Mom, Dad: Chillax

Alan Kazdin and Carlo Rotella have a sensible essay on Slate discussing how to change your child’s problematic behaviors. Key principle: it isn’t enough to punish the bad behavior. You have to find an opposite behavior and reward it.

They also discuss some of the frustrations and challenges of trying to eliminate problem behavior — things like extinction bursts and a tendency of stressed parents to unwittingly engage in variable reinforcement, which entrenches rather than eliminates the behavior.

But part of their sensible answer is: do you really want to bother? I was generally familiar with the learning-theory stuff, but a little surprised at how common many of these behaviors are.

Many unwanted behaviors, including some that disturb parents, tend to drop out on their own, especially if you don’t overreact to them and reinforce them with a great deal of excited attention…

Approximately 60 percent of 4- and 5-year-old boys can’t sit still as long as adults want them to, and approximately 50 percent of 4- and 5-year-old boys and girls whine to the extent that their parents consider it a significant problem. Both fidgeting and whining tend to decrease on their own with age, especially if you don’t reinforce these annoying behaviors by showing your child that they’re a surefire way to get your (exasperated) attention. Thirty to 40 percent of 10- and 11-year-old boys and girls lie in a way that their parents identify as a significant problem, but this age seems to be the peak, and the rate of problem lying tends to plummet thereafter and cease to be an issue. By adolescence, more than 50 percent of males and 20 percent to 35 percent of females have engaged in one delinquent behavior—typically theft or vandalism. For most children, it does not turn into a continuing problem.


An epidemic of narcissism-ism?

Is there an epidemic of narcissism? Maybe so, maybe not — but it’s certainly becoming fashionable to call people narcissists.

At Slate, Emily Yoffe writes, “This is the cultural moment of the narcissist.” She’s certainly doing her part — the article names plenty of putative narcissists. Called out by Yoffe or her sources: Harvard MBAs, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards, journalists who twitter, Rod Blagojevich, the Octomom, Leona Helmsley, Bill Clinton, Ingmar Bergman, Frank Lloyd Wright, Stanley Kubrick, and Salvador Dali. (Plus we get a bonus diagnosis: Bernie Madoff is a psychopath.)

Yoffe’s article draws on Jean Twenge’s theory that a cultural shift is causing an increase in narcissism among younger generations. The article doesn’t mention that Twenge’s data and interpretations are disputed, which has led to a lively and at times contentious debate. But rather than discuss that controversy head-on (maybe some other time), I want to address a different though related issue:

Why is it becoming fashionable to label other people as narcissists?

One answer, of course, would be that if Twenge is right, then there are more narcissists around to be noticed. But I don’t think that could be the whole picture. The generational theory wouldn’t explain most of the examples named in the article, who are too old to qualify as “Generation Me.”

Another possibility, I think, comes in a way from flipping Twenge’s argument on its head. Twenge argues that (among other influences) social media like Youtube, Facebook, etc. help make people narcissistic by giving them an outlet and an audience to cultivate their self-aggrandizing impulses. But I think it’s important to also consider the ways that new technology makes people accountable. If I boast on Facebook about how cool I was in high school, the firsthand witnesses will call me out right there on my wall. If I claim a raft of prestigious achievements, anybody can use Google to quickly check the facts (and forward them to their friends). In short: the Internet may allow narcissists to reach a wider audience for their boasts, but it has also led to some spectacular takedowns. The takedowns can get more publicity than the original material, in the process putting narcissism on the map.

Oh, and as an aside, this passage from Yoffe’s article irritates me to no small degree:

Personality disorders … differ from the major mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and manic-depression, which are believed to have a biological origin. Personality disorders are seen as a failure of character development.

False dichotomy FAIL.

Nick Kristof gets a B- social psych, and an incomplete in media studies

In today’s NYT, Nicholas Kristof writes about the implications of people choosing their own media sources. His argument: traditional newspapers present people with a wide spectrum of objective reporting. But when people choose their own news sources, they’ll gravitate toward voices that agree with their own ideology.

Along the way, Kristof sort of references research on confirmation bias and group polarization, though he doesn’t call them that, and weirdly he credits Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein for discovering group polarization.

But my main thought is this… Neither confirmation bias nor group polarization are new phenomena. Is it really true that people used to read and think about a broad spectrum of news and opinion? Or are we mis-remembering a supposedly golden era of objective reporting? Back when most big towns had multiple newspapers, you could pick the one that fit your ideology. You could subscribe to The Nation or National Review. You could buy books by Gore Vidal or William F. Buckley.

Plus, confirmation bias isn’t just about what information you choose to consume — it’s also about what you pay attention to, how you interpret it, and what you remember. Did everybody watch Murrow and Cronkite in the same way? Or did a liberal and a conservative watching the same newscast have a qualitatively different experience of it, by virtue of what they brought to the table?

No doubt things have changed a whole heck of a lot in the media, and they’re going to change a lot more. But I’m skeptical whenever I hear somebody argue that society is in decline because of some technological or cultural change. It’s a common narrative, but one that might be more poorly supported than we think.