Book Review-The Power of the Other

When I found out that Dr. Cloud was releasing a new book, The Power of the Other, I put it at the top of my reading stack. Why? Well, I’ve been a big fan of his work. Having read and reviewed Boundaries, and Changes that Heal, I appreciate Dr. Cloud’s ability to distill complex topics. His work here on explaining how we relate to others and how to generate better connections with others is no exception.

Connection is Core

In order to understand the framework that Dr. Cloud lays out, we have to accept that connection is essential for humans. We have to accept that we’ve been hard-wired through our DNA to need connection to others just as much as we need air, water, and food. Though connection is not as high a priority as air, it appears in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs right after safety. Spiritual Evolution introduced me to the study of baboons, whose offspring were more likely to succeed based on the social network of the mother. Others, like Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly assert the same importance of connection.

Dr. Cloud relates that in his studies he hit an inflection point. As a student of psychology, he eagerly sought the tool, technique, framework, or approach that would help him alleviate the pain and suffering of his clients. His instructor informed him that the key factor in the efficacy of psychological assistance was simply the relationship between the therapist and the patient – something that The Heart and Soul of Change called “alliance”. How could it be, given all the great minds that had been trying to learn how to improve folks’ lives, that the answer was as simple as a relationship?

Dr. Cloud wondered whether his professor was saying, “my fraternity is basically a treatment center.” Um, yep. That’s the way we’re created. We want to find someone who will understand us and who will connect with us. Somewhere buried deep within our DNA is the bias toward staying connected so that we can protect and support each other.

Limits, The Mind, and The Invisible

Elephants at the circus are tied to a stake with a large rope or chain when they’re young. As they grow, the rope that they’re tied with gets smaller. That’s because the elephants have learned that the rope isn’t something they can move, so no matter how small the rope becomes, they won’t try to break it. This results in the elephant equivalent of “the Bannister effect”, where the limits are psychological and aren’t physical limits. (See The Rise of Superman for more on the Bannister effect.) Whether it’s a high-performance athletic trick or running a sub-four-minute mile, we sometimes psych ourselves out and create the false belief that we can’t do something personally – or as a human – that we really can.

All of us face limits in our life. Some of them are real, hard boundaries. They’re true limits to what we can and cannot do. However, more frequently, the limits that we have are the result of mental constructs and false limiting beliefs. (See Sources of Power for more on mental models/constructs and The Success Principles for more on limiting beliefs.) The relationship between our mind and our well-being is well accepted but not well understood. (See Change or Die and Thinking, Fast and Slow for more about how our mind and body interact.)

The difficulty in our understanding of this phenomenon may be due in part to our limited psychological knowledge. While psychology isn’t a new discipline, it hasn’t had the benefit of the scientific rigor that other areas of science have had. As a result, we may know quite a bit about the neurology of the brain, but relatively little about the psychology. Think of it this way: we understand the hardware of the brain but we don’t understand the software. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more about the limits of our knowledge in psychology.)

The problem with psychology (and software) is that it’s invisible. We can typically only measure the effects, behaviors, and outcomes. While we can inspect software source code line-by-line, we can’t do the same with psychology. While we have potentially helpful models of viewing people, (See The Normal Personality
and Personality Types: Using The Enneagram for Self-Discovery) we’ve also had more than a few unhelpful models. (See The Cult of Personality Testing.)

Self and Others

The self-help movement has been around since the publishing of The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952 – or since Benjamin Franklin depending upon your point of view. No matter where you believe it started, it’s become big business. It’s defined by the “self” term. That’s appropriate in that we’re only really in control of our own lives. We can’t truly change other people – they have to decide to change themselves. If you look at Everett Roger’s work in Diffusion of Innovations, we see that people change their knowledge through mass media, their attitudes through close relationships, and their behavior through personal choice. Ultimately, it all comes down to personal choice, what we do. It’s our self-agency. (See Change or Die for more on how infrequently people change, even under the pressure of overwhelming evidence.)

However, along the way we’ve lost our ability to see beyond the self. We’ve lost the ability to see that the formula for behavior includes what Kurt Lewin called “person and environment”. The environment is less about the physical trappings that surround us, and is more about the influence of other people. Consider the Holocaust, which was a tragedy, and the part that people played in it. (See Man’s Search for Meaning for more on the Holocaust and the psychology of it.) What’s more disturbing was Milgram’s research, that showed that most humans can be coerced into doing immoral and harmful things. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) for more on this disturbing research.)

We have forgotten that, while we have to be ultimately responsible for who we are and the actions that we take, we equally must accept that the others around us influence our behavior very strongly. Malcom Gladwell made this point in his books The Tipping Point and Blink. We react to broken windows. We make snap decisions about the situation based on the context.

That’s what The Power of Other is all about. It’s about the environment that we find ourselves in as individuals, and how we can be attentive to our relationships to improve happiness.

Four Corners

If you accept that we’re here for connections, then there are four potential places you can find yourself in relative to connecting to others – something that Dr. Cloud calls the “four corners”. They are:

  1. Disconnected – This is the state of trying to be alone. We’ve basically concluded through adverse childhood events (ACE) that connections are bad, much like some people struggle with the life-giving need for food. (See How Children Succeed for more about ACE).
  2. Bad Connection – This is the state of being harmed. We’re connected, but the connection is life-draining rather than life-giving as it should be. This is like exposure to carbon monoxide, which prevents us from taking in life-giving oxygen.
  3. Pseudo-Good Connection – This is the state of being worshipped. While the relationship seems to build us up, it’s all positive and no (or little) reality. We all need others to reinforce reality since we have blind spots and only our own perspective. (See Incognito for more blind spots.) The Pseudo-Good connection means that someone will eventually yell that the emperor has no clothes.
  4. True Connection – This is the state of being real. Real connections are ultimately positive, but don’t avoid the negative when it’s necessary to help both of the parties grow. True connections are difficult because of the need for communication skills and internal integrity, but it’s the kind of connection that we’re all designed to make.

These are the places that we can be in relationship with others. The reality is that we’re not in a single relationship with others. We have multiple situations and those situations can result in different kinds of connections. At work we can be in a bad relationship (i.e. we need to change our job), while at home we’re in a fourth-corner, or true connection, relationship with our spouse. We can – and do – have places in our life where we’re not interested or able to connect.

In How to Be an Adult in Relationships, David Richo implores us to not get more than 25% of our nurturance from any one partner. He encourages us to seek out multiple connections so that we’re able to grow more fully through the true connections with others. Gary Keller, in The One Thing, tries to focus us in on the one thing that we can do in each area of our lives. In other words, we need multiple fourth-corner connections to become the person we’re capable of becoming.

Corner One: Disconnected

It’s easiest to think about the disconnected person as the hermit sitting in a cave or on some solitary ranch in Wyoming. However, the truth is that being disconnected has very little to do with the presence of other people. In today’s world, the remotest areas of the planet can be reached with emails, voice conversations, and even video chat. I routinely chat with my friend Paul Culmsee in Perth, Australia – just about as close to the opposite side of the planet as you can get from me. Disconnected is an internal state, not a representation of the physical world.

There are folks that have trouble connecting with others in a meaningful way. This is most painfully expressed in marriage relationships as what Doug Weiss calls Intimacy Anorexia. This illustrates the point that the problem is an inner condition and not an outer observable one. From the outside point of view, one could assume that a married person isn’t in Corner One (Disconnected), but Weiss’ work with clients indicates that this external perspective isn’t right.

I mentioned in my post High Orbit- Respecting Grieving that we’re flooded with Facebook friends that aren’t really friends at all. They’re people that we’re watching like voyeurs. While we’re wired for connection, we have a maximum number of ports, and that maximum number isn’t the thousands of Facebook friends that some have. Facebook, and other technologies, have actually made it much easier to appear to be connected, when in reality we’re quite disconnected on the inside. (See Alone Together for more.)

Corner Two: Bad Connection

Why would you be in a relationship that is bad for you? Well, there are two reasons. First, you don’t realize that it’s bad for you. Second, you are getting some good things from it, and you believe that you’re getting more from it than you’re losing.

It’s like drinking salt water from the ocean when you’re at sea. You know you need the water but don’t realize that you’re getting so much salt that it’s doing more harm than good. Or it’s like eating candy – and only candy – all day long. Your brain rewards you with dopamine because it recognizes the calorie content in the sugar. However, what your reward system doesn’t realize is that the vitamins, minerals, proteins, etc., are also all essential to your survival. You seek out the candy because of the sugar – but at the same time too much of it will create long-term problems.

Ultimately, Dr. Cloud’s previous work on Boundaries and his co-author John Townsend’s Beyond Boundaries is about removing these bad connections from your world – or causing the connections to heal and become good (Corner Four) connections. While I personally don’t have many bad connections left in my life (though there are always some), and my bad connections tend to not be of the extreme variety, I do come in contact with others who are in relationships which are bad for them. They’re relationships that I call “toxic”, because the longer the person is in them, the worse the person is.

Corner Three: Pseudo-Good Connection

We all need friends who are willing to pick us up and help us realize that things are going to be alright. Dr. Cloud describes a bad business decision where his mentor called him and told him that, “We’ve all been there.” This normalized the situation and lifted up Dr. Cloud into the brotherhood of humans who occasionally make mistakes. We absolutely need our relationships to try to build us up and to help us become the best people that we can be. However, sometimes building someone up means giving them hard feedback. This is precisely what the Pseudo-Good third-corner connection doesn’t do. They’re too afraid of damage to the relationship, the way the other person will feel, or are wrapped up in their own insecurities to the degree that they’re unwilling or unable to have the hard conversations.

Anyone who has had the privilege of the platform – that is, anyone who has done public speaking – has had to develop an approach to these sorts of would-be connections. It’s still strange to me that people have “groupies”, but I’ll admit to having a few myself. The challenge with making space for these relationships is recognizing that they’re relational candy. They’re nice occasionally but they can’t be my steady diet of relationships.

Corner Four: True Connection

Being in corner four connections – true connections – is hard work. It requires balancing grace and truth. It requires being forthright with your feelings, perspectives, and awareness, while tempering that with your love for the other person. Love in this context is more akin to the Buddhist belief of compassion or the Greek word agape than anything else. When you can do that, you can be right with your intent for the relationship and the other person, and provide them the feedback they need to grow. Just as importantly, they’ve got the strength of character to do the same for you.

For me, the prerequisite to be in a true connection is a stable core. I wrote about this in my post How to Be Yourself. It’s about knowing who you are and having a stable and integrated self-image which can survive the outside world. (You can find more about my thoughts for integrated self-images in Rising Strong Part 1, Schools Without Failure, Compelled to Control, and Beyond Boundaries.)

Corner four connections can powerfully propel you to becoming a greater person, but they’re very difficult to find.


How do you get corner four connections? It starts with trust. For me, trust is the path that leads to our ability to be vulnerable, and this leads to the opportunity to be intimate with one another. In my post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy I lay out this path along with references for the various concepts.

Trust exists exclusively in corner four (true) connections. In corner one, you trust no one. In corner two, you can’t trust the person who is harming you. In corner three, you can’t trust that you’ll hear honest answers, and your connection can’t trust how you’ll respond if they’re honest and real. It’s only in corner four – where trust exists – that we can choose to be honest and caring to the level necessary to form truly intimate, and therefore powerful, relationships.

Bermuda Triangles

The Bermuda Triangle is where strange things happen. Ships disappear. Planes disappear. In general, there’s just a wackiness that can’t be explained. This same situation can occur when a relationship which is designed for two people expands to three people. Instead of people having hard, but life-giving corner four relationships, the triangle drains energy from all.

The triangle works like this. There’s a victim – let’s call him Victor. A victim feels like there is someone out to get them, to persecute him. Let’s called the persecutor Paul. (If you’re up on your Old Testament Saul would be better, but it’s not an alliteration.) So Victor, rather than talking to Paul, talks to Robbie the rescuer. The problem with this drama triangle is that Robbie isn’t even involved in whatever supposed affront that Victor (the victim) feels. Instead, he’s getting a one-sided view of the story and begins to think negatively of Paul (the persecutor) when Paul may have done nothing wrong.

This triangle creates drama and heartache where there is none to start with. It maligns Paul (the persecutor) unfairly. It may be that he was persecuting Victor (the victim), but it’s still not fair because Paul’s voice can’t be heard – he’s not a part of the conversation.

Triangles happen all the time, even when well-meaning people are involved. It starts out as seeking advice on how to handle a situation and turns into an opportunity to extract sympathy and rescuing. The net effect is the destruction of trust and the erosion of connections, so a hard line needs to be taken to prevent the triangles from forming. This means outlawing gossip and encouraging direct and candid conversations.

