Sunday, July 27, 2014

Christian Counseling What to expect

Christian Counseling &Beliefs

I’m on a quest to better understand the concept, Christian Counseling. And I’m interested in the Christian beliefs and practices of counselors and clients. I wonder if there is a significant relationship between counselor and client Christian beliefs and practices, Christian interventions, and treatment outcomes.

The criteria for identifying counseling as Christian are imprecise. A comprehensive conceptual definition is doomed to failure at this point. An operational definition is crucial to comparing findings across research studies that purport to add something of value to an understanding of Christian Counseling. But operational definitions can be too narrow when attempting to be sufficiently inclusive.

I suggest a feature list approach to defining Christian Counseling and Psychotherapy. I approach this conceptualization from the notion of Wittgenstein’s family resemblance. Here’s my current take on Christian Counseling criteria.

The clinician assesses those Christian beliefs and practices of the client that are likely linked to treatment outcomes. This entails an assessment of the client’s Christian beliefs and practices.

The clinician includes spiritual activities (e.g., prayer, Bible reading) linked to building rapport with the client even if those activities are not known to be highly correlated with a treatment outcome.

The clinician selects interventions that are intentionally compatible with the salient Christian beliefs and practices of the client. For example, forgiveness is a Christian virtue. Two empirically supported interventions are compatible with Christian beliefs and practices (Enright, Worthington).

The clinician modifies an empirically validated intervention to accommodate the Christian beliefs or practices of a client. For example, imagery is a component of effective anti-anxiety interventions. Clinicians can assist clients in selecting imagery taken from the Bible.

The clinician demonstrates respect for the client’s understanding of Christian moral values. For example, most Christians groups are officially prolife but individual clients do not necessarily accept an official view of birth control and abortion.

The clinician’s beliefs and practices do not interfere with rapport. For example, there is no prima facie reason why an atheist could not effectively treat a Christian client. A problem of clinician authenticity could be detected by a devout Christian client who expects the clinician to prayerfully invite God’s presence into a counseling session.
Who cares about Christian Counseling and Psychotherapy?

I am not aware of the extent to which specific client and clinician belief-matching affects psychotherapy treatment outcome.

The presence of several organizations involved in Christian counseling and psychotherapy suggests that a lot of people believe beliefs matter. And beyond that, consider the vast quantity of books and videos on mental health topics linked to a Christian worldview. Add to those data the number of Christian Colleges and Universities with programs focused on preparing Christian clinicians.

What do Christians believe?

As a psychologist, I focus on what clients believe and practice rather than the official teaching of a church. The data are clear that within any official church, Christians vary in their personal beliefs. Here are some beliefs that might be relevant to some counseling issues and some clients

74% believe in God. 54% are “absolutely certain” there is a God
72% believe in miracles
68% believe Jesus is God or the Son of God.
68% believe in heaven
68% believe in angels
64% believe in the survival of the soul after death.

58% believe in hell.
58% believe in the devil.
29% believe God controls what happens on Earth.
49% believe all or most of the Old Testament is the Word of God
48% believe all or most of the New Testament is the Word of God

Demographics are linked to beliefs

Age, Gender, Ethnicity, Geographic location, and Political affiliation help identify degree of traditional religiosity. So for example, if you were placing bets that a Christian clinician held a high degree of traditional beliefs, what age, gender, ethnicity and location would improve your odds of being right? Take a look at Table 2b in the Harris poll.
Does it matter?
Do you think it matters if…

A grieving Christian client believes they will see their loved one in heaven after they die?
A Christian chaplain believes her dying patient is going to hell within a month?
A Christian counselor or client believes the Word of God says homosexuality is sin but they experience same-sex attraction.
A Christian counselor or client believes the problem is somehow linked to the devil?
A Christian counselor or client is one of the 74% of Americans who believe in miracles?


My Publications

Sutton, G. W. (2010). The Psychology of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration: Integrating Traditional and Pentecostal Theological Perspectives with Psychology. In M. Mittelstadt & G. W. Sutton (eds). Forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration: Multidisciplinary studies from a Pentecostal perspective. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.

A resource I used and recommend. (I do not earn money for this recommendation.)

Comments and suggestions welcome.

