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Apr 14 2014

Monday Miscellany: Caring, Comments, K.C.

1. Stephanie on why ‘zero-tolerance’ harassment policies sound pretty, but do damage.

Finally, zero-tolerance policies fail because they’re difficult for organizers to follow. This seems counterintuitive, but it’s true. When there’s a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy, it gets harder for organizers to determine they’re making the right choice. Patterns of behavior are easier to work with than a single incident. Except in blatant cases, a single incident may be ambiguous where a pattern of behavior won’t be. This can lead to very high standards of evidence being required for action because the only action allowed is drastic.

….

These policies also fail because they discourage reporting. People who experience undesirable behavior under zero-tolerance policies know that reporting may well lead to expulsion. That frequently isn’t what they’re looking for. They just want the behavior to stop. This means that much undesirable behavior goes unreported. Even people who have experienced significant harassment won’t always report if reporting means taking responsibility for someone being expelled and excluded.

2. On soldiers returning home after war, and hidden guilt.

The story of the Trojan horse, delivered as a gift but transporting lethal agents instead, has long served as an allegory for the destructive power of secrets – like the unaddressed guilt hidden in the minds of soldiers, repeated with every homecoming for thousands of years. War’s simple premise, killing, is like that Trojan horse, devastating those sent to do it and, ultimately, the society they return to when the war is done. The insidious damage is only made worse because wartime killing, a philosophically problematic act, has been left out of the global dialogue. After all, how can humanity’s greatest civil crime, killing, become heroic in the context of war? There are practical considerations as well: will too much discussion of killing make soldiers hesitate or even rebel against protecting us from threats?

3. Chana on the Caring Less Game.

4. Miri on depression and isolation.

I recently saw the movie Frozen (yes, just recently). A lot of things resonated with me in that movie, but in particular I liked the theme of connection. In the movie, Elsa tries to hide her magical talent (and, by extension, her entire self) from everyone around her, even the little sister she loves, in order to keep them safe from the magic and to keep it a secret. That to me sounded a lot like a metaphor for depression, whether or not it was intended to be one. I also go to certain lengths to keep people from seeing how miserable I sometimes am*, and I also do this in order to “protect” them from worrying about me, from the frustration of being unable to help, and from whatever mild or severe drop in mood they may experience upon exposure to me. Like Elsa, I ultimately fail at this.

Elsa discovers in the end (spoiler alert) that the only way to prevent her gift from consuming her and everyone around her is through connection with others, through being close to people she loves and experiencing the positive emotions that brings. Likewise for me, there is no relief from depression without connection. Locking myself away in a tower makes for a good fairytale, but not so much for a recovery.

5. Julia with a lovely reflection:

As a child, many of us heard the slogan, “My body belongs to me” as part of a campaign against sexual molestation. It’s a pretty fundamental concept: you decide what to do with your body, who touches it, all of that. Autonomy and self-determination don’t get more basic.

In the weeks around my daughter’s birth, I’ve been thinking about all the ways your body does not belong to you.

6. I know K.C. through sidebars in textbooks and asides in lectures. As the result of an accident, KC was unable to recall things he’d done–only facts. In the jargon, he had no episodic memory. Now, K.C. has died.

7. I’m posting this, not because of the original link (though the advice offered is great) but because of the comment I found, via awkwardeer Kathryn:

People do change, people can learn and improve. They do get second chances.

Those chances do not have to be with me.

I can forgive and never have to speak to them again. I don’t have to give them another opportunity with me, the world gives them the chance to be a decent person to many other people every day. They should take the world up on that offer, but for my part? I’m busy with my life. Forgiveness just resets the clock to “total stranger” not “trusted companion”.

Apr 13 2014

No, You Probably Don’t Want ‘Peer Reviewed Evidence for God’

I have a story to tell you about Daryl Bem.

Daryl Bem is known for a variety of things–in part for, along with Sandra Lipsitz Bem, raising his children in as gender-neutral a household as possible. He’s a professor at Cornell, and has authored papers on, among other things, group decision making and psi.

You know, psi. Also known as predicting the future. Precognition ESP. That sort of thing.