Growing to Connect

Ultimately, the power of others to influence our lives is driven by our ability to interact with them in positive, life-giving ways. That means first seeking out connections. You can’t have healthy relationships if you don’t have any relationships at all. Second, it means limiting the number of bad connections you make and/or limiting your interactions inside of those relationships. Third, it means moving past the mutual appreciation club to a point where you can candidly support and provide candid feedback. All of this takes growth on our part to be the kind of person that not only recognizes the qualities of ourselves but also the qualities of our relationships.

If we want to transform the power of others in our lives, we have to transform ourselves so that we can be the best connection possible for them as well as for ourselves. The irony is that, by working on ourselves, we’ll transform the power of others in our lives. If you want to have better relationships and a happier existence, it’s time to transform The Power of the Other.


Book Review-The Normal Personality

It was back in 2013 when I read Steven Reiss’ book Who Am I?. Reiss, a professor emeritus of Ohio State, proposed that there were 16 motivations that can be used to describe a person and how they’ll react. Shortly after reading Who Am I?, I picked up The Normal Personality – another of his books. However, it sat in my virtual bookshelf as my curiosity (one of his characteristics) led me in other directions. However, after finishing The Cult of Personality Testing and Science and Pseudo Science in Clinical Psychology, I felt like I needed to get back to Reiss’ work on personality testing and more importantly motivations.

Compared to the other models that I’ve looked at, there are numerous aspects of the Reiss model which seem to be able to more accurately predict how people will behave and the normal predispositions that they’ll have. While the model is still a difficult model to internalize for daily use, it is a good framework for understanding others.

Defining Abnormal

Much was made in The Cult of Personality Testing about the tendency for some tests, particularly Rorschach, to over pathologize people. In other words, there is a bias towards saying that there is something wrong with people. Given the context of that test—and others – for use of screening for mental defects, I suppose that this is a reasonable conclusion. However, it makes the tests far less useful when you’re trying to define what normal people look like, what motivates them, and how to engage them fully.

It seems that most personality tests – perhaps with the exception of the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) – are designed to tell you what’s wrong with someone, not how they function well under normal circumstances. I’ve mentioned that I tend to build a MBTI in my head unconsciously for the folks I’m interacting with. I’m trying to understand how to interact with them in the best possible way. Reiss believes the MBTI to be a useful – but narrow – instrument. This makes sense. Where the MBTI uses four dimensions, Reiss model is based on 16 factors. The level of precision capable when you have more dimensions is noticeably broader. Additionally, MBTI tends to define people as either-or and makes no attempt to identify which factors are more important to the person’s personality.

The tricky part with defining normal is that it’s not one thing. You can define a mental disease or defect with relatively specific precision about what constitutes the disorder, however, normal is the mass of possibilities in the middle and is therefore difficult to pin down.

Reiss even states at one point that it’s unlikely that someone has a mental health problem because most (but not all) people with mental health problems are unhappy. So even the rules that you could possibly use to define normal have boundary conditions.

Prioritizing Motivations

When you fail to predict the behaviors of another person whom you believe you know well, the normal reaction is to be surprised and stunned. Most of the time the reason for the failed prediction is that the person has a competing value system that was in play – and was more important at that moment. When values are in conflict it’s difficult to know which value will be the most important. Consider a scenario where a person who is highly motivated by Family but also intensely motivated in Power or Status. When the question comes up about whether to stay at work late – the answer might be that family wins out and they come home – getting online later instead of going to bed. However, when a prestigious opportunity comes up which requires substantially more travel, it may be that the family loses their parent to work and to the road. (See Our Kids for an interesting note about how parents are denying themselves for their children.)

When multiple value systems align into a single behavior they can sometimes – and do sometimes – overpower a single stronger motivation. In Reiss’ model the motivations aren’t viewed in a vacuum. They don’t exist without any outside circumstances. Kurt Lewin says that behavior is a function of both person and environment. It’s wrong to say that a person isn’t influenced by their environment both in micro and macro ways. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Johnathan Haidt speaks to the power that the path has in his rider-elephant-path model. We cannot exclude the environment in terms of culture or pressing needs when evaluating how others will behave.

Motivations exist in a world of competing forces. Each motivation seeking to reach its point of equilibrium.

Personality Equilibrium

No one wants chaos – or the complete loss of control. However, a motivation for order will tell just how far we’re willing to get out on the limb of lack of control. Some folks need everything in neat little boxes. Some folks need to have a large degree of order in their lives. They need neat and tidy to feel OK with who they are and where they are. Others are willing to live seemingly without any order. They don’t bother to book hotel rooms in advance. They tend to play the worst case scenario game – and win. They decide that the worst case scenario is they’ll sleep in their car.

It’s not that either of these perspectives – orderly and planned or spontaneous – is right or wrong. It’s just different. However, there is a normal range. That is a range where people can sometimes be orderly – or sometimes accept uncertainty. Those who struggle with uncertainty are closer to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) which I often tease that they call CDO – so the letters are in their “correct” alphabetical order. On the other end of the spectrum might be a homeless by choice person who likes not knowing where their next meal will come from or where they’ll spend the night.

The reality is that people will seek to obtain their natural equilibrium where their level for a motivating factor has been achieved. When placed in a chaotic situation we’ll almost all try to impose some order. When placed in highly rule bound and defined places we’ll seek to create levity and deflect the perception of too much order.

Recipe for Underachievement

Some kids get along just fine in school and some do not. When viewed from the lens of motivational psychology there are some patterns that emerge for those who don’t do well in school:

  1. Low Curiosity – The kids just literally aren’t that interested in things.
  2. Low Ambition – They have no need to become anything. They’re happy with the status quo.
  3. High Vengeance – Folks with high vengeance are looking for opportunities for their vengeance to be satisfied. That is, they’re looking for trouble.
  4. High Acceptance – If you want others to like you too much (high acceptance) then failure becomes an untenable option. You avoid doing something because then people can’t demonstrate that you failed at it.
  5. Low Honor – Those with low honor are expedient. They’ll do whatever just to get to an answer and if being honorable takes too much effort, they’ll take the shortcut.
  6. Low Order – Spontaneous people can be the life of the party but when it comes to planning the party spontaneity isn’t the best strategy. Kids with low order didn’t seem to do as well as their high (or moderate) order colleagues

Some of my best friends weren’t overachievers in high school. They made their way through but not without their challenges. In life they drifted until they found a home that for them is what they needed. Just because someone isn’t doing well in school doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. It can mean that their skills and talents aren’t matched to academic learning.

Normal Range

The trick as we seek to maximize our happiness and the happiness of others we love isn’t to create copycat clones of ourselves. (See Multipliers for more on the negative consequences of creating clones.) The trick is to help build skills that allow us to operate in the “normal” range. You don’t have to take your artist and turn them into an accountant (or vice versa.) However, everyone needs a way to function in this world. They may not need to know how to balance a checkbook any longer. However, everyone needs enough awareness to be able to be aware of their financial health. Similarly, everyone should be able to appreciate aesthetic beauty. Whether you’re an accountant or a coal miner, your happiness is influenced by your ability to appreciate beauty in the world.

As we’re coaching underachieving adolescents we need to remember that they don’t have to become the best at things they’re not currently good at. They need only get sufficient levels of skills to ensure that they’re not being held back by those lack of skills. They don’t have to be motivated by curiosity. However, they need to create enough curiosity inside of themselves to ensure their long-term success, survival, and thrival. (Thrival is the ability to thrive.)

Recipe for a Cheater

I was sitting at a church meeting. This was a special meeting in that it was designed to help struggling people get more peace with their life and align it more with their purpose. I was sitting across from a guy I’ll call Bill who was describing how he was currently having sexual relationships with 12 other women – besides his wife. After setting aside the moral concerns and letting go of any judgement, which is a part of this group that functions more like a 12 step program than a traditional church function, I was confused.

I was confused like I am with the idea of polygamy. I love my wife – but I can’t imagine having the emotional energy of managing that sort of an intimate relationship with multiple wives. Bill explained to me that they weren’t relationships that they were just sex. I still don’t understand it really but at least I understood that to him the women were a way of satisfying his desire for romance. His motivation for honor and family were very low. I don’t know how things worked out with Bill, I never really saw him after a few meetings, however, I know that when you mix a person with high romance and low honor, you have a recipe for a cheater.

Someone with low honor is often described as expedient. That is, they’ll do the honorable thing if it’s easy but they won’t go much (if any) out of their way to do the honorable thing.

Morals and Values

One of the topics delicately avoided in the normal personality was whether particular motivations are moral. That is whether motivations are good or bad. It’s more accurate to say that the motivations themselves aren’t good or bad – it’s what we do with them that makes them good or bad. A high desire for power isn’t bad. However, when it creates Nazi Germany which seeks to exterminate an entire race of people, most folks would call that bad. The relative ease with which people can be motivated to behave outside of what they would say their standards are, is frightening. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me))

Buddhists describe emotions as afflictive (causing harm) or non-afflictive. (See Destructive Emotions and Emotional Awareness for more about Buddhist beliefs about emotions.) The relatively quirky point of view here is that the emotion may or may not be afflictive. It’s appropriate, for instance, to be angry at times. Anger is disappointment directed. There are times when disappointment is the right feeling. The key is whether this causes harm to yourself or others.

Spiritual Evolution walked through the connection between what we value and evolution. There are certain evolutionary advantages of caring and socialization. There are some advantages of high trust societies (See Building Trust in Politics, Relationships and Life for more on the economic impact of trust.) Morals are beneficial to society. They become the framework on which laws and positions can be based.

In general, morals and values and the laws that are passed to provide structure to them are designed to protect society. They delineate between the acceptable and unacceptable expressions of motivations as measured by societal norms or legal consequences.

For instance, in the United States, alcohol is relatively universally available to adults at 21 years of age. The age for voting and other “adult-ness” is typically 18. Whether someone is an adult at 18 or 21 is relatively arbitrary, however, it’s this standard that has worked its way into law – in an inconsistent way. Is it “right” for someone who is driven by eating to have a glass of wine with dinner? Morally and legally the question is ambiguous. In the United States, if the person is under 21, the answer is no. If we cross the border to the north if the person is 18, 19, or 20 they’re OK. In Europe where there’s no established minimum alcohol consumption age, the person of any age will be legally OK but perhaps not morally. (I’m not recommending including wine in a baby’s bottle.)

Largely morals and values operate outside of motivations. It’s only when strong motivations drive a person to behave in a way outside of the established norms and laws that problems arise.

Sex in the City

While viewed from a short term perspective it may seem like morals are fixed. However, when you start to look at the way that morals have changed over time you begin to realize that they’re really a shared experience more than they are fixed and unchanging. For instance, in the early days of television, married co-stars (both in real life and on screen) were shown sleeping in separate twin beds. Words like sex and pregnant were considered too sensitive to appear on air. When you evaluate TV of the 50s and TV of today – even broadcast TV to say nothing of cable – it becomes clear that the moral standards at least as they are expressed through public eyes is very different.

The Marketing of Evil seemed intent on describing a sinister plot to these changes, however, observationally, these changes seem to reflect naturally occurring responses to changes in society. There were movements that made birth control more acceptable to speak of in the 1920s and beyond but it was the introduction of the birth control pill in the 1950s that changed the consequences of sex.

With condoms (which have been available for substantially longer) combined with an oral contraceptive the effective pregnancy rate is very, very low. Add to this the controversial – even today — Roe v. Wade decision making abortions legal and the result is an even lower unwanted birth rate. (See Freakonomics for more on how abortions changed crime rates.) Thus the social consequences for sex – an unplanned child which would need to be supported – were reduced to such a small rate that they no longer represented a societal problem. Even the teen pregnancy rates which skyrocketed in the late 1980s to four times that of most western countries fell 52% from 1991 to 2012 as a response to aggressive campaigns to reduce this societal concern. (See Defensive Routines for more on the causes.)

Ultimately our views of unwed sex have changed. Gallup in their post titled “Americans Continue to Shift Left on Key Moral Issues” demonstrates how over time the values of the people they’re polling continue to move towards the direction of what some might call moral decline. I’m more inclined to call it moral shift. For instance, in 2001 only 53% thought it was morally acceptable for an unmarried man and woman to have sex. In 2015 that number is 68%. In the space of the relatively short 14 years our attitudes shifted 15%. While not every metric moves that fast, it’s an indication that our moral fiber isn’t as rigid as we’d like to believe.

Made in Marriage

John Gray in his book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus asserts that men and women are different. Reiss is able to support this assertion from his data but cannot say whether these are nature or nurture – whether they are programmed into our biology or are a result of our culture.

These differences it seems can be persistent thorns in our sides. That’s why sites like and other profile matching sites can be helpful. Reiss says that many divorces are the results of bad matches and not necessarily character defects in either party. Gottman says that 69 percent of marital conflicts are persistent – without a solution. (See The Science of Trust for more of Gottman’s work.) Reiss asserts that it’s better to find the right person than pay for therapy to try to make a bad match work.

