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Popular Articles

Crazy-Makers: Dealing with Passive-Aggressive People

Why Are People Mean? Don't Take It Personally!

When You Have Been Betrayed

Struggling to Forgive: An Inability to Grieve

Happy Habits: 50 Suggestions

The Secret of Happiness: Let It Find You (But Make the Effort)

Excellence vs. Perfection

Depression is Not Sadness

20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem

7 Rules and 8 Methods for Responding to Passive-aggressive People

What to Do When Your Jealousy Threatens to Destroy Your Marriage

Happiness is An Attitude

Guide to How to Set Achieveable Goals

Catastrophe? Or Inconvenience?

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Relaxation for Children

Loving Kindness Meditation

Self-Esteem Exercise

Lies You Were Told

Choosing Happiness

Audio Version of Article: Crazy-Makers: Passive-Aggressive People

Audio Version of Article: Why Are People Mean? Don't Take It Personally!

Audio Version of Article: Happiness Is An Attitude

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PsychNotes July 2014
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Clinical and Sport Psychologist

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July 23, 2014

New Audio: Understanding Mindfulness: Step 5--Mindfulness and Grief

Mindfulness can assist in the grief process but it is important to understand the purpose of mindful grief. Mindfulness is not to distract from the grief but to allow the natural expression of emotions.

This audio download is the fifth of a series of audios to explain mindfulness in greater detail. For your convenience, the transcript of the audio is included. It is best to use the Understanding Mindfulness audios in order and practice the methods before proceeding to the next step.

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July 20, 2014

New Audio: Finding Your Path Decision-Making

forest path This audio uses the imagery of choosing a path through the woods to guide through the process of decision-making. It confronts the common misconception that a perfect path exists and that only by choosing the "right" path success will be achieved. Instead, it focuses on the idea that all paths have valuable lessons to learn. As you listen to this audio over time you can change the thinking that can prevent you from making decisions and being successful. Not choosing a path and pursuing it is the most destructive choice of all.

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July 13, 2014

Is It Okay to Profile Those on the Autistic Spectrum?

Recently, a friend asked me about a situation that happened to a friend of hers who has Asperger's Syndrome. I was horrified and saddened by what she described. Her friend, an amateur photographer, was at an outdoor concert on public property taking pictures of the concert-goers in their attention-seeking garb. Security detained him, asked him if he was a “sexual predator,” ejected him from the concert, and banned him from future concerts. This man was traumatized by the incident believing that he had done something terribly wrong.

Why was I horrified by this incident? Having worked with many people who have Asperger's, I have seen how they have been bullied throughout their lives due to their social awkwardness. Asperger's is a condition that I think is best described as a social learning disability. In other words, they have difficulty interpreting social cues which makes social interaction difficult for them. Considering that 90% of social interaction is non-verbal (eye contact, gestures, making faces, tone of voice, etc.) this is almost like being blind when it comes to social communication. However, if someone is blind, people are more likely to understand they need to be more explicit in their verbal communication. For someone with Asperger's, though, people just think they are “odd” because of the social awkwardness.

As a result of the bullying throughout their life, many people with Asperger's have social anxiety and will avoid social interaction. They are terrified of being the subject of ridicule. In addition, many have perfectionistic demands because they are afraid of making mistakes which can lead to public embarrassment. In my work as a psychologist I try to help them overcome the social anxiety and encourage them to be more social. I explain to them that even though they may have been mistreated as a child, adults are more empathetic and less likely to treat them unfairly. This incident saddens me because here is a man trying to engage in the social world and is maligned and made to feel as if he is a horrible human being (a “sexual predator”).

I believe this is a case of profiling because someone looks or acts different. The reason I come to this conclusion is two-fold: (1) the concert website stated that cameras were permissible (and if they weren't, why would someone be asked if they were a “sexual predator?”); and (2) the law states that if a person is on public property they can take pictures of other people who are visible from that public space. Therefore, this individual did nothing wrong. And yet, he was treated like a criminal.

