Archive for the ‘Psychology’ tag

How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior, by Laura Kipnis   no comments

Posted at 8:27 pm in Book review

To all appearances, Lisa Nowak was both accomplished and sane, a holder of multiple advanced and highly technical degrees: and an astronaut, which means, inter alia, a survivor of the rigorous psychological testing given to prospective members of the space program. So it was surprising when she showed up in Orlando–having driven 950 miles from Houston, apparently using diapers along the way–and, wearing a bizarre disguise, attacked Colleen Shipman, her rival for the affections of fellow astronaut Bill Oefelein. (Amusingly, to her colleagues in the space program, one of the more mystifying aspects of this story was that she managed to find her way to Orlando without getting lost.) How could this possibly happen? And surely, nothing like it could ever happen to us.

Not so, says Laura Kipnis, who in How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior, makes an intriguing–and convincing–case that we’re all much closer to public disgrace than we think.

Who among us is not guilty of the occasional bout of bizarre, blatantly rude, manic, self-sabotaging behavior? Mostly though, it’s not spectacular enough–or we’re not famous enough–for it to qualify as scandalous. I can think of occasions, say, when–lunch way past due and confronted with an elaborately rude stranger–I’ve publicly exhibited banshee-like behavior that I would be very loathe to have recorded on videotape. Lapses of self control, fits of bad temper, self-delusion: they’re all part of the human condition, and given the right set of circumstances, can manifest themselves in particularly explosive ways.

Generally, though, people blow up their lives only under distinctly exacerbated circumstances. Kipnis evokes a great deal of sympathy for Nowak, whose marriage had recently broken up, who had obviously been a great deal more in love with Oefelein than he had ever been with her, and who had recently lost a close friend in the Columbia shuttle disaster. (She had been caring for her friend’s motherless child, which would have put a significant strain on anyone.) Oefelein for his part seems to have waited until weeks into his relationship with Shipman to break things off with Nowak; and a sort of idée fixe had taken hold of her, that she must apprise Shipman of this, and find out when Shipman knew what she knew. Why she needed to do this in disguise, in the middle of the night, in an airport parking lot, using pepper spray, not even Nowak can explain–but then none of us, Kipnis argues, can say what we’re ultimately capable of.  By the end of Kipnis’ tale, it is impossible to see Nowak, and the wholesale destruction of her career, as anything other than tragic.

Kipnis lends a similar perspective to the other scandals she describes (which tend to be notable, distinct from the more garden variety scandals in which actors yell racist slurs and have public outbursts)–the eminent jurist Sol Wachtler, imprisoned after a bizarre episode in which he wrote extortionary notes to an ex-girlfriend under an assumed personality, and James Frey, publicly pilloried (most notably by Oprah, whose own actions were distinctly  weird) when aspects of his best-selling memoir turned out to be fiction. The only subject for whom–in my eyes, at least–Kipnis does not manage to drum up any sympathy at all, is Linda Tripp, who remains as staunchly repulsive as ever. Manic, even dangerous behavior: well, ok; the wholesale betrayal of a friend and–I would argue–her country: emphatically not ok.

Scandal, though always a popular topic, has not been the subject of much theory. Kipnis here makes an elegant (if, to my taste, excessively Freud-laden) attempt to remedy the situation, in a book that ultimately does not so much chronicle our differences as reveal our similarities. Scandal, Kipnis argues, both unites us and shows our society for what it really is; it allows us to laugh together while exposing the fault-lines of our culture. So scandal is not just endemic, but necessary to the human condition. And there, but for some really crappy luck, go you or I.

Written by Lorin on January 9th, 2011

Tagged with ,

Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, by Ethan Watters   no comments

Posted at 8:21 pm in Book review

A woman tries to walk across a room, but collapses. Another suddenly goes blind, for no obvious physical reason. Victorian hysteria, clearly a product of a time when women lived highly constricted, repressed lives. A veteran suffering from PTSD, on the other hand: doubtless a real disease, immutable, applicable in all situations and cultures. Not so, says Ethan Watters, who convincingly argues that all mental illnesses are circumscribed and molded by the cultures in which they occur. A person who is distressed will express it by drawing from whatever pool of symptoms is available in his culture–which may well be entirely different from what is available in my culture.

In Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, Ethan Watters, a veteran journalist who presented a scathing indictment of the recovered memory movement in Making Monsters, examines four illnesses in four parts of the world: anorexia in Hong Kong, PTSD in Sri Lanka, schizophrenia in Zanzibar, and depression in Japan.

