Thursday, August 29, 2013

LOVE is...

LOVE IS… one of those feel good words that gets tossed around so much. Use the word love and people perk up. Love brings a smile. Add it to a song and it sounds romantic. 

Love is a replacement for like and sex. A love is a person. Red valentine-style hearts pop into western minds. Love is people holding hands and soft furry creatures like puppies and kittens in children’s’ arms. Love is a many splendored thing.

To psychologists, love is more than a feeling. Sometimes I think we should invent a new word so we can be more precise about love but that won’t do. We can’t communicate about love if we ignore the word everyone uses.
We just have to be clear. Whatever love is, it has many dimensions. And love is more than a feeling.

I have worked on a university campus for years. On a sunny day you can see loving couples sprawled across green spaces. They are the ones where you don’t see two distinct forms. They merge—all over each other. I am not talking about sex—just a closeness—pair bonding is one of those strange sounding psychological terms for love-like relationships.

In a few previous posts, I wrote about marriage. A loving relationship characterizes the best of contemporary views of marriage. Loving couples demonstrate love by caring, listening, helping, and hugging. They experience warm feelings. They think of the other when separated. And of course sex is there too.

Parents love their children too. There is a powerful bond between loving parents and loving children. It’s different from romantic love but seems to set the foundation for happy and secure loving relationships between loving adults. If you had a psychology class, you know I’m  talking about attachment research. Children naturally seek out the parents or caregivers they love. They approach a loved parent when scared or in a strange situation. They “touch base” by going back to the loved parent when they see something new. “Look granddad,” I hear when my granddaughter sees a bug. She raises her arms to be picked up if she has fallen. Parents are go-to persons, when they are loved by children.

In a previous post, I wrote about six dimensions of functioning. I think looking at six dimensions of love can help understand this complex idea.

Because of my familiarity with Christianity, I am writing about Christian love. Christian scriptures portray God as a loving father. So, it is not surprising that psychological scientists found the attachment between parents and children to be similar to the way Christian adults relate to God. There are measurable variations on the dimensions of anxiety and avoidance. Some feel quite secure in the “arms of God” whilst others feel anxious and worry about their relationship with God. Similarly, some feel close to God and in fact devote themselves to maintaining a close relationship. And others feel at some distance from God – some care and recognize the barriers in their relationship. Others seem to fall away or outright reject God.

In Jesus' summation of the law (Matthew 22: 36-40), he reminds people to love God and love one’s neighbor. This two-part commandment has also stimulated research as psychological scientists have looked at the connection between loving God and loving others. The question from a psychological perspective is how to measure this idea of love. Some answers may be found in measures of constructs referred to in the Christian scriptures such as altruism, forgiveness, reconciliation, compassion and restoration-- including measures of attachment to God. These concepts are not limited to the Christian religion. But these ideas are identified in Christian scriptures and thus should be present if love includes a spiritual dimension within people who identify as Christian.

So here's the point. If you are a Christian, the anxious-secure and avoidant-closeness you experience between you and God might affect your relationship with others. And we might be able to measure that by looking at how you show compassion and how willing you are to forgive others.

You can measure the cognitive dimension of love in many ways. The obvious way is to ask people how much they love people in their lives. So you can get qualitative information. But you can also ask people to rate that love on a scale from 1 – 10 or you can look at how people reveal their thoughts in journals, visual arts, song, and the many ways thoughts are expressed in a given culture. People in love report thoughts and images of their loved one when separated. Lovers text and call at high rates. Before the digital era, flowery cards and letters revealed the quantity and quality of loving thoughts.

When disasters strike, public displays of love can be seen in news reports. People stepped up to help the
victims of hurricane Sandy on 29 October, 2012. Gifts and money poured in to Boston following the 15 April 2013 bombing. Teachers who comfort children during tornadoes and threats at school demonstrate the importance of verbal acts, guidance, and presence – ways of showing love. Acts of compassion and caring are measurable ways to assess love.

Researchers found oxytocin present in attachment, caring, and sexual forms of loving relationships. Wallum and colleagues reported that men with higher levels of vasopressin receptors are closer to their wives and think less about divorce than do the men with lower levels. Even facial changes in response to romantic thoughts were associated with higher levels of oxytocin than those with lower facial changes. Have you ever felt the pain of a broken relationship? Social rejection has been linked to increased activity in the brain's pain center (e.g., cingulate cortex). What about sexual attraction? In general, people are attracted to those who are happy, kind, intelligent, and have a sense of humor. But facial symmetry and scents influence sexual responses as well.

This is easy. Love feels good. There is a general warm, positive feeling. Although love is more than a feeling, love obviously involves emotion.

Love changes over time. The smiling and noises of a 4-month old are different from the hugs and kisses of a 3-year old. As the years rapidly increase, we see people loving family and friends in different ways at ages 14, 34, and 54. The same person expresses love to the same others in different ways over time. We have cultural expectations of what love looks like.

