Friday, October 20, 2017

Psychology of Hurricane Harvey and the metoo Flood

We are currently awash in #metoo notices on social media sites. A catharsis of massive proportions has followed in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.  As with any storm, news sources  examine the origins and publish a chronology. The current storm hit the U.S. 5 October when the NYT published salacious allegations.

Now, two weeks later, the storm has abated. Other news stories are headlines. Meanwhile, clean-up after Hurricane Harvey continues. We don't know how many lives have been destroyed. Heavy rains have affected many beyond the eye of the storm. People are hurting. Some still await care.

As with any storm, accusatory fingers point in many directions. There are reasonable calls for climate change-- we must end the rape climate that creates the conditions giving rise to such sexual hurricanes. They are right of course. Men are responsible for most of the problems. We do need to change. 

The helpfulness of metoo reports provides a Johari-like window of insight for sensitive men. Looking back, some of us can see how we contributed to the destructive climate. I apologize for insensitive comments. Other have too. 

The strong wave of contemporary femminism ocurred in the 1990s ,though there were earlier movements to be sure. The movement itself helped create a greater awareness amongst sensitive men about the insensitive treatment of women. Like others born many decades ago, I learned to change my language and beliefs about women's roles in society--including governments, churches, and the military. I saw how feminism was a blessing to society. Too many keen intellects were missing from solving the important problems we all face.

As the clean-up after the current storm proceeds, we must see if there are any lessons to learn that have not already been identified. This will not be easy because the emotional waters are still high. A lot of mud has covered the landscape.

Disgust is a powerful emotion-laden, expulsion-driven, life-saving response to cleanse us from germ-infested filth. Disgust quickly generalizes beyond vomit and manure to reject the dirty side of sex that robs people of their humanity. Women have been degraded in our eyes. We humans can only take so much disgust before we avert our eyes. We need to wash our souls.

Look for the word disgust in so many articles and comments about sexual harassment and abuse. Look for attitudes of contempt. There are powerful emotions behind the words. There is anger. And sometimes there is hate. There is a world of hurt. As my psychologist friend, Dr. Grant Jones, says, before hurt people can forgive they need to claim their "pound of flesh."

Like any dirty job, people want a break. We see the desire for a break in the change in headlines. We see the need for relief in those men who fight back against blame in the comments sections of accusatory articles. Overexposure robs workers of their capacity to clean-up.

But like all important work, the clean-up must continue. After a short break-- a time to refresh and see beauty once more, we must return to the arduous task. We must continue to read the stories of those who have been hurt. We must be about changing the climate of relationships. We must help survivors recover. We must strengthen social levees and rebuild our culture with stronger foundations of respect.

As the emotional waters subside, we will be better able to re-examine the words and actions that cross the line of respect between the sexes at work, school, places of worship, and everywhere. We need examples to see the difference between what is funny about sex and what is degrading. Men and women need to learn how to approach each other. We need to keep up the rhetoric about consent. We need to see how power and sex combine to hurt others. We need to report sexual harassment. And we need to support those who have been harassed.

As with any serious clean-up effort, some people are better prepared than others to deal with the stench. Rape, sexual assault, and sex trafficking are repulsive. Workers will see disgusting things about humanity. We need workers equipped for the task. We can look to our universities to prepare such workers. Those who feel ill-equipped to do such work can support the efforts of these responders.

We must not forget

     There are millions of loving couples.

     There are women who love the men in their lives. 

     There are men who respect women.

Psychology of Disgust: Related Posts

Why Christians Have Problems Loving the "Unholy"

How Metaphors Mess with our Minds and Destroy Lives

Sexual Harassment and Assault: Related Posts

Psychology of Sexual Harassment


About Sexuality and Morality in Christian Cultures

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Thursday, October 19, 2017


The greed that leads to market tops and crashes can account for the arguably more painful aftershocks too. And there's more psychology at work.


In 2007 the DJIA topped on 29 Sept at 14, 164.53. Then plunged 777.68 on 9 October. But the bottom did not hit until 6 March 2009 at 6,443.27 - more than a 54% loss!

The US markets famously crashed 18 October 1929 (almost 90%) BUT the market did not hit bottom until 8 July 1932. The "bargain scoop-up rally" did not last.

Some may recall 19 October, 1987, the market crashed again losing 23% in one day (DJIA).


Markets are not things. Investments may be analyzed, but markets are about human behavior--people trying to be smart when buying and selling. Some try to get ahead of the herd. Some get greedy when markets fall and try to jump on a bargain only to find out it's cheap for a reason-- no one wants what they bought.

