memories of the deceased and sharing them with others. They may or may not be experiencing some extreme emotional upheaval (grief), but they are in the process of coping with the death.

Death affects individual survivors differently. Understanding and patience are the greatest gifts we can give anyone during bereavement. However, it is probably not fair to the memory of the deceased to milk their death for all you can--using it as an excuse to garner sympathy from others or to skip out from school or work because you're feeling lazy. Ultimately life does continue on, though it sometimes takes us a while to get back on track. The key is to keep moving forward.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Are You Insane?

Scientifically--Yes! Psychology is a science!--insanity does not really exist, and neither does sanity. These are not actual psychological terms, although many people throw them about as if they are. The idea of insanity is a legal term. Even though it's not a true psychological concept, I will still try to explain it so that we can clear up this confusion and stop asking every psychologist or psychology major whether or not someone is insane.

Insanity is not actually a simple term to define. I am familiar with its use in the United States, so if you happen to know how it is observed in other countries, cultures, or legal systems, please leave a comment and educate me. I love learning!

In the United States, insanity is used solely as a defense in a court of law. It may be used in a civil case to determine whether or not a family member should be institutionalized for their (or, rather, the family's) own good. In this case, a judge takes testimony from psychological or psychiatric experts [a future blog post on psychologist vs. psychiatrist will be forth coming, I promise] on the mental state of the individual in question. There are no real set rules, that I know of (remember, I'm stepping a little outside my arena here, so please fill in my gaps, legal experts, if I miss something), to determine the requirements for institutionalization. Most judges in these cases will decide for themselves if the individual poses a harm to themselves or others, which is usually the primary concern when talking about removing someone's basic civil liberties due to a mental disorder.

I am sure that most people are more familiar with the use of insanity as a defense in a criminal case, thanks mostly to the popularization of this idea as a plot point in way too many television programs, movies, and novels. In reality, the idea of insanity is left up to a judge or a jury (depending upon the state and the offense) to determine. Each state in the United States has its own rules or criteria for determining whether an insanity defense is valid. These usually boil down to one of four basic rules. Some states use a combination of rules, some states have completely eliminated the defense all together, and some states allow a verdict of "guilty but insane" (never "not guilty by reason of insanity" in these states) in order to pass sentence. The four basic rules are as follows (paraphrased for simplicity; more information can be found at several other sites, including the Encyclopedia of Everyday Law and a 2006 article on the history and possible future of the insanity defense by Carol A. Rolf, JD).

The M'Naghten Rule:  Basically, the defendant, because of some mental or psychological defect, did not know that criminal act was in fact wrong--they could not distinguish between right and wrong--at the time the act was committed. That's the kicker there. By the M'Naghten rule, at least on the surface of things, you could be "sane", i.e. tell right from wrong, before stabbing your lover 50 times and "sane" after stabbing them 50 times (that's why you ran, after all), but while wielding the knife you had no concept of morality. It's no surprise that this test is difficult to prove and you can see how it actually led to defense attempts at the idea of "temporary insanity."

The Irresistible Impulse Test: In this instance, a defendant may or may not know the difference between right and wrong, but because of some mental disorder the defendant could not help themselves while committing the act. [BTW, psychologists rarely use the term "mental disease" any more, instead preferring to think of them as disorders.] The responsibility for the theft or murder or what have you lies at the feet of the disorder, not the person, based on this rule. They just couldn't help themselves because the disorder was ruling them. Unfortunately, this rule makes it easy to fake a disorder and, from my perspective, does not give the individual responsibility for their own actions. It's hard for me as a philosophical humanist to accept the idea that someone "just couldn't help themselves" when committing a crime. I can understand functioning under misinformation, such as when a hallucinating schizophrenic smacks a person that they thought was a giant mosquito, but the person still had the choice the smack that "giant mosquito" or to walk away from it.

The Durham Rule: This rule is overly simplistic, which might be why it is not really used (except in New Hampshire). It's so simple that it's really hard to paraphrase. Essentially, according to this rule, a defendant is not responsible for the crime if the crime was caused by a mental disease/defect. Again, it's tough to buy this argument, as it's giving the power of action to a condition. Conditions don't "do" anything besides exist. People "do" things; people are capable of actions. Defects and diseases are not. This rule did indicate that a medical diagnosis (the specific use of "disease or defect") was a necessary requirement, rather than evaluating one's cognitive abilities or more abstract mental state.

