Monday, December 27, 2021

Psychotherapeutic Humanities - The play, Equus, by Peter Shaffer

Equus is a Tony Award winning play by Peter Shaffer about a seventeen year old male, Peter Strang,  who blinds six horses with a metal spike and is committed to a mental hospital in which his psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Dysart, attempts to understand the motivation and meaning of Peter’s  behavior. This play is considered by some a classic and has been studied in various college courses.

The intended audience is adults with an interest in psychodynamics and the impact of  religiosity on behavior. 

The creative tension builds as the psychiatrist, in the course of his psychotherapeutic work, must work through the difficulties in his own life.

There might be many lessons derived from the story. The main one seems to be that repressive upbringing in the 50s led to repressed sexual energy which was acted out in destructive ways. This seems to be a lesson which in subsequent decades has been learned as patriarchal structures have been deconstructed as feminist values have manfiested more prevalently in society.

The story seems a bit outdated since the play was first produced in 1973. In the last fifty years the values and attitudes about sexual expression have radically changed. The main utility of studying the play at this time might be to increase the understanding of the management of sexual impulses in previous decades influenced by the cultural conditioning of the time.

The play is recommended to those interested in the dynamics of sexual repression in previous decades in western societies especially of England and the United States.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Best way to "read": paper book, eBook, audiobook?


What's the best way to "read" a book: paper book, e book, audiobook? 

Here's a great video which in about 10 minutes gives you the advantages and disadvantages of each format depending on your purpose for reading.

Click here.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Let's make America well again. MAWA

There is a great deal of frustration, sadness, and fear in the United States over the rise of infection rates of the Omicron and other Covid variants. 

There are many factors which give rise to these increasingly high infection rates. One of those factors is individual choice over protective measures to limit infection. The further question might be what are the factors that influence these individual choices? A large factor is social norms and attitudes. Another is regulatory enforcement.

Social norms and attitudes have been politicized in the United States by those who seek the advantage of accumulated power by obtaining votes for their election to office. This creates a symbiotic tie between the representative elected and the people who want to be told what they want to hear, not the truth. This symbiotic relationship is well known in the field of mental health as the folie au deux. A folie au deux is a relationship based on a commonly held delusional belief. A folie au deux is considered to be a mental disorder requiring psychiatric treatment.

It is time to think outside the box. Anger and further polarization will get us nowhere. We mental health professionals  supposedly know how to manage neurotic and psychotic symptoms as they manifest in individuals and groups.

I learned several decades ago, early in my psychiatric social work career in two state hospitals, that you not only cannot argue a delusional patient out of their delusion, but that it only exacerbates the delusional symptoms and is counter productive. What is helpful is to reframe the topic in a larger frame of reference. There are many possibilities for a reframe such as an "opportunity to help one's family and neighbors."

How about a meme like "Good neighbors get vaccinated so they don't pass the virus along."? and "Let's make America well again." MAWA.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Watch what happens in red counties and states with the Omicron variant.


“It is possible to ignore reality, but it is not possible to ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”  (Attributed to Ayn Rand)

Editor's note: One of the definitions of mental health is being in touch with reality.

I was a polio vaccination pioneer.

I will turn 76 on my birthday on 12/25. I was born in 1945. I was a polio pioneer when I got my vaccination at age 9. Several of my playmates got polio. I remember my mother being afraid that I and my younger siblings would get it too. We were very grateful for the polio vaccination.

Fast forward to the 2,000s when I was in Rotary International whose main community project was to provide the polio vaccine world wide to eradicate polio from the planet just as we, humans, have done with Small Pox.

Back in the 50s almost all children got measles, chicken pox, mumps, whooping cough and other diseases which nowdays are rarely heard of because of vaccinations.

When you consider the degree of pain, suffering, and death that vaccinations have prevented, it is a major human accomplishment in the improvement of personal and public health. The anti vaxers don't seem to understand how good we, as humans, have got it.


Saturday, December 18, 2021

Egocentric thinking of a two year old manifested in adults


Good news - High school cheerleaders for the arts.

What a great idea to have cheerleaders for the arts. Students formed a group of cheerleaders for the arts at Mountain View High School in Orem, Utah.

Supposing this became a thing, and there were cheerleaders for the arts at every high school where there were cheerleaders for sports?

Check it out by clicking here.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Delusional people need special treatment - don't poke the bear.

I had a discussion with a woman in her late 50s or early 60s in the Brockport Post Office in Monroe County on Monday 12/12/21 while we were waiting in line.

She told me she was vaccinated but wouldn't do it again.

I asked, "Why not?"

She said, "Vaccinations make people sick. I know three people in the hospital because they were vaccinated."

I said, "Really........"

"Oh yes," she said.

I said, "Well I believe there are a lot more people who could be in the hospital if they weren't vaccinated."

She seemed upset so I changed the subject to the sunny weather we were having and whether she is ready for Christmas.

Today, I ran across this chart.

The cognitive dissonance I was causing by challenging her beliefs spiked her anxiety and she shut down. My psychiatric training has taught me to let the truth go. Many people, maybe most, don't want to hear and know the truth. It is too upsetting for them and they can't handle it. Better sometimes to keep your own council and not poke the bear.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Gaslighting at home, work, or personal life is damaging to a person's sense of reality

How to you manage relationships when a person says one thing and does another and then makes it sound if the contradiction is your problem?

I call this "mystification". Mystifying someone can make them think they are crazy. The opposite of mystification is "validation." Validation is affirming and we feel heard.

