Category Archives: Cognitive biases

Why we fail to act (sins of complicity)

In the wake of the Ft. Hood massacre we are now hearing evidence of a very troubled man–trouble that it appears many observed over the last few years of the Maj. General’s life. Some of his former teachers and supervisors took note of his strange behavior, his loner tendencies, his rages. They even mused about his possible move into psychosis. Despite these notations, they moved him on to a place they thought (so the reporting is going) he would not get into trouble. In the words of one person, where his dangerousness would be limited by the number of mental health professionals serving alongside him.

Lest we pick on the military alone, we could level charges of ignoring problems on those around Madoff, the mortgage crisis, and any other recent scandal.

The truth is this: we see things that need our attention; our voice. And yet, we often fail to act. Why? Here are some reasons:

  1. We’re not sure what we are seeing or feeling. We have trouble adding up the problem
  2. We don’t want to make a mistake and look foolish
  3. We hesitate due to empathy
  4. We don’t want to intrude on the rights of others
  5. We assume someone else is more responsible
  6. We don’t want to make waves, we want to avoid conflict
  7. We think the person we are concerned about it will take care of it on their own
  8. We deem the situation not relating to our own interests
  9. We underestimate that Satan intends to deceive us into doing nothing so that evil may reign

I’ve had a couple of experiences where I didn’t act and should have–a client “playing” around with life threatening behaviors, a friend beginning an emotional affair with someone not her husband. After the fact, everything looks clear and obvious. Duh, hospitalize the client, confront the friend. And yet in both cases I acted but more slowly than I should. If there is one big reason: I think things were fine in the past and so they will be fine in the future, and so I fail to adequately assess the present.



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Filed under Cognitive biases, counseling, Cultural Anthropology, Psychology, Uncategorized

A friend sent me a book review of Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect by a therapist and former educator named Stephen Prichard, MDiv. In the review Prichard picks out a quote that Zimbardo uses (by C.P. Snow in Either/Or). Got that? Prichard quotes Zimbardo who is quoting Snow…

“When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find far more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have been committed in the name of rebellion”.

My friend connected this quote to some of my thoughts on Rwanda. There, a genocide was committed under the guise of obeying the government.

I like this quote even though I am not sure of Snow’s context or meaning. Of course, all crimes are rebellion–rebellion from God’s decree. But still, we use obedience (either by demand or by denial) to excuse bad behavior and our responsibility in it.


Filed under Abuse, Cognitive biases, Cultural Anthropology, Great Quotes

Physiology Phriday: Anticipation and Anxiety

Anticipation and its relationship to anxiety.

This week we have been thinking about how we evaluate our world. Evaluations or judgements come from a variety of locations. Our expectations and desires prep us to look for certain kinds of “data.” Our histories and past perceptions prep us as well. Finally, what is actually happening is part of the data we use to evaluate ourselves and our world. Notice that we aren’t as logical and objective as we’d like to think. Instead, we ANTICIPATE life and then respond to data that fits into that anticipation.

The primary feature of chronic anxiety is that anticipation of negative, dangerous outcomes. The anxious person views ambiguous data (e.g., a boss who is grumpy, a funny feeling in the chest, etc.) and reads that data in the worst possible light (I’m going to get fired, I’m having a heart attack).

If the problem is bad habits in thought patterns, it would make sense that the treatment ought to be to challenge these logical fallacies with the truth. And while cognitive counseling does indeed work (clear data that one can challenge and reject anxious, ruminative thinking) most find that counseling stops anxiety from growing but doesn’t often stop it from starting in the first place. This struggle to fight anxiety leaves many Christians feeling quite guilty for not trusting God more. 

But what about the amygdala? There is significant research that anxious people have very activated flight/fight activity in the amygdala. In fact, brain scans of this area show greater activity in anxious people than non-anxious people even when they are responding to neutral events. Thus, the anxious person’s brain is in a chronic state of hypervigilance even when nothing is going on. Hypervigilance maintains higher levels of norepinephrine the body, which in turn keeps the adrenal system in high alert. Medications (of the SSRI and NSRI type) have the capacity to positively impact serotonin and Norepinephrine and thereby allow individuals to decrease the negative hormonal activity in the brain.