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sex and Language

Sex Differences

Women and Men and the Words They Use

Geoff W. Sutton

It doesn’t take a psychologist to know that women and men use language differently. But how are they different and what do their words tell us about gender? Not long ago I attended a regional conference where social psychologist, James Pennebaker was a featured speaker. I have long been a fan of words so I looked forward to his talk. As slide after slide went by, I wanted more so, I bought the book. The title might sound uninspiring (The Secret Life of Pronouns…) but Pennebaker is a good writer and he has lots to say backed by some pretty creative research.

So who said these words as they introduced their commencement speeches? Can you tell if a woman or a man delivered these inspirational messages?

I thank you for allowing me to be a part of the conclusion of this chapter of your lives and the commencement of your next chapter. To say that I’m honored doesn’t even begin to quantify the depth of gratitude that really accompanies an honorary doctorate from Harvard. … And I can tell you that I consider today as I sat on the stage this morning getting teary for you all and then teary for myself, I consider today a defining milestone in a very long and a blessed journey. My one hope today is that I can be a source of some inspiration. (Click for answer)
To the graduates in particular, I have to tell you, you’re way ahead of me already. I never made it to my commencement, either from college or graduate school. I went to college south of here, in a small town called New Haven, Connecticut. And, well, I celebrated a bit the night before the ceremony. The honest truth is, I slept through much of my commencement. Then, after I had finally made it to Harvard for graduate school, I took a job before I had finished my Ph.D., and wrote the final chapters while working in New York. I couldn’t get away from work for Commencement, and I got my degree in the mail. So, 19 years later, it is a great honor to receive, in person, a Harvard degree. (Click here for answer).

Here’s a few sex differences. I’ll comment on what they might mean following the list.

1. “I”               Women use I more than men.
2. “We”           Men and women use the plural we-words at about the same rate.
3. “A, an, the” Men use these articles more than women.
4. “Happy”      No differences on positive emotion words.
5. “Because”   Women use more words about thinking than do men.
6. “People”      Women use far more words about relationships than do men

Pennebaker and his colleagues use computer software to analyze words from conversations, writing assignments, historical documents, court testimony, and the internet. The previous list of words makes sense when we consider what men and women talk about. Women most frequently talk about relationships and men talk about things like cars and fishing. Yeah I know it’s a stereotype but researchers analyze group data so the findings are going to be typical of a large sample and individuals will be different from the average man or woman.

Now a few points about the specific words

1. “I was feeling a little down yesterday.” I-words and personal pronouns tell others about what we think and feel. It seems that women are more self-aware than men. The differences between men and women are not small. You can probably notice the difference without a fancy computer program.

2. “We had a great time…” In conversation, people use we words to share experiences. Researchers find the use of we increases warm feelings and a sense of being connected.

3. Articles are used with concrete nouns like “the game,” “the boat,” “a great play.” Men focus a lot on talking about specific objects.

4. “Why did she do that? Perhaps she was feeling…” As women exchange communication about relationships, they assess how people think and feel and what the causes might be. These words reflecting cognitive activity are usually linked to analyzing how people interact.

What about famous authors? 
How well do famous authors match word usage to character gender? Pennebaker has a few tables for you. I’ll note a few examples

Thorton Wilder, Our Town: The dialogue of the lead characters matches their sex.
Nora Ephron, You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle: Women and men talk like women.
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus: Men and women talk like men.

Pennebaker has more nuggets. I’ll include a few more findings. For the rest you will either have to look up the research, buy the book, or wait for another blog post.

  •  People in power positions use more noun clusters (articles, nouns, prepositions, big words) than the verb clusters (pronouns, auxiliary verbs, cognitive words indicating hedges) used by people in lower social positions.
  • People reveal their personality in the language they use. Among other findings, an analysis of Osama bin Laden’s language shows high self-confidence with a high need for power and a low need for affiliation.
  • Numerous studies document the power of expressive writing. People who write about health and mental health topics show improvements in health and mental health.
  • When people express their true beliefs, they use more words, bigger words, and more complex sentences compared to those expressing alternate or false beliefs. There’s a whole chapter on Lying Words.

When it comes to religious organizations, the voices of women have been few and far between. In my tradition, Christianity, there is a great silence in the Scriptures and in the churches.