 Mita Mallick, head of inclusion, equity, and impact at the firm Carta, says gaslighting at the office is more common than many people realize. That’s when a manager or coworker engages in behavior where one thing happens, and they try to convince the victim otherwise. Gaslighting can damage the victim’s well-being and performance as well as the company overall. She explains how to recognize the manipulative behavior, what to do about it in the moment, and how companies can respond. Mallick wrote the article “How to Intervene When a Manager Is Gaslighting Their Employees.”

Friday, December 10, 2021

Psychotherapeutic humanities - Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery (Novel)

Vanity Fair (Novel)

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery published as a serial in a magazine in the 1840s has become, what some people, rate as one of the 100 most important English novels of all time.

Here is a summary from Spark Notes: 

Vanity Fair is a classic novel by English writer William Thackeray, first published in serialised form in the magazine Punch in 1847. The story is told within a frame narrative of a puppet show at a play, highlighting the unreliable nature of the events of the narrative. Vanity Fair follows the lives of Becky Sharp, a strong-willed, penniless young woman, and her friend Amelia 'Emmy' Sedley, a good-natured wealthy young woman. Set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, Vanity Fair charts the girls' misadventures in love, marriage and family. Becky, manipulative, witty, and amoral, is Emmy's opposite, while Emmy, initially presented as the novel's heroine, is passive, sweet, likeable and a pawn to her family's wishes. Becky, forced to become a governess by circumstances, marries wealthy, while Emmy marries George a man disinherited by his prejudiced father. Critics of the time discussed Vanity Fair's misanthropic view of society, while later critics have called attention to the novel's depiction of the commodification of women in a capitalist society.

Thackeray as the narrator often interjects himself into the narrative with ironic comments. The novel was written for a general adult audience and is widely studied at the college level. This review is written for human service professionals.

The creative tension in the novel is derived from the class system in England in the first part of the nineteenth century when wealth also meant social status akin to the kind of social status that comes from family history. At this time, people could either attain social status through being a member of the titled aristocracy or accumulating wealth. The two main characters of the novel Amelia Sedley and Rebecca Sharp are coming of age where the station at which one marries determines the kind of life the young woman and her children could expect to have. Amelia Sedley comes from accumulated wealth which her family loses and goes bankrupt while Rebecca Sharp is an orphan and through her powers of manipulation and seduction gains access to the upper rungs of English society.

As might be imagined, the intrigue and drama might do a soap opera proud were this story to be adapted to this genre in the twenty first century, 200 years after the first telling.

The novel questions the values of society and takes the position that vanity colors most of human social life especially when it comes to social class consciousness of the time. Amelia is portrayed as the good girl while Rebecca is portrayed as amoral and narcissistic. The reader is led to become conscious of and laugh at the pretensions of society and to question the whole existential basis for the egoistic values that we hold and which govern our lives.

This novel could be used in a college course on human behavior and social environment to demonstrate how societal values influence individual behavior. The novel also highlights that lack of self awareness as the characters sleepwalk through life with no awareness of how their society has molded them. While the narrator does not mock them, he does offer a more objective view of the puppet show in which each character is playing a part. This view reminded me of Shakespeare’s great line his play “As you like it” when Jacques says, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.”

This novel is recommended for a general audience and especially for  professionals who intend to enter the field of human services in its many forms whether it is as a minister, a teacher, a nurse, a physician, a psychologist, a Social Worker, etc. This novel earns a 5 out of 5 stars.

PS - There have been many movies and TV series made of this novel.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Profile of a Healthy Marriage

by F. Douglas Stephenson, LCSW, LMFT, BCD
Former President, The Florida Society for Clinical Social Work

Modern day society is filled with idealized models that define physical perfection. For most of us, these are unattainable and unrealistic. Idealized models for the perfect marriage abound, but with similar frustrating, unattainable and unrealistic results for most couples. Finding your soul-mate, spiritual and romantic nirvana, making your marriage into a blissful zone of perfect coupledom all are touted as standards for success. Little mention is made of the potential for harm that can occur when these become standards that most individual marriages cannot achieve.

Based on the pioneering and well researched work of John Gottman and associates at the University of Washington, several key factors are identified in a realistic profile of a good marriage. Describing a “Sound Marital House”, the foundation of a healthy marriage includes:

A). well articulated and detailed love maps.
B). mutual admiration and fondness between partners.
C). a strong habit of turning towards one another rather than away whenever one partner asks for attention.

Unhealthy marriages lack knowledge of spouses likes/dislikes, are weak on fondness and admiration between partners , and tend to ignore, make excuses, and not turn toward the spouse when called, thereby producing “Negative Sentiment Override”. With this, the tendency is to assume the worst possible interpretation of the spouses irritating behavior. You give the benefit of doubt with Positive Sentiment Override. Negative Sentiment requires just the reverse, where you assume that your spouse means harm.

Four problematic behaviors have been outlined in the research, and occur when couples cannot well handle insolvable problems. Referred to as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, these behaviors tend to accurately predict the likelihood of divorce.

1). CRITICISM: troubled couples often attack each other in global ways, defaming each others character rather than carefully describing behaviors that have been annoying.

2).CONTEMPT: Much criticism can mutate into contempt, where spouses judge each other and often assume that they themselves are morally superior to their mate.

3).DEFENSIVENESS: Becoming defensive when attacked leads to less communication, less listening, less understanding of complaints and increasing counter attacking. A vicious cycle can spiral downward rapidly, further extinguishing positive sentiment in the relationship.