Which comes first?

So, does biological hyperactivity in the amygdala result from either bad experiences or bad thinking? Or does a predisposition towards overactivity of this part of the brain encourage negative and anxious thinking, forming a vicious cycle? 

Seems to me good treatment needn’t answer this question. Good treatment would include (a) medications that might make it easier to slow down the anxiety processes (biology and behavior), (b) recognition that vigilance can be directed via counseling work away from the feared object and to a better understanding of the brain, and finally (c) that one changes the goal from cessation from fear to a more godly and humble response to Jesus in their fear.

What I mean by (b) is that the anxious person see themselves as like unto a person with colorblindness or dyslexia. In each case, the brain functions in a way to send the wrong messages. The dyslexic person learns to recognize the problem and designs a means to compensate in order to truly see the right order of letters/words. The anxious person accepts that their brain sends certain messages but that their job is to stay remember that while something real is happening it is not necessarily the way their brain is putting the “facts” together. Thus, the work is not to remove the fear but to practice a better response to it.

Ironically, when the person reinterprets the stimulus differently, they do see a marked reduction in fear triggers.

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Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Cognitive biases, counseling science, Psychiatric Medications

Expectations and the will

We’ve been thinking a bit about expectations this week. Now, when our expectations fail to be met, we have a couple of less than optimal options;

1. Slide toward despair and anger. A passive response to not getting what we hoped for.

2. Find new ways to get what we expect or want (and, if necessary, justify our actions in case others think we are selfish).

On this second point, my pastor preached last Sunday on Judges 18 (The tribe of Dan looking for a reason to take a land not offered them by God). He listed several ways (tongue in cheek) we can become good syncretists (having the appearance of Christianity but operating on unbiblical principles). They are worth repeating as we may find that we actively seek to justify willful behavior so that we get what we want. I don’t have his list in front of me so I’m going on memory here:

1. Start going after what you want but then on the way ask God if he’s going to bless what you are doing

2. When you get an answer, be sure to read any ambiguity as supporting your own interests. Don’t consider that the person telling you that God is favoring you might be off his rocker (the priest was not following the Law because he was allowing Micah to have idols as well).

3. When you see that you can be successful at grabbing something not yours, assume that success means that God is in it. Assume might makes right.

4. If a better deal comes along (the priest or seeming success of Micah and his idols), assume the better deal is a good idea and grab all you can.

My pastor did a better job with these and I’m not doing justice here to his creativity but I do find that it is so easy for me to justify my expectations, find ways to fulfill them–even if I know God is not in it. Some examples I see from others:

1. Justifying rage towards children because they are rebellious

2. Justifying sexual sin because God wants me to be happy

3. Justifying overeating/undereating because celebration is good/too many people overindulge

4. Justifying withholding love because others aren’t doing their fair share

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Filed under Biblical Reflection, Cognitive biases, conflicts, deception, Desires, Psychology, self-deception, Uncategorized

Please “Lie to Me”

Have you caught the television show, “Lie to Me”? It is a newer show based on the work of psychologist Paul Ekman who has researched the ways we involuntarily respond (movements, facial expressions, eyes, etc.) when lying. If you are bored, try watching your friends and family as you ask them penetrating questions. Last night I was up watching TV because I couldn’t sleep. A couple of actors were involved in a infomercial about an enhancement product. I couldn’t help but laugh when the host (a woman) kept saying “this is great” and other praiseworthy statements while looking down and away and shaking her head. She looked about as comfortable as someone having to undress in public.

But, can you really tell if someone is lying? Ekman has compiled an interesting history of research but the data suggest to me that we aren’t all that good in detecting lies. In fact, we’re probably no better than chance. I read a Washington Post article that talked about how some people become quite good at detecting deception in particular situations (e.g., police with thieves) but that these same people don’t seem to be as good at doing that in other parts of their lives.