Low Curiosity and Intimacy Anorexia

One of the stories Reiss relates in The Normal Personality is of a wife who isn’t interested in talking with her husband. This is assigned to a low curiosity. I wonder, however, if this particular example may cross over from the normal needing to regulate how deep and how frequent conversations should be to reach a satisfying state or whether this example represents Intimacy Anorexia. It’s hard to know where the line is sometimes between healthy – but on the edge – behavior and abnormal or errant behavior.

In Emotional Intelligence, Goleman quotes a report in Science which describes isolation as “as significant to mortality rates as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and lack of physical exercise.” In short, isolation or separation from others is a serious health risk. Reiss makes the point that his perspective of motivational psychology and a desire to avoid over diagnosing people isn’t without the awareness that mental illnesses are real and do exist.

Perhaps the wife is perfectly fine being emotionally intimate with her girlfriends, family, and others just not her husband. While this is a marker for more serious problems in the relationship it may not be a clinical condition. (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on intimacy and the path to it.)

Biology and Psychology

Virtually everyone knows about Darwin’s survival of the fittest perspective on evolution and genetics. We’ve advanced in our understanding to be able to educate parents on the probabilities of having a baby with a genetic defect. The counseling provides an awareness of what might happen so that folks can be prepared but ultimately have no control on what genes are passed on.

However, with our frontal lobes we have another factor where survival of the fittest comes into play. That is the idea of memes. Memes are like viruses imprinting on others the same idea through communication, conversation, and thought.

Ways of thinking – memes – necessarily lead us towards some approaches and away from others. Consider that in English we put the modifier (adjectives) before the noun which they modify. In French and other languages, the modifiers come after the noun which they modify. It’s not that one is right or wrong. What’s important is that we necessarily think differently based on this change in language.

Our success in getting close to another person – in order to do reproduction – is now based at least in part by the ideas that we hold. We tend to connect better with those people who hold similar ways of thinking and processing as us.

Like More Alike

Reiss shares that sociology has definitively settled on the idea that we are attracted to those who are more like us and repelled by those who are different. It’s on this basis that you’re likely to have friends who are similar to you. You’re likely to have a spouse that is similar to you.

The quick rebuttal is often that your wife is very different than you. Competitors in a market tend to focus on the differences between their products and the competition where customers tend to focus on the similarities. (See The Challenger Sale for more.) My point isn’t to say that you and your wife are competitors – rather my point is to say that because of your extremely close proximity you’re more apt to see the relatively minor differences that people at a distance wouldn’t see.

As mentioned earlier, finding a mate that is more similar to you makes the maintenance of a marriage easier.

Know Thyself

The best platitude advice ever given is Socrates “Know thyself.” It’s impossibly hard to do and deceptively simple. We all believe we know ourselves but the more we look the more we realize that we don’t know ourselves very well. There are so many dimensions and depths to our psyche that we can spend a lifetime attempting to discover them and still not have scratched the surface. However, perhaps that’s what it’s like to have a The Normal Personality – a continual striving to know ourselves better.


Book Review-The Fred Factor: How Passion in Your Work and Life Can Turn the Ordinary into the Extraordinary

It’s pretty common for professional speakers to have some sort of a book to promote themselves and their talks. That’s not at all different. However, the difference here, for me is that Mark Sanborn’s name just keeps coming up. I can’t explain that other than to say that in different circles and at different times I hear Mark’s name – and I have heard about The Fred Factor. Fred is a postman – or rather he was a postman. His customer service and care for his customers – particularly Mark Sanborn – made him the inspiration for Mark’s book about making the ordinary extraordinary.

Ordinary Extraordinarily

The heart of the Fred Factor is understanding that when you can turn the ordinary experience into the extraordinary experience you enrich and enhance others’ lives. When you’re enriching others’ lives, when you’re making them better, you’re going to create an impression. Whether it’s offering to make sure that mail is delivered when you’re home – and not when you’re not – or something equally mundane you have the power to make a difference in other people’s lives.

Recognizing Retail

Many workers in retail wear badges with their names on them. How many people do you know address the other person by their name? If you say “Thank You” – and not everyone does – do you say it with the person’s name you see or just the generic and half-mumbled thank you?

My wife, Terri, is great at this. We’ll be walking along and she’ll say “Hi Bob” or “Thanks Jane” – and even to this day, I’ll occasionally turn and ask her “Did you know that person?” The answer is frequently – but not always – no. However, she’ll find a way to see their name on their nametag when I didn’t even notice it was there.

This is a sort of personal connection. It’s customer service in reverse. It’s being a human who is so concerned with others that you want to greet them by name when you can.


My good friend Scott loves to say about me that I always do everything with excellence. (He’s wrong by the way, I don’t do everything with excellence, I just do what I can manage with excellence.) He’s explained to me several times what he means and at some level I still don’t get it. You see for me, doing things as good as possible all the time, is the way I do things. However, I’ve come to realize that this isn’t the norm for most people. People naturally only put themselves out there to do their best occasionally. There’s safety in being able to say that you didn’t do your best. If someone doesn’t like what you’ve done, they don’t know what you’re really capable of. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy and Find Your Courage for more about being fully out there.)

My friend Joel describes excellence as doing the best you can with what you have all the time. This description is to try to differentiate it from perfection. He knows that we all make mistakes but simultaneously that we can set ourselves up for success by preparation and hard work.

Most people seem content with putting in only the effort necessary to meet the standard. The standard is the measuring stick. However, with excellence the measuring stick isn’t what the standard is but is instead what you’re capable of. With the concept of Flow (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman) we know that this optimal state is achieved when the gap between the skills and the challenge is 4%. People who do things with excellence are always asking how they can get to the optimal state of flow instead of resting on their laurels and accepting the standard.

What does excellence look like? It looks like something that is outstanding – something that is set apart from the norm. Sometimes just deciding to do everything can change the ordinary into the extraordinary.

I was recently at Graceland and I was struck by a fact that Elvis only ever personally received one award in his life. That was an award from the Jaycees. It wasn’t about music. It was an award for being one of ten outstanding young men. Of all of the awards he received the one that wasn’t about his music but was about who he was – that was the award he honored by accepting personally. In the supporting audio at Graceland it was explained that he didn’t feel worthy of the honor. He felt like he was “just” entertaining people. If Elvis – the king of Rock and Roll – believed that he was “just” entertaining what is it that you’re “just” doing?

Creative Problem Solving

Most of the resources you have are between your ears. They exist in the world of possibilities in your mind. The times when I’ve been told I’m the most creative, the most innovative, and operating at the highest levels of excellence are those times when I’m solving problems. Whether it’s the custom made lighting for the video studio which utilizes strip LED lighting so I can get over eight linear feet of even lighting, or the lighting truss that is standing on end to be my camera tower for the studio – or any of the other dozens of things that exist in the world here but almost nowhere else, creative problem solving is excellence in action. (You can learn more about my video studio in my post My Video Studio 2.1.)

Sometimes what people are missing is creative confidence (See my review of Creative Confidence.) Sometime the missing components are the mental models at the heart of recognition primed decisions (RPD) (See Sources of Power and The Art of Explanation for more on mental models.) Problem solving comes from an awareness of how things work. This essential understanding of the components allows you to change the way things work – or create new working systems. (See The Fifth Discipline and Thinking in Systems for more on systems thinking.) Sometimes the way things work are the mental processes that operate inside someone’s head.

By combining a willingness to try (Creative Confidence), an understanding of how things work (mental model), and an awareness of systems (thinking in systems) truly interesting and innovative solutions can be created for problems. Those solutions don’t have to require money. When confronted with a problem we tend to try to find a solution to match the size of the problem. However, when you understand systems you can put a small change in place that makes a big impact.

In flying, we have trim. That is, there is a function to help keep the controls in the place where we want them. It allows pilots to reduce their work and focus on other things. Elevator trim sets the relative position of the elevator and thus that attitude of the plane which ultimately controls the altitude of the airplane. (Attitude is how far up the nose is pointing.) The trim is controlled by the pilot by a wheel. The actual implementation is a small door that is actuated up or down to control the overall position on the larger surface – in this case the elevator. A little bit of the surface makes a big impact on the overall surface – and on to the pilot’s workload.

When you’re solving problems with customer service or in life, you don’t have to find big solutions to big problems. Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest. Sometimes they’re treating others like honored guests.

Excellence Without [Much] Money

Frequently we think of excellence as experiences that cost money – and lots of it. While having money to spend certainly makes excellent experiences easier to accomplish, it isn’t a requirement. It’s certainly not a requirement to spend more money to create excellence.

Last year, I was speaking in Boston and my son and his girlfriend got to come up and visit. My wife and I love lighthouses. We took a tour around the lower peninsula of Michigan to see every lighthouse. We wanted to see the lighthouses in Boston. One of the tours would allow us to see a few of the lighthouses. It was something like $50 per person. So around $200 for the four of us. Rather than taking this path we were able to find a company that would rent us a boat for two hours for about $200. We got a chance to go out on the water and enjoy ourselves without having to fight other people – and we got to go see all of the lighthouses rather than just seeing one or two. It’s true that we spent $200 on the experience – but the cost difference between getting an excellent experience with the four of us and the cost of “doing the tourist thing” was roughly equivalent.

Excellence isn’t about how much money you can spend to solve a problem or to create an experience. Many of the times when folks have spoken loudly about excellence, it has been about small things. Tom Peters and Robert Waterman wrote in In Search of Excellence about the thousandths of a percent improvement that come from the trivial and mundane.

Four Principles of Fred

With this as a backdrop, The Fred Factor presents us with four principles:

  1. Everyone makes a difference
  2. Success is built on relationships
  3. You must continuously create value for others, and it doesn’t have to cost a penny
  4. You can reinvent yourself regularly

Here, excellence isn’t measured in having the most optimized system for delivery of widgets. It’s not about one master architect at the top of the pyramid who makes all the right decisions. (In fact, Innovation is about pushing innovation down to everyone. See Unleashing Innovation and The Innovator’s DNA.)

I had done something small in my opinion for someone. It was so small from my point of view that I don’t even remember what it was. I was commenting upon how it wasn’t a big deal and my friend stopped me short and reminded me that the value of the gesture wasn’t in the effort it took me to do it. The value was on the receiving end because the person couldn’t do it for themselves. What I could do in a few minutes they wouldn’t be able to do at all.

It’s these simple things that can make the difference. The value isn’t in the cost to do something – it’s in how the recipient of your gesture values it. If you’re able to care enough to pay attention to when people are home or not, you can help keep watch over their home – from your mail truck.

Finally, whatever you are today doesn’t mean that it is what you must be tomorrow. You have the capability to improve and grow. (See Mindset for more on changing your mindset.)

Whatever you’re doing, go out and do it the best you can and maybe you can become The Fred Factor.


Book Review-Rest Assured: A Recovery Plan for Weary Souls

Sometimes my reading list is influenced by my friends and family. I read not so much because they tell me to read something or even that they suggest it. Instead I read things to be more connected with them. It’s true that my wife mentioned that I might like to read Rest Assured but it’s because it was helpful to her and she wanted to be able to have a conversation about it. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she also has access to my private notes on the book so she doesn’t have to write as much for herself. We can thus lean on each other’s work to allow us to both learn more from it.

The Busyness Badge

In a world where every site, game, and interaction seems to want to give you a gold star or some sort of a badge for doing something, the one that most people seem to covet the most is the busyness badge. When I speak with my fellow speakers at a conference they speak of their burgeoning schedules and platinum status on airlines and with hotels. They seem simultaneously run down by the schedule and proud that they have it.

On a more personal level, if you read Christmas letters you find out all of the things that families of your friends have been doing. Each event which was previously chronicled on Facebook for others to envy is relived and amplified as a way of extracting admiration – or in some cases just to catch you up on what they’re doing. Catching up is certainly the feeling that you can get as you have to figure out where you left the story and what has changed.

In our own lives we want the busyness badge because it means that we’ve arrived. We’re productive. We matter. We make an impact. However, in all of this we fail to ask if what we’re busy with really matters. Does the trip to Africa matter – or does it matter how it’s given you a heart for the struggling people. Certainly we need experiences but at the same time we need the ability to process the results of these events and activities, an opportunity that we don’t often allow for ourselves.

Minding the Margins

One of the lessons from systems thinking is that efficiency and optimizations necessarily reduce resiliency. (See The Fifth Discipline and especially Thinking in Systems for more.) The extra performance you get comes from somewhere and that place is the set of checks and balances that keep the system running even when the variables change.

