The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

Book Review-The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Morality isn’t a place where most people stumble – or rather, it’s not a place where most people stumble into their reading. Plenty of people struggle with other people’s morality while quietly sweeping their own under the rug. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion doesn’t give away that the book is about moral principles and what is – and isn’t – moral. However, this is the core of the work. I stumbled on it while researching some other topics and realizing that Jonathan Haidt had written it. His previous work, The Happiness Hypothesis, contains the single-most useful tool in my tool bag for understanding myself and others. That is his Rider-Elephant-Path model. (The path is an extension by Dan and Chip Heath that shows up in Switch.) On this alone, I would have picked up the book.

However, I had another reason to read it. I was trying to reconcile Predictably Irrational’s statement that we love the stuff we have more than the things we don’t – and the knowledge that we have covetousness in our societies. While I didn’t resolve this discrepancy, I feel like I’ve made progress on understanding how one set of foundations can lead us to two different conclusions.

Morality isn’t a Bug

Before we set to understanding how morality works, it’s important to recognize that morality was built into humans. It’s the product of natural selection – not an unintended side effect. While Darwin believed in “survival of the fittest,” he was also fascinated with morality and how humans could develop it. The answer to Darwin’s puzzle seems to be that groups that collaborate internally are better prepared to compete with other groups who are not as good at collaborating.

Morality, it seems, is a system put in place to enhance our ability to work together as cohesive units. Group effectiveness is enhanced by collaboration and our ability to set aside our individual needs for the needs of the greater good. (For more on collaboration, see Collaborative Intelligence.) All things being equal, those groups of animals who are best able to collaborate and function as a single, multi-part organism are best suited for survival. Early human tribes and societies survived because of their ability to work together.

It seems that the idea of reciprocal altruism is woven into the fabric of our genes. Somewhere we picked up the skill of bonding into groups and leveraging our ability to give to others as a way for everyone in the group to gain more benefits. Something about this reciprocal altruism was different than our animal kingdom peers.

Crossing the Rubicon of Shared Intention

Points of distinct change are related back to the Roman army crossing the Rubicon river towards Rome – something Caesar did that broke Roman law. The Rubicon crossing became known as a defining moment or a signal of an important change. In searching for the moment when humans became collaborative, scientists and historians have sought this “Rubicon crossing”. Many scientists believe that it was the introduction of language that allowed us to start to work together and therefore collaborate. However, Haidt argues that the real Rubicon was slightly earlier, when we picked up a neat little trick of shared intention.

With the trick of shared intention, we could look into each other’s minds and see a singular idea that was shared. Our hunter-gatherer forefathers could suddenly work together on a hunt and reap the collective rewards. This was the true transition for us. Language came later as a natural consequence of our desire to take the shared intention we could visually communicate into something that was easier to achieve.

Partially Resolved Issues with Dunbar

With this, I struggle to resolve the claim that humans are the only animals with shared intention, and therefore the need to be hyper-social, as indicated by Robin Dunbar’s work equating neocortex size in primates with the size of their social groups. (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more on Dunbar’s number.) If you can predict the sociability of primates through neocortex size, then how can shared intention be a characteristic of only humans? At some level socialization has to be about shared intent, right?

Michael Tomasello, one of the world’s foremost experts on chimpanzee cognition, uttered, “It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.” It seems like this would be a basic form of cooperation and collaboration, but chimps don’t do it. They can’t manage the neuro-social concept of shared intention. While it may be hard for you and your brother coordinate when to lift and where to set down a couch, chimps have no capacity for it at all.

To resolve this discrepancy, I reviewed Dunbar’s writings and found that his article “The Social Brain Hypothesis” raises the question about shared intentionality. He refers to the human capacity as “theory of mind.” Dunbar describes this as “intentionality 2.0,” with chimps being capable of something like “intentionality 1.5.” In short, I don’t feel as if this discrepancy is fully addressed, but do accept that it’s one of the contested areas of anthropology and one which hopefully will become clearer soon. After all, it can be that this discrepancy may be part of why humans have been able to control our planet.

Foundations of Morality

Haidt argues that there are six foundations for morality:

  1. Care/Harm – The need to care for others and minimize harm.
  2. Fairness/Cheating – The need to ensure that there’s a fairness, and no one is cheating the system.
  3. Loyalty/Betrayal – The need to ensure that we’re loyal to others and minimize our betrayals.
  4. Authority/Subversion – The need to accept authority and avoid subversion of that authority.
  5. Sanctity/Degradation – The need for cleanliness and respect for those things of deity and avoidance for those things which are figuratively unclean.
  6. Liberty/Oppression – The need for freedom and the prevention of oppression of others.

Interestingly, we each view these individual foundations with different importance. While nearly everyone accepts the bedrock foundation of care/harm as a formation for morality, political liberals lean more heavily on only the first two (care/harm, fairness/cheating), political conservatives rely on the next three (loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation).

It’s worth noting that the sixth foundation evolved after some of the initial research, so liberty/oppression isn’t represented in the comparisons of liberals and conservatives. Of the first five, care/harm and fairness/cheating were more highly regarded by all But when asked about endorsements, conservatives were more interested in authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression above the concerns for care/harm and fairness/cheating – at least in the very conservative camp.

The difference in the relevance and importance of these foundations seems to cause a great deal of conflict – particularly in politics.

Conflict Resolution

When I speak about conflict resolution, I argue that all conflict only has one of two causes. It either is because of a value difference or a perspective difference. In doing so, I typically use Reiss’ model from Who Am I? and The Normal Personality to describe the 16 factors that influence behavior. However, when I mapped out the alignment between Haidt’s morality foundations and Reiss’ model, I found that the care/harm foundation seemed to have no allegory in Reiss’ work, and several of Reiss’ basic desires seemed to have no moral foundation (curiosity, saving, romance, eating, physical activity, and tranquility).

