Friday, November 15, 2013

Trying to Make Sense of Events

Human beings have a natural desire to make sense out of their otherwise chaotic world. One of the tools we use is attribution. Attribution is a mental process we use to assign causation factors to events and/or behaviors that we witness. We want to know why something happens and if we don't get a direct answer, then we come up with one.

Internal attribution: otherwise known as a dispositional attribution; purports that the cause behind a behavior or event is due to some personal qualification of the individual involved. For example, "Carl got a promotion because he is a dedicated hard worker who deserved the recognition." Or, "Pete got into a car wreck because he's a horrible driver and didn't pay attention to the road." In both instances, we are assuming that the individual is to "blame" for the resulting events.

External attribution: otherwise known as a situational attribution; proposes that the cause behind a behavior or event is due to some factor (usually environmental) outside of the direct control of the individual involved. For example: "Mrs. Petrov got lucky when her lottery numbers came up. She didn't really deserve the money." Or, "Amanda got into a car accident because her brakes failed (or the road was slippery)." In these instances, we assume that the individual had very little control over the results and should not be blamed or praised for their turn of fortune, as they had nothing to do with it.

Fundamental Attribution Error: making attributions that help us maintain the idea that "good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people" so that we can keep our ego integrity intact. Unfortunately, most general psychology textbooks only include half of the full fundamental attribution error. Even educational videos on the subject are missing part of the story. Here is the way the error works in whole.
  • For positive events (promotions, winnings, etc.), we tend to make an internal attribution for ourselves (sometimes for close personal relations that we like, such as family and friends) and external attributions for others. For example: if you and a coworker both received a raise, you might--using the fundamental attribution error--assume that you got the promotion because you deserved it for all your hard work, but your coworker (especially if you don't like them) was in the right place at the right time (slept their way to the top, was just lucky, etc.), and didn't really get it for their merit because you don't think they really had any. Your straight As came from you studying your days and nights away instead of having fun. That other kid's As came because the teacher is friends with his parents.
  • For negative events (disasters, loss, accidents, etc.), we tend to make an external attribution for ourselves and the people we like and internal attributions for others. For example: if a hurricane knocked out your house, it was a freak accident of nature, an act of God that had nothing to do with you. However, if your annoying neighbor's house was hit by the hurricane, you may infer that he/she was a wicked person being punished for their wrongful ways of life. Your car accident was caused by an obstruction in the road--you didn't see the stop sign because a tree branch was in the way. That other guy's accident was due to him being a drunk who was too stupid to pay attention to what he was doing.
Defensive Attribution: blaming the victim. This is actually another illustration of the fundamental attribution error--the negative events half. We have a great tendency to blame a victim for the crimes committed against him/her. The majority of the time, when a person is raped (and yes, men can be rape victims and women can be rapists) we like to ask if they might not have done something to provoke it. Maybe she was wearing provocative clothing. Maybe he was "asking for it" by leading the other person to believe that he really "wanted" it. Why do we do this? Again, we have a basic need to keep our ideas of the universe intact, even if they border on the delusional. We want to believe that bad things happen to bad people. We want to believe that we are good people. Therefore, we could not possibly be a victim because that would mean we are bad people and we know that's not the case. As a result, we want to believe that the victim must have done something bad to bring about their circumstances. Otherwise, our simplistic causal view of the universe makes no sense and we have to think too hard about real causes of behaviors and events.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am not advocating this fundamental attribution error, nor am I trying to insinuate that people use it all the time. It is called "fundamental" because it is almost instinctive in nature and almost every person who has ever witnessed a crying child, yelling parent, slow or fast driver, annoying customer or cashier, has at one point in time applied it. We know we are unique and special as individuals and the best way to keep that in our minds is to recognize others as being similar to the average crowd member. Research over the years has shown that some people are more inclined to make the fundamental attribution error more often (individualistic cultures, older individuals, for example) and some people are less inclined to use it because they have a tendency to think differently (collectivist cultures, individuals who tend to take extra time before making judgments or who have experienced the same events themselves, for example).

The best way to break out of the fundamental attribution error is to take the time to hypothesis the possible explanations for events. For example, the next time you see a kid crying in a store, instead of jumping to the conclusion that they are a spoiled brat or the parents are awful people, try to think about why the kid might be crying. Maybe it's been a really long day and they need a nap. Maybe mom or dad is stressed and tired and zoned out, so after trying to get their attention for the past 10 minutes the kid finally started crying because they didn't know what else to do. Maybe the kid was hurt in some way that you couldn't see. When you take time to try to understand other people and make environmental observations, you are less likely to make the fundamental attribution error for either the positive or negative events. But that's the key there: it takes effort to break out of those patterns.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

What Defines an Obsession?

