Delusions of Power: Brain Biases that Contribute to Sexual Harassment

Posted on Tue, Dec 19, 2017 @ 01:39 PM

As 2017 comes to a close, sexual harassment cases continue to dominate the American news. Time Magazine—known for highlighting a “person or people of the year” based on who has had the greatest media influence over the previous 12 months—has given this year’s title to “The Silence Breakers.” These are the hundreds of women and men who have, in Time’s words, “unleashed one of the highest-velocity shifts in our culture since the 1960s.”

 Whatever you may personally believe regarding the guilt or innocence of any one of the accused, the fact is, given humanity’s long history of oppressing others, it’s not surprising so many women (and a number of men) have had experiences of the sort that we now describe as “sexual harassment.”

Each case has to be tried and concluded on its own merits. My aim here is not to judge guilt or innocence; rather, it’s to consider some of the influences power can have on a person’s thinking.

It’s no secret that power can be heady and addictive and wildly misused. Um . . . Nero, Caligula, Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini . . . enough said. But it doesn’t take the level of power wielded by a dictator to seduce the human brain into self-delusion. In fact, all it takes is the illusion of power. If we aren’t alert to the potential pitfalls in our own thinking, we are all subject to the biases and shortcuts that are natural to the human brain. And some of these can lead to the same behaviors that have recently toppled so many public figures.

Perhaps the most relevant to this issue is something known as the sexual overperception bias, where people falsely conclude that someone has a sexual interest in them. This bias has been studied for decades, and some interesting patterns have emerged in the research over time. It seems certain people, more than others, are highly susceptible to picking up sexual signals that aren’t really there. For instance:

  1. Heterosexual men in general are more likely to mistakenly perceive sexual interest from the women they know, whereas women are more likely to assume the men they know are interested in friendship.
  2. People in leadership positions are more likely to mistakenly perceive sexual interest in subordinates than vice-versa.
  3. Men in general are more likely than women to rate a neutral smiling face as flirtatious rather than friendly—and those who score high in measures of casual-sex proclivities are even more likely to do so.
  4. Those who score high in measures of sexual-harassment proclivity tend to place the blame for harassment on victims.

Add to this the fact that power can have a dampening effect on empathy, as well as on the ability to interpret the emotions of another person, and you have a recipe for sexual harassment.

This is not to say that everyone in power is suspect. Certainly, being aware of these pitfalls, as well as alert to and honest with ourselves about our own motivations, can go a long way toward ensuring that we handle power appropriately. And it’s important to remember that even though the sexual overperception bias affects men more than women, women are not immune. That said, the majority of cases we’re seeing in the news recently involve men wielding power over female or male subordinates, which is not surprising given that men hold positions of power more often than women do.

Had they known that it’s possible to perceive sexual interest where it doesn’t exist—and be tempted to act on it—a number of the public figures in today’s news may have been able to avoid some of the outrageous behaviors they’re now accounting for. But other missteps can also affect people in ways we don’t intend, though most of them can be avoided by exercising a healthy degree of empathy and concern and by respecting personal and professional boundaries.

Ideally we would all function in a world where everyone has others’ best interest at heart—a world where everyone, regardless of gender, could count on being treated respectfully, and where humor could be enjoyed by everyone because it wouldn’t embarrass or denigrate anyone. I do believe it’s in the realm of possibility. But clearly we’re not quite there yet.



Facing Self-Delusion: Why We Don't See the World as It Really Is

Special Report: Deluding Ourselves to Death


Tags: self delusion, cognitive bias, workplace relationships, sexual harassment

From Conflict to Support: Tips for Healthy Relationships

Posted on Wed, Nov 23, 2016 @ 04:20 PM

iStock-174915986.jpgTraditionally at this time of year I’ve posted about gratitude for those cherished relationships that mean so much to us. It’s easy to point to the abundant research telling us that emotionally supportive relationships, and our expressions of gratitude for them, are crucial to good physical and mental health. But what is a supportive relationship? Does “supportive” mean our spouse or friend is always in complete agreement with us? When their opinions and preferences don’t mesh with ours, does that make them “unsupportive”?

Certainly life would be monotonous if we were all identical—and clearly we are not—so we might expect to encounter conflicting agendas even among those with whom we feel the closest bonds. The good thing is that conflict in a healthy relationship can be a welcome springboard for personal growth as well as for growth within the relationship.

But how do you know whether your relationship is healthy or destructive? One way to tell is to look at how conflict is handled when it (inevitably) occurs. 

In his book The 3 Dimensions of Emotion, psychologist Sam Alibrando suggests that one key to handling conflict constructively is to balance the way we relate to one another in three emotional dimensions. Physiologically, scientists refer to these dimensions as “fight, flight and freeze,” but awareness of three such dimensions is not really a modern thing. As Alibrando points out, one ancient writer known simply as Paul (or Saul of Tarsus) describes what essentially amounts to similar dimensions using the terms “power, love and a sound mind” (see 2 Timothy 1:7). Alibrando refers to them as Red (fight/power), Blue (freeze/heart) and Yellow (flight/mindfulness).

All three dimensions contribute something positive to our interactions when they are in balance. But each has a negative side when not balanced by the other two. For instance, if you operate primarily in Red mode (fight/power), you are highly attuned to differences between yourself and others. In other words, your first emotional instinct is to diverge. In balance with Blue and Yellow, Red is the basis for courage, protectiveness and confidence. But without the influence of the other two dimensions, Red mode can come across as aggressive, critical, hurtful and angry.

In Blue mode (freeze/heart) you converge: you don’t want to fight; you want to focus on similarities. In balance, this mode is the basis for empathy and support, but without being tempered by the other two modes, Blue can come across as helpless, subservient, too deferential.

