06/13/14

When good people do bad things in groups


Mob MentalityThe headline is taken from a piece on Science Daily on a study about how groups change personal behaviour and morality. The study is reported on the MIT website. I’ve seen that change myself, many times over the years, and most recently locally. The study adds intelligence on the neurology of how such group activity changed people.

The report itself is called “Reduced self-referential neural response during intergroup competition predicts competitor harm,” which of course would have most people’s eyes glazing over. But the authors of the report start by asking a salient question:

Why do interactions become more hostile when social relations shift from “me versus you” to “us versus them”? 

Why, indeed? Why do people who seem rational and even friendly individually become angry bullies in a group?The authors themselves offer a hypothesis:

One possibility is that acting with a group can reduce spontaneous self-referential processing in the moral domain and, in turn, facilitate competitor harm. We tested this hypothesis in an fMRI experiment in which (i) participants performed a competitive task once alone and once with a group; (ii) spontaneous self-referential processing during competition was indexed unobtrusively by activation in an independently localized region of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) associated with self-reference; and (iii) we assessed participants’ willingness to harm competitors versus teammates. As predicted, participants who showed reduced mPFC activation in response to descriptions of their own moral behaviors while competing in a group were more willing to harm competitors. These results suggest that intergroup competition (above and beyond inter-personal competition) can reduce self-referential processing of moral information, enabling harmful behaviors towards members of a competitive group.

That’s fairly technical and likely not eyebrow-raising for us non-techies. Is this relevant to you and me, to our neighbours and friends and our daily lives? Yes, and very much so.

It means that our personal moral compass may not work, may be disabled when we interact in groups that identify an us-them dichotomy, or see outsiders as competitors. It explains why groups can become uncivil, nasty, aggressive, even violent although their individual members may not be.

It also suggests that to break away from group dominance, one needs to become introspective about our own values and ethics, and one must work hard to recover that moral compass.

We only need read the stories of the brave but estranged family members the late Fred Phelps, leader of the hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church, who broke away from his control. Twenty-three-year-old Zach Phelps-Roper broke from the church recently, and spoke to the Topeka Capital-Journal about his decision:

Empathy and unconditional love, he said, are the keys to solving the world’s problems — a lesson he has learned contrasting his time inside the WBC compound and the past nearly 11 weeks outside it.
“I feel like I have unconditional love for every person around the world,” Phelps-Roper said Friday. “The Westboro Baptist Church sees things differently than I do now.”
The church he grew up in was too busy pointing out problems to look for solutions, he said. He has been able to spend the past two months investigating the second part of that equation.
His conclusion: “Most problems come from a lack of understanding of how we affect other people and things around us. I feel like I have found the holy grail, the overarching solution to solving all of our society’s problems, and I want to learn more. I want to do more.”

What is interesting to me is that Zach, although he broke from the abusive church and its leader, and rediscovered his own moral compass, he also retains considerable religious faith – even a fundamentalist view I would have expected him to abandon. So one can break free of a group’s dominance yet retain shared core beliefs., just behave differently – more normally, more civilly.

That was eye-opening. It certainly isn’t the experience of all Westboro members who have freed themselves of its grip (read this piece about another family member’s struggle; Libby Phelps-Alvarez), although most have said in the interviews I’ve read they are kinder, gentler, more empathetic and humane since leaving the church. I expect most people who break free of any group’s control feel that way.

Continue reading

03/16/12

Is a wandering mind ADHD or just natural reaction?


Attention disorder?Serendipity: this image appeared on Facebook this week, followed by an article on Science Daily today, titled, “A Wandering Mind Reveals Mental Processes and Priorities.” The combined impact got me thinking about attention and focus.

A new study investigating the mental processes underlying a wandering mind reports a role for working memory, a sort of a mental workspace that allows you to juggle multiple thoughts simultaneously… The new study, published online March 14 in the journal Psychological Science … reports that a person’s working memory capacity relates to the tendency of their mind to wander during a routine assignment.

As someone whose mind is on a permanent hike across the mental landscape, and meanders through thoughts, ideas, tasks and imagination frequently and seemingly randomly, I am interested in the psychology and biology of wandering minds and attention deficit disorders. I love it when people call it “multi-tasking,” because it sounds like I’m doing it intentionally. To me, it’s just being distracted.

Is that bad? I read a dozen books at any time, a chapter here, a chapter there. I read from at least three different books every night before bed, sometimes five or six. I have the attention span of a literary fruit fly. But I consume books and read voraciously.

