Category Archives: pro bono publico

“Offensive and tasteless”? Moi?

Well, I did ask. This wasn’t a random insult flung at me as I walked the streets of SoHo in the rain. If it had been, my not-your-victim-not-your-enemy rejoinder would have been: [in New York] “Yeah, that’s kinda what I was going for”; [in London, channeling my Irish grandma] “Aww, go on wit’ yez!”

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, I have been a member of The British Psychological Society since the 70s, and therefore a regular reader of their monthly periodical, The Psychologist, which makes the following blandishments to its readers: “We rely on your submissions, and in return we help you to get your message across to a large and diverse audience….The editorial team are very supportive, and it is a great way of communicating your work and opinions to other psychologists.” So, I decided to be brave & shoot an email to the Managing Editor, briefly describing my blog’s premise & purpose and embedding my new web address. That was last Monday. On the Wednesday morning, just before heading off to work, I received the following reply:

“Hi, Unfortunately our work internet categorises it as ‘offensive and tasteless’ and therefore won’t let me view it! Shame, it sounds interesting. Cheers, Jon”

To say that “I was gobsmacked,” is probably the kind of offensive & tasteless [hereinafter abbreviated to O & T] term to which the bps [their own abbreviation] objects; but I was. I deployed every amygdala-mediating technique written about in my blog, to avoid a road accident on my way to the medical center [where I work. Not the ER. Let’s not over-dramatize]. Later, I phoned my sister, the head librarian @ a Med School & hospital, to ask her what manner of firewall my blog may have hit; and she sent me an article about Filtering by Statistical Classification computer programs [FSC], which are used “to determine what content is or is not acceptable.”

Hurrah! A way out of my humiliation, at having been summarily dissed & dismissed as an O & T purveyor of filth! My wit & wisdom had simply been lost in translation, by an Artificial Intelligence language analysis program which was stymied by my [over]use of the Poetic Speech Function. All that quoting of rock lyrics and slang expressions…the literal-minded computer program just couldn’t cope. For a New York minute, I even considered changing the title of my most recent post…until I remembered the dictum of Epictetus. All we have in this life is our character. If we start selling out to avoid the censure of others, we will lose that.

So, I sent the editor another email that afternoon, explaining my “lost in translation” theory, and assuring him that, although I wrote about the dark side of human nature, my intent was pro bono publico. In the silence that has ensued, other ways of viewing “what went down” in the original email exchange have occurred to me. After watching the latest episode of Sherlock, “Scandal in Belgravia,” I realized that my high-frequency use of humiliation and, to a lesser extent, pain & suffering, might lead an FSC program to conclude that mine was an S & M website. Well, at least that removed any temptation to alter what I’ve written. Without the 4 precursors of anger, no GotWolf blog.

Then I took my own advice: “Consider the source,” and found out the following things about the Managing Editor.  First of all, and rather trivially, he was a Boy Scout. Therefore, presumably, if he had really found it a “shame” [kind of a Freudian slip, I’d say] that the “work network” wouldn’t “let” him view my blog, which he thought “sounds interesting,” he would have been resourceful enough to stroll down the road to the nearest Internet cafe and borrow a hipster’s laptop for a few minutes, to check out my website for himself.

Second, and more salient, his own Award Winning 1999 Doctoral Research is entitled “Bullies – Thugs or Thinkers?” To quote from his Abstract, “The public, the media, even psychologists: all have a tendency to stigmatise and pathologise individuals involved in threatening behavior as psychologically and socially abnormal or deficient. But is bullying a pathological behavior found only in a minority, or is it in fact a common identity choice actively chosen at certain times because it makes sense in certain social environments? Are the children involved inadequate, or could they be considered socially competent…even superior?”

I wonder if anyone from a certain Presidential campaign reads this blog?  If not, “shame.” They might find today’s post “interesting.”

 

 

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Filed under aggression happens, attribution theory, Epictetus said..., pro bono publico, semiotics

Big Love & Other Oxytocin Myths


My husband snapped this photo of me & our firstborn enjoying a stroll through the Muir Woods redwood park this Valentine’s weekend, exactly 30 years after he & I walked the same path. Everybody say, “Aww,” cuz that’s the last sentimental sentence in this pseudo-science-debunking post.