A long while ago, two scientists undertook a review of the literature surrounding precognition, and their names were Bem and Honorton. As this story was originally told to me, Honorton entered the review believing ESP existed, and brought Bem on board as a more impartial investigator. Somewhat less long ago, in the year of my birth, Honorton died. Again, as the story goes, Bem decided to continue the project in honor of his collaborator, eventually publishing a review that favored precognition.

Enter those skeptics (ruining everything, amirite?) who claimed to have found flaws in the review. Now, somewhat committed, Bem returned with not one, but nine experiments designed to illustrate, with minimal human interference, whether or not psi existed, once and for all. I’m told they were intentionally set up to enable ease of replication and clear observation. And, lo and behold, they came in favor of the existence of psi. This would be a less interesting story of scientific arguing if the paper hadn’t been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a very well known, peer-reviewed journal–possibly the highest regarded in social psychology.

This left psychologists in a bit of a pickle.

Jounals shouldn’t publish stuff in favor of ESP!
But it was approved and peer-reviewed!
But it makes us look silly!
But we can’t turn things down just because we don’t like the idea! That’s not science!
But ESP isn’t science!
But peer review!

And it’s enough of a controversy that every social psychology class I’ve taken has included an aside about ‘that silly psi study’. There remain a number of psychologists who think that JPSP should have declined to publish. And again, I want to point out that the Bem study passed every requirement for publication…it’s just that the topic was psi.

There are three things you can take from this:

You can decide that psi exists. After all, there’s peer reviewed evidence for it.

You can decide that JPSP shouldn’t have published Bem’s research or other research that might make the field look like we believe in psychics.

Or you can decide that we could use more rigorous methods for everyone, and that peer-reviewed publications are a step on the way to endorsing a belief, but not the end. (Guess where I fall?)

And in the meantime, atheists, please let’s stop demanding “peer reviewed evidence for god” when talking with the religious. You just might get what you wished for, and then what?

Apr 12 2014

Measles and the Inoculation Effect

I gave a talk at Illinois-Wesleyan earlier today about marketing, persuasion, and pseudoscience.

As part of the notes, I mentioned that I had heard recently, but wasn’t sure of the veracity, that the measles outbreaks that were getting so much skeptic attention, were being wrongly blamed on anti-vaxxers. A few hours later, my RSS feed produced this gem, Measles Outbreak Traced to Fully Vaccinated Patient for First Time.

Well, that’s terrifying.

…a fully vaccinated 22-year-old theater employee in New York City who developed the measles in 2011 was released without hospitalization or quarantine. But like Typhoid Mary, this patient turned out to be unwittingly contagious. Ultimately, she transmitted the measles to four other people, according to a recent report in Clinical Infectious Diseases that tracked symptoms in the 88 people with whom “Measles Mary” interacted while she was sick. Surprisingly, two of the secondary patients had been fully vaccinated. And although the other two had no record of receiving the vaccine, they both showed signs of previous measles exposure that should have conferred immunity.

Now I want to talk about the inoculation effect.

The phenomenon, which is the closest psychology can get to convincing me to never argue for any cause I believe in ever, holds something like this: if you give someone a weak argument and they are able to refute it, they will be more resistant to stronger and similar arguments in the future.

On the one hand, this can be great. Don’t want kids to smoke? Start them with some arguments made for smoking (it’s coooool! everybody’s doing it!) and ask them why they’re bad arguments. Late, when some swaggering teenager* offers them a cigarette and leans in to say that all the cool kids are doing it, those kids won’t have to come up with an argument on the spot–they’ll be more likely to decline. This makes intuitive sense–if you’ve already thought about reasons that make All the Cool Kids Are Doing It an awful argument for smoking, you don’t have to create them on the spot. Practice makes perfect and all that.

Except that the other side of this problem is scary. What happens if you have a social movement you care about (not that any of my readers do, or anything…) and people are making terrible arguments for your side?** Then you come along with a better argument…and it fails, because your audience is used to knocking down the bad arguments and doesn’t care to listen to you.

Something like this:

A: I’m pretty skeptical about global warming. I’m not sure it’s real.

B: Yeah, but last summer was really hot! Remember how many record-breaking heat waves we had? When we were growing up, can you imagine having to stay in to avoid the heat so often? Or having so many deaths during a heat wave?

A: Okay, but this winter was one of the coldest on record. In fact, it was record-breaking! It’s mid-April and things are just starting to warm up. This global warming stuff is stupid.