4). STONEWALLING: Finally, one of the partners (usually the man) may try to escape from the fighting by Stonewalling, or remaining silent, eyes averted and arms crossed during the exchange. This behavior is guaranteed to inflame the partner (usually female) all the more. Although Stonewalling, Gottman says, appears to be only a passive-aggressive withdrawal, a highly elevated heart rate suggest that the Stonewaller is seeking escape from an intolerable stress situation .

Seeking antidotes to the Four Horsemen behaviors is the central focus of marriage and family psychotherapy. With Gottman and other therapists, global and harsh criticisms by couples are rephrased into softer, more focused complaints. Displays of contempt are combated by encouraging spouses to reconnect with their mutual fondness and admiration. By encouraging each partner to take some of of the responsibility for marital problems, defensiveness and combativeness are combated and often reduced. Stonewalling is worked on by encouraging more self expression and openness of communication.

Gottman shares the view, held by other psychotherapists as well, that a healthy marriage is simply one where spouses basically like one another and can successfully live together in relative peace.

Editor's note: If you are interested in more, I highly recommend this book.

Majority of psychiatrists no longer provide psychotherapy

Researchers analyzing 21 years of data found that the percentage of psychiatrist visits involving psychotherapy has declined by half -- dropping to only 21.6 % of patient visits. Over half of U.S. psychiatrists no longer practice any psychotherapy at all. The study found that for rural, Black, Hispanic, and Medicaid patients psychiatrists' provision of psychotherapy was exceedingly rare.

For more click here.

Editors note:

I have observed this for some time going back even before the 1990s. 

Psychiatrists have become primarily pharmacologists who prescribe medications. 

Most psychiatrists are not even being trained to provide psychotherapy. By comparison a Licensed Clinical Social Work Psychotherapist in New York State must have six years of supervised training before they can become licensed to provide psychotherapy.

Monday, December 6, 2021

Is the percentage of people who believe in conspiracy theories getting higher?

The enduring allure of conspiracies

Conspiracy theories seem to meet psychological needs and can be almost impossible to eradicate. One remedy: Keep them from taking root in the first place.


The United States of America was founded on a conspiracy theory. In the lead-up to the War of Independence, revolutionaries argued that a tax on tea or stamps is not just a tax, but the opening gambit in a sinister plot of oppression. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were convinced — based on “a long train of abuses and usurpations” — that the king of Great Britain was conspiring to establish “an absolute Tyranny” over the colonies.

“The document itself is a written conspiracy theory,” says Nancy Rosenblum, a political theorist emerita at Harvard University. It suggests that there’s more going on than meets the eye, that someone with bad intentions is working behind the scenes.

If conspiracy theories are as old as politics, they’re also — in the era of Donald Trump and QAnon — as current as the latest headlines. Earlier this month, the American democracy born of an eighteenth century conspiracy theory faced its most severe threat yet — from another conspiracy theory, that (all evidence to the contrary) the 2020 presidential election was rigged. Are conspiracy theories truly more prevalent and influential today, or does it just seem that way?

The research isn’t clear. Rosenblum and others see evidence that belief in conspiracy theories is increasing and taking dangerous new forms. Others disagree. But scholars generally do agree that conspiracy theories have always existed and always will. They tap into basic aspects of human cognition and psychology, which may help explain why they take hold so easily — and why they’re seemingly impossible to kill.

Once someone has fully bought into a conspiracy theory, “there’s very little research that actually shows you can come back from that,” says Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge whose research focuses on ways to combat misinformation. “When it comes to conspiracy theories, prevention is better than cure.”

Counting conspiracies

When Joseph Uscinski began studying conspiracy theories a decade ago, he was one of only a handful of scholars — mostly psychologists and political scientists — interested in the topic. “No one cared about this at the time,” says Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami in Florida. American Conspiracy Theories, the 2014 book he cowrote with political scientist Joseph Parent, became a landmark in conspiracy theory research.

To investigate how conspiracy beliefs have changed with time, Uscinski, Parent and a small army of research assistants analyzed more than 100,000 letters to the editors of the New York Times printed between 1890 and 2010. Among these, they identified 875 letters that dabbled in conspiracy talk — that some group was acting in secret to steal power, or bury the truth, or reap some other benefit at the expense of the common good.

Many of the letters alleged geopolitical conspiracies: In 1890, it was England and Canada conspiring to take back territory from the United States, and in 1906, Japan was supposedly sending soldiers in disguise to prepare to seize Hawaii. Others focused on domestic political conspiracies, such as President Harry Truman covering up Communist infiltration of the government in the 1950s, and the idea that the 9/11 attacks were coordinated by the US to smear the Saudis. Still others were just bizarre, such as a 1973 letter claiming that lesbianism is a CIA-inspired plot.

When Uscinski and Parent graphed the prevalence of such newspaper conspiracy-theory letters between 1890 and 2010, the result was a very jagged line that showed, if anything, a slight downward trend over time (the most prominent peak marks McCarthyism and the Red Scare of the early 1950s). More recent polling research by Uscinski suggests that this overall picture has remained the same — with belief in specific conspiracy theories rising and falling over time, but no evidence for an overall increase. “The general hypothesis that’s put out there in the media is [that] everyone’s becoming conspiracists, and now is the golden age of conspiracy theory,” Uscinski says. “We find no such thing whatsoever.”

Uscinski’s research suggests that conspiracy thinking is more or less evenly distributed across the political spectrum, with Democrats becoming more vocal about conspiracy theories when Republicans are in power, and vice versa. Democrats tend to be suspicious of corporations and conservatives. Republicans are more likely to be suspicious of communists and liberals. In a chapter memorably titled “Conspiracy Theories Are for Losers,” Uscinski and Parent write that conspiracies are a way for those who’ve lost or lack power to explain their losses, channel their anger, close ranks and regroup.

