psychologists


I recently read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. The hillbillies referenced in the title are white, working class Americans of Scots-Irish descent whose ancestors settled in Appalachia. Though raised in Appalachian culture, Vance didn’t grow up in Appalachia proper; a few decades before he was born his grandparents had migrated from Jackson, Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, attracted by the good-paying jobs at the steel plant there.

As with many other rust belt cities, the Middletown factory has been in decline for decades. The conventional explanation for the crisis among poor working class whites is economic: there aren’t enough good-paying jobs available. Vance, however, thinks that “this story of economic insecurity is, at best, incomplete.” (p. 13; all page numbers are from the large-print edition) He draws on the example of a summer job he had at a tile distribution center in Middleville. Though the work was stable and the pay was decent, the managers couldn’t find minimally reliable workers to fill open positions. Why the lack of decent workers in an economically depressed community? Vance wrote his book in order to explore “what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” (p. 16)

In what follows, I’m not going to summarize Vance’s memoir; for those looking for such a summary, consider reading the review in the Washington Post. I’m more interested in exploring one aspect of the crisis, namely the difficulty those from working class Appalachia seem to have in finding a suitable master narrative.

The term ‘master narrative’ comes from narrative psychology (which is described well in this article), a branch of psychology which holds that our identities consist largely of the life stories we construct. Master narratives are like blueprints or templates we follow in constructing our life stories (and thus, in constructing our lives). Cultures typically provide one or more master narratives that a young member of that culture can use to structure her self-concept and guide her choices. In my case, I followed the master narrative that I had seen demonstrated by my father and grandfather: diligent at school, then a hard worker; family oriented; my meaning and purpose found in the Christian faith. Though the broad strokes of our enacted narratives were similar, there were differences in the details: unlike them, my story didn’t include service to my country as a citizen-soldier but did include a commitment to the intellect and life of the mind that wasn’t important to them. Neither they nor I authored the template we used for thinking about ourselves or living our lives; all the elements were drawn from our cultural setting.

So how have the working class poor lost a master narrative? Vance’s story includes numerous ways in which the master narrative that once held sway lost its relevance. For example, he tells of his grandmother (“Memaw”) and her brothers reacting violently towards anyone who threatened family possessions or honor–Memaw at twelve shooting a man who stole the family’s cow, for example, or Uncle Teabury making a man who insulted his sister eat her underpants. Vance reflects, “…these were classic good and evil stories, and my people were on the right side. My people were extreme, but extreme in the service of something–defending a sister’s honor or ensuring that a criminal paid for his crimes.” (p. 30) Defending personal and family honor was a component of their master narrative.

But what happens when you work in a factory and are expected to let minor slights to your honor go by rather than disrupt the workplace? Even worse, what happens if what threatens your honor is not some jerk talking about your sister but elites who look at you with contempt or corporations that cut your pay to the point that your family needs to rely on food stamps? You lose the ability to defend your honor and that aspect of the master narrative is no longer available to you.

Here’s another example. Vance’s grandparents both believed fervently in hard work and personal responsibility. Papaw labored at the steel plant every day, proud that he earned much more than did the relatives back in Kentucky. Mamaw told J.D. “Never be like those f*cking losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can be anything you want to.” (p. 56,7)

But what happens if you grow up and the steel mill has stopped hiring? And you’re told that you should go to college, but no one in your family ever has and you have no idea of how to get there? Then, you’re likely to lose hard work and personal responsibility as part of the master narrative; you may give lip service to them, but you no longer live according to them.

Besides losing elements of their master narrative pertaining to honor, responsibility, and the value of hard work, the working class whites described by Vance have lost their master narrative regarding who or what they adulate or worship. Vance notes that “As a culture, we had no heroes.” p. 273) This is significant, for heroes are exemplars–people whose lives are worth imitating. Those without heroes are likely to drift through life with little sense of direction.

