Archive: November 2008

“Christmess” 11/30/08

Apparently there’s been some confusion about my reference to Christians in discussing the death of a New York Wal-Mart employee in a stampede of shoppers on Friday, so for the record:  I’m a Christian.  I have no problem with Christians.  I love Christians.  If anyone got confused about that by my words on Friday, I’m sorry.  But on t.v., I call ’em like I see ’em, and I believe I saw some hypocrites at that New York Wal-Mart Friday morning.  If anyone is convinced that the majority of those shoppers were there to buy presents for Hanukkah or Eid al-Adha, or were atheists just looking for bargains, I don’t know what to tell them.  (Judaism and Islam are the only other religions that have both significant representation in the U.S. population and gift-giving holidays coming up in December — their representations in the U.S. population are in the single digits.  Atheists make up an even smaller percentage of the U.S. population, and anyone who doesn’t need gifts in advance of an upcoming holiday can find deeper discounts and smaller crowds after the holidays.  I said on Friday that there could’ve been other religions represented in the crowd, and there probably were, but the population of the U.S. and of New York is 70-80% Christian, so anyone can do the math.)  I believe that most of those people were there to buy Christmas presents, which suggests to me that it’s meaningful and important to them to celebrate the birthday of Christ on December 25th.  Great — it is to me too.  But when people get so caught up in the commercial side of Christmas that they behave in very un-Christ-like ways — like when they’re willing to literally run rough-shod over other human beings to get material things at low prices — I believe that they need to get out of the stores and into their churches to refresh themselves on the reason why we have this holiday shopping season and why Christmas is worth celebrating in the first place.  I would hope that every viewer and reader would agree with me on that, and I would hope that every Christian viewer and reader would join with me in saying that the kind of behavior we saw Friday morning is not what we believe in, that we can do better, and that we should all (all of us, of all faiths or no faith) be doin’ that for the rest of the holiday season and really year-round.  See?  I wasn’t saying that people behaved badly because they were Christians.  I was saying that people behaved badly because they were not acting like Christians.  When people take the “Christ” out of “Christmas,” they make a “mas” (i.e. a “mess”) of it (I know, that line would work better on t.v. than it does in print), as we tragically saw on Friday.  Hope that clears up any confusion.  Merry Christmas!

“Christmas” shopping? 11/28/08

You probably heard that a New York Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death by “Christmas” shoppers as they rushed into the store Friday morning.  It’s a sad case study in crowd behavior, or “herd mentality,” which in this case resulted in a literal stampede.  People do things in groups that they’d never do alone, mainly because of “deindividuation” and anonymity.  Basically, both personal responsibility and accountability are diffused as people meld into emotionally fired-up crowds.  We’ve seen it time and time again in sports situations.  Some will say that today’s incident was caused by the economy — people being particularly competitive for bargains this year.  Not true.  The people who line up outside of stores to shop on the morning after Thanksgiving do it year after year, in good times and in bad.  It’s like a sport to them, which makes it not all that surprising to see them behave like crazed sports fans or even players on the football field.  The fact that people continued to trample the downed employee for several minutes before anyone stopped to help takes this incident beyond what typical “crowd behavior” can explain.  I think the kind of callous self-focus that seems to be pervading our culture is in play as well (think back to the elderly Connecticut man who lay helpless in the street as hundreds of cars passed him by last summer).  The inescapable irony is that the vast majority of the people in the crowd this morning were ostensibly there to buy presents in celebration of Christmas.  Not a very Christian way to go about that I’d say.  Anyone so hell-bent on buying Christmas gifts that he/she is willing to literally walk all over other people in the process needs to spend less time in Wal-Mart and more time in church because he/she obviously doesn’t understand why Christmas is worth celebrating in the first place.  Nevertheless, this has been going on long enough now that stores ought to anticipate it and do more to prevent it.  In addition, law enforcement needs to do the tedious work necessary to identify and prosecute individuals within this morning’s crowd — part of the reason why individuals lose that sense of accountability in crowds is that no one is usually held individually accountable.  (A pregnant woman was trampled this morning as well, but apparently she and her baby are OK.  Also, there was a shooting in a Toys ‘R’ Us store today, but apparently, the two men involved had an altercation unrelated to Christmas shopping.)

Something else related to Christmas shopping that comes up this time every year is some (actually very few) people’s objection to the greeting “Merry Christmas” or to calling things “Christmas” pageants, “Christmas” parades, “Christmas” sales, etc.  To me, that’s absolutely absurd.  Even for people who don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, it’s tough to argue that any one person in the history of the world has had as great an impact on the course of human history or that the message of Jesus was anything other than entirely positive.  Those perfectly-secular reasons alone make Jesus worthy of a national holiday in my opinion, and I’m not sure what to tell anyone who’s offended by being wished a happy national holiday other than to get a life.

(P.S.  A couple of quick updates:  The suspect in last month’s brutal beating death of an Arkansas newswoman is in custody.  Also, the Arizona eight-year-old accused of shooting his father and another man reportedly kept a diary of spankings that he received, in which he’s said to have written a note proclaiming that his 1000th spanking would be his last.  This seems to support the theory that he did it, that it was planned, and that he had a reason, although the diary reportedly doesn’t explain what he intended to do after the 1000th spanking — run away, shoot the father, etc. — nor does it explain why the second victim was shot.  Assuming the kid did it and that spanking was the reason, the question will become the reasonableness of that — i.e. whether he just didn’t think he deserved any discipline or he was the victim of abuse.  Juries and courts tend to be sympathetic toward people who kill after enduring abuse — remember Mary Winkler, the preacher’s wife who got a very light sentence for shooting her husband in the back while he was sleeping after telling what I thought was a bogus story of abuse — and an eight-year-old in that situation would be particularly sympathetic.  In a related story, the kid’s grandmother now says that she knew something like this would happen because his father and stepmother were “too hard on him” — sounds to me like some hindsight bias, or on this football weekend, “Monday-morning quarterbacking,” especially given the fact that she apparently never reported any concerns about violence in the home before this.)

