Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

I Got a Letter: Something You Might not Know about Empathy and Choice

Monday, November 12th, 2012

I can’t remember the last time I received a paper letter in the mail but, sure enough, last week I had a small, two-page missive waiting for me at my office. Here is the text (it will make more sense to you if you’ve read my book but, if not, the character mentioned below is a woman who was raped and was discussed in a chapter on PTSD):

Dear Dr. Dobrenski,

I just finished reading your fascinating book, Crazy. With regard to your report about Deb, I agree with you. Just because a person dresses like a whore and acts like a whore does not give anyone the “right” to treat her like a whore (editor’s note: at no point do I refer to Deb as a whore). But, Deb describes in detail how she dressed specifically to be provocative, “in a way to make him want me,” and that “I should give him a taste of what he could have if he played his cards right.” “We flirted throughout the whole night. I knew where I was going, at least in terms of what he wanted.” Your response: “you made choices that were not sound. Those choices put you in a bad position.” Then Deb says, “He is solely responsible for the outcome that occurred.”

I beg to disagree. Your client was equally responsible and calling her behavior unsound choices in no way helps her to make better choices in the future. She “assigned the blame where it needed to be.” I doubt that because nowhere in that chapter was she made to understand the consequences of her behavior. In fact, in sounds like she just went along her merry way, perhaps having learned how to figure out which men were trustworthy.

Let’s look at this in another way. A person drives up to railroad tracks. Bells and whistles indicate that a train is approaching. However, he is certain that he can beat the train and attempts to drive across the tracks. He gets stuck on the tracks and is mowed down. So, who is responsible? According to what I gleaned from your book, the driver’s death was the fault of the conductor who was unable to stop on time. I don’t think so!


Let’s ignore the obvious errors in logic – for example, the idea that being raped and having PTSD aren’t consequences and that an accidental death on railroad tracks is the same as an active decision to stick your dick into a person who doesn’t want you to – and focus on a more important aspect of human nature. Namely, and this is clearly demonstrated in this woman’s letter, that when people know you’ve made choices, they become less empathic. This might be obvious to you. But you should also know that when people (and the research on this suggests this could be an American-specific phenomenon) even consider the notion of choice, their empathy decreases. If you don’t feel like reading the entire article, know that this lack of empathy extends beyond individuals to social programs. So if someone focuses on you making even the most benign choices, such as whether you pick up a fork or knife first, he/she is more likely to reject programs that create greater equality and benefits for society. He/she is also more likely to blame people for bringing bad things upon themselves, such as health problems or job loss.

Is it any wonder, then, that this woman was less than empathic to Deb? Of course not, she hyper-focused on the choices that Deb made, not the circumstances or the guy. The bizarre logical and analogies simply serve to support that position. The author of the study mentioned above, Krishna Savani, wonders if the extensive set of choices Americans have might have a cumulative negative impact by making people less sympathetic towards others and less concerned about the collective good. Not to end this point with a specific goal of making it political, but if you watched even a small fraction of this most recent election, I’m sure you’d agree that he’s right to consider that.

Penn State’s Punishment: Denial, Identity and Self-Worth

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

I’ve spent most of the afternoon trolling the seemingly endless blogs/websites regarding the Penn State scandal and the sanctions handed down from the NCAA. I noticed that a prevalent theme from the schools fans, students and alumni centers around the idea that punishments directed toward the football program would unfairly hurt people who had done nothing wrong (e.g., students, incoming players, new coaches, fans, etc.). Some went as so far to say that no punishment is the most acceptable course of action.

I added these thoughts to one site’s Comments thread:

There will always be collateral damage when punishments are handed down. There are always indirect victims. When people do terrible things, the families of the perpetrators suffer. That doesn’t mean you don’t act. There isn’t a viable way to deliver any sort of justice without damaging the current/future students. When you join a program – in this case, PSU – and identify with it (“We ARE…Penn State!”) then you immediately have to be part of the negative elements that may become associated with it. It’s not a one-way street. If you want to chant when your team wins or your coach gives you a library, you are – fair or not – part of the community that is now suffering the consequences of the leaders’ actions.

Because the site had a character limit I couldn’t expand on that, so I’ll do that here.

I once wrote about the intense connection people feel toward their favorite sports teams (read that here). As ridiculous as it is, people believe they are, each individually, a piece of a team’s identity. You’ll even hear people refer to themselves as part of organization (e.g., “WE need to get a new receiver if WE want to succeed this year”). Call it the 12th Man or simply a justification because they might pay to see the games or provide income to a school through tuition, but the reality is that those not on the field are just spectators who place an emotional investment in the outcome. Yet the identification remains. And, interestingly, those who are the most fervent in their support often pass on the opportunity to distance themselves in the face of damning evidence. Consider:

Penn State was just fined sixty million dollars, lost multiple scholarships and vacated 111 wins. They are ineligible to play in any postseason games for the next four years (for those who don’t like sports, you only need to know that this is very, very bad for Penn State football). And despite the fact that only a select few are questioning the culpability of Penn State’s leaders, including the deceased Joe Paterno, the fans say that the punishment is unfair, that it hurts others, that it’s wrong. Why? Not because of any conscious, rational argument or cogent take on justice, but because of identity. The mentality runs a dangerous course to self-loathing:

If Penn State is punished that strongly, then they must be incredibly guilty.
If they are incredibly guilty, then they are bad.
If I’m part of that community, then I’M bad.

One could consciously challenge this idea and save his/her psyche simply by noting that he/she is NOT actually part of that group, but that would devastate the entire identity package that was developed during all the decades of prosperity, football wins and celebrations (remember the chant: “WE are…Penn State!,” not “I’m a fan OF…Penn State”). No, this type of cognitive dissonance can only be resolved through the challenging of the initial statement:

If Penn State is punished that strongly, then the punishment is unfair toward the students, players and, most importantly, ME.

It’s no wonder that people take such a strong stance that many find irrational. It’s not simply about justice; at a deep, somewhat inaccessible level, it’s about self-worth. This is truly unfortunate, because the topic then suddenly becomes about the self, as opposed to those it should be about: the victims.

Impostor Syndrome and the “You’re Not Special” Speech: Something you Might Have Missed

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

My apologies for having been off the grid for so long. When you’re not a trained or focused writer like me, the process of getting words on the screen is a very frenetic one. I can go weeks without a single idea and then, in the middle of a movie, think of a kernel of a story, and immediately disappear for three hours to hammer it out more fully. This isn’t conducive to healthy relationships and, since I’ve been making a very conscious and deliberate effort to value those close me, the writing has had to take a back seat for the time being. Call it wisdom, turning 40 or perhaps just being lazy about writing, but there it is.

That said, I did contribute a piece for the good people at ConstitutionalDaily.Com about Imposter Syndrome. I don’t think it was exactly what they had anticipated (I used their idea as a platform to discuss the now famous “You’re Not Special” speech), but I hope you enjoy it and, ideally, apply to your own life. Here is an excerpt (hit the link at the end to keep reading and watch the speech as well):

If you’re jaded and hateful (like me), you probably took some pleasure at him calling out the Me First generation for their entitlement and self-absorption. If you looked a bit more closely, though, you noted that he specifically points out that it is YOU who is not special, as opposed to WE. This allows for the millions of people who comprise his audience to step back and call bullshit for being unfairly cherry picked from an entire planet of narcissists (which is fair, as it’s remarkably easy to point your finger outward while not including yourself in the group). But if you looked even deeper, you recognized that this wasn’t just an opportunity to put the self-indulgent in their place. It was also a call to the self-denigrating to rise up and take a seat with the rest of the world.

Click here to finish the piece.