These four illnesses (and cultures) are quite different from each other, but share something important: none of them looked like the accepted Western clinical definition of the disease. Anorexics in Hong Kong did not believe that they were fat, trauma sufferers in Sri Lanka tended to describe physical symptoms and damage to family relationships rather than psychological problems, schizophrenics in Zanzibar were believed to be possessed by spirits, and in Japan, milder forms of depression were not viewed as an illness that required treatment.

Watters describes a world far from the definitive-sounding edicts of  the DSM (the diagnostical and statistical manual of psychological disorders, the handbook of Western psychology); one in which distress is signaled in an enormous variety of ways. “The simple but mind-bending truth,” the anthropologist Allan Young explains, “is that mental illnesses such as PTSD can be both culturally shaped and utterly real to the sufferer.” This world collides unhappily with the immutable-disease view of much of the Western mental health establishment.  (Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down makes a good companion read.)

Western health professionals increasingly treat patients throughout the world, and Watters suggests that they are often far less helpful than they believe. A DSM-trained therapist, unwilling to consider that a Hong Kong anorexic does not believe herself fat, is unable to hear what the patient is actually saying. This is one problem with the globalization of the DSM. An even larger concern is that in the course of describing an illness, particularly if the description is dispersed widely throughout a culture, therapists may actually create an illness where it did not exist before. The local expressions of mental illness begin to disappear, and the clues that could have been gleaned from them are lost.

Crazy Like Us is not a polemic against Western mental health care: it is clear that competent Western therapists can be very helpful, under the right circumstances. It is equally clear, though, that they can be distinctly unhelpful under the wrong circumstances, when they fail to understand that their definitions are not universal.

This is especially clear in Sri Lanka, as American therapists rush to the scene of the tsunami, insisting that the local population has no understanding of trauma, and no idea how to treat victims. The psychology professor Ken Miller suggests that we consider the opposite scenario, with Mozambicans telling 9/11 survivors which rituals they need to engage in to sever their relationships with deceased family members. That the therapists earnestly believe themselves to be doing good makes these scenes no less disturbing. They explain that large segments of the population will fall victim to PTSD, and that it is not necessary to understand Sri Lankan culture to make this prediction. (There is an obvious connection to Watters’ previous work, with echoes of the victim mentality that characterized the recovered memory movement in these PTSD predictions, as well as in the medicalization of very minor depression in Japan. Human beings occupy a large spectrum, from fragility to resilience, and it’s not clear why fragility should be the default option.) These therapists are, of course, wrong: Sri Lankan history is sadly full of tragedy, and Sri Lankans have developed specific and effective methods of coping with it.

In all of these cultures, a shift is underway to a more Western view of the mind. Watters believes that a society is most susceptible to this influence when it is under a great deal of strain: the Chinese takeover in Hong Kong, for instance, or the tsunami in Sri Lanka. These changes do not happen on their own, but tend to be encouraged by outside agencies. The most striking instance that Watters describes of Western intervention is a successful attempt by a consortium of pharmaceutical companies to change the definition of depression in Japan, through an enormous and society-wide campaign. The high regard in which U.S. knowledge is held in much of the world makes such attempts to influence local mental health practices particularly effective–and dangerous.

From the U.S. point of view, the culture-blind promotion of Western ideas on the mind could appear to be a good thing. Shift your vantage point a bit, though, and these efforts look misguided and even harmful. This is a brilliant and genuinely paradigm-shattering book.

Written by Lorin on July 18th, 2010

Tagged with , ,

Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average, by Joseph T. Hallinan   1 comment

Posted at 6:05 pm in Book review

Human beings have an interesting dilemma.  Sanity, I suspect, hinges to some degree on believing ourselves to be right more often than not, on believing that what we see is actually there, and that what we remember actually happened.  Unfortunately, we are very often wrong, about almost everything. In Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average,  Joseph T. Hallinan fascinatingly plumbs the depths of our errors.

In a style familiar to readers of Freakonomics and Outliers, he gives a plethora of examples, from medicine to criminal justice to the military. We are never safe from mistakes, though this is due less to problems of intelligence and organization, and more to the inherent flaws of our approach to the world.

One facet of this approach is efficiency. For instance, if we are looking for something and conclude that it is unlikely to be there, we tend to stop looking. This has unfortunate implications for radiologists and airport screeners: in one 2002 study, TSA officers missed one in four guns.  (Screeners have a literally one-in-a-million chance of seeing a gun.)