Places matter. And of course most people express love differently depending on the social context. When people push the boundaries of certain kinds of love like sexual expression in a public venue, others feel embarrassed. But even the average range of loving responses changes from work, to school, to places of religious worship, and home. It’s not just the physical space either but the people that are present in those spaces. Coworkers, friends, relatives, and others influence the way love is felt and expressed.

How do you know if you’re in love? Let me count the ways.

If you want to understand how much one person loves another, look at several dimensions—not just what they say or how they answer a magazine poll.

  1. Spiritual
  2. Cognitive
  3. Observable behavior  
  4. Physiological
  5. Emotional
  6. Social (Space & Time)

A few sources
Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1969). Object relations, dependency, and attachment: A theoretical review of the infant-mother relationship. Child Development, 40, 969–1025.
Beck, R., & McDonald, A. (2004). Attachment to God: The attachment to God inventory, tests of working model correspondence, and an exploration of faith group differences. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 32, 92–103.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Gonzaga, G. C., Turner, R.A., Keltner, D., Campos, B., & Altemus, M. (2006). Romantic love and sexual desire in close relationships. Emotion, 6, 163–179.
Hall, T. W., Fujikawa, A., Halcrow, S. R., Hill, P.C., & Delaney, H. (2009). Attachment to God and implicit spirituality: Clarifying correspondence and compensation models. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 37, 227–242.
Hood, R. W., Jr., Hill, P. C., & Spilka, B. (2009). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach (4th ed.). New York, NY: Guilford.
Hwang, J., Plante, T., & Lackey, K. (2008). The development of the Santa Clara brief compassion scale: An abbreviated of Sprecher and Fehr's compassionate love scale. Pastoral Psychology, 56, 421–428. doi: 10.1007/s11089-008-0117-2
Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Shaver, P.R. (1990). Attachment theory and religion: Childhood attachments, religious beliefs, and conversion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 29, 315–334.
Mittelstadt, M. S. & Sutton, G.W. (2010).  Forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration: Multidisciplinary studies from a Pentecostal perspective. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.
Poloma, M., & Green, J. (2010). The Assemblies of God: Godly love and the revitalization of American Pentecostalism. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Shiota, M. N., & Kalat, J.W. (2011). Emotion (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Sutton, G. W. (2010). The psychology of forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration: Integrating traditional and Pentecostal theological perspectives with psychology. In M. W. Mittelstadt & G. W. Sutton (Eds.), Forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration: Multidisciplinary studies from a Pentecostal perspective (pp. 125–144). Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.
Sutton, G. W. & Mittelstadt, M. W. (2012). Loving God and loving others: Learning about love from psychological science and Pentecostal perspectives. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 31, 157-166.
Sutton, G. W., McLeland, K. C., Weaks, K. L., Cogswell, P. E., & Miphouvieng, R. N. (2007). Does gender matter? Relationship of gender, spousal support, spirituality, and dispositional forgiveness to pastoral restoration. Pastoral Psychology, 55, 643–663.
Tjeltveit, A. C. (2006a). Psychology returns to love…of God and neighbor-as-self: Introduction to the special issue. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 34, 3–7.
Tjeltveit, A. C. (2006b). Psychology’s love-hate relationship with love: Critiques, affirmations, and Christian responses. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 34, 8–22.
Walum, H., Westberg, L., Henningsson, S., Neiderhiser, J. M., Reiss, D., Igl, W., & Lichtenstein, P. (2008). Genetic variation in the vasopressin receptor 1a gene (AVPR1A) associates with pair-bonding behavior in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 11, 14153–14156. Retrieved from doi/10.1073/pnas. 0803081105.
Worthington, E. L. (2006). Forgiveness and reconciliation: Theory and application. New York,
NY: Routledge.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why? Thoughts on human nature.

Why do people do what they do?

Why do some recover from loss whilst others are devastated?

Why do some turn to God and others turn away from God when bad things happen?

Why did she say that? 

What were you thinking? 

People want answers. 

2007 Greensburg KS tornado destroyed my brother-in-law's house

And that desire for answers to why questions has fueled incredible progress for both the well-being and destruction of humanity and our planet.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl illustrates the human quest for answers. I suspect that search is why psychology is such a hot college major. And why I love psychological science. This post is an introduction to thinking broadly about human nature. It would be nice to have one answer to each why question. But people are complex. Some short and simple answers might satisfy as answers to simple questions. But if you take a careful look, simple answers might not lead to any useful conclusions.

Why questions guide our search for causes.

