Archive: October 2008

Halloween 10/30/08

It’s almost Halloween, the time of year for scary costumes, ghost stories, horror movies, haunted houses, and the like.  So, why do many people enjoy being scared (at least in controlled situations)?  Well, I think there are a couple of reasons.  First, mentally and physiologically, fear is similar to exhilaration and excitement.  The chemicals that go coursing through our brains and bodies when we’re scared are largely the same ones that are released when we get extremely excited about positive things, like winning a big prize.  It’s “thrilling” to be scared.  Interestingly, people generally seem to enjoy less-extreme thrill sensations as they get older, which probably explains why the lines outside of horror movies and haunted houses are populated predominantly with teenagers.  Another reason people like to be scared may be that “surviving” a scare gives us a powerful feeling.  Exposing ourselves to the things that scare us and living to tell about it gives us the sense that we’ve mastered or conquered our fears.  For some people, this requires a situation in which the threat is real, like skydiving, while for others, it can be achieved in a situation in which the threat is merely imagined, like a scary movie.  I think for some, playing flesh-eating zombies or blood-sucking vampires on Halloween is a form of exploring and exerting control over the “dark sides” of their personalities, what Carl Jung called our “shadows.”  (It’s kind of like the morbid fascination that many people have with trying to understand serial killers and how a human being can be consciously, deliberately evil.)  For most though, I think the costume element of Halloween just gives them a chance to “try on” different identities or show sides of themselves that they don’t usually show, and people generally enjoy that.  Think about it – haven’t you seen people get “crazier” at Halloween costume parties than they do on other occasions?  There’s something “freeing” about the opportunity to attribute one’s behavior to a character for an evening.  (It’s kind of like how some people drink a little, act ridiculous, and later blame their behavior on drunkenness when they weren’t even drunk, but I’ll go into that next time Spring Break rolls around!)  Personally, I’m not a big believer in the whole ghost thing, but as a kid, I always thought it would be fun to spend Halloween night in a place that’s “really haunted” (or at least purported to be).  So, tomorrow night, I’ll be hosting a small party and spending the night in a hotel room famous for reports of ghostly phenomena.  This actually will be the second time I’ve done it, and even though nothing paranormal happened the first time (surprise, surprise), my friends and I had fun with it, so tomorrow night’s the sequel and if anything strange occurs, I’ll let you know.  Happy Halloween!

Psychology in the news 10/29/08

Here’s a quick rundown of stories breaking in the news this week involving psych issues:

1) Sen. Stevens of Alaska has been convicted of illegally accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in free remodeling work on his house.  As I told you last week, one of the jurors apparently threw violent tantrums during jury deliberations, so I won’t be surprised if Stevens’ attorney raises that juror’s mental status as an issue on appeal.

2) Britney Spears may be making new music these days, but a California judge apparently hasn’t been persuaded that she’s ready to make major decisions.  Spears’ father’s conservatorship was extended indefinitely this week.

3) Samuel Israel, the hedge-fund swindler who faked his own suicide earlier this year to avoid serving prison time for bilking investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars, was back in front of a judge this week.  This time, the judge was trying to determine whether Israel is mentally-competent to enter a guilty plea for going on the run instead of reporting to prison.  Israel apparently told the judge he’s only about “70%” there mentally due to medication that he’s been taking in custody to kick a prescription-drug addiction.  I imagine that the judge is probably like me and doesn’t believe a word that comes out of Israel’s mouth, but to make sure everything’s done by the book, the acceptance of a plea was postponed and Israel’s been sent to a correctional medical facility for 90 days to undergo court-ordered mental and physical examinations.

4) A study released by the Veterans Administration this week suggests that over 15,000 servicewomen (and a small number of servicemen) returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have reported suffering sexual trauma in the military.  Having worked in a Veterans hospital as a clinical intern for a year, I can attest to the fact that mistreatment of servicewomen by servicemen is a definite problem in the military, but it looks to me like this particular study may have done a disservice to military women by defining “sexual trauma” too broadly.  For example, no apparent distinction was made between a rape and an instance of sexual harassment.  Now I’m not saying that sexual harassment isn’t a serious issue; in fact, I’ve recently served as a lawyer for the female complainant in what’s probably the most well-known sexual harassment claim in this part of the country in many years.  But as a psychologist, I can tell you that not every instance of sexual harassment results in “trauma.”  It’s like saying that anyone who’s ever been sad about anything has been clinically depressed, when the truth is some have, and some haven’t.  The study also suggests that women who’ve experienced sexual trauma in the military are about 50% more likely than other servicewomen to develop mental illness, but again, the definition of “mental illness” seems overly broad to me.  For example, no apparent distinction was made between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and alcohol abuse.  I think that a more detailed study would be more helpful to the military in targeting and eliminating the most egregious sexually-motivated misconduct within its ranks and thereby preventing its most serious and causally-related mental health consequences.

5) Lastly tonight, there are conflicting reports about this, but some news outlets have reported that Scott Peterson (remember him?) has been writing to Casey Anthony since she’s been in jail, charged with murdering her missing daughter.  Other news outlets have reported that this is false however.  Like I said on Prime News earlier today, as self-focused as both Peterson and Anthony seem to be, I wouldn’t put it past Peterson to write to Anthony as a means of getting some fresh attention, but I also wouldn’t put it past Anthony to make this up as a means of getting some more attention.  What I can say with certainty is that if they’re not writing to each other, both Peterson and Anthony are getting jail mail from the same types of people who play those “second-life” video games that I wrote about last week.  (For more information on why anyone would want to get involved with people like Peterson and Anthony, check out my previous post from last Valentine’s Day.)

Disgusting? You be the judge 10/28/08

See if you share my disgust about these two things I learned over the weekend:

1)  The suspect in the murders of actress Jennifer Hudson’s mother, brother, and now, sadly, her little nephew, was on parole at the time of the murders, released early after convictions for carjacking in 1998 and attempted murder in 1999.  If there’s anyone out there who needs more convincing that serious sentencing reform “Dr. Brian style” is desperately needed in this country, I don’t know what to tell you.