However, I tend to be an ADD/ADHD agnostic when it comes to the popular idea that kids need to be medicated to focus their brains. I get nervous when drug companies promote their drugs as a cure for things that no one seems to have heard of before the drugs hit the shelf. Especially when the market for ADHD drugs tops $4 billion a year.

Does that make ADHD a fad or an invention? Some writers like Stephen Herr seem to think so:

ADHD became a popular diagnosis in the 1980s as more parents went to work and the role of schools and teachers changed… At one time, ADHD appeared to be a reasonable theory that might help people address genuine concerns…The creation of ADHD as a psychological disorder was in part an attempt to deal with some of the difficulties of raising children. Unfortunately, that attempt has fallen short and led to new problems in recent years.
On a diagnostic level, ADHD is problematic. After generations of research, there is still no test for ADHD, nor is there a standard diagnostic measure within the profession…
What started out as a theory articulated by professionals is now an urban legend… has helped fuel a pharmacological intervention that would have seemed absurd two generations ago. As of 2006, 4.5 million kids have been diagnosed with ADHD, with nearly half taking medication. In 2008, the ADHD pharmaceutical market was worth $4 billion.
Another problem with our fixation on ADHD is that it is not working. Again, even after generations of research there is no evidence that suggests placing children on Schedule II drugs such as Ritalin, Adderall, or Vyvanse improves their intellectual abilities over an extended period, or that these drugs affect children with ADHD any differently than they affect any other child. A stimulant is a stimulant is a stimulant. What we do know is that the use of these drugs can be debilitating, addictive, and deadly.

I’m not a doctor, pharmacist or psychiatrist, but when I read articles like this one, I have to wonder if ADHD is a real disorder or a populist fad:

It is impossible to judge how much of the epidemic is influenced by parents and teachers having less time and patience for their unruly kids. Or by the fact that authorization for special services requires there be an ADD diagnosis? I think these are sometimes quite important, but overall much less a factor than the huge drug company push.

Then I read this in the Science Daily report:

The result is the first positive correlation found between working memory and mind wandering and suggests that working memory may actually enable off-topic thoughts.
“What this study seems to suggest is that, when circumstances for the task aren’t very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they’re doing,” Smallwood says.

ADHD cartoonOkay. So the definition of ADHD is, “ADHD is a problem with inattentiveness, over-activity, impulsivity, or a combination. For these problems to be diagnosed as ADHD, they must be out of the normal range for a child’s age and development.” Which sounds to me like the definition of any kid stuck in school. So what is the “normal range” of development for humans whose brains are growing, changing and developing while they’re being taught?

And the symptoms also read like those some parents ascribe to the use of wireless technology: “Impaired concentration, Loss of short term memory, ADHD.” Is it ADHD or wireless? Which is the popular disorder du jour?

Hmm. Maybe some of these kids just have wandering minds. Maybe they’re just being kids: inquisitive, restless and bored. Maybe what’s wrong isn’t with them, it’s with the educational system. Maybe it’s tied into our schools’ primitive task-reward system that doesn’t engage them:

As Science Daily continues,

Where your mind wanders may be an indication of underlying priorities being held in your working memory, whether conscious or not, he says. But it doesn’t mean that people with high working memory capacity are doomed to a straying mind. The bottom line is that working memory is a resource and it’s all about how you use it, he says. “If your priority is to keep attention on task, you can use working memory to do that, too.”

Stephen Herr – an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Studies, Leadership and Counseling at Murray State University – concludes:

On a scientific level, we get past ADHD the same way we got past phrenology and eugenics; we demand that the theories that are being expounded be based in fact and verified by research. On a societal level, we take responsibility for the fact that the diagnostic labels we have accepted, and pharmacological interventions we have embraced, are harming children and that we have no right to ask children to bear those harms. On a personal level, we place the difficulties of childhood within the context of the life of each child, and within the nature of childhood itself. We make a commitment to helping children be their best selves, and above all, we do the best we can to make sure that we never use our positions of authority to harm anyone.

ADHD cartoonMaybe a wandering mind isn’t a disease that has to be treated with drugs. Maybe it’s just a natural childhood reaction to the changing state of schools, the changing nature of parenthood, information overload, peer pressure, and too much attention wasted on competing entertainment demands provided by those substitute parents: TV/music/video games.

I’m sure glad no one diagnosed me with it when I was in school. I’d probably still be drugged.