 In psychological science as in other sciences, causes can be elusive. Sometimes we feel fortunate to explain 40% of why people are kind, loving, or violent. Of course we would like to explain 100% of behavior. But there are so many factors at work. Even the behavior of young children is hard to explain. I can expect my granddaughter to smile and look with anticipation if I say the word, “ice cream.” Politicians learn what words and phrases resonate (i.e., yield favorable survey responses) with various audiences. We all have a sense of some simple events or actions that appear to cause changes in human behavior. But sometimes a constellation of factors must be weighed to explain why

  • Some people graduate from high school or college and some do not
  • Some people are generous and others are not
  • Some people seek peace whilst others seek to kill.

People are complex beings. Complex behavior patterns require an understanding of many factors.

I have summarized the common ways psychologists think about functioning in a six factor model I refer to the six part model as SCOPES. Students and peers have found this model helpful. See what you think. In this post, I present a description of the six dimensions. You can see examples of published applications to forgiveness and related topics with my colleague Eloise Thomas (2005) and in an explanation of love with another colleague, Marty Mittelstadt (2010). I hope to apply the model to other topics in future posts. I am drawing on the work of Aaron Beck and Arnold Lazarus (especially the idea of multimodal therapy).

The primary contribution of this SCOPES model is the integration of spirituality with other aspects of functioning. My second contribution is the addition of social functioning—a reminder from social psychology that people behave differently in different settings. The people and events around us influence our thoughts, feelings, behavior, spirituality—and even our health. Most behavioral scientists refer to a common triad of cognition (thought), affect (feeling or emotion) and behavior when describing human functioning or counseling strategies. Psychology students learn about the biological basis for human behavior. Students also take courses in social psychology and learn about personality patterns and the influence of others on behavior. Some students study the psychology of religion and consider spiritual and religious aspects of humanity.

So, at the heart of the model are the four familiar dimensions that define how we respond to life events or COPE (Cognition, Observable behavior, Physiology, Emotion). I add two S dimensions for the Spiritual core of our being and the Social context in which we live.

Let me suggest using a smart phone, tablet, or other recent computer example—one that has apps.  In the picture I present a generic phone with customizable apps. Most of our responses originate in our brains. Human brains respond to stimuli when various brain systems are activated. We seem to have default settings and a capacity to run one or more applications at the same time. Let’s take a look at some basic apps.

S          Spirituality

We can think of Spirituality as our operating system. You can imagine getting your spiritual downloads from the cloud and staying in sync with God or your concept of the divine. An overwhelming majority of humans have some form of religion or spirituality. Spirituality is partly prewired (e.g., we search for meaning and that which is greater than ourselves) but spirituality is customizable. 

Like people using different brand of mobile phones, most of us are members of different spiritual networks—Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and so forth— with many smaller tribes.

Spirituality can of course be expressed in many customizable apps for such things as praying, singing, dancing, meditating, and religiously motivated compassion. Spiritual traditions offer hope and encouragement, advice on daily living, and a path to a fulfilled life. People derive meaning from their faith and turn to God or spiritual guides for help in coping with the vicissitudes of life. Many of the world’s religions have been around for millennia and include ancient proverbs, songs, and stories that inspire the faithful. When we fail to consider a person’s spirituality, we fail to consider an enormous dimension of human nature for most people.

C         Cognitive functioning- Thinking

I’m thinking broadly about cognition—thoughts, dreams, mental images, memories. The biological basis for thinking is prewired. There are structures and processes of perception, attention, and memory. But we also have software – thinking patterns -- that helps us use our stored memories to solve problems. As Daniel Kahneman explains, we tend to avoid effortful thinking. And most of the time we can. Life does not always present difficult challenges. But we find it difficult—unnatural I would say—to stop and ponder alternative ways to solve complex problems.

Nowadays thoughtful people offer competing alternative plans to end the daily killing by warring factions in various countries. The solution to gun-related killing elicits competing thoughts in the USA. People offer competing ideas about abortion, contraception, marriage and other ethical and social concerns. Economists offer different ways to address financial stability, economic growth, and unemployment. Many ideas reflect deep thinking.

We store other cognitions, which we call beliefs. Beliefs seem to influence some aspects of behavior. But probably less than we think. Often our beliefs follow rather than cause our actions as if we find ways to explain our behavior to ourselves. Most people think beliefs come first and try to get people to think differently. Cognition includes language and the huge role that plays in human relationships, including the capacity to encourage or insult, apologize, request forgiveness, hope, and love.

P          Physiological functioning- biology

We can think of the phone’s hardware as our physiological or biological systems. We come in different colors with customizable aspects to our designs. We have a default mode that lets us operate even when we are not fully aware of what is going on (nervous system). We have different capacities for memory and processing information. Most of us have a dual core. One devoted to the automatic processing of life and the second to rational and logical thought that is not routinely engaged but helps us solve difficult problems. (SeeKahneman’s Thinking: Fast and Slow for one of the best explanations I have found on understanding the fast processing of stimuli linked to thoughts, feelings, and behavior).