Equally, if we believe that we know what will be there, we don’t look very closely: we skim.  Hallinan describes a misprint in a piece of music that had gone unnoticed for decades, and was not detected until an unskilled pianist played the piece. All other pianists had simply automatically substituted the correct note.  This suggests, counterintuitively, that the best proof-readers may not be experts.

And we see what we expect to see. I read of a study in which wine experts were given white wine that had been colored to make it appear red. Many of the experts failed to notice that it was white, and gave detailed evaluations of a red wine.  I explained this to a delighted waiter at Cookshop once; I wonder if he ever tried it out on the sommelier.

The list of things that we get wrong goes on and on, often driven by just the sorts of devices that have advantages in other situations. We often have trouble drawing a penny from memory or reciting the national anthem (I failed the penny test, but recited the anthem without error), we are terrible at judging risk, and we tend heavily toward overconfidence–think, for instance, of the millions of unused gym memberships we pay for every year. We also think that we can multi-task. We can’t.

Fortunately, Hallinan does not regard these problems as unsolvable, and the last few chapters of the book describe ways in which we can attempt to overcome them. Forewarned is forearmed, at least some of the time.

Readers of  Jonah Lehrer, Atul Gawande, and Malcolm Gladwell will recognize both Hallinan’s style and a number of the examples he gives, but for anyone interested in the disjoint between what we believe and what is  true–and how to tell the difference–this book provides a fascinating account.

Written by Lorin on June 13th, 2010

Tagged with ,

The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys Into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing, by Daniel Bergner   2 comments

Posted at 1:12 pm in Book review

Even very good progressives tend to assume that some topics do not merit  discussion, that there is only one side to the story. That side is often described as evil. Evil has always struck me as a not entirely useful idea: all human behavior is part of a spectrum–even if at the outer limits thereof–and to deny that is to remove the possibility of an explanation, and with it, the possibility of a solution.

Human carnality very definitely occupies this spectrum, and in The Other Side of Desire:  Four Journeys Into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing, Daniel Bergner explores some of its further outposts, examining foot fetishists, sadists, pedophiles and amputee fetishes.

While making no excuses for criminal or harmful behavior, he demonstrates that these “devotees” are often driven by extreme and nigh-uncontrollable  impulses.  Bergner manages to show the humanity of people to whom it is often denied, never simplifying or demonizing. Of the paraphiliacs he depicts, only the sadistic fashion designer (of strikingly ugly latex clothes) comes off as wholly unsympathetic.

At the harmless, foot fetish end of the spectrum, he suggests there may be real advantages: people whose desire is intensely focused in one area may have a capacity for a kind of joy that eludes most people. This does not prevent the foot fetishist described in the book from being utterly tormented by his desires. Curiously (and unnecessarily) he appears no less tormented than the pedophiles depicted in a later chapter.

Bergner makes clear that even harmful behavior can be disturbingly close to the normal part of the spectrum. He cites a study in which twenty-one percent of participating men described an attraction to small children, and seven percent said that they would abuse a child if assured of not being caught. This is clearly a far higher percentage of the population than just those convicted of crimes against children.

The definition of perversion has shifted a great deal over the centuries.  Many practices once considered barbaric are now entirely accepted, and vice versa. (Bergner observes that until the late nineteenth century, the legal age of consent was ten.) Bergner believes pedophilia to be harmful, but does not otherwise take a position on the morality of these practices.  The sadistic designer claims that her services to her clients–including, in one extreme case, roasting a man over hot coals–are therapeutic;  Bergner leaves it to the reader to decide whether she is dangerous or merely eccentric. (Either way, she is highly unusual: most paraphiliacs are men.)

Of the four categories, I found amputee fetishes, unexpectedly, the most unsettling.  The ethicist Gilbert Mailaender describes the sense we have of the body as something whole and sacred (Larissa MacFarquhar discussed this in the New Yorker, with reference to the horror many feel at voluntary kidney donation), and I think that this is true. So the paraphiliacs’ explanations don’t quite convince: a preference for amputees does not to me appear equivalent to another man’s preference for blond hair. Bergner’s attempts  to humanize his subjects would have succeeded better here, had he explained–if it is possible to explain–what it is that deadens this instinct in some people.

While occasionally harrowing, and not for the faint of heart, this is a fascinating and enlightening tour of the netherworlds of sexuality–which ultimately suggests that we may all have more in common than we think.

Note: Why is this not more detailed?  Oh please.  My parents might read it!

Written by Lorin on May 28th, 2010

Tagged with ,