During his presidency, Donald Trump was the exception that proves the rule, Uscinski says. It’s not easy for one of the most powerful people in the world to claim they’re the victim of a conspiracy (it didn’t work, for instance, when allies of Bill Clinton blamed a “vast right-wing conspiracy” for the president’s troubles during his impeachment trial in the late 1990s). Trump, however, cast himself as a political outsider from the beginning, Uscinski says: “He sets himself up, not only as a victim of the other side, but of both parties and the entire system and what he calls the deep state … so everything is rigged against him.” The Russia inquiry and his 2019 impeachment, Uscinski adds, helped to feed this narrative, which has continued through the chaotic aftermath of the 2020 election.

A new — and dangerous — form

Rosenblum argues that Trump epitomizes a new type of “conspiracy without theory” that relies on sheer assertion and repetition rather than evidence and reason. (Rosenblum is coeditor of the Annual Review of Political Science.) Trump’s baseless tweets that the election was rigged, she says, stand in contrast to Kennedy assassination conspiracists obsessing over bullet trajectories or 9/11 conspiracists diving into data on the temperature at which jet fuel burns. “This conspiracy thinking that’s going on today takes a very different and novel and dangerous form,” she says, because it seeks to delegitimize political rivals, government agencies, the press and others who might stand in the way. “It unsettles the ground on which we argue, negotiate, and even disagree,” she and coauthor Russell Muirhead wrote in their 2019 book, A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy. “It makes democracy unworkable — and ultimately, it makes democracy seem unworthy.”

One of the most influential ideas in conspiracy theory scholarship is that people who identify themselves as politically conservative are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. In a widely cited 1964 essay in Harper’s Magazine, Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter argued that a “paranoid style” runs through conservative political movements of the twentieth century, fed by distrust of “cosmopolitans and intellectuals.” Uscinski says his polling research finds no evidence that conservatives are more prone to believe in conspiracy theories than liberals, but other researchers still think there’s something to this idea.

In a recent series of studies, van der Linden and colleagues conducted online surveys of more than 5,000 Americans from across the political spectrum, asking them to rate their political preferences and respond to questions that were developed by psychologists to measure conspiratorial thinking and paranoia. One survey item, for example, asked participants to rate on a scale of 0 to 100 their agreement with the statement: “I think that events which superficially seem to lack a connection are often the result of secret activities.”

People at both extremes of the political spectrum were more prone to conspiracy thinking than those in the middle, but conservatives tended to be more conspiratorial than liberals, the researchers reported in Political Psychology last year. “We think this is convincing evidence … of these differences between liberals and conservatives,” van der Linden says. “I wouldn’t say it’s a large effect, but it wasn’t tiny, either.”

This difference, he thinks, may be rooted in group psychology. “There’s a lot of research that shows that, whereas the liberals are a bit more extroverted and rebellious and so on, conservatives tend to be focused on managing uncertainty and threat and in-group values,” he says. Conspiracy theories are one way to make sense of events that seem overwhelming and may feel as though they threaten the groups and values that people most identify with, he says. “It’s definitely a mechanism to try to restore a sense of agency and control over the narrative.”

Van der Linden is quick to note, however, that liberals aren’t immune from conspiracy thinking. Conspiracy theories about technology seem more popular among liberals, for example, including ones involving pharmaceutical companies and genetically modified crops.

Mind hacks

One reason that conspiracy theories find fertile ground in the human mind has to do with epistemology — the philosophy of how we know what we know (or think we do). Because any individual can know only a tiny sliver of the world firsthand, we have no choice but to accept a great deal of information we can’t verify for ourselves. Most people believe (correctly) that Antarctica is very cold and populated with penguins, despite never having been there. The assumptions and cognitive shortcuts we use to decide what’s true make sense most of the time, but they also leave the door open for bad information, including conspiracy theories.

Since most of the information we encounter in everyday life (at least outside of social media) is true, that creates a bias toward accepting new information, says Nadia Brashier, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Harvard. And hearing a claim multiple times makes it seem even more true. “One of the most insidious influences on our judgment involves repetition,” Brashier says.

Dozens of studies have documented this “illusory truth effect,” mainly by asking participants to rate the veracity of trivia, rumors, product claims, fake news reports and other bits of information, Brashier and Duke University psychologist and neuroscientist Elizabeth Marsh write in a recent Annual Review of Psychology paper about how people determine what’s true. Even people who recognize a statement as false the first time they see it are more likely to judge it as probably true after seeing it multiple times, Brashier says.

Ordinarily, it’s rational to assume that the more times you hear something, the more likely it is to be true, she says. “But we’re seeing bad actors hijack these shortcuts that we use that make sense in a lot of situations [but] that can lead us astray in others.”

Conspiracy theories also take advantage of our tendency to look for patterns and explanations, says Karen Douglas, a psychologist who studies conspiracy thinking at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. Pattern detection serves us well in everyday life, Douglas says: It’s how we piece together how people typically behave in given situations, for example. Believing in a bogus conspiracy theory amounts to seeing a pattern that’s not really there.

In a 2018 paper, Douglas and colleagues recruited hundreds of volunteers online and quizzed them about their belief in various conspiracy theories, some well-known ones and some invented by the researchers. Participants who agreed more strongly with a sample of well-known conspiracy theories were more likely than others to also see meaningful patterns in a series of random coin tosses and in the chaotic, splotchy paintings of abstract expressionist artist Jackson Pollock. “It seems that seeing patterns in random phenomena such as coin tosses and abstract paintings relates to the tendency to see patterns in political and social events that are happening in the world,” Douglas says.