The Model Penal Code Test: This is a combination of the previous rules. A defendant may be seen as not responsible for the crime if they do not a) understand the right/wrong aspects of the act, or b) could not control their behavior at the time of the criminal act, as a result of a mental disease. So, someone would have to have a mental illness per a medical diagnosis and either lack the cognitive capacity to understand their actions or the will power to avoid the action.I'll let you fill in the gaps and loop holes on this one for yourself.

Well, that's a little insight into the legal definition of "insanity." Psychologists do not really use this term in any technical sense, as it's not one of ours. Insane has been used and abused by popular vernacular, thus many people seem to think it is a true psychological concept. The only time a psychologist or psychiatrist is involved in these cases is to question whether the individual exhibits symptoms of a mental disorder (disease or defect) and to judge the person's cognitive capacity for moral understanding. Okay, so maybe you're neither sane nor insane from a psychological standpoint. Can you be crazy? Once again, this is not a psychological term. Crazy is a popular or common word not used in scientific circles.

Crazy: mentally deranged, demented, insane; senseless, impractical, unsound; mad, foolish, foolhardy. Gee, based on the dictionary definition, this is an extremely versatile word. It's no wonder there is so much confusion and it gets thrown around so often. Demented is technically a mental state in which the brain does not function in full capacity--loss of memory, confusion, difficulties thinking or problem-solving, problems communicating or understanding--due to a biological deterioration of the brain itself. Mad is similar to insane in that it is more of a common usage term than a scientific term. As for the rest of the synonyms for crazy, many of them indicate a lower intelligence (see my earlier post on RETARDATION for more on that subject] rather than an inability to function. Most individuals suffering from (or living with, depending on your perspective) a mental disorder have normal intelligence levels.

So, do psychologists use any "real" terms to describe people with mental disorders? Absolutely. Psychologists look at abnormal behavior to determine one's mental health. Abnormal behavior is classified as having one or a combination of the following three criteria:
  1. The behavior represents a significant feeling of distress to the individual, i.e. the person is uncomfortable about the behavior and/or the results or consequences of the behavior, such as a person who washes their hands so often that the skin is usually scrubbed raw. They don't like the raw skin, but find it difficult to resist the impulse to constantly wash their hands.
  2. The behavior interferes with the daily activities of the individual. Daily activities include normal grooming, hygiene maintenance, work, play, socialization, etc. An example of a behavior that falls under this criteria would be keeping yourself locked in your house and never venturing outside because of a fear of something bad occurring once you leave your threshold. This would make it difficult to hold down a job or attend school.
  3. The behavior poses a danger to yourself or others. In most cases, individuals suffering from a mental disorder are more of a danger to themselves than to anyone else, primarily through self-neglect or anxieties that raise their stress levels. The exception would be the personality disorders. Unfortunately, stereotypes lead people to fear someone who is "seeing a shrink" so many people are reluctant to seek the therapy they need because they fear social ostracizing.
Are you nuts, crazy, or insane? If you are, a psychologist/psychiatrist won't officially tell you. Besides, you may just be a little weird and sometimes the people who call you mad just can't handle the unconventional. Sanity is possibly overrated anyway.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Let Your Conscience Guide Conscious Behavior

This week's entry is to help clear up some confusion for a couple of "spelling" words from your typical psychology class. The three terms, all associated in some way with personality, are: conscious, conscience, and conscientiousness. They do not all mean the same thing and they are only loosely related.

Conscious: a mental state in which your thoughts are clear, organized, and easily focused; (alternatively) one's awareness of all that is going on around them at any given time. Your conscious is, according to Sigmund Freud, the part of the mind that is currently being accessed, the part containing all the information of which you are aware at the moment. When you are "conscious" of something you are aware of it. Consequently, most behavior is conscious in that you made a decision to act in that manner and you are aware of what you are doing as you are doing it. Unconscious behaviors occur when we do not stop to think about our actions and simply react (almost instinctively) to the current situation. These automatic responses could be under our control, but we choose to not think about them.