O         Observable Behavior

We have apps for behavior as well. Behavior patterns are linked to beliefs and emotions and physiological functioning along with our spirituality. A common way to view broad patterns of human behavior is the Five Factor Model. The five factors reflect an OCEAN of complex patterns.

O  Openness—a pattern of how open people are to new experiences, change, and broad versus more narrow interests. High openness is linked curiosity and creativity.

C  Conscientiousness—a pattern of impulse control, personal organization, self-discipline, and goal-directed behavior

E  Extroversion-- a pattern of social interaction, talkativeness, and interaction with others.

A  Agreeableness—a capacity to get along with others, which includes trust, kindness, and affection, and compassion.

N  Neuroticism—a degree of emotional stability, which includes anxiety, moodiness, and irritability.

A few of the leading scientists include Lewis Goldberg, Paul T. Costa and Robert R. McCrae (references below).

E         Emotion

We have apps for emotions. We readily experience disgust, anger, happiness, sadness, and anxiety or fear. We can add words and refinements to basic emotional modules but the emotional modules are tied to cognition and behavior when activated. Some have more primary modes of feeling than others so some are quick to anger or quick to feel fearful and anxious. Some people appear to have highly regulated emotional states at a calm, low frequency level. Others feel emotions deeply and express a wide range of emotion. We enjoy being around those who exude positive emotions—up to a point. We tend to avoid those who present an excess of negative emotions or who fluctuate in ways that seem extreme compared to our comfort zone.

S          Social functioning

People behave differently in different settings. We have apps for social functioning in space and time contexts. Just think of all the ways we can connect with people using social media. So we talk with others and send texts and pictures and videos. We are highly social people. We behave differently in school and work settings. Spiritual leaders have often commented on the differences they see in people in religious settings compared to behavior elsewhere.  In the Christian tradition, I often see people dress differently and monitor their choice or words and jokes in church. We behave differently around family and friends than we do around co-workers or strangers.

People behave differently at different times of the day, on different days in a week, and during different stages of life. The impulsivity of a two-year old can be winsome and entertaining, destructive in a 22-year old driver, and deplorable in a 42 year old executive. On the micro level, we may respond differently early in the morning compared to midday or late at night. Time and space (social setting) influence the other five dimensions—SCOPE —of human behavior.

The answers to behavior are rarely found in tweets, blurbs, and sound-bites.

We need complex answers to complex behaviors.

We can begin our search for answers to why people do what they do using six questions covering the SCOPES dimensions:

  1. What did her religious or spiritual beliefs and experiences contribute to her behavior?
  2. How did his thoughts, memories, and problem-solving ability influence his behavior?
  3. Given the patterns of behavior we have observed, how might these predict future behavior?
  4. What health conditions and drugs (prescribed or other) influence his behavior?
  5. How do her feelings affect her thinking and behavior?
  6. How do the people and other factors in his environment influence his behavior?

Think complex thoughts. Think SCOPES.

Beck, A. T. (1979). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. New York: Meridian.

Beck, J., & Beck, A. T. (1995). Cognitive therapy. New York: Guilford.

Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man's search for meaning: Newly revised and enlarged (3rd ed.) New York: Simon & Schuster.
Goldberg, L. R. (1981) Language and individual differences: The search for universals in personality lexicons. In L. Wheeler (Ed.), Review of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 2. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux.
Lazarus, A. A. (1989). The practice of multimodal therapy. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.
McCrae, R.R., & Costa, P.T. (1987) Validation of the five-factor model of personality across instruments and observers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 81-90.
McCrae, R.R., & Costa, P.T. (1997) Personality trait structure as a human universal. American Psychologist, 52, 509-516.
Sutton, G. W. & Mittelstadt, M. W. (2012). Loving God and loving others: Learning about love from psychological science and Pentecostal perspectives. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 31, 157-166.

Sutton, G. W., & Thomas, E. K. (2005). Restoring Christian leaders: How conceptualizations of forgiveness and restoration can influence practice and research. American Journal of Pastoral Counseling, 8, 29–44.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

On Sunk Costs and Investments in Religious Doctrine

Christian Cup Results: Are you keeping score? 

When it come to an all-inclusive spirituality, many faith traditions continue to grant special status to men of select ethnic backgrounds associated with the tradition. In Christianity, Jesus was oft depicted as a European man. But changes are on the way.

It is not surprising that the leader of the Roman Catholics created a lot of buzz with his seemingly gay-friendly statement reported worldwide on 29 July, 2013. After all, he is the leader of the largest group of  Christians in the world and the position of the Catholic Church on matters of same-sex marriage is well known.
What makes the comment so noteworthy is that Pope Francis did not just speak about Catholics who are homosexuals. He referred to priests. Also see Ross Douthat at the NY Times for another thoughtful essay.

But, what about women?