Happy Thanksgiving 11/27/08

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, not because of the food, and not because of the football, but because it’s all about gratitude — no presents, no cards, not really even any decorations (not that I’m against any of that), just gratitude.  The food that we share on Thanksgiving has its traditional roots in a celebration of gratitude for the survival of our nation’s founding community, and as we enjoy it this year, I hope its accompanied by gratitude for that and for all that’s been achieved here since then.  As you may know, I’m a big proponent of gratitude.  While it’s easy to develop an attitude of entitlement here in the U.S.A., I believe that an attitude of gratitude serves people much better.  A lot of complaining goes on here, some of it justified, much of it unjustified, and most of it not very constructive (i.e. not doing much to improve the country or the lives of the complainants).  I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the world in my short lifetime (something like 35 countries on six continents so far), and those experiences have really put our nation’s blessings in perspective.  At any given moment, most of us who live here go about our daily activities without giving a thought to the possibility of the country being attacked.  That’s because hundreds of thousands of people — all volunteers, some here, the rest spread throughout the world in a wide variety of inhospitable conditions — spend all day, every day, thinking about it.  I’ve been places where that kind of national security hasn’t existed in any living citizen’s lifetime.  Almost every one of us who lives here can pick up a telephone at any moment, press three little buttons, and expect that, within minutes, trained professionals will arrive on the scene to protect us and our property from crime, health crises, natural disasters — pretty much any emergency situation that could arise.  I’ve been places where that kind of societal concern for individuals is a completely foreign concept.  Virtually all of us can turn a handle and watch drinkably-clean water come pouring forth, flip a switch and watch darkness become light, open a door and pull out a cold drink or well-preserved food, make our environments warmer or cooler with a simple touch, and have instant access to more entertainment and information than we could possibly take in at the touch of a button, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  I’ve been places where that kind of reliable convenience would seem like something out of a futuristic television show (if there were televisions in virtually every home like there are here).  The vast majority of us have the choice of getting into our own vehicles or cheap, clean public transportation and traveling just minutes to huge indoor markets, filled with thousands of foods from all over the world (usually multiple kinds of each) and virtually everything else we need for daily living.  I’ve been places where the “supermarkets” were smaller than what we call “convenience stores,” where people’s “floors” were dirt, where electricity may or may not have been available (certainly not reliably), and traveling even a few miles was a dangerous ordeal.  And believe it or not, most of the people in those places have seemed happy.  Apparently, they’ve had attitudes of gratitude — they weren’t comparing what they had to what anyone else had, and if they had the basic necessities of life, they felt blessed.  In America, especially lately, we hear a lot about people’s wages not being high enough, health care not being cheap enough, credit not being loose enough, gas prices not being low enough, the stock market not recovering fast enough, the war on terror not ending soon enough, and on and on and on.  Of course we have some people in extreme need here, but in general, overall, on-balance, even America’s truly-needy (which our loudest complainers usually are not) are relatively advantaged by global comparison.  On top of that, each and every one of us has the right to complain as much and as indignantly as we like about the way things are here with zero fear of being penalized by the government for the views we express.  We also get to be thankful to whomever or whatever we believe in, or to believe in nothing, with zero fear of being penalized for the beliefs that we hold.  This week, I took a poll of the students in the college course that I’m teaching, and the results that I got were encouraging.  I asked them what they were thankful for this Thanksgiving, and the most-popular response so far has been a person or persons, not things or even opportunities, with health being the second-most-popular response.  These students seem to get it — they’re blessed, and so am I, and so are you — so I hope we all project an attitude of gratitude as we celebrate my favorite holiday today.  Every year at this time, I reflect on the people I’m thankful for, and this year’s rundown is below.  Have a very happy Thanksgiving.

My family, especially my dad who’s recovering from major surgery,

My friends, far and near,

Everyone at Prime News, especially Alicia, Sarah, Cameron, and Mike,

Everyone at The O’Reilly Factor, especially Ron, Porter, Jesse, and Dana,

Diann and Sarah, who make it possible for me to show you clips of my t.v. appearances on my web site,

Bill and Brooke at Lightworks,

Eric Tyson, co-author of my hopefully-forthcoming first book (check out his new namesake web site),

Emily and Bobby, media advisors,

The guys at Exponent Studios, masters of my web site,

Everyone at Take Two Productions, where most of my television appearances originate, including the stylists who actually have to get me ready for prime time,

Stu and Matt at Premier Studios,

Everyone at the K.U. School of Business, especially Kevin, Ashley, Brendan, Mark, and Stephanie, the world’s best teaching assistants,

Greta, who takes great care of my place and makes it nice to come home to, from across the street or across the world,

My colleagues (and friends) who help me with my work again and again, especially Kurt, Rick, John, George, and the industry, government, non-profit, and military leaders who share their experience with my students,

Joan, who arranges my travel, and all of the pilots and drivers who get me to and from television studios, often on the spur of the moment,

Everyone who watches the shows I’m on, reads this blog, hires me as an expert witness or expert counsel, refers cases to me, attends the seminars where I speak, or takes my college class — I wouldn’t get to do what I love without you.

Positive developments 11/26/08

Here are a couple of positive updates as we head into the Thanksgiving holiday:  The “monstrous MySpace mom” has been convicted of three misdemeanor computer fraud charges, which could land her in prison for up to three years and force her to pay up to $300,000 in fines.  Unfortunately, she was not convicted of felony computer fraud charges, and the jury deadlocked on the charge that she conspired to inflict emotional distress on the victim.  It’s not as much as I would’ve liked, but at least it sends a message that there are limits on what our society will tolerate when it comes to harassment via the Internet, so overall, it’s a positive development.  Also tonight, an arrest has been made in the Seattle shopping mall shootings that took place last weekend, another positive development.