I also learned the lesson from flying. Planes are created with what is called dynamic stability. That is like sitting on the bottom of a rod extended from a ball. You’ll always default back to a center position. This is opposed to dynamic instability which is like trying to balance yourself on the top of a long rod attached to the top of a ball. Instead of being able to rest like you can on the bottom, on the top you have to be ever vigilant and constantly making adjustments to stay in balance.

On the bottom there is lots of room for margin. Your mind can wander. You can release control. On the top there’s no margin. You have to remain engaged at all times.

In our lives we sometimes create dynamic instability where we must be ever vigilant and never take a break – or at least think that we can never take a break. This is living a life without margins. It’s living a life where there’s no inherent stability. If we were to let go and relax for a while the whole thing seems like it will fall apart.

We weren’t designed to live like this. As we learned in How Children Succeed, our fight or flight system was never meant to be left in the on position. It was only supposed to be switched on for a while. Some of us live in a constant fight or flight mode never able to stop and relax.

Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It’s expressed by the slack or gap that we have between our load and our limits. There are times when each of us has been at our limit. The load we were carrying was all we could bare. However, this isn’t designed to be our normal state. We’re designed to need margin in our lives.

Subverting Slothfulness

Ever since sloth made its way to the list of seven deadly sins we’ve been avoiding the perception of being slothful. In the process we’ve confused the natural need for rest with a persistent state of slothfulness. Rest isn’t a reward, it’s a requirement.

When we rest we’re not necessarily lazy. Resting is recharging. It’s rebuilding our strength to face the next battle, to climb the next hill, and to take the next risk. In our culture the idea that you would take a “lazy day” seems sacrilegious – even on a vacation. Most of us take our work with us on vacation. Forty percent of Americans don’t even use all of the vacation time that they are given each year.

In our attempt to avoid being perceived as slothful, we’ve become overworked, overstressed, and overwhelmed.

Serving Others

I believe strongly that you cannot give what you don’t have. Despite this I see many people trying to give healing and support to others when they’re emotionally run down and when they have nothing left to offer. Instead of doing self-care they seek to care for others. My eldest daughter is a nurse and we hear stories all the time of her and her coworkers not taking a lunch break because they’re too busy or they’re too concerned that the other nurses can’t take care of their patients as well as they can.

We’ve come to believe that taking time for ourselves is a sin and that solitude is loneliness. Instead of recognizing the Sabbath we run like we’re fleeing a sabretooth tiger. We’ve learned – incorrectly – that it’s greedy and rude to take care of our own needs. Instead of investing a little time to get centered and ready to share our gifts with the world we try to share what we don’t have.

Consider the Dalai Lama. The gifts of compassion that he offers the world are life giving. However, as a Buddhist monk he makes substantial time each day for meditative prayer so that he has the inner fortitude to share with others. If the Dalai Lama still needs daily meditation and prayer – don’t we?

The Fault of Future Focused

I’m a future focused person (See The Time Paradox for more.) That means that I tend to live in the future. I look forward to a day when the struggle is less and that I’ve achieved my goals – whatever that means. This is good in that it allows me to plan for the future and keep positive that no matter how bad things are at the moment they’ll get better someday.

However, the negative to this perspective is that I’ll sometimes forget to recognize the blessings in my life today. I spend so much time living for tomorrow I forget to live in the here and now. Sometimes stopping to smell the roses is important – even for those trying to grow rose bushes.

Luxurious Leisure

It’s not that we get less time than other people. The Earth rotates at the same speed for you and me as those people who are highly productive and those who are recharged by their rest. However, the way that we spend our time is important. We can spend our time lounging in front of the next situation comedy (sitcom) from Hollywood or we can spend it talking with friends. What we spend our time on will depend how rested we feel.

As was mentioned in Alone Together, we’re wired for connection with other humans. When we spend our time connecting with others – when we’re just relaxing and enjoying their company – we become restored. When we spend our leisure time watching TV or playing video games we’re not getting the most benefit from our leisure. Without trying to turn our rest and relaxation into another opportunity for “productivity”, there are things that we can choose to do which will more thoroughly and quickly restore our souls.

While each of us enjoys a different kind of rest, a different kind of leisure, we can accidentally choose leisure time which isn’t rewarding or fulfilling – or we can choose to turn our rest into a competition. Play mentioned a Runner’s World Article which divided runners into four categories: the exerciser, the competitor, the enthusiast, and the socializer. Each one experienced running differently. The exerciser experienced the physical activity. The competitor experienced the power of competition. The enthusiast experiences the moment – the leisure. The socializers experience the connection. (See Who Am I? for 16 different motivational factors.) Experiencing the moment or the leisure and experiencing the connection with others will powerfully restore the runners. Those who are running for physical activity may be restored if their need for physical activity isn’t being met. Those who are, however, competing may not receive any rest from running at all.

Technology Tethered

I do a talk on converting an email culture into a SharePoint culture. In that talk I assess the level of addiction that we have with email. When I started giving the talk few people – maybe a third of the room – would admit to having an addiction with email and our phones. When I give the talk these days more than 80% of the hands go up when I asked if they’re addicted to email.

We’ve become too tethered to our technology and not tethered enough to each other. (See Alone Together
for more on this central concept.) We’ve become the dog tethered in the back yard to a stake. We never get to experience what it’s like to be inside each other’s houses – or lives. What we need for rest is to spend more time with each other connecting about things that matter and less time trying to follow Facebook. Rest Assured, if we do that we’ll find a way to slow down our crazy pace and feel more peace.


Book Review-The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation

It’s the Medici family that is responsible – in part – for kicking off the renaissance. By bringing together masters in multiple disciplines they allowed knowledge to flow across the boundaries of discipline and thereby they created the opportunities for intersection. The Medici Effect is a book about the ideas at the intersection of different disciplines


Thinking of the Renaissance is a recurring theme for me. It last surfaced in Beyond Genius. There I referred to my 2004 article on – “Renaissance man.” For me the Renaissance is a time of great advancement of our humanity. My wish for the world is that we’re able to maintain a rapid advancement of enlightenment. It’s to that end that I want to understand the factors that lined up to kick the advancement off.


Any idiot can have ideas. Having an idea doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. It’s a good idea when others find it relevant, important, and valuable. While we’re all inherently creativity as Creative Confidence, Creativity, Inc., Group Genius, and Play
have discussed. We’re creative until our inner critic – fed by the voices of external critics – squashes our drive to be creative. We begin to believe the lie that we aren’t creative and never will be. (See Mindset for a fixed mindset.)

Creativity is a notably messy process. Whether you’re giving kindergartners finger paints or you’re trying new business solutions there are bound to be messes and failures. As adults we don’t like failures because too many of us were raised with performance based love and we believe that if we fail then we are failures. (See The Road Less Traveled for more on performance-based love.) The true failure however, is to not try. Everyone who seeks creative success has had failure. The trick is that they didn’t let the failure stop them from moving forward.


It’s not enough to have an idea. Nor is it good enough to have a creative idea. For an idea to be innovative it has to be implemented and adopted. (See Diffusion of Innovations and Unleashing Innovation for more.) The impact of the Renaissance was innovation. The ideas were creative – but more importantly they were adopted.

Brackish Water

My sister wanted to be a marine biologist as a child and as such she had an interest in marine biology that she carries with her. At some point while visiting her I was asking whether the water we were passing over – the intercoastal – was salt water she responded that the water was brackish water. That is the water was neither salt water like the ocean nor freshwater like a stream or spring.

Medici like innovation is like this. It occurs at the intersection of two seemingly incompatible disciplines. Brackish water occurs when freshwater and salt water mix as often happens at the deltas of rivers as they empty into the sea. It also happens along areas where the tide can come up over freshwater supplies. It lives at the intersection between salt and non-salt water.

It’s in these places that there are special species of plants and fish that are especially adapted to the conditions. Because most plants and fish struggle in these in between conditions the plants and fish that live in brackish water often thrive in their environment. They live in the space between salt and fresh.

Innovators are like this. Because there aren’t many innovators – because most people live in one world or another, those who can live in multiple worlds – or worlds at the intersection of others – can make their own worlds. (See Extraordinary Minds for the maker type of genius – who is the innovator.)

Wrong Ideas

Memes are mental viruses. They replicate through the use of imitation and copying. They leap from brain-to-brain. They travel. Sometimes they’re hard to eradicate when they’re wrongheaded or bad. Consider for a moment how autism has been incorrectly linked to vaccines. A single article published in the Lancet – and since retracted due to ethical issues that cost the lead author his medical license has created a paranoia about vaccines that has yet to be effectively quashed.

It makes sense though. Autism is typically discovered right around the time of vaccinations so vaccinations must be the cause, right? Just because two things are coincident doesn’t mean that one is causal for the other. No one would say that autism causes vaccinations – so why do we so readily accept that the opposite is true even though the evidence is overwhelming at this point that there is no causal relationship between vaccines and autism. (As a sidebar, it appears to be a poorly timed histamine response in the mother during pregnancy may be a contributing factor but more research is needed here.)

Sometimes we become so ingrained in an industry that we can’t see the frameworks of the industry that are holding us back. Once you’ve become a part of the establishment it’s very hard to slay the sacred cows or say that the emperor has no clothes.


You need raw material in order to be innovative. Without any training you don’t have any structure or foundation to think about things. (See Sources of Power for more on mental models.) As a result, the possibility of being innovative climbs as you know more about a subject – up to a point. Once you reach a certain point the probability of innovation plateaus before falling off. Once you become too established in an area of knowledge you stop questioning it. You follow chains of association until they enslave you.

The recipe for becoming an innovator then isn’t to be a learned person in the traditional go to college and study a single topic type of way. Instead, innovators tend to be self-learners. They have a voracious appetite for the things that interest them. Innovators may have little or no schooling but are instead intensely curious and motivated towards the hard work of learning the things that interest them. (See The Adult Learner for more on what motivates people to learn.)


If creativity comes from two components – combination of different concepts and randomness – the ingredient that will bother most folks is the randomness component. However, randomness is at the heart of the world we live in even if we don’t want to admit it.

With the notable exception of Ansel Adams, every great photographer I’ve ever heard about took a lot of photos to get good. They didn’t know how to compose a scene or to execute the technical mechanics of their cameras until they learned. They learned randomly through trial and error. Life is like this. Despite our propensity for trying to find order in the data, there is randomness.

For innovation to stick we have to have enough random events to align in a way that works out for the innovation. If enough random events don’t happen then there will be a creative idea but no innovation. We get a good idea that never survives crossing the chasm to an innovation.

Acceptable Risks

Everyone has a level of risk that they’re comfortable with. We’re willing to drive at a certain speed because we trust our ability to drive a car and the features of the car that support that being an acceptable level of risk. In my sports car I’d drive faster than I will in any other vehicle because I knew the capabilities of the car. In fact, advances like ABS haven’t changed the accident rate of cars. Our relative number of accidents has stayed relatively constant.

Living at the intersection of disciplines means living with risk. Risk of the bad idea and risk of rejection or scorn by your peers. Living at the intersection of ideas is a scary place and it takes a special level of risk tolerance to have the courage to stay there. (See Finding Your Courage for more on courage.)

The Risk of Inaction

In the end, the worst risk is the risk of doing nothing. The moment you stop trying, you start dying. I mean this from both the figurative point of view and the literal point of view, if you’re not moving forward and everything else including time is – you’re relatively speaking moving backward. On the more practical side as people retire without anything to do, they end up living shorter lives. Those folks who live the longest lives and without the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia are those who are the most active. It’s not that being engaged and taking risks immunizes you to the effects of aging or mental disease, but it does increase your resistance to the conditions.

In your heart and in your organizations it’s important to ensure that you are making the process of taking risks easier and the process of inaction gets harder – and that’s hard to do. However, the impact of supporting risk is you make them easier and people take them more often. The impact of more risks is more failures – and more successes. Ultimately more successes means that you may have been able to kick off your own renaissance period in your organization all thanks to your own [The] Medici Effect.


Book Review-Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

In a world where we’re more connected how can we be more alone? How can we be reachable in nearly every part of the world and feel so separated from our humanity and from each other? The answers aren’t easy nor are they straightforward. It turns out that our fear has turned against us. We’ve leveraged technology to take the risk out of communications and in the process we’ve created a new set of problems that we don’t know how to handle.

Whether we’re discussing the next cool gadget, the latest use for the Internet, or care-focused robots the challenges are the same. We’ve found ways to be more connected and at the same time protect ourselves from the chance to be harmed. The result is that we’ve found a way to be Alone Together.