2)  This is clearly much less serious, but I recently saw an Internet ad promoting a dating website for married people who are looking to cheat on their spouses.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised after a line of greeting cards for cheaters was launched a couple of years ago.  If there’s anyone out there who needs more convincing that this culture is in a serious state of decay, I don’t know what to tell you either!

Now, here’s a story that should disgust all of us, no matter how we feel about political issues like mandatory minimum sentences and cultural issues like infidelity:

Two skinheads have been arrested for allegedly plotting to kill Sen. Barack Obama and about 100 other black people in a mass-shooting suicide attack.  Once again, we appear to have here an illustrative example of people whose minds, as “sick” as they seem, are functioning well enough to engage in rational thought (conscious pre-meditation and planning) who made conscious choices to act on emotion (hatred) rather than rationality.  That kind of mind (legally-sane but bent on harming others for self-gratification) is generally far more dangerous than the psychotic mind that truly isn’t perceiving reality.  If the allegations are proven, these would be good candidates for a couple of those “Dr. Brian style” prison sentences.

Later this week, I’ll shift the focus from the disgusting to the scary and write about the psychology of Halloween, but for tonight, I’m just appalled.

Update on newswoman brutally attacked last weekend 10/26/08

The Arkansas newswoman who was brutally attacked in her home last weekend has died of her injuries.  Sadly, it’s a murder case now.  She never was able to tell anyone who attacked her, if she even knew.  A credit card that was in her missing purse was used at a local convenience store after the attack, and while that seems to support the robbery theory, it’s not certain that the person who used the credit card is also the murderer (it’s possible that the murderer took the purse from the crime scene but later abandoned it and that a second criminal found it with the credit card still inside).

Competent? You be the judge 10/26/08

As a follow-up to Thursday’s “Crazy? You be the judge” post, Brian Mitchell, the man accused of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart back in 2002, was back before a judge on Friday for further proceedings to evaluate his competency to stand trial (he’s been found incompetent twice in the years since his arrest), and what did he do?  He broke into song, religious hymns apparently.  While many may take this behavior as a sign that Mitchell remains incompetent, my immediate reaction, as someone who has done these competency-to-stand-trial evaluations, is to be suspicious.  I’ve seen incompetent people, and while their incompetency may be obvious, they usually don’t engage in theatrics, especially not selective theatrics (i.e. displays of craziness only when they’re in the presence of an examining expert or a judge).  I’d want to talk to the people who’ve been keeping this guy in custody for the past several years and see how often he breaks into song when he’s not facing trial for kidnapping (and other very serious offenses).  If I heard that his performances tend to coincide with proceedings in his case, I’d be highly inclined to call “b.s.”

The placebo effect 10/25/08

A new study out this week suggests that roughly 50% of physicians routinely prescribe “placebos” to their patients.  First off, that’s a little misleading because the prescriptions defined as “placebos” in this study weren’t for totally non-medicinal substances like gelatin.  Rather, they were for substances that had no, or very low, likelihood of really doing anything to cure the patients’ symptoms – prescriptions that the doctors acknowledged were written for psychological rather than physiological effects (i.e. to give the patients the expectation that they’d start feeling better soon).  For example, a doctor might prescribe Vitamin B-12 to a patient who complains of low energy.  Only about one in ten doctors who admitted to writing prescriptions for placebo effects said that they told that to the patients.  Most said that they told the patients something like, “This isn’t usually prescribed for your symptoms, but let’s give it a try.”  While this practice raises ethical questions (about informed consent, fraud, etc.), it also shows how strongly physicians believe in the healing power of the mind.  If you think you might have been given one of these “placebo” prescriptions and you’re experiencing psychological distress about it, I prescribe spending the next five minutes quietly reading some of my past blog posts.  You’ll feel better.  I promise.

(By the way, the sleeping pills that reportedly put former NBA star and coach Isiah Thomas in the hospital on Friday clearly were not placebos.  Thomas has had a difficult couple of years, including a major sexual harassment verdict against him last year and the termination of his employment with the New York Knicks this year.  The official word is that the reported overdose was accidental, i.e. not a suicide attempt.  That may be absolutely true, and I hope it is, but I’m still concerned for the guy.)

McCain supporter faked attack! 10/24/08

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you may have noticed yesterday that when I wrote about the alleged attack on a supporter of John McCain, I told you what had been “reported” and then said “if” everything happened as reported… .  That was because even though some reports made it sound like local cops had confirmed the woman’s story, it would’ve been so extreme and so psychopathic, given the alleged political motivation, that I had a weird feeling about it.  Well, apparently the cops had a weird feeling about it too because after being grilled over and over by them, the woman is admitting today that she faked the whole incident.  Now imagine the conscious thought that went into what she did, with the clear intent to wrongfully disparage a political campaign with which she disagrees, not to mention the law enforcement resources that she wasted and the undeserved attention that she drew from sympathetic citizens, including McCain himself, and from the media.  So, it was still a psychopathic act, just not in the way that it was portrayed yesterday.  She may not deserve the lengthy prison sentence that a real assailant would’ve deserved had there been one, but I still hope she sits in jail well into the next administration, whoever wins the election.


Crazy? You be the judge 10/24/08

First, are you aware that people are sitting in their homes at this very moment playing video games in which they’ve created virtual “selves” called “avatars” that they then use to interact with other virtual people, working, having relationships, getting married, getting divorced, buying things, even committing crimes?  People refer to these games, collectively, as “second-life” games.  If you’re just finding out about this and you’re a regular reader, you’re probably expecting me to say this is crazy and that the people who play these games are pathetic losers.  Far be it from me to be so judgmental.  All I’ll say is that for anyone playing these games, I think “second-life” is a misnomer.  “Second-life” implies that the player has a life outside of the game.

