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Friday, January 25, 2013

What Feeling Good is For

I have been taught many things over the past two-plus years about self-management and self-care.  I know with a fair bit of precision what will make me anxious and irritable.  I have a good idea what I can do to choose positive feelings and experiences.  I know lots of techniques for self-soothing, self-motivation, and self-activation.  I am grateful for all the training and experience that makes life better.

I know that when I am anxious, I need to check my level of glucose-hunger.  And I probably need a healthy snack.  When I am ruminating, I need to break that cycle of dark thinking.  I can do that with exercise.  I can do that by reaching out to my spouse, other loved ones and/or friends.  When I am feeling sorry for myself, I can refocus on all the blessings I receive.  Giggle all you want, skeptics of the "touchy-feely"--gratitude lists have demonstrated and documented short and long term benefits.  When I am wondering about meaning and purpose and goals, I can find someone to help.

Personal growth and development have been powerful side-effects (benefits) from working through the first few years of bereavement and pain.  In many ways, I am a far better person than I ever was before.

The temptation at this point is to treat all the self-management and self-soothing as ends in themselves.  I have spent so much time and energy learning how to feel better again that it can seem like that is the goal and end of existence.  It is now such a habit that it may seem like feeling good is the purpose of daily life.  That is a dangerous path to follow.

I have been given these gifts in order to become a better person.  I am being formed into a better person in order to benefit the world that God loves and for which Jesus died.  It is an awesome fringe benefit to be able to feel good in even the worst of circumstances.  That is not a life goal, however.  That is a tool that allows me to continue to love and serve, to live and hope, in times when things are difficult and dangerous.

One of the temptations is to become anxious every time I feel a bit bad.  If I have done or not done something I should have, then self-soothing may prepare me for action.  But it is not the last thing to be accomplished.  I must follow up on the wrong I may have done.  If I am worried about finances or work or relationships, I can do things to manage the worries.  But I must also do things to address challenges and opportunities in my life.  Feeling good is a marvelous path toward better functioning.  If it is a goal in itself, however, then I am just as self-absorbed as I was when I was feeling bad.

I continue to return to the wise words of St. Paul in Philippians 4:
"I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me."
On this Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, I pray to approach my days with that same contentment and the same sense of purpose.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Nurturing the Cuckoos

Justin Park and Mark Schaller conducted an experiment to test the relationship between attitude similarity and a sense of connectedness between people.  What they found was a strong correlation between similarity in attitudes and a desire to treat a stranger with that similar attitude as “kin.”  

Treating another as “kin” leads to greater willingness to empathize with and offer help to that person, even though that person is a stranger.  Perhaps most striking in the experiment was the correlation between this embrace of the right-thinking stranger and the degree to which a particular subject relied on intuition to make decisions.  This last element indicates, the authors note, “that the activation of kinship cognitions—in response to an attitudinally similar target person—results from a reflexive, nonrational cognitive mechanism” (Park, 2005, p. 165).  Our tendency to treat people with attitudes similar to ours as family takes place prior to and beneath conscious thought and choice.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  So goes the old proverb.  How is it that people who would never connect in any other way find each other in the midst of conflict and develop deep and lasting emotional bonds?  Similarity in attitude may trigger family feelings prior to and beneath any conscious thought or choice.  This kinship response may be experienced as an immediate emotional “click.”  I’ve heard that from folks on the same side of a conflict.  “It was like we had always known each other,” they have told me.  “It was so good to talk with someone who sees things the way I do.”  The shared perception of a common enemy can equip relative strangers to battle to the death to defend each other in a communal conflict.

Park and Schaller identified this family feeling produced by attitude similarity as a “heuristic.”  Remember that a heuristic is a rule of thumb we use at a less than conscious level to make decisions about how to behave.  Because attitude similarity is such a heuristic, it is (as the authors note) a “fallible kinship cue.”  By this they mean that we can and do extend the family network to the strangers who seem similar to us, particularly when it comes to attitudes.  We will act on this heuristic without any further conscious—or rationally critical—thought.  We will extend empathy and support to this relative stranger who appears to see the world as we do.  “More than commonly recognized,” Park and Schaller write, “the psychology of kinship may subtly influence behavior in a wide variety of social settings that, from a rational perspective, have nothing to do with kinship” (Park, 2005, p. 167).