In Yellow mode (flight/mindfulness) you want to drop out of the action, go silent and observe. In balance, Yellow is a sound mind: the basis for self-awareness, patience, calm objectivity and careful consideration. But without the empathy of Blue and the courage of Red, Yellow becomes isolated, aloof, indifferent and disconnected.

In conflict, someone acting out of negative Red mode would go on the attack with impatient criticism and blame. In negative Yellow, their spouse or friend might respond by retreating into a hole, disconnecting emotionally. Or a Blue spouse or friend might give up his or her agenda completely, choosing compliance simply to appease the other.

Most of us have a tendency to rely on a habitual approach that may favor one or two of these dimensions. But with a little self-awareness we can recognize our weak areas and tweak our style. And as Alibrando points out, when it comes to managing our relationships, our style is the obvious place to start any program for change—for the simple reason that I can’t change anyone but me, and you can’t change anyone but you. Fortunately, the changes we make to our own reactivity can influence the reactions of others and will usually (though perhaps not in the most extreme cases) make a tremendous difference to the overall outcome.

To reach the overall outcome we want (i.e., a healthy approach to conflict), Alibrando recommends a strategy he calls “working the triangle.” This exercise is less about focusing on what we’re doing that’s unhealthy and more about focusing on what we’re not doing that is healthy. For instance, the best way to overcome a tendency to criticize and blame (unhealthy Red), is to take the time to stop, think and listen objectively (healthy Yellow); and with the resulting calm, express your feelings (healthy Red) with kindness, in love and humility (healthy Blue).

Perhaps you’re an Orange (Yellow and Red) or a Purple (Red and Blue). Or maybe a Green (Yellow and Blue). You probably wouldn’t try sitting on a stool with only two legs, would you? Just as that third leg forms a plane and offers stability for the stool, so when we have these three interpersonal dimensions in balance, we are more likely to have stability in our relationships.

If Alibrando’s model seems to echo ancient concepts, perhaps it’s because these concepts are as relevant today as ever. As we “work the triangle,” we are essentially working toward exercising power, love, and a sound mind in our interactions with others. In doing so, we reap the benefits of a universal law that governs healthy relationships and opens the door to the kind of supportive connections we can truly be grateful for.



Making Conflict Productive

A Cross of Iron

Who Am I? Who Should I Be?


Tags: conflict, relationships, family, human emotion

Forging Healthy Chains: Social Support and the Roseto Effect

Posted on Wed, Jul 27, 2016 @ 03:14 PM

Chances are, you already know that love is better for your health than hate or indifference. It's a no-brainer that physical health and mental health are interdependent, although the nature of the bidirectional link is only just beginning to be understood by researchers. Studies testing the direction of the link seem to indicate that depression is more likely to lead to inflammation in the body rather than occur as a consequence of inflammation in the body—but in any case, the evidence has been stacking up for some time that social support has a profound effect on mental health, which in turn pays dividends to our physical health. The story of a little town in Pennsylvania illustrates this well.

During the 1950s, a Pennsylvania physician named Benjamin Falcone had been treating patients near the small towns of Bangor and Nazareth for 17 years when he noticed that older residents from a third nearby town, called Roseto, hardly ever needed to be seen for heart problems, even though the rate of heart attacks within the other two towns and across the United States in general was on the rise.

Roseto was a close-knit community consisting of about 1,200 inhabitants who had emigrated almost en masse in the 1890s from an Italian village called Roseto Valfortore. After arriving in America, the immigrants built a relatively isolated hillside community—separate from nearby English, Welsh or German communities. By 1912, Roseto’s population had exceeded 2,000 and it incorporated to become the first American municipality governed by Italians. By the time Dr. Falcone began to notice the extraordinary heart health of its residents, Roseto was a thriving town, accepted—and even admired—by neighboring Bangor and Nazareth, and served by the same doctors and hospitals.

One day, Dr. Falcone attended a local medical society talk given by a visiting physician from the University of Oklahoma, Dr. Stewart Wolf, who frequently spent summers at a nearby farm. Dr. Falcone invited Dr. Wolf out to a local pub for a beer and in the course of their conversation, mentioned the strange phenomenon he had noticed in the Roseto residents.

It was now 1961, and Wolf was intrigued enough to engage some of his colleagues from the University of Oklahoma in taking a deeper look at the Roseto effect. Along with sociologist John G. Bruhn, the research team began to compare medical histories, physical exams, and lab tests in a large sample of Rosetans—as well as the inhabitants of Bangor and Nazareth—hoping to find the key to the apparent health and happiness of this unusual community.

What they found stymied them. Yes, the evidence confirmed it was true that coronary heart disease and death from myocardial infarction (heart attack) was strikingly lower in Roseto than in its neighboring towns. Importantly, mental illness (including senile dementia) was also much lower: half the rate of Bangor, and only a third the rate of Nazareth. But at first, no one could understand why.

“The findings were surprising because of a greater prevalence of obesity among the Rosetans,” wrote Wolf and Bruhn in their report, published in 1979 under the title, The Roseto Story: An Anatomy of Health. “A meticulous study of dietary habits established that Rosetans ate at least as much animal fat as did the inhabitants of Bangor and Nazareth.” This was reflected, not only in the high obesity rates of Roseto, but also in the fact that the town’s rates of hypertension, diabetes, and measures of serum cholesterol concentration closely matched those of the other communities. Smoking and exercise habits were also similar, and the researchers were able to eliminate ethnic and genetic factors from the mix. After all, inhabitants who left Roseto to live in other communities soon became subject to the higher death rates that plagued the rest of the nation.