Poor, unwitting C, who comes along later: But [scientific consensus, climate data, ice caps, desolate-looking polar bears]

A: GLOBAL WARMING IS A MYTH!

Or perhaps, let’s take an example that’s closer to home. Say you blame anti-vaccine advocates for causing a measles outbreak. Say you have headlines like Thanks, Anti-Vaxxers. You Just Brought Back Measles in NYC, or Measles is spreading, and the anti-vaccine movement is the cause. Or even Thanks Anti-Vax Loons: The Return Of The Measles And The Backlash Against Jenny McCarthy. And then, imagine what would happen if it turned out that you were completely wrong, and vaccines or lack thereof didn’t cause measles, and suddenly a bunch of people might be less likely than ever to get vaccinated.

That would be scary, no?

*I dunno, this is how peer pressure was always portrayed to me. 

**…or, my personal fear, that you ARE the one with the unpersuasive arguments?

Apr 07 2014

Monday Miscellany: NPR, Non-monogamy, Neurocomic

1. I grew up getting my news from NPR. So, uh, this was terrifying. (Bonus points if you read it in the anchor’s voices)

2. There’s been some excellent writing on aspects of polyamory recently. From Mitchell on jealousy, and Ferret, on compersion.

I look at compersion as a nice-to-have, a goal you should strive towards if you can do it. But “compersion” is often used as a club to smack people down for having feelings, and too many people have feelings of jealousy or fear or concern or even outrage to just dismiss them wholesale.

If all you ever feel when your lover’s off smooching someone else is happiness? That’s awesome! I envy you! I, however, often feel happiness mixed with fear that I’ll be replaced, and jealousy that New Guy can do things for her that I can’t (or else why would she be dating a carbon copy of me?), and it’s difficult enough to get past those feelings without the extra layer of “Oh, I must be bad at this if I have doubts.”

3. One of the refrains I heard a fair bit growing up was that science said that having premarital sex was bad because oxytocin! Shockingly, that’s a gross oversimplification. A better one, and an interesting article on the whole:

The hormone oxytocin is usually associated with positive traits like trust, cooperation, and empathy, but scientists have now found that it can make people more dishonest when their lies serve the interests of their group.

“This is the best evidence yet that oxytocin is not the ‘moral molecule,’” said Carsten de Dreu from the University of Amsterdam, who co-led the study, which was published today (March 31) in PNAS. “It doesn’t make people more moral or immoral. It shifts people’s focus from themselves to their group or tribe.”

4. I have lots of feelings about how children in the developing world are used as pawns and props: see also, adoption in non-Hague abiding countries. But it’s particularly apparent in the responses to World Vision, a support-a-child org which briefly announced it would employ married LGB staffers, then reversed its decision.

Within a day of the initial announcement, more than 2,000 children sponsored by World Vision lost their financial support. And with more and more individuals, churches and organizations threatening to do the same, the charity stood to lose millions of dollars in aid that would otherwise reach the poor, sick, hungry and displaced people World Vision serves.

So World Vision reversed course.

Stearns told The New York Times that some people, satisfied with the reversal, have called World Vision headquarters to ask, “Can I have my child back?” as though needy children are expendable bargaining chips in the culture war against gay and lesbian people.

5. Neurocomic: a bound, illustrated story of how the brain works.

Apr 02 2014

Speaking at Illinois-Wesleyan, 4/12 [UPDATED]

I spent much of my spring break in Boston and ran into a few people who live in the area, but hadn’t met in person. And I heard, more than once, “You’re Kate! From the internet!” Which….is true.

However! I am planning to exist in my corporeal form in two weeks, when I’ll be speaking at Illinois-Wesleyan University for their Secular Student Alliance group.

Details and description below:

Topic: Women & Pseudoscience

Time & Date: 3pm, Saturday, April 12th

Location: State Farm Hall  - 1402 Park St

Summary:
Much of alternative medicine and pseudoscience is marketed at a demographic: women, and especially mothers. What does this look like? How should we speak about skepticism and change skeptical activism in order to address this? I’ll be pulling from recent research (see here and here for interesting background) and personal experience.

 

Mar 31 2014

Spring Quarter: The Reading List

Books read in the last quarter and associated break time. By my count, about 23 books over ten weeks (not all of them pictured).