Now, under normal circumstances, I don’t second-guess former chairmen of the Federal Reserve when it comes to the economy, but when they offer Congress behavioral analysis, as Alan Greenspan did on Thursday, they’ve entered my arena, and I’m game.  Greenspan basically advocated a tightening of federal credit regulation, saying he had presumed incorrectly that “self-interest” would prevent lenders from making crazy loans.  No Mr. Greenspan, you presumed correctly.  Self-interest (the risk of losing their money) is plenty of incentive to prevent lenders from making loans to people who are unlikely to pay the money back.  The problem wasn’t too little government involvement, it was too much!  The government, through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, caused the credit crunch (which began in the housing market and radiated to other forms of credit) by being willing to purchase just about any crazy loan that lenders made.  This effectively guaranteed original lenders a profit on bad loans because some people in Congress – people who like to “spread the wealth around” – wanted financially-unqualified people to be able to purchase homes.  For example, on Monday, a lender could give a $100,000 mortgage on a $75,000 house to a borrower with a terrible job and credit history and then turn around and sell that mortgage on Tuesday for a $1000 profit, making $1000 in 24 hours and leaving taxpayers holding the bag by the time the borrower stopped making payments.  Greenspan is right that self-interest, traditionally, kept lenders risk-averse – caused them to loan less than the appraised value of homes, to require substantial down payments, good credit histories, and stable earnings – but under the circumstances I just described, it did serve the lender’s self-interest to make a loan that it traditionally never would’ve made.  There never should’ve been a Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, and if there never had been, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now.  It’s not the government’s purpose or any of its business to make sure anyone owns a home.  Self-interest among lenders wasn’t the problem, Mr. Greenspan.  It was the government trying to manipulate their self-interest for social-engineering purposes.

Next, as you may know, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens is on trial for allegedly accepting illegal gifts in the form of free home remodeling.  Testimony is over, and the jury is now deliberating, but there’s a problem.  Eleven of the 12 jurors have told the judge that the 12th juror has hampered their deliberations by repeated violent outbursts in the jury room.  The judge has admonished all 12 jurors to treat one another respectfully as deliberations continue, but if Stevens is found guilty, expect an appeal on the grounds that one of the jurors was crazy.

Remember the Austrian dungeon guy, Josef Fritzl – the guy who locked his daughter in a secret chamber underneath his house for years, raping her frequently and fathering seven children with her?  Well, he’s been evaluated by an Austrian forensic psychiatrist who found him sane and fit to stand trial, as I expected.  Fritzl stated that he was “born to be a rapist” and blamed it on his so-called abusive mother.  Cry me a river.  Interestingly, it’s also come out in the investigation that Fritzl is a repeat sex offender.  He was convicted years prior of brutally raping a woman, and guess how much time he served for that in Austria – 18 months.  That’s not a typo – it wasn’t 18 years – it was 18 months.  It’s crazy to give violent people multiple chances to be violent, and as I’ve said time and time again, that’s happening more and more here in the U.S.A.

Back a couple of weeks ago, a first-grade class in San Francisco took a field trip to the female teacher’s wedding – to another woman.  Some are saying this was a great way to teach tolerance, while others are saying it’s crazy to embroil first-graders in the controversy over gay marriage.  No matter how you feel about gay marriage, I think this field trip was an ill-conceived idea.  It’s not appropriate in my opinion for a school to expose first-graders to the concept of gay marriage, and that’s what happened regardless of whether parents were given a chance to opt out, which they were.  Whether they did or didn’t (opt out), it forced parents to address a subject with their children that many probably would’ve preferred, sensibly and understandably, to address later, perhaps much later, in those children’s lives.

Get this – remember the discredited pseudo-victim who alleged, in something like 10 different stories, that she was raped by members of the Duke University lacrosse team?  Well, she reportedly has written a book about her experience.  It reminds me of O.J. Simpson’s yet-unreleased If I Did It, Here’s How book, and it’s equally crazy in my opinion.

Lastly tonight, an update to a previous post about psychological research on how a person’s body temperature interacts with his/her mood.  The study I told you about in the previous post found that people who feel socially isolated and excluded actually feel colder.  Well, new research out this week out this week found that people felt more positively toward strangers after holding cups containing hot beverages than after holding cups containing cold beverages.  Crazy?  I guess not, unless people are trying to improve video-game relationships by having their “avatars” carry around hot cups of coffee or unless the government paid for either of these studies with our tax dollars!

McCain supporter reportedly attacked 10/23/08

According to news reports on Thursday, a John McCain supporter was violently attacked Wednesday night in Pennsylvania, apparently by a Barack Obama supporter who first robbed her and then, upon seeing the “McCain-Palin” bumper sticker on her car, knocked her to the ground, kicked and punched her repeatedly, and scratched the letter “B” into her face with a knife.  There reportedly had been no prior altercation between the two, but as in the case of the Arkansas newswoman who was violently attacked in her home last weekend, this assailant’s actions show indications of rage (this time against a campaign or a political ideology, not the victim) and also of psychopathy (slashing someone’s face or eye can be difficult for most normal people to contemplate even when defending themselves from an assault).  Make no mistake – that doesn’t mean he didn’t have control over what he was doing, just that he was probably enraged and possibly psychopathic while he was doing it.  In fact, the recognition of the victim’s political ideology, the reported statement, “I’m going to teach you a lesson,” and the apparent “branding” of the victim with a symbol of the assailant’s ideology all suggest that he was legally-sane, making conscious decisions, at the time.  If everything happened as reported, this is a very dangerous individual who needs to be kept away from the rest of us for a long, long time – the rest of his life would be fine with me.

