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Robert Bogue

Probabilities to Near Certainties

Several days ago, I woke up this morning to a notification on my phone.  This one was from Facebook.  The fiancé of one of my son’s friends had posted.  His post was about the loss of my son’s friend, Caroline, one year ago.  It was this friend’s death that ultimately led to my son’s suicide.  It was the loss of the bright light that his friend exuded that so darkened his world that he didn’t know how there would be light again.

For me, it started a clock.  Its tick, tick, ticking remained with me for several days, as one life unfolds unto another.  It feels as if there’s a train that’s left the station and hasn’t arrived yet – but the tracks have only one destination.

The Last Turnoff

I’m struck by the inevitability of it all.  Certainly, I can’t change the outcome – no one can.  My son is dead, his friend is dead, and so is one other friend.  The question that looms is at what point could three lives – or even just one – have been saved?  When did we pass the railway switch that led to different outcomes, and instead became locked onto a single track – a near certainty?

Even today, I don’t know what I could have said or done to help my son, Alex, realize that life wasn’t hopeless, and that grief would eventually change (but never go away).  Having spoken with him twice the day he died, and knowing that he was similarly connected to his mom and siblings, I just don’t know what should or could have been done.

As I move backwards through the chain of seemingly causal events, I wonder what if his friend, Caroline, hadn’t interrupted the car robbery.  What if she had slept in?  Maybe she could have been sick that day.  Certainly, I didn’t wish harm on her; in my brief time with her, she was an amazing person.  However, what if she hadn’t confronted the robber?  What if she hadn’t become who she was – someone of high honor and integrity – who felt like she had to stop injustice in the world?

I feel for her fiancé, whom I’ve never met.  The questions swimming in his mind must be deafening.  What if he had been the one to confront the robber?  What if he had held her back?  (I’m not sure that would have been possible – but presuming it was.)  It always feels as if there must be something that could be done.  We believe in our personal agency, our ability to influence things, so strongly that certainly there must be something we could do.

However, at some point, our chance for personal agency has stopped.  We can no longer stop or change the events that are going to happen.

After the Bullet is Fired

We can accept this at some level.  No one believes they’re going to stop a bullet from hitting its target once it’s been fired from the gun.  There’s not enough time.  There’s not enough influence.  Yet we wonder where the edge of our influence is.  In the moments before the bullet was fired, what could we have done?

The question is specific, but the problem is not.  When does our ability to influence – or, more importantly, to change – the outcome stop and inevitability begin?  The answer seems to be that we cannot know.  We can’t know when the outcomes are so probable that they reach near certainty.

It’s About the Outcome

When near certainties are towards positive outcomes, we’re thrilled.  We aim for retirement savings that will provide for our golden years with near certainty.  However, when the outcomes are negative, like the need to declare bankruptcy or the death of a loved one, we want to prevent the outcome, the event, and the near certainty.

As I roll further back, I wonder what could have been done to stop the robber from going out that day, to that parking lot, to Caroline’s car.  I realize that this is a zero-sum game.  If it wasn’t her car, it would be someone else’s; another family would lose their precious daughter, fiancée, and friend.  So further back, I go wondering if the robber’s father’s own prison sentence and his crimes didn’t lead his son down a path.  What if someone had paid attention to him, gave him a job, shown concern for him, or a million other ways that might have redirected his life?

Certainly, then, the change could have been made.  If he didn’t feel trapped and that stealing was the only way to make things work, then Caroline’s life would have been saved – and the two more lives that followed hers could have been saved as well.

The Law of Unintended Outcomes

The problem, as I move further and further back, is I know that the outcomes are subject to the law of unintended outcomes.  The further back we go, the less likely it is that we can predict the outcome.  As more and more variables are added in, we become less and less likely to predict the outcomes.  As we go further and further back, we have no idea what the outcomes may be.

The robber’s second grade teacher has no way of knowing that offering him a second chance at a failed paper may one day make the difference in four lives – including his.  There’s no way to know what single act of kindness, mercy, or support may have changed the future in a positive way.

So, then, we can’t go too far back, because to do so makes it as impossible to predict as it seems impossible to stop.  We’re caught between predictability and certainty.  We have no way of knowing – and we have no way of changing.  We’re left with the tragedy of acceptance.

Book Review-A Class Divided: Then and Now

It all started the night of April 4th, 1968.  Jane Elliott was preparing for her next day’s lessons when she heard of Dr. King’s assassination.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been fatally shot by James Earl Ray on a balcony in Memphis, TN.  It shook Elliott to her core as she sat on the floor working on the teepee for the next day’s lesson.  She decided that she’d design an exercise for her class that would help them understand how discrimination was wrong.  In A Class Divided: Then and Now, William Peters explores the results of the exercise when it was performed and the lasting effect it had on her classes.

The Programs

Peters was a producer for ABC and developed a documentary that demonstrated the impact on a class – not the first class, which she had done in 1968, but her 1970 class, after Elliott’s work became more well known.  The Eye of the Storm was released in 1970 and became a teaching tool for generations.  Peters and Elliott reunited with many of the class from the documentary and released an episode of the series Frontline: “A Class Divided.”  This 1985 episode received a number of awards as well.

Peters’ role was that of an amplifier.  He was the storyteller that ensured the world was able to see the starting transformation that Elliott saw.


I won’t pretend to completely understand racism either in the 1960s and 1970s or today.  I’m not qualified.  It is, however, important to expose the prevailing – incorrect – beliefs of the time.  It’s necessary to expose the undercurrent that was not always stated – but was sometimes shouted.  It was believed that Black Americans were inferior, sub-human, and dumb.  These stated and unstated beliefs permeated the atmosphere, challenging the self-confidence that everyone deserves.  It extracted a heavy psychic toll on those on whom it was foisted.

As Elliott knew, and her class learned, that sometimes it is the tail wagging the dog.  Sometimes the expectations become reality.  It’s an established psychological fact today that people will perform at the level of the expectations and labels placed upon them (and that they accept), but in the 1960s, that research didn’t exist.  What they learned was that it’s possible (and is truth) that they’re just like you and me, but the circumstances they were placed in – slavery and decades of Jim Crow Laws – had pushed them in ways that no one understood.

Riceville, Minnesota

For the children of Riceville, Iowa, racism was invisible.  In a mostly white community, most children rarely ran into Black people.  They heard their parents and the townsfolk speak of Black Americans and their inferiority, but it was just something they accepted since they had no – or little – experience.  Strangely, even as two Black members of the production crew set up for the recording, the children barely noticed.

Even in a community where there were very few Black people, the prejudice and discrimination remained.  It lurked just beneath the surface.

Brown Eyed Girl

Elliott divided her class between those who had brown eyes and those who didn’t (so, blue, green, or hazel eyes), because it created a distinguishable split in the class.  On the first day, she’d tell the brown-eyed children they were superior, and the others were inferior.  On the next class day, she’d reverse it, saying that the brown-eyed children were inferior.  The children knew at the start of the exercise that this would be the case.

The privileged group would be given normal opportunities and enhanced opportunities where the inferior group would be forced to wear a collar, so people could determine if they were inferior even if they were facing away such that their eye color could not be seen.

As expected, the superior group began to treat the inferior group poorly – even knowing the tables would be turned the next class day.

A Teacher Conflicted

Elliott explains that she had a great deal of difficulty with the exercise, because it required her to tell her students something she knew was wrong, and she came face-to-face with the kind of discrimination that she wanted to stop.  As it turned out, April 5th, 1968, was a Friday, and that meant the next class day was a weekend, so she dreaded the second half of the exercise all weekend.

After the initial success and seeing how the children learned from the exercise, she still hated the exercise but continued it because the learning was so powerful and so necessary.  The children, in the space of two days, learned how it felt to be discriminated against – and therefore why it was wrong.