More lies from Joran van der Sloot 11/25/08

Did you see Joran van der Sloot being interviewed by Greta Van Susteren on Monday night?  Apparently, he had a new story about what happened to Natalee Holloway — this time, he sold her into slavery to a Venezuelan man for $10,000.  It appeared to me throughout the interview that van der Sloot was full of complete b.s. (his memory kept failing him when Greta asked for specific corroborating information), and he apparently called her back after the interview and recanted the whole thing.  Looks like Joran’s in Thailand, no longer being supported by his parents, having trouble recruiting prostitutes to work in the Netherlands now that he’s been outed by Dutch t.v., and thought maybe he could make some money by “licensing” some new “evidence” to Fox News.  Once again, we see his total, malignantly-narcissistic self-focus and utter disregard for the feelings of Natalee Holloway’s still-grieving family.  As I’ve said repeatedly, this guy will continue to cause trouble until he’s literally in a cage.

(By the way, the New Jersey church shooter has been caught, and at the time of the shootings, there was in fact a restraining order in place due to prior domestic violence issues.  Also, if you’ve been following the case of the woman I dubbed the “monstrous MySpace mom,” a California jury is now deliberating whether she should be convicted of federal computer crimes.  Yes, she should!  The students who used a fake MySpace profile to catch a California high school teacher trying to set up a sexual rendezvous with what he thought was a 15-year-old girl — they’re a different story.  They should get an award!  I think some prosecutorial discretion is in order when the fraudulent online behavior results in the arrest of a criminal rather than the death of a teenage girl, as it did in the case of the “m.M.m.”)

Weekend full of shootings 11/24/08

Well, it was a weekend full of shootings.  There was one at a shopping mall in Washington (the state).  That one looks like it’s probably gang-related, and the shooter is still at large as of this post.  There was another one at a New Jersey church.  That one looks like it was probably a preventable escalation of domestic violence (the shooter shot his estranged wife and two other people — too early to tell yet whether he should’ve been locked up well before now because of past domestic violence, but that’s the feeling I’m getting), and that shooter also remains at large (likely attempting to flee to his native India, so I hope the T.S.A. and I.C.E. are on the alert).  There was a third shooting over the weekend at a California Scientology center, where a security guard shot a man who came at him wielding a sword.  That one sounds like a nut case (sane people don’t usually take on guns with swords) who might’ve been spending too much time on medieval warrior video games, similar in some ways to the “second-life” games I’ve recently written about and discussed on t.v.  On a lighter note, an Arkansas man is suing McDonalds after shooting some nude photos of his wife with his cell-phone camera, losing the cell phone at the restaurant, and later finding some of the photos on the Internet.  I guess if he he can prove that employees of the restaurant posted the photos then he has a case, but the more important lesson — once again — is to simply not be taking photos that you’d never want to get out.

Weekend rundown 11/22/08

Here’s a quick rundown of psych-related stories that I didn’t get to during this past week:

A Florida college student committed suicide by overdosing, apparently on painkillers (not clear how he got those) and an anti-anxiety medication (prescribed to treat his Bipolar Disorder, which by the way has the highest rate of completed suicide associated with any mental disorder), on a live web cam with people watching.  It’s actually not the world’s first suicide broadcast, and if you think about it, it’s not all that different from someone jumping off of a building in a busy downtown area during the day in front of hundreds of passersby.  How it’s different is that this suicide took time to complete, and while some viewers used that time to alert police and try to save the guy, others actually used that time to egg him on.  That’s right, some people actually encouraged him to do it.  Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done to those people legally, but it certainly ups the ante from our O’Reilly Factor discussion earlier this year about the elderly pedestrian who was hit by a car in Connecticut and was helpless in the street as hundreds of drivers passed him by without offering any assistance.  The web viewers who encouraged this suicide not only failed to help — they actually tried to contribute to the harm that was done, albeit self-inflicted harm.  Maybe, hopefully, the kind of people who sit at their computers and watch this sort of thing are an unusual-enough bunch that the encouragement doesn’t say anything about the further decay of our culture, but I’m not so sure about that.  What it does suggest to me is that this guy felt a desperate need for someone to pay attention to him, and as I wrote earlier this year, I think cultural factors such as rampant divorce and parental disengagement from their children’s lives are contributing to an increase in such feelings, and in suicides, among American teens.  At the risk of seeming unfeeling, however, I also think suicides like this one are acts of extreme selfishness — the guy used other people to satisfy the need that he felt without any apparent regard for the effects that his actions would have on those people.  I know, he obviously wasn’t thinking straight, but I don’t know whether that completely excuses the extreme self-focus, which I also see as a problematic cultural trend.  It’s a sad story all around.

On a “lighter” note, an abbreviated “study this” edition:  A new study suggests that removing commercials for fast food from t.v. programs with primarily-child audiences would help reduce childhood obesity.  So, if I understand this correctly, the fast food commercials are supposedly causing children to get fat.  Hmmm.  Or, could it be that sitting in front of the t.v. too much, regardless of what programs or commercials are on, is the real problem here?  And must there not be parents driving kids to these fast-food restaurants and paying for the fast-food?  Also, I’ve seen all kinds of articles lately suggesting all kinds of measures, some seemingly sensible and some seemingly suspect, for avoiding or delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease.  When you boil it all down, the one basic piece of advice that makes the most sense to me is to keep your mind active — doing crossword or Sudoku puzzles, playing bridge, engaging in other intellectually-rigorous tasks.  It’s pretty much free, and keeping your mind sharp as you age seems like a good thing to do whether you’re worried about getting Alzheimer’s someday or not.

Finally, as a follow-up to my last post (regarding the FDA’s proposal to enhance warnings against prescribing certain psychiatric medications to children), another reminder of how important it is to follow the money.  Turns out that psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Goodwin, host of “The Infinite Mind” on National Public Radio and a vocal advocate of diagnosing and medicating Bipolar Disorder in children, received over a million dollars from pharmaceutical companies between 2000 and 2007 and neglected to provide listeners with that important context for his controversial recommendations.

So, that’s the rundown.  Have a good weekend, and do something intellectual (in addition to reading my blog).