Books read in the last quarter and associated break time. By my count, about 23 books over ten weeks (not all of them pictured).

It’s the first day of my last quarter of undergrad; the hallowed Last First Day.

Winter quarter’s reading list, which was overwhelming and left incomplete (fourteen books for two classes over ten weeks, I ask you.) can be found here. This quarter’s list is far more manageable, and I imagine most of it will be read on buses and planes and trains to conferences and talks.

School Reading:

An Unconventional Family, Sandra Lipsitz Bem
I’ve read this before; sophomore year a housemate was in the psychology of gender class I’m now taking. It’s…weird. Premise: two professors who care about gender equality decide to raise their children (one boy, one girl) in entirely gender neutral ways. The writing is superb, the interviews with the children are enthralling. However, every single time I think about it or am in a class that discusses the Bem family, I am wildly uncomfortable with the metaphorical tapping on the glass that my peers do. How cool! Kids whose parents experimented on them by raising them in an entirely different way than their peers! That’s a touch too close to my lived experience to feel comfortably distant.

The Social Psychology of Gender: How Power and Intimacy Shape Gender RelationsLaurie A. Rudman, Peter Glick
A professor last year once asked the class, how many of us thought gender was primarily the result of underlying biological/genetic components, and how many thought it was the result of socialization. Then, without reacting, the professor asked the class which of them had taken more classes with Professor X (known for discussing socialization in relation to gender) and which had taken more classes with Professor Y (known for discussing the evo/bio basis of gender). Not surprisingly, the answers to the first and second question broke down along the same lines. I’ve not taken any classes with Professor Y, and this

Asian American Women and Men: Labor, Laws, and Love
This class has been interesting so far, but as the textbook hasn’t made it to my doorstep, all I can tell you is that I don’t know much about Asian American-specific gender studies, and that this might fix that.

Memory Alan Baddeley, Michael W. Eysenck, Michael C. Anderson
A textbook! About human memory! For a seminar on the neuroscience of memory! Yeah….that’s about all I know so far.

Just Because Reading:

Labyrinths of Reason: Paradox, Puzzles, and the Frailty of Knowledge, William Poundstone
I found out a few weeks back that after my freshman year, Northwestern offered a freshman-only class on paradoxes, with this as one of the textbooks. It was 1c on Amazon…and now here we are.

I Don’t Want To Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, Terrence Real
I’m a few pages in, and find the book interesting, if light on data. Depression is my go-to example of psychopathology getting their maps and territories in disarray, and I’m hoping this might give me a better picture of why exactly we’re having such issues. Failing that, I want a better model of what it feels like/looks like to be a man with depression. The book is (so far) heavy on anecdotes and light on data. Enjoyable to read, but not telling me new information yet.

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Kay Redfield Jamison
I’ve read this one before, but have forgotten much of it, except that I keep telling other people that I liked it. I saw Kay Redfield Jamison speak at NU earlier this year, and picked up a copy not long after.

Core Readings in Cognitive Psychology

Things On the Previous List, Still Unread

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Ray Baumeister
I have an odd affection for Baumeister, having once given a very long presentation about why I thought he was wrong. I’ve never read any of his non-academic publications, and since everyone seems to have very certain and completely opposite ideas about how willpower works, I’m starting with the book I hear people citing most in casual conversation.

Thinking, Fast & SlowDaniel Kahneman
Kahneman’s work on decision-making is worth reading. MegasuperADJECTIVE worth reading. None the least because it’s a nifty shorthand for categorizing feelings in conversation. (“My System 2 knows that this is stupid and completely untrue, but my System 1 is having a lot of trouble with not feeling like I deserve to eat.”)

Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
You know when you get completely caught up in a task and time flies by? You’re working and passionate and impossible to distract? That’s called ‘flow’, coined by Csikszentmihalyi and I haven’t been feeling it. Or the creativity. Which brings us here.

Listening to ProzacPeter Kramer
A well-known-ish popular psychology book that I keep hearing people reference. I’m overly skeptical–the blurb wonders if Prozac work on character rather than illness–but that might be gimmicky publishing. All things considered, I need to have a better idea of the popular-writing-on-psychiatry.

Against DepressionPeter Kramer
Pennies and pounds and all that–I picked up Kramer’s other book. It seems less sweeping: who has depression, and what’s that like?