Stocks, bonds, and houses are not worth anything unless someone else is willing to buy what you are selling. Unless of course, you derive income from what you own that outweighs any drop in value below what you would have if you just held cash. That takes some calculation.

Like many things in life, the psychological principle of sunk costs applies. When an investment goes south, people often throw good money have bad rather than cut their losses. This situation is worse for individual stocks, bonds, and houses compared to people who hold an index fund. Any particular investment can go to zero! But large index funds like the S&P500 are probably too big to fail even when they drop 50%.

A market that sells off 7-10% seems bad to an average investor. Some hang on and endure losses of 20-50%. Others cut their losses and move to cash or find something better. A person's tolerance for risk is evident in their behavior. Most stay put or add more money until finally shaken out during the aftershock -- the date when everyone who wants out got out. The recovery can be a matter of years or decades.

Young people with a long work history ahead can afford to remain investors for the long hual. Wealthy people with diverse holdings can afford to remain in the markets as their wealth passes to the next generation via assets that will surely improve at some distant date.

But people near retirement who are heavily invested may not live long enough to enjoy a recovery if they lose double-digit percentages.

So, we must know our tolerance for risk. Recognize the trap of sunk cost psychology. Learn when to cut losses. Manage greed and fear (you may have more to fear than fear itself if you lose lots of money).

And consult a financial advisor when unsure. They might make you feel better even if they don't have a clue about the future. Really, who can predict the future? But they may help you think more clearly about your situation.


By the way, the principle of sunk costs applies to personal investments in relationships, education and career paths as well as commitments in politics and religion.

Of course I'm not giving financial advice. I am not a financial advisor - just a psychologist.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Is Scouting Safe?

wikimedia commons

Not long ago, I was shocked when a friend told me of personal sexual abuse in a scout-like program in his church. I learned of his long-term suffering--years of depression. Those of us in clinical work are sadly used to learning of people who have been sexually abused as children and adults. But abuse happens to our friends as well.

Recently, the Boy Scouts announced that girls will be welcomed into their program. It didn't take long for the Girl Scouts to respond with "Why admitting girls is a 'terrible idea.'" (Garcia, 2017)

It doesn't help that a Boy Scout Leader made news earlier this year for the sexual abuse of five boys (USNews, 2017, March 4). The problem of child sexual abuse is not new. And the sexual abuse is not limited to scouts (e.g., CNN).

The history of problems of child sexual abuse and the recent reports of sexual harassment by aspiring female actors, make it clear. Vulnerable people are at risk for sexual abuse.

Getting our cultural house in order begins with every adult taking responsibility for themselves and their children. All organizations must carefully screen and monitor their leaders. Policies must be in place for safety and reporting. Education about sexual abuse must be ongoing.

When we see weaknesses in a system, let us point them out to the administrators.

Download and read the free booklet on preventing child sexual abuse: Preventing Child Sexual Abuse within Youth-serving Organizations -- available from the CDC.

Scouting can be a positive and fun experience. Let's keep it that way.

My ad for a related book.

Learn more about sexuality and morality in Christian Cultures.



Connect at

Twitter @GeoffWSutton


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Saturday, October 14, 2017

Psychology of Sexual Harassment

I changed the channel from the struggling Mizzou to CNN whilst waiting for my wife to join me in plans to watch something entertaining on Netflix. The talking heads were reviewing the latest Weinstein sex scandal allegations. Just seeing the pictures of famous women across the screen has an effect. One man with power can influence so many lives.

We saw this before when Cosby was in the news.

We've seen stories on college campuses and reports of clergy abuse.

One attorney is tuned in to the psychological trauma.

"I heard (attorney) Gloria Allred say the other day on CNN: 'Sexual harassment harms people,'" said Kendall. "And it's true. It does. Your body remembers the trauma. Your heart remembers the trauma. It changes you and makes you make decisions about life, like, I'm going to go in another direction. You don't know the harm it can do." (US News)
Beyond the Film Industry

The talk about what to do in the film industry is certainly appropriate. But I see others who are keen on examining the culture of sexual harassment in the workplace. The thing is, when you're young, as were so many of these women when first approached, you don't know what to do. It's totally unexpected. You're scared and angry. You want to attack and don't know how. I know. I've been there. Emma Thompson aptly called W a bully and a predator.

Invading personal space has consequences. We naturally want to defend ourselves against intruders. Sexual intrusion deserves a strong response. A strong response necesarily arouses fight and flight action and emotion. 

The other thing about harassment, the mental rape and grope kind, is it's often short of physical rape so you don't feel like you deserve the same kind of outrage that goes with those horrid reports of child sexual abuse and rape that keep popping up in the news. We know those survivors deserve a great deal of attention with vigilant efforts to protect their welfare, prevent further acts, and help survivors heal.