It’s about time! 11/19/08

If you’re a regular reader, you know that I’ve been saying this for a long time:  Too many doctors are diagnosing too many kids with psychiatric disorders and prescribing too many psychiatric drugs that could do more harm than good in the long run.  I’ve said over and over what a sham I think most A.D.H.D. (with or without the “H”) is, and last summer, I strongly objected to the recommendation that doctors start diagnosing and medicating Bipolar Disorder in children (that diagnosis traditionally has been withheld until a patient’s brain is fully mature, and by the way, the leading advocate of diagnosing it earlier is a psychiatrist who was paid over a million dollars by drug-makers and failed to disclose that relationship).  Finally, it sounds like someone who can do something about it is listening.  An expert review panel has publicly recognized this as a problem and has recommended that the FDA at least require changes to the labeling of antipsychotic drugs (often prescribed to Bipolar patients), warning specifically of potential risks to the still-developing brains of child patients.  It’s about time!

Updates 11/19/08

Here are a couple of updates on cases discussed here previously:

1)  The guy who allegedly shot three co-workers in Silicon Valley, CA after being laid off was taken into custody alive.  I was a little surprised (I had a feeling that he’d commit suicide), but at least now maybe we’ll find out what was going on in his mind at the time of the shootings.

2)  A videotape has been released of police questioning the 8-year-old kid who allegedly shot his father and another man in AZ.  I was a little surprised by this too, because the prosecutor’s office reportedly released the tape to the media, and a judicial gag order had been in place (apparently that’s been lifted, at least with respect to documents).  The boy initially denies shooting the victims, telling police that he found them already-wounded and saw a car speeding away, but later, he says he thinks he might’ve shot them to put them out of their misery.  There are clear indications that the boy is lying at various times during the interrogation — for example, when asked about what he did at the crime scene, he repeatedly begins answers with, “I think I…” — which makes it difficult to say with certainty whether and when the truth ever comes out.  So, at this point, it remains a remote possibility that the “confession” is actually a lie.

Study this…carefully 11/18/08

The Physicians’ Foundation just released the results of its national survey of primary care (family or general-practice) doctors, in which almost half of the respondents said they’d quit practicing medicine within the next three years if they could earn comparable incomes doing other things.  Burned-out doctors cited the red tape involved in dealing with governmental health care institutions like Medicare and Medicaid (and some private insurers) as the main reason why running their practices is no longer worth all of the stress and liability that come with providing health care.  I can tell you first-hand that the same thing is happening in psychology.  This comes on the heels of last week’s projection from the American Medical Association that by the year 2025, the U.S.A. will have 35,000 fewer primary care physicians than its population will need.  Nevertheless, Sen. Ted Kennedy has announced that he will introduce legislation in early 2009 to create a universal health care program administered by the government.  Think about that — we’re facing a serious shortage of doctors who are leaving primary care in droves because of the governmental red tape that exists already, and yet we’re considering greatly expanding the government’s role in the lives of those doctors.

We’re in big trouble here folks, not just with health care, but with a lot of things — housing, banking, the auto industry (it’s a big red flag when the world’s leading economic power becomes unable to build cars profitably), our national debt (we can’t keep running up or even maintaining huge debt unless people here and elsewhere believe in our sustained growth and keep buying our government-issued bonds, which are basically claims on our future productivity — and even then, it’s a huge weight on our economy that makes it hard to keep up with our competitors)…  None of this is because the government has been doing too little for us.  Just the opposite — we’ve had the government doing far too much for far too long, and we have reached the limits of what our collective productivity can support.  Instead of getting back to basics, back to the principles of living within our means (individually and collectively), self-reliance, personal responsibility, and charity (individuals, churches, and communities providing voluntary, not government-mandated, assistance to fellow citizens truly in need) — the principles that built the country — we seem to be running as fast as we can toward European-style socialism, “bailing out” industries and individuals who’ve been irresponsible and promising to shift even more of our productivity from the private sector to the public sector in the form of higher taxes.  It’s like bailing water from one side of a ship to the other, as if that would prevent the ship from sinking.  I hate the thought that in my lifetime, the day will come when the best health care system in the world will no longer be ours, but by making health care careers less attractive, not more attractive, we’re hastening the arrival of that day, not prolonging it.

As is the case with any species, whether it’s human beings or tree frogs, very few members of the human race are born incapable of being productive enough to provide for their own needs (including health insurance) and — in conjunction with another human being — even for the needs of a reasonable number of children.  The vast majority of people are able to do that and even produce a surplus, with which they’re able to obtain wants as well as needs and to contribute to the assistance of those very few truly incapable members of the society.  Therefore, if your social systems are set up to require everyone who’s capable of doing so to take personal responsibility for his/her/their own needs, you end up having to figure out ways to provide for the needs of a very small percentage of the population.  But, when you create programs that provide for the needs of people who are truly incapable plus a whole bunch of other people, which is what sweeping, “universal,” impersonal government programs do, that surplus productivity in your society eventually runs out.  We’re there folks.  The best example I can offer you is Medicare Part D.  Before Part D became law, research showed that approximately four percent of senior citizens were unable to obtain the prescription drugs that they needed without sacrificing food, clothing, shelter, etc.  So what did Congress do?  Institute a program to address the needs of the four percent and expect the other 96% to continue providing for their own prescription needs like they’d been doing?  Of course not.  What we got was Part D, which covers not just the four percent who were having the problem, but all 100% of seniors.  As a psychologist, I’m declaring that insane.

