Can Can Can

[Somewhat more rambly post, still frantically packing and finishing finals]

I’ve noticed something recently, about this phrase:

Can you do something for me?

There are two ways this phrase can go.

Can you do something for me…[by never doing this thing that I hate that you’ve been doing?]


Can you do something for me? [because I bet you had no idea this could be helpful, and I wanted to let you know, but also, you can say no to doing it!]

The first is unintentionally passive-aggressive: masquerading as the innocuous request that the second one actually is.

And I’m completely guilty of this. “Can you do something for me?” is how I trained myself to start asserting boundaries. It was the nice way to retroactively tell someone that their behavior had hurt me. I was being polite! I was leveraging my way into telling someone I wanted them to change their behavior! “Can you do something for me?” was a way to start the conversation that still gave me an out–I could chicken out and ask them to pass the potatoes, you know. I wasn’t really starting a Scary Conversation That Might Make Them Mad, I was just making it slightly more possible.

Can you do something for me?

Yeah, sure!

Can you not say that thing near me? It’s a huuuuge trigger, and I end up really distraught.

And I learned to start making boundary requests! But at the same time, I learned to have the gut-punch of fear any time an innocuous conversation opened this way. I wouldn’t be surprised if my friends started to feel this way too.

And this is the opposite of my goal! I want to have easy and clear communication, not shift the fear!anxiety to phrases that I also use to make normal requests. I’m not sure how to prevent myself from doing this in the future: this process was a step up from not saying anything at all, and the next step is not using a misleading opening. I’m not sure I could have leaped from Step One to Step Three.

‘Just do it’ is a successful strategy for some, and might have worked for me. I’m hesitant to advocate it though; the thing about Just Do It is that people who can’t Just Do It will nod and then carry on there merry way not doing it.

On ‘Bad Media’ and Bingeing

[Content note: eating disorders]

I still think about this article on writing about eating disorders:

Ginia Bellafante put it well a few years ago, in a book review for the New York Times:“Anorexia is a disease of contradiction: it demands both discipline and indulgence …. The anorexic disappears in order to be seen; she labors to self-improve as she self-annihilates.” Bellafante describes the condition as “an intellectualized hallucination.” That concise definition is better than any I’ve read, and it points to the conflicted way in which we talk about the disease: our intention is critical, but our language is celebratory.

I don’t have a good answer to the main premise–that we are too easily awed and worshipful of deprivation, even when we try to talk about the horrors. I’m wary of overusing the word ‘fetishize’, but it does seem to fit, drawing closer and closer as we write about the horror. Moths and flames, you know.

And I don’t want to object to writing more articles about eating disorders–but there’s a definitive trend in what aspects of eating disorders we talk about. Mainly, we talk about the ones we can link to Big Societal Problems–supermodels and photoshop are making us all want to be unrealistically thin! Young girls are feeling pressure earlier and earlier to diet! And this seems to result in prioritizing a certain kind of story.

Nearly every article about eating disorders ever will describe in painful, clear detail how someone (usually a girl) deprives themselves. 
How they think about it, the tricks they use, how good it feels. 
And nobody ever manages to write about bingeing, though most people who deprive binge as well, and most people with an ED end up wandering through diagnoses. Several targeted google searches for eating disorder articles, and I couldn’t find a intimate interview. No first-person stories that centered around bingeing–the purging afterwards, sure, the bouncing-back into depriving, sure, but not the gripping, hollow, band-around-your-chest feeling of bingeing. 

It’s nice that you want to write those articles about eating disorders, and I’m all in favor. But please, let’s not talk about how bad it is that Other, Bad Media glorifies disordered behavior when all you’ll write about is the stuff that makes you skinnier.

Falling In Love With People

[One of my most popular posts from early in the creation of this blog.]

I think one of my favorite things about people is how they light up when you find exactly the right thing that they love to talk about.

Sometimes it’s people–the friends who accomplished something, the family that’s visiting in a few weeks. The new baby and the recently graduated cousin. Or the people who create–the car half-finished in the garage, the quilt that just needs a few more stitches. The garden that’s just coming up in the spring–if only those damn squirrels would leave it be.