Some say sexual harassment is not about sex-- it is about power. I disagree. Sexual harassment is not just about power. Sexual harassment is about about both sex and power

There is harassment of a nonsexual kind. People bully others all the time. Nonsexual harassment makes you angry too. And it can cause fear. Sexual harassment evokes disgust as well as anger. Disgust is more powerful. Disgust makes you feel dirty. It's repulsive. Sexual harassment gets to one's soul.

Weinstein is the kind of story we need to rally support to strengthen laws so that all humans are protected from sexual harassment. We have enough evidence now that women and men are victimized in high school, at college, in sports, when applying for jobs, as interns in many fields, and now of course in the film industry where beautiful people compete for limited, high paying jobs. Attractiveness attracts money and unwanted sexual advances.

So what can harassed people do?

It is not easy when you think you are alone. The CNN story provides a little more advice--there is strength in numbers. And timing is important. Employees have rights and companies have policies nowadays. It is not so clear what people can do when attacked in other venues like contractors or people seeking employment. And the problem in high schools and colleges remains unresolved.

If there is any good news, high profile people are drawing attention to the problem of sexual harassment. There are some laws. There is a glimpse of justice when the powerful lose their power positions so they can no longer harm others. And the risk of getting called out adds some external brake to those who lack inhibitions. The support for survivors is growing along with an intolerance for sexual harassment. And men who are not predators are becoming more aware of how their words and actions can be construed as sexual harassment.

I have worked in places where the lack of policy enforcement is pathetic and the lack of serious sexual harassment training was either lacking or not up to anything close to a strong, persuasive, and persistent educational effort.

Complacency is the enemy. There will always be predators who are not inhibited by the threat of embarassment, loss of employment, or prison. 

  • We must stay informed.
  • Support survivors wherever they may be.
  • Warn our youth-- make sexual harassment part of sex education.
  • Speak up on company, school, church, community boards and committees.
  • Read company policies and advocate for stronger ones when they are weak.
  • Advocate for the most effective sexual harassment education programs available.
  • Provide treatment for victims.
  • Parents-be careful but not overly anxious.

Sexual harassment is everywhere:
   News & Resources

Middle School and High School (CS Monitor)
     This is why parents must ensure sexual harassment is part of sex education.
     Sexual harassment begins early in life.

Colleges and universities (USA Today College)
    Despite major news stories, the problem continues.

Religious settings (UMC advice) 
     Check on the policy at your congregation

CT "The Law on Sexual Harassment"

    A reminder to the religious.

Assault in the military (NBC) (DOD report)

    This is serious.

U S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission EEOC

Facts about Sexual Harassment and Title VII

    There are limitations on scope

Sexual Harassment in sports   SI story

   Just a reminder-- it happens.

What to do at work (Forbes)

    Some good notes here of things to do if you are in a situation now.

Read more about the psychology of sexual harassment at this link

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Do we need a sign: Do Not Feed the Children?

There's little doubt that children love sweets and show an interest in adults who provide them.  But many parents work hard to keep their children on healthy diets.  And some children require special diets.

I was thinking of the care shown to donkeys at Carisbrooke Castle. The staff reminded guests not to feed them.

Most of us have seen signs advising us not to feed animals because of their special diets. As I read various reports on research it is clear that many children and adults consume much that is unhealthy.

I have joked about diet options such as the variety of chocolates one can choose (my photo of chockies at the outlet in Portsmouth above).

But, health is no joking manner. Perhaps parents need to post signs saying: "Do Not Feed the Children," and explain that they are on a special diet.

Cheers to parents who provide their children with healthy foods in sufficient quantities. And set limits on high calorie treats. Extra cheers to parents who demonstrate healthy eating plus a healthy lifestyle by adding exercise to healthy eating.

And more. May those parents who resist fads and unscientific claims about nutrition and supplements be blessed for they shall save money and demonstrate wisdom when it comes to unsubstantiated health claims.



Twitter @GeoffWSutton


Palms Donkeys and Kings

On Palm Sunday 2017 I was in the chapel at Carisbrooke Castle built in  recognition of Charles I and veterans.

I  was reminded of other features of the early Palm Sunday by palms in the nearby garden and a donkey easily coaxed into walking a treadmill that provided water from a well years ago.

The gospels illustrate parallels between the everyday life and one full of spiritual significance. We can find many lessons about humanity that make the Palm Sunday story so relevant.

For me, the palms and the donkey were mostly cues to remember the day. Of course, my Christian heritage provided a connection that others might not make.

But the stories of Jesus and Charles I remind me of the religious component in the speeches and violent acts of people whose loyalties are often tested in extreme ways. People have the capacity to draw on faith to celebrate both peace and war.