Conscience: one's inner guide and standard for right and wrong, moral and immoral behaviors. This is equivalent to Sigmund Freud's concept of the superego, which houses (in the conscious, unconscious and preconscious) our internal standards for behavior. This is that "little voice" that tells us if what we're thinking about is a no-no or if it's okay. Remember Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio. Incidentally, individuals without a conscience have no internal limitations on their behavior and often-times exhibit antisocial personality disorder. We don't really concern ourselves too much with someone who has an overactive conscience, however, though this does lead to greater strictures and limitations on their choices.

Sigmund Freud never identified a "subconscious" part of the mind. This is a more modern term that is not used in most psychological research literature. The "subconscious" that many people speak of is really what Freud called the preconscious. This is a layer of awareness between the conscious and unconscious levels. It is just below current awareness, but it is not buried so deep as the unconscious. The preconscious consists of information that we can easily access if we need to, but that we are not thinking about currently. It is kind of like your address book in your cell phone or email. You don't have everyone memorized, but the people you saved can be brought up easily to call them or send them a message. Sigmund Freud did not see this part of the mind as having as much of a direct impact on behavior as either the unconscious or the conscious mind.

Conscientiousness: one of the Big Five personality traits from the work of Costa & McRae (based on many other personality theories, including the work of Carl Jung). Like all personality traits, this is measured on a continuum from high to low. It reflects your internal motivation, organization, and reliability. A person scoring high on conscientiousness is the kind of person that the boss can give a very important client to and walk away with the confidence that the employee will do a stellar job and hand it in on time. This person reliably comes in on time, turns in consistent work, and their thoughts and work space are organized and orderly. A person scoring low on conscientiousness is not very predictable. They may come in to work early or late at times. They are not strictly organized, yet they may claim that "there is a method to their madness" in their work. They are less conventional in their results, sometimes producing work that is amazing and creative, but also sometimes producing poor-quality work. This is the type of employee that confounds the boss because the boss never knows if the work turned in will be spectacular or sub par and the boss may feel the need to watch over the employee's shoulder to keep them on task, otherwise the employee could become too distracted to complete the work.

The other Big Five personality traits are Openness to New Experiences, Neuroticism, Extraversion, and Agreeableness. Look for a future post on Neuroticism, as it is often confused with psychological disorders, specifically anxiety disorders.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Masculine, Feminine, Androdynous & Sexual Orientation

Continuing the previous post on gender and sex and how we are identifies, I though I would tackle the personality side of the issue. Oftentimes people are classified by others based on their behaviors more than their actual biology. This is an important aspect of our social nature, as behavior is all we can really see on the outset of things. The rest is all inferred from there. Sometimes the inferences are wrong, though. So, let's take a look at personality from a gender perspective.
Sandra Bem is the main researcher to credit here. I highly recommend looking up her work for more details beyond my explanations in this relatively limited post.

Masculine: in essence this is what we think it means to be male. It is often used synonymously with maleness or anti-feminine. It is a personality term encompassing a variety of characteristics and traits that our western, androcentric, society typically assigns to male humans. Among these traits are (from a version of Bem's androgyny scale):
  • self-reliant
  • defends own beliefs
  • independent
  • athletic
  • assertive
  • strong personality
  • forceful
  • analytical
  • has leadership abilities
  • willing to take risks
  • makes decisions easily
  •  dominant
  • masculine
  • willing to take a stand
  • self-sufficient
  • aggressive
  • acts as a leader
  • individualistic
  • competitive
  • ambitious
You can probably see a pattern here. In most western societies, it is considered masculine to be dominant and forceful, defensive and aggressive, and an individualistic independent leader. Students of personality psychology can probably identify other personality theories mapped on to this idea, though those theories did not see personality through a gendered lens. Perhaps that's why The Big Five theory is so enduring. But I digress.

Feminine: in essence this is what we think it means to be female. It is often used as a direct antonym for masculine and is typically thought of as inferior between the two, even for females. Again, this is primarily in the androcentric western cultures. Among these traits (from the same version of Bem's androgyny scale):
  • yielding
  • cheerful
  • shy
  • affectionate
  • flatterable
  • loyal
  • feminine
  • sympathetic
  • sensitive to the needs of others
  • understanding
  • compassionate
  • eager to soothe hurt feelings
  • soft-spoken
  • warm
  • tender
  • gullible
  • childlike
  • does not use harsh language
  • loves children
  • gentle
Again, I bet you can see a pattern here. This list tends to emphasize the nurturing, submissive expectations placed on womanhood. Also notice that there seem to be a couple more descriptive phrases instead of single word traits in this list. Typically, these tend to be seen as lesser characteristics on the desirability scale.