What, then, could explain Roseto’s strange effect? (And no, people weren’t drinking from a special communal well or making mysterious concoctions from South American miracle plants). Having already ruled out diet, exercise, genetics, and other factors that the medical community has long believed to be “risk factors” for heart disease, the researchers turned to studying the way Rosetans lived.

What they discovered was that their initial rejection by outlying communities had forced Rosetans to turn to one another for support and mutual help. Ultimately, the researchers found, the only real differences between Roseto and its neighboring communities were social ones. Roseto’s citizens enthusiastically took on the responsibility of being their neighbors’ keepers.

The researchers described the character of the townsfolk as buoyant, fun-loving, enterprising, optimistic, cohesive, and mutually supportive. “Our first sociological study of Roseto revealed that crises and problems were coped with jointly by family members with support from relatives and friends,” wrote Bruhn and Wolf. “Following a death in the family, interfamilial differences were forgotten, and the bereaved received food and money from relatives and friends, who at times temporarily assumed responsibility for the care of the children of the bereaved. When financial problems arose, relatives and friends rallied to the aid of the family, and in instances of abrupt, extreme financial loss the community itself assumed responsibility for helping the family.”

In addition, families weren’t secretive. Their problems were shared—and then worked out with the help of the local priest or family “pillars.” Pillars were often older single women in the community who had taken on the responsibility of aging parents and who were highly respected and valued for their role in maintaining cohesive family and community ties.

In Roseto, nearly everyone had a vital role to fulfill—whatever their age or gender. At the end of the day, they gathered together in each other’s homes, social clubs or the local diner. But the cornerstone of life in Roseto was the family. “Family traditions provide a buffer in times of crisis and a source of stability for the community,” wrote the researchers in their 1979 report.

Of course, even in Roseto life wasn’t always rosy, and a good study wouldn’t be complete without taking a look at the “outliers,” or those whose circumstances were remarkably different from the main sample. There were some who were marginalized in Roseto, either because they had no ethnic or social ties within the community or because, for whatever reason, they had been excluded or had excluded themselves from the community’s social culture. Like their neighbors in Bangor and Nazareth, these marginalized Rosetans showed a higher incidence of illness and myocardial infarction than the general population. Indeed, in one case history, a seemingly healthy “Mr. F.” commented to the researchers (five years before he died of a heart attack) that “I don’t fit in the town—I don’t live like they do—I’m not like the Rosetans.”

He was not the only marginalized inhabitant who missed out on the health benefits of living in Roseto. “Hard work and family and personal problems were common to most of them,” wrote Bruhn and Wolf. “In addition they emphasized self-reliance and responsibility for their own actions and hence enjoyed little or no family or community support in times of crisis.”

With these observations in hand after two years of study, it wasn’t difficult for the researchers to predict in 1963 that, “If and when Roseto’s traditional close-knit, mutually supportive social structure began to crumble . . . the town’s relative immunity to death from myocardial infarction would gradually come to an end.”

In fact, that is exactly what happened. As Roseto gradually became Americanized, adopting what the researchers called “materialistic and individualistic values,” mortality from heart attacks shot up, reaching the prevailing rate in Bangor by 1975. 

Today, self-reliant attitudes are still pervasive in Western society: we don't like to accept help, nor do we like to offer it to others if we judge that they have brought their problems on themselves. Sitting in our emotional silos we watch distressing news stories that add burdensome weights to our everyday worries, and these leave us vulnerable to the accompanying advertisements that offer magic pills or dietary regimens to counteract the damage these stresses have inflicted on our health. 

Fixing broken relationships may be more difficult than taking a pill or latching on to a fad diet, but it's impossible to manufacture the joy, resilience, optimism and general well-being that is a natural byproduct when we are surrounded by love and support rather than criticism and mistrust. And it isn't only the receiver of love and support who benefits: research tells us the health of the giver benefits as well.

True, it can be difficult to maintain an atmosphere of love and support when we are constantly bombarded by the voices of those who assert their power by stirring up hate and controversy. But we don't have to allow self-righteousness, anger, fear, suspicion, and competition to rule our thoughts and actions. We don't have to be reactive, we can be proactive: purposefully and mutually accepting the role of my neighbor's keeper. We can show love toward the enemies that we are being asked to hate. When we fail to do this, we fall prey to precisely the “materialistic and individualistic values that brought Roseto into the myocardial mainstream.

A well-known quote from Martin Luther King Jr. points out that “Hate does not conquer hate. But there is much more in the context of that statement and it is just as relevant now as when it was written—if not more so:

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. So when Jesus says ‘Love your enemies,’ he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies—or else? The chain reaction of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars—must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation"(Strength to Love, p. 47).

Every day there is something in the news that begs us to respond with hate, mistrust and suspicion, and invites us to contribute to the chain of hate and violence that arises all too naturally in human relationships. But we can't break that chain by controlling our opponents, we can only do it by controlling ourselves. 

If, as Charles Dickens suggested, "we forge the chains we wear in life," we have a clear decision to make. We can wear the chains of hate and reactivity . . . or we can forge chains of love and social support, like the Rosetans did by taking on the responsibility to be their neighbors' keepers. The choice we make could mean all the difference to our health.



Beyond the Nuclear Family
Biography: Martin Luther King Jr.: A Man With a Dream
Words of Hope



Tags: relationships, family, health, social psychology, social relationships, social support

Timeless Parenting Tactic #1: Don’t Play the Public Shame Game

Posted on Mon, Apr 25, 2016 @ 01:37 PM


It’s a common complaint from parents: “Our kids spend too much time on their screens, and they don’t listen to us when we try to set boundaries.” Some parents feel so helpless about parenting issues like these that they resort to bottom-of-the-barrel parenting techniques such as public shaming. This technique in particular may seem creative, but it only serves to undermine the authority such parents are attempting to “take back.”