The Screwtape LettersC.S. Lewis
Mike, who gifted me with Good Omens (from last quarter’s list), included The Screwtape Letters, as the demons of the two seem to be similar. I dunno if I agree yet, but I will sharpish.

This list of reading will displace my current Reading List page at the top of Gruntled & Hinged, and will remain up there until mid-June.

 

 

Mar 31 2014

Monday Miscellany: Vohs, Value, Online Vigilantism

Personal note: I’m concluding my undergraduate studies in June. Effective August, I’ll be starting a Masters in Social Work here. The only reason this isn’t in all caps is because I’m pretty sure I wore out all my all-capsing shouting with joy over the weekend, when I found out. So! Boston for me :) Now! Links!

1. I’m going to be reading all of this long article on ego depletion/decision fatigue. I don’t have much of an understanding, except that one days when I have to make lots of food/menu/when to eat choices, I end up entirely unable to locate willpower or motivation for nearly anything else.

2. I don’t have Aspergers, as this author does, but much of this article on value and feeling of value to friends resonated with me.

I have trouble with relationships in which I don’t feel like I’m of use—in which I don’t have something concrete to offer. I am much better at the explicit economy of professional relationships than the more nebulous territory of friendships. When it’s not explicit, I find it immensely difficult for me to eke out what’s expected of me.

[...]

Like Abed, I have trouble imagining a place for myself in any world not of my own making. I see other people’s tolerance of and interest in me as a finite resource, one I can renew to a limited extent by being of use, but which will eventually and inevitably run out. I have a long and serial history as a flavor of the month. I assume—based on precedent, although the individual countdowns can vary significantly—that most of my friendships are running on borrowed time.

I’ve only recently begun to feel as though I have relationships in my life that aren’t in this model; where it is reasonable and acceptable and right to assume that they will last.

3. There is some awful and unnuanced social justice writing on tumblr. This, however, is not it.

4. Miri takes on the ‘online vigilantes’ who are out to make strangers feel horrible For Their Own Good ™

The reason all this stuff has caught my attention isn’t just the sexism and body-shaming it often entails, but the circular reasoning of it–something I’ve noted about these types before. We’ll punish you for putting photos of yourself online because it’s a stupid thing to do. Putting photos of yourself online is a stupid thing to do because we’ll punish you for it. You shouldn’t wear ill-fitting clothing that exposes parts of your body that shouldn’t be exposed because then people have to look at it. People have to look at you wearing ill-fitting clothing that exposes parts of your body that shouldn’t be exposed because we just took a photo of you and put it on the internet. Women who put sexy photos online have no self-respect because putting sexy photos of yourself online is a bad thing to do because it shows you have no self-respect because putting sexy photos online is a bad thing to do because–at this point my ability to write words breaks down and I have nothing to say but WHAAAaaaaAAAAT A;LSDKFASLKDF;ASDFAJ;D?!

5. Two links over at Scott’s: an expansion/response to a conversation had on my wall about bad arguments and advice and the typical mind fallacy.

6. I laughed for a long while at this. Say what you will about Twitter, but it gives a great outlet for sharing humor.

Happy Monday!

Mar 30 2014

Psychology For Gryffindors

This should work if you’ve read canon Harry Potter or Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, and is some blending of the two. You can probably make sense of it with one or the other, but let me not fail to remind you that Methods is here and you should read it.

Psychology for Gryffindors

If we conduct good research—that is, research that uses large sample sizes and ethical methods and avoids statistical handwavery, we are doing it properly, and we will be able to improve the world. The scientific method is a self-correcting mechanism, and we can rely on it to give us correct answers about the world. (Ignoring this bit and such.)

Psychology for Ravenclaws

If we conduct careful research—we can learn new things about minds and people and model them better. We can figure out where our brains fail and how and why and who doesn’t fit into those models. Brains are cool, and technology is advancing, and we can know more. Of course, it’s not entirely certain how to conduct this research best, and methods and methodology are complicated, so we need to do investigation of that as well. (ManyLabs is your friend.)

Psychology for Slytherins

If we conduct targeted research, we can model people and groups better, and get them to make different choices. We can sell them products we wish to see and prevent them from developing common mental illnesses and make them avoid things like smoking and unhealthy foods, except when we want them to choose those things, in which case, we’ll be very good at making them ignore all other impulses.