To be complete, the other third of this particular scale is made up of gender-neutral terms that can be applied to either a male or a female.
  • helpful
  • moody
  • conscientious
  • theatrical
  • happy
  • unpredictable
  • reliable
  • jealous
  • truthful
  • secretive
  • sincere
  • conceited
  • likable
  • solemn
  • friendly
  • inefficient
  • adaptable
  • unsystematic
  • tactful
  • conventional
Feel free to argue the inclusion of any particular word from any list to generate your own masculine/feminine/neutral scale. My point is still made, however. When it comes to behaviors and personality characteristics, we have certain expectations for each of the genders. Once an individual is identified as a male or a female, we expect them to also fit the prescribed personality typology. So what happens when someone has strong characteristics from BOTH the masculine and the feminine? Well, this is what we call androgyny.

Androgynous: having high levels of many masculine traits, along with high levels of many feminine personality traits. The androgynous individual tends to be more adaptable to the slings and arrows, the trials and tribulations that life throws around. Why? Well, the idea is that they pull from their known resources of independence and understanding in order to foster greater social support networks and a willingness to roll up the sleeves and get down to work.

Okay, what happens if you are low on all these characteristics? In other words, what do we call your personality if you have neither masculine nor feminine traits? This is known as undifferentiated.

Undifferentiated: An individual who shows low levels of masculine traits, coupled with low levels of feminine traits. This person is usually not thought of along gender lines due to the fact that their behavior does not typically fit any expectations for either gender.

Cross-gendered: an individual who shows high levels of personality characteristics from the opposite gender and low levels of personality characteristics from their own level. For example, a cross-gendered male would be male in sex, male in gender (identifies himself as male), and yet exhibit mostly feminine traits, such as being affectionate and tender and yielding, while not exhibiting very many masculine traits. In my experience, I have come across more cross-gendered females than cross-gendered males. Part of this is due to the fact that an androcentric society values male characteristics over female characteristics, so we discourage our boys from crossing over but accept our girls for doing so. After all, what parent does not want a strong and independent child with leadership potential?

Okay, does personality affect sexual orientation? Absolutely not necessarily. Remember (from my previous post), sexual orientation is a matter of who draws you romantically, emotionally, and physically/sexually. Your personality does not necessarily affect your gender identity, either. You can have a male who is feminine in his behaviors who happens to be attracted to females. He would still be heterosexual, albeit one who would often be questioned because he doesn't fit standard expectations. The same thing goes for masculine females. Not every woman who is strong and forceful is a "butch lesbian" in nature. She may simply naturally behave in a way we expect most males to behave, forgoing expected feminine behaviors, and yet be attracted to males. Androgynous is NOT synonymous with bisexuality, either. Having personality traits and exhibiting behaviors from both genders does not automatically mean that you are attracted to both genders. Sexual orientation is a separate issue from personality typology.

This may be the last I post on this subject for a while, unless I receive comments or requests to the contrary. There is still much to explore or clarify, I'm sure, but I hope this is a good start for many who may have been confused.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Sex, Gender, Sexual Orientation

There is quite possibly nothing more confusing, and yet so many people think they know all there is to know, as the topic of sex. Much like the human brain, sex is something that is relatively simple, at yet extremely complex at the same time, especially when you through a psychologist at the subject. Let's start by taking apart some of the terms, and then perhaps complicating the issue slowly. This may end up being the beginning of a series of blog posts, or just a REALLY long one. Either way, it's time to begin.

Sex: from a relationship perspective, this is an activity that takes place between, usually, two, preferably consenting, adults. Many people hear the word sex and envision some act of copulation that runs the gamut from mundane missionary coitus to kinky to erotica and any point in between. Sex in this respect is one of those topics that we try the hardest in many modern societies, despite many movements to the contrary, to keep hidden and mysterious from the "innocents" (mostly children). but "sex" also has another meaning.

Sex: the biological characteristics of being male or female. The genotypes XX (female) and XY (male). The physical appearances of primary and secondary sex characteristics that tells the rest of the world what Nature decided you were supposed to be. When you fill out a demographic survey and they ask for "sex," they are asking about this feature, not whether you've been recently active in the boudoir.