A particularly inelegant example of this sort of desperate parenting was displayed on YouTube recently, as a mother bellowed her manifesto while gleefully brandishing a shotgun in her backyard. Her children looked on, studiously unimpressed, as she blew their cell phones off a tree stump, one by one. Dad’s more passive role was to record the video for posterity and collect the shards, which he then returned to the stump so Mother could finish obliterating them with a sledgehammer.

Of course, this could simply have been an ill-conceived stunt aimed at creating an income stream from a viral video, but unfortunately public shaming is not a rare tactic in some parenting styles. True, it’s not always carried out online, but it is no less harmful to family relationships when we expose our children’s sins for all to see in their more intimate, real-life public spaces.

Most parents who use shaming as a technique really do love their children; they believe they’re exercising a form of “tough love” that will save their children in the long run by cultivating a sense of guilt for inappropriate behaviors. Their own parents may have used similar techniques with them, and their survival seems proof enough that the techniques work. However, there is a world of difference between surviving and thriving, just as there is a world of difference between the effects of guilt and the effects of shame.

What are those differences?

First it may be helpful to look at the differences between guilt and shame. While both are emotions we feel when we’ve done something wrong, and both may prompt feelings of remorse and regret, there is a huge difference in how these feelings are brought about and in our reactions to them. Shame involves an aspect of exposure and promotes feelings along the lines of “I am a bad person,” while guilt encourages feelings of “I did a bad thing.”

Why would you want one result and not the other? “I am a bad person” leaves little room for the potential to change, while “I did a bad thing” opens one up to the ability to feel contrite along with the hope that personal change is possible. But an even more important aspect of guilt versus shame is that guilt allows for the belief that repair is possible—repair of the relationship, but also restoration of the guilty party’s reputation and sense of positive life meaning. Shame, on the other hand, tends to foster defensive responses: a tendency to hide, to blame someone else—and even to become aggressive.

Despite the fact that parents may believe their love for the child is not in question, when a child is shamed for his or her actions in public, there are now other onlookers involved. The child cannot know whether his or her reputation and relationship with these others can be repaired. Even the parent-child relationship may be damaged more than the parent realizes. Anger is a common reaction to permanent loss of something cherished: and what do we want our children to cherish more than a reputation for appropriate behavior? If we provoke this kind of anger frequently, we are likely to build a resentment in our children that undermines our influence permanently.

Ironically, some parents use public shaming as a way to teach children the importance of a good reputation. But rather than privately addressing the problem (as the self-controlled, mature party) and working with the child to protect his or her reputation during the learning process, they actually cut their child’s reputation to ribbons—sometimes permanently, particularly if they chronicle the child’s failures online.

Of course, some children do have higher levels of resilience than others, and any child may survive a few shaming episodes. But this brings us to the difference between surviving and thriving. Returning to the YouTube mother for a moment, she’s depicted as desperately trying to teach her children restraint when it comes to screen time and discernment about what behaviors are appropriate online. One or more of her children may eventually get over the anger their body language plainly displays, and they may learn these lessons. They may be able to ignore her example, which directly contradicts what she is trying to teach (she is clearly unrestrained, and undiscerning about what is appropriate behavior). They may grow up to be reasonably balanced and mentally healthy. In other words, they will likely survive.

On the other hand, imagine that instead of destroying expensive electronics (whether essentially hers or not), she had taught her children how to treat valuable property—beginning by setting a good example herself? What if she encouraged restraint and respect by first modeling it and then reinforcing any first steps they made toward displaying it, no matter how small?

One of the most common mistakes we make as parents is to forget that we can’t just eliminate inappropriate behaviors; we also have to instill appropriate replacement behaviors, and that requires positive reinforcement. Unfortunately this takes our full attention because it’s not always easy to recognize the first steps children take toward the behaviors we’re trying to teach. Often we don’t notice a behavior until it bothers us, and by then we’ve missed a great many opportunities to reinforce the positive opposite behavior.

If we take the time to recognize the positive behaviors, however, we will find that over time the negative behaviors will become easier to change because the relationship we have with our children will motivate more pliability. When we spend more time parenting in a positive mode and as a positive role model, we’re less likely to need to “take back” our role as parents, because we’d never have let go of it to begin with.

In any case, even if we have somehow lost our effectiveness as authority figures, playing the public “shame game,” whether online or off, is not going to get it back. Regardless of the technology, when our children seem to be on the verge of tarnishing their reputation, we can apply positive, timeless parenting strategies that don’t include pushing that reputation off a cliff. We only need to be willing to put in the time and effort to discover those strategies.



Timeless Parenting in an iWorld
The Injustice of Online Justice
Bridle Your Fingers




Tags: public shaming, family and parenting, parenting and shaming, children and technology

Mental Health and Happiness: What's Gratitude Got to Do with It?

Posted on Fri, Dec 04, 2015 @ 01:00 PM


Gratitude and generosity might be thought of as flip sides of the same coin: someone who has learned one is likely to also practice the other. At least, we'd like to think so. However, if you were in an American shopping mall on the day after Thanksgiving—known in this country as "Black Friday"—you could be forgiven for assuming otherwise. Traditionally, the day after Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, although I don't suppose I would be alone in the observation that retailers have been relentlessly pushing this line ever earlier in an effort to amplify their jingle bells with a bit more cha-ching. Nevertheless, the last Friday in November is still quite an event in its own right. Shoppers queue up before opening hours—sometimes arriving straight from Thanksgiving dinner equipped with sleeping bags and cookstoves—ready to camp out as long as necessary to ensure they will be the first to grab "doorbuster" specials and score the most coveted items on their shopping list before stores have sold out. 