What does this mean for dealing with churches, and especially for dealing with those in conflict?  I think about a variety of implications—some in the area of prevention and others in the area of treatment.  I am always anxious about using “family” language to describe a congregation.  That set of metaphors is a double-edged sword.  When the church family is working well, that sense of closeness and connection is a powerful tool for mission and service.  People who interact as family have levels of trust, mutual regard, empathy, and mutual sacrifice that can really power the work of the Church. 

It is no accident that Jesus uses “family” metaphors to describe the common life of his disciples.  Of course, what binds that family together is a commitment to the values of the Reign of God.  He challenges his crowds of listeners with these words: “‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”  In most congregations, doing God’s will is not the primary basis for the feeling of “family” in the community.  Instead, there is a commitment to keeping all the members of the family happy and placid.  Outsiders who do not comply with the requirements of that shared attitude will, at some point be regarded as threats and even as enemies.

The “family” metaphor is a wonderful label for those who are already part of the family.  It can be daunting and exclusive for those who are not part of that family.  If attitudinal compliance is the price of kinship in the local congregation, there are many current strangers who will not pay that price.

What is to be done about this?  When we know what is happening, we can take steps to monitor our attitudes and to change our behavior.  In simple terms, people in local congregations can spend time and energy getting acquainted with the “strangers” around them.  Some of those strangers will sit next to us in the church pews.  Many of them will not come to us, so we must go to them.  If we can become familiar with the views and attitudes, the hopes and dreams, the needs and fears of those who are not part of our “family,” we will be more likely to embrace them with understanding, empathy and service.

One of the insights in the Park and Schaller study is that this “similar attitude” heuristic is not particularly accurate in assessing who our genetic kin may be.  “Kin recognition depends on inferences from necessarily imperfect perceptual cues,” they notes, “and is therefore fallible—often, it seems, in an overinclusive manner” (Park, 2005, p. 167).  They remind us of the tendency for reed warblers to nurture cuckoo chicks whose eggs get slipped into their nests.  They do this rather than to exclude any possible offspring of their own.  If we can spend time and energy interacting with those who are not like us, we will be much more likely to take them into our church nests and nurture them as our own.  Is this not the fundamental outreach strategy Jesus uses?  “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:1-2).

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

On Not Thinking About Money

In a remarkable series of experiments, Kathleen Vohs and associates explored the “psychological priming effects” of thinking about money.  In nine experiments, subjects were exposed to conditions that either (1) reminded them of money, (2) reminded them of something else unrelated to money, or (3) left them in a “control” group of “un-reminded” subjects.  The experiments progressed from the simple use of money as a prime through an examination of how that prime affected social interactions.  “The results of the nine experiments,” write the researchers, “suggest that money brings about a self-sufficient orientation in which people prefer to be free of dependency and dependents” (Vohs, 2006).

The series of experiments produced a number of results:
  •     Participants who had been reminded of money and then were given a difficult task worked longer than the control groups before asking for help.
  •     Participants who had been reminded of money and then were given the opportunity to help a stranger at a simple task were only half as willing to help as were those in the control group.
  •        Participants who had been reminded of money appeared to expect higher levels of self-sufficiency from other people.
  •       Even when the task was as simple as picking up some pencils that had been spilled by a stranger, participants who had been reminded of money were less willing to help pick up the pencils than members of the control group.
  •     Money-primed participants donated less money to a student fund than those in the non-primed control group.
  •       Those primed with the idea of money put more physical distance between themselves and a newly-met stranger than did those in the control group.
  •       Participants who had been reminded of money were less willing to collaborate with a co-worker and were more likely to perform “independent but socially insensitive actions.”
Supporting research among college students has noted that those who major in economics operate from a much more self-interested, competitive and independent frame of reference than do students in other major disciplines.  Vohs and her colleagues offer this restrained conclusion:
The self-sufficient pattern helps explain why people view money as both the greatest good and evil.  As countries and cultures developed, money may have allowed people to acquire goods and services that enabled the pursuit of cherished goals, which in turn diminished reliance on friends and family.  In this way, money enhanced individualism but diminished communal motivations, an effect that is still apparent in people’s responses to money today.
 Congregational meetings devote large portions of the meeting time to reporting and discussing financial matters.  I have to wonder if that is the best setting then to also discuss mission and outreach projects.  If reminders of money increase self-sufficiency and decrease the willingness to help others, is it any wonder that so many of our church meetings produce results that can be miserly and sometimes just plain mean?