Disagreements among the religious still lead to death and destruction.  Fair trials are often hard to come by.

Now King Charles I was no Jesus but the people surrounding them were divided over religious beliefs and views of political power like people today. The mixing of faith and politics rarely works out so well.

It is hard to find the moral high ground among the world's leaders or their opponents.

But there is something appealing about that donkey at the well who more or less obediently walks to bring the water of life that sustains others regardless of faith or politics.

A Look at a Deconversion Testimony

Coventry Cathedral 2002/ by Geoff W. Sutton

On a cold winter’s day Sarah sat across from me in the restaurant and declared, “I’m an atheist.” We were at a conference and her friends had left to go somewhere—I forget where. Sarah is a brilliant young woman with a bright future. I don’t know her well but she made some good points during a conference presentation. She knows I write about the psychology of religion so I’ve asked her about her opinions. Sarah was raised as an Evangelical Christian—a bit on the fundamentalist spectrum, I guess. She doesn’t like the Old Testament—too much murder, too many rules. I ask about the “Sermon on the Mount.” She thinks that’s ok. She likes Jesus’ moral teaching. She’s left of center politically and socially. She’s about to graduate from a Christian university. Somewhere along the line she lost her faith. She’s not come out as an atheist—except to a few people. She’s aware of the risks. She can’t doubt outloud. Her litany of complaints focus on beliefs that don’t make sense and certain views of morality she no longer holds as true.*

Peter Enns and The Sin of Certainty

My point in telling the “Sarah story” is that I was thinking of people like her when I read the first chapter of Peter Enns', The Sin of Certainty. I’ve been asked to lead off a study of Peter’s book. And Enns' first chapter describes his faith crisis. His chapter is instructive because it fits well with a recent uptrend in deconversion and conversion research in my field of interest, the Psychology of Religion. I previously summarized some research on deconversion and conversion. In this post, I provide a look at Enns', story from the perspective of deconversion and conversion. He claims not to have written an autobiography yet the lead story suggests his crisis provides the context for the book.


Peter Enns recalls a threatening moment listening to faith-challenging questions in a Disney movie, Bridge to Terabithia. Leslie and May Belle discuss God and the Bible. After a brief exchange about belief in the Bible and the consequences of disbelief, Leslie says, “I seriously do not think God goes around damming people to hell.” Here's the short video clip:

Enns' tells us of his spiritual and emotional discomfort and offers a larger life-context of leaving his teaching job at a Christian school (See Bailey, 2008) and losing some of his friends. He observes, “Watching certainty slide into uncertainty is frightening.” Faith provides a sense of meaning and organization. His faith has been seriously tested. After decades of education and teaching in Christian communities, he experienced some life-changing questions like: “Is there a God? What will you do now that God is far off, out of sight? (p. 13).”

In their summary of recent conversion and deconversion research, Raymond Paloutzian and his colleagues (2013) opine that both conversion and deconversion can be seen as part of a larger perspective on spiritual transformation. Here’s a quote about the concept of deconversion:

“Overall, deconversion is conceptualized as an intense biographical change that includes individual and social aspects: experiential, emotional, intellectual-ideological, social-environmental, moral, as well as changes or termination of group membership." (p. 409).

As a psychologist, I found myself drawn to Enn’s description of his feelings—the emotional experience he felt or reported that others with similar experiences shared. Here’s some examples of his language in chapter 1: "threatened, frightening, worried, Feeling judged and banished…” The experience is clearly emotional and specifically, about fear and anxiety.

As a psychology of religion researcher, I noted the social context and its impact on Enns. He reported a change at the school where he taught. The organizational climate became “tense and adversarial” (p. 12). His teaching and writing were examined. Eventually, he says he resigned. His description of the change sounds like a spiritual transformation.

“I recall those first few months of sweet freedom. I hadn’t felt that light and joyful in probably a decade. Pick your cliché: I felt alive, born again, as if I had been liberated from a prison camp, released from a dungeon, and had seen the sunshine and felt the cool breeze for the first time in ages.” (pp. 11-12)

The positive feelings did not last long. He soon found that “faith went dark” and he lacked the structure of faith provided by the community where “Thinking for myself wasn’t necessary…” (p. 12).

Enns concludes the first chapter by suggesting a “sacred journey” is possible for those who give up the quest for right belief and begin trusting God. The sin of certainty is a preoccupation with right belief to the point of making an idol out of belief and forcing God into our interpretation of the image we created.