I was trying to think of a way to make Asch’s conformity experiment more humanly significant. I was dissatisfied that the test of conformity was about lines. I wondered whether groups could pressure a person into an act whose human import was more readily apparent, perhaps by behaving aggressively to another person, say by administering increasingly severe shocks to him.

[...]

The first thing to realize is that there are no easy solutions. In order to have civilization, you must have some degree of authority. Once that authority is established, it doesn’t matter much whether the system is called a democracy or a dictatorship; the common man responds to governmental policies with obedience, whether in Nazi Germany or democratic America.

[Stanley Milgram, as interviewed by Carol Tavris]

See also: Phillip Zimbardo. (And the Ravenclaws respond.)

Psychology for Hufflepuffs

You can use research to help people! There’s so much information out there about what works and what doesn’t, and it’s waiting around to improve lives. Mental illness is stigmatized and can be hard and lonely and nobody should have to go alone. Psychology gives us the tools to improve our world.

In striking contrast to the enormous corpus of psychological research concerning the impact of biases and heuristics on human judgment is the paucity of psychological research on debiasing (Arkes, 1991; Larrick, 2004). It seems fair to say that psychologists have made far more progress in cataloguing cognitive biases (see Krueger & Funder’s, 2004, list of 42 such biases) than in finding ways to correct or prevent them.

[…]

If one accepts the dual propositions that ideological extremism is a significant contributor to inter- and intragroup conflict and human suffering and that confirmation bias and its cognitive cousins (naive realism, bias blind spot, false consensus effect, insider perspective) are significant contributors to ideological extremism, the central research question becomes: ‘‘Can scientific psychology promote human welfare by debiasing the general public?’’

[Lilienfeld et al, 2009, Give Debiasing Away]

And just because, psychology for cynics

We are hampered by many factors, but perhaps the most annoying has been the existence of ‘‘pop psych,’’ a massive amalgam of pseudo-expertise that has shadowed the legitimate field for more than a century (Benjamin, 1986). The public has no way of distinguishing empirically based findings from the ramblings of self-proclaimed experts, and there is no easy solution to this problem. One sad result is the ever wavering and often negative image that people have of both clinicians and behavioral scientists. In its early years, Psychology Today  may have been the best corrective the field ever had for all the pop psychology; in its current form, the magazine is probably harming psychology’s name more than helping it.

[Epstein, Giving Psychology Away: A Personal Journey]

Mar 28 2014

Boring, Small Things, That Made My Mental Illness Less Bad

apps apps appsBuying cheap or free apps for my smartphone. 

It took some work, and plenty of the apps were used for a few days or a week and then discarded as unhelpful or useless, but at a grand total of 99c spent across six or seven apps to find two gems (Self-Help Anxiety Management and Recovery Record) that massively improved my quality of life? Well worth it.

Sometimes the apps were mental illness specific, for anxiety or meal-tracking. But I also use Annoyster to send me random alarm reminders, (“Therapy is helpful and worth going to,” reads my most recent one. “Eating mindfully is a new habit I’m developing.” and “Have you had a glass of water recently?” have been previous alarms.) Fitocracy* to gamify exercising without obsessing over calories burned, and PepperPlate to make menus for the week.

Fidget rings and other fidget objects

Having something to play with or occupy your hands in conversation can help with dermatillomania, trichtillomania, nail biting, and a host of other nervous/anxious habits. Fidget/spinner rings are especially nice for professional situations–where you can’t pull out buckyballs or rubberbands, etc. A friend and I bought gorgeous, matching ones, and I’ve toyed with mine during interviews, therapy, and particularly boring lectures. Almost immediately after purchasing, I ended up with long enough fingernails to paint–I wasn’t biting or tearing at my nail beds constantly.

Even if you’re not the anxious type, I recommend them as a way to get respite in a conversation or interaction. More socially acceptable than looking at your phone, they give me something to focus on when I need a few seconds of space or distance. Here are some on Etsy, and cheaper variants on Amazon.

Though I haven’t used it personally, some friends use what I know as massage putty, but I’m sure the expensive stuff could be replaced with some cheap, dollar store putty. Build hand strength, make weird shapes, copy newsprint.  Rubik’s cubes are favorites of my friends, though I’ve never picked up the appeal.