Gender: the psychological and social properties of being male or female. On the surface, sex and gender seem to be the exact same thing. For the majority of the population, they are the same. Most individuals classify themselves as either male or female and this personal classification matches with societal expectations and the person's biological make-up. For a small percentage, however, their sex and gender are not aligned. There are cases in which a person feels they were "born into the wrong body" or that "nature made a mistake" when it assigned their sex. These individuals have the potential to become transgender.

Transgender: an individual whose biological sex does not coincide with their psychological gender and who subsequently, through medical therapies and/or surgery, corrects this miss-match  by changing the physical biological sex to the gender. In other words, a biological male becoming a biological female to match her gender identity as a female or a biological female becoming a biological male to match his gender identity as a male. A transgender should not be confused with a transvestite, however.

Transvestite: an individual who becomes aroused and/or can only achieve orgasm when wearing clothing intended for the opposite sex. Most transvestites are well aware and comfortable with their gender identity as male or female. They simply show a preference for masculine (if they are a female) or feminine (if they are a male) clothing when involved in sex. This should not be confused with a cross-dresser.

Cross-dresser: an individual who wears the clothes of the opposite sex for, primarily, comfort reasons. Some males simply feel that female clothing is more comfortable and they would much rather wear a skirt than a pair of pants. Our society, unfortunately, shuns this form of fashion and many cross-dressers feel the need to hide their preference because it is considered abnormal. Unless there is any sexual arousal involved with the cross-dressing, that's all it is--dressing across gender lines. In modern society, primarily western and American culture (these are what I am most familiar with), it is more acceptable for a woman to cross-dress in male clothing than for a man to cross-dress in female clothing. Personally, I could be considered the occasional cross-dresser, as I find some of my husband's shirts to be more comfortable than the tighter, form-fitting styles meant for most women. I even had a few pairs of "boys" jeans and jean shorts when I was younger because I liked the fit better than the "girl" equivalents. Cross-dressing does not usually lead to transvestism or transgendered individuals, although it could be a precursor.

Now, here's where things can start to get confusing. So many people start to mix gender with sexual orientation. Sexual orientation relates to one's attraction, physically and romantically and erotically, to an individual based on that other individual's gender/sex. Labeling of one's sexual orientation is partially dependent upon one's own gender and the gender of one's love interest.

Heterosexual: being attracted (emotionally, romantically, physically, erotically, sexually, etc.) to someone of the opposite sex/gender. That means that if your sex is male and your gender is male and you are attracted to primarily females, then you are a heterosexual male. If your sex is female and your gender is female and you are attracted to primarily males, then you are a heterosexual female. [Note: I use the word "primarily" in deference to the ideas of Kinsey, who postulated that very rarely is an individual exclusively heterosexual or homosexual.]

Homosexual: being attracted (etc. as stated above) to someone of the same sex/gender. That means that if your sex is male and your gender is male and you are primarily attracted to males, then you are a homosexual male. If your sex is female and your gender is female and you are primarily attracted to females, then you are a homosexual female.

Bisexual: being attracted (as stated above in the etc.) to someone regardless of gender/sex. A bisexual tends to be pulled, throughout their lives, almost equally by both males and females. In this case, one's own gender and sex does not particularly affect the classification, as there is mutual attraction to both sexes anyway.

Now, it is possible to have an individual's gender and sexual orientation to require a more complex examination in order to determine actual sexual orientation. Consider the case of the "male lesbian," for example. This would be an individual whose sex (biology) is male, but whose gender (psychological identification) is female, who is attracted to females. On the surface, this individual might be considered a heterosexual male. However, because one's gender is more important to psychologists in determining how one is identified, the homosexual orientation is actually more accurate. In true technicalities, this person is not actually a "male lesbian," but rather a (potential) transgender homosexual female.

If you've come this far and your head has not exploded, then I congratulate you for your efforts to understand. I will leave you here, hopefully with much food for thought and a little more understanding of what I did warn you was an incredibly complex topic. I will continue this topic, in a subsequent blog post, with the concepts of one's personality as defined along gender lines (masculine, feminine, androgynous, undifferentiated). Needless to say, any time we talk about one's gender or sex it conjures up a world of complexity that is too often muddled via attempts to oversimplify and stereotype things.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Sociopath vs. Psychopath

This post is actually coming from a direct question from a student in one of my classes. I felt I didn't answer her as best I could, so I thought I would take the time, after gathering my thoughts correctly, to put this topic to rest. First of all, "sociopath" is an actual psychological term used my clinical psychologists, whereas psychopath is not.