It seems that these moral foundations don’t match Reiss’ research on motivations very well. While we may be moral creatures, our morality isn’t always defined as a basic desire.

Recognizing Morality

While researching morality, and when children first develop their sense of morality, it becomes apparent that a child’s conception of morality is incomplete – and it changes. When hearing stories or asked about morality, children initially base their sense of morality on whether the person is punished or not. Except, it seems, when someone in the story is directly harmed. However, quickly in childhood development they develop a sense between those things which are “special, important, unalterable, and universal” rules that must always be followed and which ones are seemingly arbitrary and changeable.

For instance, rules about hair styles, food, clothing, and the like are social conventions rather than something which is based on a strong moral foundation. This insight – the difference between moral imperatives and social conventions – is what allowed the Jesuits to so effectively navigate the waters of their initial posts into other societies. Heroic Leadership recounts that there were several situations where the Jesuits had to step outside of their traditional religious trappings like clothing and adopt an approach that was more socially acceptable – while at the same time remaining true to their core moral beliefs.

Nature vs. Nurture

If children’s views on morality seem to have some basis in what they’ve known since birth, but then change over time, where does that leave us on the nature vs. nurture question? An ingenious model for nature and nurture was devised by Gary Marcus. He says, “nature bestows upon the newborn a considerably complex brain, but one that is best seen as prewired – flexible and subject to change – rather than hardwired, fixed, and immutable.” That is, we start with something, but our experiences – particularly our peer experiences – can rewire the functioning.

He goes on to suggest an analogy: “The brain is like a book, the first draft of which is written by the genes during fetal development. No chapters are complete at birth, and some are just rough outlines waiting to be filled in during childhood.” I would add here that it’s not just the genes that influence the brain’s development. Prenatal conditions – particularly stress conditions – can dramatically influence the structure of the developing fetus, leading to non-genetic changes in the development. (Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers discussed fetal origins of adult disease – which explains how this works.)

It seems like genetics can account for one-third to one-half of the variability among people’s political attitudes – the rest of the differences in political perspective can be explained by their experiences in life. However, nurture – or our environment – plays a role in shaping genetics as well. It’s not a one-way street.

Genetics and Coevolution

Humans, as we began to live in agrarian societies, developed an odd genetic change. As we domesticated animals which produced milk consistently, we had access to lactose, the kind of sugar in milk. Typically, mammals lose their ability to use lactose after childhood. However, when there’s a ready supply of milk, those who can process the lactose in milk have an advantage against starvation compared to those who can’t process lactose. Thus, it is believed that humans (most of us) developed the ability to continue to use the sugar in milk, even as adults.

This is just one of the many ways where our genes coevolved with the way that we created societies. For instance, Tibetans have genetic changes to create blood more conducive to their high-altitude living. As we change how – and where – we live, our genes change.

The Need for Communities

There are some unique challenges that happen once we collaborate. The benefit of having a group of people working together creates additional value that spills over to every member of the group – even if one member of the group isn’t doing anything to help the group. More broadly, when we’re building communities, we must address anyone who isn’t helping the group. This can range from the slacker, who simply isn’t doing their share; to the free-rider, who is doing nothing; to people who are actively trying to extract value at the cost of other members, the cheaters who undermine the trust and altruism that drives the ability for the community to function. Collaboration calls this problem “social loafing”. The problem operates at every level of group, from the largest organizations to the smallest teams.

We evolved with a bias towards communities that were working, and therefore we developed a set of morals that supported the development of those communities. Trust discusses one of the positive factors for community development. Trust removes the friction of operating with others. The other side of keeping communities together is less glamorous. The need to punish members of a community for behaviors like social loafing that reduce the social capital of the community is an unfortunate necessary. (See Bowling Alone for more on social capital.)

Looking Good vs. Being Good

We develop a set of moral foundations that supports our ability to work together. While we personally only have the desire to appear good – not to actually be good – we collectively create a set of foundations to keep people to at least creating the appearance of doing good. If people are caught, they know there are punishments (or sanctions), so they maintain the attempt to appear good.

The foundation of community is reciprocal altruism, which amounts to “tit-for-tat.” That is, we are willing to sacrifice to the degree that we expect others will be willing to do the same for us. (See The Science of Trust for a more in-depth conversation of advanced models for cooperation.) For this to function, we don’t have to be good. We just must look good. That’s one of the reasons that we’re so interested in what other people think.

The reality is that none of us – whether we’re looking historically or into our own lives – are completely good. Research has proven that we’ll cheat to the level that we believe we can get away with it – and the degree to which we can convince ourselves that it’s OK.

Permission to Believe in Our Goodness

We are seeking permission to believe that we’re good. Typically, we’re not looking for ways that we’ve not been good but rather how we can justify our behaviors in the cloak of goodness. We don’t think of things that disprove or disprove our beliefs. We have a serious confirmation bias, which blinds us to things that don’t fit into our existing thoughts. (Confirmation bias is spoken of repeatedly in the literature. You can find out more by starting at Choice Theory.)

The truth is that you can find evidence for whatever you want to prove. Even if it’s wrong, someone will have produced some shred of evidence that you could refer to with the purpose of proving your point. For instance, though thoroughly discredited and retracted from publication, a single “study” showed a link between vaccination and autism. The stigma remains about vaccinations, despite all the work that has been done to reverse it. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more.)

We don’t want the truth; we want a truth that we can believe in. We want a story that we can tell to make it ok.

Press Secretary Rider

Our elephant, the emotional, most primitive basis of our mind, wasn’t equipped for working in a social world as large and complex as humans created. That’s why we have a larger neocortex, which accounts for 50-80% of our brain mass. The neocortex is our rational rider, our logical, thinking brain, except the rider isn’t exactly logical.

The rider is more like a press secretary who must justify, explain, and create stories for whatever the elephant has decided. It fills in the missing pieces with whatever happens to be around. (See Incognito for more.) This rider is useful in social circles – so the elephant keeps the rider around and transports it from place to place. After all, having your own public relations firm becomes a necessity when you need everyone to believe you’re good – when you’re not completely good.

