Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

Defense Values

January 4, 2007

I encountered a pregnant concept in Edwin Locke’s article “The Educational, Psychological, and Philosophical Assault on Self-Esteem” in the most recent issue of The Objective Standard. Since it’s only available to subscribers, here’s the relevant quote:

A third type of defense is the use of defense values. A defense value is a personal attribute or aspiration that one uses to gain the illusion of self-esteem. The value itself may be irrational (e.g., the approval of others, sexual conquest, the ability to manipulate people, power-seeking), or it may be a legitimate value that one holds in a distorted way (e.g., intelligence). A person who holds intelligence as a defense value may, for example, seek compulsively to prove to others that he is smart, react with anger or anxiety if he meets someone who seems to be smarter than he is, avoid situations where his intellectual superiority might be threatened, boast of his genius, and/or scorn those who are less intelligent than he is. Defense values are not always held in the form of actual traits that one possesses; they may also be held in the form of aspirations—aspirations which one has no capacity to achieve and/or takes no action to achieve (e.g., becoming a great novelist, businessman, or singer). Defense values are held in a kind of desperate, compulsive manner, as though they were a matter of life or death—which, in a perverse way, they are, considering that they are used as a substitute for real self-esteem. Achieving defense values temporarily lowers anxiety but does not lead to happiness.

The only problem with the notion is that it could easily be overused. That’s a problem with psychologizing in general: there’s a subtle line between pretentious and well-read that only becomes obvious with time and observation.

Postscript: Dr. Locke offers this footnote to the passage quoted above: “The concept of defense values was first identified by Dr. Allan Blumenthal.” Does anyone know where that identification was made? To my knowledge, Blumenthal has only published in the periodicals associated contemperaneously with Ayn Rand.


The Wonder of a Child

December 14, 2006

I was relating an anecdote to a co-worker yesterday about how it was so incredible to watch a child grow and develop. (Side note: it really is.) I told him that it was neat to see them make connections and I even invoked the shopworn sentiment about seeing things as through the eyes of a child. I don’t exactly know what came over me but the thought percolated in my grey matter overnight apparently and some concluding introspection in the shower this morning led me to an insight.

I think the reason why we find children’s cognitive development so fascinating is that it reminds us that we were once at that stage. I know for a fact that I thought that when I was talking to my co-worker, but if you think about it that really only gets you so far in explaining the feeling you get when children make new observations and discoveries. Plus, it doesn’t explain why the feeling is renewed with each new conceptual growth and identification.

The shower moment came when I realized that I was simultaneously thinking, “Look how far I’ve come!” It’s a reminder of our own cognitive achievement and the feelings that result are pride and satisfaction. I also think that it’s an automatized response on a subconscious level because I was not aware of it even after some preliminary introspection. I believe it might be at work even with adults that don’t have children since there’s nothing inherent in the evaluation about child-possessing.

If you could, take a moment and do your own introspecting. Am I right about this or does your investigation differ? I’d love to get some outside opinions on this.

Too Quick

September 20, 2006

I’ve been noticing lately that I am too quick to make judgements. I first learned of this problem from Aaron T. Beck, who called it “catastrophizing.” In a nutshell, that’s the practice of blowing innocuous events out of proportion. Examples abound in my personal life: someone doesn’t respond to my instant messages for hours or emails for days and I start to wonder if I’ve lost a friend or burnt a bridge; a friend doesn’t hang out with me and I feel an intense desire to confront him; my wife comments that the kids are out of control and I assume she’s derogating my parenting.

It’s a very real problem because it can sour a relationship due to resentment, anger, need for reassurance, and even hostility. It hasn’t happened very often to me because I’ve learned to keep it inside—I feel all of these negative emotions but I don’t express them. But it can lead to dwelling on problems even though the catalytic event had a perfectly reasonable explanation that had no personal causation: busyness, inattention, insensitivity, or even self-absorption.