Wonder why?

1. We make these decisions based on our gut as well as our observations. And our gut is about as accurate as coin flips. We consider particular data and reject other data, but not in a thoughtful, conscious way.

2. We don’t always want the truth (this has been brought by other reviewers of this show). We can’t handle the whole truth. If we tried, we’d never trust anyone. We would become paranoid.

3. Deception is a practiced activity, and frankly, we’re pretty good at it. Some are better than others. The best get away with it for a long time.

You might wonder if we can spot lying with other technologies and as you know some things can be detected. Lie detectors do detect autonomic responses. Unfortunately, they can’t tell why you had that response. Some computer programs can detect some unique features often found in text written by those lying (has to do with the amount of positive and negatives used).

One more thing about deception. It is my belief that many people want to tell a portion of the truth. And that is what comes out–the portion they want to believe and they want you to believe. They want to confess–just not the truth as it really is. A good interviewer can draw out these “confessions” and then expose the mis-information to reveal the lie.

Be sure your lies will find you out? Well, we know that is true in light of eternity. And maybe we will find us exposed in this life as well.


Filed under Cognitive biases, Cultural Anthropology, deception, Psychology

Context and our perceptions

It shouldn’t be a surprise that context is everything when it comes to perception. Win the the 10 million dollar lotto and then have your car run over by a Mack truck (assuming no one was in it) and you probably laugh it off and go buy your dream car. Context changes how you perceive the event.

I had two reminders of the effect of context last Friday. First, I was on my way to a meeting and listening to an NPR show. The host of the show was interviewing Gary Marcus, NYU psychology prof and author of Kluge (a book on the mind). Though parts of his interview annoyed me greatly, he talked about contextual perceptions by pointing out this research tidbit (my words not a quote).

If researchers ask individuals (a) if they are happy, and (b) how many dates they have had lately they get one set of results. If they reverse these questions, the answer to the happiness question is clearly influenced by the answer to the dates question. I may in fact be happy until you remind me that I haven’t had any dates lately.

Second, at my meeting we were discussing perception of change in clients. Imagine this scenario:

You are working for 6 months with a man helping him to accept responsibility for his addictive behavior (you can substitute addictive with just about anything that needs change). The change has been painstaking but he has indeed begun to see his self-deception and begun to stop blaming his past for his present behavior. About this same time you hear that his wife would like to come in to a session. You invite her and when she comes with her husband you ask him to tell his wife what he has been learning. As he does you see her roll her eyes and smirk. You check in with her and she is absolutely livid. From her vantage point he hasn’t changed a bit. Sure, he’s not drinking anymore, he’s not beating her up, but did you know that he’s become rather obsessed with work, he still doesn’t call to tell her that he’ll be late and he won’t stop overspending each month. And worse for her, now he wants to have sex (in the past he avoided her) all the time. You acknowledge he has lots of work to do but you also realize she feels threatened to admit he has begun to change. If she does, maybe he’ll stop…

Notice how context influences our perceptions. If you think someone has come miles and miles in personal growth you likely get pretty excited. If, however, you focus on how far they have to go, your perceptions will be a bit more pessimistic.

Now here’s the challenge. How do we stop believing that our context is the only context for viewing experiences? It takes openness and empowerment and ability to see two things at once without demanding that one view overpower another. As Christians we must live in this bifurcated life. We are sinners…saved by grace. We are maturing…but never arriving. We are mistreated…and protected by God.

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Filed under Abuse, christian psychology, Cognitive biases, Insight, Psychology, Relationships

The problem of embellishment: Not just the work of fishermen and politicians

Many people, myself included, had a little chuckle when yet another politician is caught by good ole videotape. Senator Clinton turns her trip to Bosnia in 1996 into something designed to play up her experiences with foreign diplomacy. She made it seem that she had to dodge sniper fire on her way from the plane to a waiting car. Now, the country wasn’t a picnic at that time, but neither did she have to dodge bullets. After first defending her account she now admits mis-speaking (notice she didn’t say she mis-represented the fact). 

