Monday, February 24, 2014

When children die

Precious lives 


A woman cradles a baby and breathes life into his mouth. On Wednesday 19 February, 2014 Miami traffic halted on a busy highway. Pamela Rauseo held her 5-month old nephew and cried for help. He had stopped breathing. She performed CPR as many travelers sprang into action. The baby lives thanks to Pamela’s quick response and all those good neighbors described in the Miami Herald report. news linked the event to a Christian text in their headline: “Good Samaritan performs CPR, saves infant’s life on busy highway.” Others spoke of the miracle. Religious language comes easy in American culture—especially when an infant is saved from the clutches of death.
Also on Wednesday, a Pennsylvania couple faced prison because they did not seek medical care for their 8-month old son. They come from a Pentecostal heritage. USA Today quotes their beliefs:
We believe in divine healing, that Jesus shed blood for our healing and that he died on the cross to break the devil's power," Herbert Schaible said in a 2013 police statement. Medicine, he said, "is against our religious beliefs."
Hailey Owens was found dead on Wednesday. The 10-year old girl had been abducted the day before by a school employee. The community near where I live, Springfield, Missouri, was on edge—praying- hoping she would be found. But on Wednesday the horrible end to this young life hit so many so hard. Local and national news carried the tragic finding. Hailey was shot in the head. Her loss is recognized in many ways. People have raised funds for the family. Many display candles and lights. Others wear her favorite colors.
Another story carries the news that Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas will picket Hailey’s funeral. According to KMBC news, “The Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church protests at funerals around the country, contending that U.S. soldiers and others are being struck down by God for defending a nation that tolerates homosexuality.”

As I looked at the opinions on the page of our local newspaper, I found a lengthy commentary by a local Baptist Pastor, Kevin Carson, who affirms the distress, praises the community response, and offers a Christian perspective on things. A Pentecostal clergyman, Steve Smallwood, posted a call for mourning and repentance on his Facebook page. He focused on Hailey and her family and their pain. And he challenged people to address personal and community sin.
This weekend I looked upon my eldest granddaughter in a different way. She’s only two years old. Several times she exclaimed, “This is fun!” She literally jumps for joy and often displays a broad smile when playing. How incredibly sad to think of those families robbed of the blessing of raising a child! As my wife read a children’s story at bedtime, I couldn't help thinking of the good feeling that comes with seeing a happy young child and a happy grandmother together. Each life enriches the other. When people share a moment, they share meaning.


Children are highly valued in many cultures. People all over the world pay attention when children suffer. The life of one child is worth stopping for. And the death of one child demands our attention. When people kill children or allow children to die, compassionate people are outraged. Caring people rise up to help the families. Righteous people rise up to demand justice and avenge the death.

Death stimulates life in many ways. Extending the ideas of Ernest Becker, psychological scientists developed Terror Management Theory. Faced with thoughts of death, people respond. We turn from death to find meaning in symbols and actions. The theory developed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski in 1986 has been studied in many ways in the past three decades. When people just write about death or think of death people respond in predictable ways to cope with the anxiety.

Seven Ways People Respond to Death

1. People defend their religious or other values more strongly. The pastors quoted in the stories above illustrate the point about strong beliefs, which many will likely find helpful. Also illustrating a strengthening of beliefs is the announcement reported 21 February 2014 by USA Today that the 21-year old son of deceased Pentecostal snaking-handling pastor Jamie Coots will carry on his father’s ministry. In honor of his father’s beliefs, Cody Coots will continue to handle snakes. Under threat or perceived threat, religious values will generally increase.

2. People increase their aggressive stance toward the immoral. People cry out for justice. Murderers should be put to death. And this cry is evident in Springfield, Missouri. Under threat, people want to stand against all immorality. And some become self-righteous.

3. People become more interested in close relationships. We hug relatives and friends—even strangers during tough times. We gather in support of people who suffer near death experiences and those who mourn. News reporters are touched and focused on their own children when covering a tragic story. And now we see gatherings mediated by social networking sights showing virtual solidarity.

4. People want to have more children. In the introduction to their three experiments, Immo Fritsche and colleagues (2007, p. 753) wrote:
Death and birth are the fundamental boundaries of individual existence. It can be deeply distressing to face the inevitability of one’s own death. However, at the same time, it is wonderful and reassuring that by giving birth and raising children, life can be created out of nothing. Although humans are not able to determine the length of their own lives, they have the power to create new life by raising offspring.
5. People seek structure and organization. We want the timeline of events. We want to know the details of a tragedy as if knowing would help us understand. We seem to feel that knowledge will help us feel we are in control—but we are often not in control. Yet, when faced with death or near death situations, we can expect investigations and calls for tighter controls on background checks and stronger policies thought to protect innocent lives.