I understand that people in Colorado may be sensitive to the possibility of violence. However, just because someone looks or acts different does not mean they are dangerous. There are plenty of violent acts committed by people who look normal. We have laws against profiling and we have laws against discrimination of those with disabilities. I believe that how this man was treated violated those laws. He was singled out because somehow he looked or acted different and was denigrated and banned on that basis, not due to anything he had done.

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July 11, 2014 Do One Small Thing

50 RULES FOR LIFE--Rule 10: Do One Small Thing

When it comes to achieving a desired goal, many people fail before they even start. Their mindset defeats them.

Specifically, when they want to make changes or achieve a goal, they attempt too much. If they want to lose weight, they go on a strict diet and exercise program. If they want to undertake a project, whether it's a gardening project or business idea, they focus on the whole project at once. Read more...

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July 7, 2014

What I Could Do If I Were Facebook: Would This Be Acceptable to You?

Many people believe that Facebook hasn't caused any harm with their experiments on human emotions. Maybe that's true. Maybe it's not. We can't know when there is no oversight. Other people believe that Facebook is benevolent and wouldn't have a purpose to cause harm. Again, maybe that's true. But how many publicly-traded corporations have the benefit of the people as their bottom line? Other people believe that you should just get used to being experimented and spied upon. Okay. But where do we draw the line? Is there one?

If I had the resources of Facebook, the knowledge I have as a scientist/psychologist, and believed that I didn't have to follow ethics, I can think of a number of experiments I could do. Would this be acceptable to you?

Experiment 1: Teach people to feel powerless.

As the Facebook saga about experiments without informed consent unfolds, a common sentiment I hear is “I don't like this but the media has been influencing our emotions for decades.” Such an attitude reflects what in psychology is termed “learned helplessness” which is the belief, thought to underlie certain types of depression: “I am powerless. I can't change anything.”

The early research on this phenomena involved experiments conducted by Martin Seligman (1965) on dogs. The dogs were placed in a cage that had two sides with a small barrier between. The floor of one side could administer shock to the dogs. The dogs would jump the barrier to escape the shock. The more egregious experiment that demonstrated the concept of learned helplessness involved placing the dogs in a cage without the option of escape. After numerous shocks, the dogs eventually would quit trying to escape and lie on the floor whimpering. When the dogs were later placed in the cage where they could escape by jumping over the barrier, they didn't even try but still just remained on the floor whimpering. The dogs had learned they were powerless and exhibited many of the symptoms inherent to depression: passivity, lack of appetite, social disinterest, sleep disturbance.

You may question the ethics of this research. Was this research necessary? Is there another way learned helplessness could have been researched without experimenting on the dogs?

Whatever you might think of this research, consider doing the same thing to humans. But instead of shocks, we could use some other means to elicit learned helplessness. If we had the ability to control some important aspect of people's lives, we could administer some aversive, unavoidable event. What important aspect could we control if we were Facebook? Research has found that some people are willing to engage in unethical behavior to avoid being excluded from a group (Thau et al., 2014). We can surmise, then, that social inclusion is an important aspect of many people's lives.

Can we influence social inclusion using Facebook's resources? Of course we can! Social inclusion is the very core of the Facebook experience. How could we do this? Very simply. We could unfriend them and they would feel excluded. However, that might be easily identifiable as an error because they could contact their friends. So we need to be more subtle. Maybe we could manipulate their news feed so that they only see postings about things in which they were not included. But that wouldn't be examining learned helplessness directly. Instead, it more likely examines the effects of social exclusion.

I know! What if we made this really incredible product/service that everyone wants to use and if you don't use it you will be excluded from the group. Then we could write up a terms of use that people have to agree to in order to use the product/service. And in our terms of use we state that we can use their data and manipulate them in any way that we want. Now that could definitely create learned helplessness! We could measure learned helplessness by how many times people shrug and say “Yeah, I don't really like it, but what can you do about it?”