The Start of Expectations

What Elliott saw in her classroom was startling.  Not just the discrimination but also how the performance of her children shifted dramatically during the exercise.  When children were in the inferior role, they performed less well.  Since then, numerous studies have confirmed that when people take tests, they tend to conform to the stereotypes that they identify with.  If you’re an Asian woman who is nudged to embrace your Asian heritage, you’ll do better on a math test than normal.  If, conversely, you’re encouraged to focus on your gender, you’ll do less well.  When people are encouraged to embrace any stereotype, their performance will drift in that direction.

The key to this is that the influence is both external and internal.  It’s not that people need to be told they’re inferior or that they’ll do poorly – they’ve already internalized it, and all it takes is an activation, which can come subtly and unintentionally.  Changing the stereotypes is important for the external signs as well as the internal impacts.

Resident Evil

The problem this exposes is that the evil that Zimbardo unleashed in the Stanford Prison Experiment and documented in The Lucifer Effect is inside of all of us.  Our willingness to accept discrimination is the first step on what Bandura called Moral Disengagement.  It’s the first step to the atrocities and genocides that we continue to see in the world.  First, make them different – or observe the differences rather than the similarities.  Second, make them less human, less worthy.  From this, you get the evils of the world, not just A Class Divided.

Book Review-Touching Two Worlds: A Guide for Finding Hope in the Landscape of Loss

What do you do when your work becomes your personal life?  Perhaps you spend your time helping others with substance abuse, and a family member starts abusing; or you work with grief counseling, and suddenly, you’re faced with the death of a parent, a spouse, or a child.  It’s the place that Sherry Walling, a licensed mental health professional, found herself in.  In Touching Two Worlds: A Guide for Finding Hope in the Landscape of Loss, she shares the stories about losing her father and her brother.

Orientation Check

If you want to make sure that the person you’re talking to is oriented to the world – or connected with reality – you can ask them four key questions looking for practical rather than existential answers:

  • Do you know who you are?
  • Do you know where you are?
  • Do you know when you are?
  • Do you know why you are here?

If they can’t answer these questions, then there are big issues.  When you feel your grip on reality slipping – or at least you’re concerned that it is slipping – you can reconnect to a set of basic truths and ground yourself in the world by knowing these orienting questions.  The existential answers to these questions can be orienting as well.

In dealing with loss and the grieving process, one of the issues is that a loss can challenge three of your four existential orientation answers.  If you are a father and lose a son, are you still a father?  Often, we wrap our identities in with other people.  This is mostly good but can be overdone.  If our identity is wrapped into a person we lose, don’t we lose a part of ourselves?  Are you in the middle of your life, or is this the end for you as well?  If you’re not here as a part of this other person’s life, then why are you here?

The Club No One Wants to Be a Part of

When you lose someone close to you, you become a member of the club that no one wants to be a part of – but everyone eventually will.  The family of grief is a painful group that no one wants but everyone must one day have.  It’s common in loss to hear people accepting the reality of the loss of their loved one and simultaneously hating it.  They long for a way to not have this reality and, at the same time, understand that it’s unchangeable.

Goodness, Safety, and Predictability

It was years ago at the Indianapolis Zoo.  My wife left the wagon, which we had brought for my son to ride in, outside an exhibit.  When she returned, the wagon was gone.  We ultimately recovered the wagon when I spotted some people with children struggling to get it in their car.  I had a custom jacket in the wagon that they hadn’t removed, so it was easy to identify.  To this day, I don’t know if it was an honest mistake, or it was malicious.

However, to my son, it was the first time that he realized that the world may not be good.  Until that time, he had been sheltered from negative realities.  Luckily, it was a relatively small disruption to his sense of goodness.

We also attempt to instill in our children a sense of safety.  We know that the impacts of stress aren’t good, and that fear makes us behave in unpredictable ways.  (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more.)  In general, our egos protect us from the reality that we can’t protect ourselves from everything.  (See Change or Die.)  We like the illusion of control, because it makes us feel safe even when we know that control is an illusion.  (See Compelled to Control for more.)

Prediction is one of the primary functions of consciousness.  (See Quiet Leadership for more on Jeff Hawkins’ theory.)  Consciousness, and higher-order brain function, is very expensive from a calorie perspective.  It must have an evolutionary benefit to exist, and prediction is proposed to be that benefit.  We know that we’re not always right – but being right even some of the time is evolutionarily useful.  (See The Signal and the Noise, Superforecasting, and Noise for more on our errors and ways to combat them.)

The loss of someone threatens all three of these.  How can a good world have allowed our loss? How can we be safe if we’ve lost someone we love?  Who could have predicted this?

Landmines of the Psyche

After a loss, you never really know what will set you off and when it will come.  One moment, you’re floating through your day, and the next, you’re consumed by feelings of loss and sadness.  Years after the death of my brother in a tragic airplane accident, my wife got me a gift certificate to get up flying again.  (See Rusty Shane Bogue for more about the accident.)  I went from okay to very much not okay in a moment.  I was grateful for the gift, but it caused the memory and feelings of the loss to become unstoppable.  Sure, I recovered after a few minutes, but it was an instant return to the moments and days after his death.

This is far from the only time that I’ve been humming along and suddenly get derailed.  It’s a common experience with those who have experienced grief.  It comes back at us in a moment without warning.

Right Actions

The actions preceding the death are never certain.  When you’re told by an addict that they’re using, and you thank them for trusting you with the information, are you doing the right thing – or not?  As you’re considering the visitation time with a terminally ill family member, do you spend enough time with them – or too much?  The problem is that we perceive these as critically important times, and we have no way of knowing if what we’ve done is right or not.

We could quite easily become consumed by these thoughts and worries.  “What if” becomes the question that haunts the mind – until we’re able to find ways to accept our imperfection and realize that we did the best we could.

Finding Answers

A natural response to a death is to try to figure out the cause and the blame.  Was the cancer caused by the workplace, the pack-a-day cigarette habit, or service in a foreign country?  Did the heart attack come because of high cholesterol or a genetic predisposition?  These and a million other questions race through the minds of those who are grieving as they attempt to make sense of the situation so that they can regain their ability to predict and find a way to reclaim the idea that the world is good.

The problem is that, in many cases, there are no answers.  The accident just happened.  New tires or old tires don’t matter.  No caution or plea to be careful can rewind time and change the outcomes.  Answers are often nowhere because there are no answers.

Meaning and Brokenness

The loss of a loved one leaves us with brokenness, one that we’ll have to mend without their help.  One of the ways that we can do that is by looking for meaning – for us – in the events.  (See Finding Meaning for more.)  Brokenness and meaning are their own worlds that are intertwined with our experience of grief.  In the end, we find ways to find ourselves through the mess with our efforts to be Touching Two Worlds.

Book Review-The Denial of Death

Death has its tentacles around every part of life.  Though we fight to release life from its grip and deny its existence, Ernest Becker explains we don’t have The Denial of Death.  I’ve previously reviewed The Worm at the Core, which extends Becker’s work, and I won’t be revisiting those arguments here.  Rather, I share some of Becker’s insights about how we seek to escape the truth: that we’re all running away from death, consciously or unconsciously.

Run Away

The most haunting thing in Becker’s work is the realization that some of the tiniest aspects of our world are being subtly manipulated by our insistence that dying is a natural part of life.  The topics that we struggle with most in society are echoes of the death that we’re avoiding.  We struggle with sexual taboos and the hushed words that surround reproduction, because it’s a tacit admission that we’ll not be around forever, and as a result, we need to procreate to keep ourselves alive in some sense.

We build monuments to ourselves not just in our children but in our works as well in the hopes that something of ourselves will survive until antiquity.  Even these writings are an attempt to cheat death and allow ideas to continue after my death.

No matter where we look, we can find evidence that we’re running away from death and what it means.