In 1953 Vincent du Vigneaud synthesized the so-called “pro-social” neuropeptide, Oxytocin (OT), for which he won a Nobel Prize in 1956 [but not for Peace]. Until the 21st century, researchers mostly studied the effects of this hormone in nonhuman mammals, concluding that it facilitates labor and lactation. From whence, it was only a short anthropomorphic leap of logic, to conclude that OT acts like a maternal love potion, cementing the mother-offspring bond, at least until the young can fend for themselves. Having witnessed at an impressionable age my cousin’s pet mouse giving birth and then eating all of her young that we were not quick enough to rescue from her, I can tell you [as they say Up North in England], “It don’t necessarily follow.” Apparently, the amount of OT sufficient to induce labor & delivery is not always sufficient to guarantee maternal feelings [let’s say, behavior] towards her progeny. Anyone who raises livestock is aware of this, and has one or two “foster mothers” on hand, to “adopt” the rejected newborns. Those who work in neonatology or “foundling” rescue have seen this occasional failure of Oxytocin to vincit omnia in humans, as well.

Nevertheless, OT has lately been hailed by [mostly European] neuroscientists, as the “Love Hormone” for shy, fearful and/or autistic humans, now available as a nasal spray [talk about “Gets Right Up Your Nose”], at least for research purposes. In April ’05, Kosfeld et al. [from Zurich] proclaimed “Oxytocin increases trust in humans.” In December ’05, Kirsch et al. [from Germany] reported “Oxytocin modulates neural circuity for social cognition and fear in humans.” By April ’10 Hurlemann et al. [from Bonn], in the article “Oxytocin enhances amygdala-dependent, socially reinforced learning and emotional empathy in humans,” began, “OT is becoming increasingly established as a prosocial neuropeptide in humans with therapeutic potential in treatment of social, cognitive, and mood disorders.”

Oh, yeah? Show me the data. More to the point, show me the methodology. The slender bough from which all these “findings” hang, is the Multifaceted Empathy Test: a self-administered computer instrument, on which a subject first categorizes a series of photos [happy, sad, or angry], and then rates [0 to 10] “how much you feel for the person in the photo.” With and without OT up your nose, double-blind. Seriously? Why not just ask subjects to rate Facebook pictures? “Would you ‘friend’ this person? Now, with OT up your nose, would you?”

Did I mention that trans-nasal Oxytocin is chemically similar to MDMA? [Google it.]

Let’s hear it for the Dutch [Carsten De Dreu et al., June ’10, Amsterdam], who used a slightly more real-world scenario, involving a game of strategy, allocating wealth [10 Euros] to Self, the In-Group, and/or the Out-Group. [Not unlike the contentious bail-out of debtor EU nations by (ahem) the Germans, nicht wahr?] They use wonderfully evocative terms, like “in-group love” and “out-group hate.” Here’s what they found: “The Neuropeptide Oxytocin Regulates Parochial Altruism in Intergroup Conflict Among Humans.” Absent OT up their nose(s) the (male) subjects mostly opted to keep their Euros to themselves. With a snootfull, though, they would sacrifice their Euros for the good of their in-group, especially if it “hurt” the out-group. Conclusion: OT “drives a ‘tend and defend’ response in that it promoted in-group trust and cooperation, and defensive aggression (including protectionism and preemptive strike) against perceived out-group threat.”

Sound familiar? Sounds like Circle-the-Wagons, Jets-versus-Sharks, Small Love [not Big Love] to me. Next time, a discussion of how OT gets into the bloodstream [other than via a nasal spray].

Hint: Consider the old English expression, “to curry favour.”

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"Dig it"


“…like the FBI, and the CIA, and the BBC.” So goes the Beatles’ shortest song, from the 1970 Let It Be album (now available for legal download on iTunes). Beat musicians had been saying “Can you dig it?” or “Ya dig?” for decades [the American version of “nar’mean?”], to ask “Do you understand what I just said?” but by the time the Beatles used it, the phrase had morphed from the Metalingual [message clarification] speech function to the Phatic. It had come to mean “Listen” [as in “do you want to know a secret?”]

Well, do ya? [Want to know a secret, that is.] In the 60s, Daniel Ellsberg was convinced that we all wanted to know the contents of secret briefing papers on strategies for vanquishing North Vietnam [thereafter known as The Pentagon Papers]. So he dug up some classified information and gave it to the press, for all us quidnuncs to read.

La plus ca change, la plus ca meme chose. Nar’mean? Julian Assange? WikiLeaks? Ya dig?

Guess who thinks Mr. Assange is a swell guy for sharing with the whole [cyber-linked] world the classified information he was able to dig up? Why, Mr. Ellsberg, of course.

Whether you do, too, depends on your reference group. Are you more “The truth will set you free”; or more “Loose lips sink ships”? Far be it from me, to try to get you to switch groups. None of us can predict the effect of the WikiLeaks disclosures on global security. I’m more curious about the precursors. [As in, what got up Assange’s nose, that he decided to crack the code of encrypted websites and report his findings?] Mind you, that’s the basic mission statement of those who work for the FBI, and the CIA, and the BBC.