The juxtaposition of Thanksgiving with a day associated with unapologetic—and almost imperative—greed has spawned its fair share of social media commentary. My personal favorite is this sentiment seen on a Facebook poster: "Black Friday: Because only in America people trample others for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have." 

This sentiment is too true, as far as it goes. But while these paired events may be a distinctly American phenomenon, greed, it must be observed, is not. Every nation in the world has an interest in the dividends it pays. Nevertheless, we might agree that gratitude's dividends are more beneficial to humanity, even if they may be less interesting to economists.

What are these dividends?

Taking a number of studies together, it seems gratitude may be a fundamental key to happiness. One of the more intuitive ways gratitude contributes to happiness is by strengthening our relationships with family and friends. This is not simply because we evoke positive feelings in others when we thank them—but also because we feel pleasure ourselves when we make others feel appreciated. We also feel a higher degree of responsibility for their future welfare which encourages us to invest in strengthening the relationship further. This is a boost for us in all kinds of ways. We’re social beings, of course, so the stronger our relationships, the happier we tend to be in general. But there are more specific ways gratitude puts our happiness balance in the black.

Among the many researchers who have studied the effects of gratitude are Robert A. Emmons of the University of California-Davis and Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami. In 2003, they compared three randomly assigned groups of subjects over nine weeks, each of which had a distinct commission: Some were to report on five things they were grateful for in their lives. Others were told to record events that had irritated or annoyed them. A third group were given the neutral assignment to report on any events that had simply “had an impact.”

As you’ve likely guessed, the “gratitude” group reaped the most positive outcomes, both physically and psychologically. They were less likely to be ill, more likely to exercise, felt more positive emotions, slept longer and better, were more optimistic and felt more connected to others than those in the neutral or negative groups. They also were more likely to reach out to help someone else, or to offer emotional support to others. A few years after this, Emmons conducted a similar study with recipients of donated organs. Patients who kept “gratitude journals” scored higher in measures of mental health, general health and overall vitality than those who journaled about routine daily events.

Like Emmons and McCullough, researchers Giacomo Bono and Jeffrey J. Froh, authors of Making Grateful Kids, have also studied gratitude extensively, focusing particularly on children and teens. In thier study presented to the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2012, Bono and Froh discovered that “grateful teens are more likely than their less grateful peers to be happy, less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and less likely to have behavior problems at school.” As parents we can be grateful that it's never too late to help kids develop the habit of gratitude—or to develop it ourselves.

This capacity to change is especially welcome news in light of Todd Kashdan’s 2009 study suggesting that gratitude may not come as easily to men as to women.  Men seem to have been brought up to feel more burden and obligation when presented with gifts . . . leaving them to experience less gratitude. This sense of obligation was especially pronounced when the gift came from another man. “The way we get socialized as children affects what we do with our emotions as adults,” says Kashdan. “Because men are generally taught to control and conceal their softer emotions, this may be limiting their well-being.”

It must be acknowledged that there are sometimes more serious limitations that challenge our ability to find reasons for being grateful. In the wake of terrorist attacks, school shootings, natural disasters, interpersonal abuse and other tragedies it can seem almost an affront to those who are suffering to speak of gratitude. How easy it is to stand on the sidelines and suggest that people can be helped by looking for good in the midst of evil. And yet sometimes it's those who have suffered unspeakable evil who teach gratitude to those on the sidelines.

This is how researchers at the University of Southern California came to a greater understanding of how gratitude works in the brain. Their research, published September 30, 2015, in the journal Fronteirs In Psychologywas inspired by the stories of Holocaust survivors. 

“In the midst of this awful tragedy, there were many acts of bravery and life-saving aid,” said lead author Glenn Fox, a researcher at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC. “With the Holocaust, we only typically associate the awful things. But when you listen to the survivors, you also hear stories of incredible virtue, and gratitude for the help they received.”

According to USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith, Holocaust survivors said they found reasons to be grateful, "whether it was because of a stranger offering a bit of food or a neighbor providing a place to hide. These small acts of generosity helped them hold on to their humanity. That Glenn has been able to use testimonies in his incredible research on gratitude shows why it is so important to preserve the voices of people who lived through these dark times.”

This concept underlies the advice passed along by Fred Rogers, host of the long-running kids' TV show, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Always look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'" Certainly that is something to be grateful for. The supportive care of these "helpers" not only contributes to the immediate physical wellbeing of those they are helping, but also supports the survivors' psychological resilience—as well as that of observers—in the face of traumatic events.

Human nature being what it is, we haven't seen the last of such events. Journalistic nature being what it is, when they do occur we'll continue to see them played out over and over on platforms that intrude increasingly into the intimate spaces of our lives. With this in mind, we could do worse than to take some cues from the above research. Not only because it helps us, but because it inspires us to become "helpers" to others in times of trouble (remember the work of Emmons and McCullough).

In short? Look for things to be grateful for. If this is a tremendous effort for you, practice by journaling about the positive things in your life. We tend so easily to pick up on the negative, no matter how small its influence. Work at becoming just as adept at noticing the small positive things around youEven if you can only come up with five things a week, you stand a chance of improving your outlook.

Last, but perhaps most importantly, express gratitude for these positive things directly to those around you. As Westley observes in the classic movie, Princess Bride, "If you didn't say it, you didn't do it." You might feel grateful to someone, but if you don't tell them, you've omitted the most important key that unlocks the power of this crucial emotion. The human connection part.