There’s the people with topics, who leap in to tell you about the Perseid shower coming up when you mention how pretty the sky is, the ones who hear you ponder a question and offer book recommendations in response. Oh, and the people with ideas! The questions, the new rabbit holes of unconsidered variables, the research you haven’t heard of.

And people are these collections of things that have captured their passion. Astronomy and hypnosis and philosophy and smithing and treehouse architecture and all just waiting for you to ask the right questions. Their eyes will get a little bit wider, their gestures, more energetic. They give you their real smiles–the ones that aren’t just for agreeing and nodding along and making small talk.

And then some of you out there make fun of them for lighting up at the mention of dollhouses or sports or fashion or that one television show. And they back off. They curl their toes in their shoes and change the subject. And maybe the next time, they won’t say “yes! I love talking about the finer points of fencing!”

And you, out there, sneering at their love for beekeeping or birdwatching?

You are ruining it for the rest of us. 

A Post That’s Not About Precognition

…but you knew that already, didn’t you?

There have been a few posts about Daryl Bem recently that I’ve either written or linked to. In short, psychologist seems to believe precognition (aka, ESP) exists, publishes a lot of papers about it, generally upsetting social psychologists.

Actually, I didn’t know the name Bem from this first at all. I knew the Bems (of which there are several! Two of whom used to be married!) from the book An Unconventional Family, written by Daryl Bem’s ex-wife, who’s well known as a psychologist in her own right. From the description:

This engrossing book by the author of The Lenses of Gender is an account of her years as an egalitarian partner in a gender-liberated, anti-homophobic, feminist marriage. Bem reveals how she and her husband, Daryl, became gender pioneers, how they raised their two children, and what their experiences – both positive and negative – have to say about the viability of nontraditional gender arrangements in society today.

I’d agree with this article that ‘gender pioneers’ is putting the Conestoga wagon a little before the horses; what the Bems did was attempt to raise their two children into a gender-neutral house, trying to avoid ascribing gender to clothing and toys and behavior, while also trying to share child-rearing duties.

It’s quite a short book–at just 200 pages–including interviews with the entire family. Mostly, I think it’s an excellent read for thought-experiment reasons. I endorse most of the ideals the Bems held: strictly gendering children is silly! Dolls and trucks being gendered is not worth enforcing! (I loved my tinkertoys, thankyouverymuch) Conversely, I have lots of instinctive dislike of the idea of testing one’s beliefs about how society should be on your children, in ways that can leave them not able to fit in. I have very heavy memories of knowing exactly why I didn’t fit in and knowing I couldn’t fix it, and also feeling awful for wanting to be like Those People because doing something because everyone else was doing it was a Bad Reason. And [Third-Variable]ly, I don’t know how on earth one would predict which would be worse in the long run, or even how far away-from-normal the things you do at ages two and three will leave your children as they grow.

*throws up hands in confusion*

The Therapeutic Alliance and Just….Not ‘Getting It’

No, I didn't spend lots of my afternoon creating a logo for a fictional, crime-fighting Therapeutic Alliance. What makes you ask such a thing?

No, I didn’t spend lots of my afternoon creating a logo for a fictional, crime-fighting Therapeutic Alliance. What makes you ask such a thing?

[Related to Some Musings on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Counterintuitive Underreactions and Overreactions]

There’s a lot of talk in my clinical classes about who and what succeeds in therapies. Does it matter if you’re a matched or unmatched gender from your client? (Probably not, except maybe for teens. ) What about matched ethnicity? (Maybe for some ethnicities.) Does it matter what sorts of therapy you’re practicing? (Sort of? Maybe. Okay, we’ll concede that we disagree a lot.)

But there’s this one thing that we do think is important, across all sorts of other variables. The therapeutic alliance. Sadly, not a secret cabal of psychotherapists, fighting crime and kicking ass.

[Psssst, I would TOTALLY JOIN if someone reading this were recruiting for such an alliance. Ahem.]

