STATISTICS! HAZARDOUS TO YOUR COPING HEALTH?

I read the other day that 20% (1 in 5) of Americans suffer some type of mental illness. You could find a number like that upsetting, especially if you are struggling with anxiety issues over some personal crisis, but don’t feel you are “mentally ill.” After, there are about 250 million adult Americans. If 20% are mentally ill to some degree, that’s 50 million people. If there are that many it might be easier for you to grudgingly decide you are mentally ill (our blog of December 17, 2017 might help you with this issue), and that maybe you should seek psychiatric counseling or medication or both (which may be totally inappropriate for you).

The 1 in 5 figure has been around for many years, and it may be close to accurate depending on how “mental illness” is defined, the sample on which the number is based (is it representative of the population?), and what sort of protocol was followed to arrive at the number. Before you passively accept such statistics, however, you owe it to yourself to devote some critical thinking to where it came from. Obviously, 250 million people were not assessed, so who decided on the 1 in 5? Bottom line, be wary and don’t get sucked into statistical statements.

The piece I read also claimed that of the 1 in 5 who were mentally ill, 1 in 5 of them were not seeking help for their illness. Now here’s my problem with that comment: if 20% of those who are mentally ill are not seeking help, how can we possibly know they exist? Think about these figures and the assumptions being made. Suppose we have 1,000 people. If 1 in 5 (20%) are mentally ill, that’s 200 people. Now, of those 200 people, we’re told that 1 in 5 of them (20%) don’t seek help for their mental illness. That means 40 people (20% of 200) are mentally ill but walking around untreated. Says who? Did someone go around asking those original 1,000 people (1) “Are you mentally ill?” and (2) “Are you seeking help?” I doubt it, but how else would we know how many are mentally ill and not seeking treatment?

A few years ago I saw a similar report from a university counseling center. The center said that in the previous year, 5% of the student body came in for alcohol abuse counseling. OK, that’s easy enough to calculate. But the report went on the say, “That means 10% of our student body has an alcohol problem but is not seeking help for it.” Huh? How can anyone know the number of students with a problem if they never identify themselves? That 10% number is obviously based on an assumption, an estimate of how many students on campus have a drinking problem. Well, how about saying that! I wish more reporters would use the word, “estimate,” as in, “It is estimated that 1 in 5 Americans suffer from mental illness.” I also wish they would make some effort to define what they mean by “mental illness.”

By the way, the categorical, definitive 1 in 5 figure leads us to some interesting extrapolations. The NRA claims it has 5 million members. That means 1 million members (1 in 5) are mentally ill, but 1 in 5 of those, which would be 200 thousand, are not seeking help. (If you’re a progressive Democrat that thought might keep you awake tonight!)

There are roughly 222 million licensed drivers in the US. Are 44.4 million mentally ill (seems so sometimes, doesn’t it) and 8.8 million of them are not seeking help? (Think about that next time you see someone alongside the road looking like they need assistance!) There are 435 voting members in the US House of Representatives. Are 87 mentally ill? (No comment.) Including the President, about 375 folks are on the White House staff. Are 75 mentally ill? (Bet I can name one!)

Enough about being mentally ill. Have you ever heard or read a pitch for a medicine that said something like, “Compared to a placebo this antidepressant produced 25% more improvement in mood”? You’re down in the dumps and you think, “Wow, I’m getting a prescription for this drug.” But what if you read the complete study and discovered that the placebo produced mood improvement in 4 of every 100 participants, and the drug produced improvement in 5 of every 100? That increase of 1 per 100 is a 25% increase, but hearing the 4 to 5 increase makes me doubt you would be ready to rush to the phone and ask your health provider for a prescription.

What if you read about a drug that significantly improved mental stability, mood, and anxiety levels for in-patient psychiatric clients? You think, “Well I’m having some issues with my mood and anxiety, so I’m getting some of this stuff!” Before you rush to get a prescription, remember that you might not be a member of the sub-population in the material you read; that is, you are not hospitalized. There was a similar fallacy in the OJ Simpson trial. A defense attorney pointed out that only 1 time in 1,000 does an abuser kill the abused. That rarity produces reasonable doubt, about OJ’s guilt, right? Well, the statistic overlooks the fact that Nicole Simpson was not just a woman who was abused; she was an abused woman who was also murdered. In that latter sub-population, almost 90% of the time, the murderer is the abuser. Specifying the population is always important, and before you “buy into” some impressive-sounding numbers, ask yourself if you’re in the population specified.