Being social and truly committed to a group takes quite a bit of neurological work and it’s at the heart of nations.

E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One)

Printed on American money is the Latin phrase, E pluribus unum, which means “from many, one.” This is the essential magical act that every successful nation must perform. It’s the transformation of some – or all – of our will from individual-serving people to nation-serving people. This magical act transforms individuals into groups who are capable of supporting one another – and sacrificing for one-another.

The transformation from individuals who have their own selfish needs into one nation is powerful. It’s a conversion that most nations pull off only partially. We’re willing to commit some of our personal will and resources towards the nation – but only a portion. In contrast, ants and bees have E pluribus unum down.

Hive Mind

Ants and bees are interesting creatures. They work together in a single community where there is specialization of roles and massive selflessness. There is a queen bee who creates all the eggs but whose specialization makes her dependent upon the rest of the hive. Workers and drones manage production (pollen retrieval) and protection so that the queen can continue to lay eggs and grow the hive. Each member does their job – even if it leads to their own personal death – in service to the community.

Humans are all too often self-full creatures who are interested in their own needs and desires instead of the needs of their community. However, what if we could flip this on its head? What if, at times, our community instinct was so powerful that it could cause us to behave in selfless ways? As it turns out there is an evolutionary switch that does this. We can be selfless and serve the community.

In The Rise of Superman and Stealing Fire, Kotler (and Wheal) speak of group flow. In this state, the individual fades away and the whole team functions as a single unit. In the context of Navy SEALs, it allows them to be an effective team working for the good of the entire team (and the mission). The ability to switch a bunch of individuals into a single, multi-person organism exists, but it isn’t easy to get fully engaged.

It doesn’t require being a Navy SEAL and their power of group flow to flip the hive switch and feel connected to other members of your team. The armed forces do this through synchronized drills designed to align everyone’s physical movements into a single coordinated action. This synchronization helps drive the awareness of the larger group to which someone belongs. We’re wired to get happiness from our relationship with other people so flipping the hive switch is a solid way to improve happiness. This explains how armed forces in combat situations can feel good – despite external circumstances.

Happiness from Relationships – not Objects

In America, we live in a consumer culture, where you can be happy if you just own this kind of car, this kind of watch, these shoes, or the next gadget. Advertising is sending us the message that we’re not good enough – but we can be if we’re willing to acquire another object or two or three.

The problem is that this isn’t true, at least in a lasting way. The truth is that we’re happy when we’re connected to other humans. Study after study reveals that we have less health issues, we live longer, and by every survey instrument we’re happier – when we’re in a relationship. While we may be amused and interested in our latest “toy,” the luster quickly fades and the new car becomes passé, the shoes worn out.

The truth is that the “WEIRDer” we are, the more likely we are to see ourselves as separate from others and see the world as a series of objects. The harder it is for us to have true happiness.

Moral Literature is WEIRD

WEIRD is an acronym:

  • Western
  • Educated
  • Industrialized
  • Rich
  • Democratic

Most of the moral literature that has been written is based on studies that were performed on WEIRD people – they are, after all, the people who have the time to consider such things. Their peers and most accessible people to those studying morality are those who are similar to themselves and are WEIRD as well.

These sorts of people believe in reason and that reason is the root of morality; but the truth is that the rider follows where the elephant leads – not the other way around.

Intuition First, Reason Second

Our press secretary riders are constantly explaining and excusing what the elephant is doing. The elephant (our basal brain, including emotions) is evolutionarily wired to make snap judgements, and those judgements have a bias towards the negative. This was beneficial to our development as a species. However, it means that our intuition comes first and then we reason with a decision that has already been partially made.

We start by rationalizing and starting to verbalize our “gut feel” for a situation. Most of the time, it stops there. We develop some excuse for what’s going on. Too few people, too few of the times, have the capacity to peer into the intuition of the elephant to see the underlying meaning.

Haidt acknowledges that much of the Judeo-Christian Bible is about evolutionarily useful cleanliness practices. Raised in these environments, artifacts exist to warn us of harm that may not exist – or may no longer exist.


Perhaps the greatest advocate for morality is organized religion, and, at the same time, it’s organized religion that has done the most damage to the noble effort of morality. Gandhi once remarked to an English friend, “I don’t think much of your Christianity, but I like your Christ.” The things that organized religions have done in service to deities who are the pillars of moral certainty is frightening. Somewhere, religions have fallen into blind trust of religious leaders. (The quote is pulled from Spiritual Evolution.)

Buddha remarked that, according to the Dalai Lama, if religion is proven wrong by findings through investigation and experimentation, then religion must change. (See Emotional Awareness.) This is the heart of developing a religion rooted in reality and one for which the moral compass can be adjusted to accept the changing awareness of the world that we live in.

Perspective of Compassion

Religion is the engine for delivering up the kind of long-term social stability that has served our species so well. Religion was supposed to, and sometimes does, engender compassion. It’s this compassion that drives us to investigate The Righteous Mind of others.

Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health

Book Review-Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health

It’s an odd title for a book. Why would a psychologist title a book Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health? The answer lies in the belief that drugs are not the answer to all of the mental health problems of the day, and that in truth many – if not all – of the mental health problems that we have today can be traced back to a single source: unhappiness. While happiness itself is hard to define and even harder to find, the lack of happiness seems to manifest problems in our mental states as well as our physical bodies.

Dr. Glaser has written several books including two books that I’ve previously reviewed: Schools Without Failure and Choice Theory. Fundamentally, Dr. Glaser believes that we all have choices to make, and it’s understanding those choices that frees us from the bonds of unhappiness. Here, he extends his views into the ills of psychiatric drugs.