Sociopath: the more common label for an individual with antisocial personality disorder (see post on ANTISOCIAL). This is an individual who acts with no conscience. While most people think of serial killers and the sick, twisted individuals portrayed on shows such as Criminal Minds or and of the Law and Order franchises, they are not necessarily homicidal. Most sociopaths are simply extremely selfish--Freud might say they were almost 100% id-driven. They have a tendency to say and do whatever they want without a care for the impact on others. They may borrow or steal money without batting an eye. They may injure someone and not think twice about it. They may impose their will and/or bully someone else into submission for their own convenience. Yes, they may resort to killing and/or torture for the pleasure it brings them, but this type of behavior represents only a small proportion of the sociopaths out there.

Psychopath: using the term psychopathology as a springboard, a psychopath is just a person who exhibits abnormal behavior of any kind. Psychopathology is the study of abnormal behavior. This can include any type of psychological disorder (anxiety disorders, mood disorders, psychotic disorders, dissociative disorders, etc.) or even just someone who "acts weird" in comparison to a subset of the population, such as someone who dresses differently or has an odd way of speaking. Popular media would have you believe that all psychopaths are homicidal as well, but this simply isn't the case. In fact, much like the term "insanity," psychopath is more an invention of culture than an actual scientific, psychological term. The majority of behaviors that fall under psychopathology are actually self-inflicting harmful behaviors. Individual psychopaths very rarely represent harm to others. The greatest chance of being hurt by a psychopath is either a schizophrenic currently experiencing a psychotic episode that incorporates others in some form of delusion or hallucination, or a sociopath with homicidal tendencies, as mentioned above.

That brings me to a "bonus" term for this entry--psychotic.

A psychotic disorder is one in which an individual has a break with the shared view of reality. Organic psychoses such as dementia are caused when parts of the brain begin to deteriorate, leading to malfunctioning of reason and a person's difficulty with sorting out fact from fiction. In the case of schizophrenia (this is NOT multiple personalities!), the individual may suffer from hallucinations--inaccurate or false sensations and perceptions--and/or delusions--false beliefs that are held even in spite of evidence to the contrary. There are other symptoms such as disordered speech patterns, personality disintegration, and disorganized emotional responses that can be found in some forms of schizophrenia. Unlike a sociopath (or antisocial personality disorder), however, most schizophrenics generally do not pose a direct intentional threat to others around them. In fact, they do not live the majority of their lives in one solid state of a psychotic episode, but rather, tend to experience moments to true lucidity between psychotic episodes, especially when under the care of a physician with medical treatment. While schizophrenia is one of the most severe psychological disorders, the actual percentage of the population who can be diagnosed with it is extremely small. In addition, medical and psychological science has come a long way in helping individuals with the disorder control some of the more severe symptoms so that they are able to function in "normal" society on a day-to-day basis.

Friday, June 15, 2012


How many times were you told to "behave" by your parents or teachers? How many times did you use the same or similar phrase with someone else? The funny thing is, no matter what a child is doing he or she is behaving.

Behave: to do something. EVERYTHING you do is a behavior. Thinking, sleeping, dreaming, screaming, sitting--if you can use it in a sentence as a verb of some sort, then it is behaving. As such, behaviors are observed, measured, described, explained, predicted, controlled by psychologists of every fashion. Our whole science hinges on overt (readily observable) behaviors and covert (not readily observed and often inferred) behaviors. To us, everything a human can conceive of, even thinking and emoting, is a behavior subject to study and potential control--especially for the behaviorists.

So, any time a parent tells their child to behave, I cringe a little and the snark in me wants to inform them that the child is behaving, albeit perhaps not in the way desired. Instead of telling your child to behave, try giving them specific directions. Even "behave well" or "behave better" gives a smidgen more direction that simply "behave yourself." Giving children, or any human for that matter, such vague directions leads to a myriad of miscommunication and misinterpretation, which leads to frustration and upset.

