Tag Archives: psychology

Family estrangement and modern parenting

I caught 1A with Joshua Johnson the other day, and was happy to hear my friend Joshua Coleman featured. The discussion was about family estrangement, which is Joshua’s clinical specialty (he’s a psychologist), and the subject of his book, When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along. Joshua works with a lot of parents who have been estranged by their adult children, which in the social media era doesn’t necessarily mean being cut off, like it might have once upon a time — now it might mean being subjected to constant reminders of children’s social and family lives that deliberately exclude parents.

Of course, the freedom to estrange oneself from a family is very important, and a great thing about modern family life. But it’s also often awful. And it highlights the intense and rapid generational changes we’re going through as well. So this is something to wrestle with, which is what the show did.

I took the liberty of transcribing a few of Joshua’s comments, which I then ran by him for permission and a quick edit, and present here more or less in their original form. Joshua said:

One of the things that’s confusing for so many of the estranged parents I work with is that what gets called abusive or traumatizing behavior today would not have been considered abusive or traumatizing in their generation. This relates to what [Nick] Haslam refers to as “concept creep”: the process of expanding the definition of what is considered harmful behavior. From my perspective as a psychologist this causes some adult children to justify their estrangements or negative evaluations of their parents’ actions.

Much of what gets labeled as abusive or traumatizing today on the part of the parent, does not strike me as genuine abuse or trauma. For example, being controlling, manipulative, intrusive, even critical at times is not necessarily abuse. At the very least, not abusive enough to alter the trajectory of a life in the way that it’s commonly portrayed. But part of the problem is that we live in a culture that’s very much dominated by a kind of  psychological narrative where people are led to believe that the way that their lives turn out are almost exclusively explained by their childhoods, while contemporary research doesn’t really show that to be case. In fact, parents play a relatively small role in adult outcome while genetics, social class, economics, peer group, and random good or bad luck can all be considered equal if not more powerful determinants of outcome. [Post-show addition: As Jennifer Silva wrote in her book Coming Up Short: Working Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty: “Family pathology is invoked both to explain (to themselves and to others) why they have not achieved traditional adult milestones and to map meaning, order, and progress onto their experiences of stagnation in the present.”]

We also live in a society, and at a time where so much is being put onto parents’ shoulders, that other cultures have the wisdom to not put onto the parents’ shoulders. For example, in most Western industrialized nations there is free or highly subsidized childcare, free or highly subsidized college, free or highly subsidized insurance – while in America this is all up to the parent. So there’s a reason that today’s parents are deeply worried and over-involved and concerned about their children’s safety and well-being because it’s all on them. Not only are their adult children sometimes accusing them of not doing enough or doing it well, but so is everyone else including self-help authors and politicians.

When host Joshua Johnson asked for clarification, Joshua Coleman added:

There is of course real abuse and trauma that occurs at the hands of parents; I’m not saying it never occurs, I’m just saying the concept has been so greatly expanded that it’s becoming more of a problem than an asset.

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Gaydar study calibration

The other day the New York Times had a Gray Matter science piece by the authors of a study in PLoS One that showed some people could identify gays and lesbians based only on quick flashes of their unadorned faces. They wrote:

We conducted experiments in which participants viewed facial photographs of men and women and then categorized each face as gay or straight. The photographs were seen very briefly, for 50 milliseconds, which was long enough for participants to know they’d seen a face, but probably not long enough to feel they knew much more. In addition, the photos were mostly devoid of cultural cues: hairstyles were digitally removed, and no faces had makeup, piercings, eyeglasses or tattoos.

Even when viewing such bare faces so briefly, participants demonstrated an ability to identify sexual orientation: overall, gaydar judgments were about 60 percent accurate.

Since chance guessing would yield 50 percent accuracy, 60 percent might not seem impressive. But the effect is statistically significant — several times above the margin of error. Furthermore, the effect has been highly replicable: we ourselves have consistently discovered such effects in more than a dozen experiments.

This may be seen as confirmation of the inborn nature of sexual orientation, if it can be detected by a quick glance at facial features.

Sample images flashed during the “gaydar” experiment.