In our world today we’re trading intimacy for efficiency. We no longer speak with the gas station manager or attendants. We don’t even walk in. We insert our credit card at the pump and leave having never said a word to anyone. We no longer have relationships with our bankers. For those bankers that stay at the bank, we rarely see them. Instead we insert our bank card into an automated teller who asks us what we want to do and dutifully complies – if you have sufficient funds that is. We call companies and no longer speak with a receptionist. Instead we dial the extension of the person that we’re trying to reach – or we navigate the byzantine interactive voice response (IVR) to get the answer we need. If we’re lucky we’ll find a person who can help us at the end of this combination of keystrokes.

Intimacy is “in-to-me-see.” The trick is what will the other person see? (See Intimacy Anorexia and my post Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on what Intimacy is.) If you see yourself with more shame and remorse you assume that others will see this in you as well. You assume that they’ll see that you’re not worthy of love. (See The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, and Rising Strong (Part 1 and Part 2) for Brown’s work on shame and guilt.)

Viewed from the lens of the shame that we carry it’s easy to see how we would want to avoid intimacy. After all if you want to be intimate with others you need to be vulnerable and that means you might get hurt. We’re wired to seek connection and love. What happens when our bids for love are rejected? Do we feel like we’re outside the community and therefore outside of the protection that being in the community affords?


The trick of vulnerability is to be vulnerable enough to be known and to be intimate with others and not so vulnerable that a breach of trust will be crushing. (See more about betrayal in Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace.) When you’re dealing with a computer program like Eliza –which keeps no records of the conversation you can be assured that there will be no betrayal. (Eliza is the first program to try to pass the Turing test for artificial intelligence. It mimics a humanistic psychologist’s response.) Maybe this is why students were looking for “alone time” with the program.

When dealing with others there is the chance of vulnerability and betrayal – but we can mitigate our vulnerability by providing the opportunity for delayed reaction. This is precisely why millennials don’t want to telephone each other. They prefer to text instead where they can ponder, consider, rewrite, and finally after much consideration send their message before developing anxiety about what the other person is going to reply with. The ellipsis that indicate the other party are typing can trigger fear of what the other person is going to say – and therefore the threat of harm.

However, when there is no chance of betrayal there is no vulnerability. Vulnerability requires the possibility of betrayal just like courage requires fear. (See Find Your Courage for more on fear and courage.) When considered from a robotic perspective, how can we be harmed by vulnerability with a robot?

Should we allow – or encourage – robotic caretakers for the elderly? In Being Mortal Atul Gawande discussed the options for dignified geriatric care and the factors that enriched it. It was often focused around the elderly caring for other things – plants or animals. In this context, couldn’t they care for a robot that in turn “cared for them” as well?

How the robot cared for them might be physical, ensuring that they can safely walk to the bathroom or remember to take their medicines. However, the “caring” might be more ephemeral. It could be that the My Real Baby, or Furby, or other “toy” just listens.

Recovering Relationships

However, lest you get the perspective that technology is all bad, sometimes mediating the vulnerability is appropriate and is something that can be healing. Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries explain the importance of boundaries – what you will and won’t allow. Defining boundaries are how you define yourself as a person. For instance, perhaps you believe that you’ll never kill another person. Temporary boundaries are protective structures like the barriers erected around wet concrete to prevent people from wandering in and destroying it before it’s dry.

Being able to so precisely mediate your responsiveness and therefore your vulnerability has definite advantages in creating the opportunity for healing even if that healing never comes. There is something to be said for feeling like you’ve given the other person in a relationship every opportunity to recover the relationship. However, that’s not possible if every interaction risks another serious harm.

The Meaning of Robotic Life

I remember Eliza, a computer program designed to pass the Turing test for intelligence. Eliza was an inquisitive program designed to mimic humanistic psychiatry. That is Eliza was programmed to reflect back what you said. In this way the program seemed like you were communicating with another human being. It was a bit of an eerie feeling if you were willing to suspend disbelief and consider that you might be communicating with another person. This worked because you assumed a very small solution set. By constraining and specifying the engagement it was possible to reach a level of realism that was passable.

We now have Siri and Cortana, the supposed virtual assistants designed to help us organize our lives. I don’t know about your experience but I’ve found that I can ask Siri or Cortana a relatively small number of things and get a meaningful answer. I can ask about the weather but I can’t even ask about my upcoming appointments without risk of getting an incorrect answer. As a result, I’ve stopped asking them all but a handful of questions. I don’t think of either of them as in anyway alive.

However, what happens when the responses are constrained slightly again but this time instead of as a humanistic psychologist, as a companion. Over the years we’ve had many toys where really robotic with a soft fur covering. These toys are designed to interact with children and be perceived as being alive. (Or in the case of a few of my children’s beliefs – possessed. The stories of Furby’s talking to each other and randomly in the middle of the night was a bit spooky.)

So the pondering is what would consist of robotic emotions? Could robots really provide an alternative to human companionship and human compassion? For now, the answer depends on what passes for emotions. Do preprogrammed responses count? Do the emotions need to be felt as we feel them as humans or do they only need to be approximations?

I was reminded of the conversation between the Skin Horse and Velveteen Rabbit in Velveteen Rabbit. “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.” Of course, this isn’t a literal truth but at the same time, it’s at the heart of emotions – our connections to others. If a robot or a computer program can help someone feel connected, what’s the harm?

Must See TV

I can remember while I was growing up that Cheers was on TV and Thursday nights were prime time. Families would save their Thursday nights to stay home and watch TV together. Temporally we were all synchronized to a single event. Then came VCRs and we could record our shows and watch them later. This disrupted the water cooler effect which was where employees gathered to discuss the last night’s shows and establish their shared experience. Those who recorded the programs would sheepishly stay away for fear of spoilers.

In today’s on-demand and Digital Video Recorder (DVR) world we’ve lost that shared connection. We don’t have a common experience of entertainment any longer. Hundreds of channels and more YouTube videos uploaded each hour than anyone could possibly watch have made shared experience mostly a thing of the past.

The way that we call others has changed as well. It used to be we called places. We called the home of our friends and we asked those who answered to either fetch our friend for us or to leave them a message (which invariably they rarely got). If your friend or their family wasn’t home, you didn’t get the opportunity to even leave a message until the advent of the answering machine. A subtle shift happened here as people began screening their calls and callers – who didn’t really want to talk to you any way called at times when it was clear you wouldn’t be home. When voice mail replaced answering machines we had caller ID to let us know who was calling so we wouldn’t have to pick up if we didn’t want to.

However, the most radical change in calling behavior wasn’t voice mail or caller ID. It happened when we stopped calling places and started calling people. Most of the time we don’t call others houses any longer. In fact, fewer and fewer homes even have telephones any longer. The home phones have been replaced with mobile phones for each of the home’s residents. Other than minor children most people today – even in poor neighborhoods – have mobile phones.

Virtual Affairs

Some wives have begun to describe themselves as gaming widows. Their husbands have lost themselves not in baseball, basketball, or even watching games on TV but have instead lost themselves into the world of online gaming where they can become anyone they want. They can create a virtual persona that is anyone they want. The addictive nature of games makes spouses feel like they’re no longer connected – much less intimate with their spouse. (See The Science of Trust for bids for attention and how failing to respond to them can create serious issues in a relationship.)

It’s not really that the games are technically addictive but rather they induce a state of flow and an altered sense of connection. (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more on flow.) Addictions technically require dangerous or compulsive behaviors. That is true addiction requires impact or probable impact on other areas of our life. (See Chasing the Scream for more on addiction.)

Games are one thing but what about virtual worlds like Second Life, Sims, and others where people interact in virtual worlds not based around games and quests, but based in alternate identities. These virtual worlds begin sucking in people and engulfing their experiences. This robs them of real world experiences and drains energies away from the things in life which are real.

Where is the line between having a second source of emotional support and when the support crosses the line to become too important? It used to be that men and women would have extramarital affairs when their emotional (and secondarily physical) needs weren’t being met in their marriage. In some families these indiscretions were accepted and dismissed. In others the results of the infidelity ripped families apart as was seen in the increase in divorce rates. (See Divorce for more on the impacts of divorce.)

So, I suppose having an obviously non-physical relationship in a virtual world is better than a physical relationship in the real world. But is it any better – or worse – to be emotionally connected to someone than physically connected?


Sexting – the act of sending sexually explicit text messages between parties can be flirtatious and fun, criminal, or career ending. Consider Anthony Weiner’s sexually explicit text messages that ended his career. (Or any of the numerous other political figures who have stepped down because of their sexting with parties other than their wives.)

In high school where the senders and recipients are both frequently minors, sexting which includes photography is legally child pornography. Even shared between a girlfriend and a boyfriend there are serious legal entanglements that can happen. These get worse when one of the parties forwards the images to parties outside of the relationship – which is all too easily done.

Programs like SnapChat are designed to limit the time that the message can be visible on the recipient’s device, however, it didn’t take folks long to realize that they could take a screenshot of their device while the picture was visible to keep a copy. While the official SnapChat client application notifies the sender that a screen shot has been taken, not all client applications do.

In a married or committed relationship between consenting adults with the mental capacity to not share the content with others it can be a way to keep the “fires burning” when one or both of the parties travel. However, care must be taken to ensure that the photos aren’t accidentally discovered. (As one of my female friends was reminded of when she was showing me some pictures on her phone. I didn’t see anything but her face got very red very fast.)

Physically There, Mentally Away

In Our Kids Putnam explained the difference between children of affluent and non-affluent parents (using the proxy of education) being primarily in their ability to support their children in their time, attention, and resources (including social). The point was made that most children receive approximately the same amount of time from working mothers as they did a generation ago by stay-at-home mothers because the mothers have adjusted their behaviors to provide more time and resources for their children. We’re more focused on providing for our children than we’ve ever been in history – but the gap between the contributions of the affluent and non-affluent is widening.

However, in our always connected world we’re finding that even if parents are physically present moving children from practice-to-practice or school-to-school, they’re less connected with them. Children speak of parents who are on their phone or are texting during dinner or when they’re driving the children. (We have a no cell phone at the dinner table rule at our house – but we sometimes will take calls while transporting children.)

Confessions and Apologies

What’s the difference between a confession and an apology? In real life when you’re face-to-face with someone the difference seems obvious. One is admitting what has happened and the other is feeling remorse or sorrow for it happening. However, in an online world where you’re unable to read the other person’s face and when the audience expands from a one-on-one conversation with zero to a few observers to what happens online where there is a large audience, it becomes muddier.

If someone is apologizing to you in an open forum are they truly sorry or are they only sorry they got caught? This is an interesting distinction as I work with folks who struggle with hurts and addictions in their lives I most frequently initially hear that they’re sorry that they got caught. They’re not sorry for the thing they’re doing. They express no guilt or shame and therefore no remorse. As they come to mature in their understanding of the situation they begin to become sorry for what they’ve done – not just that they got caught.

The ability to understand the difference between being sorry for the action and being sorry for the act is often hard to see when all you have to go on is the text in a chat room or discussion board. The motivation for someone’s apology is hard to determine when you can’t look them in the eyes.

Holding Space

There’s a concept call Ba in Japanese culture. It’s a holding space for relationships. It happens in families, communities, and even in work groups. The concept of a holding space surfaced for me first in the study of knowledge management but has since appeared in Dialogue, Theory U, and Leading from the Emerging Future. The idea behind a holding space is that it is the vessel that is able to contain the context. In the past it used to be that our communities were vast holding spaces. However, the fabric of our connections with each other have begun to erode. (See Bowling Alone for how our communities are unraveling and how we are less connected to others than we’ve ever been before.) In the wake of the boat called individualism we find ourselves drifting from one space to another without the ability to create the “holding” that we so desperately need as humans.

Today online communities allow us to enter and leave with the click of a mouse. The ability to so easily choose which virtual space we’re in certainly allows freedom but without the barriers to exit that would normally cause us to try to work things out. (See Demand for the impact of small barriers on behavior.) Because of this, communities aren’t really spaces where one can foster true relationships. A relationship isn’t only a relationship when things are good. A relationship is proved in the difficult times. (See The Science of Trust for more about the good and bad of relationships.) When we leave a community before trying to work it out we’re doing harm to our ability to become fully intimate and connected with one another.

In the end, our technology has made our lives easier. However, in the process it’s made it harder to fully connect with each other on an emotional level. It’s left us Alone Together.


Book Review-The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

Reading Brown’s work in a non-sequential order makes me think of Star Wars with its episodes and prequels. In some ways it’s more like the movie Premonition which is a magnificent film and also magnificently hard to follow. The premise of the movie is that the star character is experiencing time out of order. Despite this, The Gifts of Imperfection filled in gaps in the story told by Browns subsequent works Daring Greatly and Rising Strong (Part 1 and Part 2 of my review).

The Gifts of Imperfection covers a variety of the same topics in Brown’s other works. I won’t readdress them here. Instead I’ll focus on some of the topics that aren’t in her other works.