Regarding worship, Vance makes this striking assertion:

“Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.” p. 275

I suspect this is an overstatement. A good portion of Appalachia is in the Bible Belt, and even casual Bible readers learn that the God of the Bible forbids his followers from worshiping anything besides him. Thus, at least the more devout in the culture would be motivated to avoid the idolatry of in elevating the nation to the point where it is a source of ultimate meaning. Even so, Vance has identified a real problem here: the master narrative of national pride has been lost. He notes that ” much of my family’s, my neighborhood’s, and my community’s identity derives from our love of country.” (p. 234) The country that they so loved let them down:

“Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society. We felt trapped in two seemingly unwinnable wars, in which a disproportionate share of the fighters came from our neighborhood, and in an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream–a steady wage.” (p.. 273,4)

The master narrative associated with love of nation and with the American Dream no longer seems viable, and no other story has come along to take its place. Vance’s book has been seen by many as providing insight into the Trump voter. If this is so, perhaps it would be fair to see the Trump voter as someone desperate to reclaim a master narrative by which to live his or her life. Success at this project won’t be accomplished by deporting immigrants, repealing Obamacare, or enacting protectionist legislation. Ultimately it’s about restoring honor and making it possible for those who were disillusioned to have heroes again. It’s about lower class working whites being able to stitch together lives they are proud of.

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On his blog The Quest for the Good Life, Andy Tix wrote a post titled “Confessions of a Trump Skeptic.” He admitted to having been overly preoccupied with politics over the past six months and to having despaired over the results of the election in the U.S. I can relate; in fact, I wrote a similar post in November. What struck me most about Andy’s post, though, was his account of the Introduction to Psychology class he taught the day after the election was held:

” I was expecting people to be confused and fearful like me, but what I’ll most remember were some students ‘high-fiving’ in celebration.

“The topic of the day just so happened to be the social psychology of prejudice, and so I began the class hesitantly asking my students to comment how their reading connected with their experience of the election. A young woman cautiously raised her hand, and remarked that ‘the election has caused me to shut down in fear.’ I asked why, again assuming she would be like me. I’ll never forget her response: she said it had felt impossible to tell anyone how she had voted for our new President-elect because of worry that they would regard her as a bigot.”

Andy quickly realized that he had made assumptions about those who had voted differently from him that in many cases were inaccurate. In other words, he had stereotyped, thinking of Trump supporters as all alike. He had judged them as “uncaring, ignorant, unenlightened fools.” Perhaps some are. But for every white supremacist or Neo-Nazi who voted for the Republican ticket there were dozens who were more concerned with issues such as the decline of the middle class, the growth of government regulation, or the character of the Democratic nominee. Among them were both of my siblings and my mother.

Andy includes in his post a response he gave on Facebook to a friend who was struggling with issues of faith and politics. He wrote the following:

“Part of the lesson here for me is to be humble enough to really try to understand the appeal of a man like Trump to basically good people like many of my family members and friends who voted for him. I feel like I need to do a better job of listening to people different from me–particularly those with different ways of thinking about issues such as these.”

There’s an irony in our not listening well to those different from us. Logically, we are least likely to be able to correctly predict the thought patterns of those who are most different from us. These, then, would be the people we would need to listen to most carefully in order to get any sort of understanding of how they reason about issues. In contrast, those who express opinions much like our own on a wide variety of issues probably think about the world much as we do, so we don’t need to listen as carefully or probe as deeply in order to understand their reasoning processes. Why then, do we do the opposite of what makes sense– why do we listen only briefly and superficially to those who differ from us, but carefully to those who share our opinions? And why then are we so sure we understand those who are different from us when we haven’t given them much of a hearing?

Perhaps part of the reason we tend not to listen to those who are different from us is the outgroup homogeneity effect–the tendency to view all members of some group of which we aren’t members as alike. In contrast, we see the members of our own group as more varied. I’m part of the ‘group’ of Clinton voters, but offhand can think of at least a dozen people I know who are members of what is for me the ‘outgroup:’ Trump voters. They all are white, but other than this one common feature they vary tremendously–in demographic characteristics such as age and gender, but also in their degree of enthusiasm for their candidate and their reasons for voting as they did. I’ve talked with a few of them in depth about the election, and it’s evident that the differences among them outweigh the commonalities.

Andy mentioned the need for humility. Besides empathy, that’s probably the quality most lacking as we look across the political divide. The psalmist writes about taking a stance of humility before God:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother….” (From Psalm 131, NRSV)

I wonder whether psalmist’s aversion to occupying his thoughts “with things too great and marvelous for me” pertains not only to the proper way to approach God but also the proper way to think about others. My imagination can never encompass the totality of their feelings, beliefs, and motives. It’s only when in humility I give up my conviction that I know what they are thinking that I can truly hear what they have to say. That’s something I have to remind myself of again and again.