Therapeutic alliance is the sense of working together as a team, client and therapist. Depending on who you talk to, it involves empathy, reciprocated positive feelings, a sense of collaboration, and the client’s belief that the therapist supports them. More interestingly, it’s a fantastic predictor of both whether or not clients will stay in therapy and whether or not therapy will result in positive outcomes, across the type of therapy.

…Okay, not exactly earth-shattering. If you don’t feel like you and your therapist are on a team, or don’t feel as though you’re supported or understood, you’re not going to want to go back to therapy and spill your heart and guts. You’ll want to find someone else or stop paying for hours of awkward and uncomfortable interaction. If you don’t feel like your therapist understands what’s going on, where are you going to dig up motivation to practice the (hard) skills you’re developing in sessions? If you don’t think your therapist empathizes with you, are you going to tell them when you failed? If you don’t tell them when things fell apart, how are you going to develop coping mechanisms for failure modes? Of course you’ll put in more work with a therapist you want to please, and that will show in better outcomes.

Right okay, so the importance of the therapeutic alliance makes intuitive sense too.

Except, imagine that your professional success hangs very much on being able to make people with a wide variety of backgrounds, cognitive distortions, and expectations for therapy like and trust you within the first few hours you spend together. And your job is to do this over and over and over.

And the advice you get for how to do this involves things that seem to be on the simplistic side. Don’t seem distracted. Don’t watch the clock. Don’t invalidate their emotions. Don’t seem judgemental. Great advice! But not exactly going to turn you into the perfect stranger to share deep and scary secrets with.

In trying to pull this apart, I’ve a theory, which generalizes outside of couch-based relationships. When people say lots of words at you, picking which ideas you respond to is important.

Again, not earth-shattering. Boring and mundane, even. Bear with me.

An example, from the non-therapist version:

Jeremy: Hey, I noticed you’ve seemed a little upset this week. Is anything going on?

Eliza: Yeah, it’s been a rough week. My parents have been fighting constantly–you know, the loud, shouty fights that you can’t not hear. I’m afraid they’re considering splitting up. And I’ve been stuck at home because my car’s in the shop; I have no idea how I’m going to afford the repair I need.

Jeremy: Yeah, I hear you. It’s almost impossible to take a car in and not have to spend a ton of money.

…and at this point, I bet a bunch of you are patting yourselves on the back for spotting what happened. Go you! Jeremy asked after Eliza, who helpfully explained she had BIG STRESS X [parents shouting constantly and unavoidably] and Small Stress Y [cars are expensive to repair]. Given the opportunity to respond to X or Y, Jeremy commiserated about how cars are expensive to maintain.

If Eliza and Jeremy are close, she can agree and then turn the conversation back to shouting parents, or decide that Jeremy’s response doesn’t condemn him as Worst Friend Ever, and find someone else to pour her heart out to later.

And I want to throw some sympathy in Jeremy’s direction! “My parents are shouting and might be splitting up” is not light conversation and I’d bet that his internal monologue sounded like “helphelphelp, what’s the script for this, OH, I know how to talk about repairs being expensive!” or “oh noooo, that sounds really hard, what do I say next? uh oh she stopped talking now I talk aaaaah”

Point is, this might be frustrating for Eliza if it’s the default mode of their friendship, but I expect it’s unlikely she’ll even notice at the conscious level it’s happened this one particular time. Most people simply don’t analyze friendships at the level where they can articulate “I expressed two worries and Jeremy picked the lesser of the two to discuss, when clearly the greater worry was my parents marital status”, nor do they need to.

Let’s go back to therapists and therapeutic alliance. I think that lots of what stymies the therapeutic alliance is a version of this. Except instead of having a background of friendship and understanding, there’s this client, who maybe isn’t even sure therapy can help, and what if this person makes fun of these weird feelings like everyone else did? There’s all these unseen, not-quite-expressed negotiations where the therapist is trying to get information without interrogating and the client is trying to test the waters with progressively more personal information and lead the therapist towards asking the questions that will let them do that.