But the act of keeping it inside isn’t terribly satisfying because it is very distracting. I am constantly analyzing the events leading up to the triggering event, searching for actions on my part that might have contributed to the perceived breakdown. Generally, I can’t find them (for obvious reasons) and so I tend to lash out internally at the person. This cathartic behavior often allows me to introspect on my reaction, thereby defusing the catastrophizing.

The introspection typically takes the form of Socratic self-questioning. “Is there an alternate explanation for this person’s behavior?” “Is that behavior consonant with past behavior?” “Does it fit the level of friendship or love you’ve established?” “Is it possible that you’re overreacting?” “Can you wait a few days to confront the person?”

I think that these questions get at the heart of the matter: catastrophizing is often a psychological version of injustice. Justice is the act of granting that which someone deserves. Psychologically, this takes the form of gratitude or righteous anger, to pick but two examples of justice-related emotions. Catastrophizing severs this tie: leaving emotions that aren’t truly related to the other person. It’s almost as if you whip yourself into a froth over nothing.

This is the first in an ongoing series of introspective entries I wish to undertake in order to gain a better insight into what makes me tick. They may have no meaning to anyone besides me as they are not intended as psychological treatises and undergo only the lightest of editing.

Gender Chores

March 22, 2006

This post from about how men and women view chores differently is spot on. That’s me and Sandi to a T.

[UPDATE (3/23/2006): Scott Adams weighs in with another gender difference spotting.]

Not So Smart

May 26, 2005

“Why Smart People Defend Bad Ideas”: I think this is an important essay for me to digest in understanding people. Here’s the part that I found most pregnant (it’s kind of long but way shorter than the essay itself):

… Smart people, or at least those whose brains have good first gears, use their speed in thought to overpower others. They’ll jump between assumptions quickly, throwing out jargon, bits of logic, or rules of thumb at a rate of fire fast enough to cause most people to become rattled, and give in. When that doesn’t work, the arrogant or the pompous will throw in some belittlement and use whatever snide or manipulative tactics they have at their disposal to further discourage you from dissecting their ideas.

So your best defense starts by breaking an argument down into pieces. When they say “it’s obvious we need to execute plan A now.” You say, “hold on. You’re way ahead of me. For me to follow I need to break this down into pieces.” And without waiting for permission, you should go ahead and do so.

First, nothing is obvious. If it were obvious there would be no need to say so. So your first piece is to establish what isn’t so obvious. What are the assumptions the other guy is glossing over that are worth spending time on? There may be 3 or 4 different valid assumptions that need to be discussed one at a time before any kind of decision can be considered. Take each on in turn, and lay out the basic questions: what problem are we trying to solve? What alternatives to solving it are there? What are the tradeoffs in each alternative? By breaking it down and asking questions you expose more thinking to light, make it possible for others to ask questions, and make it more difficult for anyone to defend a bad idea.

I’ve dealt with difficult people in the past who did exactly this sort of thing and I could never put my finger on why it was working. I figured out the “obvious” conceit long ago when a former manager pointed out how it insulted the audience because very little is actually obvious. That was a very important lesson and something that I have strived to eliminate from my thinking ever since.

Testify AB!

June 5, 2004

Seen at Alton Brown‘s Rants and Raves:

The fact that “Dr.” Phil has the number 1 cookbook on makes me want to end it all.

[UPDATE: I suppose I should elaborate since someone I know liked Dr. Phil’s Self Matters. I think he’s a hack, the Dr. Laura of TV. He takes common sense advice and stuffs it into a gruff, stick-it-to-’em package that delights Joe and Jane Sixpack. Schadenfreude might be a German term, but there’s a certain PWT mentality that embraces it. I guess my disdain stems from the general level of scorn I have for all popularizers of OPT.]


March 31, 2004

Some thoughts about today’s tagline (“eudaimonia’s home on the Web” for RSS feed subscribers and future readers) and the field of psychology from Martin Seligman.