Such studies reveal a human tendency to attribute events to the intentional actions of others rather than to pure chance, Douglas says. Work by others has shown that we also tend to assume that when something huge happens, something huge must have caused it. This also feeds into conspiracy thinking, Douglas says. The assassination of John F. Kennedy was too momentous an event to have been pulled off by a lone gunman, conspiracists argue. Surely the US government was involved — or the KGB, or the Mafia.

Social and emotional factors are likely at play as well. “People are most susceptible to conspiracy theories when particular psychological needs are frustrated,” Douglas says. “Specifically, people need knowledge and certainty to feel safe, secure and in control, and to feel good about themselves and the social groups they belong to.” When these needs are unmet — say, amidst the fear and uncertainty of a global pandemic — conspiracy theories might seem to offer consolation, Douglas says.

But her research suggests that they might actually do the opposite. “Reading about conspiracy theories, instead of making people feel more powerful, makes people feel less powerful,” she says. It may even make people less likely to take actions that would give them more control over their situation. In experiments where volunteers read about conspiracy theories before answering questionnaires about their likelihood to engage in various behaviors, Douglas and others have found evidence that conspiracy theories reduce people’s inclination to vote, to vaccinate their children, or to help fight climate change. The people in such studies also express greater prejudice and a greater inclination to commit petty crime, at least in their responses to researchers.

“Our reasoning is that if people perceive that others are conspiring and doing antisocial things, then it seems OK for people to do these things too,” Douglas says. “Also, if they feel that the world is run by a select few and that everything is determined, why bother to go out and vote or engage with a corrupt system?” She adds, however, that more work is needed to determine whether these responses in conspiracy belief studies actually translate to antisocial behaviors in the real world.

Countering conspiracies

Talking a true believer out of their belief in a conspiracy can be nearly impossible. (The believer will assume you’re hopelessly na├»ve or, worse, that you’re part of the cover-up). Even when conspiracy theories have bold predictions that don’t come true, such as QAnon’s claim that Trump would win reelection, followers twist themselves in logical knots to cling to their core beliefs. “These beliefs are important to people, and letting them go means letting go of something important that has determined the way they see the world for some time,” Douglas says.

As a result, some researchers think that preventing conspiracy theories from taking hold in the first place is a better strategy than fact-checking and debunking them after they do — and they have been hard at work developing and testing such strategies. Van der Linden sees inoculation as a useful metaphor here. “I think one of the best solutions we have is to actually inject people with a weakened dose of the conspiracy … to help people build up mental or cognitive antibodies,” he says.

One way he and his colleagues have been trying to do that (no needles required) is by developing online games and apps. In a game called Bad News, for example, players assume the role of a fake news creator trying to attract followers and evolve from a social media nobody into the head of a fake-news empire. The 15-minute game is meant to teach people how fake news spreads so that they can recognize it more readily. (In one of the activities, players create and promote their own conspiracy theory.)

To assess the game’s effects, van der Linden and colleagues recruited more than 14,000 people to play Bad News. Before and after playing, participants were asked to identify misinformation within a selection of real and made-up tweets and headlines. Playing the game improved players’ resistance to fake news, the researchers reported in 2019: When presented with dubious tweets and news headlines, they were more likely to rate them as unreliable. The researchers termed the improvement “small to moderate.” A follow-up study found that it persisted for at least three months after the game was played.

More recently, the researchers created a game based on Bad News that specifically tackles conspiracies and other misinformation related to Covid-19. Called Go Viral!, it was developed with support from the UK government and released in October. The World Health Organization and the United Nations have promoted the game as a resource for fighting misinformation, “so that we can hopefully reach millions of people around the world,” van der Linden says.

Stopping the spread

The critical question — pushing the vaccine metaphor to its limits — is how to achieve herd immunity, the point at which enough of the population is immune so that conspiracy theories can’t go viral. It might be difficult to do that with games because they require people to take the time to engage, says Gordon Pennycook, a behavioral scientist at the University of Regina in Canada. So Pennycook has been working on interventions that he believes will be easier to scale up.

His research suggests that people are pretty good at spotting fake news, including bogus conspiracy theories — but that doesn’t mean they don’t share fake stuff on social media. “People are sharing headlines that they could identify as being false if they bothered to think about it,” he says.

To counter this, Pennycook and colleagues have been developing ways to nudge people to think more critically about the information they share without explicitly telling them to do so. In one recent study conducted online, they asked 856 volunteers to rate how likely they would be to share various Covid-19 news headlines — some true ones from credible sources, others that were bogus or debunked — if they saw them on social media. Before doing this, roughly half the participants were asked to rate the accuracy of a single, politically neutral headline unrelated to Covid-19 (one had to do with a neutron star discovery, another had to do with Seinfeld coming to Netflix). Taking a moment to contemplate accuracy made participants nearly three times more discerning in what they decided to share, the researchers reported in Psychological Science last year.

Social media companies have started to deploy similar strategies: An example is Twitter’s recent rollout of a prompt that advises users to read an article before sharing it. Pennycook thinks that such moves are worthwhile. In a recent study, yet to be published, he and colleagues found that a 30-second video prompting people to think about accuracy cut viewers’ willingness to share fake news in half (at least as reported on a survey — the researchers weren’t able to track the actual social media behavior).

