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.