6. People become more religious –especially about life after death. Church attendance went up sharply in the U.S. following 9/11 but then declined within a few months. People pray, quote scripture, and seek counsel from religious leaders. We can expect a temporary rise in religiosity or spirituality in response to life threatening events.

7. People give more when faced with death or even thoughts of death. Funds are established for those who suffer loss. People give generously of their time and talents when faced with death.

A Note
Terror Management Theory has been studied in more than 300 investigations carried out in more than a dozen countries. Death is a powerful force for life. Terror Management Theory (TMT) explains much about how many if not most people respond to actual death and perceived life threatening events. The theory also helps leaders predict behavior, which can allow knowledgeable people to prepare. TMT does not explain or "explain away" the validity of a spiritual experience

Helping Kids Cope With Tragedy

Since 9/11 psychologists have worked to find ways that help children understand tragedies and develop coping strategies. Here’s a link to some ideas from the American Psychological Association.
A link to resources for children exposed to traumatic events- American Psychological Association.
A link to government resources for parents and teachers SAMHSA.

References and a reading list—especially related to psychology and religion

Beck, R. (2008). Feeling queasy about the Incarnation: Terror management theory, death, and the body of Jesus. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 36, 303-313.

Beck, R., McGregor, D., Woodrow, B., Haugen, A., & Killion, K. (2010). Death, art, and The Fall: A terror management view of Christian aesthetic judgments. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 29, 301-307.
Becker, E. The Birth and Death of Meaning. New York: Basic Books, 1971.
Burke, B. L., Martens, A., & Faucher, E. H. (2010). Two decades of terror management theory: A meta-analysis of mortality salience research. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14, 155-195.
Davis, C. G., & McKearney, J. M. (2003). How do people grow from their experience with trauma or loss? Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 22, 477-492.
Florian, V., Mikulincer, M., & Hirschberger, G. (2002). The anxiety-buffering function of close relationships: Evidence that relationship commitment acts as a terror management mechanism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 527-542.  
Friedman, M., & Rholes, W. S. (2008). Religious fundamentalism and terror management. International 
Journal for the Psychology of Religion. 18, 36-52.

Friedman, M., & Rholes, W. S. (2009). Religious fundamentalism and terror management: Differences by 
interdependent and independent self-construal. Self and Identity. 8, 24-44.

Fritsche, I., Jonas, E., Fischer, P., Koranyi, N., Berger, N., & Fleischmann, B. (2007). Mortality salience and the desire for offspring. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 753-762.
Greenberg, J. (2012). Terror management theory: From genesis to revelations. In P. R. Shaver, & M. Mikulincer (Eds.). Meaning, mortality, and choice: The social psychology of existential concerns (pp. 17-35). Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Greenberg, J., T. Pyszczynski, and S. Solomon (1986). The Causes and Consequences of a Need for Self-Esteem: A Terror Management Theory. Public Self and Private Self Ed. R. F. Baumeister. New York: Springer-Verlag.
Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., & Pyszczynski, T. (1997). Terror management theory of self-esteem and cultural worldviews: Empirical assessments and conceptual refinements. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 29, pp. 61–139). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Veeder, M., Kirkland, S., & Lyon, D. (1990). Evidence for terror management theory: II. The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 308–318.
Hirschberger, G., & Pyszczynski, T. (2011).  Killing with a clean conscious: Existential angst and the paradox of morality.  M. Mikulincer & P. Shaver (Eds.), The Social Psychology of Morality: Exploring the Causes of Good and Evil.  American Psychological Association: Washighton, DC.
Jonas, E., Schimel, J., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2003). The Scrooge Effect: Evidence that Mortality Salience Increases Prosocial Attitudes and Behavior." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28, 1342-135
Landau, M. J., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (2004). The motivational underpinnings of religion. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 27, 743-744.
Pyszczynski, T., S. Solomon, and J. Greenberg (2003). In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association.
Rosenblatt, A., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., & Lyon, D. (1989). Evidence for Terror Management Theory I: The Effects of Mortality Salience on Reactions to Those Who Violate or Uphold Cultural Values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57 (1989): 681-690.
Soenke, M., Landau, M. J.  & Greenberg, J.  (2013). Sacred armor: On the anxiety management function of religion and spirituality. In K. Pargament (Ed.) Handbook of Religion and Spirituality. Washington, D.C.: APA Press.
Stoppa, T. M., Wray-Lake, L., Syvertsen, A. K, & Flanagan, C. (2012). Defining a moment in history: Parent communication with adolescents about September 11, 2001. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40, 1691-1704.
Wilson, K. M., & Bernas, R. (2011). A good man is hard to find: Forgiveness, terror management, and religiosity. Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion, 22, 126-140.