OK, one more, this one having to do with the so-called lie-detector (see our January 7, 2018 for some additional insight into this instrument). We’re not really dealing with a mental health issue here, but a statistical misrepresentation is clearly shown, a problem that could exist with any measurement technique.

Lie-detector (polygraph) advocates often claim accuracy levels of 90% and higher for the machine. That is, the device will identify a liar 9 times out of ten; only one will be missed. OK, let’s say you own a company with 500 employees, and some of them are stealing materials. That 90% accuracy sounds great so you hire a polygraph operator to find the crooks.

Let’s assume that 50 of your employees are stealing, and 450 are totally honest. (Their identities, of course, are known only to God!) Let’s further assume that everyone will say “No,” when hooked up to the machine and asked something along the lines of, “Have you ever stolen any company materials while at work?”

OK, 50 people are thieves and they are lying. The 90% machine will correctly identify 45 of them, but miss the other 5 (a crook is scored as honest). Meanwhile, of the 450 honest folks, 405 will pass the polygraph but the other 45 honest workers will be identified as liars (crooks). Note that the machine has identified a total of 90 people as lying thieves, and you fire those 90. How many should you have fired, though? Unfortunately, only 45 of the 90 you fired are really stealing from you. You fired them but you also fired 45 honest employees. That means 50% of the employees you fired should not have been. That 90% accurate machine gave you a true yield of 50% accuracy. Bummer, especially if you were fired!

The lesson here? Whether we’re talking polygraph, mammogram, MRI, or any other evaluation test, don’t be swayed by accuracy numbers. There will always be false positives (you’re not one but the test says you are) and false negatives (you are one but the test says you aren’t). Again, think critically and be a wise “consumer” when choosing. Don’t passively accept the message; seek other opinions. You always want to make the best choice for yourself, and you want to do all you can to make sure that choice is an informed one.

 

 

 

 

 

SPIRITUALITY AND COPING

If you have a strong, sincere, intrinsic faith system, you have a leg up on life. Interestingly, those who regularly attend church services, pray, and read scripture are more likely to have low blood pressure and strong immune systems; they are less likely to suffer depression from stressful life events; when they do get depressed, they are more likely to recover; they have a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and cancer, and are likely to live longer.

Before you decide to run out and praise the lord, let’s analyze this information a bit. It would appear that religious people have these health benefits because their faith system, their spirituality if you will, is part of an overall approach to life they have developed. Sincerely and intrinsically spiritual (we’re going to use “spiritual” instead of “religious” to make the point that our comments are not limited to those to identify with, or practice within, a formal denomination or church setting) people tend to have positive thinking styles about life. Events in their lives are not perceived as random and accidental, but are seen as part of an overall pattern or plan. Furthermore, unpleasant circumstances are seen more as challenges to be dealt with, not as something beyond their control and potentially devastating.

Are there consequences to this lifestyle? Indeed, when spiritual people see meaning in both good and bad events in their lives, they receive a protective sense of coherence with life. This sense of coherence increases the likelihood that they will take care of their bodies, reach out to serve others, and nurture their relationships with valued family and friends. In short, their sincere and intrinsic spirituality allows and encourages them to appreciate, and participate in, the grandeur of life.

There’s no secret to maximizing the probability of being physically and emotionally healthy and feeling good. These states evolve and emerge from those parts of your life that are under your control: the behaviors you engage in, the thoughts you maintain, and the perceptions and interpretations you make about events and people around you. A sense of coherence and purpose to life, and the confidence to meet the challenges of life, evolve from these lifestyles. We know of no anti-depressant or anti-anxiety drugs, or any other type of prescription or recreational substance, that will have such positive, long-term psychological consequences. In a very real sense, if effective coping is a work of art, you are the artist, the creator of your personal masterpiece.

Several times we have used the words “sincere” and “intrinsic” to clarify what we mean by faith and spirituality. Your internal compass, no matter where it comes from, must be genuine. Merely paying lip service to a Supreme Being just won’t cut it. You might go to church so someone will see you there and think more highly of you, but this use of religion to obtain non-spiritual goals will not translate into better physical and psychological health. For a personal faith system to be part of a healthy and productive lifestyle, that faith must be intrinsic and part of a greater spirituality; it must be valued for itself, not for the material rewards, status, or power it may bring. Faith that brings good health and a feeling that you can exercise some control and direction in your life is a faith that is genuine. Such faith can be a principal motivating force in your life, and something that influences your everyday behavior and decisions.