Once we have taught people they are powerless, then we could really do some experiments. What kind of experiment could you do if you were Facebook?

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July 5, 2014

Is the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) Suggesting that Facebook Should Discriminate Against Those with Mental Illness?

The WSJ (July 3, 2014) describes reactions such as mine to the Facebook experiment without “informed” consent to be an “online tantrum.” Moreover, referring to individuals with “psychological problems like depression,” WSJ suggests that “people whose sensitivities are so delicate” should be aware of the data use policy and those who don't like the policy should just get off Facebook (https://online.wsj.com/articles/the-facebook-prison-experiment-1404342903).

Well, I'm going to continue my “tantrum” (see my previous post for July 3). As a psychologist, I believe it is my duty to speak out on behalf of those with mental illness who are not always able to speak for themselves.

The way I interpret this, according to WSJ people who have mental illness and are often already socially isolated should not access social media if they cannot tolerate being experimented upon and having their emotions manipulated. In other words, we should go back into the dark ages of discrimination against those with mental illness. If they cannot handle what everyone else can, then they should just hide in their homes and stay off social media.

In the U.S., we have a law called the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA; https://www.ada.gov/) that requires businesses to provide reasonable accommodations so that those with disabilities have equal access to business services. According to the Department of Justice this law applies to web services: "The Department is currently developing regulations specifically addressing the accessibility of goods and services offered via the web by entities covered by the ADA. The fact that the regulatory process is not yet complete in no way indicates that web services are not already covered by title III. (Statement of Interest of the United States Department of Justice in NAD v. Netflix).”

The purpose of the law is to place the burden of accommodation on the business rather than on the individual. It is archaic to believe that a person with a disability should just accept they don't have a right to access a service if they require an accommodation. Telling people with depression that they are too sensitive to be on Facebook is akin to telling a person in a wheelchair that if they can't get in a building they should stay home. It seems to me that, at a minimum, not engaging in unethical and intrusive experimentation on users of social media without their explicit and fully "informed" consent is a reasonable accommodation that would meet the ADA criteria.

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July 3, 2014

PsychNote: What Do the Nuremberg War Criminals and Facebook Have in Common? Human Experimentation Without "Informed" Consent

Recently, Facebook has been in the news for experimenting with the news feeds of their users to examine how emotions are contagious (https://www.pnas.org/content/111/24/8788.full?sid=831f8cc1-2556-4698-883e-42e28ab8ea20). Many people have been outraged about being experimental subjects without their explicit consent. Although they technically gave consent (it's in the terms of use), I find it especially troubling that people were not informed and debriefed.

In psychology, we learned decades ago that we can harm people through psychological experimentation (see Milgram's studies) and that we need to take appropriate precautions to not cause harm. Keep in mind the difference between experimentation and data mining that is routinely done by social media companies and other corporations. Although data mining may seem intrusive, it does not manipulate a person to determine how they might respond. As more media attention focuses on this issue, it is concerning that many find reactions such as mine to be overblown and that what Facebook did was innocuous and no different from routine market research (https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffbercovici/2014/06/30/facebooks-experiment-on-emotions-sounds-creepier-than-it-was/). However, this is not the same as market research that tries to determine under what conditions people are likely to respond. This was an experiment to influence people's emotional states.

Manipulating people's emotions CAN cause serious harm! Facebook had no idea whether the users they manipulated had emotional problems such as depression or schizophrenia. What if a person with depression was subjected to increased negative emotional content during a week in which they were particularly vulnerable? It is not difficult to imagine that such an experiment with an emotionally vulnerable person could lead to serious consequences including suicide.

One of the authors of the Facebook study justified their experimentation: “And at the end of the day, the actual impact on people in the experiment was the minimal amount to statistically detect it -- the result was that people produced an average of one fewer emotional word, per thousand words, over the following week (https://www.facebook.com/akramer/posts/10152987150867796).” However, it is an assumption, not a “fact” that people were minimally affected. The same level of statistical significance is enough to get a medication approved to treat depression. How can statistical significance be considered to have minimal impact in one situation, yet in another be touted as an important medical finding? Isn't the purpose of science to challenge assumptions, not use them to justify a researcher's agenda?