Do yourself and others a favor and instead of demanding that someone "behave" themselves, give them specific desirable behaviors to achieve. You can even give specific behaviors to reduce or avoid. Even Dr. Tess Coleman's (Disney's remake of Freaky Friday) edict to her daughter to "make good choices" is better than "behave."

Friday, June 8, 2012


Let us begin with what discipline is NOT. It is not beating the stuffing out of your kid. It is not molding your children (or employees) into mindless robot drones who obey any and all commands without question to the point that they no longer think for themselves. Discipline is not punishment--it includes potential punishment, but also reinforcement, rules, guidelines, consequences.

Discipline is a SYSTEM. Every parent, from the authoritarian to the overly permissive, has a discipline system in place. Some systems are more effective than others, sometimes the effectiveness is dependent more upon the child than the system itself. As a system, discipline is neither inherently "bad" or "good." It is effectively neutral. The resulting behaviors [see a future blog post on BEHAVIOR/BEHAVE] can be interpreted with these affective labels, but the system itself should be seen as either effective--does it accomplish the goals it was designed for--or ineffective--does it fall short of expectations. As a system, many parents and teachers and bosses (and anyone else in a position of authority over another person or animal) choose to use both punishment and reinforcement to direct (or guide) behavior. Let us clarify these terms now. But first, the word "consequence" needs to be defined for you so that you understand the rest of this post.

Consequence is anything that follows an action (i.e. behavior). Consequences never come before a child acts. If you yell at your child before he/she hits their sibling, then you are employing an antecedent. These are used for classical conditioning and are mostly effective for reflexes, but not for conscious or voluntary behaviors. So, I will focus on consequences for the duration of the explanation of "discipline" as a system.

Punishment: this is a consequence that results in the reduction or cessation of a behavior. If yelling at a child when they spill something leads to that child never spilling again or reducing the frequency of spilling, then you have instituted a punishment. If you remove a toy from a child when they argue with their sibling and they stop arguing, then you have used punishment.

Reinforcement: this is a consequence that results in the repetition or increased frequency of a behavior. If thanking a child for cleaning up their mess results in them cleaning up more messes, then you have used a reinforcement. If you hug a child when they are sad and they come to you more often for hugs when they are sad, then you have reinforced the behavior (not sadness, but seeking your comfort when sad).

Important Note: These consequences--punishment and reinforcement--are defined by the individual receiving the consequence, NOT by the person doling them out. For example, if you yell at your child for spilling their drink and you find them spilling liquids much more frequently, then you have actually reinforced the spilling behavior. There is something about your yelling that the child desires, hence they will continue to behave in such a way that will allow them to receive more yelling. If you give your child candy for cleaning their room and they stop cleaning their room, then you have actually punished them. Perhaps you should ask them if they like the candy.

Now, as a teacher I don't like to leave things incomplete if I can help it. However, the complete ideas of punishment and reinforcement as discovered by B.F. Skinner and other behaviorists is a little more complex. Included in this area of psychology are positive punishment (giving something to the person that they do not like so that they won't repeat the behavior), negative punishment (taking something away from the person that they like so that they won't repeat the behavior), positive reinforcement (giving something to the person that they do like so that they will repeat the behavior), and negative reinforcement (removing something from the person that they do not like so that they continue the behavior). There are also ideas of schedules of reinforcement (fixed interval, variable interval, fixed ratio, variable ratio, continuous) as well as types of reinforcers (primary, secondary, and social). Anyone who has ever taken a well-taught introductory general psychology class or a class on behaviorism or learning and conditioning will know more of these details. If you haven't, then pick up a psychology textbook and peruse the chapter on learning.

When you "discipline" your child or your employee or your student or anyone else, you are shaping behavior, not merely punishing them. Incidentally, decades of research has found that reinforcement of wanted behaviors is much more effective in shaping behavior than punishment of undesirable behaviors. And, if you do choose punishment as part of your disciplinary system, then you really need to 1) explain why that behavior is being punished so that it can be avoided in the future and 2) let the individual know an alternative, acceptable behavior that they can pursue to replace the undesirable one. Otherwise, a person ends up with a gigantic list of "don't" and has no idea what the "do" might be. Another key component to any discipline system is consistency. Without consistency people will not know what you expect from them and life will become one big dice game that is completely unpredictable.