Monday, February 28, 2022

Hidden Altruism in Repetitive Family Interactions


In a recent Dear Abby advice column from 10/26/21,  a mother who had been an addict when her daughter was young complains about the guilt trips the daughter always seems to lay on her. Abby’s interpretation as to the possible motives for the daughter’s behavior is the seemingly common-sense one that most people – and most psychotherapists for that matter - would come up with: that the daughter was acting out of selfish needs.


Being the contrarian that I am, I discovered that selfishness is often actually a cover for altruistic self-sacrifice, and that the daughter is giving mom what mom seems to need from her. The mother’s obsessive guilt and her repeatedly and nearly constantly trying to fix her daughter might very well be the reason the daughter is doing this.


Now of course, from just a paragraph description in a letter I can’t be certain of my interpretation in this particular case, and there might be several other issues operating simultaneously that might be making this situation far more complicated than my formulation would suggest. The daughters’ brothers being perceived as the favorites, which is mentioned in the letter, might be one of them. The mother may have gender issues which might conceivably be involved.  And we don’t know anything about Mom’s former behavior, let alone her family dynamics

But if we could get the truth out of these people – always an iffy proposition -  I’d be willing to bet that I am at the very least on the right track. I have put in italics the part of the letter that I think gives it away. My hypothesis would be my starting point as her therapist in trying to understand what exactly is going on, and why.


ABBY: I'm the mother of a 36-year-old daughter. She claims I treat her younger brothers better than I treat her. I am a recovering addict -- clean for 20-plus years. I was in active addiction for nine years when she was a teenager, and she has never let that go. She constantly tells me how "unfair" I am, that I never make time for her and that I don't validate her feelings. I have apologized many times and tried to show her I don't treat her siblings differently. I schedule "us" time, but this is an ongoing battle, and I'm at a loss about how to fix it. How do I show her there's no difference in the way I treat any of them? How do I reassure her that her feelings are validated? This has caused me many tearful nights. -- WANTING SERENITY BACK


In reply Abby says she thinks this mother “created an emptiness in her daughter “that the mom may not be able to fill,” and that the daughter is “punishing” the mom for her former behavior. I submit that the daughter is actually giving Mom what Mom's endless guilt seems to be begging for: More and more guilt! Mom’s obsessive apologies would then trigger this pattern again and again, leading to the daughter heaping on more and more guilt leading to more apologies and so on in a vicious circle.


Each member of the duo thinks the other one needs this interaction while discounting their own contribution to the pattern. They have to cover up their own role in order to continue playing it effectively, both for the stabilization of a parent. Mom’s history of substance abuse and neglecting children would, under this scenario, be a role she was playing for her parents.

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Review: Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data and What the Internet Tells us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz


One of the big problems in both psychiatric and psychological research that I have written about extensively is the tendency of researchers to think that their subjects are usually being truthful, especially when it come to things like family dysfunction, marital maladjustment and child abuse. 

Most people who know that people often are not truthful about these matters think it’s mostly a matter of personal shame and embarrassment, whereas I think that, while that is sometimes the case, the lies are more often about protecting the reputation of their families of origin.


We of course have very little truly objective research data in these fields because:

1. We can’t read minds.

2. People are good actors, leading to falsehoods in the observations of the researchers.

3. People not only lie to others, but lie to themselves as well. This is a part of the  willful  blindness characteristic of groupthink, which we need in order to maintain group cohesion with our kin and ethnic groups. Logic evolved not to reach the truth, but to justify group norms, as Gregg Henriques has pointed out.


The author of this book states, “People lie about how many drinks they had on the way home. They lie about how often they go to the gym, how much those new shoes cost, whether they read that last book. They call in sick when they’re not…They say they’re happy when they’re in the dumps. They say they like women when they really like men…People lie to their friends. They lie to their kids. They lie to parents. They lie to doctors…They lie to themselves. And they damn sure lie to surveys.”  


Stephens-Davidowitz’s book discusses one way we can get around this. We now have "big data" which can monitor not only the internet sites we visit but the questions we have in our own minds. People have little incentive to lie in the context of a Google search because no one they know will be aware of what they are doing when they do, say, a search for lesbian sex on Pornhub. The author refers to the internet as “digital truth serum.”


He talks about how this data helps us spot patterns of human thinking and behavior as well as predict how one variable will affect another. This data contains many surprises. For example, if you check into what follows most often when you type in “it’s normal to want to kill…” the most common inquiry is “my family.” 

Human sexual behavior, predictably, is a big area for surprises. Among the top searches on Pornhub by women is sex featuring violence against women, with such searches as “extreme brutal gangbang.” On Google, there are twice as many complaints by women than by men about a lack of sex in their relationship.


Some human activities that are thought by most people to be productive may actually backfire. When president Obama gave a speech about tolerance, searches for “kill Muslims” actually tripled during the speech.


One of my favorite facts was that after the release of particularly violent but popular movies (incorporating data from FBI hourly crime data, box office numbers, and a measure of violence in the particular movies), violent acts actually declined that weekend, rather than rise as conventional wisdom might suggest.


Now of course even with big data there are some questions which cannot be clarified, and the author gives us a wonderful discussion of some of the hazards in using it to draw conclusions.


Another of my frequently blogged about topics is the illogical assumptions made about studies in which one variable seems to correlate with another, like high schoolers who smoke pot getting poor grades. We all should know that correlation is not causation, but you’d never know that from looking at studies, in spite of all the hedging and disclaimers. 

I learned that there are actually names for some of the fallacies I've been writing about. “Reverse causation” is when variable A is correlated with variable B, leading to the idea that A causes B when in fact, B causes A. “Omitted variable bias” is when a third, ignored factor is something else that leads to increases in both A and B. Maybe kids from difficult homes have a tendency to both use drugs and get bad grades.


A big one in the genetics vs. environment debate is something called “dimensionality.” The human genome differs in literally millions of ways. If you test for a lot of different genes, some will correlate with the trait in question, but it’s just by chance. This is similar to flipping 500 coins and finding one that turns up heads 15 times in a row, and assuming the reason that it’s some sort of special coin. When such studies are repeated, the usual result is that the correlation disappears.


This book is funny and well written. I highly recommend it.