But then, one may ask, what about those who sacrifice themselves for others?  What about those heroes who lay themselves down on a grenade to protect others?  The answer is that they may be forestalling death for the others.  In The Blank Slate, we learned that altruism could help genes survive when the altruism is directed at relatives.  In Spiritual Evolution, we learned that chimpanzee youth were more likely to survive based on the socialness of the mother.  Connect the dots, and you realize that, in the calculus of survival of the genes, it’s sometimes in your best interest to sacrifice yourself so that others who carry your genes may survive.

We can find immortality if only we can keep our genes alive, or so the story goes.


As was thoroughly addressed in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, humans are unique in our ability to project ourselves into our minds and possible futures.  For the most part, this has resulted in anxiety and stress over things that have never – and will never – happen.  We’re perfect machines for first predicting and then stressing about these future events that we don’t know will happen.


Another way to deny death is to rely on religion.  If we’re immortal souls who are just inhabiting a body for a time, death loses its sting.  After all death, then is just a transition, not an ending – an ending we all fear.  However, in this conceptualization, it cannot be that the body has control over the man.  Thus, we see references to the carnal nature of man and the need to overcome the acts of the flesh.  This is what of what drives our Victorian-era prohibitions about sex and talking about sex.  (See The Anatomy of Love for more.)  We can’t be immortal beings inhabiting a biological shell if the biological shell has control over us.

Illusions and Delusions

For many of us, there are some beliefs that we hold onto but don’t necessarily believe.  Even simple rituals, like knocking on wood or throwing salt, are dismissed as untrue, yet we continue them.  We continue them, because the cost of continuing them is small – and what if we’re wrong?  Rarely does it bother us that we don’t believe in the fairies and trolls that drive these superstitions.  They’re accepted.

Freud looked upon our fears to know ourselves and accept ourselves as we are as the core of psychodynamic theory and the root of psychological illness.  He, however, also believed that it was the suppression of sexuality rather than the suppression of the thought of death that drove people.  Becker (and many others) disagree, instead focusing on the need to suppress the thought of our mortality and death.


No matter how powerful a man or woman becomes in this world, they are powerless to stop death.  They cannot forestall its coming forever despite our modern attempts.  So, in this area of life, we are helpless.  The good news is that this reality rarely intrudes upon the rest of our life in a way that we become hopeless overall.  Hopelessness can lead to depression, burnout, and suicide.  (See Extinguish Burnout for more about the relationship of hopelessness to burnout, When It Is Darkest for the relationship of hopelessness to suicide, and The Psychology of Hope for more on what hope is.)

Follow the Leader

Leadership is hard to define, but even Becker seemed to endorse the fundamental premises in Rost’s Leadership for the Twenty-First Century and James MacGregor Burns’ Leadership.  That is, leadership is a relationship between the leader and the follower – or collaborator.  He’s further aligned in the understanding that leaders need followers – otherwise they’re not leaders.  What’s interesting, however, is the psychological structure of being a follower rather than a leader.

Becker explains that by allowing someone else to be the leader and blindly following their orders, you take no responsibility for either the activity or the outcomes.  “I was just following orders” is the common refrain.  While this would frustrate Bandura as he speaks about Moral Disengagement and prove Philip Zimbardo’s point in The Lucifer Effect, it does nothing to help the idea that everyone wants autonomy and control of their own lives.  Instead, Becker explains how some decide that it’s not worth the cost.  We see this in Work Redesign, where Ralph doesn’t want any more growth or responsibility.

There is a certain burden to freedom.  If we’re free, then we become responsible for the behaviors and, to some extent, the outcomes, which means we can be disappointed in our own behaviors and the outcomes in a way that isn’t present when we’re just playing follow the leader.

Tranquilize Themselves with the Trivial

Becker also explains that he sees most of humanity tranquilizes themselves with the trivial to avoid considering more important and global matters.  There’s the stereotypical person who works their factory job, drinks a few beers or a case, falls asleep, and does the same thing again the next day.  While Richard Florida points out in The Rise of the Creative Class: Revisited that the way we work is changing, there is little reason to believe that creative people are any different than the hard-working factory worker.

We fill up on news and daily distractions so that we can prevent the considerations of death until we are on its doorstep.  That’s when we begin to hear the Top Five Regrets of the Dying.  We learn that they’re sorry they wasted too much time with the trivial.

Knowledge Securely Possessed

Today, we may know more than an any other time in human history.  However, we hold that knowledge to be more temporary and tenuous than ever before.  At first, the opposite appears to be true.  We see people on both sides of a conflict vehemently arguing their positions and assume that they hold their perspective as absolute truth.  However, what we know is that the knowledge you have that is the most secure is the knowledge you defend the least.  Security of knowing something means that you don’t need to defend it and are happy to hear others’ perspectives without fear that something they reveal will cause you to reevaluate your world.

Reevaluating your world, testing, and resetting your core beliefs is a frightening and exhausting process that everyone wants to avoid.  Those who are comfortable in their beliefs are able to listen, because the fear of the reevaluation is gone.

We learn more about our world through space telescopes, subatomic scanning, and large-scale particle colliders.  We learn about each other through genetic sequencing, brain scans, and statistical observation at a massive scale.  These observations have upended some of the widely-held beliefs of our parents and ourselves.  It’s natural that we’d want to defend the few beliefs that have not yet been called into question as a way of anchoring ourselves to our perspective of reality – even if that perspective is wrong.

The one thing that we cannot avoid is that much of what we do in this life is designed to protect us from the reality of death.  There cannot be The Denial of Death.


Book Review-Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States

You only have two options when you’re experiencing a problem and you want to change it.  You can exit the situation, or you can use your voice to try to try to change it.  In 1970, Albert Hirschman wrote Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States to explain how these two forces could help to drive forward commerce and politics – and the conditions under which these forces might not be enough.  The inclusion of loyalty was because it’s a mediating factor that influences when exit is used compared to when voice is used.  What makes Hirschman’s work interesting is that it applies not just to commerce and politics.  It applies to life.  It applies to every relationship that we have with organizations and others.

There’s a fundamental premise behind the book, which is that things are – at all times – somewhat imperfect and need some process to combat the process of entropy and degeneration.  This is, in nearly every aspect of our human existence, truth.  We recognize that, without market forces, organizations will reduce quality – a concept Hirschman is focused on – or will raise prices to the point that they can.  This is the heart of the monopoly protections that the government puts in place when competition is removed.  It’s also why anti-trust laws exist to prohibit collusion that might suppress the forces of exit and voice that Hirschman explores.

The Options

There’s a third option that doesn’t make it to the marquee of the book.  The option is to do nothing.  However, it isn’t an option that steers the relationship in a positive direction, it simply blindly hopes that the situation will get better – and it’s the option that loyalty, in its most extreme form, results in.

The economic premise of exit is that if you withdraw your commerce from the organization, its monitoring systems will detect the loss of revenue and awaken leadership to changing the organization in a way that corrects the reasons for the exit.

Voice, on the other hand, seeks to provide feedback directly to the organization in a way that doesn’t involve economic harm.  The basic premise is that the leadership of the organization is actively interested in the feedback of the customers, members, or citizens such that their feedback forms a first signal before exit becomes the required option.

The Mitigating Factors

At the individual level, we each have biases toward choosing to exit or apply our voice to a situation.  In the United States, our history has been largely influenced by the key decisions to exit.  It’s no wonder why, at a broader level, Americans seem more willing to exit an organizational relationship than to apply their voice.  However, there are two key mitigating factors for choosing voice over exit.

The first is the issue of loyalty.  The more loyal we are to a brand, the more likely we are to provide feedback directly via voice rather than leave.  Look at this 2×2 grid, which places loyalty and the degree to which the organization is listening on axes:

Loyalty for an organization with high listening results in change and therefore high retention.  However, for the organization with high loyalty and poor listening systems designed to pick up the voice of the customer, the result is repeated frustration by those who are loyal to the organization.  In the low loyalty category, low listening results in rapid exit as customers need little proof that their best option is to exit.  With low loyalty and high listening, organizations are confused why there seems to be nothing to hear.  Many customers exit without even attempting to assert their voice.