The Pope commented on a greater role for women and the need for a better theology. So is the door closed forever? On 30 July, 2013 David Greene of interviewed Rev. Thomas Reese of the National Catholic Reporter. Responding to the Pope’s comments about women, Reese said,
 “Well, the most extraordinary part of that statement was that he confessed that he didn't think we had a very good theology of women in the church. I mean when was the last time you heard a pope say that we didn't have a good theology?

What’s new?

     Perhaps an attitude?

So, here’s a quote from a different Pope—a few years ago.
 Pope Benedict XVI expressed a stronger statement in 2005. The context affirms persons with “Deep-seated homosexual tendencies…”as persons worthy of “respect and sensitivity.” But there is a rule: “…the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practise homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called "gay culture"
Change and Faith

How do mere humans change centuries or millennia of teaching considered to be the Word of God or at least what leaders of large religious bodies report they heard from God? Conservatives wouldn’t be conservative if they didn’t conserve old ways. Even so called liberal traditions within protestant denominations have been slow at embracing women as leaders or changing their views on other social-religious issues.

Change happens of course. Saul “saw the light” and stopped killing Christians (Acts 9). Peter saw a vision (big sheet story) and changed his attitude toward non-Jewish Christians (Acts 10). Early Christians gave up old rules about animal sacrifice, the Sabbath, circumcision, and more. Teachers and spiritual leaders pray, read ancient texts, and report their revelations. Nowadays people hold conferences, discuss new ideas about old texts, and find ways to revise old doctrines in the light of new findings, new understandings, new wineskins. I suspect the rules will be different in 500 years.

What might explain the resistance to change?
I shall leave aside that aspect of experience reported by those spiritual leaders who report their visions and revelations for I am not in a position to make a judgment about the validity of those revelations. But from a psychological perspective, much of entrenched behavior can be viewed from the perspective of the principle of sunk costs. The term "sunk costs" often appears in an economic context but it has a wider application in social psychology. When people invest heavily in a business or relationship that is failing, they are more likely to continue investing rather than cut their losses and move on. Businesses end in bankruptcy and marriages end in divorce. Governments continue to fund wars and send young people to fight even when the odds of success seem overwhelming.

Many of the well-known religions of the world have been around for centuries or millennia. Living in the West, I am more familiar with some versions of Christianity, which of course has been around for 2,000 years. Relevant to the discussion, the prohibition against women as leaders is even older since Christians trace their heritage to Judaism. Christian leaders have defined appropriate roles for women and men for millennia. And in western cultures, older citizens were committed to Christian congregations. They trusted their leaders and the truths they taught.

What’s at stake (excuse the pun)? A lot... to name a few: Competence, commitment, and an entire way of life.

Conservative Christians believe the Bible is without error, truths are absolute, and violations of God’s plan result in dire consequences. The competence of those people who originally formed the doctrines about women as derived from the text is at stake along with the competence of hundreds or thousands of faithful leaders who were committed to those truths for centuries. Ways of worship and marriage were guided by doctrines about men and women. It doesn’t cost much to nibble around the edges-- add some love and respect. But to give up a doctrine and confess that “we were wrong” -- that takes a miracle or the social equivalent of bankruptcy and divorce. Reputations are expensive and heavily defended. The cost of change is high.

Progressive Protestants have used reason and research to examine old texts and find new ways to respect old rituals as symbolic rather than mandatory. Or they view old phrases as metaphors rather than literal teachings.  In any event, many have found a path to exit the investment in beliefs limiting the role of women and stand to reap the social rewards of their new investment in egalitarianism. The mainline churches who were open to changing traditional beliefs about women were also losing members to conservatives so, what’s to lose if a few more members leave? The costs of change are lower for progressive Christians.

I think the case of sexual minorities is different from the case of women. Sure the famous biblical texts about the sinfulness of homosexuality have been around for millennia. But the idea that people of the same sex could openly live in committed relationships as loving couples-- that’s new. There is no long history condemning gay marriage. There’s no tradition condemning people for loving each other in a committed relationship. There’s no long-term church tradition assigning religious, social, and family roles to sexual minorities. It was as if sexual minorities did not exist. It is only in recent years that people who identify as part of a sexual minority became known to the rest of society. They found some support and a lot of hostility. Religious groups did establish position papers and began to preach or teach about homosexuality while simultaneously trying to show that they were loving and respectful to all people. Some groups clearly have invested time and money in support of laws limiting the rights of sexual minorities but these efforts are recent—not the result of centuries of teaching. And now there are financial and reputational costs associated with fighting the social trends. Note that I am not saying the church has changed its beliefs about homosexuality. It’s just that the idea of same-sex relationships and marriages wasn’t a long-standing issue. 

But young people, those who have not sunk their lives into a rigid position against women’s roles or against sexual minorities—have no loss of reputation to incur. They can be committed to one of many local progressive faith groups that no longer find the need to limit what women or sexual minorities do in church. And the data show religious conservatives are much less common in each age group of the population.