Separately Together

One of the challenges that Terri and I’ve seen is that people are literally together but they’re not really connecting. Whether it’s the family out to dinner each with their phone firmly planted at the end of their noses banging out something to someone who is presumably not at the table or it’s the family sitting together in the hospital – it is tragic that we can be together but separate. (We started Kin-to-Kid Connection to help with this challenge.) This is the paradox of the world we live in.

We’re the most technologically connected society. We’ve got WiFi internet in our homes, coffee shops, churches, offices, and nearly everywhere that we might go. We’ve even got WiFi available on airplanes. Our cell phones have data access allowing us to connect with the Internet and the various messaging and social sites. Today we’re able to communicate on live video with our friends half a world away. From a technical aspect of communication perspective, the Pony Express is a distant memory along with any belief that we can’t communicate with anyone at any time.

Yet, we’re not able to connect with the people that are right in front of us. Instead of real friends we have Facebook friends. (See my post High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more on the limits of Facebook friends.) Instead of conversation or dialogue we text each other – sitting at the same table. (See Dialogue for more on the art of thinking together.)

Hope is Not an Emotion

If you had asked me, I would have said that hope was an emotion – it’s a way that you feel. As I’ve spoken about hope that’s the context that I’ve held. (See Faith, Hope, and Love and The Heart and Soul of Change for two examples.) However, hope isn’t an emotion. It’s a cognitive process. C.R. Snyder a researcher at the University of Kansas believes that hope is: 1) The ability to set realistic goals, 2) ability to meet those goals – including through alternative routes, and 3) belief in ourselves. The good news here is that hope can be learned. (See Mindset for malleability of our mindset.)

I’ve ordered Snyder’s book but I think that he (and Brown) are speaking of a special kind of hope. It’s not hope that the world will be better tomorrow. It’s not hope that someone will get the job. It’s a variant of self-confidence that you can do what you set out to do.

Despite my disagreement with the specifics of Snyder’s work – the idea that you can instill and give rise to hope is important. Hope is sometimes the thing that carries people through serious losses (See On Death and Dying.) Hope may come easier to those who have a future focus (See The Time Paradox for more.)


In The Paradox of Choice we learned of Maximizers, Schwartz’s code word for perfectionists, and their struggle to be happy in life. This intersects with Brown’s world as it relates to shame. Though she says that shame is the birthplace of perfectionism, the opposite is more likely true. Where we feel shame we feel that we are bad – thus that we failed to measure up to a standard. When that standard is perfectionism shame will always exist.

Perfectionism is a liar. Perfectionism says that you can only be accepted when you are perfect. This challenges our fundamental need for connection. The idea that we are unlovable when we’re not perfect isn’t true as we learned in God Loves You.

Connection and Relationship

The idea of the human need for connection is a recurring topic in my research. Numerous articles talk about healthier living for folks in a marriage – and that those who are in relationships in general are happier and healthier. The Science of Trust discussed immigrant groups with better health when they had trusting communities and trusting family ties. It’s not just the quantity of these relationships. It’s the quality – so Facebook friends don’t count.

Spiritual Evolution shared that social bonds in Baboons improved the survival rate of their offspring. So even in our primate cousins we see that connections and relationships matter. If you want to be happy you want relationships. You need connections with other people. Connecting with others means loving them – a special kind of universal love.

Agape Love

The Greek word Agape is one of three Greek words translated to mean love in the English language. In Buddhism the word is compassion. Buried in this is the meaning that we are all connected to one another. Compassion is cultivated because we know that we are all one. We can’t survive without one another. The bubble that we call Earth is a delicate balance of one set of interconnected ecosystems.

This kind of global love is an irreducible need of all humans. We’re wired to need connection with one another because it was necessary for us to band together to form communities and care – so that we could survive.

Digging Deep

Brown shares the acronym DIG for considering our condition and living wholeheartedly. The letters stand for:

  • Deliberate – thoughts and behaviors
  • Inspired – making new and different choices
  • Going – take action

By taking these steps – by looking into ourselves and digging deep we can become more wholehearted and along the way better understand our defining boundaries.

Wholehearted Through Boundaries

If you were looking for a marker to find wholehearted people – to find the people who are really experiencing life what would you look for? It turns out looking for someone who is clear about their boundaries might be the best way to find wholehearted people. Though it seems paradoxical that the most open people might be people who are the most boundary conscious – it isn’t when you dig in. (See Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries for more about what boundaries are.)

Wholehearted people know themselves. They’re comfortable in their own skins. They know what they do well and they know what they don’t do well. They know what they want and what they don’t want. They know these things because they’ve looked deeply into themselves to really understand themselves. They know what they are willing to accept and those things that they’re not willing to accept.

Knowing these answers frees them up to be who they truly are all the time. They don’t have to lament over each decision. They can just respond as themselves. They’ve gotten out of the boxes that define them and as a result they’re no longer trapped by their boundaries though they may be defined by them. (See The Anatomy of Peace for more on boxes.)

Science and Religion

The great irony of our societies is that in science we’ve accepted that there’s a lot that we don’t know. We’ve learned time and time again that we were wrong or at least incomplete in our understanding of something. As a result science has become malleable to the idea of errors of thinking. Faith, on the other hand, insists in one true and correct answer without any acceptance that there might be other answers or that we might be incorrect.

It’s odd that faith has come to mean that we’re certain even when we have no evidence. Shouldn’t faith be bent according to what we learn to be true? The Dalai Lama commented that Buddhism must change to the truths discovered through science – that is what the Buddha said must happen. (See Emotional Awareness for more.)

Shut Up and Dance

One of my favorite songs over the last few months has been Shut Up and Dance by Walk the Moon on their Talking is Hard album. Part of the lyrics are “Oh don’t you dare look back Just keep your eyes on me I said you’re holding back She said shut up and dance with me.” For me the lyrics are a reminder to focus on where you are – not what other folks are thinking. To focus on the present in the moment and to no worry how others think you are. I was reminded of this as Brown speaks of a moment with her daughter where she focused exclusively on her – and not what the others around them might be thinking.

We’re all imperfect creatures. The trick is to recognize The Gift of [Our] Imperfection[s].


Book Review-My Spiritual Journey

While I’m firm in my faith as a Christian, I’m comfortable with my Buddhist brothers. I’m mindful of my Muslim friends. I say this knowing that in America there is still uneasy tension about the acts of a few Muslim extremists. In truth, I have a deep respect for anyone who has the capacity to live out their faith fully. It’s in this context that I read My Spiritual Journey which is a “self-portrait” of the Dalai Lama.

This isn’t the first time I’ve read about the Dalai Lama’s work. Having read both Emotional Awareness and listened to Destructive Emotions as an audio book, I was familiar with the Dalai Lama’s beliefs but in truth I had very little perspective on how he came to be so wise.


Tibet is an interesting place – at least in my mind. I imagine it as a place of untold beauty at the top of the world, with mountains, animals, and monasteries. It seems like my mental image isn’t too different than what it really is – except that nature may be less forgiving and harsher than the idealized version in my head. The plight of the Tibetan people is also less ideal than I would have imagined.

I can remember incidents where the Chinese government suppressed and put down revolts. Perhaps the most familiar to me was described simply as Tiananmen Square. This is a location where many events have happened over the years where protesters clashed with the Chinese government. While the details are disputed some of the videos that have surfaced from the incidents are hard to ignore.

So when the Dalai Lama describes the forceful nature with which China invaded Tibet and the subsequent massacres of Tibetan people through waves of trying to “gain control.” I have little doubt that the events actually happened. While falling short of saying that every claim that has been made is absolute truth, I’m comfortable in saying that there are clearly ways that China could have behaved better.

I’d love to some day visit Tibet and learn more about the culture and the ecology of the country (or province if you believe China’s claims to authority.)


Christianity doesn’t believe in reincarnation. We believe that you’ve got one life on Earth so you should make the most of the time that you’ve given. Not making the most of it from the point of view of hedonism and having the most fun. Rather, making the most of it to bring heaven to Earth. Equating it loosely to my poor understanding of Buddhism, Christians are supposedly bringing Nirvana to Earth for all people – though we clearly fall way short of this bar.

In Buddhism the belief of reincarnation is core to the beliefs. There are most lineages that can have only one living member at a time – and others like the Dalai Lama’s lineage where it’s possible (but rare) to have two instances of the same spirit living in two bodies at once.

The benefit of this belief system is that in reincarnation there’s an awareness that you need to take care of the Earth so that your next incarnation will be in a better spot – or to have the resources of mother nature. In this way the end goals – of making the world a better place – of Buddhism and Christianity seem aligned – though they approach the journey differently.

Human Needs

We all need to be loved. Humans have the longest child rearing of any animal – that is we’re more fragile for a longer time than any other animal. It’s necessary then for us to be cared for by others for a very long time. From a biological point of view humans need social connections to function. We need the love of our parents as well as the support of our communities. (See Our Kids for more on the impact to our children of parenting.)

The need for love surfaces everywhere in literature from the preoccupation in popular music to the need for healing in books like A Hunger for Healing, God Loves You, How Children Succeed, How to Be An Adult in Relationships, and Love, Acceptance and Forgiveness.


What the Buddhists refer to as compassion seems most closely related to the Greek word Agape. In its translation to English in the New Testament the word is one of three translated to love. The other words that translate to love are Eros – Erotic or romantic love and Philos – brotherly or familial love. Agape then is a universal form of love. In the New Testament translation it refers to God’s love. However, it is also used as an instruction for us to love one another. (John 13:34)

As the Dalai Lama is considered to be a reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion – so one could easily assume he’s an expert. He’s frequently described as having infinite compassion. However, what is compassion? The Dalai Lama has sometimes referred to compassion as human affection –thus love.

Here I struggle with the Dalai Lama’s perception as he sometimes describes compassion as a mixture of desire and attachment as in a parent’s compassion for a child. Here I believe that the Greek’s separation of philos for this sort of love is a better match. In this way we can separate universal compassion from compassion associated with families – or those whom you decide to treat as family. (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more on how familial relationships differ.)

Barriers to Commitment

There are barriers to commitment – things which make it difficult to feel compassions for others. The Anatomy of Peace
would call these boxes. Anger and hatred are described as the barriers to compassion.

One of my favorite learnings from Destructive Emotions was that anger is disappointment directed. This is such a simple and profound statement. I use it all the time to stop-time when I’m angry and ask what it is that I’m disappointed in. Is it the circumstances? The other people involved? Or am I disappointed in myself?

I do get angry. As I mentioned in my post The Inner Game of Dialogue it’s not that a master doesn’t get off center. It’s that they discover it sooner and recover faster. I’ve still got much to learn about accepting others as they are and releasing my anger sooner. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships
for more on acceptance.)

Hatred is a stronger and longer emotion. It’s a sustained anger – a sustained desire for vengeance or retribution. (See Who Am I? for more on vengeance as a motivator.) It’s hard to love something that you hate. It’s hard to show compassion when your heart is filled with hatred.

Compassion as Commitment

I described love as a decision in my review of Love, Acceptance and Forgiveness. Given my belief that love and compassion are the same thing, it’s no surprise that I believe compassion is a decision – or a commitment as well. The Dalai Lama describes compassion as a firm, thought-out commitment. That is, compassion isn’t a passing fancy or something that you do when the mood strikes but rather is a decision that you implement whether you “feel like it” or not.

It’s in this context that you can begin to see the commitment to compassion. A desire to live the life that you’re called to live.

Enemies as Teachers

I’m not a highly competitive person. In general, I prefer to not compete with others. I find my own path to doing things. However, there are times where there is little avoiding being in competition with other people. In these circumstances I find that I’m driven to be better in ways that I wouldn’t normally refine my work. I’m more frequently focused on innovation and individualism than I am on refining my ability.

Enemies – or people with whom you have conflict – can help us to improve even more than competition. Conflict is a step up – or a step above competition. In competition you’re competing but not necessarily conflicting with another person. The Bible says that “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17) – it finishes with “so one person sharpens another.” Our best teachers, those who help us to grow and become better are often those enemies who are matched to us and our unique strengths and weaknesses.

Happiness and Suffering

One of the basic aspirations of mankind is the pursuit of happiness. Though revolutionary when stated in the declaration of independence, we now accept that happiness is something that everyone strives for. We seek happiness and seek to avoid suffering. In fact, in Thinking, Fast and Slow
we learned that we avoid loss (or suffering) more intensely than we seek out happiness.

Once we pass our ability to avoid suffering and move past the stress of everyday life we find that we need to figure out how to be living. That is how we move from striving to thriving. Thriving is happiness. We learned in Change or Die the intense impact our point of view can have on our health. We learned how much of our health care costs are really outcomes of behavioral issues.

Happiness is a frequent theme in reading and writing books as my reviews for Stumbling on Happiness, The Happiness Hypothesis, and Hardwiring Happiness can demonstrate.