Even as researchers push to develop such measures, they acknowledge that eradicating bogus conspiracy theories may not be possible. Conspiracy theories flourished as far back as the Roman Empire, and they inspired an angry mob to storm the US Capitol just last week. Specific theories may come and go, but the allure of conspiracy theories for people trying to make sense of events beyond their control seems more enduring. For better — and of late, very much for worse — they appear to be a permanent part of the human condition.

This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews. Sign up for the newsletter.

Knowable Magazine | Annual Reviews

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Can you spot a liar by their nonverbal cues? NO


The truth about lying

You can’t spot a liar just by looking — but psychologists are zeroing in on methods that might actually work


Police thought that 17-year-old Marty Tankleff seemed too calm after finding his mother stabbed to death and his father mortally bludgeoned in the family’s sprawling Long Island home. Authorities didn’t believe his claims of innocence, and he spent 17 years in prison for the murders.

Yet in another case, detectives thought that 16-year-old Jeffrey Deskovic seemed too distraught and too eager to help detectives after his high school classmate was found strangled. He, too, was judged to be lying and served nearly 16 years for the crime.

One man was not upset enough. The other was too upset. How can such opposite feelings both be telltale clues of hidden guilt?

They’re not, says psychologist Maria Hartwig, a deception researcher at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. The men, both later exonerated, were victims of a pervasive misconception: that you can spot a liar by the way they act. Across cultures, people believe that behaviors such as averted gaze, fidgeting and stuttering betray deceivers.

In fact, researchers have found little evidence to support this belief despite decades of searching. “One of the problems we face as scholars of lying is that everybody thinks they know how lying works,” says Hartwig, who coauthored a study of nonverbal cues to lying in the Annual Review of Psychology. Such overconfidence has led to serious miscarriages of justice, as Tankleff and Deskovic know all too well. “The mistakes of lie detection are costly to society and people victimized by misjudgments,” says Hartwig. “The stakes are really high.”

Tough to tell

Psychologists have long known how hard it is to spot a liar. In 2003, psychologist Bella DePaulo, now affiliated with the University of California, Santa Barbara, and her colleagues combed through the scientific literature, gathering 116 experiments that compared people’s behavior when lying and when telling the truth. The studies assessed 102 possible nonverbal cues, including averted gaze, blinking, talking louder (a nonverbal cue because it does not depend on the words used), shrugging, shifting posture and movements of the head, hands, arms or legs. None proved reliable indicators of a liar, though a few were weakly correlated, such as dilated pupils and a tiny increase — undetectable to the human ear — in the pitch of the voice.

Three years later, DePaulo and psychologist Charles Bond of Texas Christian University reviewed 206 studies involving 24,483 observers judging the veracity of 6,651 communications by 4,435 individuals. Neither law enforcement experts nor student volunteers were able to pick true from false statements better than 54 percent of the time — just slightly above chance. In individual experiments, accuracy ranged from 31 to 73 percent, with the smaller studies varying more widely. “The impact of luck is apparent in small studies,” Bond says. “In studies of sufficient size, luck evens out.”

This size effect suggests that the greater accuracy reported in some of the experiments may just boil down to chance, says psychologist and applied data analyst Timothy Luke at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. “If we haven’t found large effects by now,” he says, “it’s probably because they don’t exist .”

Police experts, however, have frequently made a different argument: that the experiments weren’t realistic enough. After all, they say, volunteers — mostly students — instructed to lie or tell the truth in psychology labs do not face the same consequences as criminal suspects in the interrogation room or on the witness stand. “The ‘guilty’ people had nothing at stake,” says Joseph Buckley, president of John E. Reid and Associates, which trains thousands of law enforcement officers each year in behavior-based lie detection. “It wasn’t real, consequential motivation.”

Samantha Mann, a psychologist at the University of Portsmouth, UK, thought that such police criticism had a point when she was drawn to deception research 20 years ago. To delve into the issue, she and colleague Aldert Vrij first went through hours of videotaped police interviews of a convicted serial killer and picked out three known truths and three known lies. Then Mann asked 65 English police officers to view the six statements and judge which were true, and which false. Since the interviews were in Dutch, the officers judged entirely on the basis of nonverbal cues.

The officers were correct 64 percent of the time — better than chance, but still not very accurate, she says. And the officers who did worst were those who said they relied on nonverbal stereotypes like “liars look away” or “liars fidget.” In fact, the killer maintained eye contact and did not fidget while deceiving. “This guy was clearly very nervous, no doubt,” Mann says, but he controlled his behavior to strategically counter the stereotypes.

In a later study, also by Mann and Vrij, 52 Dutch police officers did no better than chance at distinguishing true and false statements given by family members who’d murdered their relatives but denied it in anguished displays during televised press conferences used in the study. Notably, officers who performed the worst were those who felt that the emotional displays were genuine. But what did that signify? “If a husband killed his wife, he could be upset for all kinds of reasons, like remorse or getting caught,” says Mann. “Nonverbal behavior is so idiosyncratic. If you focus on the nonverbal behavior like emotions, you will trip up.”

Confirming these results on a large scale years later, Hartwig and Bond reviewed the literature for studies comparing people’s abilities to detect high- and low-stakes lies. They found no evidence that people were any better at detecting lies told by criminals or wrongly accused suspects in police investigations than those told by laboratory volunteers.

Something to hide

From serial killers to students fibbing in laboratory experiments, the lies in all these experiments were spoken. In a study published in 2019, Mann examined nonverbal deceit, such as when someone is trying to conceal illicit activity — a type of deception relevant to detecting bombers or smugglers. She recruited 52 university student volunteers and asked half of them to transport a laptop said to contain sensitive photographs on a ferry ride between two cities. The volunteers were told to try to blend into the crowd and not look “suspicious,” because people would be trying to identify them. The other half of the group were given a regular cell phone to transport, with no instructions to conceal what they were doing.