Now, I know I’m expanding the topic here, but just like I fear the day when we won’t have the world’s best health care system, I also fear the day when the world’s best fighter plane won’t be built here and won’t be flown by American pilots.  Unfortunately, I think both of those days could come in my lifetime unless we change course dramatically, and soon.  I still believe we can right our American ship and keep it riding higher than any other indefinitely, but I think we’ll have to make a 180-degree course correction first (and I hope it doesn’t take a national existential crisis for a majority of us to see the need).  If the direction we’re headed in is “progressive” then I guess I’m a “regressive.”  I’ve already outlined my prescription for how to fix the healthcare system in a previous post (9/8/08), so here, if you’re interested, is Dr. Brian’s prescription for the country overall.  First, a flat tax amendment (mandating that no tax ever fall disproportionately on one group of Americans than another, i.e. everyone above the poverty line pays either the same amount or the same percentage, so the temptation to redistribute productivity is obviated — historically, one of the fastest ways to diminish the productivity, and thus the strength, of a society is to let one group gang up on and take what rightfully belongs to another group, whether forcibly or democratically).  After fighting a revolution largely over taxes, I believe the founding fathers would’ve put this into the Constitution if it had occurred to them that someday a majority of Americans could see the taxing power not as the means of funding essential government functions but as a means of claiming other people’s productivity (in this lawyer’s view, the absence of that and an amendment recognizing an unborn baby as a life are the two major flaws remaining in the Constitution).  Second, a balanced-budget amendment, requiring the government to live within its means, just like individual Americans, families, and businesses must be expected to do.  Third, a gradual phasing out of many federal government programs to reduce the size and cost of government — i.e. a federal government that defends the country and does a very limited number of other things instead of the thousands of things it does now.  Fourth, a rededication of Americans to use some of their tax savings to chip in voluntarily, with others in their communities, and help those very few citizens who are truly incapable of providing for themselves.  Fifth, a rededication of Americans to teach every child who grows up in this country that it’s exceptional in all of human history, what made it exceptional, and what must be done to keep it exceptional indefinitely into the future.  As a college faculty member, I can tell you that too many young people grow up not appreciating, even resenting, what we have here (thinking that America has been more a force for oppression than freedom over its history), and have no clue how easily we could lose it if we continue to drift away from the principles that got us here.  It’s not too late.  As of today, we still have among us the greatest productive capacity in the world.  We just need to channel that productivity and responsibility for our well-being away from the government and back to the people.

Economy to blame for shootings? 11/15/08

It’s alleged that Jing Wu, a 47-year-old male engineer, returned on Friday to the Silicon Valley semiconductor firm that recently had laid him off, shot and killed three former co-workers, and fled the scene (he’s still at large at this hour).  People will say that the shootings were caused by the bad economy, but that will be an extreme oversimplification of something that’s a lot more complex.  There are a lot layoffs in the U.S.A., even in good economic times, and guns are almost never involved.  I know I’ve said this before (in the cases of the woman who killed herself on the day her house went into foreclosure and the guy who killed his whole family and himself reportedly because they were struggling financially), so I’ll keep this short, but there had to be more going wrong in this guy’s head than just anger and/or anxiety about losing his job.  The layoff situation may have been the final trigger, “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” but it definitely wasn’t the only factor in play.  I’m a little surprised that the shooter went on the run afterward instead of killing himself, and I won’t be surprised if this sad story still ends that way (if it hasn’t already).

(P.S.  While we’re on the subjects of California and assigning blame for things, I’d just like to add that I’m getting sick of all the articles assigning blame for the passage of Proposition 8 — the gay-marriage ban — in California on every religious group from Mormons, to Christians, to black Christians…  You could say that if every member of just about any significant voting block in California had voted the other way, the measure wouldn’t have passed, but it’s a fallacy to blame the passage of it on any one group.  Also, it’s a fallacy to assume that religion is the only reason anyone’s opposed to gay marriage.  People can be opposed to it for purely secular reasons.  For example, a person might not really like the government being involved in sanctioning anyone’s love relationships, but that person might tolerate government involvement in the case of a straight couple strictly for the benefit of any children that might be conceived — i.e. solely because it increases the likelihood that a child born to that couple will be raised with both a mom and a dad in the house.  Such a justification would be inapplicable to a gay couple unless the person also believed that gay couples should be considered as adoptive parents of first resort, to which a reasonable person might also object for purely secular, child-focused, reasons — like that there are two parental roles to be filled with respect to a child, that of mother and that of father, and because a man can’t legally be a mother, and a woman can’t legally be a father, at most, one member of a same-sex couple could adopt a child as a single parent.  Sorry, I think the P.S. just ended up being longer than the original post.).

Earth to… 11/14/08

As the space shuttle Endeavor blasts into orbit, I’ll wrap up the week by addressing a couple of sad stories involving people who apparently lost touch with planet Earth without ever really leaving it.

On today’s Prime News, we discussed a British couple who met online playing one of those second-life games that I wrote about recently.  They married — online and in real-life — but then, the wife suspected her husband’s online persona of virtual cheating, hired a virtual private investigator to find out, caught the husband’s online persona with a virtual prostitute, and now they’re divorcing, for real.  As bizarre as this whole thing is, I do think there are non-sexual ways in which people can be “unfaithful” to their spouses.  If someone is putting all of his/her emotional energy into a person other than his/her spouse — whether it’s through email, or an Internet chat room, or some ridiculous video game — I think it’s a big problem for the relationship, and obviously this woman feels it’s a big enough problem to warrant a divorce.  I think both spouses involved in this story have issues, and I just feel sorry for people who are so dissatisfied with themselves and their lives and so hopeless about their futures that they waste much of their lives escaping reality online instead of trying to better themselves and their lives in the real world.

Also this week, a woman who appears to have been an obsessed fan of American Idol judge Paula Abdul was found dead — apparently of an intentional drug overdose — near Abdul’s home.  Just about anyone who’s been on t.v. for a while (not just t.v. psychologists) can tell you that there are more disturbed and unstable people out there in the world than any of us would like to believe.  Some people actually develop delusions about t.v. personalities and start living in a “parallel world” in which they actually have relationships with people they’ve “idol”-ized on t.v.  Others become obsessed — positively or negatively — with t.v. personalities and stalk them, lie about them (often about having met them) or impersonate them on the Internet, send them erotic or hateful mail, etc.  When there’s a delusion that a romantic or quasi-romantic relationship exists, we call that Delusional Disorder of the Erotomanic Type, and when that’s coupled with obsession, it can be extremely dangerous, for the t.v. personality (I still wonder if that might’ve been a factor in the fatal attack on an Arkansas newswoman last month) and for the delusional person (if the “love” is unreciprocated, the delusional person can become suicidal as well as homicidal).  Again, it’s just sad to think that some people feel so empty that they try to fill their psychological/emotional voids by establishing fake, delusional, or obsessive connections with strangers.




