Category Archives: psychology

Control freaks have no life!

Many people try to control other people because they think it will help to keep them happy and mentally healthy. But actually the opposite is true.

Mental well-being depends upon a variety of experiences but control-freakery, in so far as it’s successful, limits a person’s experience only to what they already understand and can imagine. Most people find that their lives are enriched by the actions of others – even when those actions are surprising.

The more we control other people, the less we experience variety in life, the more frustrated and resentful we become when we fail and greater the risk we run of developing mental health problems.

Meaningful activity & mental health

The problem with distraction

Mental health nurses are encouraged to rely heavily upon distraction to help people manage anxiety, depression or the emotional consequences of past trauma. That’s OK so far as it goes but unfortunately it really doesn’t go very far.

Self harm interactive webinar

Wednesday March 24th 2021 7pm

Self-harm can be confusing and bewildering for both staff and service-users. Ideas about ‘manipulation’ or a ‘cry for help’ do little or nothing to help prevent future self-harm. This interactive webinar explores some alternative notions and examines ways that support workers can make a difference in a genuinely difficult situation.

Click here to book your place

There is a great deal that support workers and others can do to help people who harm themselves. The trick is to be able to see past the behaviour and to understand the person who cuts themselves, takes overdoses or otherwise injures themselves.

In the past this sort of behaviour has been written off as attention-seeking or as an attempt to manipulate workers and yet most self-harm happens in secret and never comes to the attention of the staff. It’s really not about us. Something else is going on and the tired old notion that it is merely ‘behavioural’ is both meaningless and irrelevant in a modern context of deliberate self-harm.

This interactive webinar covers:

Definitions of self-harm

A cry for help?

Is it all just attention-seeking?

Self-harm and suicide – are they linked?

Pain, the brain and self-soothing behaviours

The emotional purpose of self-harm

Helping people to ‘get past’ self-harm

Managing the risks

Dos and Don’ts

Click here to reserve your place on this interactive webinar

Please note – this is an educational seminar. It is not a group therapy session and we cannot make time for individual or group counselling or other intervention here,

Hard-wired 17a: Coincidence and irrational humanity

In terms of the psychological spandrels we discussed earlier, the tendency to make ‘false positive’ (type 1) errors is an evolved characteristic. Paranoia, pattern-seeking and agency-detection may well be the by-products.

So we assume that things are related to each other
Further we assume that they’re deliberately caused by some thinking intelligence – an agent.

This leads us to take offence that nobody meant.
This leads us to make up agents like Karma, God, ghosts or the universe.
This leads us to define places, people and events as lucky, unlucky or even cursed.

In short – this makes us all irrational and basically unfit to leave the house without adult supervision – except that we ARE the adults.

Scary, isn’t it?

 

Hard-wired 17: Bias and the evolutionary ‘spandrel’

In this video we’ll consider three of the most widespread (and misleading) of our evolved mental modules. We’ll look at ‘selective abstraction‘, ‘arbitrary inference’ and ‘confirmation bias’. Each of these is related in its own way to pattern recognition as described in part 16.

What’s most interesting from an evolutionary perspective is that these three aspects of human psychology, although universal, may not be advantageous in themselves. They may, in fact, be no more than evolutionary by products of pattern recognition.

There are many examples of by products, both physical and psychological. Certain genes seem to confer a variety of traits as though some evolutionary advantages cannot exist without other less positive or neutral correlates. The trade off between sickle cell anaemia and protection from malaria discussed in part 9 is an excellent example. Evolution isn’t perfect and so neither is the human body – or the human mind.

Sometimes these extra ‘add on’ characteristics can fool us. They look like the evolved characteristic that was favoured by natural selection but they’re not – they’re just the baggage that comes along with it. They’re what Stephen Jay Gould described as evolutionary ‘spandrels’.

Hardwired 16: Pattern recognition

It’s not hard to see why this obsession with patterns prevailed in the ancestral environment. The early hunter-gatherer who learned to recognise the association between plants and water would have a distinct advantage over those who didn’t. The homo erectus who understood that birds falling silent is often part of a pattern involving dangerous predators would certainly have the edge. So our species evolved pattern recognition as a very effective survival strategy. It’s true that this sort of inference (the assumption of danger) can lead to over caution on occasion but that probably wasn’t such a bad thing in the circumstances.