Obviously, we can’t tell you how to go about finding this intrinsic guiding compass. It can be in a formal religious context or not. We’re talking values, morality, ethics, civility, and respect; we’re focusing on developing a social conscience that values the welfare of others; we mean being guided by actions and thoughts that bring you satisfaction, the feeling that you are living and growing as best you can. These are not traits you can search for, and circle a date on a calendar with the notation, “Beginning today I am going to be happy, productive, and fulfilled!” Don’t waste your time.

But if you stop being passive, dependent, and in search of an expert to run your life, if you stop seeking artificial chemical crutches, and if you reach out to those in need, you will most definitely cope more effectively with your challenges. You will enjoy the beauty and grace of other people. You will enjoy self-fulfilling discoveries along a meaningful and enjoyable road of life. That is your calling as a part of humanity. Go for it!

 

LEARNED HELPLESSNESS

Imagine being in a situation where you are subjected to regular, but unpredictable pain, and you can’t do a thing about it. You’re obviously pretty shook up because not only do you not know when the pain is coming, but also there is no escape.

Reggie is 68 and lives in low-income housing in an inner city. Drugs and gang activity are rampant in his apartment complex. His apartment has been burglarized a couple of times, and he has also been robbed once while walking on the street. Reggie lives in perpetual fear of being attacked or robbed, and feels totally helpless. In fact, after one of the burglaries, the police captured the perpetrator. When asked if he was willing to testify against him, he said, “No. What’s the use? He’ll just get off and come after me. I got nothin’ to fight him.”

Jane is 30 years old and is physically abused by her husband now and then. She never knows when she will be hit, slapped, pushed to the floor, or thrown against a wall. She would like to end her marriage but says, “I have no job and nowhere go, but even if I did he’d find me and beat me. And I’ll never go to the cops because he said he’d kill me. I’m just totally helpless.”

Psychologist Martin Seligman developed the concept of Learned Helpless to explain cases like Reggie’s and Jane’s, and their complete inability to take control of their situations. The unpredictability and inescapable circumstances of their treatment has taught them that there is nothing they can do, so why bother to fight it? Why should Reggie bother to testify? The crook will come back madder than ever. Jane talks about divorce, but she may never be able to do so because of her helplessness. Both she and Reggie basically feel that they have lost control and have given up.

Not surprisingly, learned helplessness is a precursor to depression. Victims feel their lives are spinning out of control and they have learned that it is all but futile to try and do something about it. The consequences are frustration, anxiety, and despair, followed by apathy, withdrawal, and finally depression. No matter how bad their lives become, no matter how bad the pain, they figure, “Why bother to fight it? There’s nothing I can do about it.”

The entries in this blog, of course, yell out, “You can do something about it; you can learn to take control of your lives, to empower yourselves.” Unfortunately, once learned helplessness takes control, it is difficult to hear the optimistic empowering message, and easier to give up.

The important coping lesson here is that you must be on the alert for tendencies to learn to be helpless about things in your life. Being vigilant about feelings of helplessness and apathy will help you avoid a major danger: becoming overly dependent on someone. Helplessness makes you vulnerable to buying into those who preach the message, “Only I can help you out of your desperation.” If you fall for this message you are in trouble because your excessive dependency will make independent action on your part all but impossible. Autonomous action on your part is essential to effective coping; excessive and inappropriate dependency on another will cause you to let the other do everything for you, making you weaker than before.

Rather than reaching out to false messengers who do not have your best interests in mind, when confronted with helplessness you must organize your coping efforts around a proactive plan of action. Obviously you can reach out to others for assistance, but not to the point that you totally depend on them. For instance, both Reggie and Jane already seem to realize that they have no control over the individuals who are causing them distress. Their focus, therefore, must be on what aspects of their respective situations are under their control.

What can Reggie do? A first step might be in trying to organize his neighbors into fighting the perpetrators who commit crimes against them. There is great strength in numbers. If they seek police advice on ways to form a neighbor protection group, and if they tap into legal resources available to low-income victims, they just might discover that following these strategies, over which they have some control, might bring them significant positive results.

As for Jane, of course she has no control over her husband’s behavior. Being nice, subservient, and always trying to placate him so he won’t attack her simply won’t work. She can, however, contact women’s resource centers and legal aid organizations for experienced advice on how to proceed. If children are involved she can contact child protective services. Like Reggie, she can discover the strength in numbers and resources available to her, if only she will reach out.