Wisman, A., & Goldenberg, J. L. (2005). From the grave to the cradle: Evidence that mortality salience engenders a desire for offspring. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 46-61.

Wisman, A., & Koole, S. (2003). Hiding in the crowd: Can mortality salience promote affiliation with others who oppose one's worldviews? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 511-526.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Does Premarital Counseling Work?




Good news. People still fall in love and want to marry. Couples want their marriages to last. And many are willing to invest in premarital counseling.

Bad news. Marriage rates are at an all-time low and recent divorce rates remain high. And the research on the possible benefits of premarital counseling is not impressive. See post about marriage in 2013.

Breaking news (almost). According to a Fox News story published 21 January 2014, “The Colorado Marriage Education Act would require potential spouses to complete 10 hours of pre-wedding marriage education. Twenty hours would be required for second marriages and 30 hours for third marriages, reported Monday.”

Why Do People Think Premarital Counseling Helps?

1. Engaged couples feel satisfied with the programs they attended. Some even think premarital counseling is fun. But some complain about the negativity when programs discuss pitfalls.

2. One review of some studies found evidence of effectiveness in 2003 (Carroll & Doherty). The authors found effectiveness for short-term gains in interpersonal skills and overall relationship quality. They offered a caution: "However, because of a lack of extended follow-up research, conclusions about long-term effectiveness remain elusive." (page 105).

3. The components of premarital counseling programs are often helpful to know. Most people can benefit from improving their relationship, communication, financial management, and problem-solving skills. Most can benefit from learning more about sexuality. And most can benefit from learning to be sensitive to the needs of other persons.
What Do We Know About 
Effective Premarital Counseling Programs?

1. We do know that relationship quality or satisfaction does not reliably improve (Fawcett & others, 2010).

2. Short-term follow-up studies of married couples find better communication skills for couples who participated in premarital education compared to those who did not (Fawcett & others, 2010).

3. One study of American Protestants found that the quality of premarital counseling predicted perceptions of its helpfulness in the short-term and long-term (Schumm and others, 2010).

But we don't know...
1. We don’t know enough to prescribe which program works with which people.

2. We don’t know how long the positive effects, if any, last for what length of time.

3. We don't know how premarital counseling programs might need to be different for couples in different categories: never married and never lived together; in a cohabiting relationship; had one or more marriage; have children; are members of a sexual minority group (e.g., same-sex, bisexual, transgender).

4. We don't know enough about programs for couples from different ethnic or racial groups.

What are some of the problems with the research?

1. Participants in premarital counseling are a select group.  Couples that agree to participate in premarital counseling are not representative of the U.S. population. Only a subset of participants in premarital counseling has participated in research studies. Most studies have not included couples in distress. Most of the participants in studies are well-educated and middle-class Americans.

2. Premarital counseling programs vary considerably. It is hard to compare programs when they use different techniques with different people for different quantities of time (few hours to more than 10 hours) and in different formats (e.g., weekly sessions, one intensive weekend). And they measure success in different ways.

3. Premarital counseling programs do not report short-term and long-term benefits of their interventions using standardized comparison measures. And even if they did report good results, how would we know that the difference between staying married and getting divorced was due to a few hours of counseling 5-10 years in the past?

4. Premarital counseling interventions that fail are not published. Studies demonstrating the lack of statistically significant effects are not in the published literature. These studies exist and can be found by looking at dissertations. There is a general bias against publishing the results of studies that fail to find significant effects.

What Might Prevent Divorce and Unhappy Relationships?

1. There are personal and couple factors that are linked to divorce.
2. There are personal and couple factors linked to happy relationships. See my previous post on healthy marriages.
3. There are societal factors linked to divorce. These may include support from secular and religious organizations, examples of marriages or similar relationships a person experiences before getting married, and attitudes toward marriage voiced by influential persons.

What are the Possible Downsides
 to Participating in Premarital Counseling?

1. One or both partners may discover problems. And they end a relationship that seemed great before entering counseling. Perceived problems may or may not have resulted in a great marriage. Counselors have their biases and may emphasize what they perceive to be a problem.