Non-Violent Determination

In the end, the Dalai Lama’s message is simple. Compassion is a powerful non-violent force that isn’t impotent but rather needs determination and persistence to show its impact. Gandhi had a big impact with his non-violent protests. Hopefully the Tibetans will have the same opportunity for revolution. In the mean time learning a bit more about the Dalai Lama and the life of a simple Tibetan monk may just start you on your own [My] Spiritual Journey.


Book Review-Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology

To say that sometimes my reading list slips off into the odd is an understatement. Sometimes I’m reading some really clinical research based books. I’m trying to make sure that I’m really understanding a topic and I realize that I may be reading more about psychology than most practitioners, but I believe that there are key insights to be gained. This time I’m looking at the Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology. Last time I was looking at The Heart and Soul of Change: Delivering what Works in Therapy. This follows on the heels of The Cult of Personality Testing where I got to see some of the underbelly of the psychological assessment part of the industry. I needed to learn more about just how bad the work on personality testing was – and to pick up a broader perspective of the issues in the industry.

The book is organized into chapters with specific focuses. As a collection of works from various authors, there’s not a great deal of tie-in between chapters so here I’ll address some general issues with pseudoscience in clinical psychology and from there I’ll walk through the topics of the chapters by indicating the chapter subject in headings.


Mutual fund managers have been shown to be no better at predicting the market than an index fund. (Reference Do Active Mutual Fund Managers ‘ Beat the Market’?) When there is ambiguous or inconsistent feedback one can easily delude themselves into believing that it’s their skill that allowed them to earn money in the market. This is true even when a more detailed look at the evidence shows that few (if any) will beat the market.

Thinking, Fast and Slow calls this a zero-validity environment. That is there is no reasonable way that they can make the kind of predictions necessary to accurately forecast – and therefore capitalize on – the opportunity.

The problem isn’t that the problem is unsolvable, it’s that people believe they’ve solved it. Whether it’s the Rorschach Inkblot test or the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) there’s no reference by which to measure it and so the clinician can’t get reliable clues or feedback from their clinical practice in sufficient quantity and reliability to determine that the results are little better than chance.

Worse yet, despite having a battery of tools – some effective and some not – most of the social issues that we’re most concerned with – such as abusive parents – will demonstrate no mental defects that are detectable on the instruments that we have – including the Rorschach which has a noted bias to overpathologize subjects.

Science and Pseudoscience in Psychology says “Munchausen mothers force doctors to impose treatments on their children by interpreting ‘borderline’ medical conditions as problems needing intervention.” Clinicians have ineffective tools to determine whether the medical condition is real or “borderline” and whether the treatment is appropriate or not. Diagnosis of ADHD and the subsequent prescription of stimulants to children and adolescents has made stimulants more prescribed for these individuals than antibiotics.

Depression effects approximately 8% of the population today. (CDC, 2011) From 2005-2008 1 in 10 (10%) of Americans 12 and older took an antidepressant. And yet, only 43% of the studies of antidepressants sent to the FDA showed any statistically significant benefit compared to a placebo.

In short, clinicians don’t know what works and what doesn’t. They’ll prescribe a SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) because they don’t know what else to do to make the depression better.

If the result of science is the development of techniques which have reliable and predictable outcomes, then there is still a great deal of pseudoscience in psychology. Whether it’s anti-depressants that have dubious effectiveness or testing techniques that have minimal external and internal validity, pseudoscience is still rampant.

Controversial and Questionable Assessment Techniques

Do you ever look at your horoscope? Do you ever wonder how the horoscope seems to have something applicable to you? Do you feel like it is a truth? Or perhaps you feel, as I do, that it’s an interesting diversion that sometimes causes me to remember to live out my values. Either way, horoscopes are perceived by many to have some things that resonate. However, so do cold readings – that is a technique that psychics and fortune-tellers use to encourage their subjects to believe they know more than they actually do.

They throw out a topic and try to get the subject to fill in the information. The subject fills in information and the psychic moves forward in that line of thinking. If they get something wrong, they redirect and try to get the subject to believe that they have some extrasensory understanding of the situation.

It turns out that personality tests are much the same thing. Subjects were randomly assigned to two groups. One group received a “Barnum” profile which was designed to “give a little something to everyone” or an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACOA) profile. The Barnum profile – named after P.T. Barnum – was general in nature and not specific to any one person. Of the ACOA in the study, 79% of them said the Barnum profile described them very well or better. Of the Non-ACOA participants 70% the Barnum profile described them well. Of those receiving the ACOA profile, 71% of the ACOA participants rated the profile very well or better. Of the non-ACOA subjects in the ACOA profile group 63% said it described them very well.

There are a few conclusions to draw from this. First, people are eager to say that a personality profile matches them. Second, ACOA subjects liked a fictional, non-specific profile 8% more than one which was founded on the characteristics found in most ACOA subjects. In short our ability to discern whether a profile is accurate or is just interesting is questionable.

I’ve so extensively covered the issues with testing in The Cult of Personality that I won’t revisit the additional criticism leveled here, except to say that every so called projective test suffers from reliability problems.

Expert Testimony

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of expert testimony is what constitutes an expert. If so many people believe they’re in the top of their field how do you know who really is – and who is not? In the context of legal proceedings the answer is supposed to be that they rely on sound scientific principles under their opinions and beliefs. While they’re not required to initially disclose how they formed their opinions, they may be required to divulge this information on cross examination.

The standard for evidence – at a federal level – are the Federal Rules of Evidence and the major decisions in the cases summarized as Daubert, Joiner, and Kumho. Daubert sets the four major factors for evaluation of a trial judge which are:

  • The theory or technique is scientific knowledge that is testable;
  • The theory or technique has been subjected to peer review;
  • The rate of potential error is known; and
  • The theory or technique has gained general acceptance in the field.

Daubert says that the expert’s opinion must rest on a reliable foundation and must be relevant to the task at hand.

Joiner affirms the weaker decision in Daubert and says “trial courts have broad discretion to reject proffered expert opinions if they are inadequately supported by the data.” In short, if the expert can’t provide that they have a reasonable foundation, it can be rejected.

Kumho further broadens the trial judge’s ability by allowing the trial judge to reject testimony that is considered “technical” as well as scientific.

In the end, experts are supposed to be able to provide a reliable foundation for their testimony. Sadly in many cases, particularly where protective tests are used no reliable foundation exists (based on the research data) and yet the experts are allowed to proffer their beliefs. Though “It is incumbent on expert witnesses to acknowledge the limits of their competence and the evidential bases of their opinions, defend the data on which they rely to support their conclusions, and, to the extent possible, buttress their opinions with rigorous research findings” few actually do.

Science in Psychotherapy

We’d like to think that in psychotherapy – like medicine – that psychologists would be seeking out new research on treatment techniques and efficacy of the treatments they’re already using to continuously improve their practice. However, as was mentioned earlier, doctors with less experience and more training are more likely to use ECT appropriately. In 2000 a survey of 891 psychologists indicated that 47% never use evidence-based psychotherapy treatment manuals in their practice. In other words, it appears that efforts to encourage appropriate continuing education are currently insufficient to keep practitioners up with the latest scientific findings.

Like mentioned in The Heart and Soul of Change effectiveness is determined to a significant degree on patient-therapist alliance. The main three themes of which are defined as:

  • the collaborative nature of the relationship;
  • the affective bond between patient and therapist; and
  • the patient’s and therapist’s ability to agree on treatment goals

The factors that impact the results of therapy are most notably alliance and secondarily the effect of the therapist. However, knowing someone is good and proving that they’re good are two different things.

Novel Unsupported Therapies

I firmly believe that modern medicine and psychotherapy don’t have people “all figured out.” The gaps that exist in our knowledge may be shrinking but with each discovery we realize how little we actually know. It’s no surprise then that people would seek therapies that offer answers that modern medicine can’t provide. The New Age movement (or so it is sometimes called) is focused around non-traditional attempts to provide remedies. Some of these rely upon old eastern medicine practices and some are focused on the holistic person more so than western medicine but the ability to determine the efficacy is dubious.

Some of the items discussed in this category are scientific in their origins – like Hubbard’s E-meter – but their ability to indicate anything useful or to treat a patient are unclear. For instance, techniques like the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) often known as tapping were studied and were found to have no therapeutic value. However, some of these ideas persist in practice and in the minds of adults.

Another example comes from Harvard Psychology Professor Richard J. McNally who noted, “The notion that traumatic events can be repressed and later recovered is the most pernicious bit of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry. It has provided the theoretical basis for ‘recovered memory therapy’—the worst catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy era.” Recovered memory “therapies” have harmed a great many people when the memories that were “recovered” were subsequently discovered to be false – as we’ll see in the next chapter.

Constructing the Past

Have you ever wondered why you can’t spontaneously remember everything from the moment of your birth? If our memories really work like a video cassette recorder shouldn’t everything that we have experienced be available to us? As it turns out, not only does our memory not work like a tape recorder but we also didn’t have the ability to record events in a way that can be recalled for the first 24 months of life. The structural changes in the brain which are required to store and recall complex events doesn’t typically develop until about the 24 month mark. And yet, recovered memories are reported to come as early as in utero – or from prior lives. This of course accepts that reincarnation is true which while may be acceptable to the Dalai Lama – it’s not been proven. (Then again no one has proven that God exists either.)

So what happens when you introduce hypnosis into the mix of memory “recovery”. The answer seems to be confabulation. There is research that asserts that the recall ability of someone in hypnosis is equivalent. What does happen, however, is that subtle hints provided by the hypnotist are expanded upon. In general, ideas introduced into our memories through others – whether accurate or inaccurate — tend to take on an air of accuracy.

Consider the research where family members were told to “remember” a story about an adult when they were a child which was false. After the story was told to the adult they began to believe it as truth – and remember it. They couldn’t in fact distinguish between the memory that was told to them by their family from a real memory. We often can’t remember the source of our memories.

Self-Help Therapy

It’s 1969 and George Miller has been elected president of the American Psychological Association and in his presidential address he encourages the members to “give psychology away.” Psychologists are investigating how to convert their treatment programs into self-help systems that would allow anyone to leverage the power of psychology to improve their lives. The self-help movement didn’t start with Miller’s address. There were books available since the 1950s including Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking that were already creating the self-help category. Miller’s address simply encouraged psychologists to bring their training to bear on the market.

Unfortunately, there were numerous problems that occurred in the market. First, the claims made by books and programs weren’t regulated or monitored by anyone and thus outlandish claims were printed on some materials. What’s worse even if the materials were based on sound, well-researched psychological treatments their conversion to self-help form seemed to render them ineffective – or worse. So there was little possibility to ensure that the self-help being produced would create any positive effect.

Trauma-Related Stress Disorders

There’s a strong desire to help folks who have been through trauma. If you’ve never been close to the death of someone or to seeing some of the inhumanities of man then it’s hard to explain the profound loss you feel. Over the years several techniques have developed for the treatment of trauma related stress disorders. I discussed one called Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) in my review of Redirect. CISD was found to be less effective than nonintervention or an alternative intervention. While an opportunity to free journal write about an incident seemed to be helpful, CISD seemed to create problems.

Other treatments, like Anxiety Management Training (AMT) does have research to support that it is an effective therapy. It is a set of cognitive and behavioral strategies designed to reduce symptoms of anxiety, irritability, and hyperarousal.

Alcohol Use Disorders

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is perhaps the most widely known programs for alcoholics and addiction resistance in general. Though the research is mixed on its effectiveness – in part due to the anonymous and distributed nature of the group – there’s some agreement that it’s a cost effective resource since there are no dues or fees and the groups are largely self-supporting. It’s believed that AA participation reduces overall health care costs.

However, AA isn’t the only game in town. There are numerous boot camps and programs like Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), Scared Straight, and locally developed programs. Most of these programs, particularly DARE and Scared Straight-like programs are actually harmful. Specifically, The US Surgeon General has classified DARE as a potentially harmful treatment. So despite the relative ease of implementation, the affinity from the communities where it is tried, and the satisfaction of the officers participating in the program, it doesn’t work.

However, there are less popular approaches – such as controlled drinking – that are effective despite being shunned by the community or members of stricter programs. Controlled drinking in particular seeks to teach folks the skills to only drink in moderation and there by seeks to minimize the trap that total abstinence folks are put into. By making alcohol a shameful activity the first drink leads to a downward spiral of shame and coping – which controlled drinking avoids.

Herbs and Antidepressants

If I were to tell you that depression was one of the most widespread psychological disorders, it’s unlikely that you’d be surprised. If I told you that St. John’s Wort (hypericum) was as effective as some (if not most) of the antidepressants on the market – at a substantially lower cost – you might be surprised.