So I offer the hypothesis of sunk costs as a psychological explanation for why change might be difficult for leaders of religious organizations who are tightly connected to long traditions of faith. In the case of women, Progressive Protestants had already found a way to move on from literal interpretations of biblical texts. They could have their texts and embrace women as well.

In the case of attitudes toward same-sex relationships and acceptance of sexual minorities, Progressive Protestants could use the same path as they used to move away from the literal meaning of biblical texts for the role of women. But it may have been easier because the concept of people living in loving same-sex relationships is relatively new. There has been limited time to build up centuries of investment of time and public proclamations condemning these new marriages and relationships. The principle of sunk costs may explain why the recent changes in favor of rights for sexual minorities appear to have occurred at a quicker pace than was true for the rights of women. But only for Progressive Christians.

The cost of change for conservative Christian groups remains high-- not just because of the investment in teachings about women and sexuality but also because of their commitment to a way of interpreting scripture.

There may be another aspect to understanding sunk costs. Most people are heterosexual. They have little to lose when some prefer to be with their own sex. The personal costs are not the same when a small percentage of humanity want equality compared to the case of women where half of humanity wants to be treated as equals. Thus the principle of sunk costs may explain the rapidity of change on a social level, especially for those not committed to conservative groups.

So, I am still thinking about this principle and invite comments.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York: HarperCollins.

Monday, August 5, 2013


Millennials are this and that and want this and that.

And they are so different from generation xyz.

I was 19 when Neil Postman delivered a talk about BS and the art of Crap-Detection to the National Convention for the Teachers of English (NCTE). Postman credited Ernest Hemingway for that wonderful concept, the crap detector.

So why am I writing about crap? 

Well, I have seen several online comments referencing posts by Rachel Held Evans  in the last couple of weeks (July 27, August 2). She writes about culture and religion from the perspective of a progressive millennial. No wonder she got push-back from conservative Christians (e.g., Trevin Wax). And support from Progressive Christians (e.g., Christopher Smith). She appears quite popular. After all, who doesn't care about religion, faith, justice, morality, sexual orientation, and other life-affecting topics?

I like that Rachel refers to research and included links to respected firms. On her own blog site she added additional sources. I also like that in her CNN blog Rachel referred to perception. I think it unfortunate that so many responded as if they did not notice her reference to research or perception. Perhaps the references were too subtle? Or not understood? Or ignored in favor of personal biases?

BS Meters. There’s another wonderful two letters in her post, BS. Rachel asserts that “millennials have highly sensitive BS meters.” Really?

Old Crap & New Crap. 
This is where I go back to Postman’s professorial provocation. The year was 1969. Do you remember watching the battle for civil rights on TV? Do you remember Kent State? Do you remember the BS coming out of Washington about Vietnam? Do you remember Watergate? I remember. But the problems are not unique to the USA. It’s human nature to crap all over everything.

 A lot of us learned PDQ that you can’t trust a lot of elected leaders or persons promoted to positions of authority to act in moral ways. And since then we’ve seen the foul side of human nature… Seen enough at least to tune-up our filtration systems. Oh, did I forget to mention the church? Have you ever heard of a church scandal? Omg!

 Sadly, it’s also human nature to respond quickly to available stimuli. Click like. Add a comment here and there. And move on. Fast thinking as Daniel Kahneman calls it. I do it too. Most of the time a quick response works. But not always.

Sometimes people might be swayed to believe something is true if a lot of people provide arguments that resonate with their own beliefs.Some arguments push us to a polar opposite position. Then we strongly  identify with our in-group and find strength to fight the demonic other. Sometimes we need to wash our filters. Reset our BS meters. Download the latest code. We need to examine the evidence. We need to detect truth.


Do you think like a Millennial? Take the Pew Survey and find out. Then come back for more.

Research groups have been tracking the beliefs and attitudes of millennials using telephone surveys. I think we can learn some things from a study of the data. But the devil is in the details.

So, do you think like a Millennial? How did you score? Post a comment.

What is a millennial? 
Age 18-29. Here’s the link to the report. At the bottom of the page you will also find a full report in pdf format.

What are the three difficulties in dealing with age-group differences cited by Pew Research (see the preface in their report on the survey page)?  I’ll share a list of survey difficulties further down this page.

How do Pew and Barna differ when defining their constructs of Evangelical or Progressive Christian? 
Barna has a list of features they use to identify an evangelical Christian. But different researchers use different criteria so using the word Evangelical or Progressive does not tell us much unless the researchers tells us how they defined the term in the survey. Add definitions to your BS Meter.