2. Counselors and other providers of premarital counseling vary considerably in their education and experience. Licensed providers usually hold a minimum of a Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, Counseling, or Social Work. Some hold a Ph.D. in Counseling or Psychology. Some are clergy with graduate courses in counseling and extensive experience. But some clergy do not have college degrees.

3. One or both partners may be overly optimistic about their marital success. And high optimism is not necessarily productive in relationships. See post about optimism and marriage.

4. Counseling can increase financial stress. The cost of premarital counseling can be very expensive at a time when many couples are low on finances. If premarital counseling were shown be effective then it could be viewed as an investment.

5. Counseling can be harmful. Some therapies are based on scientific evidence and some are not. Lambert (2007) reported that some people do not change in response to psychotherapy. And some people in therapy deteriorate.  Before recommending premarital counseling, effective programs need to be established by longitudinal studies using large representative samples and adequate control groups. And the benefits and risks need to be established and disclosed.

 6. Some therapists produce harmful effects. David Kraus and others (2011) looked at data from 6960 patients treated by 696 therapists.  They found that therapists may be helpful in one area of counseling but actually harmful in another area. As part of their discussion, the authors concluded: “The widespread prevalence of negative treatment effects has significant public health and public policy implications (p. 272).” Although some harm is produced by unethical conduct such as sexual activity between counselors and clients, those occurrences are rare. In addition to the work by Kraus and his colleagues, other researchers have documented harmful effects of therapists. While many people do benefit from therapy, a small but substantial portion do not. You can find a summary of other research in the Kraus article.

So What Should People Do?

What people should do is a matter of opinion. I offer some suggestions but not advice. I am open to other suggestions via the comments to this post.

1. Couples, and those recommending programs to couples, should select a premarital counseling program that can at least provide evidence of helping relationships in the short-term. It is obviously better to choose a program that has at least some evidence that relationships remain improved compared to control groups at least five years after counseling.

2. Establishing mandatory premarital counseling appears premature. But funding long-term controlled studies would be a good idea. Viable candidates are likely those premarital counseling programs that have demonstrated short-term effects.

3. Counselors and organizations that offer premarital counseling should provide experimental evidence that their interventions are successful. All interventions should be similar to programs that at least demonstrate short-term success. All counselors and organizations should include research measures in their programs.

Additional posts related to marriage

Marriage under reconstruction Part 1,  Part 2 and Part 3 (healthy marriages)
Understanding love


Carroll, J. S., & Doherty, W. J. (2003). Evaluating the Effectiveness of Premarital Prevention Programs: A Meta-Analytic Review of Outcome Research. Family Relations, 52, 105-118.

Fawcett, E. B., Hawkins, A. J., Blanchard, V. L., & Carroll, J. S. (2010). Do Premarital Education Programs Really Work? A Meta-analytic Study. Family Relations, 59, 232-239. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2010.00598.x

Kraus, D. R., Castonguay, L., Boswell, J. F., Nordberg, S. S., & Hayes, J. A. (2011). Therapist effectiveness: Implications for accountability and patient care. Psychotherapy Research, 21, 267-276. doi:10.1080/10503307.2011.563249

Schumm, W. R., Walker, A. B., Nazarinia, R., West, D. A., Atwell, C., Bartko, A., & Kriley, A. (2010). Predicting the Short- and Long-Term Helpfulness of Premarital Counseling: The Critical Role of Counseling Quality. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 9, 1-15. doi:10.1080/15332690903473044

Friday, February 7, 2014

Love & Romance 7 Questions




1 “I love you” Who says it first?
 Men do but people think women do. Marissa Harrison and Jennifer Shortall (2011) reported that women and men think women fall in love and say “I Love you” first. But men in relationships reported they were the first to say “I love you.”

2 Do young people view interracial dating similarly?
In the U.S., slavery and laws prohibiting relationships between Black and White Americans provide a negative context for relationships between people who appear different based on skin color. There are of course scientific problems with the definition of race and appropriate terms to use.

A recent look at mixed race dating showed that young people use the terms Black and White to refer to their own group and members of the other group. In his qualitative study, Todd Schoepflin found the most favorable attitudes toward interracial dating were expressed by black men and white women compared to black women and white men at a predominantly white university. The most limited group appeared to be black women. The author reported statistics indicating it was less common for black women to marry white men. 

