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mental health mondays :: guess again

you will refrain from eating cookies- for science!
over the last few weeks, while i was busy writing up posts on the issues surrounding post-traumatic stress disorder, something scary happened in the world of psychology. if you follow developments in the field, chances are that you've heard about this already, but if not, let me clue you in: it turns out that one of the foundational studies in behavioural science may well be complete hooey.

the theory, which has been taken as gospel for so long that it forms the basis of later psychological work, stems from an experiment done by two scientists on a group of university students two decades ago [which isn't really that long ago at all, but when you consider the advances made in psychology during that time, it might as well have been in the stone age]. the experiment falls into the "kinda of douche-y but not dangerous" category, so we're not talking about mk-ultra here. you can read about it in the excellent article linked above, or you can read my paltry summation of its findings:

exerting willpower [e.g., forcing oneself to eat radishes rather than freshly baked cookies when presented with both] exhausts one's "supply" of willpower in the same way that exercising a muscle exhausts that muscle.

it's a study that's been cited by thousands of other papers and used as the basis of dozens of other experiments, but a recent analysis suggests that the results of the original study are difficult to reproduce. and by difficult, i mean, they can be reproduced about half the time. another way of putting that would be to say that the experiment has an equal chance of working or not working when it comes to supporting the hypothesis.

there is, of course, a lot more work and research to be done, because the importance of this idea is such that you can't just toss it out at the first major roadblock, but if the theory of "ego depletion" does turn out to be untenable, it may hold a valuable lesson about the dangers of expectations.

the "ego depletion" hypothesis is [or was] appealing, because it seems to confirm long-held western beliefs: our culture, shaped largely by the teachings of the christian church, explicitly validates the idea that character is strengthened through privation, whether it's from cookies, sex, or wealth. we now understand that those teachings were intended largely to keep the great part of the population from resenting those who were wealthy and licentious. "sure, it looks like we're having fun, but you can feel smug because you know you'll be rewarded once you're dead."

even as the importance of religious teaching fades from importance in the lives of most westerners, its tenets are still dug deep in our collective psyche. we may not believe that having numerous sexual partners is sinful, for instance, but there is still a huge segment of the population that, to some extent, views themselves as being "better" for resisting their urges. why better? you can make arguments about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, but protection can be used with one partner or a hundred. ultimately, it comes down to our cultural programming: we are stronger, better people when we show that we can deprive ourselves of something innocuous that we want.

we are also taught that the more or longer we are tempted towards sin or cookies, the weaker our resolve becomes and the stronger we must be to withstand it. our culture quite literally programs us, reinforcing the message that as our will is tested, it becomes more and more likely to break under the strain. everything we know, everything that our culture teaches us, would lead us to believe that the results of the willpower study were believable.

to that end, it seems like the great cookie experiment was fated to reach the conclusions it did, because both the scientists and the participants had the same built-in biases i've just described. for the experiment to be a true barometer of human behaviour, eliminating social programming, there would have to be a way of blinding the study so that those biases were blocked from interfering. easy for me to say.

the ultimate fate of the ego depletion thesis rests with those far better educated than i, and we're all better for it. but i would like to put it out there that whenever a "big idea" in psychology or behavioural science [i've used these terms interchangeably in this post, even though they are two different things, so shame on me] confirms our gut feelings, we should immediately look at how our biases were or were not eliminated from the testing process. 


as long as you're here, why not read more?


just a short time ago, i waxed prosaic about trump supporters who felt betrayed by their candidate pursuing in office the exact things that he said he would. short version: i have no sympathy.

today is a bit different. in the wake of america's bombing of a syrian air strip, in response to a chemical weapons attack by the syrian government, my facebook and twitter feeds were peppered with plaintive shades of "we believed you". these are the people who heard trump say that he wanted the united states to step back and focus on defending its own. indeed, trump did say such things, over and over; america cannot be the policeman of the world. even arch-liberal cynics like me had to admit that this was a refreshing argument to hear from someone outside the paul family, and, could easily have been turned into trump's greatest argument against hillary clinton. [he chose to go another way, which also worked.]

trump also said, repeatedly, that america needed to invest heavily …

long division

after the united states election last year, there were the usual calls for the country to unite behind the new president. that never happens anymore, because, since george w. bush scored a victory in 2004, having launched the country into a war in iraq for no reason, the people on the losing side of a presidential election have been pretty bloody angry about it. democrats hated bush 43. republicans really hated obama. democrats really hate trump.

it didn't help that trump didn't make the typical conciliatory gestures like including a couple of members of the opposite party in his cabinet, or encouraging his party to proceed slowly with contentious legislation. barack obama arguably wasted at least two and as many as six years of his tenure as president trying to play peacemaker before he felt sufficiently safe to just say "screw you guys" and start governing around the ridiculous congress he was forced to deal with. not-giving-a-shit obama was the best president in …

don't speak

you might think that it sounds dramatic, but linguistic genocide is something that happens. people in power will go to great lengths to eradicate certain languages, not just for the sheer joy of making the world a lesser place, but as a way of beating down the culture that's associated with it. language has a unique reciprocal bond with culture, and every group that has attempted to break down another has recognised that forbidding a cultural group from communicating in their own language is an extremely effective way to tear apart their culture.

there are lots [and lots and lots and lots] of examples of this sort of thing, some successful, some not, but far too many to cover in one blog post. however, i thought it was worth looking at some languages that have been the subjects of active repression, and what the political consequences of that have been.

devastation :: the native north american languages :: it should come as no surprise that the largest genocide in history [by a ma…