So, Client Eric says that he’s been worried about school and can’t sleep because he’s had so much homework. And Therapist Evangeline wants to talk about coping techniques for dealing with school–which helps Eric. But Eric, who has only met Therapist Evangeline once before, at intake, was hoping she’d ask after that not-sleeping part, because he’s had insomnia for a few years and everyone else thinks it’s normal college behavior, but a few times he didn’t sleep for days and what if that’s really bad…?

Client Eric might be able to fix this if he points out that he wants to talk about his sleep, and does Therapist Evangeline mind, but that’s hard, especially if Eric’s mindset is that the therapist is the expert who will fix his brain. It’s not that this is a bad mindset, it’s just that Correct the Authority Figure” is a harder game than Correct the Nice Stranger Sitting Across From You.

So after a few sessions where Eric says A and B, and Evangeline focuses on A, when Eric’s worried about B, Eric might feel like he’s not being listened to. He’s not right, exactly–Evangeline is listening. If you press Eric, he might be able to tell you that she just….didn’t get it.

And I think this is basically what makes the therapeutic alliance fail between some clients and some therapists, all other things equal. For some set of clients, a therapist is great at figuring out what part of a given response to hone in on, and for some other set, they miss enough to give the feeling that they’re not paying attention or don’t care or just…don’t ‘get it’

I…don’t actually know how to fix this. Or if it’s fixable. I know that being able to label this difference between a therapist I adored and a therapist that was meh made me feel more in control. I wasn’t unreasonable, it was that I kept wanting to talk about Thing One, and they kept asking after Thing Two, which in my mind was more a detail to round out my story than a Large Problem. Once I was there, I could point out that my concern was Thing One, and did they mind if we explored that? It was tiring, and all things being equal, (they weren’t) I would have found another therapist. But instead of therapy being a nebulous and confusing interaction, I could pinpoint exactly where the exchange was getting unhelpful.

 *For the record, this is probably overly simplistic. If you’re trans*, I’d bet it would make things a lot more relaxed and open if your therapist were too, along with some other permutations that probably haven’t been investigated closely. Further, my guess is that the effect is fragile for most of these differences anyways. 

Some Musings on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

 Robby Bensinger told me to finish a post on CBT, so hark! A post on CBT. Many, many thanks also to Miri for critiques and help with the composite example in Part Three. 

Recently, I’ve been on this kick where I read books about therapy and self-help not because I think they’re going to be useful to me, but because I want to know if they’re going to be useful to other people. Like, this marriage manual*, for instance. Books that teach you to do Cognitive Behavioral Therapy on yourself have been a particular focus. When I’m asked for resource recs, people often specifically ask for evidence-based therapy or CBT, and I give the classic suggestions. (If you’re coming up with titles here, you’re probably right.)

And I get feedback! ….which is often mixed. The most common thing I hear is that the advice was good, but the narrator was condescending/annoying/patronizing. In fact, this is what I’ve heard almost every single time. Keep in mind that these are people who sought me out for a specific kind of book rec, then bought or rented the book I suggested, expecting that it would help. With that expectation, they read the entire thing, despite hating the writer’s tone.  (And they described it as ‘hate’ too.) That’s not encouraging.


I’ve been thinking lately about what kind of therapist I want to be. I’m approaching termination with my third therapist in three years. Very shortly I’ll be in exactly the same place my previous therapists were: in an internship, practicing microskills and hoping I sound supportive and trying to take notes and watch the clock and never have distancing body language and not sound overly judgmental and to do it all at once.

I’ve watched them work at it and improve and have off days when the prevailing theme of therapy was “You’re watching the clock and I’m watching you watch the clock.”

At the same time, through some combination of blogging, talking openly about my mental health, and social selection, I’ve spent most of the last few years around people who have tried therapy, are seeking therapy, or are in therapy. These too, are usually people who actively sought out therapists who offered CBT or ‘evidence-based therapy’ techniques. Many of them…maybe even most? that have abandoned therapy as a useful solution have done so because they felt their therapists talked down to them.