In psychological experimentation, we are mandated by our ethics to obtain informed consent due to the potential for harm. If full prior consent will alter the results of the experiment, we need to debrief the subjects after the experiment. At a minimum, debriefing means that the subjects should be told about the experiment, how they were manipulated, and assessed to determine how they were impacted. Such debriefing in this type of experiment could even mean providing therapy if the experiment negatively affected someone. In addition, outside oversight of researchers is necessary to insure they comply with these ethics.

When I started writing this note I had intended to look at this research objectively and examine what it tells us about how our emotions can be influenced.* However, as I review the research I am becoming more angry at the thought that Facebook seems to feel no obligation to “do no harm.” I understand they do not have the same obligations as health professionals and academic scientists, but should they?

More than fifty years ago, Milgram's obedience studies (https://psychology.about.com/od/historyofpsychology/a/milgram.htm; https://psyc604.stasson.org/Milgram2.pdf) made us question if psychological experiments can harm the subjects of the study. Most people believe that they would refuse if asked to do something terrible to another human being. How would you feel about yourself if you found out that you could shock somebody to unconsciousness just because someone in authority told you to do so? What if you thought you actually did harm someone? Even if you were told afterward that the person screaming in the next room was just faking it? Couldn't that cause you psychological damage?

These studies, more so than telling us about obedience, started a professional discussion regarding what is appropriate experimentation on human beings. As a profession, we decided that this type of experiment was unacceptable because of the potential psychological damage to the subjects.

When I was in graduate school in the 80's, I assisted an ethics professor with examining the ethics of a research study (done by someone else) that had women imagine being raped and assessing their emotional reactions. We questioned whether the process of imagining rape could be harmful to some women. To determine this, we considered doing a study in which we would have women read the scripts that were used in this previous study and give us their reactions. However, we couldn't determine a way to conduct our research without causing potential harm to our subjects! As a result, we decided not to pursue the research. This is an example of how our profession's ethics guide us. We should thoroughly think through the impact of our research on the subjects and prevent possible harm even if it means not doing the research. The ends do NOT justify the means.

As a psychologist, I not only find what Facebook did to be reprehensible but also, as a scientist/practitioner, I find it even more disturbing that it was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which is ethically (and legally?) obligated to protect human subjects. In their own policies they state “For experiments involving human participants, authors must also include a statement confirming that informed consent was obtained from all participants. All experiments must have been conducted according to the principles expressed in the Declaration of Helsinki (https://www.wma.net/en/30publications/10policies/b3/index.html)." The Declaration of Helsinki states “each potential subject must be adequately informed of the aims, methods, sources of funding, any possible conflicts of interest, institutional affiliations of the researcher, the anticipated benefits and potential risks of the study and the discomfort it may entail, post-study provisions and any other relevant aspects of the study. The potential subject must be informed of the right to refuse to participate in the study or to withdraw consent to participate at any time without reprisal (https://www.pnas.org/site/authors/journal.xhmtl).” This is the definition of “informed” consent.

Although technically Facebook had consent, they did not have “informed” consent. Why should a large corporation be allowed to experiment on the public in a way that was determined decades ago to violate human rights? Is Facebook powerful enough to be above ethical considerations? And how can a leading scientific organization publish this research without any repercussions? Are their ethical policies meaningless under certain circumstances? The Declaration of Helsinki ethically guiding scientific research came about in response to experimentation on human subjects during World War II. Haven't we learned anything?

Similar to the now infamous Milgram's studies, maybe some good can come out of this Facebook experiment by beginning an international discussion about the limits of research by non-governmental and non-academic organizations.

*Later, I will write my initially planned note about the actual research and what that tells us about our emotions in this world of social media and the internet.

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