The agony and the ecstasy 11/14/08

First, the agony — bounty hunter Leonard Padilla again raised hopes that evidence of little Caylee Anthony’s whereabouts had been found on Thursday, only to have those hopes dashed by law enforcement’s determination that the whole thing was bogus.  Early in the day, Padilla called the media — that’s right, media first, authorities second — claiming that his search for Caylee had turned up a bag of toys and human bones weighted down at the bottom of a murky, alligator-infested body of water in south Florida.  After the t.v. cameras showed up, F.B.I. agents showed up and determined that there were no bones and that the contents of the bag clearly had nothing to do with the Anthony case.  The local sheriff’s office has asked Padilla to submit to a polygraph examination about this incident, which suggests that the authorities think he may have planted the bag.

Now, the ecstasy — a new study suggests that patients who were given MDMA, a pure form of the illegal drug “ecstasy,” during psychotherapy for PTSD saw greater reductions in their PTSD symptoms than patients who received psychotherapy alone.  Far more research is necessary to determine how, if at all, MDMA helps treat PTSD (like perhaps by diluting traumatic memories somehow).  In any case, I don’t want anyone to hear about this study and think that using ecstasy recreationally is safe.  Ecstasy remains an extremely dangerous drug, capable of causing permanent damage to the brain after a single use.

Another female school shooter 11/13/08

On Wednesday, a 15-year-old girl brought a gun to a Ft. Lauderdale, Florida high school, argued with another 15-year-old girl in a hallway, shot and killed that girl, fled to a restaurant across the street from the school, called police, reported what she had done, and surrendered to officers when they arrived on the scene.  No further details have been announced, so it’s unclear whether the shooter brought the gun to school for the express purpose of killing the victim or simply had it, got angry with the victim, and used it.  I’m inclined to believe the former, but it’s an important distinction for charging the shooter and adjudicating the case.  Earlier this year, I wrote about the uniqueness and significance of a shooting of females by a female at a Louisiana college.  That post is dated February 11th with follow-up posts dated March 3rd and April 20th if you’re interested.

Updates 11/12/08

Here are a few quick updates on cases discussed here previously:

First, remember Joran van der Sloot, the prime suspect in the disappearance of Natalee Holloway?  Well, a Dutch investigative t.v. show aired video Sunday night of Joran in Thailand allegedly trying to recruit Thai girls for prostitution in the Netherlands.  Is anyone surprised?  The sociopathic tendencies that he has exhibited since the very beginning of the Holloway case are usually deeply ingrained and unlikely to change, which is why sociopaths usually get into trouble over and over again until they’re finally, literally, caged.

Next up, there may be a new piece of evidence, or at least a newly-publicized piece of evidence, in the disappearance of Caylee Anthony.  A beaded necklace apparently was found in a wooded area within easy driving distance of where Caylee lived with her mother Casey, and the beads reportedly match beads that were found in a craft kit belonging to Casey.  Searches of the area are ongoing, but frankly, I’ll be surprised if this new “clue” leads searchers to Caylee.  That’s because the person who matched the beads in the necklace to the beads in the craft kit reportedly was bounty hunter Leonard Padilla — he was on the air with me one day after injecting himself into the case, and he didn’t impress me much.

Lastly tonight, information has begun to leak out regarding the home life of the eight-year-old boy charged with murder in the shooting deaths his father and another man in Arizona.  So far, I’ve heard nothing to suggest that people who knew the family were aware of any abusive situation, although it’s arguable that an eight-year-old having access to a loaded gun is evidence in itself of a non-child-friendly home environment.  Some information has been reported also about the manner in which the shootings were carried out.  Allegedly, the boy shot each man at least four times with a rifle that required reloading after each shot, suggesting deliberate, goal-directed action on the boy’s part.  In addition, it’s been reported that the boy actually called out for the unrelated victim and then ambushed him as he responded to the call, which is again consistent with goal-directed action.  We still don’t have all the pieces of this puzzle, so it’s too early to say which one, if any, of the possible explanations that I suggested on Saturday is accurate.  If, however, you thought I was being flip when I said we could possibly be looking at something straight out of Halloween, a real-life “Michael Myers,” I wasn’t.  At the same time, I still want to know a lot more about the women in this boy’s life — his stepmother, who reportedly married his father just weeks ago, and his mother, if she’s had any recent contact the boy.

Post-election blame game 11/9/08

Since losing last Tuesday’s election, you’ve probably heard stories about McCain campaign staffers pointing fingers of blame at everyone and everything — toward Sen. McCain, toward Gov. Palin, toward the media — everything, that is, except for the nearest mirror.  That’s because it’s human nature to want to be associated with success and distanced from failure.  Therefore, when people are closely associated with failure, they experience “cognitive dissonance,” an uncomfortable incongruity between what they want to believe and what they actually perceive.  In that situation people’s attempts to resolve their cognitive dissonance generally fall into two broad categories.  The first is failure-minimization — they try to convince themselves and others that the failure isn’t really a failure or that it isn’t really so bad.  That’s tough to do after losing a presidential election, so what we’re seeing falls mostly into the second broad category, disassociation — essentially, blaming the failure on everything and everyone but themselves.  It’s not classy, and it’s not pretty, but from a psychological perspective, it’s not surprising.