It’s rare that herbal remedies have the level of research to support their efficacy in clinical settings. It’s similarly rare for an entire class of medicines (antidepressants) to have such a strong placebo effect that the impacts of the drugs are often difficult to distinguish from placebo. So it seems that if you’re facing depression, a good place to start might be to get some St. John’s Wort.

However, there are some supplements, like Ginkgo Biloba that while they have medicinal uses, those uses have been harder to quantify. Sold as an aid to slow down the aging process, it’s effectiveness at improving standard cognitive tests hasn’t been exciting. Some newer approaches to measurement are showing some promise.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is being diagnosed in record numbers. While at some level I believe we all have some level of ADHD, DSM-V has established criteria for diagnosing the condition. Historically the treatment was stimulants. While some non-stimulant treatments have become available for treating ADHD, they’re in the significant minority. For the most part psychology based treatments haven’t shown great promise at mitigating the disorder.

However, Behavioral Therapy (BT), particularly as it relates to educating the adults working with ADHD impacted children have been effective at managing the day-to-day symptoms of ADHD but unfortunately the effects are not lasting. It appears that BT can’t spare an ADHD child from the long-term negative outcomes associated with the disorder.

Autism Spectrum Disorders

Perhaps the greatest medical sham that’s been foisted on the public in the last 50 years is the one perpetrated by Andrew Wakefield. In an article (since retracted) in the prestigious medical journal Lancet, Wakefield and his colleagues asserted a causal relationship between vaccines and autism. Unknown to Wakefield’s colleagues he had a conflict of interest in the study. The investigation about the article concluded that Wakefield falsified the medical histories of 12 of the children in the study. Wakefield lost his medical license. However, unfortunately the stigma has remained. Untold numbers of children aren’t receiving vaccinations for important diseases because of Wakefield’s article.

Numerous therapies have been suggested for Autism spectrum disorders. Many like Dolphin-Assisted Therapy (DAT) have no scientific basis and seem to have been by perhaps well-meaning people trying to find a way to improve the situation using unsupported approaches.

Attachment Therapy

Sometimes things go wrong in medicine. Sometimes treatments don’t go as planned or aren’t sufficient to resolve the issues in the body of the patient and the patient dies. However, in psychotherapy it’s quite rare for things to go so wrong that a death is the result. However, Attachment Therapy (AT) has managed to have deaths and injuries as a result of the procedures and the “extensions” that some of the therapists have applied to AT.

Whether it’s rebirthing or another offshoot from AT that caused the issues, at the heart of the debate is the approach in AT of restraining the patient. While Attachment Disorder (AD) is real and a treatment is needed, AT seems to be risky. Several proponents including Zaslow and Cline have surrendered their licenses due to injuries to patients as the result of the treatment.

Antisocial Behavior

Persistent and serious forms of antisocial behavior are estimated to be perpetrated by 5-10% of children in developed Western countries. That’s a lot of kids who are struggling to adapt to society. Other estimates place the referrals to treatment are 33-50% from antisocial kids. The financial impact on society is staggering. There are numerous factors that lead to antisocial behavior in children and adolescents and not a lot of clear resolutions. (See Our Kids for more on the impacts of under-supported children.)

Wrapping It Up

There is too much pseudoscience in clinical psychology and not enough real science. Perhaps if you read Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology you’ll be able to spot the difference, and get to better outcomes.


Book Review-Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts

It’s shocking really. The lengths that we’ll go to when defending our position. It’s scary to think that one small move begets the next move and so on such that most people will administer what they believe to be life threatening levels of electrical shock to another human being. Milgram’s experiment placed students in the position of administering what they thought were shocks to a person in the other room of larger and larger voltages as a part of a research study. Little did they know it was their behavior that was being researched not the behavior of the person who was reportedly receiving the shocks. 65 percent of the students administered what they were thought to be lethal shocks without any persuasion. That number climbed to as high as 90 percent if a collaborator was added to the experiment.

At the end of the experiment, the behavior of the students would have objectively been measured as wrong but they obviously weren’t in the minds of the student at the time. It’s this slippery slope that Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) examines. (For more on the Milgram experiment see Influencer.)

Benevolent Dolphins

We’ve seen the news story. Some guy or gal is lost at sea in a boat, life raft, or surf board and there’s video of a dolphin leading them safely towards land. Flipper would be proud that one of his distant relatives rescued a helpless human. This story, and the copy-cat clones of it, lead us to believe that all dolphins are interested in the health and safety of humans. It represents the best of the What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI) rule as discussed in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

There aren’t a lot of stories about the guy or gal who was led out to sea to their death by a mischievous dolphin. Those don’t make the news. We don’t know about them. They might be happening. They may not be happening. We simply don’t know. Because we don’t know if there are mischievous dolphins or the ratio between benevolent and mischievous dolphins we can’t know whether we should follow one should we be lost at sea.


Whether we call them rules of thumb or stereotypes, we all leverage shortcuts to allow us to cope with the information overload we encounter every day (See The Information Diet and The Paradox of Choice for more on information overload.) The mental shortcuts we use are neither good nor bad. They’re useful and necessary to allow us to survive in the world. However, as stereotypes they cause us to make unfair assessments of people who are in a class other than ours. How other? is defined is irrelevant. By mere fact that we’re lumping a group of people together we’re eliminating the possibility for truly great people in the class.

Shortcuts are below our consciousness. Al Campanis knew his friend Jackie Robinson and defended him as a great baseball player while at the same time believing that black men couldn’t be managers. He used the mental shortcut (stereotype) of race to determine eligibility for baseball management.

It is because we use shortcuts that we’re particularly vulnerable to biases and blind spots.

Biases and Blind Spots

Al Campanis didn’t realize that he was unfairly categorizing black men as incapable of baseball management. He didn’t see his bias any more than we can see the blind spots in our eyes where the optic nerve connects. (See Incognito for more on how our brain lies to us about our visual system.) Even enumerating a list of biases like I did in my review of Thinking, Fast and Slow doesn’t make us immune to the effects. In fact, the more certain that we become that we understand the effects of biases the more susceptible to them that we may become. The way that we best manage the impact of biases best is being watchful for them.

Being watchful is about accepting our fallibility and vulnerability. (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy and Change or Die for more on vulnerability and fallibility.) The more certain that we become that we’re infallible the more likely it is that our faults will show themselves. So paradoxically we’re the most immune to blind spots when we are the least confident. Certainty is a box that prevents us from seeing reality.

The Anatomy of Peace spoke of boxes that we get in. These boxes distort our perception of the world. They prevent us from being true and authentic with others and ourselves. The Anatomy of Peace also lays out a technique for evaluating whether we’re in the box – and how to get out of it.

Memory is Not Memorex

There used to be a commercial for a brand of audio and video cassette tapes asking “Is it live or is it Memorex?” implying that one could not tell the difference between the live event and the recording. It would be great if our memories worked this way. It would be great if we could recall with absolute precision the events of every day of our lives. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Our memory isn’t like a data bank, a video recorder, or a book. The pages of our memories aren’t invariant. Our memories – we know – are fallible.

I’ve built an entire system around my memory for researching books. The process is the one that I described in Research in the Age of Electrons. If I need to review a book or evaluate my thoughts about something I’ve got the text from the book, my notes, and my blog posts. It’s striking to me how many times I find myself not remembering what I wrote about a book even a year ago.

Given the research says that one has little better than a chance of explaining what they might have said about themselves in their youth, I feel good that I mostly remember what I wrote.

Still this process is extremely time consuming and I only do it for the books I read. I have no way of recording all of the conversations that I have, or the things that I do on a daily basis.

The Dangers of Dehumanizing

Milgram’s experiments came on the heels of World War II and the holocaust. Many people were asking just how it was possible that people could treat other people so badly. How could so many people take roles in the extermination camps? Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning never wondered how people could be complicit in the camps – he focused on what it took to survive. The twists and turns of the psyche that allowed people to accept these conditions and to inflict them on others was the point of Milgram’s work.

As he discovered to his horror, the distance between enlighten society and the depravity of exterminating people is very short. The distance could be as short as the next room. When we’re able to dehumanize the person in the next room to demonize them, we’re able to do unspeakable acts. We demonize them to justify our acts against them.

We setup a viscous self-reinforcing system (See Thinking in Systems for more on self-reinforcing systems.) We do something bad to someone (or a class of people). Justification kicks in and we demonize and dehumanize them. We do even more awful things because they’re now less human. This is the cycle that created the atrocities of the holocaust. However, there is a way to prevent this from happening. (For more on demonizing see Crucial Conversations and The Anatomy of Peace).

The solution to the problem is compassion – love for everyone. However, compassion relies on changing the ratio of us vs. them.

Us vs. Them

We’re all looking for belonging and we’ll define ourselves fluidly into groups of our own making. If your children go to one high school and your friend’s children go to another, you may find that you identify with your children’s high school vs. your friend’s children’s school during a game or competition. You’ll define “us” as the group that includes the people that your children go to school with. If you and your friend live in the same state, you’ll define both you and your friend in the same “us” group for the state. If you both live in the same city you might both belong to the same “us” city group.

The beauty of this is that you can quickly include people into your “us” group – instead of the “them” group by simply changing the way that you’re grouping or your scope. The tragedy is that the “them” group is vilified. They’re the bad guys riding on their horses with black hats. The” us” group are the good guys wearing white hats and out to save the day. Research says that just the concept of “us” vs. “them” causes us to react differently.

We tend to want to support and protect the people in the “us” group. We’re neutral or negative towards the “them” group.

One of the definitions for the “us” group that Buddhists use is the “us” group of humankind. This is a powerful “us” group because it includes everyone and it fosters compassion to everyone in the world. This definition of an “us” group leads to greater love and empowerment.

Exposing Alien Abduction

It’s got to be spooky. You see lights and you feel like you can’t move. You’re trying to figure out what’s happening and ultimately you settle on the idea that you must have been abducted by aliens who were using some sort of a force field to keep you still. After all, no matter how hard you tried to move you didn’t make any ground.

You’ve seen the stories in the news. People who were driving out in the country late at night and they were suddenly taken. They described their experience and they even said they saw aliens. You saw shadows but you don’t clearly recall any aliens directly.

However, like many of the Unidentified Flying Objects (UFO) sightings there’s a rational explanation and one which doesn’t rely on confusingly silent intelligent life from other planets. When folks are in that land between awake and asleep dreams can invade our conscious thoughts. (See Incognito for more of the games our brain plays on us.) When you couple this with the awareness that our brains shut down our ability to control movement when we’re in the deepest part of our sleep cycles you can start to see how people who were unable to move were really unable to move because their brains had shut down the ability to control movement. This is quite helpful when you’re dreaming so you’re not hurling yourself around the house as you are being chased by giant pink elephants. (Or is that just me?)

It turns out that the need for justification and rationalization leads us to some rather unexpected conclusions.

Interrogating Innocent People

Sometimes the impact of what we’re doing isn’t readily apparent. As with the students at the beginning of this post who continued to escalate the voltage until seemingly lethal doses were being administered, we’re in the pursuit of a lofty and noble goal and along the way we get lost into a set of approaches, tactics, and techniques that are far from our noble purposes.

When it comes to getting bad guys off the street, there are few of us that would waver in our belief that we should do everything possible to catch them and lock them up. However, do we really mean “do everything possible?” We’ve developed a system of presumed innocence even as interrogation tactics that we use are designed to elicit a guilty confession from the suspect – even if he hasn’t committed a crime.

What if you really believe that someone is guilty. You can’t find the evidence but you just know that they’re guilty. Should you plant a bit of evidence so you don’t have to find the real evidence? What if it gets one bad guy off the street and you were sure that it was right? The next time that you’re a little less sure that someone is guilty you might be inclined to plant evidence again – because it worked last time.

What about those interrogations? Are you a failure because you didn’t elicit a confession from the innocent man you’re interrogating? Who wins if you’re able to use your understanding of psychology and interrogation techniques to coerce a confession out of an innocent man? But that could never happen you say. Innocent people don’t confess. You would be wrong. Innocent people when confronted with confusing and contradictory evidence (or bluffing) will create a story to make the information make sense – and if the only story is the one the interrogator is sharing then they may just accept it.

To protect yourself you decide that you don’t interrogate innocent individuals. You lie to yourself so that you can reconcile your behaviors with the honorable person that you believe yourself to be.

Mistakes Were Made

Ultimately the truth of our situation is that all of us – every one of us has biases in how we relate to others. We are subject to the biases that all humans are subjected to – whether we have a PhD or we’re a high school graduate. Sometimes we have to say that “Mistakes were made”. If we’re brave enough to behave like John F. Kennedy, we’ll say end with “by me” instead of “but not by me.” If you’re willing to see how biases influence you, perhaps you should read Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).