I’ve read the book. Enns ends by telling us of his current congregation on page 192. We see his transformation, played out in Christian media, as an example of that type of deconversion from a fundamentalist-like evangelical Christianity. After what sounds like a wilderness experience, he finds a different sort of Christian community. As I read his words I see evidence of a changed spirituality, a de-emphasis on beliefs, but still a desire for meaning and relationship, “I need to be a part of something bigger than myself…”


Peter Enns' tale is a story for our time. I suspect doubters have been around since the first religious ideas were spoken. But in western cultures, it has become safer to express those doubts and concerns. There’s still a risk as Peter indicates—people can’t really be honest about their doubts in some faith communities and expect to keep their job or their old friendships.

Like Sarah, more and more young people are questioning the statements of belief promulgated by conservative religious groups. They doubt the truthfulness of certain claims. And when they get answers to difficult questions, they don’t find the answers very convincing.

There are different types of deconversions. Some occur gradually but may come to a critical point. These sound a lot like the reverse of conversion experiences. Some exit faith altogether. Some keep quiet and carry on—agnostic. Others exit a faith community (disaffiliation) and find a better fit.

Anxiety makes sense. The transition from childhood to adulthood can be smoother for those who remain in a spiritual family even when leaving their parent's home. We form attachments to parents as infants. The nature of attachment changes as we age. When children are removed from their attachment figures for various reasons like going to school or a parent going away, the event is marked by anxiety. In severe cases, children experience separation anxiety. Anxiety can occur at different points in life. A spiritual family mitigates against such anxiety unless the child is cast out.

I'm not seeing anger in Enns' chapter one account. I will resist the attempt to analyze his presentation. But I will hypothesize that many will feel a great deal of anger. Anxiety and anger can produce the emotional turmoil that motivates action. Action may lead one to redouble efforts to re-attach to secure relationships like the old ones left behind or find a new family altogether different. Emotions can function like catalysts to activate belief-behavior connections.

In the research literature, some emerge from their emotional turmoil with a new sense of autonomy and a feeling of personal growth. As Paloutzian and others write of some deconverts who leave a religious community, “...there are also gains in a sense of connectedness for the lucky ones who immediately find a new community and a new identity with a self-identification as ‘spiritual person,’ also a key characteristic of deconversion.” (p. 414)

Peter Enns offers a path forward for those troubled by restrictive interpretations of Christian belief statements—encourage trust in God (in my language, don’t sweat the details of belief).

Here's what I’d like to know as I take these ideas to class:

What elements of Enns' story make sense in terms of other stories you have heard or read?

What Christian beliefs, if any, must be held as true and certain to continue a sacred journey as a Christian?

How does your church or Christian organization create a safe place for people with doubts like those questions Enns reported?

How can Christians be helpful to people like Sarah who wish to talk—explore their thoughts about faith?

How do people handle family relationships where some Christians consider others as unsaved, lost, heretics, agnostics, or atheists?


Read more about Christian cultures in A House Divided available on AMAZON from the publisher, Pickwick and in the Apple bookstore on Apple devices.

*(Sarah is not a particular person but a composite of bright young people who reject the conservative faith of their youth).

Bailey, S. P. (April, 2008). Westminster theological suspension. Christianity Today. Retrieved from This article tells of Enn’s suspension and provides links to related stories.
Enns, P. (2016). The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs. San Francisco: Harper One.
Paloutzian, R.F., Murken, S., Streib, H. & Rößler-Namini, S. (2013. Conversion, deconversion, and spiritual transformation: A multidisciplinary view. In. R. F. Paloutzian and C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, (2nd Ed., pp. 399-421). New York: Guilford.

Sutton, G. W. (2016). [Review of the book The sin of certainty: Why God desires “our” trust more than “our” correct beliefs by Peter Enns]. Encounter, 13. You can find my academic review of his book online at Academia and ResearchGate.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Toppling the Statue of Limitations

Image result for topple statue

We may assume the obvious that statues of people are installed in public places by those who revere something about the person.

 Dictators and other men who ruled with iron hands have been toppled and decapitated years after their death when their nefarious deeds were considered more evil than any good they might have done. And times changed making it safe to destroy an old emperor's image without losing one's own head.

Image result for topple statue

The recent protests about the statues of the Confederate States are not new as Gillian Brockwell explains in her WP post from 17 August. I have been tempted to draw on the culture of honour theories put forth by Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen (1996) following some quite creative studies showing the tendency of Southerners to react quickly to perceived challenges to their honor compared to Northerners. (I always had research students read the article-save it for later if you are busy.) However, there is a warning about going too far beyond the lab data-- the problem is summarized by Nigel Barber.

One should not let a beautiful theory go to waste when an ugly fact arises.