Why do survey researchers assume people give an honest opinion? And why do millennials and all consumers of survey news fail to demonstrate an active crap detector when using survey data as a basis for commenting on part of the culture? 
Have you ever known someone who presents themselves in a favorable way? Have you ever heard a friend talk about themselves and thought to yourself “that’s BS?”
  Add response bias to your BS Meter. 

[ps It works the negative way too. How much incentive is there for a person to be well when suing for millions? I’ve heard Christians joke about not praying for some folks to get well because the sick person does not want to lose tons of sympathy or insurance-based income. Hopefully that’s too cynical. Maybe their BS Meter is set too high?]

Why do survey researchers and writers categorize people as millennials or whatever? 
Good question. Humans seem to form categories based on perceived differences and then write about those differences as if they really existed. When you read what they write… “Millennials are…” It is as if the writers and the readers often fail to notice that the self-reported opinions:

  • Do not necessarily represent the opinions of all persons of that age group.
  • Do not always appear significantly different from those in other age groups.
  • Do not necessarily correspond to behavior.
  • Do not mean they won’t change in a short amount of time.
  • Do not mean they won’t change in response to a life event or an historical event.

So, add the above list of questions to your BS Meter.

What do we know about those who refuse to take a survey? 
     ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!  But they might be different folks. Right?
     Add the question, "How many refused to take the survey?" to your BS Meter.

Do surveys contain errors?
Yes. Researchers estimate the error rates but never know for sure. Many reporters omit error rates. Sometimes the percentages are too close to assume a real difference exists. Ignore results  that fail to report error rates. Add an error factor to your BS Meters.

What is the relationship between what people say and what people do?
Have you ever known someone to say one thing and do another? It’s so common that psychological scientists observe behavior and often obtain biological measures to overcome the problem of self-report so they can really understand human nature. Don’t get me wrong, Surveys have a place. More on this later. Are you drawing conclusions about what people are actually doing based on a survey—NO WAY should you believe that. Add the verbal report-behavior gap to your BS Meters
     Oh p.s. check out a famous religious person who noticed this difficulty Romans 7:15.

What about questions asking people why?
Have you ever wondered the real reason somebody did what they did? Why did they say such a harmful thing? Why did they work in the soup kitchen? Did you ever question motives? Did you ever think something was just for show? Just a photo op? Isn’t it a good idea to ask people why they don’t go to church? Maybe. Maybe not. People give many reasons for what they do. It doesn’t mean the reported reasons explain their behavior. Just pick up a Social Psychology textbook and enjoy a raft of studies illustrating how unaware people are about what influences their behavior. Add unawareness to your BS Meter.

Can we learn anything from surveys?
Sure, the carefully designed surveys administered to representative samples by large research firms can be helpful to:

  • Track opinions that might be linked to behavior
  • Form hypotheses about possible cause-effect relationships
  • Design experiments that will better establish cause-effect relationships
  • Design drafts of policies that might make a positive difference
  • Add to other research that helps predict actual behavior.


Nate Silver has become famous for his sophisticated data analysis in predicting the election of President Obama in 2012. It wasn’t a close call. He got it right. Many survey firms did not. How sophisticated are the analysts you read? In the 4 August 2013 post we learn about Silver’s methodology related to a recent study. Pretty sophisticated stuff. We also find a link to his glossary. Silver is a data rock star. 

People love a story.
Analysts love data.
     As one wag said,
 “In God we trust. All others bring data.”

Additional Sources
See the chapter on Crap Detecting in Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner.
Postman’s speech to NCTE is a common find on the web. Here’s one link that may or may not persist.
Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow is a must read for any thinker.

Thursday, August 1, 2013


Healthy Marriages
Reconstructing Marriage Part 3

Ellen sat alone on one side of the two-seater. Head bowed. Tear streaked cheeks. Black and blue circled left eye. Words come slowly, choked by sobs. “It just escalated...again.” I listened. Again.

Like other psychologists and counselors, I offered couple counseling for years. At our best, we draw on the latest research. We attend workshops to hone our skills. And share ideas in an effort to help couples repair their relationships. But some marriages seem doomed to fail. Maybe even should end.

Previously, I posted about the decline of marriage and how people can act to make a difference in society. Now I look at what couples can do to strengthen their marriage.

Fortunately, the work of John Gottman and his colleagues along with other scientists in other labs have made significant discoveries that can help married couples reconstruct their marriages. In this post I review seven principles of healthy relationships and point you to Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, as a resource rich with exercises and activities to strengthen marriages. It is true that the GottmanInstitute offers workshops, programs and materials in slick packages but you can find research papers documenting the science behind the principles. And that is why I recommend these principles.

Gottman and his research team have studied couples in an apartment dubbed the “love lab.” Through careful observation, physiological measurement, and questionnaires, they have identified factors leading to > 90% accuracy rate in predicting the survival of a marriage using just a five minute sample of behavior. 


4 + 1 = 90+%

Four negative factors allow for an 82% accuracy of predicting a failed marriage. 