But that’s not the whole story. The human obsession with patterns and sequences also leads us to imagine patterns in the things we see and hear from faces in clouds (or even wallpaper and embers) to words and phrases in the wind. And the patterns we identify are often far from real. So we get spooked by shadows and led astray by random events that seem to come in order.

Believing nonsense (the illusion of pattern)

So humans kid themselves into believing in nonsense like astrology and bizarre ‘medical’ treatments. We become convinced that bad things come in threes or that because two unpleasant things have happened already this morning we’re in for ‘one of those days’. We see patterns everywhere. What’s worse – once we hit upon a ‘pattern’ (real or imagined) other processes known as ‘selective abstraction’ and ‘confirmation bias’ tend to keep us convinced that we’re right. We’ll cover confirmation bias and selective abstraction later. For now it’s enough to know that both of these mental modules serve to persuade us that we’re right and to resist self doubt.

This process of imagining patterns, confirmation bias and stubbornness can have extremely unfortunate results. It leaves us open to persuasion. That’s why the most skilled and influential political speakers give three illustrations of their most important points? They know that three is the magic number to create the illusion of a pattern and that once established in the mind of the listener that illusion will be hard to break.

Human gullibility

The truth is that our species’ love of patterns, our obsession with trying to place everything around us into recognisable, pre-existing categories makes us extremely vulnerable.

This is the aspect of our evolved psychology, perhaps more than any other that makes us gullible and easy to manipulate. It leads to superstition and the prevalence of people who’d never dream of playing an important sporting match without their ‘lucky’ cricket box or without reciting their favourite pre-match prayer. It’s why the actor John Wayne always insisted on carrying the same ‘six-shooter’ in every Western. He’d created an assumption of cause and effect that had nothing to do with reality.

It’s also why the primitive cause and effect assumption of tribal weather Gods eventually merged into a single deity called Jahweh and ultimately morphed into the three modern versions of the God of Abraham (see The evolution of God by Robert Wright).

The illusion of control

This obsession with patterns and ‘lucky’ ritual has led to self-important, metaphysical or religious rituals from the repetitive behaviours of obsessive-compulsive disorders to the ‘hail Mary’ of Roman Catholicism, the ingestion of ‘transubstantiated’ flesh in Holy Communion and the masochism of the flagelant. In each case the assumption is the same:

If I get the ritual right I (or God/the universe) can influence the world, the weather, other people or whatever to behave as I would like them to.

It’s also why gamblers kid themselves that the next random throw of the dice is ‘due’ to fall on a 6 or why their lottery numbers are bound to come up soon. It’s because of an entirely baseless assumption that essentially random events follow patterns that exist only in the human mind.

 

Hard wired 15: The unthinking mental module

It’s easy to understand how humans and other species evolved physical characteristics as a result of adaptation and natural selection. Helpful variations confer their advantages down through the generations whilst less helpful variations die out. So longer-legged (fast-running) wild horses outrun their predators but those with overly long legs suffer broken shafts and are eaten. The optimum leg length is maintained by natural selection. That’s straightforward enough.

But what about mental and behavioural evolution? Evolved psychological traits are a little harder to grasp. To make sense of this fascinating topic it’s helpful to begin by considering evolved animal behaviours…. animal instincts, in other words.

Animal instincts

The following examples of instincts from the animal world are directly analogous to human behaviours that are often described as ‘just human nature’:

  • Social (non reproductive), sexual behaviours (including promiscuous chimps and mutually masturbatory bonobos);
  • Protective behaviours from cats with kittens to soldier ants defending their nests;
  • Slave making behaviours such as ants carrying off pupae;
  • Parasitic behaviours such as cuckoos laying eggs in the nests of other species;
  • Flight distances that determine how close a gazelle will let the lion approach before it flees (abandoning its meal);
  • The Ichneumon wasp cruelly ‘sacrificing’ caterpillars of other species so that its own young can thrive.

It’s unlikely that all these creatures are fully aware of the implications of their actions – they act unconsciously and with sometimes ruthless efficiency. That’s instinct.

Homo sapiens shares these same instincts, often with just as little awareness of their true motivation.

These instincts – these ‘mental modules’ , are just as influential for our physical behaviours (homemaking, status-seeking) as they are for our psychological behaviours (paranoia, pattern-seeking, deference to authority).