News about depression and pregnancy 10/23/08

New research suggests that about 15% of pregnant women experience depression during their pregnancies and that their depressed moods have negative neuro-chemical effects on their babies, even inducing pre-term births in some cases.  The good news is that the mood symptoms are highly treatable and likely to resolve relatively quickly, and this news supports my position on an issue of grave importance to me, to my state, and to our country.  The laws of many states prohibit late-term abortions (performed after 22 weeks) unless a pregnancy puts the life or permanent health of the mother at risk, and courts have generally interpreted such laws to include the mental health of the mother.  If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that here in Kansas (and elsewhere around the country) abortion providers routinely perform elective late-term abortions citing mental conditions like depression to exempt themselves from following the law, when those conditions in fact pose no risk of permanent harm to the pregnant mothers.  Sen. McCain correctly pointed this out in the last presidential debate.  As an expert in psychology, law, and interrelationships between the two, I have studied this issue extensively and even testified about it twice at the Kansas Statehouse.  In my expert opinion, there would never be circumstances in which a pregnancy-related mental condition would put the permanent mental health of a mother at risk.  A pregnancy-related mental condition would always be time-limited in nature, and a non-pregnancy-related mental condition could never be cured by performing an abortion.  Imagine the most extreme case possible, the case of a mother who became suicidal about being pregnant and said she’d kill herself unless she got an abortion.  As a psychologist and lawyer, I can tell you that a person would be considered legally-incompetent, under the laws of every state, to make a decision of that magnitude while in that condition.  Therefore, the doctor treating her would be obligated to preserve as many options as possible for the woman by providing relief for her symptoms in the most conservative way possible until she regained her capacity to make calm, reasoned, reflective decisions.  In other words, it would be the treating doctor’s obligation not to risk actually causing permanent mental harm by performing an abortion that the woman would be highly-likely to regret once her depression had resolved.  In that case, as in any less-severe case of a pregnancy-related mental illness, there would always be psychiatric and psychological treatment available to provide the mother relief from her mental symptoms and stabilize her mental condition through the delivery of her baby.


Random observations 10/23/08

Tonight, I just have a couple of random observations for you.  They’re not necessarily news, and they’re not really related, but here they are nonetheless:

Random Observation No. 1:  I don’t know if you’ve heard it where you live, but here in Kansas, I keep hearing this extremely-annoying radio commercial for some study-skills program that’s supposed to improve kids’ grades from F’s to A’s in no time.  It’s called something like “the easy way to get an A.”  The mere suggestion that vast academic improvement is achievable with little extra effort is annoying enough, but that’s not the most irritating thing about the commercial.  I’m still not clear whether the product is a book, computer program, DVD, or what, but in the commercial, the guy who came up with it says that failing grades don’t come from bad or lazy kids.  Yes, in many cases, they do.  Instead, he says that failing grades come from kids who are just bored in school because they’re really smart but not stimulated enough to learn in the classroom.  I’m sure there are a lot of parents out there who love this guy’s message:  “Your kid’s not dumb.  He’s smart.  He’s so smart he’s bored in school.  It’s not his fault.  It’s not your fault.  And best of all, it can be fixed immediately with virtually no effort from you – other than plunking down $50 for this product of course.”  It’s similar to blaming a kid’s failing grades not on the kid, and not on poor parenting, but on some psychological “disorder” that he’s extremely unlikely to really have, like A.D.D., and trying to “fix” it, not with higher expectations of the kid, and not with more involved and attentive parenting, but with a little Ritalin pill.  Well, sorry, I’m here to tell you that in the vast majority of cases, F’s and D’s are the results of bad behavior – passively-bad (lazy) and/or actively-bad (defiant).  There are also kids who are intellectually-incapable of earning passing grades in school, but the vast majority of kids – I mean almost all – who do their very best can at least get C’s.  I’ve worked with a lot of kids who were having trouble in school, and I’ve never – ever – seen boredom be the cause.  Vast improvement of failing grades usually requires a lot of effort from the kid and from the parents.  I know that might not be as welcome a message in today’s quick-fix, pill-popping, shortcut culture, but it’s the truth.

Random Observation No. 2:  As the stock market continues to fluctuate wildly, I thought you might be interested in a little-known piece of psychological research related to financial gains and losses.  People’s negative reactions to losses are approximately twice as strong as their positive reactions to gains.  In other words, the average person who loses one dollar needs to find two dollars before the disappointment that he or she felt after experiencing the loss is completely negated.  So, if you’ve decided to keep your money invested and ride this bear market out, you might find it less stressful not to pay as much attention to the day-to-day, hour-to-hour ups and downs because according to this research, if your portfolio loses $1000 and you’re bummed out about it, you might not feel completely better until you get that $1000 back plus another $1000, which could take a while.



“Good behavior,” middle-aged suicides, and a horrific attack on a t.v. newswoman 10/21/08

First up this evening, former wrestler and reality t.v. star Hulk Hogan’s wimpy, whiny son Nick Bollea, who begged for house arrest because he didn’t think he could handle jail, has been released, reportedly for “good behavior,” just over five months into an eight-month sentence for reckless driving that resulted in permanent brain damage to a passenger.  OK, another human being is brain-damaged for the rest of his life because of this punk’s criminal conduct, yet the system in Florida won’t even keep him in jail for a full eight months.  Nice.  And lest anyone think this is an isolated incident of leniency to the child of a celebrity, let me say, again, that this kind of thing is going on all the time, and it’s largely why the same people keep committing crimes of increasing severity.  I predict that this won’t be Bollea’s last run-in with the legal system, and given the weak “punishment” that he got this time around, I don’t know why anyone would expect otherwise.

Next up, a newly-released suicide study suggests that the overall rate of suicide in the U.S.A. rose by approximately 1% per year between 1999 and 2005.  The study further suggests that the increase was driven primarily by suicides among middle-aged people, and particularly middle-aged women.  If the study’s figures are accurate, and suicide is on the rise, even slightly, among middle-aged Americans, I think it might have something to do with messages that the medical and pharmaceutical communities have been sending over the past 15 years or so about normal feelings.  Those messages have been:  that people should feel happy and fulfilled 100% of the time, that there’s something wrong with them if they don’t, and that there are pills available that can make all of their problems go away.  I think those kinds of messages have given people unrealistic expectations of how happy they should be and set them up to feel more like messed-up, hopeless failures when they’re really just facing normal, temporary trials, tribulations, and adjustments of life.