It may be best for congregations and church councils to schedule meetings in a different way.  I think that the psychology of money priming is an argument for quarterly congregational meetings.  On such a schedule discussions about altruistic mission and service projects would happen in a different quarter from discussions of budget and finance.  In addition, this is also an argument for having separate finance and stewardship committees in the church.  It is difficult, I suspect, for people who are reminded of money to be able to reflect on how to be more generous in giving it away.  Some structural changes might help to overcome some of the blind spots created when we are money-primed.

What does this mean when we apply it to personal lives as well?  When a couple is worried about and thus reminded often of money, does selfishness increase?  I suspect it does.  Does the willingness to work together toward joint problem-solving decrease?  I suspect it does.  Am I less willing to take out the trash after I have paid some bills or checked the checking account balance on line?  The research would indicate that this will be the case. 

Now that I am aware of the power of money-priming, I can of course make choices that will reduce its power.  I can remember this influence and make better choices after a money-reminder.  I can be more strategic about when I have to deal with money so that it doesn’t impact my relationships so directly.  I can exercise more self-control when it comes to my responses.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Tip for Congregational Meetings

Ego-depletion is the experience we have when we engage in a series of demanding choices and decisions.  When we have to force ourselves to do or decide something, we have fewer cognitive and emotional resources available for the next choice or decision.  The series of difficult mental and emotional tasks drains our personal reserve bit by bit.  This is called “ego-depletion.”  Ego-depleted people are more likely to quit in the midst of difficult task and more likely to succumb to loss of self-control.
  •    “…if you have to force yourself to do something you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around…ego-depleted people therefore succumb more quickly to the urge to quit” (Kahneman, pages 41-42).
  •     “Unlike cognitive load, ego depletion is at least in part a loss of motivation.  After exerting self-control on one task, you do not feel like making an effort in another, although you could do it if you really had to” (Kahneman, page 42).

Experiments by Roy Baumeister and colleagues have indicated a relationship between sugar-intake and ego-depletion.  The efforts involved in dealing with conflict and self-control are very glucose-intensive.  Neurons are eating sugar at very high rates during such activities.  If there isn’t enough sugar for the busy little nerve cells, their work slows and I feel ego-depleted.  I lose motivation and hope.  I become anxious and crabby.  I am less able to resist my impulses and more willing to give in to various temptations.  These realities have a simple implication for conflict in the church.

I have participated in numerous congregational meetings that were scheduled prior to a meal—either lunch or dinner.  The logic in such scheduling is that people who are hungry will be motivated to move through the meeting with a minimum of fuss and bother.  After all, they want to get to the important business—the food!  Baumeister’s research would indicate that this is an inaccurate, unhelpful and even dangerous strategy.

Imagine that you have a bunch of church members at such a meeting.  Lunch is waiting.  Some of them didn’t get a very good breakfast in their hurry to get to worship, followed by a meeting.  They are hungry—or at least glucose-deficient.  What are some of the possible outcomes based on the research?
  •     They will be more likely to make intuitive errors of judgment than people with enough glucose.  So they will be more likely to draw conclusions that are quick, easy and wrong.
  •       They will be more likely to see problems as intractable, the future as bleak and the outcome of a problem as hopeless.
  •     They will have less motivation at the beginning of the meeting, and that motivation level will rapidly decrease with each problem confronted or decision made.
  •      They will have less self-control and will be more likely to say things to one another that they would keep to themselves in a better-fed condition.  The potential for people to feel insulted by one another increases.
  •      They will rely on default positions and judgments and be less able to engage in creative thinking and decisions with some measure of risk.