But Senator Clinton isn’t the only one who does this. In fact, I would suggest that we ALL embellish every day. We just don’t have video to catch us in the act. Here’s some possible examples for you to consider:

You leave for an appointment late and the “traffic was bad.” It may have been heavy traffic but the emphasis on the traffic deftly misdirects to a different (and wrong) cause and effect.  You were late because you didn’t plan well.

You tell someone that you are friends with _____ (someone you look up to and met once or twice but only on a superficial basis). You do this in order to sound more important.

You tell someone you spent all day cleaning. In actuality, you cleaned at several times during the day but you also watched a movie and surfed the web for an hour. You play up your work in order to make your point. Sadly, when we do it enough, we actually believe what we are saying.

Sometimes, embellishment just helps us make a point or tell a story. I’m not sure it is sinful. It may be that some of the OT numbers are there for story and point-making more than an exact headcount. But, of course embellishment is a problem when we do it to avoid the reality of the truth or to gain something that does not rightfully belong to us. So, let us endeavor to tell the truth and worry less about what others think of us.

Oh, did I tell you that Sen. Barack Obama sent me an email yesterday. Really, he did. 😉 


Filed under Cognitive biases, News and politics, self-deception, sin

Integrative Psychotherapy X: Schema interventions for depression

In the last chapter the authors theorized about our propensity to live out of socially constructed schemas. Now in chapter 9 of Integrative Psychotherapy, McMinn and Campbell apply schema-focused interventions (domain 2–dipping beneath symptoms to core issues) to the problem of depression. But before they get to that task, they make these 2 points:

1. It’s “incorrect and potentially dangerous” (p. 278) to assume one does symptom focused interventions with anxiety problems and deeper level interventions for depression. Instead, the therapist ought to move seamlessly between them as needed. They remind the reader that their chapters are illustrations and not manuals.
2. There are useful symptom based interventions for the problem of depression that should not be overlooked: (a) medications (they explore fallacies that keep people of faith from using them and point out that meds are sometimes better than counseling alone), (b) behavioral techniques (keeping an activity schedule, assertiveness training), and (c) cognitive restructuring (keeping a dysfunctional thought and challenge record).

At this point the authors begin to illustrate their version of schema-based interventions. Unlike classic interventions (diagnosing the underlying schema and then correcting it), they describe recursive schema activation which is designed to “give clients many opportunities, session after session, to decenter [see life from another perspective] from the deep, persistent themes of their lives that can never be fully obliterated” (p. 288-9). The main difference between the IP model and the classic model is their humility in seeing schemas as understood and managed rather than corrected. Also, they desire to activate and experience schemas as much as talk about them.

The goal of this part of IP is to stand apart from one’s schema so as to see it and choose to deactivate it where it is not helpful. In the case of depression, it means standing back from “depressogenic thoughts” using mindfulness and spiritual disciplines. The client doesn’t challenge thoughts so much as he or she activates the schema in counseling over and over in a manner that allows distance and the possible formation of a new schema or identity.

Just how does this work in therapy? McMinn and Campbell suggest these strategies:

1. Taking a life history to identify re-occurring themes that might signify the presence of maladaptive schematics (e.g., long history of feeling rejected by others). In taking the history, the client not only tells but re-experiences the schema with the counselor
2. Schema inventories. They mention one in particular: These are used to get the client thinking about schemas that contribute to their problems.
3. Discussion of faith. The therapist explores how the client’s view of God fits in their view of self. The assumption is that a maladaptive schema likely contains distortions of the character of God. The goal is to understand at this point, not correct.
4. Moving from specific to general. Clients often describe recent painful events (and thoughts and feelings). The therapist encourages the client to explore how these thoughts and feelings fit their general conclusions in life (e.g., people always leave me).
5. Looking for themes. The counselor looks to articulate and activate themes and creates space for the client to do the same.
6. Evoking emotions. The counselor needs to move from an intellectual discussion to the emotions attache to the schema. Often-times, this means using the here-and-now to explore emotions. Otherwise clients only report on feelings in a disconnected manner. If so, they remain disconnected from the insights they gather.
7. Guided discovery (vs. just telling the client the interpretations). The authors present a good illustration  of the difference between telling and collaboration on p. 298.
8. Imagery and meditation. The goal here is to use these techniques to activate and deactivate schemas. Why? They suggest these techniques support safety (to limit overwhelming oneself). They do note that while prayer may help in schema alteration its primary purpose is to connect with God and shouldn’t be thought of as some technique apart from its main purpose.

Finally, in the last 13 pages the authors take up how recursive schema activation is a bridge-building exercise. It bridges cognitive processes (logic, analysis) and emotional and relational processes; unconscious and conscious processes; past and present; events and meanings that we give them; schema activation and deactivation. They conclude that not every person has the psychological resources to deactivate schemas once activated and point the reader to the next two chapters where relationship interventions will need to be used.

MY THOUGHTS: This is a good chapter that describes what I think is core to therapy: self-observation in a safe environment that happens as much through experience as it does through logical analysis. The reality is that our schemas shape our sense of self and the world as much as our 5 senses do. We think we merely ascertain what is happening to us but in fact we are prepping our critical thinking with assumptions. Here’s my question. Is the schema something that can be changed. I hear the authors saying that they aren’t all that optimistic about it but just maybe we can control it, decide not to listen to it. In part I agree. And yet I don’t want to underestimate just how much a person can change their outlook on life and self. Where I think the biggest challenge lies is helping clients feel safe enough to accept that they make these assumptions. In couples counseling I find many/most couples unwilling to consider the possibility that their assumptions about their no-good spouse were formed before the ever met their spouse. They come wanting to fix the marriage and part of my job is to help them see that before they can fix the marriage they need to understand how their responses tell a lot about themselves and maybe less about their spouse than they think. This is hard for counselees to accept because it sounds to them that they are responsible for their spouse’s bad behavior. Helping a client not live in all/nothing thinking is my challenge. Further, I must make sure not to fall into “telling” mode when helping someone come to this realization. Sometimes I want to speed up the process and thereby lose the client.


Filed under book reviews, christian counseling, christian psychology, Cognitive biases, counseling skills, Depression

Integrative Psychotherapy VII: Functional Domain Interventions

McMinn and Campbell start out chapter six (a deeper review of the 1st domain of interventions, that of addressing symptoms) with this helpful insight: “Many of our graduate students select psychology as a profession after deciding against one of two alternative career paths.” Some are tempted to pastoral ministry and so see psychology as a way to care for human souls. Others are tempted to medical practice and so see psychology as a way to, “help people find relief from their troubles” (p. 177). This distinction is helpful in explaining why some of us hang out in one type of intervention over another.

But whatever one’s interests, everyone must address presenting problems and not bypass symptoms as these are what bring people in to therapy in the first place. So, the authors use this chapter to outline, in general, symptom-focused interventions, The next chapter will apply these interventions specifically to anxiety.

Right off the bat, the authors bring up emotions. They want to dispel the myth that cognitive therapist care little for feelings. They want to define negative emotions as either a sign of cognitive distortions and/or a warning sign that something is off in one’s life. [Hopefully, they do not fully believe that negative emotions means that something is wrong in one’s life. It may be something is wrong in the world…]. To achieve successful interventions in this domain, one must have good relational skills to listen well to both explicit and implicit feelings.

It comes as no surprise that domain 1 interventions include behavioral skills. The authors summarize classical and operant conditioning in a few short paragraphs and suggest that these techniques may help clients have dominion (through reinforcement strategies?) over their own behaviors and responses to life. Their lack of attention to behavioral mod. sends a message.