Finally this evening, you may have heard that an Arkansas t.v. newswoman was bludgeoned nearly to death in her home over the weekend.  Police have said that they found no sign of forced entry into the victim’s home, that the victim’s purse is missing, that they’re assuming the motive for the attack to have been robbery, and that they have no suspect at this point.  I get the feeling that there was more to this attack than robbery and that the theft of the victim’s purse might have been either a calculated attempt to confuse police or the taking of a “souvenir” by an obsessed, psychotic attacker.  A bludgeoning of this type suggests to me that the assailant was enraged at the time of the attack.  That, in addition to the apparent absence of forced entry, leads me to think that the assailant may have had some relationship with the victim prior to the attack.  I’d be looking (as I’m sure Arkansas police are) at any contact she’s had in the recent past with men who might’ve had occasion to feel spurned by her, including anyone who made contact with her after seeing her on t.v.


Behind-the-scenes insight on Obama 10/20/08

I hate to pat myself on the back here, but in the wake of Barack Obama letting it slip during a recent photo-op that he wants to “spread the wealth around” by taxing one group of Americans and giving their money to another group of Americans, I decided to share a piece of behind-the-scenes correspondence with you.  When Bill O’Reilly interviewed Obama last month, I watched the video of that interview and gave the interview’s producers some impressions.  Here’s a portion of what I told them:

“…I don’t think Obama believes there’s any real distinction between society and government (i.e. he believes they’re one and the same)…[Bill] got Obama to admit that it was ‘neighborly’ for wealthier people to allow more of their wealth to be redistributed by government…I think Obama believes that because of historical racial and economic inequalities in the country, it’s not right to hold people mostly-personally-responsible for their outcomes in life, either on the upside or the downside (i.e. he believes that successful people owe their success in large part to the inequalities and unsuccessful people can blame their lack of success in large part on the inequalities)…He’s smart enough to know…that [those beliefs] run counter to the thinking of Americans historically and of most Americans today, so he tried very hard to sound like a centrist and a pragmatist when in fact, his thinking is very far left.”

Was I right, or was I right?

Shrinkage 10/17/08

A new study out this week revealed that alcohol consumption, over time, causes brain shrinkage.  While it’s no surprise that alcohol can kill brain cells, the shrinkage observed in the study was about 1% more than the shrinkage that happens naturally with aging, so people who drink a glass of red wine daily to derive a health benefit might want to weigh the pros and cons before changing that routine.  (By the way, another new study suggests that the health effects of both red and white wine are comparable.)

Yet another new study indicates that a weak brain response to food leads to the opposite of body shrinkage — obesity.  The theory is that some people’s brains respond less and less to food intake over time, which causes them to eat more and more before feeling satisfied.  Whatever.  I’ve already seen headlines suggesting this confirms that obesity is genetic (i.e. caused by the way a person’s brain is built) rather than behavioral.  Sorry, a person knows when his/her weight is getting above the healthy range, and at that point, the person can bring about some healthy shrinkage by eating less and moving more, whether he/she feels like it or not.

Finally tonight, there’s been additional shrinkage in the pool of qualified Congressional candidates in Florida.  You might remember Nancy Grace and I relentlessly berating former Congressman Mark Foley on the air for sending racy text messages to a male Congressional page a couple of years back.  Well he’s since resigned, but his replacement, Congressman Tim Mahoney, apparently has had a least one extramarital affair since being elected on a platform of “faith, family, and personal responsibility.”  As he’s currently running for reelection, and as we’ve come to expect from politicians in similar situations (President Clinton, New York Governor Spitzer, Senator Edwards, Attorney General Morrison here in Kansas, et. al.), Mahoney has smugly proclaimed that this is about his “private life” and that it’s unrelated to his representation of his district.  Wrong!  As I’ve said over and over and over again, if a politician can’t be trusted to keep what are supposed to be the most important promises of his/her life (marriage vows), to the person who’s supposed to be the most important person in his/her life (his/her spouse), it is psychologically bizarre for anyone to expect that politician to keep promises to voters whom he/she is unlikely ever to even meet.

(P.S.  If you’ve noticed some shrinkage in the number of t.v. photos and clips being posted on my website recently, it’s just because CNN’s changing its licensing procedure for such postings.  So, my webmaster’s waiting for the green light from our friends in Atlanta, but let not your heart be troubled.  We’ve been saving up recent photos and clips, and we’ll post them as soon as we can.)

Quick takes and updates 10/14/08

First up tonight, the real-life wicked stepmother and her idiot husband who starved his daughter as a form of discipline need to go to prison far longer than the four years that they’re facing in the State of Washington.  As an expert who evaluates child custody situations, it’s shocking even to me when two parents make a coordinated effort to be this abusive to a child.  The 14-year-old, who weighed just 48 lbs. when authorities finally uncovered the abuse, is now in foster care as is her younger brother, but Washington’s child protective services dropped the ball in this case by failing to follow up appropriately after conducting an initial investigation back in 2005.  The citizens of Washington should demand to know how that failure happened and then demand that their elected representatives seal the cracks in the system through which this girl slipped for three years.

Next up, the City of San Francisco is planning to spend $40-50 million installing a barrier along the Golden Gate Bridge to prevent people from committing suicide by jumping from the bridge into the San Francisco Bay below.  It’s estimated that approximately 20 people per year attempt suicide by jumping from the bridge.  On the one hand, it speaks well of our society that we value human life so highly that we spare no expense to save even those few who don’t want to live.  On the other hand, I’m not sure this barrier is really going to save anyone.  I mean, will it make suicidal people stop, rethink their decisions, and change their minds, or will they find some other high perch from which to jump or some other method of committing suicide?  I don’t know.