More from Vision:

What's Good about Greed?
Healthy Families: Silence Is Not Golden
Society and Culture: Thanks, but No Thanks?
Family and Relationships: Raising Well-Connected Kids





Tags: family relationships, health benefits of gratitude

Family Food Fights: Communication Skills May Save the Holiday

Posted on Tue, Jun 02, 2015 @ 06:35 AM


Today's guest post is contributed by Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author of Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008), and Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2012). A resident scholar at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center, Dr. Nemzoff also speaks and blogs about intergenerational relationships.


Q: All my children and grandchildren are gathering for a week at a beach house we rented in Florida. We all get along well, but I worry that differences in lifestyle will lead to tensions. One of my daughters eats only organic foods, another is a vegetarian and allows no meat to touch her table, and the third eats anything in sight. Obviously, each set of grandchildren is brought up with very different dietary practices. My six grandchildren range in age from 3 months old to seven years. My fantasy is that we will have wonderful meals together as I believe that sharing a meal is a great bonding experience. For me, cooking for my family is a way to show them my love. But I fear that our table will turn into a battlefield. We have not all been together in several years, so I have not had the opportunity to confront this situation before.

A: You will not be able to please everyone, so don’t try. Instead facilitate a conversation amongst your children, which will help you all figure out how to manage. Let all your children know that you desire to have some family time, and ask for their suggestions as to how this might be accomplished. Make it clear that you are trying to respect the needs of each of your daughters and their families. You are not trying to change anyone’s practices.

While all three families have agreed to spend their break with you despite their different culinary needs, the dining table is a most contentious place in your family and therefore not the best place for family bonding. You might need to forego your dream of meals together, but you enjoy your higher goal of unifying your family by bonding in other ways such as playing games, going for walks, or going on a trip to the beach.

In order to make sure this week is pleasant for all, you must raise your concerns in advance either with each child individually or with all of them by email or conference call/video chat. Ideally, two of your daughters might agree to be strictly vegetarian for the week so you could all sit down in the same room. However, this compromise may not be acceptable to your daughters and their husbands. You will not know unless you ask. The following are five essential questions that must be answered for this experiment to succeed:

  1. Can we come to a compromise or do we need to have family times that do not involve food?

  2. Who will buy the food and for whom?

  3. Is everyone willing to pitch in for the expense of organic foods, or are you willing to just buy organic for the whole family?

  4. Are the others willing to follow each other’s most restrictive rules? If not, how will the kitchen be managed?

  5. Are the carnivores willing to forego meat for a week?

  6. Are the vegetarians comfortable eating in the same space where others are eating meat?

You may find that your daughters come up with some innovative ideas just like they did when they were young. In any case, this is good practice for all of them and their families as they negotiate our complex society.

Sometimes we need to modify our dreams to achieve them.


A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish Journal MA and is reprinted with permission.



Do You Take This In-Law . . . ? An Interview with Ruth Nemzoff

Gina Stepp interviews Brandeis University resident scholar Ruth Nemzoff about her latest book, Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family.


Parent Talk - An Interview With Ruth Nemzoff

Ruth Nemzoff is a resident scholar at Brandeis University. Vision interviewed her about her recent book covering parent and adult-child communication.


Tags: relationships, communication, extended family, holidays

Relationship Advice: Help! My Grandmother is Dating

Posted on Mon, May 04, 2015 @ 06:36 AM

Dating GrandmaToday's guest post is contributed by Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author of Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008), and Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2012). A resident scholar at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center, Dr. Nemzoff also speaks and blogs about intergenerational relationships.


Q: My 72-year-old grandmother is dating and the family is up in arms. Some of my aunts find this unseemly, though my grandfather died three years ago. My uncle is worried that this man will take all her money, which isn’t a lot. My cousins worry she will be too busy for us. I think my grandmother has a right to live her life. Any suggestions on how we might integrate this man into the family?


A: While it’s always wise to plan ahead, a few dates won’t necessarily lead to a long-term commitment. Some of your family members’ worries may be premature. However, it’s never too early to reflect on the complexity of extended family relationships.

Three years is long enough to mourn. Your grandmother has fulfilled her obligations to her husband. She is entitled to choose life. She is to be commended for not sitting around moping in her loneliness. Instead, she is being proactive in attempting to enrich her life. At the same time, she is relieving the extended family of the sole responsibility for her happiness. After all, with life expectancies high, she might have 20 or 30 more years. Why should she not have daily companionship?

Rest assured, it is not uncommon for adult children of any age to be miffed when their parents are not available on-demand. Many adult children fear abandonment when their parents have a new love interest. There is a two-year-old in each of us that expects our parents’ full attention, even when we are adults. Your grandmother has put a lot of time into the family. It is unlikely that your grandmother will forsake her children and all of you.

Family members express their love in many ways. The concerns of your aunts and uncles indicate that they care about their mother. Like parents, adult children can be overprotective and out of date. On the other hand, like parents, some of the children’s concerns have validity. 

Whether your grandmother marries this man or a different one, it’s time to make sure your grandmother’s financial affairs are in the order she wants them. Estate lawyers can help her protect whatever money she has, if she so desires. This will not only make your uncle feel better, it also gives your grandmother a chance to talk about other end of life issues. Paradoxically, though she is choosing life, it’s an opportunity to talk about death.

Fortunately, we live in times when women are more than the matriarchs of their families. They are also individuals. Your grandmother is both a loving presence and a person in her own right. Value and respect her for both her contributions to your family and to herself.



A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish Journal MA and is reprinted with permission.


Do You Take This In-Law . . . ? An Interview with Ruth Nemzoff

Gina Stepp interviews Brandeis University resident scholar Ruth Nemzoff about her latest book, Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family.