It is important to remember that just because you feel you have no direct control over the source of your troubles – and you don’t, whether it be a spouse, criminal, supervisor, or acquaintance – there are multiple other options available to you that allow you to exercise control in alternative ways.

The one thing you must not do is move into apathy/surrender mode and make those actions your habitual response to your troubles. You must determine your “circle of control” and, operating within that circle, fight like hell!

 

ACHIEVING WORK-FAMILY BALANCE

Scottie Davis Winslow is VP of Optum Consulting. In a recent newspaper column she wondered how best to achieve that balance between the demands of the workplace and the obligations of everyday life outside the workplace. Those obligations could be as simple as grocery shopping and picking up the cleaning, or more involved like finding time to be with spouse or children and caring for elderly parents. No matter what the obligation, when work interferes with everyday life you can suffer significant stress. How should you handle it? Some of Winslow’s suggestions:

Identify your goals and values and make sure family, friends, and anyone depending on you understand where you’re coming from.

Communicate to others the various parts of your life, your priorities, and seek others’ help in achieving them to everyone’s satisfaction. For instance, if your kids understand and accept that you are not available for them all the time, they are likely to be more willing to work with you to find that quality time with them on a regular basis.

Do not get into the perpetual “apology” mode. Does it seem sometimes like you’re constantly guilty and frequently saying, “I’m sorry”? Do you get in the mindset that the things you do for others must always take precedence over what you need to do for yourself now and then? Let’s face it, sometimes effective coping requires you to be a little selfish and tend to yourself. Don’t be afraid to include yourself in your priorities. Ignoring your physical and mental well-being to serve others will self-destruct in the long run.

You should regularly monitor and adjust your daily priorities to meet unexpected situations. Plans go awry; circumstances change; new priorities insert themselves into your daily routine. That’s life, right? Your task is to adjust, adapt, and let your coping efforts evolve to meet the changing requirements in your daily life. Once again, changes must be communicated to others.

Winslow offers some useful and proactive suggestions, and we regularly touch on them in this blog. Woman or man, husband or wife, these suggestions can greatly improve one’s coping skills. And let’s not forget an additional piece of reassurance specifically for working moms. Did you know that women who work are often better off psychologically and physically than women who don’t? Now don’t take that statement as criticism of stay-at-home moms. Many such moms are perfectly happy, and some working moms are miserable.

The point is that society often depicts the working mom as always in a pressure-cooker environment that renders her just too tired at the end of the day to devote quality time to her family and other domestic issues. This is an unfair characterization that just puts needless pressure and guilt on many women when they run across it. If you’re a working mom don’t buy into it, and remember those comments by Winslow.

There are some interesting research findings in this area. As we already noted, working moms are usually found to be psychologically and physically healthy. Compared to non-working women, working women show lower cholesterol levels; have a lower incidence of general illness; are less depressed; and maintain that their job gives them an outlet for the stresses of home and childrearing.

Our point here is not to suggest to stay-at-home moms that you better get out there in the workplace so you can be healthier! The point is, if moms are doing what makes them comfortable and satisfied, they’re going to be fine. So to all you working moms out there, you have no need to fear playing multiple roles. With appropriate planning, organization, and flexibility, you can cope quite well. Comfort level is the key. In fact, heading home on Friday for a weekend with the kids after a particularly tough week might be very pleasant and invigorating. By the same token, heading to work on Monday after a weekend of dealing with diapers, tantrums, and crying might be equally pleasant and invigorating!

 

ARE THE EFFECTS OF TRAUMA PERMANENT?

Have you ever heard anyone say something like, “I had a lot of stress and anxiety problems because of a traumatic event, but I got rid of it all with counseling. I don’t have to worry about that anymore”?

Do you agree with them? If you’re troubled by excessive fear and anxiety because of some experience, can you realistically expect to “get rid of it”? Can you delete those unpleasant emotions from your mind? Don’t bet on it.

When Robyn was a first-year college student she became romantically involved with a senior. The relationship began well and provided Robyn with a lot of security as she began the often-troubling college adventure. After a few months, however, things soured. The guy became overly controlling, and physically and emotionally abusive. Robyn was traumatized and felt trapped by this dominant presence in her life who seemed to exert absolute control over her.