Also tonight, I’ve been asked why I haven’t hammered actor David Duchovny about his recent highly-publicized stint in “rehab” for “sex addiction.”  That’s easy (no pun intended).  Duchovny hasn’t been running around, like a lot of alcoholic and drug-addicted celebrities do, claiming that he has a “disease,” the symptoms of which are beyond his control.  If a guy’s having a hard time (no pun intended) controlling his behavior, and he seeks professional help to do so, I think that’s admirable.  I’d only be irritated if he claimed that he couldn’t control the behavior, but as far as I know, Duchovny hasn’t said that.

In the first “unsolved mystery” update tonight, Casey Anthony has been charged with murder in Florida in the disappearance of her little daughter Caylee.  While this might be a step in the right direction in terms of getting justice, it might not get us anywhere in terms of solving the mystery.  Hopefully, the threat of life in prison will scare Casey into finally revealing everything she knows about what happened to the missing child.

I’ve been asked whether police here in Lawrence, Kansas have solved another, albeit lower-stakes, mystery — the cat mutilations that I told you about recently.  Not yet, but a $2500 reward has been offered for information leading to an arrest.  I’ll let you know if/when the case is solved.

Lastly tonight, (some might say “has-been” or even “washed-up”) musician Ringo Starr has posted a stupidly-arrogant video on the Internet telling fans that he’s “too busy” to read their mail anymore.  After seeing a real music legend and consummate professional, Tina Turner, interact with her fans in concert last week, I advise Mr. Starr to give Ms. Turner a call and ask her to please explain to him what it means to have an attitude of gratitude!

…Tina Turner 10/10/08

Tonight I was going to write about how panicked people are about the state of the economy and how fear is driving them to make poor decisions.  I was going to say that in their panic, I see people selling off assets at prices even lower than their intrinsic value.  In other words, while the values of real estate and many stocks were artificially inflated for years and needed to be corrected, psychology is now chopping more than just the inflated value off of the prices that people are willing to take for those assets.  What’s worse, I was going to say, is that people in their panic are willing to abandon the free-market principles that made the country great in order to avoid some short-term financial pain, which I think is dangerous, opens up opportunities for socialistic politicians to change the country profoundly for the worse, and reflects an abysmal level of general education about the principles on which America was founded.  I was going to tell you that my dad put it best when he mused that the late Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev might’ve been right when he said the Russians would bury us — not, ironically, by beating us but by becoming us as we become them.  I was going to say all of that, but I’ve already written more than once about how the fear factor is further damaging an already-weak economy and getting the government far too involved in the private economy for the foreseeable future.

Then I was going to address recent reports of attempted suicide, suicide, and one particularly-tragic murder-suicide involving an entire family, all attributed to financial stress.  I was going to say that while financial stress might’ve played some role, anyone who’s suicidal or homicidal has far more going wrong psychologically than just that.  But I’ve written about that before too.

Then I was going to say that I didn’t find anything insulting to veterans in Cindy McCain’s comment about PTSD — she told an interviewer that she thought her husband avoided developing PTSD during his brutal P.O.W. experience in Vietnam because he had been trained at the Naval Academy to handle the emotional as well as the physical ravages of war, and she suggested that draftees who didn’t get that same kind of training represented the bulk of PTSD cases coming out of Vietnam.  While some have criticized her for “insulting” enlisted men and women who served in Vietnam (I guess for somehow implying that they were less mentally-tough than her husband), I didn’t see anything wrong with what she said, and I was going to tell you that tonight, but you already know about my experience with diagnosing and treating veterans with PTSD and what I think about it.

Then I thought about using a cannibalistic murder trial underway in the United Kingdom as an occasion to point out that just because a person has a mental illness doesn’t mean that the person doesn’t know what he or she is doing or can’t control his or her behavior.  But, the story is disgusting, and I’ve made the same point many times in the past.

Then I considered telling you about a new study of patients who’ve invoked Oregon’s assisted suicide law (passed in 1997 and intended to give people in insufferable physical pain from physical diseases the option of ending their lives with drugs prescribed for that purpose) suggesting that they apparently have not been thoroughly psychologically examined to ensure that their desires to die weren’t influenced by a coexisting mental disorder like depression (which, with time and treatment, would likely have gotten better, possibly altering their decisions to end their lives).  If the people of Oregon are going to continue to allow assisted suicide, I was going to explain the kind of psychological examination that should be done in every such case to determine whether the person is competent to be making such a grave (pardon the pun) decision.  But you know what?  I decided that it was a depressing topic, and I didn’t feel like writing much about it.

So, instead of discussing all of those distressing, disgusting, depressing, and/or redundant stories, I decided tell you about something fun.  Wednesday night I went to Kansas City, where I grew up, and saw music legend Tina Turner in concert.  Except for some classless idiots in the audience who got up and left during the last couple of songs, which made me embarrassed for Kansas City, it was an amazing concert experience.  The woman is two years younger than John McCain, yet she looks 20-30 years younger.  She sang and danced like she always has, and in addition to the quality and professionalism of her performance, she left me with a new attitude about what it means to be 69 years old.  She seemed as ageless as her music, and I think that probably has a lot to do with an attitude of gratitude for what she’s been able to do and a commitment to keep on doing it as long as she can.  Not only did she entertain me, she taught me something about aging well, so if you get a chance to see her in your city, I highly recommend it!