However, this graph ignores the other mitigating factor that constrains exit.  The greater the cost there is for switching, the greater the resistance of the exit option and thus the greater willingness to test voice as a vehicle for change.  High costs of changing were an intentional strategy of wireless carriers in the past.  Once a person was with you, they would be retained for a very long time, because the cost of switching was so high.  Gradually these barriers to exit were brought down by governmental and market factors.  Phone number portability transferred the ownership of a number from the carrier to the subscriber allowing them to take the number with them to another provider.  Market moves like those of T-Mobile pushed against the long-term contracts.

When There is No Escape

In some cases, the cost of exit is so high that it practically becomes impossible.  In the case of political systems, it’s possible to leave the city, county, state, or nation but at progressively higher and higher costs.  These costs are impractical to most people.  Highly constrained on the availability of exit, the result is voice – sometimes voices in active protest.  With exit constrained, more energy can be invested in voice before people exhaust their patience.

Once patience with voice has been lost, the consumer will fall into a trapped, hopeless place where they no longer see any escape from their circumstances.  This is problematic in two directions.  First, being resigned that nothing can change, they no longer provide any direct input into the system for the organization to learn.  The second direction is that pressure continues to build until a nontraditional solution for exit or organization change is attempted, often with disastrous consequences.

When There is No Voice

An opposite condition can occur when exit is too easy.  It’s effectively costless to transition, and the exit happens without any signal to the organization.  The result is that the voice option – the voice of the customer – becomes mute; no one bothers to offer up a voice, since doing so serves no purpose.  Thus, loyalty mediates this problem in environments where exit is too easy.  It encourages the use of voice where normally there would be none.  We can see this in the airline loyalty programs.  The programs are designed to keep flyers on an airline instead of exiting.  Even in an environment where the time and costs should dictate the transactions, we find that loyal flyers go out of their way to continue to fly on their preferred airline.  More importantly, they expect that they have a voice that will be heard.

The escalation teams for customer service issues at most major consumer organizations are named as “executive” care teams.  The implication is that you’re getting the special treatment that only the most important people receive.  Having engaged with many of these teams in the past, I can tell you that their efficacy for addressing problems is lousy.  They’re happy to issue a credit, but when you need a service problem resolved, they can almost never help.

The Impact of Time

Buried at the end of Hirschman’s treatise is that there are, in some cases, hybrid versions of each.  For instance, the boycott, where there’s a temporary exit.  The service is intentionally avoided for a period of time even if long-term avoidance is impractical.  More critically, he addresses the fact that loyalty has its limits.  Loyalty doesn’t fundamentally change the cost/quality to retention ratio.  Instead, it introduces a temporal dimension that is often ignored.  We’ll tolerate poor service from our favorite restaurant occasionally.  We may do so and neither resort to exit nor voice.  We’ll just expect they’re having an off day.  The degree to which we’re willing to do this is largely driven by loyalty.

A single stop at a restaurant with poor service will likely cause us to avoid it – exercising exit and not bothering with voice due to the low cost of changing.  It’s the loyalty that keeps us coming back – or using voice when no exit cost exists.  However, each time we encounter poor service, our loyalty will be a bit less – eventually, it’s not enough to hold back our desire for exit.

Desire of Autonomy

In some conditions, it may be desirable for an organization or its leadership to assert a level of autonomy.  That is to say, they may want to dispense with all the messy feedback and painful review of the metrics that are moved by the exit of customers.  They may thereby insulate themselves from the voice of the customer and remove the important leading metrics from their dashboards so that they can set out on their own course of change for the organization.  While this can result in success, it’s quite dangerous and ill-advised in all but exceptional circumstances.

Take the story of Netflix and its desire to separate its DVD shipping business from the online delivery of movies.  The attempt was a disaster – which was quickly remedied, to its credit.  However, it is a good example of an internal decision that wasn’t subjected to the review of loyal customers before it was announced publicly and received a negative reaction.

The MVP Program

I remain honored to be a part of the Microsoft MVP program.  It has taught me a lot about the sausage-making of building software products.  It’s also taught me that sometimes the voice that we’re graciously granted doesn’t change products.  Instead, it shapes how Microsoft announces their products to the broader market.  We often notify the product teams of the kinds of resistance they can expect in the market, and that allows them to shape how they message the changes.  While this isn’t the change that I hope to accomplish via my voice, I know that it serves an important role for the organization.  They need high-fidelity feedback channels that will tell them when they’re off the rails.  Sometimes, they can pick the train back up and put it on the rails again.  Other times, they paint the wreck in pretty colors and hope the market doesn’t notice.


It’s important to revisit the concept of politics and the degree to which the option of exit is limited in politics.  It’s hard to leave.  Even in boundary places, where exit appears to be available without undue costs, there are hidden costs which must still be paid.  Hirschman explains that consumers are free to send their children to private schools, but in doing so, they deprive the public schools of the most powerful voices in change.  Even those who send their children to public schools must still contend with the rest of the community who has received sub-standard education – so, at some level, they cannot escape (exit) the challenges of poor schools.

Politics is a special place where the cost of exit is so high that voice is nearly the only solution.

Sunk Cost and Skipping Rocks

One of the dynamics that Hirschman explores is the interplay between loyalty and exit.  This is a place where our sunk cost fallacy may drive the same direction as loyalty.  In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains that we tend to keep investing once we’ve made an initial investment – even when further investment isn’t the right answer.  We see this with employees.  They tend to either have a short tenure with an organization or a long tenure.  Once an employee has passed to a point of having worked at an organization for a few years, they’re invested and are much more likely to carefully use their voice to try to initiate change.  (See The Art of Insubordination for ways to do this.)  Employees without tenure with the organization have no sunk cost fallacy and therefore may decide that exit is their best option when confronted with an issue.

The lesson for HR managers is that their attempts to build loyalty should be equally distributed to include new employees.  Tenure-based bonuses may be a good reward, but they do little to encourage loyalty of the newest employees – and therefore is an area that may be challenging from a turnover perspective.


While the entire context of the book lives in the realm of our society, including our organizations, affiliations, and politics, there’s one important aspect of Hirschman’s work that bears exploration.  He mentions only briefly about these options in families, yet it’s another important part of our lives, and one where the forces and options apply with perhaps greater impact.

To start, the book Divorce notes that after “irreconcilable differences” became an option to initiate divorce, there was a sharp rise in divorces.  In the context of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, when the exit was made an option, people took it.  Alternatively, you could say that the cost was lowered; however, substantial stigma and therefore cost remained.  In short, the high cost of divorce maintained marriages that would have otherwise fallen apart.

However, there’s more.  If you evaluate Hirschman’s work in the context of estrangement, like those discussed in Fault Lines, one can see that either there’s a low value to the family relationships or a low loyalty to family – or both.  This leads us to Francis Fukuyama’s work in Trust and how different degrees of trust shape society.  Specifically, Fukuyama’s use of trust incorporates a degree of loyalty in it – and thereby changes the way that individuals react in families and in society.

What Hirschman views as competing options of exit and voice, Harriet Lerner views as The Dance of Connection.  In her book, she thinks about how to use voice effectively, and when it’s time to exit a relationship.  The principles drive all our relationships.  The challenge in the sense of relationships is that our exercise of voice sometimes causes the other person to exit – whether the voice was used appropriately or not.  Similarly, the market conditions for connections in our hyper-connected world are plentiful, and therefore the cost of exit seems small.  Smaller than it should when we recognize that at the heart of what it means to be human is to be connected, and those connections are intended to be substantially deeper than the world we live in today with Facebook friends.  Maybe it’s time to find out more about Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.

Book Review-Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief

Grief sucks.  Finding a way out from underneath the weight is the goal.  That’s what David Kessler proposes in Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.  How do you learn to grieve in ways that avoid suffering and allow you to find some meaning in the aftermath of loss?  Kessler argues that finding meaning helps to transform grief so that it’s less painful and less suffering.