Sure. A few women appeared here and there. We know their thoughts and actions through the voices of men.

But in recent decades we see that some religious groups allow women to speak and lead. 

And so I wonder how the rhetoric of religion will change when women's voices are heard for a few centuries heretofore.

Read more about women and Christianity in A House Divided.


Pennebaker, J. W. (2011). The secret life of pronouns: What our words say about us. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

5 Ways People Learn to Work Together

Intolerance and religious tribes
and thoughts on becoming good neighbors

Tomorrow I am to give a talk about conservative and liberal Christians. The jumping off point for the discussion centers on a chapter in Brian D. McLaren’s book a Generous Orthodoxy.

Religious tribes are at war in Iraq. Westerners learn that not all Muslims share the same beliefs.

News from Israel and Palestine reminds us that people of different religious groups fight to the death. And survivors seek revenge.

Some children are in cage-like detention because they entered the United States illegally. Some churches help. Some are silent. Americans associated with different religious tribes have different beliefs about right and wrong action. Conservatives and liberals disagree.

I find the moral psychology research helpful to understanding what separates these two religious tribes. Conservative and liberal Christians are often at war. Finding solutions won’t be easy. Here’s some research and thoughts on the roots of intolerance, respect, Us vs. Them, and why good people don’t help people in need. Got some more ideas? Offer some comments.

Righteous and unrighteous tribes

Religions offer people the right way to live. There are right beliefs and right things to do. There are wrong beliefs and some form of hell to pay for going the wrong way. Religious people often split in two. We learn of Sunni and Shia Muslims divided in Iraq. We learn about Protestants splitting from Catholics – there are more splits to be sure. But when splits were long ago, they are often forgotten—at least by those not living where ancient narratives led to bloodshed.

Emotionally powerful examples of right and wrong religious thinking surfaced when U.S. President Obama spoke to the United Nations in 2012. People are described as conservative and arch conservative. Muslim and Christian differences rise to the surface. The Guardian

And of course, on local levels, congregations split on a regular basis. Some form new religions. Others just form new congregations-- new tribes. Local people split over the usual stuff- disagreements with leaders over right doctrine, money, buildings, and sex.

I have written about Jonathan Haidt’s work on Righteous Minds before so I won’t repeat those points here. See my previous post: Whose side are you on? And learn more at

Us and Them

Ingroup and outgroup research has long established that people quickly identify with their teams even when randomly assigned to them. Place kids in different colored shirts and see them compete as teams. Separate people into guards and prisoners for an experiment and disasters ensue (See study site). You will find a great summary of research in Joshua Greene’s 2013 book, Moral Tribes. His vision of a metamorality may be hard to come by though.

See Green’s website to learn more about moral tribes. There's a discussion of the problem of emotion and reason in moral judgment. And there’s a good review of the common moral dilemma known as the Trolley Problem used in much research.

Binary thinking

Brains have two major pathways. Daniel Kahneman has summarized much research so well in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Our default brain setting allows for quick, automatic, and fast thinking. This mode allows us to operate according to customary ways. It’s efficient to learn habits and let them run without giving them much thought. Once we learn how to tie a shoe, ride a bike, run a software routine, operate a remote control, parent a child, function in a relationship, our life runs smoothly. When our brains learn patterns, our lives are easy. Our lives run on autopilot until...

Throw in a problem and we slow down. Our brains must think. And thinking is hard work. We hate it. We hate change because it requires more work. New software and new electronics are hard to deal with unless they resemble the familiar. New relationships are hard to manage too—children and adults who are different from us and our families require learning new ways of interacting--hard work to be sure. Brains do in fact require glucose- real biochemical resources are used up when people think.

It’s easy to see why people give up when faced with tough decisions. It’s too hard to learn new ways. Leave me alone. I want my old life back. Give me that old time religion. Divorce, leave, separate, simplify… fight for independence.
It takes time and effort to solve some moral problems.

Morality is about relationships.

Relationship problems are hard to solve.

Intolerance never works
…for long. Humans survive in a balance between what’s good for me and what’s good for us. Sometimes that balance is delicate- like when resources are hard to come by. Sometimes the group of US is very small.

How Can People Work Together?