I’ve addressed before the powerful effects of placebos and my belief that they’re driven by hope. (See The Heart and Soul of Change.) Dr. Glaser shares that, in some studies, patients who were getting better immediately relapse when they’re given the news that they’ve been receiving a placebo. It’s too difficult for them to accept that they were getting better based on their beliefs not on an external drug. Placebos work because we believe that what is being done has the capacity to heal us, to make us better, and to make it alright. If we just take the blue pill, we’ll find that we’re alright soon enough.

While ethicists that I know don’t believe that we should always give patients a placebo and tell them it’s an experimental new therapy that might work in their case, I’m not so sure. Perhaps my ethical boundaries get a bit blurry when we’re talking about eliminating human suffering. Perhaps I’m underestimating the damage to trust that it would do to tell someone they’re in an experimental program. However, I’ve got a strong desire to experiment with how effective I could get placebos to be by infusing patients with hope.


Efficacy is interesting in clinical studies. In order to be significant, there needs to be a sufficient difference between the control group receiving the placebo and the study group that’s receiving treatment. Unfortunately for psychiatric drug manufacturers the placebo effect is quite large. This means that drugs have to show a very high degree of efficacy in order to have a significant effect.

Some studies for some drugs have shown these larger effects, but the effects aren’t nearly as large as people would like you to believe. While drug companies can claim that 50-60% of people taking their wonder drug got better, they neglect to mention that 47-50% of people got better on placebo. Basically, there’s a maximum of a 13% difference – and a mean of 6.5%. A lot of money is being spent on small chances at making things better.

Long Term Effects

What is worse is that the long-term effects of these drugs are known to be potentially very bad. For instance, 25% of people treated for five years with schizophrenia medications will develop tardive dyskinesia, which is characterized by repetitive, involuntary, purposeless movements. Stopping medications won’t stop tardive dyskinesia. Once the damage has been done, it can’t be reversed.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are another class of drugs that, while widely-used, have questionable long-term impact and incredibly short (6 weeks!) studies of their efficacy. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more about SSRIs.) Some animal studies have shown the prolonged exposure to SSRIs causes the brain to down-regulate the number of serotonin receptors that the brain has.

Study Sources

It gets worse. The studies that we do have to prove marginal effectiveness of these drugs are sponsored in most cases by the very pharmaceutical companies that want to sell the drugs to the market. While this is in some ways to be expected, because they have the financial advantage if it sells well, it also raises the very real concern about undue influence in the study results.

If you don’t believe it can happen, consider the incorrect link assigned between vaccinations and autism. It was an article in The Lancet has since been retracted: the collaborators on the article indicated that they weren’t aware of the lead author’s ties to a group trying to prove that vaccines were harmful. The lead author, Andrew Wakefield, has lost his license to practice medicine and in professional circles has been thoroughly discredited. However, the myth of the correlation between vaccinations and autism persists. Millions of children each year aren’t vaccinated due to one bad author and the one bad study.

Study Issues

Even if you accept honorable intentions, it’s estimated that 40% of peer-reviewed published research articles contain statistical errors. That’s just statistical errors. That doesn’t account for any leakage of information, accidental bias, or other introductions into the study which unduly influenced the results. If you run enough studies over a long enough period of time, you’ll eventually find a way to prove what you want to prove. Some hidden variable will appear in the data and you won’t be able to factor it out. (See The Black Swan for more on unexpected events.)

Having been in and around the publication of a few studies myself, I can say that all too often what is in the study design and what makes it into the paper is a small fraction of the important factors that led to the results. The reason that folks want multiple studies confirming the same thing is that too often studies are proven to be false or insufficient to demonstrate the effect that was expected.

A Better Alternative

So while insurance companies pay for the prescriptions to these psychological drugs for years and years, rarely do they pay for more than a few therapy sessions. While there is support for a limit to the number of sessions for effectiveness, the insurance minimums are often too short to provide any real impact. Instead the insurance company will pay for drugs for years and years.

Again, my proximity has led me to the awareness that insurance companies don’t expect members to be in the plan long enough to take on substantial upfront costs – like counseling – when low-level, long-term costs are sufficient. In short, they’re willing to keep people on drugs that mask the symptoms rather than solve the root cause, because their cost over the time they expect to retain the member is lower. (Talk about disincentives.)

If people could resolve their unhappiness, they wouldn’t need continuous drugs. In fact, George Brooks found that medication wasn’t enough to allow schizophrenic patients to leave the hospital. They needed psychosocial rehabilitation – at the end of which the drugs were no longer needed.

Let’s Get Together, Yea, Yea, Yea

The theme song for The Parent Trap says, “Let’s get together, yea, yea, yea” and it hides a certain truth: that we are social creatures, and that much of our happiness is gained in our relationships with other people, whether it’s understanding the different levels at which people relate as I discussed in High Orbit – Respecting Grieving or The Gifts of Imperfection.

A Science magazine article indicates that isolation “is as significant to mortality rates as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and lack of physical exercise.” (See The Psychology of Hope for more.) Clearly we have to be in relationship with other people to be healthy physically.

Don’t Worry Be Happy Now

It would be great if it were as easy as deciding to be happy and suddenly you would become happy. It would be amazing to be able to make the decision to transform your life from one of stress and anxiety to one of peace and tranquility. In truth, this is sort of the case. Ultimately it’s a decision to view the world differently and choose different behaviors; however, the process is neither simple nor easy. It’s not as easy to, as Bobby McFerrin says, “don’t worry, be happy now,” but it is possible.

The process sometimes requires the assistance of drugs in the short term to lift someone out of the pit of depression. The drugs provide enough support for someone to do the work to change their perspective. Once sufficiently lifted from the clutches of depression, Dr. Glaser believes in his Choice Theory, which states that it’s our attempt to control others that makes us unhappy.

In short, if we can just allow other people to be separate people, and not try to control them, then we’ll be much happier. Though this is easier said than done, it is something that can be transformational.