“They asked stupid questions!”
“Of course I’d considered that!”
“Yes, I know not literally everybody thinks I’m worthless, hasn’t anyone heard of exaggeration? I just said it felt like that sometimes


So for a very long time I had this model in my head that my friends has just encountered the Bad Therapists, and some rule of conversation meant that people preferred to commiserate over Bad Therapists more than they wanted to tell me about Sparkling and Perfect Therapists. (A version of misery poker or Northwestern’s favorite: homework Olympics.)

And then Part One of this post happened, and I switched from primarily reading instructions for clinicians administering therapy to instructions from clinicians to laypeople.

Sometime later, I noticed how many times my reaction to reading an example was “Wow, this example is painfully heavy-handed, but what’s the principle behind it?” or “I mean, obviously the client in this example didn’t mean that literally, but what’s the skill the therapist is trying to teach?” I was intentionally ignoring all the stuff that might turn clients off therapy entirely, in favor of learning techniques.

An example**

Jason has anxiety, and has been having trouble sleeping because he’s afraid he won’t finish his next project on time. His daughter has been ill, and he’s missed more work than usual, though he has a stellar track record with the company. He might be able to ask his boss for an extension, but every time he considers it, his chest gets tight and he has trouble breathing. He says he fears his boss will fire him for failing to complete a project for the important client.

I, [Therapist X] asked Jason to work through some questions for me.

“Have you ever had a friend who got fired for respectfully asking for an extension?”

“Don’t you think that your boss would rather have your work a little late rather than have to go through the process of hiring someone new to get it done even later?”

Except that if I were Jason, answering No to the first and Yes to the second still leaves me with the crushing fear of “What if I am the exception and I need this job to support my sick daughter, even a five percent chance of firing is still scary.” Working through the questions might give him an idea of what to think about when the fear is crippling, decrease the physiological reaction, or prevent future fears from spiraling out of control, but that hasn’t been made explicit. Jason has to trust Therapist X to have a plan.

And while there’s an argument to be made that books have to construct examples that are larger than life to have clear cut principles, I started noticing it in therapy myself. It was actually, once I was paying attention, very common for me to suspend my annoyance, as it were, in favor of expecting the paradigm of therapy to succeed.

So when my therapist asks “You said you wanted to restrict your calories after eating dinner two days in a row. Does that seem like it’s part of your plan for recovery?” I don’t say “Of course it’s not how I want to do recovery, but I’m struggling with anorexia, dammit!” I trust that she has some goal that involves me learning something new about triggers or a coping mechanism, and that that goal is served by the conversation her question is starting. So I say something like “No, it’s not, but I don’t know how to feel okay with eating so much more than I’m used to” and we go merrily on from there.

The problem is, this only works if I expect that therapy is going to be beneficial to me, trust that I might not be the best judge of what is succeeding, and believe that what sounds like stupid questions or silly roleplaying has an end goal I support.

Guys, I want to be a therapist, and I still have to work on suspending my initial, irritated reaction to CBT techniques.

Then how do we prevent the feeling of condescension? The image of the snooty psychotherapist, making judgemental notes and pontificating on childhood repression is still very much part of the public imagination. (Someday, I want a world where “penis envy? *snicker*” is not the rejoinder to my career plans…) “Here’s let’s try some roleplay to practice this social skill!” “Yes, but can you think of another way of looking at that?” …they don’t exactly make people disengage from that mental picture.

What about taking the opposite tack? Closing the distance a lot, laying many more cards on the table.

We say “Look. This is CBT. It’s been shown to help quite a bit for some people, and I think it could help you. Sometimes I’m going to ask you questions that sound condescending or silly or obvious, and I’d like you to step back and just answer them. Play along, as it were. Imagine that you’ve got to choose between sometimes being annoyed with what happens here, and not trying a therapy that’s evidence based. I’m asking you to pick the one that means you’ll sigh in frustration occasionally. And in return, I’ll do my best to frame questions well and make this a good experience of getting better.”

And then we really do see if there’s another way to see that situation.

*It says relationships. It’s 95% about marriages.

**composite, not from any of the books/writing I’m referencing in this post

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?

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]


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?

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]

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?