1. Fight a common enemy.

Following 9/11 many in the U.S. identified as Americans. Conservatives and liberals joined together to support the victims and their families and punish the evildoers.  Like many readers, I will not forget that day. Patriotism was strengthened. And for a brief time, more people attended church. This year, a museum opened in NYC to honor the lives lost in the vicious attack. “Here, at this memorial, this museum, we come together,” President Obama said (Quoted May 15, 2014 in TIME) even as Americans are divided about so many issues, including the president’s policies.

What is the essence of many political strategies? Set up an evil and link it to the other candidate or party. Then present your way of saving the people from evil. The downside of literal fighting of course is that many people lose their lives. Survivors lose the lives of those they loved. And many more live a lower quality of life in pain, emotional distress, and poverty.

The war to end all wars began 100 years ago.

Fighting a common enemy offers a temporary fix. But people get worn down by long wars. Fighting a common enemy works better for short term attacks on abstract problems with concrete solutions. You can get a diverse group of people to enter into a short-term fight by declaring war on poverty or disease or even fight the effects of a natural disaster. War should be a metaphor not a reality.

People will contribute money or time and hard work to solve a short-term problem.
Just show them how.

2. Build a greater identity.

 The U. S. is out of the 2014 World Cup. Who can U.S. fans root for? It’s much more fun to watch a sporting event when you care for one team or another. People need to have a stake in the game. Having a stake is to gamble on who wins and who loses. People like to gamble. 

People gamble by investing emotions even when they have not invested money.

And people like to recoup their bad investments- they cope in many ways- sometimes by identifying with a bigger tribe. As one man said, “I’m supporting the American teams.” Usually, American = USA. But not for this man. He expanded his identity to include Central and South America as pitted against any team from another part of the world.

Brian D. McLaren works to build a generous orthodoxy—encouraging Christians to come together as Christian. Christians are indeed a big tribe- a little over 2 billion of the world’s 7 billion persons. And what if people could identify as worshiping the same God- The God of Abraham could unite Jews, Christians, and Muslims- maybe not. And of course, there are many other religious persons-- People of other tribes. McLaren has been accused of being a universalist but he says he’s not. Universalist is one of those THEM labels that goes too far.

Some people are able to identify with a larger group.
Peacemakers help people find a common cause.
People can find common ground.

3. Celebrate the goodness in other tribes.

Brian D. McLaren points out the heroic acts of religious conservatives and liberals. And he points to the good things in other dominant Christian tribes. He attempts to celebrate that which each contributes to just being Christian. Generous organizations celebrate human heroes wherever they may be. Politics aside, the noble aspect of Nobel prizes is to recognize leaders regardless of nationality. CNN heroes are nominated from all over the globe. World leaders who work for peace earn respect among many peoples regardless of their national origins. Think of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa- to name a few.

4. Stay at the table

A Palestinian Arab family showed respect to Jewish Israelis who visited the grieving family whose son was murdered by Israelis last week. The rule of hospitality demands respect even in the face of a great loss. But it is not easy. Suspicions persist.

Many conservative Americans understandably condemn the United Nations. Corruption exists. But in the extreme view of some, the UN is viewed as an evil force planning to destroy the United States and take away God given rights. Supporters view the UN as a forum where national representatives can talk. A place where problems can be worked out by discussion rather than destruction. Of course the UN is imperfect- humans work there. UN or not, people in conflict need to find a safe place to talk. Peaceful solutions are hard to find. 
Peaceful people stay at the table. 

When true peacemakers leave, they come back and try again.

5. Slow down and love your neighbor

In a classic seminary study, psychological scientists John Darley and Daniel Batson put the parable of the Good Samaritan to a test in a unique way. They wondered why two religious leaders failed to help an injured man. Was it because the helpful Samaritan wasn’t in such a hurry? The study was conducted at a seminary. Some seminarians were actually asked to give a talk on the story, The Good Samaritan! Others were to give a talk about jobs. The researchers created a condition of hurry for some and not others. And they planted an injured person along the route that the seminarians traveled to give their assigned talks.

What happened?

People in a hurry were less likely to help even when they were giving a talk about the Good Samaritan. Some actually stepped over the victim. Some felt bad about not stopping as if experiencing moral conflict. Overall, 40% offered some help but only 10% of those in a high hurry condition were helpful.

