Thursday, August 27, 2009

Crying, revisited

Indeed, as suggested in the comments section of the post on the Pittsburgh Shooter and catharsis, the usefulness of crying to relieve sadness is (unsurprisingly) more multifaceted than revealed in previous research.

Scientific American Mind on Crying

The takeaway? In the lab, people seem to feel worse on average after crying. But the lab isn't anything like the real world (say, your own bedroom), so take that with a grain of salt. In real life, people report feeling better. But real life isn't like the lab, where they can make much more accurate assessments.

More interesting details:
Criers who received social support during their crying episode were more likely to report mood benefits than were criers who did not report receiving social support. Likewise, mood benefits were more likely when the precipitating events of a crying episode had been resolved than they were when events were unresolved. Finally, criers who reported experiencing negative social emotions like shame and embarrassment were less likely to report mood benefits.
Some people do report feeling worse after crying, in the real world, too. So I guess forget about folk wisdom for now, and make your own decisions about crying :)

Monday, August 17, 2009

What the world needs more of

The recent trend towards more interactive authorship on the web (wikis, YouTube, etc.) seems to offer a fascinating glimpse into the minds of "regular people." In particular, the comments sections on news sites are great for the subject matter of this blog. While not at all scientific, I find them quite useful in broadening my understanding of how people see the world.

I could devote pages to the fascinatingly mean-spirited comments that can be found on these sites (and the irony of all the armchair psychiatrists spewing vitriol at the jerks who are clearly to blame), but today I want to share a few that really inspired me.

There was a story this morning about a man in Washington who was shot dead while brandishing a gun at hospital staff. He'd been brought there because of head trauma, and although he had been peacefully disarmed of two of his handguns, he ended up producing a third and threatening a nurse with it. A police officer shot and killed him during the confrontation, and thankfully nobody else was injured.

Amidst the usual slew of cruel judgements we find these (emphasis mine):
Joseph Burkett was my dearly beloved, but troubled, nephew. The messages I've read so far on here have been so judgemental and cruel. He was mentally ill and in need of his medication. I DO understand that poeople will judge him harshly, but he was such a wonderful person when he was himself. I'm grateful no one else was injured, but so saddened that our Joey had to be taken from us in this manner. The police officer was just doing his duty . . .no blame there. Joey was such a lovely child and young man, but drugs and alcohol had taken it's toll. He is at peace now, thank God

As Joe's cousin, we are saddened by what happened. Of course no one know's him the way we did. He had mental illness and while we aren't defending what he did, it played a huge role in this. We are thankful the officer involved went home safely to his family and that innocent people we not killed or harmed, we do realize though that the officer will have to bear the scar of this his entire life. We loved Joe. Help was sought for him repeatedly but proved unhelpful. After someone feels "normal" with their meds they frequently stop taking them feeling they are well. My aunt is a wonderful person and my heart breaks for her and his siblings. This has been huge blow to our family.

This man was my cousin and before you people start going crazy you all should know there is WAY more to this. I am so very thankful that he didn't kill anyone and that the officer could go home to his family. I loved my cousin but he did have a mental illness and was heavily into alcohol and drugs, mixed with his mental illness wasn't a good thing. My Aunt tried very hard to help him, she was even there when all this happend. My heart goes at to her. I do not agree with what he did nor am I protecting anything. He was fine and then just snapped, we dont know what happend or why he did what he did. All I can say is thank you to the officer and I am glad that you are able to be home with your family.
These accounts do something that couldn't be accomplished even if the story's author had done due diligence in reporting on the man's mental illness. They're a striking testament to how difficult this situation really must have been, given the incredible compassion of his loved ones.

If only such accounts were more prominent in the media...

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Pittsburgh Shooter

You probably heard the story last week about George Sodini, the man in Pittsburgh who killed 3 women, injured 9 more, and then turned the gun on himself at an LA Fitness gym. You've probably also heard it mentioned that his choice of location wasn't aribtrary: he was bitter and resentful against women in general, and picked a place where he could target his supposed tormentors.

I'll start with some quotes that won't surprise anyone, just to reinforce an important point:

Sodini was not a bad-looking man; he was intelligent and had a good job, so his failure to attract women must have had something to do with his behavior, Meloy [a psychologist] said. But Sodini couldn't see that.

"He had difficult and unhappy and unsuccessful relationships with everybody," Fox said. "What he was never able to do was to see that perhaps the problem was him. Maybe there's a reason why everybody rejects him, no one wants to be close to him. Maybe it's something about his own personality.

"But mass murderers don't look at things that way. If they saw themselves as being the culprit, perhaps they would just commit suicide. But no. Everyone else is to blame."
Anyone who's reached a reasonable level of maturity (post high school, maybe?) would have realized that it's not sensible to blame others for not liking them. Not just that it doesn't work -- even our shooter may have realized that -- but that it doesn't make sense. Now probably most of us have wished at one time or another that this or that person would feel differently toward us. But the mindset that they are to blame for it is probably quite foreign, and perhaps it's worth attempting to don that viewpoint if only to see just how different perspectives can be.

Anyway, on to more novel things. First, I'll shamelessly steal another quote from the article:

"There's this myth that mass killers just snap and go berserk and suddenly, without warning, shoot indiscriminately," Fox said. "Well, he had been thinking about this for some time. He had originally planned to commit the mass murder in January [but] 'chickened out,' as he said. But this shows a lot of methodical planning, thinking."
This brings us to an interesting fallacy about emotions and their regulation. We like tidy analogies and generalizations, and I'd like to poke a hole in a cherished one: the assumption that we must either bottle up or vent our emotions.

George produced a home video that's now available on YouTube, and at the end he pans past his punching bag and mentions it in passing.

Now, YouTube isn't renowned for its brilliant comments, but one or two people seemed to suggest that he wasn't utilizing that obvious source of anger release. Well, guess what? It's been studied, and venting doesn't work. In fact, the use of punching bags has specifically been tested, and it leads to more anger and aggression. Moreover, it doesn't work for sadness, either: having "a good cry" generally leads to more sadness in the future.

It probably comes as no surprise to you that ruminating isn't any good, either. Unlike with catharsis, which has been thoroughly debunked by psychological science, studies uphold the common wisdom that stewing in resentment only serves to magnify it.

If you can't think of a third option to overcome negative emotions, you're probably not trying hard enough: even distraction is generally a better choice. But even that probably isn't the best we can do. Actively practicing positive skills like gratitude and forgiveness are known to help quell undesirable emotions -- but first, we have to really accept that such feelings as bitterness really are undesirable.

That may seem like an obvious suggestion, but I suspect it's one that people like George never really absorb.