8-year-old charged with double murder 11/8/08

An eight-year-old boy has been charged with double murder for shooting his father and another man who was staying in the family home in Arizona.  The charges suggest that there’s evidence of premeditation, but the motive is unclear at this hour.  It could’ve been a case of a child angry about not getting his way, or it could’ve been a case of a child abused by one or both victims, or it could’ve been something straight out of Halloween.  It’s also unclear how an eight-year-old got access to a loaded gun, but the fact that he did suggests some serious problems existed in the home before this happened.  Homicides by pre-teen children are extremely rare, and I don’t know of another one by a child this young in the U.S. since at least 2005.  When they do occur, research indicates that the most common victim is another child, and the second-most-common victim is the child’s father.  Such cases raise tough legal questions, like whether a child at that age can be legally-responsible for murder (generally, appreciate the nature and wrongfulness of the act) and competent to stand trial for it (generally, to understand the charges, possible pleas, roles of trial participants, and potential consequences, to make a plea decision, and to assist defense counsel).  Theoretically, it’s possible for an eight-year-old to be both responsible for murder and competent to stand trial for it, but in Arizona, there’s a presumption that children under the age of 10 lack the mental capacity to be legally-responsible for murder (research suggests that children under the age of nine generally don’t understand fully what it means to kill someone — i.e. the finality of death).  Nevertheless, the local police chief has told the Arizona Republic that he thinks an exception might be made in this case, which suggests to me that he thinks he’s identified a clear motive and a clear intent to kill the victims.  A psychological evaluation by a forensic psychologist like me will certainly be ordered by the court and will likely address both the competency and responsibility questions.  While the evidence obtained thus far by police and the identity of the suspect have not yet been released, the county attorney has announced that the boy will be tried as a juvenile, which means the maximum penalty that he faces is confinement in a juvenile detention facility until adulthood.  Apparently, the only other resident of the home is a stepmother who wasn’t there at the time of the shootings, so her involvement, if any (including any possible contribution to the motive), in the case needs to be determined.  Where the boy will reside until his case is adjudicated — in juvenile detention, in a foster home, or with a relative — is yet to be determined as well, and the examining psychologist may be asked also to make a placement recommendation based on his/her assessment of the boy’s custodial needs.  At this point, it’s apparent that the boy has the potential to be very dangerous and that the family failed to maintain a safe environment, so I’d probably lean toward state custody.  Watch for more as this sad story unfolds.

Study this 11/7/08

A new brain-scan study found that bullies’ brains respond positively to (i.e. they enjoy) the infliction of pain on other children.  Duh.  People generally do what they do because there’s something in it for them (gratification, satisfaction, punishment avoidance, etc.).  The danger in such studies is that they can be used to disavow personal responsibility for one’s behavior, or, in a case like this, for the behavior of one’s child.  Bullies bully because it makes them feel powerful.  People generally like to feel powerful, and that in itself is not a problem.  The problem is that some parents don’t teach their children how to feel powerful in appropriate ways (like helping people improve themselves as teachers and good managers do, saving people’s lives as doctors, cops, and firefighters do, strengthening the country as soldiers and leaders do, helping people do things they can’t do by themselves, etc.) versus inappropriate ways (like inflicting pain on others).  In my experience working with kids, which is considerable, I’ve never seen a bully whose parents didn’t exhibit blatant ignorance, antisocial tendencies of their own, or both.  Maybe some kids are born with brains who get more of a kick out of inflicting pain than others.  So what?  Maybe some people are born with brains that get more of a kick out of setting fires than others too.  Probably are.  Who cares?  Just because a person has a destructive interest or desire doesn’t mean that person has to act on it.  Most of us don’t walk down the street thinking about how we could hurt somebody or what we could burn down, and it’s sad that some people do.  Nevertheless, those people, whether they’re children or adults, can and must be expected to resist those deviant impulses and punished convincingly when they don’t.

Another new study found that children with diagnoses of ADHD were more likely than other children to have suffered injuries as toddlers.  Does this mean that ADHD is somehow caused by childhood injuries?  I think not (and in fairness, the study’s authors don’t really argue that either – they view the injuries as evidence that ADHD, characterized by rambunctious, impulsive, potentially-risky behavior, is developed very early in kids’ lives).  Now, as you know if you’re a regular reader, I believe that most kids’ diagnoses of ADHD (with or without the “H”) are bogus anyway, so unless every kid studied was first re-diagnosed by a psychologist, using comprehensive assessment tools and applying the right diagnostic criteria (which it doesn’t look like they were), this whole study doesn’t mean much to me.  I accept that a small number of kids are born with brain abnormalities which cause them to lose cognitive focus quickly, making them more accident-prone than other kids.  I’m concerned again, however, about parents using this study to disavow responsibility if their kids are out-of-control, risky-behaving (e.g. jumping up and down on the dining room table), obnoxious little pains in the rear.  I would submit that a more plausible explanation for this study’s finding, in most cases, is that irresponsible parenting is a major contributing factor to both the kids’ injuries and the subsequent behavior problems (i.e. the same lack of parental attention, supervision, and behavioral correction that allowed the kids to get injured as toddlers has allowed them also to develop the behavior problems that prompted their “ADHD” diagnoses later in childhood).

Election Depression? 11/5/08

Suffering from E.D. — Election Depression that is?  If you supported John McCain, and the thought of the next four years is depressing you, consider this:  Eight years ago, George Bush had what Obama now has — the presidency and his party in control of both houses of Congress, right?  You probably thought that meant he’d be able not only to cut taxes but also to get government spending under control, right?  First part happened, second part didn’t.  You probably thought he’d kick ass on our enemies without nation-building afterward, right?  First part happened, second part didn’t.  You probably thought he’d be able to phase out or privatize or at least cut many of those costly social programs that the government never should’ve undertaken in the first place, right?  Didn’t happen.  You probably thought he’d keep the government as far removed from private-sector businesses as ever, right?  Didn’t happen.  You probably thought he’d seal up our borders so tight that a mouse couldn’t get in here without papers, right?  Didn’t happen.  You probably thought that he’d get our massive Alaskan and offshore oil reserves flowing to your gas tank, right?  Didn’t happen.  You probably hoped that the justices he’d appoint would be able to reverse the tide of judicial activism at the federal level, right?  Hasn’t happened.  You probably thought that he’d get control of important societal institutions like our schools back in local hands where it belongs, right?  Didn’t happen.  OK, now that you’re feeling even worse, look on the bright side:  Just eight years ago, your party had the trifecta — White House and both houses of Congress — and look at all the things that didn’t get done.  So if you’re ridden with anxiety about socialism, tax increases, government health care, bailouts, stimulus packages, wealth redistribution, foreign-policy capitulation, open borders, caribou running around where oil rigs should be, activist judges legislating from the bench, and the general decline of the country, try to relax and keep in mind that no matter what’s promised by which party, a lot of it is unlikely to happen.  Just keep doing what you do — work hard, save and spend wisely, do the right thing, vote in the mid-term elections, etc., and try to enjoy life — don’t let Election Depression keep you down!