Robyn nearly transferred at the end of her first semester, but she stuck it out and decided to wait until the end of the year. The guy graduated and basically disappeared from her life. She opened up about the true nature of the relationship to her parents and some friends. With their help she decided to return to the same school because she liked her major, the professors, and many other aspects of her college life. Besides, her tormentor was gone.

Robyn had a successful post-tormentor college experience, graduated with honors, and began what turned out to be a successful career with a small company. As far as she was concerned, the anxiety and stress of her first year was gone forever. She had moved on.

In her mid-30s she met a guy and became romantically involved. She began to believe that Steve was “the one,” except for one part of him that made her uncomfortable: he loved doing things for her; he always wanted to pick up the check; he liked to do the driving and be in charge of making plans, reservations, and other small day-to-day things.

One day Robyn confided to her old college friend: “He’s such a great guy but I’m getting really anxious about the way he wants to be in charge. He’s doing it because he loves me, but it’s starting to scare me. I don’t know why. I love this guy so much but……I’m feeling trapped, suffocated, overwhelmed. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to go into a complete panic.”

Her friend smiled and almost laughed: “My god, Robyn, don’t you see that he’s reminding you of that f….er in college who ran your life into the ground? Yeh, he means well, but he’s bringing back all the anxiety you suffered when that asshole was running your life! I was there! That s..t nearly ruined your life. My God, you have to talk to Steve and let him know that you can’t have him doing everything for you….he has to treat you like an equal or the relationship won’t work!”

Great advice. (Her friend must have been a psychology major!) Robyn didn’t realize that the emotional residue from her trauma of years ago wasn’t gone; it was merely dormant, latent, lying just below the surface of her conscious mind ready to pounce when prompted. Steve’s well-intentioned actions served as that prompt, and the visceral fears and anxieties of being enslaved were reawakened in Robyn’s consciousness.

Yes, they talked it out, discovered new things about each other, saw the need to allow each other to be autonomous and independent partners in the relationship, and moved their bond to a deeper level of understanding. The friend was Maid-of-Honor a year later.

Traumatic experiences change you for the long run; the effects of trauma, to one degree or another, are permanent. You can’t expect to eliminate those effects so they’ll never bother you again. The effects may be subtle, but they are there nevertheless. That being the case, you will not do yourself any favors to deceive yourself into believing that you will never again be affected by residual effects of the trauma, even though it occurred long ago. In a sense, carrying such a belief is a form of denial, a type of “expunging the record,” so to speak, and moving on as if the event never occurred. That may work with an adolescent shoplifting conviction that is expunged from the record, but it won’t work with the emotional baggage of a traumatic event.

The event did occur, and that will be your reality for the rest of your life. Given that reality, what is your best strategy? First, accept that it occurred and that it makes you permanently vulnerable in ways you were not before the event. Second, follow a coping plan that allows you to integrate the event appropriately into your current reality. Finally, wrap it up in a box and put it on a back shelf in your mind where it will gather dust.

Just remember that the reality of the event is always there; it doesn’t go away. That presence makes you permanently vulnerable. And that vulnerability can allow some future event to remind you of the original trauma’s presence, re-awaken the original anxiety, and require you to re-package it and store it away once again. Being aware of your vulnerability will make you better able to cope with these new challenges based on old anxieties.

So skip the fantasy-like belief that, “I will never again be bothered by that crisis!” Be realistic and admit that the event can leave you vulnerable, not to dominate you or to define your life and who you are, but require you to deal once again with core emotions associated with the event.

CONTROL AND PREDICTABILITY

When I (Brooks) was in college back in ancient times, the “executive monkey” study by Brady appeared in just about every introductory textbook. The results made so much sense they were considered psychological law.

Brady’s study, published in 1958 (before I went to college!), was pretty simple. Two monkeys were restrained in a device side-by-side. Whenever a light in front of them came on, a few seconds later they each simultaneously received an uncomfortable shock to their tails. One of the monkeys, however, could learn to press a button when the light came on, and the result would be that neither of them would receive the shock. This monkey, the one in control, was the executive. The control monkey couldn’t do a damn thing when the light came on but yell, “Press the button, press the button!”

The executive monkeys learned the button task easily, and the procedure continued for several trials per day over a number of days. Eventually, the trials ended and the monkeys were examined for stomach ulcers. The control monkeys were fairly clean. The executives, on the other hand, showed a significantly higher occurrence of ulcers.