Image from democracynow.org

Image from democracynow.org

“Greenery (or Even Photos of Trees) Can Make Us Happier” proclaims the headline of a NYT article by Gretchen Reynolds describing a recent study of the effects of seeing photos of the natural world. Looking at her summary and at the study itself, I noticed that the research isn’t so much about happiness as it is about handling stress.

A previous study had found that research participants who took a walk through a parkland had less anxiety and performed better on a test of working memory than did participants who walked along a busy street. Were the benefits due to the greenery itself or other elements of the parkland walk (more sunlight, fewer noxious fumes, other strollers who were themselves relaxed), though? The study that Reynolds describes, conducted by Dutch researcher Magdalena van den Berg and colleagues. is one of several that provide controlled exposure to natural phenomena in order to analyze the various possible effects nature has on us. This study controlled what research participants experienced by showing them pictures of “urban settings with ample greenery.” These settings were fairly ordinary–no soaring mountains or splendid waterfalls. There was a control condition in which participants viewed photos of urban scenes with little or no greenery. Here are examples of the greenery and non-greenery pictures:

Image from Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2015 Dec; 12(12)

Image from Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2015 Dec; 12(12)

After viewing either greenery or city scenes, participants took an arithmetic test designed to be stressful. The researchers state that “the difficulty of the arithmetic problems was automatically adapted to the user performance to be just beyond the individual’s capacity….” Just beyond our capacity–isn’t that typical of how life is? Oy vey! In addition, while solving problems participants were assaulted by a noxious noise and received false feedback indicating that they were performing more poorly than had previous test takers. After taking the test, participants were again shown one or the other set of photos.

The researchers included measures of both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system activity. The sympathetic nervous system increases bodily activation, releasing adrenaline and increasing heart rate and blood pressure to produce the fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for “rest and digest” functions, promoting the activity of the intestines and glands but slowing heart rate and reducing other components of bodily arousal. Pictures of natural scenes  more than pictures of urban scenes resulted in greater recovery via activating the parasympathetic nervous system.  There were no differences when it came to the sympathetic nervous system measure.

The study authors describe recovery from stress as a process of restoration, defined as a “return to unaffected affective, cognitive and psychophysiological functioning.” In this study, viewing mundane pictures of trees, grass, and shrubbery aided with restoration. Most of us have significant stress and need to be restored. van den Berg recommends we accomplish this by visiting nature or looking outside to see greenery. Reynolds adds that, if you can’t see the real thing, you can always “set your screen saver to show trees.”

Reading the study, I thought about how much nature I encounter on a regular basis. Quite a bit, it turns out. The house where I live has grass, shrubs, flowers, and a small wooded area. Do I actually pay attention to these things, though? I admit that when I walk out the door I’m often so focused on where I’m going that I ignore what’s around me. Spring flowers were blooming for days before I happened to notice them. I need to be more mindful of my surroundings, particularly the greenery that’s all about.

The last few weeks have actually been great in that respect. I’m putting in a small garden, and even I can’t ignore the trees and grass (and weeds!) around me when I’m out digging in the dirt. My sister and brother-in-law recently took my 90-year-old mom to a local nature center and I tagged along. An hour and a half walking in the woods and wetlands was a mega-dose of nature! I certainly felt restored afterwards and was in a particularly good mood. Maybe Reynolds is right; greenery doesn’t just aid in recovery from stress, it evokes happiness.

My mom and sister by the wetlands.

My mom and sister by the wetlands.

Tomás Fano/flickr

Tomás Fano/flickr

Is it hard to be alone with your thoughts? French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that ”All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” That seems like an exaggeration, but there’s recent research confirming the idea that we have a hard time sitting by ourselves with nothing but our brains to entertain us.

A team of researchers led by University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson had research participants sit alone in a room for anywhere from 6 to 15 minutes. As reported in The Atlantic, over the course of 6 studies, 58% of the participants rated the difficulty of the task above the midpoint on a numerical scale, and 42% rated their level enjoyment below the midpoint.

That still means that a substantial number of participants ranked their enjoyment at or above the midpoint. Nonetheless, there is additional evidence that many people found the task unpleasant. Participants rated activities such as reading magazines or doing crossword puzzles far preferable to sitting with their thoughts. When participants were assigned to do the task at home, 32% admitted to cheating. And, amazingly, some participants preferred electric shock to their thoughts.