The Grieving Process

Kessler’s previous books include co-author Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.  Kubler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying, a classic about how people respond to the prospects of their own death, which she and Kessler adapted to the grieving process in On Grief and Grieving (which I’ve not reviewed).  Not everyone is wildly supportive of this work and approach to both death and grieving for various reasons.  However, as I explained while defending it against the concerns leveled in The Grief Recovery Handbook, it’s solid work that’s often misunderstood.

Grieving doesn’t follow a single linear path from start to finish with regular checkpoints along the way.  Instead, grief is a deeply personal process that has no one answer.  One moment you’re accepting things, and the next you’re throwing things in frustration, desperation, and denial.  This is sometimes confusing to those who are going through it – or those close to them.  After a moment or month of return to denial, it’s hard not to question what progress looks like and whether things are headed in the right direction.  However, that’s not giving the grieving both the benefit of the doubt – and the space to grieve in their own way and their own time.

Nothing Prepares You

Candy Lightner formed Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) after the death of her daughter Cari at the hands of a repeat drunk driver.  John Walsh started America’s Most Wanted after the abduction and murder of his son.  Neither desired the tragedy – but they decided to make the best of it in hopes that others wouldn’t have to go through what they went through.  Knowing intimately the pain and torment of the loss of a child, they decided that no one else should have to.  They found meaning in a purpose.  They developed their grief into a force to prevent others from having to feel it.

Even those who have spent their lives teaching and writing on a topic can find themselves unprepared when it happens to them.  Kessler explains that he lost his 21-year-old son and how none of the work he had done teaching people about grief was enough to prevent his own loss.  He may have handled it better than most – but it wasn’t as if he managed to side-step the grief process.  What he did know was where all the signposts were.

Sense Making

One of the things that we know about humans is that we have a deep need for things to make sense.  If prediction is the fundamental purpose of consciousness, then we need sense-making to feed the prediction engine.  (See Mindreading for more about the belief that prediction is the fundamental purpose of consciousness.)  We know that we learn and think in stories.  (See Story Genius and Wired for Story for more.)  We even recognize the role that sense-making plays in whether someone will emerge from a trauma with growth or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  (See Transformed by Trauma, Opening Up, and The Body Keeps the Score for more on how sense-making relieves PTSD)

It’s no surprise, then, that to transform a trauma of the loss of a loved one, we need to make sense of it.  What is surprising is what that sense can mean.  It can transform someone from believing the world is a fundamentally helpful place to a view that the world is fundamentally hostile, and it’s necessary to protect oneself.  This is a fundamental belief, because it’s not easily changed – but the loss of a loved one is just the size of trauma it might take to shift it.

Conversely, the sense-making can be much, much smaller.  It can be that you develop an avoidance for the source of the trauma.  If your husband died in a motorcycle accident, you may develop a strong aversion to motorcycles.  The sense that you make from the trauma is personal, and it likely will never answer the question about why your loved one had to be the one.

Meaning Is What You Make of It

Meaning is what you make of the tragedy.  It can be a quest to change the world to make it better or form connections with others who’ve suffered similar tragedies.  The meaning you make isn’t the same meaning that someone else would make.

Love and Grief

It is possible to avoid grief – but at what cost?  Grief is the way that we experience loss.  It’s possible to avoid loss only through the avoidance of learning to love others.  If we don’t care about others, then we can avoid grief.  In the moments of deepest mourning and grief, we may briefly decide that this sounds like a good plan only to realize it’s a fool’s errand.  Love is what makes life worth living.  It’s the light in the darkness that we sometimes see in the world.

To be clear, love here is the relationship and connection that you have with others.  It might be the Greek eros (sexual love), but it’s more often philos (brotherly love) or agape (world love or compassion).  The Grief Recovery Handbook appropriately points out that grief is the way that we respond to loss, and therefore it doesn’t necessarily have to be related to love – but it often is.

Acceptance and Non-Judgement

The divorce rate of parents who have lost a child is high – too high.  Kessler attributes this to the fact that the spouses grieve differently, and they don’t allow for their partner’s grief in a way that accepts and validates it.  We believe the way that we grieve – as influenced by our societies, families, and personal experiences – is the way that everyone should grieve, and we’re confused when our spouse doesn’t grieve this way.

David Richo suggests that there are five As that we need in his book How to Be an Adult in Relationships.  Those As are attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection, and allowing.  Perhaps if everyone practiced these, we wouldn’t have to compound the tragedy of death of a child with the tragedy of divorce.  (See more about Divorce.)

Addicted to Grief

Capture speaks of how our processing of a situation or our life can leave us stuck.  It’s as if our loss has taken the wheel, and we’ve become helpless passengers on the journey of grief.  The process isn’t fundamentally different from the process of addiction, where someone starts with a coping strategy that progressively gains more and more control over them.  Some people can become stuck in their grief process, swallowed up by the support that we receive to the point that we fail to stand on our own or attempt to regain control of our lives.

While it’s natural to be utterly overwhelmed and unable to function after a loss, at some point, we’ve each got to figure out how we can work on our own healing.  No one can heal us – it’s something that we must do ourselves and it’s not easy.  The healing that we muster doesn’t mean our loss didn’t happen or won’t impact us, but it does mean that it no longer controls and confines us.

Suffering is Optional

Kessler argues that grief is necessary, but suffering is optional.  I agree in part – but disagree as well.  The word suffering is “the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship.”  The losses that we’re speaking of necessarily cause suffering.  However, where I agree with Kessler is that the amount of time you spend in suffering can be influenced.  You can choose to remain in a state of persistent suffering, or you can crawl and climb your way out of the hole that is suffering.

Those who have lost someone are caught between two incompatible expectations.  On the one hand, they’re expected to return to “normal” as soon as possible.  People wonder if you’re “over it” yet.  On the other hand, we’re told the degree to which we grieve is the degree to which we loved the person we’ve lost.  In that case, shouldn’t we go on grieving forever?

The truth is that we will continue to grieve forever.  It will change and transform, but it will always be there.  We can choose to have the expression of our grief be pain and distress or we can simply experience it as a loss.

Why Me and What Do I Do Now?

There are two different ways to questions we ask ourselves in any loss – and we all use both at different times and to varying degrees.  The first approach is to ask the question, “Why me?”  This comes from a place of victimhood.  Why was I the victim of this unfair event?  The answer that life isn’t fair isn’t very satisfying.  While the question is reasonable and expected, you don’t want to build a home in victimhood.  (See Hostage at the Table for more on victimhood.)

The other question is, “What do I do now?” which represents an awareness of the agency we have in how we respond to the events that happen in our lives.  Losses happen that we have no control of.  We must simply accept they’ve happened no matter how painful they are or how much we want to avoid the outcome.  While losses aren’t controllable, the way that we react to them is.  Certainly, we should mourn the loss and grieve but we can choose for how long and in what ways.

That isn’t to say that we have conscious control of our grieving process, and we can decide that, on Tuesday at 3:02 PM, we’re done.  Instead, we control the responses in a way that encourages our recovery or leaves us in the same place of victimhood.

Life Worth Living

The person that we’ve lost can no longer be present for life.  Their death ends their participation.  However, we have a choice as to whether we are just going to be present for life or whether we’re going to find ways to make the best of what we have left – to thrive as much as is possible.  (See Flourish and The How of Happiness for more.)

Running into the Storm

Imagine for a moment that you’re out on the plains on a motorcycle with no protection from rain and storms.  There are no overpasses or anything to hide underneath.  Your options are to hunker down by the side of the road or charge into the storm.  Which option is a better option?  At first, hurling yourself headlong into a storm may seem crazy.  After all, why would you volunteer for more than what is already where you are?  The answer is because the storm is coming.  You cannot avoid it.  Turning and driving in the other direction will only prolong your experience of the storm.