Sixty years ago the results seemed obvious and fit the view of the harried company executive, always on the go, and under constant pressure to make decisions on which the future of the company depended. Those types of guys (and in the 60s, company CEOs were almost exclusively men), the ones who ran the companies and never seemed to slow down, also seemed to suffer a variety of medical complaints like ulcers, high blood pressure, and heart problems. Brady’s results fit the profile beautifully: being in control is hazardous to your health!

Brady’s study was a psychology-course standard until 1971 when Weiss tried to replicate Brady’s results with rats. Using the same type of experimental design, that is subjects receiving shocks unless one of them, the executive, performed a response that would avoid the shock for both of them, Weiss found precisely the opposite results from Brady: the executive rats ended up with fewer physical complications than the control rats.

So what’s going on here? Is this another example of fickle science that so many people love to point out when a scientific finding disturbs them? Not at all. It turns out that Brady violated the prime directive of any research attempting to determine a cause-effect relationship. Any psychology major worth her or his salt can tell you that such conclusions cannot be made unless subjects have been randomly assigned to groups. It turns out that Brady didn’t using random assignment.

What did he do? He gave all his monkey preliminary tests to see which ones were good at learning avoidance responses when threatened, and those monkeys were put in the executive group. His monkeys were expensive and he wanted to save time and make sure his executives would learn the button-pressing task. The more laid-back monkeys (“Here comes another shock. Big deal!”) were put in the control group. So, even before Brady began his procedure, his executives were probably neurotic, high-anxious types who were sensitive to stress and always on the alert for it. In short, they were more vulnerable to ulcers when stressed.

Weiss randomly assigned his rats to groups. His results showed what we now consider a new basic psychological principle: being in control and functioning in a predictable environment is less stressful than feeling helpless in an unpredictable world. Put yourself in Brady’s or Weiss’s study. Which group would you want to be in, executive or control? The former, of course (unless you’re a masochist or a helpless wimp). As executive you can sit there and relax, knowing that once that light comes on you can press the button and all is cool. You’re in charge; you’re the basic-training drill sergeant; you’re the boss.

If you’re in the control group, however, all you can do is sit there and hope the person in charge will watch out for your welfare. The uncertainty, the unpredictability, can be, to say the least, quite stressful.

Control as a key factor in effective coping is one of the principles we point to again and again in this blog. We also note, however, that control is limited to your actions and your thoughts. You can’t go around controlling everything and everyone, although some folks sure seem to try!

A final couple of words about Brady’s study. From a science perspective, his procedure, no random assignment, was terrible. And yet, his results made some sense about the overworked company executive suffering ill health because of stressful work habits. How come? Well, the simple answer is that life does not proceed by random assignment. CEOs are not really a random group of society; they are a specialized group. They don’t sleep much, they’re hyperactive, never truly relaxed, always thinking, planning, plotting. Like Brady’s executive monkeys, their hyper nature probably makes them vulnerable to health issues, not the fact that they’re in control. In other words, Brady’s non-random assignment of monkeys to groups probably reflects what happens in real life.

That reflection, of course, does not negate the fact that being in control is generally less stressful for us. And that’s the coping lesson: if we can find events that are realistically within our circle of control, and exercise that control,  we’re coping appropriately and we’re better off.

Finally, we should note that by today’s standards, Brady’s study was terribly unethical. I have really sanitized his procedure in my description of his study. In fact, his monkeys were subjected to unbearable stress (some might call it torture), which resulted in physical deterioration and even death. The study would never be permitted today because his procedure would not pass ethical standards required in 21st century animal research.

FEEDING YOUR BIASES IS NOT GOOD COPING

Recently I was watching a panel discussion on a news channel. The participants expressed amazement at how so many people seem able to ignore the reality of certain situations, and just can’t tolerate the possibility that an admired politician is flawed. One of the panelists, however, described how a psychologist used the concept of “confirmation bias” to explain what was going on. The idea is simple: if you strongly believe something, you’re going to seek out information that confirms your belief. You confirm your bias because the alternative would be to decide that you have pretty poor judgment when it comes to what you believe. Most of us, of course, don’t want to decide that we have poor judgment.

Closely related to confirmation bias is the process of selective perception. Psychologists use this concept to note that we tend to perceive things selectively. We focus on information that is consistent with our attitudes, beliefs, and decisions. Suppose you buy a new car, and the next day read a newspaper account of the latest study of safety features in various models. The article says your vehicle has a tremendous steering system, but a lousy braking system. Selective perception means you’re more likely to process, remember, and be influenced by the steering information than the braking information. The former is consistent with your view of yourself as a wise consumer; the latter is not, so you tune it out.