It is hard to look at the men of stone and not think about the reasons for their existence--especially given their dominance at the U.S. Capitol. There is a culture of honor in all nations. The U.S. Capitol contains the statues of honor--take a look at the list in the article and see who is worthy of such high earthly honor. And wander around DC where entire buildings are shrines and memorials to many Americans (oh, here's where the women are).

There are those in history linked to horrific evil such that it would be hard to find even a substantial minority desiring to honor them-- let alone put their likeness on a pedestal. Other mortals have more stature as having the good fortune to have been present when a nation began or holding a high office--at least an office worthy of passing around on a coin or those little rectangles pasted on old forms of communication.

But what to do about the statues of those honoured by some and reviled by others? How many statues must come down? What are the criteria for removing one figure and keeping another? Did they fight for a worthy cause to protect the rights of their fellow citizens? Did their actions create a better society despite any flaws they may have? If they did any harm, was it overshadowed by a greater good?

Though I probably am way out of context, I cannot help but think of an old commandment against "graven images or likeness... (Exodus 20)" I think I know this verse is about idols and worshipping people rather than God. But perhaps there's something  to learn about human nature and statues. The fewer the better I say. Nations need their stories to forge a culture. But nations are about all the people -- not just a few public servants. And, although we may appreciate the good that others have done, let us not idolize them because whatever good leaders do, they do so with the help of millions of citizens.

We know about people's strengths and we know about their weaknesses. Statues become divisive--men (and the few women recognized in marble or stone) unlike God, have feet of clay. A statue becomes a cultural symbol around which people can rally like Christians hoisting a cross or patriots raising a flag -- as long as one doesn't look behind the myth and discern that sons and daughters of men are not divine. Let's face it. Human beings may rise to an occasion and lead but may very poor role models in other aspects of their lives.

Some say time heals. But the evidence suggests that many lifetimes pass until the stories statues evoke are part of history rather than symbols of present strife. The debate in the U.S. about removing certain statues is good evidence of the persistence of old divisions that have not healed.

My hope is that the battles are restricted to volleys of words rather than a hail of bullets. And that some people somewhere make peace with a meta-narrative that permits a free people to share their voices of what a statue means to them and their culture. In effect, we can place a limitation on statues with renewed narratives like the rennovation of slave barracks on an old American estate marking a part of history that should not be forgotten (Monticello). We may also view some statues as artifacts of a bygone era in museums where narratives can put matters in perspective.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Why Counselor's Tests Are Not Reliable

The reason counselor's tests are not reliable is that reliability is a property of scores not tests. This isn't a matter of semantics. Think about it this way.

Give all the students in one school an achievement test. The test items don't change so they appear stable, consistent, and reliable. However, when publishers report reliability values, they calculate the reliability statistics based on scores. Scores vary from one administration to another. If you ever took a test twice and got a different score, you know what I mean. Individuals change from day to day. And we change from year to year. Also, even a representative sample of students for a nation can be different each year.

Everytime we calculate a reliability statistic, the statistic is slightly different.

Reliability values vary with the sample.

Reliability values also vary with the method used for calculation. You can get high reliability values using coefficient alpha with scores from a one-time administration. This method is common in research articles. But you will see different values from the same research team in different samples in the same article.

If we use a split-half method, which usually calculates reliability based on a correlation between two halves of one test, then we can get a reliability value based on one administration. But that's only half a test! Researchers use the Spearman-Brown formula to correct for the shortened half-test problem- but that's just an estimate of what the full test could be.

There's also a test-retest reliability method. Give a test one time, wait awhile- maybe a week or several weeks, then retest. That gives you an estimate of stability. But if you have a good memory, you can score higher on the second test on some tests like intelligence and achievement.

By now you get the point. Any one test can be associated with a lot of reliability values. The problem is not with counselor tests. The problem can be understanding that tests do not have one reliability value. As with many things in science, there are many variables to consider when answering a question.

Reputable test publishers include reliability values in their test manuals. Counselors, Psychologists, and other users ought to know about test score reliability.

Learn more assessment and statistical concepts in

Applied Statistics: Concepts for Counselors


Monday, June 5, 2017

Understanding Human Nature: The SCOPES Model

What I call the SCOPES model is an organization of and an elaboration on the way many psychologists conduct comprehensive assessments for patients. I find the approach helpful because it guides us in thinking about ourselves and others in terms of multiple dimensions rather than just one or two labels that can lead to misunderstanding or worse.

SCOPES is an acronym for five dimensions of human nature within a social context. 

SCOPES is also a metaphor for looking with an intent to carefully observe people in a richer and more diverse way than we do with a cursory glance. Once I name the six dimensions you will see how they reflect the common ways we speak about ourselves and others. What makes this aapproach uncommon is that it takes effort to look beyond that which is immediately evident and consider multiple dimensions before making “snap” judgments.