 In case you think this is an exaggeration, you might want to read the results of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Danziger, Levav and Avnaim-Pesso, 2011).  The study examined 1,112 judicial rulings made by eight Israeli parole board judges over a 10-month period. Each judge heard between 14 and 35 cases in a day and took mid-morning and mid-afternoon meal breaks. The data included the time of day at which the prisoner’s request was considered and its place in the day’s docket.  Here is a summary of the results.

“We find that the percentage of favorable rulings drops gradually from 65% to nearly zero within each decision session and returns abruptly to 65% after a break.  Our findings suggest that judicial rulings can be swayed by extraneous variables that should have no bearing on legal decisions.”

Kahneman delivers the “verdict.”  He writes, “The best possible account of the data provides the bad news: tired and hungry judges tend to fall back on the easier default position of denying requests for parole.  Both fatigue and hunger probably played a role.” (Kahneman, 2011, p. 43)

If that is the case for highly-trained, broadly experienced judges within a practice rooted in rational decision-making, what does that mean for a bunch of sugar-deprived folks deciding whether to borrow a million bucks for a building or to ask a troubled pastor to leave without another call?  So the practice of scheduling meetings prior to meals may be part of a formula for creating conflict.  It would be wise to offer some healthy snacks prior to or even during the meeting.  Fruit and nuts at the tables of a meeting could go a long way to avoiding “fruit and nuts” outcomes at the meeting!

This insight also applies to personal situations.  When we are grieving, for example, we are carrying a huge cognitive and emotional load.  I have to spend much more time monitoring my energy levels than I did in my former life.  I make sure that I have a small snack with me most of the time.

Candy makers understand this as well.  Just re-watch one of those Snickers commercials that portrays the sugar-starved actor as a difficult person until the candy treatment is applied.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Nudging the Slider

It will soon be two years, two months, two days, two hours and two seconds since Anne died.  That will happen early in the morning on January twenty-second.  That collection of "two's" has no significance.  Yet it stands out to my attention.  I am, like you, an incurable pattern producer.  We will make meaning and see patterns even where there are none.

One pattern I do notice is that the metaphorical "slider" on my emotional condition seems more likely to be set at "sad" than at "happy."  I can't really penetrate to memories of my emotional condition prior to Anne's death.  That will, I suspect, remain a murky fog for the rest of my days.  I think, however, that my internal emotional state defaulted to "happy" in those days much more often than it did to "sad."

This permanent shift in the internal default setting for feelings is common among those who have lost a close loved one.  It is the statistical norm.  That doesn't make it feel any better.

The good news, I find, is that with some modest attention and effort, I can move that internal slider back to the "happy" setting.  I don't recall having to do that more than two years and two months ago.  But there it is--simply a part of my life now and not much of a burden at that.

The research shows that a variety of practices can help us to move the slider in the happy direction.  In one study, researchers examined the emotional priming effect of facial expressions.  Here's a quick and clear summary of that research:
In the study, holding a pencil in your mouth in such a way that your face smiles will produce an improved affect.

So, if you see me driving from Bellevue to Syracuse some morning, you might see me putting some of this into practice.  I have been experimenting with wearing a smiling face for no particular reason.  I must report that my emotional state does improve.  Of course, we know that correlation does not entail causation.  Is it because I have just decided to be happier?  Is it because I have named my sad feelings and gotten that out of the way?  Is it because I feel foolish and silly and can laugh about it since no one else is watching?