According to Elwood D. Watson, professor of history at East Tennessee State University, much has changed in the U.S. since the famous Loving case went before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Justices ruled against a Virginia law, which prohibited White-Black marriages. Polling data reveal generally high rates of approval for Black-White marriages in the U.S., which represents a dramatic change from the scant 4% approval by White Americans in 1958 compared to 84% last year. Black Americans report approval of Black-White marriages at 96%.

3 How do people feel about interfaith relationships?
 It’s complicated. Allison Sahl and Christie Batson looked at parental attitudes toward interfaith relationships in the U.S. Bible Belt. Religion seemed to be the most important factor. Those for whom religion was very important were more opposed to interfaith dating and marriage. And white parents were more opposed to mixed faith relationships than were black parents.

A recent news story about the son of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's son in a relationship with a Norwegian woman sparked strong responses from many--including warnings about how grandparents would feel. The BBC reports some statistics for interfaith marriages between Jews and non-Jews. Last month, a U.S. billboard depicting an American soldier hugging a Muslim woman sparked considerable media response and avoidance by some corporate leaders, according to TIME magazine

4 Who is more attractive?
 Your current relationship partner looks better. According to Viren Swami and Lucy Allum, current relationship partners were rated as more attractive compared to oneself and former partners. Former relationship partners were also rated higher than oneself on several bodily characteristics.

5 How does the weather affect a romantic evening?
 In general, really cold temperatures get people thinking about warmth. And psychological warmth is connected to bodily warmth. And romantic movies can be “hot.” In a series of studies, Jiewen Hong and Yacheng Sun examined physical coldness and the desire to watch romantic movies. Two studies showed that being physically cold was linked to liking and being willing to rent a romantic movie. A second study found the link between coldness and liking romantic movies depended on views that romantic movies led to psychological warmth.

6 How does facing death encourage romance?
 Thinking about death has been linked to the importance of relationships—perhaps as a way to help cope with loss. In two experimental studies, Rebecca Smith and Emma Massey had college students complete an exercise that required one group to think about their death whilst another group completed a different activity. Those who faced their death were significantly more romantic than those in the control condition. But the increased romance was for those who also reported feeling insecure in their relationship attachment.

7 How do women and men view a FaceBook Official (FBO) relationship?
 Facebook allows people to declare themselves in a relationship. But do men and women have the same idea about that public status? Here’s what Jesse Fox and Katie Warber found: “women believe more strongly than men that FBO indicates exclusivity and seriousness. Women were also more likely than men to believe that FBO status yielded attention from their social network both online and offline. Participants also identified that there were both interpersonal and social reasons for wanting to go FBO, although men and women did not differ in their reasoning.”

Do you have a related story to share or a correction to offer? Please post a comment. I approve most comments.

Words of caution
For those unfamiliar with the behavioral sciences, it is important to know that the findings from a few studies do not establish a scientific law that will apply to all people in all cultures. The scientists explain the limitations in the discussion sections of their papers. Studies differ in many ways including the people in the sample and how the ideas like love and romance were measured. After a large number of studies have been completed, scientists have a better idea of human behavior patterns within a given culture.

Fox, J., & Warber, K. M. (2013). Romantic Relationship Development in the Age of Facebook: An Exploratory Study of Emerging Adults' Perceptions, Motives, and Behaviors. Cyberpsychology, Behavior & Social Networking, 16, 3-7. doi:10.1089/cyber.2012.0288

Harrison, M. A., & Shortall, J. C. (2011). Women and Men in Love: Who Really Feels It and Says It First?. Journal of Social Psychology, 151, 727-736. doi:10.1080/00224545.2010.522626

Hong, J., & Sun, Y. (2012). Warm it up with love: The effect of physical coldness on liking of romance movies. Journal of Consumer Research, 39, 293-306. doi:10.1086/662613

Sahl, A., & Batson, C. D. (2011). Race and religion in the Bible belt: parental attitudes toward interfaith relationships. Sociological Spectrum, 31, 444-465. doi:10.1080/02732173.2011.574043

Schoepflin, T. (2009). Perspectives of interracial dating at a predominantly white university. Sociological Spectrum, 29, 346-370. doi:10.1080/02732170902761982

Smith, R., & Massey, E. (2012). Aspects of Love: The Effect of Mortality Salience and Attachment Style on Romantic Beliefs. Omega: Journal of Death & Dying, 66, 135-151.

Swami, V., & Allum, L. (2012). Perceptions of the physical attractiveness of the self, current romantic partners, and former partners. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 53, 89-95. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9450.2011.00922.x