When Mann showed videos of the ferry rides to 104 other volunteers and asked them to pick out the “smugglers,” the spotters did no better than chance. In interviews afterward, the “smugglers” said they were nervous, but they consciously tried to act normal and control their nerves with tactics such as listening to music or using their phones.

Next, Mann raised the stakes. Half of a new group of 60 volunteers were given an envelope of Russian, Egyptian and Korean currency to conceal, while the other half didn’t “smuggle” anything. But this time, Mann sent two researchers onto the ferry to pace around and scrutinize the passengers, appearing to compare their faces to photos on a cell phone.

This time, 120 observers trying to pick out the “smugglers” on video guessed correctly just 39.2 percent of the time — well below chance. The reason, Mann says, is that the “smugglers” consciously made an effort to look normal, while the “innocent” control volunteers just acted naturally. Their surprise at the unexpected scrutiny looked to the observers like a sign of guilt.

The finding that deceivers can successfully hide nervousness fills in a missing piece in deception research, says psychologist Ronald Fisher of Florida International University, who trains FBI agents. “Not too many studies compare people’s internal emotions with what others notice,” he says. “The whole point is, liars do feel more nervous, but that’s an internal feeling as opposed to how they behave as observed by others.”

Studies like these have led researchers to largely abandon the hunt for nonverbal cues to deception. But are there other ways to spot a liar? Today, psychologists investigating deception are more likely to focus on verbal cues, and particularly on ways to magnify the differences between what liars and truth-tellers say.

For example, interviewers can strategically withhold evidence longer, allowing a suspect to speak more freely, which can lead liars into contradictions. In one experiment, Hartwig taught this technique to 41 police trainees, who then correctly identified liars about 85 percent of the time, as compared to 55 percent for another 41 recruits who had not yet received the training. “We are talking significant improvements in accuracy rates,” says Hartwig.

Another interviewing technique taps spatial memory by asking suspects and witnesses to sketch a scene related to a crime or alibi. Because this enhances recall, truth-tellers may report more detail. In a simulated spy mission study published by Mann and her colleagues last year, 122 participants met an “agent” in the school cafeteria, exchanged a code, then received a package. Afterward, participants instructed to tell the truth about what happened gave 76 percent more detail about experiences at the location during a sketching interview than those asked to cover up the code-package exchange . “When you sketch, you are reliving an event — so it aids memory,” says study coauthor Haneen Deeb, a psychologist at the University of Portsmouth.

The experiment was designed with input from UK police, who regularly use sketching interviews and work with psychology researchers as part of the nation’s switch to non-guilt-assumptive questioning, which officially replaced accusation-style interrogations in the 1980s and 1990s in that country after scandals involving wrongful conviction and abuse.

Slow to change

In the US, though, such science-based reforms have yet to make significant inroads among police and other security officials. The US Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration, for example, still uses nonverbal deception clues to screen airport passengers for questioning. The agency’s secretive behavioral screening checklist instructs agents to look for supposed liars’ tells such as averted gaze — considered a sign of respect in some cultures — and prolonged stare, rapid blinking, complaining, whistling, exaggerated yawning, covering the mouth while speaking and excessive fidgeting or personal grooming. All have been thoroughly debunked by researchers.

With agents relying on such vague, contradictory grounds for suspicion, it’s perhaps not surprising that passengers lodged 2,251 formal complaints between 2015 and 2018 claiming that they’d been profiled based on nationality, race, ethnicity or other reasons. Congressional scrutiny of TSA airport screening methods goes back to 2013, when the US Government Accountability Office — an arm of Congress that audits, evaluates and advises on government programs — reviewed the scientific evidence for behavioral detection and found it lacking, recommending that the TSA limit funding and curtail its use. In response, the TSA eliminated the use of stand-alone behavior detection officers and reduced the checklist from 94 to 36 indicators, but retained many scientifically unsupported elements like heavy sweating.

In response to renewed Congressional scrutiny, the TSA in 2019 promised to improve staff supervision to reduce profiling. Still, the agency continues to see the value of behavioral screening. As a Homeland Security official told congressional investigators, “common sense” behavioral indicators are worth including in a “rational and defensible security program” even if they do not meet academic standards of scientific evidence. In a statement to Knowable, TSA media relations manager R. Carter Langston said that “TSA believes behavioral detection provides a critical and effective layer of security within the nation’s transportation system.” The TSA points to two separate behavioral detection successes in the last 11 years that prevented three passengers from boarding airplanes with explosive or incendiary devices.

But, says Mann, without knowing how many would-be terrorists slipped through security undetected, the success of such a program cannot be measured. And, in fact, in 2015 the acting head of the TSA was reassigned after Homeland Security undercover agents in an internal investigation successfully smuggled fake explosive devices and real weapons through airport security 95 percent of the time.

In 2019, Mann, Hartwig and 49 other university researchers published a review evaluating the evidence for behavioral analysis screening, concluding that law enforcement professionals should abandon this “fundamentally misguided” pseudoscience, which may “harm the life and liberty of individuals.”

Hartwig, meanwhile, has teamed with national security expert Mark Fallon, a former special agent with the US Naval Criminal Investigative Service and former Homeland Security assistant director, to create a new training curriculum for investigators that is more firmly based in science. “Progress has been slow,” Fallon says. But he hopes that future reforms may save people from the sort of unjust convictions that marred the lives of Jeffrey Deskovic and Marty Tankleff.