It never ceases to amaze, amuse, frustrate, and sadden me when someone seems to want to have obsessive-compulsive disorder. Why is it so popular? What is it about the psychological disorder that seems so "cool" that everyone wants to claim a piece of it? Perhaps the media attention makes it not only more acceptable for those individuals who actually suffer from this anxiety disorder, but also makes it attractive to everyone else.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a very real anxiety disorder that can be diagnosed by a trained psychiatrist or clinical psychologist. It has two major components, obsessions and compulsions (thus its nomenclature).

Obsession: recurring thought (or thoughts) that a person cannot seem to rid themselves of, despite their best efforts and desires to do so. This word gets thrown around a lot, especially by people who are fans of things or celebrities or people accusing others of spending too much time thinking about a particular subject (or person). A true obsession, in the clinical sense, is an intruding thought that a person does not will into existence. This thought usually revolves around some form of anxiety--worry, fear, concern, etc.--that underlies a person's life. The obsession invades their thoughts until it becomes difficult to deal with anything else in life. Enter the compulsion.

Compulsion: irrational, ritualistic behavior (or behaviors) in which a person engages in order to eliminate or keep at bay the obsessive thoughts. The key here is irrational. People can be organized and ritualistic in a logical sense. It becomes a compulsion if they feel they cannot help themselves, if avoiding the behavior seems to lead to an increase in anxiety levels. It is also clinically maladaptive if the compulsive behavior hampers a person's ability to eat, sleep, work, play, or interact socially with others. Compulsive behavior is NOT merely being overly conscientious.

Conscientiousness: the care a person gives to organization and thoughtfulness of others. Individuals who rate high on this personality trait tend to be organized, reliable, neat, ambitious, and dependable. High conscientiousness is not necessarily a sign of a clinical obsessive compulsive disorder. Nor does it make a person more susceptible to develop such a disorder. Neuroticism is the personality trait more likely to be a potential predictor of such a phenomenon, though any research that might have been conducted in this area has not been conclusive.

For those individuals who do suffer from a legitimate obsessive-compulsive disorder, they typically fall into one (or sometimes more) of the following 4 categories:

Obsessions and checking. This classification of OCD involves obsessive thoughts primarily focused on lack of self-confidence in one's memory and their concern for safety. As a result, the disordered compulsive behavior tries to alleviate these thoughts. For example, you may have a person who gets up several times during the night to make sure they locked their doors or turned off their stove.

Symmetry and order. The obsessive thoughts of this classification typically, though not always, revolve around a person's desire/need/conditioning to create strict order because chaos is too much for them to handle. These individuals tend to be extremely strict in their personal routines, sometimes (but not always) expecting others to adhere to the same strictures. They also make extreme efforts to organize their personal possessions in a way that makes sense to themselves, though it may seem illogical to others. The symmetry is so important to them that any deviation creates extreme anxiety and fear of invading chaos. Yes, it may sound like they are "fun to mess with," but that is a very inhumane way to treat these individuals.

Cleaning and washing. This is quite possibly the most commonly illustrated or known form of OCD, thanks in part to cases such as Howard Hughes. For these individuals, the obsessive thoughts usually involve the fear of invading germs and the concern that they will be seen as unclean. It can have religious or cultural roots, as well as parental influences. It can also be an extreme reaction to an adverse experience at some point in a person's earlier life. Regardless, this category of OCD usually finds the individual spending an excessive amount of their time cleaning themselves and their environment. Things do not necessarily have to be organized as long as they are sanitary. There have been extreme cases in which individuals have been hospitalized because they washed their hands and arms so much they scrubbed off almost all the layers of skin. Other extreme cases have been reported of an individual suffering adverse side effects from overuse of cleaning chemicals.

Hoarding. Perhaps the form of OCD that has gotten the most attention in recent years, thanks to so many "reality" shows, is hoarding. The obsessive thoughts of this category typically come from a concern that a person will not have what they need when they need it. The obsession may also be a desire to "fill a hole" somewhere with particular possessions instead of social interaction. With these thoughts invading a person's mind, the compulsive acts tend to be collecting, purchasing, and refusing to get rid of items. Do not confuse hoarding with collecting. There can be a healthy amount of obtaining certain items and displaying them without going overboard. Hoarding oftentimes starts off innocently enough, as well. For example, perhaps a person goes on vacation and forgets their sunglasses, so they buy a new pair. They then leave that pair in their luggage and find they need a pair in their car for driving, so they purchase another pair. With enough forgetting and purchasing, it could become a conditioned response in which the person buys a pair of sunglasses almost every time they enter a store because they are afraid that they will not have them when they are needed.