Parent Talk - An Interview With Ruth Nemzoff

Ruth Nemzoff is a resident scholar at Brandeis University. Vision interviewed her about her recent book covering parent and adult-child communication.

Tags: grandparents, extended family, dating and relationships

Relationship Advice: Dealing With an Overindulged Daughter-in-Law

Posted on Mon, Apr 13, 2015 @ 03:57 PM

Indulged daughter in lawToday's guest post is contributed by Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author of Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008), and Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2012). A resident scholar at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center, Dr. Nemzoff also speaks and blogs about intergenerational relationships.


Q. My son is engaged to a nurse from a wealthy family that gives her whatever she wants. I think it’s overindulgent, and fear that she will expect my son to support her in the same manner.


A. Just because parents give their children financial assistance into adulthood does not mean that they are necessarily spoiling them. Each family deals with money in its own way. Some parents believe they “spoil” the kids if they give them everything. Others, particularly families with disposable income, feel it is their joy and duty to share whatever they have to make their children’s lives easier.

The danger of giving too much money to children is that they will lack ambition. The girl in question is a nurse, which is hardly the profession of a spoiled brat. It seems that whatever her parents did with money, it did not squash her drive to achieve. She trained for a profession that is demanding and requires nurturing skills.

While to you she may seem entitled, she and her family may view it differently. Many parents these days subsidize rents and give money to their children while they are getting established in their careers. There are many motivations for financially helping one’s children.

You may fear that you will lose your son if he becomes enveloped in a family that can provide so much. Focus on the wonderful things you have to give the couple. While her parents may provide financial assistance, you can provide love, for example. Don’t assume that her parents are trying to manipulate your son. They may just be sharing their good fortune.

You may fear that your son’s fiancée will force him into debt, since she is used to a higher standard of living. Every couple must confront differences in lifestyles.

Monetary differences in lifestyle are no different than cultural divergences. Just because her family deals with money differently from yours does not imply that they are wrong and you are right. Harping on the dangers of having too much money will only alienate you from your son.

Instead of worrying and judging, try to enjoy this happy time in your son’s life. Your son is a grown man, and he must make decisions in his life.



A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish Journal MA and is reprinted with permission.



Do You Take This In-Law . . . ? An Interview with Ruth Nemzoff

Gina Stepp interviews Brandeis University resident scholar Ruth Nemzoff about her latest book, Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family.

Parent Talk - An Interview With Ruth Nemzoff

Ruth Nemzoff is a resident scholar at Brandeis University. Vision interviewed her about her recent book covering parent and adult-child communication.


Tags: family relationships, in-laws, extended family

Human Trafficking Awareness Month: A Quest to Free the World

Posted on Mon, Jan 12, 2015 @ 09:41 AM

HumanTraffickingToday's guest post in honor of Human Trafficking Awareness Month is written by Shannon Keith—an abolitionist, speaker, and the CEO of International Princess Project.  Ten years ago, she left her successful career as a corporate sales representative to start a global non-profit, to provide training and jobs for survivors of human trafficking in India. 


We are well into Human Trafficking Awareness Month, which brings light to the terrors that still exist in nations across the world. As U.S. President Barack Obama noted, “Today, millions of men, women, and children are victims of human trafficking. This modern-day slavery occurs in countries throughout the world and in communities across our Nation. These victims face a cruelty that has no place in a civilized world: children are made to be soldiers, teenage girls are beaten and forced into prostitution, and migrants are exploited and compelled to work for little or no pay. It is a crime that can take many forms, and one that tears at our social fabric, debases our common humanity, and violates what we stand for as a country and a people.”

Unfortunately, there are some key facts about human trafficking that may not always be understood by the general public. For instance:

1.  Human trafficking and forced prostitution have many different faces.  

Of the approximately 20 million slaves worldwide, there are an estimated 4.5 million people enslaved in the sex trade, according to the International Labour Organization. The news stories that talk about children who are kidnapped, sold, and raped, are true. But not all of the stories unfold the same way, except that victims almost always come from extreme poverty and extreme brokenness. Some are sold by their own families, desperate to feed their remaining children. Some are young brides who become widowed and have no other way to support themselves. Some are born into prostitution, the children of sex-workers, and given no other options. Some try to escape the life and succeed temporarily, but are lured back due to lack of family support, drug addiction, or not having anywhere else to go.  

2.  Survivors of sex trafficking don’t choose to be prostituted, and therefore, the word “prostitute” shouldn’t really be a noun.  

Women and men, girls and boys, are prostituted—not prostitutes.  All of them have come to that life through victimization and abuse. This is contrary to the Pretty Woman Hollywood narratives, or the semi-derogatory notion that people would make an informed choice to prostitute themselves. Human trafficking organizations have made huge strides in telling the truth of how desperation, objectification, abuse, addiction, and poverty can make people vulnerable to becoming enslaved.

3.  The problem is endless and overwhelming and impossible for one person or entity to fix.  

To truly make a dent in the problem, and move toward abolition, there are multiple wars that would need to be waged. Laws must be changed. For example, in many U.S. states the prostitute is arrested for the crime, but not the “customer.” Corruption in law enforcement and the judicial system must be exposed and ended. Rescue organizations must have more safe houses and recovery programs to place women and children in once rescued. Prevention strategies must be put in place, such as making sure children are able to stay in school to receive education and job-training. For this to happen, collaboration must happen between government, non-profits, businesses and educators. Each holds an integral piece of the puzzle of ending the cycle.