Both confirmation bias and selective perception fit nicely with a psychological theory called Cognitive Dissonance. If you believe you are a wise consumer, yet come across information (such as the braking flaw in your new car) that contradicts your belief, you experience dissonance in your mind. Dissonance is uncomfortable, and the theory says you will be motivated to get rid of the dissonance, or at least reduce it.

In the case of your car purchase, how might you reduce the dissonance felt after reading the article on safety features? Well, you might say the information on the lousy braking system is just flat-out wrong, fake information. Or, you might decide steering is a much more important system than braking. Conceivably you might even conclude, “Damn, I’m a lousy buyer. I should have checked out the information on this car more carefully. I blew it.” That last option, of course, changing your glowing belief about yourself, is not likely. So instead you go through all sorts of mental machinations to hold onto your glowing self-belief, while you reduce the dissonance by distorting reality, such as saying the safety article was written by someone who hates your car brand. “Yeah,” you think, “who can trust the media?”

Back to our panel discussion about holding on to a positive belief in a politician who has views similar to yours. When others say your guy is a pig, what do you do? Well, you just conclude that those folks have poor judgment because their “facts” are simply false. Order is restored and your bias is confirmed. You ignore or discount information criticizing your guy, and you have rid yourself of dissonance. All is right with the world.

A good coping strategy? Absolutely not! Your mental gymnastics have encouraged you to distort reality, suspend anything resembling critical thinking, and led you into the trap of a self-fulfilling prophesy. That’s the cruel irony of confirmation bias, selective perception, and dissonance reduction: they allow you to reach a conclusion that you held all along. What’s more comforting than that?

Suppose you believe the sales clerks at a particular store are unfriendly. You need an item, however, the troublesome store is close by, and you know they carry it. So you venture in to make the purchase in spite of your negative expectations. Well, lo and behold, before you know it your sales clerk is acting like a total idiot and treating you like an enemy. So you tell him to buzz off and storm out of the store, anxious to file a complaint. You tell yourself, “I knew that store treated customers like dirt. Never should have gone in.”

Wouldn’t it be interesting if you could observe a tape of your interaction with the clerk? Would you be surprised if you saw yourself being antagonistic right from the beginning? Would you be able to admit to yourself that your behavior toward the clerk increased the odds that he would be less than friendly, that your behavior made the clerk behave the way you thought he would even before you entered the store? In other words, your bias led you to act in such a way that caused the clerk to behave in a manner consistent with your belief.

There’s your self-fulfilling prophecy, and social psychology research has verified it occurs. My point, however, is that if you think it‘s good coping to produce your self-fulfilling prophesies, then you are wrapped up in your own biases, attitudes, and needs, and could give a damn about others. You’re not coping well at all.

Let’s go back to that store-clerk example. Imagine that instead of being alone, you’re with a friend who does not have the negative bias toward the store that you have. You say to your friend, “I would like to pick up this item but the clerks in there are nasty.”

She says, “Really? I’ve never found that to be the case. Let’s go in and I bet I can get friendly service. Just let me do the talking.”

So the two of you enter and go to the department that has the item you want. As you head to the counter you mutter to your friend, “That clerk looks like he’s ready to eat someone’s child. That’s why I hate this store.”

When you reach the counter your friend says to the clerk, “Hi, how’s it going? Hope everyone’s treating you nice today. How much longer is your shift?”

“Unfortunately, I’ve still got five hours ahead of me.”

“Oh, that’s terrible. I know how tough it can be working with the public. Hope it goes fast for you. Listen, my friend is looking for a ______. Do you carry it?” (Of course, you know they carry it.)

“Yes, it’s right over here.”

“Oh, that’s fantastic. You’re such a help. This is wonderful.”

Do you get it? Not only was your friend showing sympathy to the clerk, but she also acted in a very friendly manner. She structured the situation in a way to make the clerk feel that he really helped her.

Now some would call your friend a bullsh–r. Our blog readers, however, would call the friend someone with good coping skills. Try it. In fact, try it on a regular basis. Treat others like you believe they will be friendly and helpful. Doing so will greatly increase the likelihood that they reciprocate and show they care about your needs. And everyone will do a lot of smiling, something always conducive to good coping and having a nice day.