For Tankleff, stereotypes about liars have proved tenacious. In his years-long campaign to win exoneration and recently to practice law, the reserved, bookish man had to learn to show more feeling “to create a new narrative” of wronged innocence, says Lonnie Soury, a crisis manager who coached him in the effort. It worked, and Tankleff finally won admittance to the New York bar in 2020. Why was showing emotion so critical? “People,” says Soury, “are very biased.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated on March 25, 2021, to correct the last name of a crisis manager quoted in the story. Their name is Lonnie Soury, not Lonnie Stouffer.

This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews. Sign up for the newsletter.

Knowable Magazine | Annual Reviews

Saturday, December 4, 2021

When is "self defense" a legitimate defense?

Rittenhouse verdict flies in the face of legal standards for self-defense

Ronald Sullivan

In a two-week trial that reignited debate over self-defense laws across the nation, a Wisconsin jury acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse for shooting three people, two fatally, during a racial justice protest in Kenosha.

The Wisconsin jury believed Rittenhouse’s claims that he feared for his life and acted in self-defense after he drove about 20 miles from his home in Antioch, Illinois – picking up an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle in Kenosha – in what he claimed was an effort to protect property during violent protests. The lakeside city of 100,000 was the scene of chaotic demonstrations after a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

In delivering its verdict, a Wisconsin jury decided that Rittenhouse’s conduct was justified, even though the prosecution argued that he provoked the violent encounter and, therefore, should not be able to find refuge in the self-defense doctrine.

As prosecutor Thomas Binger said in his closing argument: “When the defendant provokes this incident, he loses the right to self-defense. You cannot claim self-defense against a danger you create.”

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The Wisconsin jury disagreed, and its decision may portend a similar outcome in another high-profile case in Georgia, where three white men are on trial for the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery after they claimed the Black man was a suspect in a rash of robberies. Like Rittenhouse, the three men claimed they were acting in self-defense.

Self-defense arguments are often raised during trials involving loss of life. Juries are then asked to determine whether a defendant’s conduct is justified by principles of self-defense or whether the offender is criminally liable for homicide.

Complicating matters is that each state has its own distinct homicide and self-defense laws. Some states observe the controversial “stand your ground” doctrine, as in Georgia – or not, as in Wisconsin – further clouding the public’s understanding on what constitutes an appropriate use of deadly force.

Five elements of self-defense

As a professor of criminal law, I teach my students that the law of self-defense in America proceeds from an important concept: Human life is sacred, and the law will justify the taking of human life only in narrowly defined circumstances.

The law of self-defense holds that a person who is not the aggressor is justified in using deadly force against an adversary when he reasonably believes that he is in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury. This is the standard that every state uses to define self-defense.

To determine whether this standard is met, the law looks at five central concepts.

First, the use of force must be proportionate to the force employed by the aggressor. If the aggressor lightly punches the victim in the arm, for example, the victim cannot use deadly force in response. It’s not proportional.

Second, the use of self-defense is limited to imminent harm. The threat by the aggressor must be immediate. For instance, a person who is assaulted cannot leave the scene, plan revenge later and conduct vigilante justice by killing the initial aggressor.

Third, the person’s assessment of whether he is in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury must be reasonable, meaning that a supposed “reasonable person” would consider the threat to be sufficiently dangerous to put him in fear of death or serious bodily injury. A person’s own subjective view of this fear is not enough to satisfy the standard for self-defense.

Fourth, the law does not permit a first aggressor to benefit from a self-defense justification. Only those with “clean hands” can benefit from this justification and avoid criminal liability.

Finally, a person has a duty to retreat before using deadly force, as long as it can be done safely. This reaffirms the law’s belief in the sanctity of human life and ensures that deadly force is an option of last resort.

‘Stand your ground’

The proliferation of states that have adopted “stand your ground” laws in recent years has complicated the analysis of self-defense involving the duty to retreat.

Dating back to early Anglo-American law, the duty to retreat has been subject to an important exception historically called the “castle doctrine”: A person has no duty to retreat in his home. This principle emerged from the 17th-century maxim that a “man’s home is his castle.”

The “castle doctrine” permits the use of lethal force in self-defense without imposing a duty to retreat in the home. Over time, states began to expand the non-retreat rule to spaces outside of the home.

“Stand your ground” laws came under national scrutiny during the trial of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted in the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

In that case, Martin, 17, was walking home after buying Skittles from a nearby convenience store. At the time, Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch volunteer who called police after spotting Martin. Despite being told by the 911 operator to remain in his car until officers arrived, Zimmerman instead confronted Martin.

It remains unclear whether a fight ensued, who was the aggressor and whether Zimmerman had injuries consistent with his claims of being beaten up by Martin. Zimmerman was the sole survivor; Martin, who was unarmed, died from a gunshot wound.

In the Zimmerman case, for example, under traditional self-defense law, the combination of first-aggressor limitation and duty to retreat would not have allowed Zimmerman to follow Martin around and kill him without being liable for murder.

But, in a stand-your-ground state such as Florida, Zimmerman had a lawful right to patrol the neighborhood near Martin’s home. As a result, during his trial, all Zimmerman had to prove was that he was in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury.

In Wisconsin, Rittenhouse was also able to put in evidence that he was in reasonable fear of death. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” Rittenhouse testified. “I defended myself.”

The prosecution was unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Rittenhouse was not reasonably in fear for his safety. This represents a high bar for the prosecution. They were unable to surmount it.

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