Everything in “moderation”? 10/9/08

During this political season, I’ve been more than usually interested in the philosophies underlying the candidates’ and voters’ beliefs about the appropriate role(s) of the government in our lives.  It always amazes me when people over the age of about 25 describe themselves as “moderates” or “independents” who “vote for the man (or woman)” and haven’t really formed an ideology or set of core beliefs about how a society like ours should be governed.  I’ve thought a lot about this as a psychologist who studies human behavior and as a lawyer who studies how that behavior is regulated, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that “moderates” are mostly just gutless wonders who haven’t bothered to spend the time that it takes to figure out what they believe the government exists to do.  Personally, I don’t think it’s that difficult because as I see it, there are essentially two ways to conceptualize it, and they’re really not very close.  If you’re interested in this sort of thing too, here’s my analysis:

It’s a founding principle of our nation that the legitimacy of a government comes from the consent of the governed.  So, why do human beings form governments and consent to be governed by them?  As I see it, there are two basic philosophies about that, each one rooted in an assumption about human nature, and each one giving rise to a distinct set of beliefs about the appropriate roles of government in the lives of the governed.  Before I introduce these two basic philosophies, here’s a little scenario that might be helpful in determining the one with which you agree:  Imagine that it’s 10,000 years ago, and you think that you and your family are the only humans on the planet.  According to Abraham Maslow (and pretty much every other expert on human needs and how they’re fulfilled), you’d first find sources of food and water and suitable shelter (from the elements and from predators), but once you’d done that, you’d probably want to go exploring to see if there were better resources beyond your immediate view.  Now imagine that as you’re exploring one day, out of sight of your family, your home, and the food and possessions that you’ve accumulated, you see in the distance another, unrelated human.  What’s the very first thing that would run through your mind?  Be honest.

Now, Philosophy 1 holds that human nature, first and foremost, is rationally self-interested, which means that at the most basic level, people do what they perceive is best for the survival and well-being of themselves and their immediate families.  According to this philosophy, the immediate thing that would run through your mind when you first saw the other person in the above scenario would be fear.  (What if that person’s been to your home?  What if that person has taken your possessions?  What if that person has hurt your family?)  A moment before that, you would’ve felt free to explore the whole world in search of the best possible resources for yourself and your family.  Then, suddenly, you’d become a virtual prisoner of the area within immediate view of your home.  So what would you want to do?  Cautiously, you’d probably want to observe that person, and if the person didn’t seem overtly hostile, you’d eventually probably want to make contact.  Why?  Because you’d want to assure yourself that the other person didn’t pose a threat so you could get your freedom back.  You’d agree that if you came upon the other person’s family, or home, or belongings, you’d leave them alone (which would be a small price to pay if you’re a decent moral human being who wouldn’t have violated any of those things anyway), and in exchange, the other person would agree to leave your family, home, and belongings alone.  At that point, you would have made a good deal, each person motivated by rational self-interest — a “social contract” as philosophers like John Locke have called it.  You each would have given up a little bit of freedom that you valued very little (freedom to do things you didn’t want to do anyway) in exchange for the promise of security that you valued highly.  You’d be able to leave the immediate view of your home and family again, so after making the deal, you’d actually feel more free than you felt before you made it (maybe not as free as you felt before you ever saw the other person, but definitely more free than you felt when you thought you had to guard your home and family all the time).  You would also have formed the most basic “government” — two people coming together and each giving up a little freedom in exchange for the security that comes from knowing that neither intends any aggression toward the other.  Now, as the two of you continued to explore your shared world, and as you met additional explorers, you’d probably want to get them to join in the pact.  And as the society grew, you’d not only have mutual promises of security from all the members, but if anyone didn’t agree to the pact, or if someone violated the pact, you’d have strength in numbers to either prevent that person from interacting with the group or to enforce the pact.  The fundamental purpose of forming a government, according to Philosophy 1 (which is essentially “Social Contract Theory”), is to give individuals the greatest possible degree of individual freedom while living peacefully together.

Philosophy 2 holds that human nature, first and foremost, is selfless, which means that at the most basic level, people do what they perceive is best for the survival and well-being of all people, even if it’s detrimental to themselves and their immediate families.  According to this philosophy, when you initially saw the other person in the distance 10,000 years ago, your first thoughts would’ve been as much about that person’s needs as your own.  According to Philosophy 2, you would’ve wanted to make contact, not just to get security for yourself, but also to provide security to the other person.  Philosophy 2 says that in addition to obligating yourselves not to hurt one another, you would’ve wanted to obligate yourselves to help one another.  For example, instead of just agreeing that neither of you would steal the other’s stored food, according to Philosophy 2, you also would’ve wanted to agree in advance that if either of you got low on food, the other person would provide the needed food.  The fundamental purpose of forming a “government” according to Philosophy 2 (which is essentially collectivism) is to subordinate individuals’ interests to the interests of the group as a whole.

Why is this distinction important?  Because each of the above philosophies gives rise to a distinct, mutually exclusive, set of core beliefs about what are appropriate roles for government to play in citizens’ lives.  Philosophy 1 leads to beliefs in maximizing personal responsibility for individuals’ outcomes in life (i.e. low tolerance for irresponsible behavior), maximizing individual freedom (i.e. minimizing the role of the government in the lives of the governed), and aggressively defending the society against any outside threats.  In stark contrast, Philosophy 2 leads to beliefs in shared responsibility for individuals’ outcomes in life, substantial government involvement in the lives of the governed, and a broader worldview in which the interests of the society take no priority over the interests of other societies.  So, when a candidate proposes a particular policy, a voter needs to have identified a fundamental philosophy and formed a set of core beliefs in order to determine intellectually whether that policy is an appropriate undertaking of the government.  That’s why I think “moderates” are pretty much gutless wonders.  The two basic philosophies and the beliefs to which they give rise are not really close, so if a person over the age of about 25 still isn’t sure which philosophy is correct, that person hasn’t given it enough intellectual energy as I see it.  I think Americans who embrace a wishy-washy, middle-of-the-road, pseudo-intellectual, “moderate” approach to politics generally just don’t want to do the intellectual work to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong.  I hear the same kind of thing whenever there’s a story about U.S. intelligence officers water-boarding terrorists — people say things like, “We can’t use those kinds of techniques on the terrorists and expect them not to use similar or worse techniques when they capture our guys” (a “moral-equivalence” argument).  Of course we can.  There are things that are morally ok to do when you’re in the right that are not morally ok to do when you’re in the wrong.  For example, it’s morally OK to punch someone in the gut if that person is attempting to steal your wallet or purse, but it’s not morally OK for the would-be thief to punch you.  Likewise, it’s morally OK for the police to arrest drug dealers and put them in jail, but it’s not morally OK for drug dealers to kidnap cops and hold them as hostages.  See what I mean?  Sure, maybe the thief thinks he’s in the right to steal, and maybe the drug dealers think they’re in the right to “arrest” police, but they’re wrong.  I know some people get a little uncomfortable when I take firm stands and say that things are right or wrong, but as I see it, right and wrong are not merely in the eye of the beholder.  As I see it, there’s right, and there’s wrong, and anyone can distinguish the two by applying his or her intellect to the situation, action, or policy proposal at hand.  So, when it comes to politics, the bottom line for me is that it’s about first making the intellectual effort to determine what policies and candidates are right and then voting for those policies and persons.  As I see it, the “moderate” label is an intellectual copout.