There is a statistical issue here that I leave to others to consider: the sample of Facebook pictures the researchers used was 48% gay/lesbian (111/233 men, 87/180 women). So if, as they say, it is 64% accurate at detecting lesbians, and 57% accurate at detecting gay men, how useful is gaydar in real life (when about 3.5% of people are gay or lesbian, when people aren’t reduced to just their naked, hairless facial features, and you know a lot of people’s sexual orientations from other sources)? I don’t know, but I’m guessing not much.

Anyway, I have a serious basic reservation about studies like this — like those that look for finger-length, hair-whorl, twin patterns, and other biological signs of sexual orientation. To do it, the researchers have to decide who has what sexual orientation in the first place — and that’s half the puzzle. This is unremarked on in the gaydar study or the op-ed, and appears to cause no angst among the researchers. They got their pictures from Facebook profiles of people who self-identified as gay/lesbian or straight (I don’t know if that was from the “interested in” Facebook option, or something else on their profiles).

Sexual orientation is multidimensional and determined by many different things — some combination of (presumably many) genes, hormonal exposures, lived experiences. And, for some people at least, it changes over the course of their lives. That’s why it’s hard to measure.

Consider, for example, a scenario in which someone who felt gay at a young age married heterogamously anyway — not too uncommon. Would such a person self-identify as gay on Facebook? Probably not. But if someone in that same situation got divorced and then came out of the closet they probably would self-identify as gay then.

Consider another new study, in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, which used a large sample of people interviewed 10 years apart. They found changes in sexual orientation were not that rare. Here is my table based on their results:

Overall, 2% of people changed their response to the sexual orientation identity question. That’s not that many — but then only 2.5% reported homosexual or bisexual identities in the first place.

In short, self identification may be the best standard we have for sexual orientation identity (which isn’t the same as sexual behavior), but it’s not a good fit for studies trying to get at deep-down gay/straight-ness, like the gaydar study or the biological studies.

And we need to keep in mind that this is all complicated by social stigma around sexual orientation. So who identifies as what, and to whom, is never free from political or power issues.

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Delusions of dimorphism

Add to the list of new books to read Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, by Cordelia Fine, due out soon. Feeding my interest in the issue of sexual dimorphism in humans — which we work so hard to teach to children — the book is described like this:

Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience and psychology, Cordelia Fine debunks the myth of hardwired differences between men’s and women’s brains, unraveling the evidence behind such claims as men’s brains aren’t wired for empathy and women’s brains aren’t made to fix cars.

Good reviews here and here report that Fine tackles an often-cited study of newborn infants’ sex difference in preferences for staring at things, by Jennifer Connellan and colleagues in 2000. They reported:

…we have demonstrated that at 1 day old, human neonates demonstrate sexual dimorphism in both social and mechanical perception. Male infants show a stronger interest in mechanical objects, while female infants show a stronger interest in the face.

And this led to the conclusion: “The results of this research clearly demonstrate that sex differences are in part biological in origin.” They reached this conclusion by alternately placing Connellan herself or a dangling mobile in front of tiny babies, and timing how long they stared. There is a very nice summary of problems with the study here, which seriously undermine its conclusion.

However, even if the methods were good, this is a powerful example of how a tendency toward difference between males and females is turned into a categorical opposition between the sexes — as in, the “real differences between boys and girls.”

To illustrate this, here’s a graphic look at the results in the article, which were reported in this table:

They didn’t report the whole distribution of boys’ and girls’ gaze-times, but it’s obvious that there is a huge overlap in the distributions, despite a difference in the means. In the mobile-gaze-time, for example, the difference in averages is 9.7 seconds, while the standard deviations are more than 20 seconds. If I turn to my handy normal curve spreadsheet template, and fit it with these numbers, you can see what the pattern might look like (I truncate these at 0 seconds and 70 seconds, as they did in the study):

Source: My simulation assuming normal distributions from the data in the table above.

All I’m trying to say is that the sexes aren’t opposites, even if they have some differences that precede socialization.

If you could show me that the 1-day-olds who stare at the mobiles for 52 seconds are more likely to be engineers when they grow up than the ones who stare at them for 41 seconds (regardless of their gender) then I would be impressed. But absent that, if you just want to use such amorphous differences at birth to explain actual segregation among real adults, then I would not be impressed.

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