Is it because we can use our physical apparatus to impact our emotional states?  That's what the research does seem to indicate.  But what does it matter?  I feel better.  I cannot choose the default on my emotional slider setting.  I am not, however, stuck with that setting.  I can use simple tactics to nudge it toward the happy side.  And I can do this every day as part of my normal routine.

Try it and share your experiences here!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Fighting the Focusing Illusion

"Adaptation to a new situation, whether good or bad, consists in large part of thinking less and less about it.  In that sense, most long-term circumstances of life, including paraplegia and marriage, are part-time states that one inhabits only when one attends to them."--Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Slow and Fast, page 405.
We can choose where to focus our attention.  I cannot choose what has happened to me.  I cannot, as they say, get a new past.  I am highly unskilled at predicting my future for more than a moment or two from now.  The uncertainties and variables of existence are too immense and complex.  I can, however, make intentional and deliberate decisions about where to focus my attention in the here and now.

Where I focus will determine how I feel.  Where I focus will determine where I walk.  Where I focus will determine what I do or don't do, think or don't think, believe or don't believe.  Kahneman puts it in simple terms as he describes the "Focusing Illusion."  His description should probably be reproduced in all those cute ways we use to remind ourselves of significant insights.

"Nothing in life is as important as you think it is 

when you are thinking about it." 

I know this is true.  I also know that we cannot focus on...nothing.  So one of the skills we need in fighting the Focusing Illusion is some competence in focusing on something or someone else.  We need to substitute a more positive object or experience in place of the negative one that clamors for our attention.

If I try NOT to think about something (say, purple and polka-dotted elephants), I know what image will immediately occupy my thoughts.  Try it.  Try NOT thinking about purple and polka-dotted elephants right now.  Be honest and admit that you cannot accomplish that.

Now in place of those fanciful creatures, think about pink zebras.  Substitution is a key to fighting Focusing Illusion.  This is why service is the antidote to selfishness.  We have an alternative to our inescapable self-absorption.  This is why exercise is such a good treatment for low-level depression.  We have an alternative to the darkness.  This is why a funny movie is such good treatment for the blues.  We have a whole story and set of images to displace the dark ruminations that plague us.

Christian Scripture is many things, but I am learning that it is a primer in behavioral psychology and economics.  For example, note these words from Philippians 4:
"Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you."
Think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy...that should be enough to leave little room for hatred, bitterness, recrimination, guilt, self-doubt, shame and fear.  Where we focus is where we live and love, where we walk and work.  In the words of AA wisdom, be where your hands are.  Choosing where to focus is a critical tool in the process of adaptation.  It is key to fighting the Focusing Illusion.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Haven of Anonymity called The Church

The article is by Maia Szalavitz, "a neuroscience journalist for"  The article is entitled "Sidewalk Rage: Mental Illness or 'Altrustistic Punishment'?"  You can find the article online at

Szalavitz describes the tendency of resident New Yorkers to chastise slow and distracted side walkers and to be particularly hard on the out-of-town tourists.  She uses that phenomenon as a platform to describe and employ the research on "altruistic punishment" (see my previous post).

I am in mini-research mode for a while this morning (I have odd but inexpensive hobbies).  And I got to thinking.  If we are hard-wired for altruistic punishment and derive physical pleasure from its exercise, why do we tolerate a variety of "freeloaders" in Christian congregations?  If altruistic punishment is, as Ernst Fehr describes it, "the cement of society," why is that particular construction material so lacking in many local faith communities?

Local congregations depend, by and large, on voluntary contributions from participants.  In most mainline Christian congregations, a majority of those participants contribute little or nothing in gross financial terms.  That behavior, however, is not sanctioned in any way.  In fact, that information is the most closely guarded secret in the life of the congregation.  Woe to the religious professional who might suggest that household giving should be published abroad, even in the most general of terms.  That is a highly efficient way to get one's walking papers.

It was not always the case.  Older members can recall the days when household contributions were published on an annual basis.  The result was that those in strained financial circumstances were branded with local social stigmata.  It is a good thing, in my opinion, that we do not make such sociological tarring and feathering an option these days.