It is possible for an individual to suffer from multiple forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Perhaps a person has obsessions about chaos and germs, as well as a fear of not having the supplies on hand to combat these. In this case, you have a hoarding symmetrical washer who collects, and organizes, cleaning supplies and spends the rest of their time cleaning their environment, with little time left for the regular functions of a psychologically healthy lifestyle.

OCD is not a "fad", nor is it a cool badge to wear to make you special. It is a true anxiety disorder that hampers an individual's ability to live a healthy, happy, productive life. It can be treated with various methods, depending upon the roots of the disorder and the category from which a person suffers.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Histrionic Personality Disorder

Remember when your parents would tell you that some kid was acting up just because they wanted attention? Well, it is possible that they could have been right. There is a relatively rare personality disorder in which the primary motivation for all behaviors, positive and negative, is to gain the attention of others.

Personality disorder: disorder in which a person adopts a persistent, rigid, and maladaptive pattern of behavior that interferes with normal social interactions. There are 10 listed personality disorders in the DSM-IV-TR, 7 of which made the list in the DSM-V. In the DSM-IV-TR, the personality disorders are broken down into three basic categories, or clusters. Cluster A is the odd or eccentric types, usually seen as "weird" by others. This includes the paranoid, schizoid, and schizotypal personality disorders. Cluster B includes the dramatic or erratic types, typically individuals who tend to over (or under) react to things. Within this category are the antisocial, borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic personality disorders. Cluster C is known as the anxious or fearful category. Individuals fall into this grouping when their main emotional response seems to be an over abundance of caution, fear, and/or anxiety. Found in this group are the avoidant, dependent, and obsessive-compulsive (not to be confused with obsessive-compulsive disorder, an anxiety disorder) personality disorders.

Histrionic Personality Disorder: characterized by a tendency to overreact and use excessive emotions to draw attention from and manipulate others. This individual thoroughly enjoys being the center of attention. However, unlike the narcissistic personality disorder, histrionic individuals do not care if the attention is positive or negative, so long as they are in the midst of it. Individuals with this type of personality disorder have a tendency to "make a mountain out of a mole-hill" and are sometimes referred to by others as "drama queens/kings." Attitudes may change rapidly, along with moods, and great pleasure is derived from shocking others with their behaviors, appearances, and/or opinions. It is not uncommon for someone with a histrionic personality disorder to dress completely inappropriately for the social situation (e.g. a young woman wearing a low-cut, provocative dress that shows off as much as legally possible to a funeral) or to attempt to pick a fight (verbal or physical) with someone if they are not already the center of attention. When one situation is "milked" for all it can be--friends get tired of praising them for their promotion or congratulating them on their new boyfriend/girlfriend--these individuals may manufacture another situation in order to regain the center of attention. They might quit their job, complain about some real or imagined hardship, use another person's dilemma to their own advantage (e.g. "feel sorry for me because my cousin's dog was run over"), force a break-up with their significant other in order to generate sympathy, get a piercing or tattoo in order to elicit comments from others, or make shocking statements to see how others respond. Fishing for compliments is also a common behavior for these individuals.

The root cause of histrionic personality disorder is not fully understood. Some theorists suggest that a mismatch between the child's character and the parenting style with which they were raised could be the culprit. Some suggest that there is a genetic link, as this type of maladaptive behavior sometimes runs in families. Others theorize that the children picked up the behaviors from their parents or others who may have had the same disorder. Still others suggest that the children did not receive the right amount of attention that they needed, and thus lash out for any kind they can get as adults.

As with other personality disorders, it is not always easy to identify behaviors as disordered, unless you have more exposure to the individual and detect significant patterns. It is also highly unlikely that the individual will see anything wrong or maladaptive with their behavior, assuming the rest of the world needs to change, not themselves. This is what makes treating personality disorders so difficult. A key component to the success of all psychotherapy is the desire on the part of the client/patient to want to change.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Psychology IS a Science

My daughter is working on a science fair experiment that happens to coincide with some psychological principles. She is studying the effects of video game play on memory. It is an elementary experiment that was intended to teach the kids the fundamentals of scientific research. Unfortunately, it appears that they have not been given the truth about the basics of the scientific method.