In the study involving shock, participants were hooked up to a generator and gave themselves a jolt of current before having to sit alone with their thoughts. Taking only the data from those participants who said they would be willing to pay money to not experience the shock again (thus presumably culling out the stray masochist from the sample), a quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men gave themselves at least one shock during the period of time when they were alone with nothing to do but think.

Is the inability to sit quietly and reflect just a problem for Instagraming, Tweeting, Facebooking Millennials? No: enjoyment of the task was unrelated to either age or social media use. Perhaps our discomfort with such stillness is a modern phenomenon, but, if so, it seems that it is a feature of Modernism in the broad sense, going back at least to the 17th century, when Pascal penned the above comment.

“Be still, and know that I am God” the psalmist wrote (Psalm 46, NIV), suggesting that stillness is intimately associated with knowledge of God. Many of us desire to know God, but, if we are infected with the restlessness of the age, we may have difficulty sitting quietly enough to sense God’s presence. Perhaps, if we could make it our habit to sit and enter our interior space, we would find that we would plumb not just our own depths, but the heart of the ever-holy, ever-faithful, ever-loving One. We would then sense a power that electric current can’t hope to emulate!

A few years ago, described a report of the work of psychologist Cliff Arnall, who found that the third Monday in January is the unhappiest day of the year. According to that study, we have two weeks yet to spiral down to the nadir of happiness. Today I learned that there is apparently some disagreement about the most dolorous day. News organizations are describing today as the most depressing day of the year. Again, British researchers were involved (it seems the British are more interested than the rest of us in unhappiness). These researchers looked at the content of tweets each day over the past three years and identified January 6 as the low point. A common theme in the tweets for this day was guilt over broken New Year’s resolutions. Also, a British organization that helps people file for divorce (Britain again!) has designated the first Monday in January as Divorce Monday, the day that divorce filings are highest.

So, which day is really the lowest day of the year? I’m not too happy about the weather today (snow, with wind chills to 30 below), but otherwise I’m feeling pretty good. I neither made any resolutions nor will file for divorce, so I guess that makes me a misery laggard.

There are a couple ironies about this story. First, the British researchers in the recent study were commissioned by a firm that makes a high-protein dairy drink named Upbeat. Why are Upbeat folks interested in unhappiness? Also, today happens to be the feast of Epiphany, celebrating the wise men bringing gifts to the baby Jesus and ushering in the season of Epiphany, which will last until Lent. The term “epiphany” has to do with a manifestation or appearance of the divine, as in the manifestation of Christ’s divinity to the Magi. Thus, for me and millions of others for whom today is associated with God having become human, today is definitely day of joy.

epiphany

As has been widely reported, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2013 is “selfie.” The Oxford folks helpfully provide a definition: a selfie is “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” Facebook posts are teeming with selfies. Even an old guy like me who hardly ever posts on Facebook or its many cousins has taken a few of them. Celebrity selfies have a huge following, with whole websites devoted to the latest self-made images of the stars (the accompanying pictures of Justin Beiber and Hilary Duff come from http://celeb-selfies.com/.

Justin-Bieber-2013-selfieHilary-Duff-selfie

The coronation of “selfie” as word of the year resulted in a blizzard of cultural analysis. Jennifer O’Connell huffs that the selfie is symptomatic of our ever-increasing narcissism. Navneet Alang responds to the narcissism charge by noting that humans have long sought to document their activities; the only thing that is new is how public that documentary process has become. Rachel Simmons regards selfies as a form of self-affirmation and thus beneficial for a prime group of selfie practitioners, teenage girls. And Noah Berlatsky faults other commenters for claiming that all selfies have the same meaning; in his view, selfies are works of art, and each conveys its own unique message.

Besides thinking about what selfies reveal about the selves of those who take and post them, it is useful to consider how taking selfies shapes the self. In the article cited above, Navneet Alang touches on that question. Here’s what he says:

“Now that so many more people have access to a space to put their identities out there, it may seem like people have suddenly become self-involved, when in fact, all it means is that there is a new more potent medium and shape for an old social fact.
“The selfie is thus a symbol of a slightly shifting sense of self, one that is more aware of how we always function in at least two modes at once, the private and the public, the internal and the external.”