A camera metaphor may help. People are like cameras operating on default settings. Modern cameras have multiple settings but usually come with defaults. Once given life via a charge, the camera is ready to use in auto mode. In sophisticated cameras, various settings are adjusted in response to a button press, screen input, or other environmental information such as location and what’s in front of the lens.

By the time we reach elementary school age, our biological “hardware” has been modified by our experiences resulting in customized settings that enable us to adapt to our environments. Some adapt better than others. Parents, teachers, friends, and others work to “shape” us—adjust our settings throughout life. But we are not left out of the process because we too attempt to change many settings—including some over which we have little control such as date of birth.



Spirituality includes religious and other ways people find meaning in life. Most organized religious faiths include specific beliefs and practices but these are integrated with each person’s experience. For example, a person’s dreams and visions or culture influence how they pray and what they identify as right and wrong. Atheists and those with nontraditional spirituality may describe meaningful experiences in the beauty of nature and music. For some, the spiritual dimension is so vital to their identity that it dominates their clothing, communicated beliefs, daily practices, interactions with others, and what they eat.


It doesn’t take long to form an impression of a person’s general intelligence. Sometimes we are awed and sometimes—not so much. But there’s more to cognition than solving problems on intelligence tests. We can include many neuropsychological processes such as memory, attention, language skills, visual-spatial skills as well as cognitive biases and prejudices. 

Some aspects of cognition have a huge impact on identity such as extreme deficits in attention span, incredible ability to solve complex problems, or persistent declines in memory for self and others.


I used the letter O so it works with the acronym. Essentially, people may be described in terms of a few or many durable traits like the famous Big Five: 
Openness: intelligent, imaginative, insightful
Conscientious: organized, thorough, planners
Extraversion: talkative, outgoing, energetic, assertive
Agreeable: forgiving, sympathetic, kind, affectionate
Neuroticism (v. stability) tense, moody, anxious

There are other traits or characteristics that may be added like dominance and psychopathy. People are different. We usually act in fairly predictable ways--habit patterns and traits that are part of who we are.


We all come with bodies and many of us with less than culturally desirable bodies protest that we are more than mere bodies. We want to be known for what’s inside. Nevertheless, our physiology is a critical part of who we are. Drives for hunger, thirst, sleep, and sex vary from person to person and those biological factors vary for each of us during a day, week, or year. Measures of biological status can change and influence other aspects of who we are- height, weight, blood pressure and more. Biology shapes our identity and we influence our biology and that of others.

We know that despite protests, people think of others in terms of a biological factor like blindness or deafness or another challenge. Some have a mental health diagnosis and are referred to by that diagnosis such as alcoholics or Schizophrenics. Some are known by a disease they have or survived such as cancer. One aspect of our entire personal identity can be a physiological status that is defining or confining. We know that we and others are more than a biological fact but somehow, we often fail to think beyond the “P” dimension.

E   EMOTIONS or feelings

Our emotions influence our identity and our judgments about others. There are many ways to show our emotions. Psychological scientists disagree on what may constitute core emotions. As a psychologist, I was tuned in to sadness, anxiety, and anger as well as joy and a sense of calm. More common emotions include fear, worry, hate, guilt, and that complex we call love. Feelings are critical to understanding who we are and why people do what they do.


The people in our lives and where we live out our day-to-day existence influences who we are even as we influence others. Our personal timeline is a factor too. We and others see common threads of who we are since childhood but we also see changes. Looking back, we may see events, people, or places that resulted in major changes in who we are today. Like many immigrants, the move from one country to another was a big deal for me and my parents.

Our relationships matter. Relationships affect our spiritual faith, thoughts, feelings, behavior patterns and even our health. A recently divorced cantankerous fifty-year old man with a history of alcohol abuse may feel anger, distress, and worry. A 35 year-old woman may feel happy and enjoy a sense of freedom as she boards a cruise with a friend. People are different in their relationships. Some feel liberated by divorce whilst others feel devastated. Some worry about finding a mate whilst others intentionally live a single life. Some prefer frequent interaction with friends whilst others require large periods of aloneness.


The SCOPES model is a way of organizing information about ourselves and others. It is a way of recognizing we are complex beings who change in many ways. We respond to others and our environments in ways that change us. And we have an effect on others and our environment. At any given point, a few dimensions may be more important than others such as when we feel depressed at the loss of a loved one or celebrate a birthday.

We should also be aware that activity in one or two dimensions affects the other dimensions even when we are not aware of the effects. A loud noise like a gunshot can produce fear, thoughts of safety, memories of past terror, crouching, increased heart rate and even a cry for divine intervention.