[And by the way, please keep in mind here that the two competing philosophies outlined above are philosophies about why people form governments.  People’s reasons for forming societies (groups of people living together) are not necessarily the same as their reasons for forming governments (establishing rule-makers and rules to prescribe how the members of a society must and must not interact with one another).  I believe that we have moral obligations to one another as members of society that are neither the government’s purpose nor any of its business to enforce.]

Guilty! 10/4/08

Well, when I said Friday evening that we were days away from knowing the verdict in “O.J. Trial, the Sequel” I should’ve said we were hours away.  I expected the jury to continue deliberating on Monday and to deliver a verdict sometime next week, but instead, the jurors worked into Friday night, 13 hours total, to find Simpson guilty as charged of armed robbery and kidnapping (in Nevada, a person can be charged with kidnapping for holding another person captive, even if the victim is not taken anywhere).  As I mentioned in my last post, this verdict came 13 years to the day after the verdict in “O.J. Trial, Part I”!  Sentencing is scheduled for December 5th, and Simpson now faces 15 years to life in prison.

Wrapping up the week 10/3/08

On yesterday’s Prime News, we talked about the sad case of a New York police lieutenant who ordered a junior officer to use a taser on a psychotic suspect last week.  The suspect was naked, yelling, and poking at officers with a large fluorescent light bulb, and under normal circumstances, the taser probably would’ve been an appropriate non-lethal tool to subdue him.  He was standing on a ledge, however, and when the junior officer used the taser, the suspect fell and sustained fatal injuries.  After saying how sorry he was, the lieutenant shot himself on Wednesday morning, his 46th birthday.  In my experience with military and police personnel, they’re often reluctant to seek mental help, even when they need it, because they’re afraid that it will harm their careers.  So, I’ve suggested that police departments across the country partner with police associations, like the Fraternal Order of Police, so that officers who are involved in traumatic incidents involving shootings, fatalities, etc., can be paired up with trained, veteran, retired officers with whom they can talk for understanding, experienced perspective, moral support, etc., outside of their departments.  I’m not recommending this as a substitute for professional help, but I think it could be an extremely helpful and very low-cost source of much-needed, potentially life-saving, social support for officers in crisis.

In other news, the “bailout” bill has become the law of the land as you probably know, but what you may not know is that mental-health parity (which I also opposed — see my previous post “Mental health parity”) has also become law as an attachment to the “bailout” bill.

Another prominent professor of psychiatry, this time at Emory University, has been called out for failing to report payments that he received from a major pharmaceutical company whose products he researched and endorsed.  See my previous post “Follow the money” which was prompted by a similar case involving Harvard professors and explains why this is a big problem in mental health treatment.

Casey Anthony has officially been labeled a “suspect” in the disappearance of her little daughter Caylee, but at this point, that seems to be mostly a semantic development in the case, a distinction without a difference.  In most observers’ minds, I think Casey’s been a “suspect” for weeks, and if there’s any new evidence implicating her, Florida authorities aren’t broadcasting it.

And finally this week, 13 years to the day after he was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife and her male acquaintance, O.J. Simpson’s fate is again in the hands of a jury.  We’re now just days away from a verdict in “O.J. Trial, the Sequel.”  Have a good weekend, and tune in next week for the outcome.


Slashings 10/2/08

There’s a dangerous person on the loose right here in the college town where I live and teach part-time.  In the past several days, there have been a string of slashings — not of people, at least not yet — of cats.  Several cats have been gutted, clearly with knives (not by other animals), and their bodies (or body parts) have been left in people’s yards.  As I said repeatedly last year during the Michael Vick dog-fighting case, animal cruelty indicates a psychological disturbance that is likely to escalate and eventually pose a danger to humans.  Locking up the perpetrator of these cat slashings should be a priority for local law enforcement.  It’s bad enough that he (yes, it will almost-certainly be a male) has killed people’s pets, but sooner or later, he’s going to hurt a person (if he hasn’t already).

As Congress continues to debate this stupid “bailout” bill to benefit institutions and individuals who made bad bets on home mortgages over the past few years, prices have been slashed all throughout the stock market, making it like a big “Wall-Street-Mart” full of bargain-priced shares.  I’m not telling anyone else what to do, but I think I’ll go shopping.  Speaking of shopping, have you noticed that your credit cards still work just fine, even though we were told that credit was going to “freeze up” when the “bailout” bill didn’t pass last week?  Politicians are great at scaring people — fear is a powerful motivator, and when people are scared enough, they’ll often give up some of their freedom in exchange for security.  Politicians are also great at taking the simple and making it seem complicated — when people feel stupid, they’ll often go along with whatever solution the politicians propose.  Don’t be afraid, and don’t be fooled.

Finally tonight, a guy who’s been associated (ALLEGEDLY) with slashings in the past — O.J. Simpson.  Testimony wrapped up on Wednesday in “O.J. Trial, the Sequel” without (surprise, surprise) Simpson taking the stand.  Now that both the prosecution and the defense have rested their cases, closing arguments are expected on Thursday, which means that Simpson’s fate is likely to be in the hands of a jury — again — by week’s end.  Stay tuned.



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