When you face the storm and push into it, you reduce the amount of time you’ll be in it.  As the storm moves across the ground, you move forward and find the end sooner.  With our loss and grief, we can turn the other way and attempt to run from it, or we can face it and move forward at whatever pace we can manage.  If we face the storm and move into it, we’ll find the storm is over sooner.  No one is going to like loss, but maybe we can find our way through it by Finding Meaning.

Book Review-The Pumpkin Plan

Who wants to know how to grow pumpkins?  The answer is a handful of people, but that’s not really what The Pumpkin Plan is about.  It’s about an approach to your business that follows the pattern of the $500-per-seed great pumpkin growers.  The book was a recommendation from an entrepreneurial friend who thought the fundamental premises were interesting.  I found the process to be problematic.  Normally, I’d not post a review like this one.  I want you to know what books are good and add value to your world.  I avoid criticizing them, because that’s not valuable to you or me – but this is different.

The Oversimplification Class

The reason I’m writing this book review is so we can use the book as a case study for the kinds of books that provide formulas and checklists that are your supposed paths to success.  There’s always an “and then the magic happens” step, even though it’s almost never called that.  It’s something that if you knew how to do it, you wouldn’t have been looking for a book to make things better in the first place.

Mike Michalowicz isn’t alone in writing books that claim to have the magic formula.  Don Miller in Building a StoryBrand and Marketing Made Simple has a simple formula for clarifying your message.  Clarifying your message is a good thing – and something I still need to work on.  However, reading Don’s work and even consulting with his certified consultants doesn’t solve the problem.  Of course, there are dozens of other books that can fit in this stack at some level: Duct Tape Marketing, Guerrilla Marketing, The New Rules of Marketing and PR, The Challenger Sale, Fascinate, Launch, Launch!, and Traction to name a few.

What’s special about The Pumpkin Plan is that it takes the simplification to a whole new level.  It’s simple: focus on only those things that are going to give you the biggest pumpkin – and weed out the rest.  Straightforward.  Simple.  But, importantly, it’s impossible.


Our ability to predict the future is awful.  Superforecasting, The Signal and the Noise, and Noise are all great at explaining the challenges.  However, it can be summed up by understanding the difference between a Fermi estimate and the Drake equation.  With a Fermi estimate, you take many known factors and you put them together for a larger prediction that’s generally reasonably accurate.  The Drake equation is designed to determine the number of observable intelligent life in the universe.  The problem with the Drake equation is that we don’t have reasonable answers to the factors and the result is you end up with either an infinite number of detectable intelligent life forms – or zero.  (Sometimes on this planet, I wonder if there’s intelligent life myself.)

So, the core concept in The Pumpkin Plan is – for many of us – difficult to figure out.  Over a decade ago, I wrote the very first version of The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide.  The very first year, it was a dismal failure.  It didn’t cover my direct costs not to mention my indirect costs.  A year later, it was a phenomenal success.  The difference was an email marketing campaign.  That’s it.  The product didn’t change.  The market didn’t even change that much.  It was one thing that worked that made the whole thing fit together and start to generate a substantial amount of revenue.  Had I assessed the growth potential of The Shepherd’s Guide using Mike’s formula, I would have trashed it and the seven digits of income it has produced to date with almost no effort.

Are there reasons to focus?  Are there reasons to stop doing what isn’t working?  Yes.  However, I can look at dozens of other entrepreneurial books that give equally bad opposite advice.  They tell you that most entrepreneurs would have been successful if they had just stuck with it a bit longer.  They’re using a variation of the benevolent dolphin fallacy.  (See How We Know What Isn’t So.)


The real difficulty isn’t in nurturing the things that are going to bring you success (as you define it) but rather knowing which things to weed out and which to nurture.  The difficulty isn’t in doing – it’s in deciding.  Entrepreneurs are necessarily and perpetually short on data.  They live on hunches and minimize their risks as best they can while waiting on the rest of the information to come in.

Precision agriculture has started to make the data for farming more available.  Equipment, seed companies, and others in the agricultural business are looking to eke out just a bit more from everything – and they’re doing it but slowly.  They think in terms of growing seasons.  They look for what did and didn’t work over the last season and try to adjust make it just a bit better each year.  Complicated forecasting models and precision performance data yield only minor improvements from the land each year – but those compound and are worth it.

Following Mike’s analogy is making decisions on insufficient data to the extreme.  You’re just as likely to prune or weed out the winner as you are the loser.  In fact, when you consider how little of what we do really works, you’re probably more likely to weed it out, because you can’t see its hidden value.  Consider it from another perspective: Richard Hackman explains in Collaborative Intelligence that the best metrics are far-leading metrics that sometimes show negative short-term performance.

How do you know what to nurture when you can’t know what the real winners are?

Stock Markets

Mike says, “Don’t waste your time planting seeds that may or may not work out.  Plant the seed that you know has the very best chance of making it, and then focus your attention, money, time and other resources on that tight niche until all of your entrepreneurial dreams come true.”  Great – if you know with a degree of certainty what will work.  His advice is the financial advisor equivalent of picking the one stock that you put all your assets in.  No financial advisor would recommend that.  They’d lose their license.  What do you do that has more financial impact than the company that you’re running?

The answer for most entrepreneurs is that they pour their heart and soul into their companies, and often they neglect their retirement and other investments expecting that they’ll sell their company – “cash out.”  They tell themselves that they’re handling their requirement by building equity in the business.  Their only investment is their business, and Mike’s recommending against diversification.

Pick the Market

If you’re good at picking the market, then it could work, but it’s just as likely to lead to bankruptcy and starting over again.  Mike explains that he found markets and sub-markets that weren’t being served.  He went into them and was able to capitalize on the vacuum.  Good for him.  The number of entrepreneurs I’ve talked to will attribute success to just two factors:

  • Dumb Luck – At some point, if you play the lottery long enough, you’ll hit it big. Sure, you want better odds than the lottery, but at some level, you know that there’s only so much you can do.  You don’t and can’t have positive control of your success.  You can only hope to influence the right factors.  Louis Pasteur said, “chance [luck] favors the prepared.”  That’s all we can do: try to be prepared.
  • Surviving – Staying long enough to try the next thing and open the door for luck tomorrow.

I’m not arguing against improving your odds, trying new things, or learning.  I’m advocating an eyes wide open approach that makes sure that you’re not stuck with The Pumpkin Plan.

Book Review-Brief Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Suicide Prevention

There’s not much that works.  When it comes to suicide prevention, the list of interventions that reduce attempts is small.  There’s Brief Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Suicide Prevention (BCBT-SP), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS)BCBT-SP is a time-limited, targeted use of CBT, which has been widely validated for several concerns over the decades since its introduction.  It’s because it’s so widely adopted and widely known that it is so interesting to me.

Other Options

I should say that DBT, as the BCBT-SP book points out, is complicated and difficult to implement correctly.  It also tends to be resource intensive – as CBT can be.  That was my experience as I began studying it.  In addition, much as I found with NLP, everyone seems to define it a bit differently.  (See The Ultimate Introduction to NLP: How to Build a Successful Life for more.)  It’s still in my backlog for study, but it’s hard to bring myself to it.

CAMS is another option, which is more straightforward.  However, CAMS is intentionally designed for the mental health professional, and its training systems are geared towards that audience to the exclusion of non-professionals.  As a result, my research into CAMS was stopped before I started.

Direct or Indirect

The research is relatively clear.  When dealing with someone who is suicidal or potentially suicidal, the best path is direct.  Asking them if they’re considering suicide doesn’t make them more likely to attempt or die by suicide.  The clinical approaches that indirectly deal with suicide don’t work.  Despite this, many professionals don’t directly address the topic of suicide with their patients.  They instead work on skills they believe may be useful and dance around the topic.

There are likely two factors for this.  First, they probably don’t know the research.  Most mental health professionals don’t do that much work to keep current or to broaden their skills.  The reputation of the industry is not great, as The Heart and Soul of Change points out.  BCBT-SP explains that peer reviewed research points to “insufficient education and training for clinicians in newer and better models of care.”