Transformational Breakthrough or Emotional Breakdown

Looking from the outside in, it’s quite difficult to distinguish between a transformational breakthrough and an emotional breakdown. The observable behaviors are the same. We see a rapid transformation in someone. Often, there is a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth in both scenarios. It’s not a pleasant experience. However, after a transformational breakthrough, the clouds part and the skies are bright and shiny. With an emotional breakdown, there’s no clearing of the skies, and often the person feels stuck.

It’s very little wonder that a psychiatrist can’t tell the difference between a transformation and a breakdown. In the appendices, Dr. Glaser provides space for some other authors to share their stories. In one of the stories, a professional shares how he was himself on the wrong side of the profession. He was almost committed by his colleagues and spouse into institutions, and he was able to experience what it is really like to be a patient. His only recourse was to voluntarily commit himself so that he could leave on his own.

The triggering event in this case was really about questioning the path to recovery of patients. In questioning the status quo and transforming his thinking, he was considered to have a mental disease. His colleagues and spouse couldn’t see that he was gaining a new level of understanding – perhaps because this would have meant that they were missing something.

Conversion Disorder

Glaser believes that our psychological ills – our unhappiness or lack of mental health – causes our bodies to react in negative ways. This is consistent with the research of Spolsky in Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers. His belief is that many – if not all – of the diagnoses in the DSM-V (DSM-IV at the time of his writing) can be explained by the fact that people are unhappy, and the diagnoses in DSM-V are simply manifestations of that unhappiness.

Many of the non-specific cause illnesses he attributes to a lack of mental health. He suggests that, as people learn to be happier, their physical symptoms will eventually subside. While I am certainly not qualified to speak for every physical condition, I can say that I’ve personally seen remarkable changes with people who have become happier. Their physical issues are reduced.

At the heart of these changes and the increased happiness is a connection with others.

Group Think

One of the interesting structural decisions for the book was that it follows the path of a couple who were struggling with their own selfish and controlling needs through their recovery and sharing their discoveries with a group of their friends in a book club. The structure of the book is different than most in that it follows a story arc from the initial awareness of the ideas to how those same ideas apply to others in different situations.

Ultimately the book seeks to create groups – self-supporting, no-fee groups – that speak about Choice Theory and how it can positively transform lives. While I don’t believe this movement ever gained ground, it is a noble idea. The idea that groups – much like the concept of an AA group – could help improve the health of its members and provide them with the connections they need to become healthier is certainly an idea worth trying.

In fact, just reading and pondering on the thoughts inside of Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health is a worthy endeavor as well. After all, difficult or not, you do have a choice to be happy.

Grand Canyon

The Largest Gap in the World – Between Saying and Doing

The largest gap on the planet Earth isn’t the Mariana Trench or the Grand Canyon. The largest gap is between saying and doing. The largest gap exists between what people say they do and what they actually do. They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We intend to do what we say, but sometimes we don’t. Some of us more than others tolerate the gap between doing what we say we will do – and actually doing it. If you want to close the gap, or at least understand it better, you have to understand why saying is easy and doing is hard.

Saying is Easy

Despite the substantial effort that goes into the art of speaking with others, it’s relatively easy. Within our first few years of life, most of us have a reasonable command of the language that our parents speak. (For me, this was English.) While English classes continued through high school, these were really not English classes as much as they were teaching me the appreciation of literature and improving my ability to express myself.

School and life prepare us for verbally communicating our beliefs and desires. We learn how to speak, and eventually we find the process relatively easy. With work, we can even have Crucial Conversations with relative ease.

Doing is Hard

There’s a saying that people might “talk the talk, but can they walk the walk?” Why is that? The answer is that it’s easy to say that you’re going to skip dessert but harder to do it. After all, we are driven by the glucose imperative. (See Habits – Goals and Limits for more on the glucose imperative.) What can be said in a few words may be very difficult to do. Consider President Kennedy’s address to Congress, where he outlined the objective of transporting man to the moon and returning him safely home. He literally said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” The cost was $25.4 billion in the dozen years that followed his speech. The words took Kennedy approximately 11 seconds to say.

It’s nothing to say that one will get a college degree but, as many students will attest while studying and trudging through the cold weather, it’s easier said than done. It’s not the big things that are harder to do than they are to say. Everything, from the simple “I’ll make dinner” to “I’ll take out the trash,” is easier to say than to do.

Should Say, Can’t Do

Many times our prognostications about what we will do in the future aren’t based on what we want or believe but instead on what we believe we “should” do. Whether this is based on societal expectations or expectations of our friends and family, these “shoulds” separate us from what we genuinely want to do. Instead, they cause us to make commitments that aren’t aligned with our true desires.

The problem is that when the time comes to actually do the “should” instead of just say it, our inner conflict kicks in and there are always other more pressing things that need to happen instead of the “should.”

Being Someone Else

Many of us have a need to portray ourselves as someone other than who we really are. Somewhere along the line, right or wrong, we’ve discovered that we should be someone else, because people don’t like the person that we are. We’ve heard that we’re not good enough. (See Daring Greatly for more on being enough.) We’ve heard criticism about one of the characteristics of our personality that defines us and gives us strength but is also at the heart of our weakness – and we decided to change.

This attempt to be someone else – someone more likable or prettier or more sensitive or whatever – causes us to deny our true selves and hold ourselves out to be someone else. We are the shiny, stained glass people that show no blemishes; but in doing this, we’ve made it harder to connect what we say and what we do. (See How to Be Yourself for more about being someone else.)

Cognitive Dissonance

You know those times when you know you really need to do something. Maybe it’s your taxes. There’s no escaping the task needing to be done, and yet you take the day that you were going to work on taxes and suddenly decide to reorganize your collection of belly button lint? Out of the blue, the tasks that you least like – besides taxes – seem to be the ones that you want to get done.