Before you turn your "ears" off because "psychology is not a science" or some other related prejudicial thought enters your mind, hear me out first. Psychology is, indeed, a science built upon empiricist ideals. We use the full scientific method to gather the data we collect and analyze to better our understanding of the world. Yes, early psychological "facts" did arise from somewhat questionable techniques--insight, introspection, philosophical debate. However, today's psychologist is trained in the full scientific method and no psychological research paper, journal article, book is professionally published without a peer review to ensure that the science is sound. I will acknowledge that there are a lot of "pop psychology" books filled with nonsense (too many self-help books fall into this category) and advice, none of them based on solid scientific research. This is why it is so difficult for professionals to educate the public. It is an uphill battle because we use data to back up our writing, not empty platitudes that do not stand up to logical analysis.

Butt getting back to my point, the scientific method involves 5 basic steps. 1) Ask a question. 2) Propose a hypothesis that provides an answer to that question. 3) Test your hypothesis with a valid research method. 4) Analyze your results. 5) Report your results (and your methods) so that others may be able to corroborate your findings and grow the body of knowledge in this area.

1) Asking the question is easy. We have all asked these questions before. Why are girls more sociable than boys? When do babies recognize their names? At what age is a child more influenced by what they see on television? How can I improve my memory for names and faces? I'm sure the average person wonders about something in the realm of human behavior at least once a week.

2) Hypothesis: an "educated guess" that is a) directional, b) testable, and c) measurable. A good hypothesis will identify the independent and dependent variables, as well as the different groups being studied. For example: Children between the ages of 2 years old and 4 years old are more likely to imitate the actions of similar-aged characters they see on television than children older than 5 years of age. Let me define some more terms before I explain.

Variable: anything that can change and/or has different levels or conditions under the same categorical label. Gender, for example, has two different conditions--male and female. While you cannot directly manipulate a person's gender--you cannot expect a subject to simply switch their gender instantaneously--it is sometimes considered an independent variable if no other manipulations are made. Gender, age, ethnicity, and other demographic variables are subject variables, sometimes called quasi-variables, because they cannot be manipulated, though they may be used to separate subjects and categorize data.

Independent variable: the condition (variable) that is manipulated or changed at the beginning of a study. Usually in an experiment there are at least 2 different levels of an independent variable, it is there or it is absent, such as in the case of a placebo/medication experiment. The independent variable would be the pill the subjects receive. Some receive the placebo, some receive the medication. In other experiments, the independent variable can have several levels. If you were studying the effects of sleep deprivation, you might have several experimental groups, each with different amounts of deprivation assigned to them, and the control group that receives no deprivation.

Dependent variable: the condition (variable) that is measured after the manipulations have occurred. The dependent variable is what you really care about in a scientific study. With a standard hypothesis you hope to find some kind of difference in this variable between the groups.

Experimental group: This is the group of subjects who are treated to some form of manipulation in regards to the independent variable. If your independent variable has multiple levels, then you will have multiple experimental groups.

Control group: this is the baseline group of subjects. Aside from participating in a research study, no changes are made to this group of subjects so that any differences in the dependent variable found between the experimental and control groups can be attributed with greater certainty to the manipulation made for the experimental group. You will always have only one control group.

Let's get back to my hypothesis example. Children between the ages of 2 years old and 4 years old are more likely to imitate the actions of similar-aged characters they see on television than children older than 5 years of age. This is directional because it includes the phrase "more likely than." Comparison phrases identify the expected differences you hope to find. It is testable. We can show several children of various age groups television shows that include characters of their age own age groups. We can even complicate our experiment by showing children characters of varying age groups, since we did mention "similar-aged characters" in the hypothesis. We could then allow the children to play for a specified amount of time and record the number of behaviors that were similar to the ones seen in the shows. This indicates the measurable nature of the statement, as well.

3) Test your hypothesis with a valid research method. Many scientists, psychologists included, strive for experimental research designs. The controlled experiment is really the best way we have to identify causation, the holy grail of research. Sometimes an experimental manipulation is not practical or ethical, however. Surveys, naturalistic observation, laboratory observation, and case studies all offer valuable information, but it is primarily correlational in nature. This post is getting lengthy even by my standards, so I will have to address the idea of correlation in another entry.

4) Analyze your results. Most psychologists plug their data into statistical software packages to run the numbers for them, allowing them to quantify behaviors in a way that is presentable. In some cases, such as with non-quantifiable information, a "trend analysis" may be used to summarize the general impressions discovered during the research project.

5) Report your results. For the academic and research professional this is accomplished through publishing in various journals or, in the case of a large body of work collected over a career, in books. For others, especially students, smaller papers or articles, or even presentations are the means through which your work is shared with others.