Perhaps the change in awareness has a greater impact than Alang thinks. “Self-consciousness” is the term that social psychologists use to refer to the habitual tendency to be self-aware (the material on self-consciousness that follows are drawn from Steven Franzoi’s Social Psychology, 6th ed.). There are two types of self-consciousness: private self consciousness, the tendency to be aware of private aspects of the self, and public self-consciousness, the tendency to be aware of publically displayed personal features. These traits are distinct, so that a person can be low on both, high on both, or a mixture of the two. Taking a selfie seems to foster public self-awareness, and taking lots of them probably fosters a more habitual state of public self-consciousness (that’s my surmise; Franzoi doesn’t address selfies). Even if taking selfies doesn’t diminish private self-consciousness (whether it does or not is a research question) those who take and post lots of them may develop the characteristics that have been found to be associated with high private self-consciousness. According to Franzoi, these include greater concern about how others view oneself, more conformity to social norms, more concern about one’s physical appearance, and a greater tendency to withdraw from embarrassing situations.

If selfies and other social media phenomena shape the 21st-century self, what direction might that self take? To the extent that these phenomena increase public self-consciousness, it seems that the self might evolve towards being highly aware of its public face, anxious about how that face is perceived, concerned about being physically attractive, averse to bucking group standards, and more isolated. Given these possibilities, I don’t think I’ll be taking and posting many selfies. Since I’m on the subject, though, I’ve posted below one of the few selfies I’ve taken, photographed (the old-fashioned way, with camera and tripod) in St. Paul’s Covent Garden, London.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert explained that we aren’t very good at all at anticipating how happy some future experience will make us.  Gilbert has gone on to look at how well we anticipate other aspects of the future.  According to a New York Times article published earlier this year, Gilbert and a team of researchers have found that we aren’t very good at predicting how different we will be years from now.  In particular, we tend to think that we won’t change much despite evidence that most of us change considerably during our lives.  The researchers dub this phenomenon the “end of history illusion.”

Research participants ranging in age from 18 to 68 reported their past and present personality traits and preferences and estimated how these would change in the future.  The typical participant expected much less future change than would be expected based on the changes that others had undergone in the decades the participants were entering.  As John Tierney, the Times reporter, put it, “the typical 20-year-old woman’s predictions for her next decade were not nearly as radical as the typical 30-year-old woman’s recollection of how much she had changed in her 20s. This sort of discrepancy persisted among respondents all the way into their 60s.”

What explains the end of history illusion?  The report gives a few explanations offered by the researchers.  It’s hard to imagine how we might change, and we might take the difficulty of thinking of what our future selves will be like as evidence that we won’t change that much.  Also, most of us tend to see our current selves quite favorably.  If in our own eyes we are perfectly fine the way we are, what would make us decide to change?  It’s disconcerting to think that our current preferences and way of living are ephemeral and will pass away sooner rather than later.

William Ernest Henley

William Ernest Henley

I find the second explanation particularly powerful; it fits well with what I take to be a major source of human motivation, namely that we are motivated to construct and defend a favorable picture of ourselves.  I wonder if there isn’t another process also at work, though.  We Westerners in particular tend to overestimate our own agency.  “Am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul,” wrote William Ernest Henley in the short poem Invictus, a work cited as an influence by figures as diverse as Nelson Mandela, Andre Agassi, and Timothy McVeigh.  The second verse illustrates well the belief that we can stand firm against the tumult of events:

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

If we are fine the way we are and can’t be bowed by circumstance, it makes sense to think we’ll never change.  Except we aren’t fine the way we are, for if we were, the world would be an idyllic place.  And we can be changed by circumstance.  We just don’t expect things to happen as they will, or, if we anticipate them, we underestimate how powerful their bludgeonings will be.  Thus, in my 30s, I was affected much more than I expected by becoming a father; in my 40s, my sense of who I was changed dramatically when I went through a divorce I never thought would happen; and, in my 50s, I developed a steadfastness and confidence I hadn’t had before in response to unrelenting written and oral attacks from a coworker.  Now, in my 60s I have left full-time employment much earlier than I expected to return to my hometown and help my parents.  Am I being changed by having done so?  How could it be otherwise?

I recently talked to a colleague who within the last year started a job in which she’s found her fellow managers to be arrogant and power hungry, and the employees to be discouraged and downtrodden.  She believes God has put her there, and I suggested that she can be a light in that dark place.  She agreed, but ended our conversation by adding, “Maybe God put me there because of what he wants to teach me.”  Isn’t that part of the walk of faith?  While we seek to serve God in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, he uses those very circumstances to shape us.  History hasn’t ended; we will be changed.

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