Our [often fear-based] Need to Know What’s Happening is the key to our individual and collective survival. Curiosity saved the cat, the dog, and us. We all “want to know a secret,” but we don’t all “promise not to tell.”

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Man’s Rage for Chaos


Morse Peckham’s argument, in his 1969 book by this title, is that artists periodically save [their particular] civilization, by introducing chaos into a culture that has become too rule-bound and brittle to survive. To use my current parlance, every now and then, the Kangaroos [with their iconoclastic, outside-the-box, zigging & zagging] save the lock-stepping Clydesdales from collapsing under the burden of their hide-bound rules.

Peckham traces the progression of stylistic changes in music, poetry, painting & architecture; but [for reasons to be revealed in a future post], I’ll just recap his musical musings. Let’s use J.S. Bach as our exemplar of the Baroque era [1600-1750]. Are ya bored yet? Hang on, there are going to be wild dogs later. Mozart will be our guy from the Classical era [1740-1810]; and Beethoven will represent the Romantic era [1810-1910]. So, Peckham opines that each of these guys broke [some of the] the rules of the preceding era [as did their fellow poets, painters & architects], in ways that helped the people of their era(s) to roll with the changes [brought about by scientific discoveries, political unrest, and such like]. Nar’mean? The melodic line of their tunes got progressively smoother, from Bach, to Mozart, to Beethoven; and the rules of society got progressively looser. [To quote Cole Porter, “In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. Now, heaven knows, anything goes!”]

And now to the subway-riding wild dogs of Moscow. Seriously, you owe it to yourself to look up this story, which appeared in [shock!] the online version of the UK tabloid, The Sun, this week. Under the Soviet system, ownerless dogs sought shelter at factory sites in Moscow, and mooched their food from sentimental Muscovites. After the fall [of the wall, ya know], the factories were relocated to the suburbs; and the dogs trotted after them, for a warm place to sleep. But the food source was still downtown, so the dogs learned to ride the Metro to their old pan-handling spots, like Gorky Park. According to Dr. Andrei Poiarkov, of the Moscow Ecology & Evolution Institute, the dogs travel in packs, and amuse themselves by waiting until the subway doors are just about to close, to jump on. [“Last one in is a sore-tailed mutt.”] Now here is the Peckham part of the story. In the still photos and the video, it is apparent [to me, at least] that the human commuters enjoy their canine fellow travelers. They are standing, smiling indulgently, while the dogs sleep on the seats. In the video an old Russian Wolfhound is walking down the escalator, weaving among the standees on the stairs; and someone whistles to him softly, all on one note. Nothing. Then [as I do, to give Lili the “jump” command], he whistles a 3-note melody; and the dog sits down on the escalator stair. [He gets up again pretty quickly, mind you, and resumes his walking.]

So here’s my point. Many Russians are having a stressful time, post-wall-fall, especially economically. The old rules of “obey & survive” don’t apply anymore, and the new rules are…as yet, unwritten. That’s a source of fear for some. The wild dogs provide comic relief. [That old juxtaposition of an animal in an unexpected venue, gets us every time.] Their presence on the Metro seems random [chaotic], yet they move with the precision of a drill team [order]. In fact, thinking back on all the animals in my past and present, I think what they always bring is the gift of chaos.

Here are our 3 cats, in harmonious repose, not in one of our daughters’ [frequently] disheveled rooms, but in the Master Suite. [Napster, the black cat, is trying to use a dark pillow as camouflage. Don’t be alarmed at his apparent size & shape.] Who cares if it looks like a New Yorker cartoon from the 1920s? It’s not a photo shoot for Architectural Digest. Loosen up, will ya?

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Attractive Nuisance Doctrine


First let me make a cheap pun at Zanzibar’s expense, and say that because he is usually purring at my elbow when I’m writing this blog, it is his fault that I don’t catch all the typos before hitting “publish.” Like typing “Packer Leader,” when I meant, of course, “Pack Leader,” in the previous post. “If only his eyes weren’t so adorably blue…”

As those of you who have a swimming pool on your property know [and we learned, when we bought Dusk the QuarterHorse], an “Attractive Nuisance” is a term of art in tort law, referring to any animate or inanimate object which poses a threat, “because of its attraction, to children who will be unlikely to recognize its dangerous quality.” [Webster’s 1988 ed.] In Michigan [where tort lawyers abound] we had to buy Attractive Nuisance liability insurance on Dusk, even though she lived at a private riding stable, across town from our home. [In fact, she lived in Sterling Heights, whence cometh Marshall Mathers III. Check it.]