You’re experiencing the inner conflict of cognitive dissonance. You know what you need to do, but dislike it enough that you’re electing to do other painful – but still less painful – tasks in order to avoid the thing you don’t want to do. That’s cognitive dissonance. That’s you trying to avoid doing what you know needs to be done. I once organized my collection of CDs – a somewhat extensive collection – to avoid doing another task – one that I don’t even remember at this point.

Settle Down Elle

With cognitive dissonance, we recognize that we’re not of one mind but of two. Whether you like the System 1/System 2 perspective of Thinking, Fast and Slow, or you’re partial to Johnathan Haidt’s model of the rider, elephant, and path, we are not of a single mind. (See The Happiness Hypothesis for more on the rider, elephant, path model.) The difference between the rational rider’s (System 2) perspective on the “should” and the elephant’s (System 1) experience creates some of the gap between saying and doing.

The elephant, with trumpets blaring, may declare what you’re going to do – what you’re going to make happen. Later, when the elephant is calm and the rider is trying to save face, the weight of the statement that was made emotionally may come to full awareness. The internal voice asks, “Why did I say I would do that?”

This is the opposite side of the coin of the elephant making a commitment that the rider tries to carry out: instead, the rider makes a commitment that the elephant bristles at, leading to the kind of cognitive dissonance described above.

Whether the elephant is excited in the making of the commitment or the execution of the commitment, people who aren’t able to meet their commitments often suffer from a gap between their elephant and their rider.

Commitment Cancer

On a few occasions I’ve written about the curse of “commitment cancer”. This is the downward spiral where people make but fail to meet their commitments to one another (see Running Users Groups and The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices). The problem with missing a
commitment isn’t the single commitment that’s missed, it’s the chain reaction of missed commitments that creates the challenge.

While I’m not a fan of the game “worst case scenario,” it explains the problem. The first missed commitment leads to the next, and then the next, and eventually the fabric of the organization falls away because the commitments, which are the fabric of the organization, are too frail to continue to hold it together.

The end game of the kind of commitment cancer that spreads and infects the organization is no organization at all.

Causes and Cures

I’ve listed just some of the many reasons why people make commitments that they don’t keep and have highlighted the end result of too many missed commitments. But I’ve not really directly addressed what to do to change the importance of meeting commitments and the ease at which that is done.

A good start is accepting Pacta sunt servanda (Latin for “agreements must be kept”) as a fundamental truth. If you don’t believe that it’s important for agreements to be kept – for commitments to be kept – then there’s little hope in change. If, in the back of your head, there’s the nagging voice, or there’s the devil on your shoulder saying, “but there are exceptions”, you may not fully appreciate the need to keep your agreements/commitments. I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions and barriers and difficulties. I’m saying that your first position should be that part of making the commitment is recognizing that the exceptions exist, and it’s up to you to figure out how to deal with them.

Next, remember the words of Shakespeare “to thine own self be true.” If you’re struggling to be your true authentic person, you’ll never have the willpower (see Willpower) to keep your commitments. Likewise, if you’re failing to accept others for who they are, you make it difficult for them to be themselves and therefore keep their commitments. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on accepting and allowing others to be who they need to be.)

Finally, practice building trust – because building trust is making, renegotiating, and meeting commitments. (See my post Building Trust: Make, Renegotiate, Meet.) To build trust and strengthen the fabric of whatever organization you’re in, all you need to do is make and meet commitments – and in the process, strengthen the trust that you and your colleagues have.

Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children

Book Review-Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children

Reading a child rearing book originally written in the late 60s and published in 1970 seems like a departure from my reading list. I don’t typically read child rearing books for good reason. I disagree with quite a bit of what is written. Thomas Gordon’s book, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, is no exception. However, there’s an important reason for reading it. The reason is because his discussions of active listening underpin motivational interviewing. (For more see my review of Motivational Interviewing.) Though I had been exposed to active listening – as most folks have – I wanted to know more about its roots and to understand it more.

The best lesson from Parent Effectiveness Training for me was that I can deeply respect some views and insights of someone and vehemently disagree with some of their other views. I’ve mentioned some minor disagreements in previous reviews (For instance, see Daring Greatly) but here I’ll share strong feelings for the insight that Dr. Gordon has and my concerns about where I think incorrect conclusions have been reached.


I start not with Dr. Gordon’s beliefs, but with the recognition that the grandfather of parenting books is Dr. Benjamin Spock. His book Baby and Child Care has been the classic handbook of parenting for over 65 years. However, Finding Flow reports that he expressed some concerns that training children to be unfettered individualists may have had unforeseen negative consequences. Spock encouraged parents to allow children to grow at their own pace. However, we’ve seen that public programs like Sesame Street can have substantial positive impacts by helping particularly under-resourced children learn and grow more quickly and reliably – beyond their own pace. (See “G” is for Growing for more about Sesame Street‘s approach and impact.)

Personally, I feel like we’re seeing a wave of entitlement in our children that represents a threat to our culture and productivity. (See America’s Generations for more about the shifts in generational values.) I remain concerned with the need to balance perspectives instead of accepting one single truth. I don’t believe that any author or professional has the answer for every situation. Some have answers that are applicable to more situations than others.

United Fronts

Very early on, Dr. Gordon criticizes the idea that parents should “always be together in their feelings, presenting a united parental front to their children.” He says about it, “this is nonsense.” On this point, I vehemently disagree with Dr. Gordon. I believe that the consistency of getting the same answers from either parent is important to minimize confusion in the mind of the child. (Later, he strongly encourages parental consistency.) I think that the error is in the word “always.” I think the importance is to strive to be on the same page.

This demonstrates to children that the parents work together to reach a consensus approach. I can say from my own marriage and my own children that this isn’t easy, but it is something that the children appreciate. They know that my wife and I generally present a united front about things. What they don’t know is that sometimes I don’t agree with our position. However, I always accept and support it.