I have applied this model to moral-social judgments in A House Divided and elsewhere.

Those familiar with psychology will recognize the common Cognitive-Affective-Behavior constructs in Cognitive-Behavioral-Therapy and attitude theory. Most clinicians have coursework in the biological basis of behavior. Some, but not all, also consider spirituality as relevant to understanding people and their well-being. Many will also recognize the importance of the environment, which I include in the Social dimension. I have also been influenced by the BASIC-ID of Arnold Lazarus—a part of his work in Multimodal Therapy and Kurt Levin’s field theory or concept of lifespace.

Sutton, Geoffrey W. A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2016. Also available on AMAZON.

You can read about tests and survey items to measure the SCOPES dimensions in my 2017 book, Creating Surveys. Available on AMAZON

Is Your Moral Lens in Focus?

I used Autofocus to capture this tiger in India

News reports documenting the killing of children tug deeply at our most basic impulse to care for the young and vulnerable. Many of us identify unfair treatment and at least give a nod of support to those who seek to remedy injustice. It is no secret that people disagree about the right way to solve social problems. Matters of right and wrong are the stuff of morality. And matters of right and wrong often connect people with similar religious and political beliefs.

I have drawn upon the research of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues when writing about moral perspectives as formulated in moral foundations theory. The six moral foundations provide a useful way to consider various social-moral issues. In this post, I review the six moral foundations. In A House Divided, I applied these six foundations to show how different tribes of Christians argue about such divisive issues as birth control, abortion, and sex education.

I begin with a metaphor. The human moral response is like setting the focus on a digital camera. Many of us view life using autofocus. That works most of the time when we live in the culture where we were raised. But at other times, we need to reset the focus to a particular option or do the hard work of manual focus.

It turns out that most people draw upon a few options when arguing about morality. People have their favorite settings. Some use more than others. According to Haidt and his colleagues, liberals tend to rely on two or three settings—Care/Harm, Fairness, and sometimes Liberty. While not excluding these two or three options, conservatives may select from another two or three—Authority, Loyalty, and Purity.

Unlike cameras, when it comes to humans, we have powerful emotions like love, fear, and anger driving the arguments for right and wrong. Some of us hammer away at one or two points regardless of what others say. Unfortunately, when people latch on to a reason or two, they don't let go. Once committed, other reasons are ignored.

The Six Moral Foundations

1. Care/ Harm
Caring is motivated by the complex emotion of love and affection. Loving parents also become very angry when perceiving threats to their families and loved ones. The natural love that embodies care and protection for children can be expanded to kinship groups and cultures. It is not surprising that family metaphors arise in religious and political writings.

2. Fairness and Justice
We learn about playing fair as children. Those who break the rules are punished in various ways. Most learn it is wrong to cheat. Cheating and discrimination are close. People who seek justice may often use peaceful means yet righteous anger can flare and motivate more aggressive action.

3. Authority/Rebellion
Respect for authority is not only a strong moral impulse but it can be foolhardy to rebel in some settings. For some, the moral value of respecting those in authority is a core value. Feelings of respect for authority can be increased by feeling fear and awe. Disrespect can lead to powerful and destructive righteous anger toward the disrespectful. Look for words such as respect, deference, arrogance, pride, awe, humility and authority.

4. Loyalty/Betrayal
Loyalty is motivated by love and betrayal by hate. Some people constantly test the nature of their relationships in terms of loyalty and betrayal concerns. At the national level, betrayal is treason.

5. Liberty/Oppression
People are motivated to be free, independent and unbound. Laws, policies, and unwritten social norms can restrict where certain classes of people can live and what they can do. People celebrate the joy of freedom following oppression. Righteous anger leads to overthrowing oppressive regimes.

6. Purity, Sanctity/Impurity, Disgust
Children learn early in life to clean up and avoid germ-infested matter. We humans have a built-in yuk response to various bodily fluids and other substances. It isn’t long until lessons about being physically clean generalize to call certain behavior or activities dirty, filthy, perverted, disgusting, and unclean. And it is not much of a leap to label people who engage in such behavior or activities as unclean, unworthy, disgusting, perverts, and so on. Religious and social rules as well as laws banning certain activities can be the result of motivations to purify a culture. In the extreme, righteous anger using the language of cleansing is a thinly veiled way of disguising the killing of people as a moral duty.

To find how we agree or disagree we must listen to the reasons given and pay attention to the power of emotion. But then we will still need a way forward by relying on principles and weighing consequences.


Haidt, Jonathan. The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment. Psychological Review 108 (2001) 814–834.

Sutton, Geoffrey W. A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2016. Also available on AMAZON.

Read a review of Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind.

Find more about examining cultures at this website