Now let us consider the External/Internal Locus of Control doctrine, which the UK researchers tried to measure in 10-year-olds, with a self-report questionnaire. A girl with a high level of External Locus of Control will tell her parents, “The horse whinnied at me, so I knew it was hungry, so I gave it my Ice Lolly to lick [remember, we’re in the UK], and it bit my hand!” [In Michigan, that would be a Popcicle.] Was a sign posted on the stall door, saying “Do not feed this horse without owner’s permission”? Not good enough. What if the child is too young to read? Tell you what the management at the London Zoo do. They post this surreal but high concept sign with a human hand, out of which a cookie-cutter-[or, biscuit-cutter]-shaped chunk is missing, near the cages of animals whom it is dangerous to feed. Next time I own a horse, I’m posting that sign on the stall door.

What if the horse spared the child, but ate the rod [in this case, the Ice Lolly/Popcicle stick]? Would the family of the young doner of the ill-advised confection be liable for the vet bill, to remove the wood splinters from the horse’s throat? Not bloody likely! The horse would be diagnosed with “Dietary Indiscretion,” and its owner would be charged for its treatment.

So, you see where I’m going with this, right? Up to a certain age, the law attributes External Locus of Control to young ones, and blames bad outcome on others [man & beast]. After that age, though, all bets are off. If, as a teenager, you schmize my horse into eating a dangerous stick [and I catch you at it], you’re guilty of animal abuse. An adult caught feeding a zoo animal will be prosecuted [right after being discharged from the ER]. So, how is this shift from External to Internal Locus of Control supposed to happen? Passage of time? Trial and error? Fairy dust?

I happen to believe it happens by grown-up Pack Leaders [there!] keeping an eye on young ones, and issuing Conative commands to them [such as “Don’t feed the animals, unless you ask first.”], along with a Sound-Bite-on-Why-Not. [“Cuz I say so,” does not count as a Sound-Bite-on-Why-Not, incidentally.] So, here’s what I’m saying, grown-ups. Man up, and risk the humiliation of a hissy fit from the thwarted young person [or their doting parents], in the name of animal welfare, of child welfare, of public order. Think of these Sound-Bites-of-Why-Not as your own, award winning Public Service Announcements. The more novel and amusing [usually], the more effective they are.

The alternative is the intrusive mission creep of increasingly silly tort avoidance notices from which we now suffer, warning us that a cup of Hot Chocolate “might be hot.” That raw eggs may contain salmonella. That roads may be slippery when wet.

Get working on those PSAs, folks.

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Drunkard’s Fallacy


Two lads are making their way home, after some jars at the bar: “Seamus, would you give over circlin’ round that lamppost? You’re makin’ me head spin!” “Ahh, but Desmond, I’m tryin’ to find me feckin’ keys.” “Oh, now, Seamus, I t’ink I heard a ‘clink’ when we was coming t’rough de alley, back dere.” “Yeah, me an’ all, Desmond; but de light’s better under dis lamp.”

This shocking stereotype of Irish inebriation and false logic was offered to us in graduate school, in a course on research design, to illustrate the “Drunkard’s Fallacy” [the tendency for researchers to “search where the light is better,” and thereby overlook the “keys in the alley”]. Sir Francis Galton, for instance, believed that intelligence was highly correlated with head circumference [which is easily and cheaply measured]; and he tried to encourage fatheads to marry other fatheads, for the improvement of Mankind. Later, Dr. William Sheldon put forth the theory that one’s body type–fat, muscular, or thin [which is evident, even to the casual observer]–was highly correlated with 3 distinct sets of personality traits. All of which would be highly amusing, except that their “scientific evidence” has been used as the rationale for eugenics–most notoriously, but not exclusively, by The Third Reich.

These days in neuropsychological research, there is often a generous sponsor “paying the light bill,” who then–sometimes blatantly, but other times subtly–sets the agenda for “where to search.” Senator Charles Grassley has done Menschlich work, in my opinion, by doggedly insisting that medical researchers disclose the source of their funding, so that consumers can then take their “findings” with a grain of salt. But what if the funding source is Uncle Sam? Could there still be a tendency to “circle the lamppost,” rather than “go down the dark alley,” in search of scientific “truth”?

In 2005 the journal Nature Neuroscience published the results of an NIMH-funded study, which followed over 200 individuals from birth to 26 years, to assess their risk of becoming “depressed” by Stressful Life Events, and its correlation to the presence or absence of “the Serotonin Transporter Gene (5-HTTLPR)” in each individual’s DNA. Don’t you just know, the researchers found the two factors–“depression” in response to bummer events, and the presence of that specific gene–to be highly correlated. Well, the media was all over it like a cheap suit. Cute articles about “Blue Genes” came out like a rash. And the always-only-sleeping-not-dead eugenics lobby began to bang on about genetic screening for 5-HTTLPR, rationalizing that the opposite of bumming out at bad news was Being Resilient; and who wouldn’t want to breed Resilient kids, in these troubled times?