Who is my neighbor?

Love others as much as you love yourself. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Ancient words of wisdom spoken by Jesus and endorsed by many as the path to better relationships.

So much turns on how we answer the question:

Who is my neighbor?

When it is hard to decide what kind of help is best, good neighbors take the time to figure it out.

Technical note
Daley and Batson concluded that the variable of talking about the parable vs. jobs did not have an effect. But Anthony Greenwald offered a different possibility. His Bayesian analysis of the Darley and Batson data suggested the odds of helping for those in the parable condition were higher.

Friday, July 4, 2014

How Religion Influences Justice

Justice, Psychology, and Religion Part 1

On the street, U.S. news watchers refer to June 30 2014 headlines and say, “Hobby Lobby won and women lost." As with many difficult cases, the decision was split 5-4 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion and Justice Ginsburg wrote the dissenting opinion.

The decision stimulated much talk. Many social issues came to the fore- women’s rights, religious freedom, birth control, and religious beliefs held by owners of private companies.

The 5-4 split is not just a matter of reasoned opinion. 
The winners were joyful. There’s an anger driven reaction as well. Here’s a quote from the New York Times
“Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word,” Justice Sotomayor wrote. “Not so today.”
The court’s action, she added, even “undermines confidence in this institution.”

How religion affects justice.

I found a helpful summary of research linking a judge’s religion to decision-making. The article by Brian Bornstein and Monica Miller is available online.

The attitudes of the Supreme Court justices predicts which cases they select for review, who writes the majority opinion, and the outcome.

Conservative and Liberal Outcomes
Conservative vs. liberal beliefs are good predictors of how Supreme Court Justices vote in matters of criminal defendants or prisoner rights.

Stuart Nagel (1964 & 1969) analyzed decisions by 313 judges in 1955 and found that Catholic judges were more liberal than Protestant Judges in several types of cases-- for example divorce settlements and employee injury.

Sheldon Goldman (1966 & 1975) also found Catholic judges to be more liberal in some types of cases than were Protestant judges. It appears to have been better to have a Catholic judge if you were injured or suffered economic harm.

When it comes to LGBT issues, Jewish judges were more liberal than were Protestant or Catholic judges for the years 1981-2000 (Daniel Pinello, 2003).

Death, Sex, Obscenity and Religion
Decisions about death penalty, gender discrimination, and obscenity were analyzed by Songer and Tabrizi.

Evangelical judges were more conservative than were Jewish and Protestant judges. 

The likelihood of support for the death penalty, gender discrimination, and restricted speech was higher for Evangelical judges. Jewish judges were more liberal. Judges associated with mainline Protestant groups were liberal in death penalty and obscenity cases. Catholic judges were conservative in matters of obscenity, liberal on gender discrimination decisions, but middle of the road on death penalty cases.

Religious Freedom
Barbara Yarnold studied 1,356 cases between 1970 and 1990. All judges supported religion but Catholic and Baptist judges were the most pro-religious.

In a study of 729 cases by Gregory Sisk (2004) and others, religion had the greatest influence on judicial decision-making.


Religion is often bound up with matters of morality and justice.
            Religious and nonreligious persons do well to understand the religious beliefs of decision makers.

The religious beliefs of judges often predict how they will vote.

Men often decide what happens to women. 
Gender matters- no woman on the U.S. Supreme Court supported the majority decision. (There are three female justices on the U.S. Supreme Court).
Highly intelligent people disagree on the right course of action.

Intelligence is a necessary but not a sufficient basis for making a moral judgment.

Reason can lead to right and wrong outcomes in matters of morality and justice.
Logical reasoning is only a tool, which can be used for good or evil.

The lives of millions of people can be affected by the decision of one person.

For the empirical studies cited in this post, see the Bornstein and Miller article, Does a Judge’s Religion Influence Decision Making? Published in Court Review Volume 45.

For a summary of the influence of conservative Christian values on U.S. Law, see the recent summary by Brad Reid
Reid, B. (2012). An Overview of Conservative Christian Religious Cultural Norms and U.S. Law. Culture & Religion Review Journal, 2, 1-18.

Link to the slip opinion on the Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby case.