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.