Understanding the need of accepting shared decisions and supporting them is something I learned from Dr. Gottman’s work. Dr. Gottman criticizes the suggestion that couples should use active listening when communicating with each other, because it requires a high degree of skill that most couples don’t possess. (See The Science of Trust for more on Gottman’s research and perspectives.) Gottman has a very high success rate of predicting the stability of a marriage based on a few minutes of observation of arguments. He’s intimately acquainted with disagreements in couples and the resolutions. I’ve never read in his works that parents shouldn’t attempt to reach consensus because it’s too hard – his work seems to travel in the opposite direction.

Dr. Gordon and Dr. Gottman together may highlight the one key about presenting a united front that may invalidate the technique. The ability to separate agreement with acceptance isn’t a skill that everyone has. If you can’t accept the united front without necessarily agreeing completely, then don’t try to pull it off. The children will see this as a lack of integrity, and rather than demonstrating consistency, it will cause them to focus on the discrepancy they are seeing but can’t explain.

Ultimately, presenting the united front delivers consistency in the short term and teaches the need to reach consensus and develop acceptance in the absence of agreement – these are all critical social skills that our children need, despite Gordon’s belief that it’s “nonsense”. He has a similar discord with the idea that you can accept the child but not their behaviors.

Accept the Child Not the Behavior

Cloud and Townsend made popular the idea of boundaries in Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries. They identified the need to separate ourselves from things that are not ourselves and to protect ourselves. They defined boundaries as being either “temporary protective” boundaries or “defining” boundaries. Temporary protective boundaries exist to protect ourselves for a time. In Dr. Gordon’s language, he speaks of the impact that one person’s behaviors has on another, and discussing the impacts so that the other person knows how they’re impacting you. This is letting others know what your temporary boundaries are and why you have them.

Here, Dr. Gordon is concerned with the parents’ authenticity. He believes that this idea “prevents parents from being real.” Here, I think that Dr. Gordon has missed the idea of compassion or love. Agape love – love for all – and philos love – love for our group or family – can exist even when we’re not accepting (or allowing) another person’s behaviors. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more about accepting and allowing.) I believe the ability to prioritize your compassion and love for your children above your need to accept their behaviors is an advanced skill that Dr. Gordon may have not seen frequently (or at all) in his work.

I firmly believe that you can love the child and accept them as a person while expecting (and requiring) different behaviors from them. I say this with caution out of fear that I’ll be misunderstood. I’m not saying that you should kick your child out if they develop an addiction. I’m suggesting that you come to them in love to support them as people while preventing the impact of the behaviors from impacting you.

The Need for Privacy

Dr. Gordon believes that checking up on children demonstrates a non-acceptance of children, which he finds to be harmful. He believes that children have the right to privacy. Here, I disagree because of one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite Russian proverbs “doveryai, no proveryai”: that is, “trust, but verify.” In our house, children’s privacy is not a right, but an earned privilege. That is, if they demonstrate their trustworthiness, we offer them trust that they’re utilizing the resources that we provide appropriately. When they violate our trust, or signal to us that they are hiding something, and the privilege of privacy is temporarily rescinded.

In practical terms, we almost never intrude into the lives of our children. We have applied internet monitoring software on their devices to prevent access to inappropriate internet sites. We reserve the right to look at their phones at any time to review what they’ve been looking at or the conversations they’re having with their girlfriends and boyfriends – but we almost never do.

I don’t believe this is about acceptance of them as a person but is about what is an isn’t acceptable uses of the resources that we provide. So here, too, I believe that Gordon’s view isn’t sufficiently nuanced to identify the core concept that is the concern – acceptance of the person. Instead, he uses one situation that can be handled inappropriately and can convey a lack of acceptance, but one that doesn’t necessarily have to.

At this moment one of our children has his hair dyed blue. My wife dyed his hair for him. We accept his need to define his individuality and accept him, though neither of us are interested in turning our own hair blue.

Impact on Us

One area of confusion is when parents believe that their children’s expressions of themselves will become judgements on how good – or poor – they are as parents. They believe that the way the child behaves reflects on the parent’s ability to parent. In some cases, as in the case of the preacher’s kids (PKs), there are certain stresses that exist that don’t exist for most folks. I know several friends who grew up as PKs, and they talk about how they had to learn at a very young age to assess how others might view their behaviors.

In my observation, the larger the family is, the less that the parents see the behaviors of any one of their children as their failings as a parent. Typically, the question becomes, what did we do wrong with this one, and isn’t generalized to being bad parents. However, with nuclear family sizes decreasing, there’s an increasing tendency to see the decisions and failures of children as a reflection on the parents.

Some parents take the opposite view and seek to live their lives vicariously through their children. If they never made it as a track star, they’re going to make sure that their son is. If they weren’t the beauty queen, they’re going to make sure that their daughter is. These are the parents who are at the greatest risk of feeling the impact of their children. They’re accepting responsibility for the good things in their children’s life and blurring the child’s individuality with theirs.

There are three fundamental truths about how our children’s behavior impacts us that we would do well to consider:

  1. Failure isn’t an option, it’s essential and necessary for growth. (See Raise your Line for more.)
  2. We are not our children. They have their own individual lives outside of us. We can neither take credit for their successes nor their faults. (See The Available Parent for more.)
  3. The world is probabilistic. There are no one right set of things to help our children grow up as contributing citizens. We can only influence the outcomes. We can’t control them. (See The Halo Effect for more on the probabilistic nature of the world.)

In the end, we can recognize that the child is a separate person full of their own faults and foibles – just like us – but those faults and foibles aren’t the result of our actions or inactions as parents.

Separating the Person and the Action or Belief

When I teach people conflict resolution skills I often teach the clear distinction between the person – who is inherently valuable because they are human – and the action or behavior that they’re exhibiting, which may or may not be something you agree with or even find acceptable. This separates the value the person has from the perspective on what they’re doing.