Some words of advice: Keep your individual studies simple! The more independent, dependent, and subject variables you try to measure and manipulate in a single study, the more complicated your statistics are going to have to be. It will also make it more difficult to sift through the meaning of your data. Manipulating only one variable at a time will help you better control for possible confounds (external factors or unaccounted variables that may have an impact on your dependent variables, even though you may not have controlled for it). If you feel that other factors may affect your dependent variable, then you run additional studies with these factors as the new independent variables. This is how the science is grown without muddying up the waters. This is also how others can study the same topics but still provide valuable information that allows us to paint a much more complete picture.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Confusion about Developmental Age Groups

I will admit that a lot of the confusion alluded to in the title of this post is most likely on my part due to the fact that I look at developmental "age" groups from a psychological standpoint. One of the first classes I taught was a human development class, so any time someone uses the term "young adult," I automatically begin to think in terms of the delineations agreed upon by most developmental psychologists. Unfortunately, these distinctions are apparently not universally recognized by every industry that uses these labels, especially publishing, thus my frustration and confusion. Below are the defined and designated development age groups, as used by developmental psychologists. I am referring to the chronological age only. Each age group is differentiated from the others not arbitrarily, but as a result of years of research indicating a significant difference in the quality (and sometimes quantity) of advancement in each of 4 areas: physical, cognitive, personality, and social development.

Prenatal period: conception (when the ovum and sperm united and the cell begins to grow and divide) to birth (the end of the gestation period, typically 38-40 weeks from conception, when the child leaves the womb). Although the majority of development that has been studied is in the realm of physical development, psychologists are discovering that some rudimentary social and cognitive, perhaps even personality, development also occurs in the womb.

Infancy: birth (day 1, year 0) to 18 to 24 months (usually around the time the child is completely mobile or walking on their own and begins to acknowledge a world larger than themselves). Again, most of the development known is physical development, primarily because it is the most notable. However, many researchers (including Freud, Piaget, and Erikson) have noted other developmental milestones in this age range in social, cognitive, and personality realms.

Toddlerhood: 18-24 months to 4 years (about the time the child enters a pre-k program in most states in the US). This time period represents additional physical development, especially increased coordination and mastery over the major muscle groups. Cognitively, children begin to expand their understanding and curiosity about the world. They are also evolving socially, recognizing that they might not actually be the center of the universe, as they previously believed. Personality is shaped through social interaction and experimentation with the natural and imaginary worlds.

Middle childhood: ages 5 years to 11 years, or the "elementary school" years. I believe some authors and publishing houses are starting to call this age "mid-grade," but as I am not in publishing, I am uncertain. From a developmental standpoint, children continue to grow physically, though not as much as in the next phase. Also, as their cognitive development progresses, they not only learn new facts, but also begin to understand different viewpoints, which aids in their social and personality development.

Adolescence: Ages 12 years to 19 years, also know as the teen years, or the middle-school/high school years. My limited understanding of the publishing industry has led me to believe that this is the age group tentatively designated as "young adult." If this is correct, then I am completely confused about this misnomer, as Young Adult in developmental psychology is a completely different age group. Developmentally speaking, adolescence represents that last great period of physical growth, culminating in the growth spurt(s) associated with puberty. Cognitive development sees an introduction of the ability to see the world abstractly and hypothetically. Social and personality development are the greatest focus of research for this age group, as these seem to be the areas in which an individual will experience the most significant differences from start to finish.

Young Adulthood: Ages 20 years to (roughly) 39 years, also known as Early Adulthood to some developmentalists. In publishing, it seems as if this is a newer subdivision, known as "New Adult." Again, I'm a psychologist, not an author or publisher, so I am not fully versed in this area. What I do know, from a developmental psychology perspective, is that young adult means the 20s and 30s in life. Individuals reach their peak physical abilities during this time and their cognitive abilities continue to expand and specialize. Not too much research (compared to previous age groups) has been conducted on the social and personality develop during this age, though developmental psychologists are recognizing that this time in one's life does represent certain challenges and expectations that are not seen in previous or subsequent years. However, we see societal influences grow in greater importance during all of the adult years, as variations between individual behaviors and expectations tend to increase between cultures with adult subjects. I think that part of the reason research is more scant from a developmental view is that we take for granted that all "adults" are alike--i.e. have the same expectations placed upon them--once they reach the "magic" stage of adulthood.

Middle Adulthood: Ages 40 years to 60-65 years. I have noticed that publishing seems to treat the rest of adults the same way in that they no longer make any distinctions about age of characters or life situations once the adult threshold has been passed. Developmentally, we see a gradual decline in physical abilities, though cognitive abilities may continue to increase or at least stay static. Social development takes on new meaning as different expectations and roles are faced in this life stage. Personality development is believed to also stay mostly static, yet some minor tweaks may occur if the right experiences come along.