1. Criticism – broad negative statements

2. Contempt-- words and actions that show disgust—name calling,
sarcasm, hostile humor, eye-rolling, sneering.

3. Defensiveness-- blaming your spouse

4. Stonewalling—avoiding conflict by going silent, looking away,
or leaving

Plus 1: Even worse-- when he observes that efforts to overcome the four problems fail, his accuracy rate rises to over 90 percent. This is the failure of repair attempts.

Now the good news.

Couples can learn to apply seven principles, which are the ingredients of successful marriages.


1. Enhance your love maps. Learn the details of your spouse’s life. Know the thoughts, feelings, worries, and hopes.

2. Nurture your fondness and admiration. Demonstrate that your spouse is worthy of being respected.
“I’ve found 94 percent of the time that couples who put a positive spin on their marriage’s history are likely to have a happy future as well.” (Chapter 4)

3. Turn toward each other instead of away. Learn to recognize “bids” for attention, affection, humor, and support

4. Let your partner influence you. Although it is not true of all wives and husbands, wives tend to let husbands influence them but many husbands have not learned this important skill.

5. Solve your solvable problems.  Learn five strategies for solving everyday relationship problems: Use a soft rather than a harsh start; learn effective repair attempts; monitor physiological warning signs; learn to compromise; increase tolerance of imperfections. You do not always have to solve every issue.

6. Overcome gridlock.  Recognize those hidden dreams and aspirations each spouse has that can lead to gridlock. Learn to discuss them in a way that removes the pain from issues that may never be completely resolved. Spouses can be seriously divided over children, religion, and returning to college or moving to a distant location.

7. Create shared meaning.  Just living happily maybe enough for many couples. Many couples enjoy raising children and caring for grandchildren. Some seek a deep, spiritual dimension to their relationship. A couple can create a microculture rich in stories and rituals.

Add Forgiveness & Reconciliation

Gottman offers a wealth of information about marriage. He also talks about repair strategies. One two-part strategy that draws on the extensive research of Ev Worthington is forgiveness and reconciliation. 

Forgiveness: 4 Steps
I wrote about forgiveness in an 18 June post. You will find exercises to work through forgiveness and reconciliation in Worthington's 2006 book,  Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Theory and Application. If you are looking for a Christian approach, see Worthington's book, Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope.

Those forgiveness steps mentioned in June were ABCD...
  • A  Assess the harm.  
  • B Develop the Belief that you can forgive. 
  • C Commit to forgive. 
  • D  Do something to remember -- you forgave that hurt.  

Reconciliation: 4 Steps
In the June post about forgiveness I made the point that forgiveness is separate from reconciliation. This is important. Even if a relationship fails, people still need to forgive as part of getting on with their lives. But in the context of marriage repair, both spouses need to forgive each other and take steps toward reconciliation. I will list a four step strategy for reconciliation. As noted above, if you want some exercises to promote reconciliation, see Worthington's books mentioned under the forgiveness paragraph.

1. Assess safety first.

The first task, based on the concern for abuse, is to assess the safety of the parties involved. Once safety has been assured, the next step is to establish a willingness of the parties to reconcile. Forced reconciliation is not warranted.

2 and 3. Trust and test. In this phase, people attempt to work together on small tasks or projects. Perhaps two people can agree to help with an event involving no more than an hour of close contact. A couple who has separated may agree on eating a meal together or attending a child’s school event together. Small steps offer the opportunity to build trust, which is the key to a successful reconciliation. Engaging in the activity is a test of trust. So trust and test work hand in hand to increase a positive relationship.

4. Undoing the harm. At some point in the reconciliation process, consideration should be given to undoing the harm that has been done. This step requires wisdom and experience so a counselor or therapist may be helpful to ensure that the early discussions are productive. Undoing the harm usually involves one or more apologies and expressed forgiveness.

There are other approaches to forgiveness and reconciliation. Some authors use a different number of steps. The good news is that people can learn to forgive and reconcile. Relationships can be repaired. And all the lessons from Gottman and his colleagues can help couples reconstruct their marriages. See also my posts about effective apologies.

I think it easy to integrate psychology and religion when it comes to improving relationships-- especially marriages, which require love and trust to be healthy. And of course forgiveness is a big part of many faith traditions including the one most familiar to me, Christianity.

Technical note. When I use examples they do not represent actual persons but are rather composites in order to protect confidentiality.


Gottman, J. M. & Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Smedes, Lewis B. Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.

Sutton, Geoffrey W.  (2010). The Psychology of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration: Integrating Traditional and Pentecostal Theological Perspectives with Psychology. In Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration edited by Martin Mittelstadt & Geoffrey W. Sutton, 125-144. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.

 Worthington, Everett L., Jr. (2003) Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2006). Forgiveness and reconciliation: Theory and application. New York: Brunner-Routledge.