Second, they’re probably, themselves, uncomfortable with the topic.  That makes it hard to have a conversation with patients.  If you can’t keep from being triggered by the conversation, you won’t be able to have it with a patient.


BCBT-SP focuses on the fluid vulnerability model, which has four factors: behavioral, cognitive, emotional, and physical.  They’re separated into two tiers: baseline and acute.  Each of us has a set of vulnerabilities for each of the four factors at baseline.  This is the place that we operate from most of the time.  We can have huge capacity and tolerance at our baseline – or not much at all.  An activating event triggers our acute factors.  When the sum total exceeds our threshold for tolerance, a suicidal episode may occur.  From the outside, it may seem like a relatively minor issue, but when processed by someone with a low tolerance, it may be more than they’re capable of.

The baseline tolerance comes from our experiences and our skills.  The adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) study connected health outcomes as an adult to the experiences as a child.  (See How Children Succeed for more on ACEs.)  Pushing back even further, fetal origins of adult disease (FOAD) indicates that the stress our mothers felt during our gestation may impact our health status decades later.  (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on FOAD.)  What’s unstated in this research is that our mental health – our ability to develop coping skills – has a huge impact on our physical health.  Change or Die quotes Dr. Raphael “Ray” Levey that 80% of our medical costs are driven by five bad behaviors: too much smoking, too much drinking, too much eating, too much stress, too little exercise.

Matthieu Richard, in Happiness, recognizes that we can’t change the past or, in many cases, our circumstances, but what we can change is the way that we think about our circumstances.  We can change our reaction to the circumstances and thus our capacity to tolerate stress.

Richard Lazarus in Emotion and Adaptation explains that our emotions aren’t directly driven by the external world but are instead processed through our brains and filtered to what we’d express.  Daniel Kahneman calls this System 1 in Thinking, Fast and Slow.  We see patterns, apply meaning, and respond – very quickly.  What BCBT-SP does is help to change our processing of our circumstances so we can see them in a better light.

Interpersonal Psychological Theory of Suicide

It’s a simplification of Joiner’s work, Why People Die by Suicide, to condense the model to just desire and means – but it works.  For a suicide to happen, one needs both the desire and the means.  If you eliminate either, you have no suicide.  Given the nature of suicidal ideation being so unpredictable and fleeting, it’s probably no great surprise that restriction of means has a greater impact on suicide attempts and deaths than attempts to change the way that people process their circumstances.

The problem with means restriction is that nearly 50% of the suicides in the United States are done with a firearm, and the United States is in love with our firearms.  The Second Amendment to the Constitution is the right to bear arms.  The mechanisms you use to restrict someone’s access to a firearm are often treated with a high degree of skepticism and concern.  Luckily, the research supports that you don’t need to create a big barrier between the use of the gun and the person with suicidal ideation.  Like Adrian Slywotzky explains in Demand, sometimes a small barrier is all it takes to prevent a behavior.

Certainly, it’s best to remove the firearms from a suicidal person, but smaller measures, such as installing a gun lock – which prevents activation until removed – is enough.  Even separating the storage of ammunition and the storage of the gun itself has a non-trivial, positive impact on outcomes.

Other approaches, like some of those that Thomas Joiner shares in Myths About Suicide are also useful.  95% of people who were stopped trying to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge never died by suicide.  Suicide fences on bridges (making it harder to jump) are also effective.  It turns out that people don’t often change their chosen method of suicidal attempt.  It seems like they just decide if they can’t die the way they want (gaining some control over death), they’ll just keep living.  (See Ronald Maris’ Comprehensive Textbook of Suicidology for more on control over death.)

Escape the Hopelessness

Whether you subscribe to Edward Shneidman’s beliefs that it’s psychache – psychic, psychological, or emotional pain – that causes people to die by suicide or something else, the sense that suicide is sometimes an escape can’t be ignored.  If you believe that life is unbearable and won’t get better, then suicide begins to be seen as a reasonable answer.  When all other paths towards resolving the problems of life, are blocked then removing life seems reasonable.

Perhaps then part of the answer towards reducing suicide is the process of reducing hopelessness and the belief that suicide is a better option than any of the other options available – or even an option worthy of serious consideration.  Seligman and his colleagues first started writing about learned helplessness, the animal equivalent of hopelessness, in the 1960s.  They realized the powerful problems that becoming helpless – or hopeless – creates.  Decades of research has continued along these lines, and Seligman explains in The Hope Circuit that they got it wrong.  It wasn’t learned helplessness but, as a colleague of his Steven Maier showed, a failure to learn control or influence that caused the subjects to stop trying.

Negative Emotions

“Afflictive emotions” is the way that the Dali Lama describes them.  They’re emotions that take away from a person.  Strangely, what we call an “emotion” in English might have different words in Tibetan or at least more nuanced connotations than we typically observe in English.  For instance, pride in oneself might be bad, but pride in what others have accomplished can be good.

Anger might be an easy target for negative emotions – but it’s not necessarily an afflictive or negative emotion.  Aristotle believed that being angry with the right person to the right degree and for the right purpose was difficult – but when done to these standards, it’s not a negative emotion.

However, there are some emotions that are negative.  Humiliation, for instance, is universally bad.  There’s no need to humiliate others – or to feel humiliated yourself.  Other emotions, like guilt and shame, may be adaptive, but they’re still negative and can easily be overdone.  Guilt is that you’ve done something wrong.  Shame is that you are bad.  (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on shame and guilt.)

These emotions may have an evolutionary advantage – teaching us what we should or shouldn’t do.  (See The Righteous Mind, The Blank Slate and The Evolution of Cooperation for more.)  The challenge is that these emotions are amplified in those who are depressed and can overwhelm them.

Listened To

In healthcare and in life, there are many forms to be filled out and an array of people who are looking to help you fill out the forms you’re expected to fill out yourself and those they’re expected to fill out.  They’re systems designed to ensure that people are treated well.  It’s common to use a PHQ-2 followed by a PHQ-9 if the answers on the PHQ-2 are concerning.  It’s a series of checks and answers – but often it seems like that’s all it is.

The questions are asked by others with leading language and guiding glances.  They don’t want you to answer in a way that triggers the second set of questions – and even if you do, they’re not interested in the truth.  They’re interested in checking the right boxes so they can go on with their next task.  It’s no wonder that people don’t feel listened to.  How can you feel authentically listened to when the entire interaction is about filling out the forms?

That’s why, when people go through the BCBT-SP process, they often remark that the process is the first time they’ve ever felt listened to.  The first step in the process is to have the person tell their story in their words as a narrative – not as answers to standard questions on a form.

White-Knuckling It

One of the oddities that we observe in suicide is that attempts go up at the end of a depressive episode.  Some account for this by saying that the psychomotor retardation (lack of desire to do anything) that depression brings abates (goes away) prior to the desire to die disappearing.  Another odd experience is the increase in attempts as people leave an inpatient treatment facility.  They seem to be getting better – but that turns out to not necessarily be the case.

One reason for the appearances not matching the outcomes could be that people are “white-knuckling it.”  That is, they’re summoning all of their willpower to push back the depression and suicidal ideation.  That can work for a while until they’ve exhausted their willpower.  Roy Baumeister explains in Willpower that it’s an exhaustible resource – just like our muscles.  So it can be that they seem better as they’re consuming willpower and fall when they exhaust it – sometimes falling into a pit of despair that leads to a suicide attempt.

Neither you nor those you care about should have to white-knuckle it.  Brief Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Suicide Prevention is an alternative – that works.

Book Review-Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion

Who could be against empathy?  Isn’t it a good thing?  Don’t we need it to relate to one another?  How could someone, Paul Bloom, write a whole book about why empathy is bad?  The answer is a surprising journey into what we mean when we say “empathy” and the negative side of what is seen as a wholly good response.  In Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Bloom decomposes what we mean when we say “empathy” and suggests that we should focus on only the “good” parts of empathy while finding ways to side-step the problems.