Late Adulthood: Ages 65 years and older. Again, there seems to be no distinction here in the publishing industry. Developmental psychologists study life from the womb to the tomb, however, so they do have an interest in changes that occur as we continue to age further. Despite stereotypes, cognitive abilities reach a plateau (at least fluid intelligence does; crystallized intelligence continues to increase), they do not decline in late adulthood. Physical development continues its decline. This may be more rapid for some and slow for others, depending upon their general health throughout their lifespan. Social development revolves mostly around cultural expectations for individuals at this stage. Some cultures value the wisdom and experience of age, some feel older individuals should be neglected because they have moved beyond their usefulness. Personality development will be greatly influenced by this social development.

My Confusion with Publishing Labels

The beginning of my confusion when it comes to authors and/or publishers trying to label their stories comes from the qualifications necessary to place a story in a particular reading age group. Perhaps someone can answer this for me. What makes the book "mid-grade" or "young adult" or any other age-related designation? Is it that the characters fall within this age group, or that the language is at this cognitive developmental level, or that the subject matter is at this social development level expected in that particular age range? Have publishing houses actually looked at the research to determine that the book is written in the language level appropriate for the cognitive development for the stage, if it is based on comprehension level? If it is based on just the age level of the main characters (or simply the majority of the characters), then there might be quite a few books that may need reconsideration in their age designation. And what happens if the characters progress from one age level to the next? Does some of the series then fall into the next category? I'm sure that would cause some confusion for book stores and libraries, as they have also separated their juvenile (or children's) sections into varying age groups, specifically distinguishing between young adult, juvenile, easy reader, and (sometimes) teen. If the books are placed in a particular designation because of the social developmental level, I wonder if publishing houses have done their homework to determine that the characters are facing appropriate age-related social challenges to garner the distinction given.

I am not trying to reformat the publishing industry. I am pretty sure that if anyone actually reads this post they might take offense at my questions, misinterpreting my purpose. I am truly confused and curious as to how these (to me) sometimes arbitrary age-related labels get slapped onto a book or series. I can tell you from personal experience that it doesn't always guarantee more or fewer readers. Many full-grown adults will read "children's books" if the story is well-written and the characters are personable. I think it is misleading to label something in the hopes of getting a larger audience--much like movie studios do when they vie for a particular rating in order to encourage or discourage a certain population from seeing it. Believe it or not, the public (possibly in error) trusts industries to be honest with them when categorizing their offerings. Placing a book--or a movie, television show, video game--in the wrong category can create unnecessary anxiety, especially for parents who want to make sure that their children are exposed to age-appropriate content. That anxiety can also be felt by others who fear ridicule and harsh judgment from their peers for reading (or watching or playing) content that is supposedly developmentally below their current stage.

Hopefully, I have enlightened a few people about the current age-related distinctions that those who research developmental stages use to determine when an individual has transitioned from one age group to the next. Perhaps I have even started some person on the road to understand why one child may be considered developmentally delayed in one of the four categories. I, myself, am also looking for enlightenment in those areas with which I am not fully inducted so that I can continue to grow and learn on my life journey.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

One May not Be the Loneliest Number

Loneliness. It is not a sensation that anyone enjoys. Human beings are social creatures. We actually seem to need a minimal amount of social interaction in order to survive. Even the most extreme introvert requires some kind of human contact every once in a while; they just seem to prefer less than extroverts. Sometimes you can even feel lonely when completely surrounded by other people, though. Like many things (especially emotions) human, loneliness is a potentially complicated subject that can often be misunderstood.

Loneliness: the emotional state that occurs when a person has fewer interpersonal relationships than desired or when these relationships are not as satisfying as desired.

Taking a look at this definition, we see that there are two significant sides to the lonely coin. The first half is the number of relationships a person has and wants. Some people enjoy having hundreds of friends--and they can even keep track of all of them and maintain them to a relatively satisfying and functional level. Some individuals prefer only a few dozen relationships--friends and family included--because it is too difficult to keep track of so many or because they prefer to have a much greater personal investment in each relationship. Do not judge anyone as lonely or shy based solely on the number of relationships they have with others. It is a matter of how many relationships that person wants to have. Some people, especially extroverts, love being surrounded by others. Some people prefer smaller crowds. It is a matter of personality matching with preference.

The other half of the equation is the quality of relationships you want to have with other people. This is probably the more telling indicator of whether or not a person can be considered lonely. Again, some people prefer to have many shallow interactions with others and some people need a much deeper relationship in order to be satisfied. The depth of a relationship is determined by the amount of self-disclosure on the part of both parties.