Also–and here’s the Beauty Part, if you’re a government agency, trying to contain costs for Mental Health treatment–if bumming out is “all in your genes,” no need to wander down that dark [time-consuming] alley of “trying to understand what got up your nose, which made you angry, which then made you depressed.” That’s like fiddling while Rome burns. Like trying to understand why your body has become insulin-resistant, or why your arteries are clogged. What you need is a chemical–not an insight. Faster, cheaper, better for Mankind [and the bottom line].

So, here’s the thing. In this week’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association: a meta-analysis of all studies which could possibly have replicated the ballyhoo’d NIMH results found no correlation between the two factors. Bupkes, nowt, Nichts. [Incidentally, their n = 14,250, of whom 1,769 were classified as having “depression.”] Do you know what was significantly correlated with “depression” in all the studies these researchers meta-analyzed? Stressful Life Events.

Well, Seamus, I guess it’s back to the dark alley, if we ever want to find those feckin’ keys…

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Filed under confounds, murky research, pro bono publico

Risky Menschlichkeit


Sounds like the wheelman for Meyer Lansky, no? Mensch is a Metalingual minefield, having come full circle, to mean its exact opposite, even after you tiptoe through the “Man/Mankind” lunar dust. In German, it originally meant “a man,” whereas in Yiddish it means “a standup guy” [a unisex term]. Nowadays, Menschlich has come to mean either “humane” or “all-too-human, warts and all.” A vignette from my 1988 visit to Vienna: I was walking through a U-Bahn station when I saw a young woman with a baby buggy, poised at the top of a flight of stairs, like the opening scene from Battleship Potemkin. I rushed up to help her carry the buggy down the stairs, when an old woman began shrieking, “Schade! Schade!” [“Shame! Shame!”] Who the hell was she angry at? Did she think I was trying to kidnap the baby? “Wo sind die Menschen?” she asked, rhetorically. [“Where are the men?” or possibly, “Where are the standup guys?”] “Wir sind die Menschen!” I quipped [“We are the standup ‘guys.'”]; and the young woman shook my hand, in the formal manner of pre-millienal Viennese young people, before high-fiving went global.

Although it all ended with smiles, it could have been just another instance of “No good deed goes unpunished.” As a Social Science major in the 1960s, I was familiar with the admonitory tale [perhaps urban legend, if you read modern critiques] of Kitty Genovese, who was mortally attacked over a 3-hour period outside her apartment complex in Queens, NY, while 38 of her neighbors [allegedly] “did nothing.” Even if the real story is less black & white, it became the anecdotal evidence for the theory of Diffusion of Responsibility: the more onlookers to a calamity, the less likely any one of them is, to do the standup thing and try to help. Phil Ochs even wrote a song about it, Outside of a Small Circle of Friends, with the tag line, “Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain; but Monopoly is so much fun, I’d hate to blow the game.”

So, what prompts anyone to perform an act of Menschlichkeit, like Wesley Autrey, the subway hero, who jumped to the aid of a stranger who had fallen onto the tracks as a train approached, and covered the stranger’s body with his own, as the train passed over them both? Did Wesley just have a broader definition of who was in his “Small Circle of Friends,” than the other folks on the platform? Some put it down to his Naval service, that he had been trained to [override his amygdalar freeze mode, let his hippocampus problem-solve, and so…] “act bravely and quickly.” I’ll go for that; but I know lots of fellow Naval veterans who would have averted their gaze and stayed on the platform [the other definition of Menschlichkeit]. If it hadn’t worked out so well for Wesley and the stranger, I bet it would have been reported as a double suicide.

One of my favorite aphorisms is “It’s not ‘brave,’ unless you’re scared.” [It’s just bad judgment.] There was a time 1970s Manhattan when there had been so many murders of taxi drivers [who knows why], that a cabbie put a now-famous sign on the passenger side of his plexiglass barrier saying “Though thou shalt kill me…” It made New Yorkers–even those of us who rarely had the price of cabfare–realize what Menschen [the unisex, heroic term] cab drivers were, years before the hit TV series.

So, how Menschlich are you? Would you be willing, like Zanzibar the cat, to take a good, close look at “the wolf”? It might not be the “comforting presence” it seems to be for Zanzibar; but it’s still worth getting to know.

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