Robert Wright’s acclaimed book The moral animal provides an accessible and detailed account of mental modules, using the life of Charles Darwin himself to illustrate the point. I won’t do the book justice here (I’ve read it twice so far and I still haven’t taken it all in). But I will try to give an outline. Here’s just one example…

Loyalty

wpid-Loyalty-is-My-Honour.jpg

Most people like the idea of loyalty – in fact they value it. Governments and religions, businesses and family groups alike consider it a great virtue. And yet even a moment of thought shows that in truth, loyalty is far from a universal virtue in the modern world and may actually be better thought of as a vice.

Why loyalty is a vice

People generally behave differently toward members of their own group than toward others. This is loyalty. So freemasons will favour other freemasons when seeking employees and racists give preference to strangers of their particular skin colour even though they know absolutely nothing more about them than. It doesn’t take much to realise just how unfair and unethical these sorts of distinctions, these group loyalties are. These are the more obvious of loyalty’s problems. There are other, less obvious but equally damaging examples too.

image Imagine a support worker who sees a visitor beating a vulnerable care home resident with a stick. What should the support worker do?

The answer, of course, is obvious – he should report the assault in the knowledge that adult protection is his legal obligation. This would allow the law to step in, protect the victim and prosecute the abuser. There’s nothing very difficult about that.

wpid-Panorama-abuse-allegation-007.jpg

But what if the abuser was a friend and colleague? What if the abuser was the victim’s husband disciplining his wife in accordance with religious doctrine (a religion such as Islam, for example, which the support worker also followed)?

The law is still the same. The abuse is still the same but the loyalties will be different. And that’s where the problems begin.

Loyalty prevents us from doing what we believe to be right. When the support worker fails to report their colleague or fellow worshipper through loyalty they make continued abuse more likely. The same is true of ‘no grassing’ cultures where victims and bystanders alike are seen as disloyal to the group (think of schoolyards) or some vague notion of honour (think of adult crime). Loyalty that prevents reporting of offences is no more than an abusers’ charter.

And yet that’s the whole point of loyalty – to get people to bend or even break the rules. Without loyalty people are likely to do what they believe to be right. Loyalty simply interferes with right action. Far from being a virtue it is a major vice, a cause of great unfairness and superficial prejudice. So why do humans across the globe value it so highly?

Loyalty as a universal human trait (hard wired)

Remember our earlier discussion about the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA)? That’s the environment in which most of our species’ characteristics were developed in response to the prevailing selection pressures.

In that environment early humans (and their evolutionary predecessors) lived in small groups where survival. of every individual (and their genes) depended upon the survival of every other individual. They were truly interdependent in ways that modern humans generally can only imagine. In order to survive they had to help each other, ensure mutual co-operation and, if they came into contact with other human groups, make sure that their own kin didn’t lose out. The principle of loyalty was born.

The mental module of loyalty

We covered heuristics in an earlier post too. The mental shortcut that gets us to solve problems without having to think about them. Loyalty is an heuristic. It’s a mental module hardwired since the pleistocene that says

“Favour members of your own group”.

In the early days of human evolution that may have been a vital principle but today it’s just unfair and unethical. Nationalism, sexism, racism and a host of other ‘isms’ really just boil down to arbitrary loyalties based upon irrelevancies such as skin colour, religious cultural tradition and place of birth.

And now the good news

The universal nature of loyalty based cultures shows us that this particular mental module is hard wired. And yet many people have managed to get beyond these petty loyalties and act in accordance with their conscience instead. This must give us cause for optimism.

The fact that whistle-blowers exist and that most people have moved beyond racism shows that it is possible to overcome hard-wired mental modules. I suspect that greater understanding will go a long way toward this goal as we discover more and more about the various mental modules bequeathed to us by our earliest human and pre human ancestors. Knowledge is power. If we want to outgrow the primitive behaviour of Homo habilis we’ll do well to try to understand him/her first.

Stoicism: Anticipating misfortune

“Rehearse death. To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom. A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”

(Seneca)

In the previous post I suggested that there’s no point in becoming distressed today because we think something might distress us later. That just increases the misfortune. Indeed, once we realise that most of the things people worry about never actually happen it becomes clear that it’s possible to ruin the quality of an entire life with pointless and unnecessary anxiety. If we expect next Friday afternoon to be distressing that’s one thing. But let’s not destroy today as well.