Self-disclosure: the voluntary act of verbally communicating private information about oneself to another person.

Self-disclosure can take on many different levels of meaning. The simplest form of self-disclosure is the "name/rank/serial number" (or, for those of you who remember text-based chat rooms, a/s/l). When we first meet someone we already to begin to share information about ourselves. We give our name, maybe a little about ourselves (introducing a spouse implies you are married, introducing a child implies you are a parent) and our occupation. This simple surface sharing could be the beginning of others getting to know you, or it could be the terminus of the knowledge someone has about you. With the ability to search public information on just about anyone, self-disclosure may become a mere "going through the motions" act, but it will still be important, nonetheless, as it shows your willingness to volunteer the information yourself.

The more we get to know a person, the more we interact with them, then the deeper our self-disclosure can become. The act of asking someone "how are you?" is really a request for more information about the person. While we often brush off this question with a simple "Oh, fine," it is an opportunity to share more about ourselves and then ask for information about the person in return. Think about the people you consider to be your closest friends or family. You should know more facts about them than about your acquaintances or strangers. If you feel that your "best friend" is close to a stranger to you because you barely know anything about them, then you might consider yourself lonely. Again, it is a matter of personal preference that determines how much self-disclosure we engage in, and receive from others, we desire in order to feel that this is a meaningful relationship.

Now, let's put the two sides of the coin together. What we can have is an individual who prefers only one or two really deep relationships, coupled with many more shallow relationships. We can also have someone who has hundreds of shallow relationships, or hundreds of deep relationships, or only a few shallow relationships, or any number of moderately deep or shallow relationships. The important point is that the number and quality of those relationships satisfy that individual's needs and desires. If the amount or depth is lacking, then loneliness will ensue.

We can look at loneliness from a causal perspective, as well. This can either be seen from a quantity/quality combination point of view, or from a duration angle.

Emotional loneliness occurs when we lack a significant romantic partner, a confidant, someone with whom we can share our joys, our hopes, our fears, just about everything about ourselves. We do expect to have reciprocal information from this person in return; self-disclosure is more meaningful when it is a two-way street. Social loneliness occurs when we don't have enough friends and/or when the relationships we do have are too shallow.

Sometimes loneliness comes and goes as a function of time. Transient loneliness occurs when we have those brief moments when we feel that no one is around when we need them. There can be moments, even for people who have many deep friends, in which a person feels like everyone is otherwise occupied and there is "no one around" to talk to. These moments are thankfully often temporary. They tend to go away once we reconnect with another person or distract ourselves from this feeling. Transitional loneliness happens any time we experience a disruption in our social network--someone moves, we experience a death or divorce. Often this transitional loneliness is overcome once we start to form new bonds with other people or reconnect with someone from whom we may have drifted apart and find once again. It is important for our mental and physical health to maintain and grow our social support networks throughout our lives. Sometimes, however, an individual just doesn't seem to be able to form or maintain the right amount or depth of relationships for their own needs. Chronic loneliness is found in people who have not been able to form a satisfactory interpersonal network (either quantity or quality) over a number of years. Sometimes it is due to an abrasive personality or a lack of social skills. While shyness does not lead to loneliness, it can hamper our ability to form new relationships with others or generate a reluctance to engage in meaningful self-disclosure. I will discuss more about shyness in a future post.

Overall, you can feel lonely in a crowded room and not be lonely when you are by yourself. It is all a matter of personal preference and whether or not your needs and wants for personal interaction are being met in the right amount and the right depth for you. One does not have to be a lonely number if you are happy with it. Do remember to have some kind of human contact once in a while, though.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Clearing Up Jung & Myers-Briggs

Many professionals in psychology, education, and even business have heard of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). What a lot of people don't know, however, is that the work of this mother-daughter team was based largely on the theories of Carl Jung. Many people also seem to lack a full understanding of the components that make up the 16 personality types. I am not going to give an explanation of the personality types here, just the individual dichotomous parts that make up the 4-letter type.

The first letter set (E/I) represents a person's orientation in the world and their source of energy. I do not mean to say the fuel, such as food and drink, but rather the psychological and/or motivating energy we need to think, socialize, and engage in any other mental activities. E stands for extrovert. An extrovert is oriented outside (extra) themselves. They gain their mental energy through socialization with others. If given a choice between watching a good movie by themselves or going to see a sub-par movie with friends, it would not be uncommon for the extrovert to choose the sub-par movie because the socialization is more important part of the entertainment. I stands for introvert. A introvert is oriented within (intro) themselves. They gain their mental energy from quiet, solitary introspection, rather than socialization. While the introvert will socialize--some of us even have friends!--this socialization tends to use up energy that was generate through solitary activities, leaving the introvert to feel exhausted. The extrovert, on the other hand, will use up stored energy in solitary activities, needing to socialize to "recharge their batteries," so to speak. If all of this seems repetitious, that could be due to the fact that I covered the extrovert/introvert thing in my first post on the term Antisocial.