Cognitive and Affective

A good place to start is the fact that we use empathy to mean two relatively distinct things.  The best definition of empathy that I’ve seen is “I understand this about you.”  It’s a simple expression that equates empathy with understanding.  When I’m understanding, I can mean that I understand, cognitively, what your world is like.  I understand the environment, the factors, and the connections to other people.  To understand affect is to understand how the other person feels.  That’s really what most people mean when they say that they have empathy for someone else.  They’re presuming that they can feel what the other person is feeling.

The Grief Recovery Handbook makes a point of saying that no one else can know exactly how you feel.  How Emotions Are Made speaks about how emotions are constructed from the experiences we have in the moment, in the past, and our processing of those experiences.  So, while we generally mean that we know what someone else is feeling when we say “empathy,” it’s probably more accurate to say that we can approximate someone else’s feelings rather than “knowing” them.

The Affective Problem

Fundraisers who are looking to get you to part with your hard-earned money to support a need in a far-flung land know that you’re much more likely to support a single person – particularly a needy child – than you are to write a check to support a city, a nation, or a cause.  Organizations have long since learned that a name and a picture together are substantially more likely to pull you in to get you to donate than a picture without a name – or a name without a picture.  In these cases, affective empathy may be good, but what happens when it’s a zero-sum game?

Consider that you’re told that there’s a waiting list of patients for a doctor.  They’re carefully prioritized so that the neediest children are seen first.  You’re given the profile of one little girl who needs help, but her name is way down the list.  You’ve got the opportunity to move her up on the list.  Will you?  When focusing on how she feels, her world, and her plight, many do move her up in the line.  However, this is a place where empathy works against us.

If you trust the algorithm the doctor uses to prioritize cases, moving this case up pushes down other needier cases.  In short, you’ve done a net harm by prioritizing this one case.  Your empathy has sensitized you to the one case but has blinded you to the larger implications of your decision – and this is the key challenge with affective empathy.  It blinds us.

Cognitive Distortions

Bonds That Make Us Free, The Anatomy of Peace, and Leadership and Self-Deception all point to the challenges that an emotionally activated brain brings.  We learn that our emotions often take control – and won’t let rationality get a word in edge-wise.  In Kahneman’s language in Thinking, Fast and Slow, it’s System 1 overriding System 2.  In the language of Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis, it’s the emotional elephant taking the rational rider where the elephant wants to go.  The truth is that our emotions have more control than we’d like to admit, and engaging them necessarily allows us to be influenced by our biases – which isn’t a good thing.

In the case of the girl, it blinds us to the tragedy of commons.  The tragedy of commons is a well-known parable about how individually rational decisions can be destructive to the whole.  The idea is that a town allows the residents to have their livestock graze on the town commons for free.  It is therefore in every resident’s personal best interest to have as much livestock as possible grazing on the commons.  However, when this is done collectively, the commons will be over-consumed and eventually no plants will be available for anyone’s livestock.  Rational decisions made by individuals about a common resource will eventually destroy the whole.  The girl’s case is a different form where to improve her treatment we must reduce others’ treatment.

Trigger Warning

If we’re encouraging affective empathy, we’re necessarily encouraging people to become triggered by other’s emotions.  This is the very thing that The Coddling of the American Mind warns us about.  When we’re worried about triggering other people, we become tentative, and our students and friends stop trying to understand other perspectives, because to do so may make them uncomfortable.  Instead of challenging ourselves to see and understand the world better, we shrink back into a place of safety.

Walter Michel’s Marshmallow Test may seem like a far cry away from trigger warnings – but the distance is much smaller than people realize.  The marshmallow test was about allowing discomfort in the short term for long-term reward.  Those who are focused on the need for trigger warnings are worried about their here-and-now feelings at the expense of their ability to cope with discomfort in the future.  Albert Bandura explains that desensitization to stimuli is an important technique in reducing phobias – and maladaptive responses of any kind.  In Moral Disengagement, he explains how people don’t want to accept responsibility for their part in larger amoral actions but instead become desensitized – either for better or for worse.

Weighing Now and Then

Ultimately, empathy in its focus on the here and now, blinds us – or partially blinds us – to the future impacts.  We’ll take the marshmallow now, because we don’t know about tomorrow.  We’ll buy on credit today, because the future is something vague that may never happen.  Both Daniel Pink in When and Phillip Zimbardo in The Time Paradox have addressed how humans perceive time – and it’s not second-by-second.  Instead, we tend to unequally weight the past, present, and the future.

Empathy, by the nature of the present focus, causes us to insufficiently consider the costs in the future.  To be clear, it’s not that being in the present moment is bad – it isn’t.  However, when we can’t evaluate the future consequences to our present actions and experiences, we’re failing our future selves and the conditions they’ll find themselves in.

Capacity and Propensity

There’s a challenge.  Empathy has a positive side but also the potential to be used for evil.  It’s empathy that allows cult leaders to drive followers to kill themselves and their children.  Just as it can be used as a powerful force for good, it can be used by evildoers to manipulate and trap victims.  This raises the question about how someone can feel what someone else is feeling and inflict harm.  The answer seems to come in the form of the difference between capacity – the ability – and the propensity – the willingness to do so.  It can be that people who use their capacity for empathy for evil may turn off this capacity while they’re harming the other person.

This ability to turn off – or turn down – empathy may be something that parents need to be able to discipline their children.  In The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable, I walk through all the ways that parents can be sucked into not holding children accountable, most of which are an inability to separate their child’s immediate pain from their own discomfort.


No one wants favoritism – unless the other person is favoring them.  We want our friends and family to favor us more than they might the random person on the street.  So, it’s more accurate to say that we don’t want others favored over us.  Empathy creates a favoritism for those that we’re feeling empathy for.  Favoritism in the animal kingdom isn’t absent.

Chimpanzees are more likely to survive to adulthood if their mothers are more social and supportive of other mothers.  It’s the kind of old-time social network that Robert Putnam talks about in Our Kids.  It’s where everyone looked out for everyone else.  Except that it’s not really everyone.  It’s those people who are in a network of commitments with you.  In an old book, Understanding Computers and Cognition, Terry Winograd and Robert Flores describe organizations as a network of commitments – societies, families, and friend groups fit the same model.

Backup Enforcement Force

To maintain social order, we need more than just the kind of trust that Francis Fukuyama describes in his book, Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order.  Trust does bind us together and enable us to be more collectively effective, but we need to accept that we need some sort of backup enforcement force to ensure that the rules of social order are maintained.  Rushworth Kidder separates moral and ethical problems based in part on societal conventions in his book, How Good People Make Tough Choices.

However, even the most generous thinkers about human nature recognize the need to have a mechanism for enforcing the social norms.  Jonathan Haidt in The Blank Slate and Robert Axelrod in The Evolution of Cooperation arrive at the same conclusion from two different approaches.  We need to be able to enforce the standards of behavior we hold – and that may mean hurting someone’s feelings or even hurting them.

However, it won’t hurt to consider whether you should be Against Empathy.

Deidentifying Data White Paper Now Available

For those who work with community organizations, you’re likely to come into contact with data that contains personally identifiable information (PII).  Depending upon the sensitivity of the information and how the PII is connected to the rest of the mission of the organization, you may need to deidentify the data prior to sharing more broadly.  In large organizations, this is often a part of the overall processing, but for community organizations and other smaller entities, there may not be a sophisticated way of handling the data – and a simple, Excel based approach may be warranted.

In the Deidentifying Data” white paper we just released, we show you how to deidentify data so that you can still match it with other data – while ensuring that it’s not possible for others to obtain the PII from the information that’s been deidentified.  (Or even confirm that their guesses are correct.)

If you’re concerned about the PII you’re keeping and you want to share the non-PII with identifiers replaced, this is what you need.

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