In the Christian tradition this seems to be what Jesus meant when he said

“….. do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

(Matthew 6:34)

I have long believed that Jesus (or whoever wrote the Gospels after his death) must have been familiar with the earlier works of stoic philosophers, there are just too many such coincidences for it to be otherwise in my opinion.

But it’s important to be clear. Freedom from distress by avoiding the emotional content of anticipation (avoiding worry, in other words) isn’t the same as avoiding anticipation altogether. On the contrary, we must anticipate. In fact the stoics advised us to go further than most worriers do in our anticipation – but we do so without distress. We do it as an intellectual exercise. We visualise loss and misfortune and we imagine how we might cope with the worst. On the one hand his can prepare us for what tragedies may befall us. On the other it helps us to understand and appreciate what we already have.

“Take full account of what Excellencies you possess, and in gratitude remember how you would hanker after them, if you had them not.”

(Marcus Aurelius, meditations)

This is one of the ways that stoics are able to maintain emotional equilibrium when things go wrong for them. They understand that all things in life are transient and they prepare for the changes in advance – they are always prepared to ‘give back’, to ‘return’.

  1. Never say of anything, “I have lost it”; but “I have returned it”…….

“But he who took it away is a bad man.” What difference is it to you who the giver assigns to take it back? While he gives it to you to possess, take care of it; but don’t view it as your own, just as travellers view a hotel.

  1. If you want to improve, reject such reasonings as these: “If I neglect my affairs, I’ll have no income; if I don’t correct my servant, he will be bad.” For it is better to die with hunger, exempt from grief and fear, than to live in affluence with perturbation; and it is better your servant should be bad, than you unhappy.

Begin therefore from little things. Is a little oil spilt? A little wine stolen? Say to yourself, “This is the price paid for apathy, for tranquility, and nothing is to be had for nothing.” When you call your servant, it is possible that he may not come; or, if he does, he may not do what you want. But he is by no means of such importance that it should be in his power to give you any disturbance.

(Epictetus, The Enchiridion)

Stoics visualise the loss of the things they hold dear. They make a point of contemplating death, material losses, homelessness, hunger, injury and illness, unemployment, grief – all the unfortunate things that might happen for them. And then they imagine how they might deal with them. There are several advantages to this:

  1. Increased contentment with the things we have;
  2. Increased awareness of the things we need to od to maintain and improve our circumstances;
  3. Significant reduction in distress if the worst does happen because we’re prepared;
  4. Clear direction to deal with misfortune if it does occur;
  5. Freedom from anticipatory anxiety (worrying about what might happen).

Of course that doesn’t mean stoics need to go around reflecting upon miserable possibilities all the time. That wouldn’t do at all. But every so often, once or twice a week perhaps it’s a good idea to stop and think about what we have (health, possessions, abilities, relationships, status etc) and how it might be taken away. I promise you – make this a habit and you’ll enjoy life a great deal more. You’ll also be much more resourceful and better prepared to deal with tragedy.

In a different, less obviously philosophical context I talk to anxious, worried people about the ‘three stage plan’ for dealing with anxiety. I’ve used it for years with good effect. Once again it’s an idea stolen from the stoics. This is how I described it in one of my mental health Ebooks:

“We can also help people to plan, both should the worst happen and also how to prevent it. This becomes a fairly straightforward three-point process:

  1. What’s the worst that could happen?
  2. If it does happen how can you survive it?
  3. Now we know you can survive the worst what can you (or we) do to make sure it doesn’t happen?

3 point plan

Whatever else we do we must be honest, rational and realistic. Only then can we understand whether or not the anxiety, the perception of threat is justified. If it is then we can begin to work on making the situation safe with all the facts that we need. If it isn’t justified (if it’s what Freud called inappropriate anxiety) then we can have the confidence to work on activities designed to help the person to face the thing they fear.”

(Stuart Sorensen – Mental health and social care p.20)

When we take gratitude, negative visualisation and awareness of the eternal now (see yesterday’s post) together we have a powerful blueprint for dealing with anxiety and enhancing enjoyment of life as a whole. But don’t just take my word for it. Give it a go and see what happens.

Dealing with anxiety – the 3 stage process

  • What’s the worst that could happen?
  • If it happened how would you/we cope with it?
  • How can you/we prevent it from happening?

 

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

(Marcus Aurelius)