Study this 11/3/08

Here’s a quick rundown of findings from a few more new “studies”:

The same study that linked teen pregnancy on t.v. with teen pregnancy in real life also linked video-game violence with violence in real life.  While I don’t doubt that video-game violence desensitizes people to real-life violence, I can’t wait for my first opportunity to debunk a “video games made me do it” defense in court!

Another new study says there’s a link between precipitation — yes, rain — and Autism.  I think that’s all wet.  Water?  Water that makes up a significant part of the human body?  Water that we need to survive?  Causes a mental disorder?  No.  Don’t think so.  Sometimes I think you just have to take a step back and apply some logic to these things.

Yet another new study says that Fibromyalgia (a controversial diagnosis given to people who complain of vague, transient, physically-unexplained pains) is a real disorder because state-of-the-art imaging of 20 Fibromyalgia patients’ brains showed functional differences from 10 normal brains.  This is interesting to me because in the past year alone, I’ve been an expert in two cases involving the issue of whether someone’s pain was physical or psychological.  One of the findings in this latest study was that the areas in the Fibromyalgia patients’ brains that normally would process emotional pain responses were under-active.  That makes me wonder whether the researchers actually were seeing people with high thresholds of emotional pain “compensating” by developing low thresholds of physical pain (i.e. experiencing psychological/emotional pain as physical pain).  If that’s what was really going on, then instead of establishing Fibromyalgia as a distinct disorder, the study would’ve revealed that Fibromyalgia is really just a psychological phenomenon called conversion that we’ve known about since Freud.

Finally, on the eve of a national election, a new study found that to win elections, female candidates had to be perceived as attractive as well as competent, while male candidates just had to be perceived as competent.  Earlier this evening, I presented that finding to the students in the college course that I teach, and while most weren’t surprised, the ladies were none too happy about the double-standard.  As the election results roll in tomorrow night, see how you think it plays out.

P.S.  Just in case you’ve been following the corruption trial of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens and the crazy juror behavior therein, the juror who lied about her father’s death to get excused from the jury prior to its guilty verdict (she was replaced with an alternate for final deliberations) is not the same one who reportedly threw violent tantrums during deliberations (that one stayed the whole time, which I’ve said may be an issue on appeal).

Teen pregnancy on t.v. 11/3/08

A new study suggests that the glamorization of teen pregnancy on t.v. may be a contributing factor in some real-life teen pregnancies — kind of like I said back in the summer when the media kept harping on how happy Jamie Lynn Spears was with her newborn.

Goodbye to October 11/2/08

As we head into November, here are a few quick takes on things that happened in the final days of October:

On Thursday, the husband of a murdered New York special-ed teacher admitted to strangling her and then orchestrating an elaborate cover-up after very-persuasively pleading for information on her whereabouts in front of t.v. cameras the day before.  We discussed this on Thursday’s Prime News, and I agreed with law-enforcement analyst Mike Brooks that the guy’s Wednesday tears were bogus and that the perpetrator’s almost always a husband or boyfriend in these situations, but I also opined that the guy had been particularly convincing (so don’t feel bad if you believed him at first).  He reminded me of Scott Peterson, but this guy was “better” (at his act).  To me, the ability to do everything he’s now confessed to doing and still turn on those crocodile tears on t.v. like that suggests a depth of sociopathy and manipulative-ness beyond what we’re used to seeing in these cases.  Look at Casey Anthony for example — she’s been lying for months, but her lies were much more transparent than this guy’s.  By all accounts the victim was an extremely caring and giving person, which unfortunately, is just the kind of person (like Lacy Peterson) that guys like this often prey upon.

On Friday, a new study was released suggesting that children with “anxiety disorders” should be receiving psychoactive drugs as well as psychotherapy.  Great, just what we need — more encouragement to diagnose more kids with more disorders and feed them more drugs.  Follow the money on this one, and expect to find pharmaceutical dollars at the end of that trail.

A trick-or-treater was tragically shot in South Carolina Friday night after knocking on the door of a man with multiple drug convictions who responded by firing 29 rounds from his AK-47, through the door, without asking or looking to see who was on the other side.  The shooter is in custody, charged with murder, and he claims that he thought he was being robbed.  In addition, the shooter’s brother has been saying that the shooter has had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) since being robbed and shot about a year ago, which is supposedly why he reacted so violently to the knock on the door.  If you’re a regular reader, it will be no surprise to you that I’m not buying it.  I’ve worked with many people who’ve had PTSD, real PTSD, veterans who served in Vietnam and Iraq, and while they were often hyper-vigilant (extra-sensitive to any possible threat), none of them would’ve responded to a knock on the front door with a hail of gunfire (bottles thrown through their bedroom windows while they were sleeping, as happened in a well-publicized case a couple of years back, maybe, but not trick-or-treaters knocking on their doors on Halloween).  I strongly suspect that this shooter thought he knew exactly who was on the other side of the door and that he thought it was a drug dealer there to exact payment from him, beat him up, steal his stash, etc., and that the kid, tragically, intervened.

To leave October behind on a much lighter note, nothing paranormal happened at my haunted Halloween party — held in a “haunted” room in a historic hotel here in Kansas — but spending Halloween night in a supposedly-haunted place was still a lot of fun.

Now, on to November, wherein there’s about to be some negative emotional fallout for about half the country, no matter which way the presidential election goes.  If you’re on the side that ends up losing, I’ll be here for you.



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