The second personality dimension (N/S) in Jung's theory is a person's preferred source of data gathering. The N stands for intuition (the letter N is used to clear up confusion with the use of I for introvert). An intuitive tends to seek or trust data that "feels" right, oftentimes basing conclusions on faith or the perceived authority of the source. Intuitives tend to be a bit more chaotic in nature than their counterparts, but they manage to still be productive, and even creative, in this state. S, on the other hand, stands for sensing. A sensing individual tends to look for more concrete evidence, using their natural senses to verify data. If it cannot be seen, smelled, touched, tasted, or heard, you will have a hard time convincing a senser of its validity. It's not impossible, just hard. Sensing individuals prefer to generate order out of chaos, as it allows them to more effectively gather sensory information. Keep in mind that all of these personality dimensions are on a continuum. It is possible for a strong sensing type to occasionally take a leap of faith, or for a strong intuitive to desire more concrete evidence.

The third letter set (T/F) represents the primary route used to analyze data that has been gathered. These two traits are very often misunderstood when it comes to discerning one's personality typology, mostly because we attach other meanings to the base words. In Jung's typology, the T stands for thinking. A thinker in this context is an individual who looks at the data collected, either via senses or intuition, and draws seemingly logical conclusions from that data. Thinkers tend to sometimes get tunnel vision, occasionally not seeing how conclusions could affect other individuals on a more personal level. The letter F represents feeling. Feelers are capable of drawing logical conclusions, but they also broaden their focus when analyzing data to incorporate non-tangibles, such as the impact an action may have on another person. Not all feeling types are benevolent, however. A strong feeling person with a mean streak could cause a lot of psychological damage to others willingly, as they readily see how their actions could impact others and still make that harmful decision. Not all thinkers are cold and callous, either. They may attempt to act in what they feel is the best interest of another person, though their actions may not seem beneficial at the time.

I would like to say that the final dimension is the least understood, yet I have found in my years of teaching that just as many students encounter biases and/or misunderstandings with each of the other three dimensions. It is probably easiest to become confused on this last letter set (J/P), however, because of the words chosen to represent the two sides of the continuum. The fourth dimension is how a person ultimately goes about making decisions. Whether you generate your mental energy from within or without, whether you gather data through the sensory world or your "gut" feeling, and whether you seek logical conclusions or incorporate the impact of your choices on others, you will use all of this to finally make decisions and take action. A J means you are a judger. Many people think judging means to criticize others and weigh each personal on some imaginary scale of worth. This is NOT what it means to be judging when we talk about the MBTI. Think of it this way: if you are on trial for your life, would you want the judge to make an instantaneous decision, or would you want them to take their time weighing all of the evidence? A judger, in this instance, takes their time making a decision. They plan ahead, often generating a number of contingency plans, just in case. They follow the data down many paths of conclusion, trying to calculate and weigh possibilities before they finally make a commitment to a decision. Even then, an extreme judging type may second-guess themselves and take still more time to redo a decision. On the positive side, they tend to be more cautious. On the negative side, it may take a judger too long to make a decision or they may find themselves frozen with indecision. The P, perceiving, is the complete opposite of a judger. The perceiver makes split-second decisions, sometimes even ignoring the evidence they've gathered. A perceiver is the type of person who will decide in a heartbeat whether or not they like you, whereas a judger will want to take their time to get to know you before they decide if ye be friend or foe. On the plus side, a perceiver is capable of making split-second decisions on a moment's notice. On the down side, though, sometimes making snap decisions can lead to one having to remove their foot from their mouth all too often. Then again, one snap decision could make things right very quickly.

If you would like more information on the 16 types that come out of Jung's theory and the MBTI, I strongly encourage you to talk to a professional counselor (not a therapist [see my post on Psychologists are not Psychics for the distinction between the two]) or personality specialist. You can find information on the Internet, just be aware that not everyone has all of the facts detangled properly. You can even find several free and pay versions of the MBTI. Again, buyer beware, as some sites can be very misleading in the read-outs they give you from your responses. Some sites don't even give you an explanation, just your 4-letter typology (e.g. INTJ), leaving you to try to figure out how they mesh together.

Please feel free to leave your questions or comments on this or any of my other posts. Feedback is the best way to learn.