People can – and sometimes should – rightly disagree with other humans. However, the disagreement should be about the action or belief, and not about the value of the other person. I can disagree with Dr. Gordon about some of his views while at the same time respect him as a person. I can even disagree with some of his beliefs while agreeing with others. I’ve separated the person and the value of the person from how I value the idea. This is all too often missing in conflicts, whether they occur between business people or within a family.

Our ego uses defensive routines to defend us against external threats. (See Change or Die for more on our ego and its defenses, and Dialogue: The Art of Thinking together – Defensive Routines for more on our defensive routines.) However, in many people, this defensive response happens even when the person we’re conversing with isn’t attacking us but is instead is disagreeing with our idea. (See How Children Succeed for more on HPA Axis issues which lead to more active defenses.)

We can observe that our children have dirty dishes in their rooms. That’s an observation and verifiable fact. To say that they’re a slob because they have dirty dishes in their room is a judgement about their character – and a disrespectful one at that. In our conversations with our children, it’s important to distinguish between the behaviors and how we see the child.

Problem Ownership

Key to Dr. Gordon’s approach is the development of an expectation on the part of the child that the problem – whatever it is – is the child’s problem. The parent is there to help, but the child is expected to participate in the problem-solving process. The solutions don’t “come down from on high.” Instead they’re the result of a collaboration between the parent and the child.

Ultimately, the parent wants the child to own their own problems. Eventually, the child will be here on this planet and the parents will be gone. While the parent can be a source of support, they cannot be the one with all the answers. (See Our Kids for more about the support that parents can provide.) To manage the long-term results for our children, we must teach them to accept ownership of their problems. We do that through the process of active listening (and facilitated problem solving).

Active Listening

Active listening starts with an attitude. It’s an attitude of interest in the child and their world. While children may not be experts on many things, they are the undisputed experts of their inner world. (What Glassier calls “quality” world in Choice Theory.) When they choose to share their world with parents, they are doing so because they believe the benefits and the trust in the parents exceed the perceived risks. The parents need to accept that the child is bringing something to the table as it relates to the solution to whatever problem they have. They also have to accept that sometimes the “problem” is simply the need to process their world by “talking it out.”

With the belief that the child is bringing something valuable, it’s easier to see that your role is simply to support through acceptance of the child and a desire to be helpful to them. The key here is that the parent isn’t assuming ownership of the problem. They’re in the supporting role.

Sometimes maintaining the perception of the supporting role is very hard – at least for me. Sometimes the problems that my children present are so obvious to me that I just want to tell them the answer and move on. However, I know that this is far too often detrimental to trust, because it signals them that I don’t trust them to take care of their own issues.

It’s much harder to reflect what they’re saying and gently guide them towards a greater awareness of the challenges they’re facing and the resources they need to solve the problem. It takes more time, but it helps them to develop the skill of solving problems on their own. I’ve literally heard our children repeat back their processing on topics we’ve not discussed and recognize the ownership that they took in the problem. With that level of ownership, they didn’t need to come ask for help processing. (Though they did want validation that they had done good work processing it themselves.)

Active listening starts with reflecting back what the child has said. The more advanced active listening attempts to decode the meaning behind the message and reflects that message back to the child, so that it’s apparent to the child that they’re understood not just for the content of their message but the meaning – and typically the feelings – behind it.

One of the greatest fears that children and adults share is whether they are understood and accepted. Often the concern for acceptance is focused around their feelings. They believe that they shouldn’t have the feelings that they do, or that somehow their feelings are wrong or bad.

Feelings are Friendly

It’s important for everyone to understand that feelings aren’t good or bad. In Emotional Awareness, the Dalai Lama and Dr. Ekman discussed afflictive and non-afflictive emotions. In the end, however, there was an awareness that the emotions that people feel aren’t afflictive or non-afflictive in the moment that they’re felt. They’re afflictive if they are retained for an inappropriate amount of time. Thus, all emotions – all feelings – are acceptable at least in the short term. The important point isn’t that you have a feeling. It’s what you do with the feeling that matters. All feelings are acceptable – and non-afflictive, at least in the short term – but not all behaviors are acceptable.

We are all concerned about how others will view our feelings and emotions, when in reality there’s little need to be concerned whether our feelings are appropriate or not.

Three Methods

Dr. Gordon sees that there are three methods of parenting:

  1. Parent Wins – This authoritative approach has the child always losing and the parent always getting their needs met, sometimes at the expense of the child.
  2. Child Wins – This permissive approach has the child always winning and getting their needs met at the expense of others.
  3. Win-Win – This approach seeks compromise and to understand the deeper needs to create solutions that meet everyone’s true needs instead of just their expressed needs.

Gordon’s assertion is that parents should be using method 3 – Win-Win – and this makes rational sense. While he acknowledges that there may be times – such as the child running in front of a car where method 1 (Parent Wins) is necessary – he explains that this generally means the method 3 conversation that should have happened before the incident didn’t.

He also acknowledges that children raised in method 2 homes find it difficult to adapt at school, because most schools use method 1. (For more about how to run schools differently see Schools Without Failure.) Further, he acknowledges that sometimes raising creative, independent children happens with method 2 homes, but sometimes at the expense of the parents actually liking their children.

I’m all for finding ways to negotiate and find solutions where everyone wins at times, but I think it goes too far to say it should always be used. Sometimes there is just insufficient time to work through the details of negotiation and listening to get to a win-win situation. Unfortunately, there are limits to our time which requires an approach that has quicker results. You can’t use method 1 every time, but using it sometimes makes sense.

And we’re back full-circle to Spock and the reality that we need to encourage our children to be individuals. We need to encourage and support their expression of themselves both in voice and in action – while simultaneously creating an understanding of the world they will live in, where they will have bosses and they will be told how things are going to be from time to time. The objective with Parent Effectiveness Training should be to help expose children to the most advantageous environment – which for me means a blend of Method 1 and Method 3. It’s absolutely worth reading – as long as you’re willing to evaluate what to keep, what to discard, and what to incorporate in part.