Books, books, books

Books can add up in cost more than a phone app, but honestly, if a single book is cheaper in time and money than therapy….it’s well worth it. Though I’ve had access to free therapy for years now, books have been where I developed coping strategies, learned to recognize failure-mode patterns of thinking, and have me the words to explain what was going wrong in my head. And these haven’t been highly technical books–I’d just wander into the psychology section of a bookstore and find the ones that seemed to be less about spirituality and bad tropes and more about science, particularly ones that talked about coping strategies, evidence-based therapy, or didn’t rail against medication on the back cover.

Finding people with other mental illnesses. 

I actually don’t seek out people with eating disorders–it can put a real strain on me if we’re not at similar levels of recovery. But spending time around people who are used to having bad brain days that make socializing hard has taken a lot of the pressure of social interactions. I wasn’t trying to hide my coping mechanisms, and I got praise and reward for little victories (I ate a snack! I decided not to go to the gym today and felt good about it!) that wouldn’t mean much to a neurotypical observer.

*For over a year, I’ve encouraged friends and, well, strangers on the internet to use Fitocracy for their non-shamey system. Recently, the emails from the site have been all about weight loss and fat burning. I’ve solved this by disabling all emails, but the trend from site-for-people-who-want-to-feel-good-about-exercise to site-for-people-with-also-some-guilt is annoying. 

Mar 27 2014

Counterintuitive Underreactions and Overreactions

I love Pride and Prejudice but this is the image in my head for Bad At Serious Conversations.

The quality of not reacting in an upset way to new information has been on my mind recently. People seem to tell me things regularly—a driving force, if not the initial impetus behind my career choice–and something I’ve noticed as a skill is knowing when to react strongly to emotionally-loaded information…and when to treat an offhand remark like a plea for help.

That is, how do you decide when the reaction to–

“Yeah, sorry I’m late on this piece of the project–I had some friend trouble last week–but what if we scheduled a meeting on Tuesday and went over this section right now?”

–should sound like:

“Oh, that sounds [expression of sympathy], I’m so [sad/apologetic]! [Tell me more/how have you been handling it]?”

And when the appropriate response to–

“Yeah, I’ve had some struggles with depression and repeated hospitalizations meant I had to take an extra year of college.”

–is best phrased as:

“Oh, okay, [brief smile] [topic change, offer of ice cream, return to task at hand]“

My initial impulse was to say that a good heuristic is “the weirder/more emotional the information, the more noncommittal the response” But this breaks down very quickly. For one, I hang out in a social group that is almost definitely breaking my Weird and Emotional Information Disclosure alarms. Casual references to hallucinations and depressive episodes are par for the course, and dissecting how one feels about a surprise phone call is the norm.

Each time I try to break down exactly how I decide which of these to do in what situation–because sometimes ‘I had some friend trouble’ is an offhand aside, and ‘struggles with depression and repeated hospitalization’ does call for processing and discussion of current feelings–my brain comes back with ‘well, it was obvious in the situation!’ Thank you, brain, for that helpful contribution.

And then there’s another complication: what if in attending to this; in trying to figure out when to be noncommittal about Serious Things and take parenthetical remarks as openings for Deep Conversations, you do more harm? If you maintain even mediocre relationships, it seems high-risk to play around with how you respond to disclosures. If the learning curve means messing up a few times in large ways, you might be better served by not accidentally tanking your friendships.

And these interactions can and do make or break relationships and friendships. I can hear it now (in part, because I have heard it before):

“I confessed my deepest secret to her, and she just asked if I still wanted to go bowling!”

or, from my own life:

“Every time (this is only slightly hyperbolic) I offhandedly mention that my parents recently divorced, everyone thinks it’s The Worst Thing In The World, and I have to convince them I think it was a good idea. And then when I say I’m glad, everyone assumes I had a horrible home life. Now I just never mention it.”

At the same time, filing this as a skill that some people have and some people don’t, and one for which there is no ability to intentionally jump from one camp to the other just grates on me. Most of my social skills are learned, and I pick up new ones best from explicit instructions and scripts that I, over time and testing, adapt. They’re social skills, after all, not social I can just miraculously do it and you can’t so pbthhh.

So….how? Accept that straining some friendships is the price for being a slightly better friend overall? Try some other heuristic for how to react? What do you do?

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