4.  Until the “consumer” of prostitution is addressed, and the trafficker is stopped, sexual slavery cannot end.  

Underlying the problem is simple supply and demand. Sex-trafficking is a global 99 billion-dollar industry and a trafficker can make $21,800 per victim of commercial sexual exploitation, according to the global anti-slavery organization Not For Sale. Typically it is the victim of trafficking, not the trafficker, who is prosecuted if arrests are made. Tougher laws are needed for traffickers. Also, in the last ten years, there has been an outpouring of help for the victims of prostitution. There is not, however, a lot of discussion about how to stop or prosecute the (typically) men who are drawn to buy sex. And until the sellers and consumers are stopped there can be no end in sight. 

5.  Awareness is increasing; now there must be more energy and resources placed into solutions. 

In the last 10 years, much awareness has been raised. Awareness was needed, in order to inspire action. But it is now time for action and workable solutions for people. Awareness without action can lead to further exploitation of survivors. Internet readers can access detailed accounts of the sufferings many of these people endure. If these accounts are not used to bring justice, aid, and prevention, they become only sensationalist stories which border on exploiting these victims again. Their stories must be told, but they must be told in hope of bringing justice to those still trapped in sex-work—and ultimately—to prevent others from ever being brought into it.  

6. There is hope.

Amidst the tragedy and hopelessness involved in this topic, there is much to encourage us.  Students, mothers, fathers, police-officers, teachers, film-makers, celebrities, doctors, therapists, activists and business-leaders are working together to increase the impact they can have in solving this problem. Women and girls are coming to safe houses and learning viable trades in order to support themselves with dignity. Lives are being healed and rebuilt. Laws are being changed. Cases are being prosecuted. However, there is much still to be done and many minds and hearts to be changed before there can be any kind of complete solution.

Organizations that are currently working toward abolition include: Not For SaleFree the Slaves, and


Special Report: Enslaved

Can the world be freed from slavery? The 200th anniversary of British and American legislation outlawing human trafficking came and went in 2007. Yet, in these nations and throughout the world, slavery and the slave trade are flourishing realities. interviews Kevin Bales of Free the Slaves, child soldier Ishmael Beah, and Michael Wessells, who has dedicated his life to transitioning child soldiers away from violence and into peaceful, age-appropriate civilian roles. 

Tags: Social Issues, slavery, human trafficking

Parenting Challenges: Playing With a Full Deck

Posted on Tue, Apr 01, 2014 @ 06:00 AM


When we as parents see unwanted behavior in children, one of our first unspoken reactions may be "How can I use my authority to stop this behavior?" But is the authority card always the most effective one in the parenting deck? 

Following on from that question, if parents don't play that card in a given instance, does it mean they're giving up their authority in an attempt to become their child's "best friend"?

The answer to both questions, of course, is no. There are many more than two alternatives available to parents. Sometimes there's no scepter on the most powerful trump card, and "heart cards" can often be our best friend without undermining our position as parent. In fact, we can opt to use the unique bond we form with our children to help them make a number of important adjustments in attitude and behavior even when—or perhaps especially when—it's clear that the authority card isn't working.

One of the most important things for parents to keep in mind is that kids pick up the attitudes and behaviors they see in us, and not only the good ones. To a great degree, you might say, we've dealt them their hand. Have they seen us pout, or even melt down, when we don't get our way? Do we express disrespect for other people, whether in our face-to-face interactions or behind a friend’s back when we're alone with our children?

If we stop to wonder why kids pick up our attitudes so easily, we might come to the conclusion that they admire us—that they want to be like us. But whether they admire us or not, they have a deep-seated need for our love and approval. If we don't express positive messages in equal measure to the negative feedback we tend to offer with excessive generosity, that missing dimension in their lives will have a detrimental effect on their ability to function in relationships and in society.

On the other hand, a child's intense need to bond with us can actually be our parenting ace in the hole. If we remember to give them positive attention and approval when their behavior is appropriate—or, in some cases, when it has simply improved (for instance, if the behavior we're trying to change was deeply entrenched)—we can help them make swift and permanent changes even in behavior that has resisted the most consistent use of our authority card.

Unfortunately, most of us tend to ignore behavior until we see something we don't like, and of course, by then it's too late in the game to have much hope of easily changing its course. 

What's a good winning strategy? Shape good behavior by identifying the positive behaviors you want to see, setting the stage for them with the right cues, and then responding quickly to reinforce positive behaviors as soon as you see them by offering the affection and approval your child craves. Appropriate punishment, used sparingly, has its place; but if punishment is your primary childrearing strategy, you're only playing with half the deck.

What if your child is an adolescent? Is it too late to change a reactive approach and begin laying the groundwork for better behavior? 

If the whole family commits to making some changes, it's almost never too late. But some families have become so entrenched in negative cycles of interaction that finding the way out can be very difficult. It's rarely enough to send the "problem child" to a boot camp for an attitude adjustment. While we're all responsible for our own behavior, we are also deeply affected by others in our relationship network. People within family systems don't just act, they interact; we decide which card to play based to some degree on what others have played. 

Authentic, long-term change requires that parents engage in some honest introspection, taking as keen an interest in their own behavior as they do in their teen's. Your adolescent may be playing badly, but he or she is not playing solitaire.

As a plethora of research tells us, the bond between parents and children from birth all the way through adolescence is crucial to their brain development and to the quality of their mental and physical health as they mature. Considering that our children are our legacy to the future, it's clear that this is a high-stakes game, and when we teach our children well, everyone wins. Parents, are you in? It's time to ante up.



Parenting the Challenging Child
Difficult. Headstrong. Stubborn. If any of these describe your child or teen, an innovative set of parenting ABCs can help toward solving the problem. 

Tags: parenting, family relationships, child development