The bulk of the chapter then focuses on the basic of cognitive restructuring. They divide this task into two parts: sorting an experience into its component parts AND challenging distorted thinking. The authors describe the technique of the thought record and walk through several vignettes to show how it might be used. The record separates situations, thoughts, and feelings (and rates intensity of feelings/experiences on 1 to 10 scale). As the client gains insight, then the work is to counter the automatic thoughts with a rational response. The authors want to remind the counselor to avoid a disputing mindset when countering a client’s distorted thought patterns. Instead, they suggest a more collaborative approach or “Socratic method” using questions and reflections to lead the client to insight rather than drag them to it. 

Beyond the thought record, they describe other methods of changing one’s thinking: scaling (moving away from all/nothing thinking to put stressors in proper perspective), probability estimates (used when someone is worried about an unlikely event), decatastrophizing (helping to move away from “extremist thinking”), humorous counters (identifying silly thinking without making fun of), role-playing (reversing roles and having the client become the counselor), paradox (overstating the client’s fears to see the logical outcome), and cognitive rehearsal (repeated challenge to automatic thoughts).

Finally, they attempt to provide a Christian appraisal of these interventions. First, they tackle the problem of relativism that may underly CT by the biblical concept of testing and trying every “truth.” Instead of rejecting all client automatic thoughts by some sort of Stuart Smalley self-talk mantra, test their thoughts with Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason—aka Wesleyan quadrilateral. Then they give some examples of how a Christian collaborative response to a client with a difficult marriage might look different from a relativistic (be happy) response. The client and the counselor work together to explore what Scripture, tradition, experience and reason might bring to the table (these are not considered equally weighted of course) in discerning the truth about our selves and our thoughts about ourselves.

My thoughts? This chapter is solidly within the CT frame with the recognition that truth has a capital T. Our job as counselors isn’t to tell the clients the truth but to walk with them in a collaborative manner. It is good to see lots of humility in the chapter. We can abuse Scripture, overplay tradition or reason, become disputational, etc. What is missing from this chapter (maybe in comes later) is that while it is helpful to recognize logical errors, it is also true that logic does not always (often?) lead to better thinking. We have some pretty embedded views of ourselves that continue even in the face of our logic. How will they deal with this issue?

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Filed under book reviews, christian psychology, Cognitive biases, counseling skills

Do we really learn from instruction?

[Note: those looking for my blog summary of Integrative Psychotherapy, ch. 6 will need to come back tomorrow. Running behind :(]

How much do we really benefit from instruction? Yes, instruction increases our knowledge base. That is certainly true. But do we benefit–does our behavior really change from it? Do we learn and does it show? Allow me the freedom of hyperbole here…

This question about instruction was raised in my Sunday School class on Isaiah by our teacher John Timlin. Consider the following examples:

1. The first Fall (instruction was given and rejected) happens. God remakes creation through the flood. What happens next? Noah’s son mucks it up.

2.  Israel is warned against falling away from God by Moses as they enter the promised land. He not only tells them what to avoid but that they will likely do it anyway. What happens? Israel turns away from God to pride and idolatry.

3. The Prophets warn both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms that unless they turn from their idols, God will punish them via Assyria. First the Northern Kingdom falls. Does Judah learn from this? No. Read the passage of Ezekial 23 adn the two sisters for a graphic image of this not learning from instruction.

Fast forward to today. Does information about the risks of drug use, unprotected sex help? Some, I’m sure. But not as much as we’d like to think…

So, what does God do? he blinds the people (Isaiah 6:9ff; parables in the Gospels) so that we are left without any doubt that our salvation comes only from him. In Isaiah 6 at the end, there is only a stump left. We the vine are a mere stump. And out of that stump, the root of Jesse grows and we are grafted back in as branches.

Yes, we learn from instruction, but not enough to save ourselves. Thanks be to God for his rescue plan!

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Filed under Biblical Reflection, Cognitive biases, Cultural Anthropology, Doctrine/Theology, Uncategorized