We have, however, surrendered any real possibility of community discipline.  Researchers have found, after all, that this is the value of altruistic punishment.  We enforce anonymity in giving.  Moreover, we insist on "niceness" as the social norm in churches.  Is it any wonder that many congregations suffer from the social behaviors that flourish in the absence of altruistic punishment--freeloading and bullying?

There are good reasons to be very disciplined about exercising community discipline.  Kahneman notes that "our brains are not designed to reward generosity as reliably as they punish meanness.  Here again, we find a marked asymmetry between losses and gains" (Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 308).  We are more likely to punish failures than to reward successes.  And we are always in danger of enjoying the delivery of punishment more than is healthy for us or the community.

There is not enough "speaking the truth in love" in our faith communities these days.  Thus they become secret havens for non-supporting participants.  As a result, the mission of the Church--in the name of Christ to love and serve those who need us--suffers from under-resourcing and emotional intimidation.

Punishment as Brain Candy

I am re-reading Daniel Kahneman's powerful book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.  He refers to the work of neuroeconomists who have examined the relationship between "altruistic punishment" and brain imaging.  Altruistic punishment describes our willingness to "voluntarily incur costs to punish violators of social norms."  Kahneman refers to the 2004 article in Science that describes the research.  You can read the article here if you want more information:

Kahneman summarizes the article in these words. "Remarkably, altruistic punishment is accompanied by increased activity in the 'pleasure centers' of the brain.  It appears that maintaining the social order and the rules of fairness in this fashion is its own reward" (page 308).  The authors of the cited article note how often revenge is described in terms of sensory rewards.  "Revenge is sweet."  Or, for we who are Trekkies, it is "a dish best served cold."

One of the insights of behavioral economics is that human conflict does not arise solely out of pathology in the human spirit.  In fact, many of our conflicts begin quite innocently in normal processes that get out of whack or remain naively unexamined.  When I have worked with conflicted churches, I have seen the power of altruistic punishment in stark terms.  Church members with no stake in the conflict engage in highly punishing behaviors on behalf of relative strangers simply because they think that something unfair happened.

Now I understand why they reported such behavior so often with smiles on their faces.  They were getting doses of brain candy as a fringe benefit of their work as avenging angels!

If we are hard-wired to experience pleasure-based rewards when we punish wrong-doers, what happens when that tendency is misdirected?  The consequences are clear in a conflicted church community.  What about times when this process happens purely internally?

For example, in my grieving I may be furious with God for treating me so unfairly by taking my loved one from me.  So I may "punish" God by withdrawing my affection, allegiance and trust.  I may seek to take revenge on God for mistreating me so horribly. And in an odd way, that act of punishment makes me feel better.

That, however, is not the end of it, perhaps.  That act of punishment may actually feel like a positive reward, if current neuro-imaging studies are correct.  If "revenge is sweet," what happens if I develop a revenge "sweet-tooth"?  What happens if I begin to enjoy punishing God (or anyone else, for that matter) simply because I like the neurological "taste" I get from the experience?  

I know that I had to confront myself at one point with something resembling that disturbing question.  I had moved from pain to pleasure in my anguish.  It was a subtle move, unnoticed and unnoticeable as it was happening.  But once I had made the shift, it became obvious to me.  Those moments that had been painful and that I had avoided were now moments and experiences I began (however unconsciously) to seek out.  

That's when I knew I had to go on an emotional diet.  I was reminded of the words of the lead character in the film, A Beautiful Mind.  He continued to wrestle with the demons of his delusions.  He chose, however, "not to indulge that particular appetite."  It is an apt description of the personal discipline required.  For some of us, refusing to indulge may be an individual decision.  For others, it may need to happen in the context of a support group or therapeutic relationship.

To fully disclose, I also noticed that my self-indulgence was damaging my relationships.  People who loved me were paying the price as I satisfied my perverse emotional sweet tooth.  It took a while, but that's what put me on the wagon in terms of this emotional sugar.