Automatic judgements corrupt our ability to be compassionate

Princeton University social psychologist Susan Fiske, PhD has mapped how our automatic judgements of people are reflected in our emotions. She calls it the “stereotype content model.” It suggests that we pity those whom we feel warmly about but who aren’t powerful (such as people with disabilities); we take pride in those with whom we share similar life circumstances and those who are competent (our in-group); those whom we are neither warm toward or confident their power (such as the poor and homeless) we feel scorn; and the ultra-powerful who aren’t our friends, we feel envy. Although feelings of scorn and envy are automatic and inevitable to some degree, according to Fiske, they corrupt our ability to be compassionate.

Fiske and colleagues performed a test to find out how people would solve a particular problem and how social status affects their decision. Participants were presented the “trolley problem,” where participants are asked whether they would switch a runaway trolley onto a different track, killing a single rail worker in order to save the lives of five rail workers in the trolley’s current path. Although most would choose to sacrifice the lone trail worker, Fiske threw in social status into the mix and looked at the fMRI images of those making the decision. She found out that most are willing to sacrifice a member of their own in-group. However, the fMRI images show that areas of the brain associated with negotiating complex tradeoffs lighted up, which meant that people had a hard time making the decision.

In a follow-up study, people where hooked to a fMRI machine while they looked at images of poor and homeless people. They had lower activation in section of the brain for negotiating tradeoffs, compared to others with the same economic status. Fiske suggests that this hesitation to value the lives of those we scorn, comes from not fully recognizing them as fellow human beings.

Fiske was able to boost people’s empathy by asking them to step into that scorned person’s mind. Unfortunately, empathy seems to only move people up from the “disgust” category to the “pity” category – one that does not help participants see the homeless or poor as any more competent.

Source: Price, M. (2010 October). Monitor on Pyschology.

Talking to kids about tragedy

The horrific tragedy in Connecticut is devastating and completely overwhelming.  It seems unlikely that we will be able to shield kids from this entirely and thus need to be thoughtful and deliberate in how we talk to them about the events.  The following strategies may be useful as you begin the conversation with your children:

1.  Parent reaction.  We need to be calm and reassuring.  It is very important that we are willing to discuss the event, but we need to model a sense of trust in people, schools, officials in charge, etc.   A general guideline for how much to reveal is to provide basic facts for kids about what happened, but wait for them to ask questions before “0ver-informing” them.  In other words, once kids have the facts, they ask the questions they are ready to hear.

2. Control the message.  I don’t think we can avoid having kids know about this, but we can certainly limit their exposure.  This is especially true for news and tv images.  Make sure not to have the tv on news channels on (even in the background) or to have the paper around if any of the images are visible.

3.  Distance. This is a horrible tragedy, but this is something that happened far away.  The people in charge are working very hard to make sure something like this can’t happen again, and the person who did this is no longer alive.
4.  Security.  Your school has security measures in place to prevent things like this from happening (assuming it does).  This school did not lock the doors in the morning until 9.30am, and that is not the case in your school. (Specific details like this can be very reassuring.)   You should always tell an adult if you feel unsure or insecure around an adult (notice someone “suspicious”), but you should also remember that most people are good.  This is unbelievably horrible, and it is also unbelievably rare.  There has not been an event like this before at an elementary school, this type of thing does not happen often.  It has not happened before.
5.  Facts not feelings. This feels terrifying, horrible, etc, but the facts are that this happened far away, the person who did it is no longer alive, and schools are still very very safe places.  It is understandable that we feel upset, sad, scared, and vulnerable, but just because we feel that way does not mean that we are more unsafe than we were yesterday.  It is absolutely okay to feel whatever we are experiencing, and it also important to give kids space and time to talk about their feelings, but just because we feel something does not mean we truly are more unsafe.
Couple resources for more information:  (National Association for School Psychologists)  (American Psychological Association) (American Academy of Pediatricians)

There’s an app for that

If you have a minute, check out the following article from CNN (link:  It reviews some newer apps on mood management and education.

Defining the value of homework

School is back in session, and both children and parents are reporting stress around homework.  It seems hard to find an issue parents and kids will both agree on more readily than the frustration associated with mom or dad helping their child to learn _____ (fill in the blank with algebra, spelling, writing, spanish, etc.).

There is some interesting research on whether or not homework actually is a useful exercise for kids.  Alfie Kohn, the author of  The Homework Myth, spent months reviewing the studies and was unable to find any study to show any statistical relationship between homework and achievement in elementary school students.  There is a small correlation between homework and test scores in high school, but it is not the clear “no brainer” that many of us assume.  We (or at least me) often assume that the act of doing homework is itself of great value, but research has not supported the belief that homework completion increases self-discipline or one’s sense of responsibility.

Additionally, the stress and fight that often accompany homework are not conducive to excitement about learning and enthusiasm for academics.  As we, as a culture, start to look at the quality of our public schools it does seem worthwhile to explore the role of homework in learning, and how homework can be a meaningful accompaniment to a learning exercise rather than a handout the teacher feels obligated to give and the student is compelled to complete.  Stress is correlated with many negative emotional and physical health symptoms for kids and adults.  Stress is also sometimes necessary.  Let’s start talking with our schools, our teachers, and our friends to define the value of homework and make sure it is worth the cost.

For more information:

iphone CBT apps: Review of Moodkit

Mood Kit is the slickest of the CBT apps, and it has some nice features that make it easy to use and to personalize.  The app is made by Thriveport and the authors are psychologists.  The app is based around CBT ideas and functions much like a Daily Thought Record.  The four main functions of the product are: 1. Increase participation in activities that lift mood, 2. Identify and change interfering thoughts, 3.  rate and track mood, and 4. Create journals to track thoughts, experiences, etc.

The best features of this app are the scrolling data bank of feeling states, the library of cognitive distortions, and the reoccurring use of scales which let you rate intensity of a feeling or thought just by sliding your finger.

Run through of the app:

The “Activities Guide” lets you sort through what is the easiest and what is the hardest for you (socializing, exercising, sleeping, etc) and prioritize which areas to target first.

The “Thought Checker” section asks you to recount a situation that was difficult, describe how you felt and how much you felt that way.  This is basic Daily Thought Record material, but the app makes it easier for you by having a ready list of feelings to scroll through and choose and a sliding tool to measure the intensity of the feeling.  You then are asked to list your Automatic Thoughts in a clear and easy to understand manner.  From there the app takes you to a list of cognitive distortions (descriptions included) that you easily scroll through and click to choose.

A section titled “Mood” is a very simple but highly useful way to keep track of your daily mood.  It’s simply a number rating from 1-10 (1 the worst, 10 the best) that you scroll through and select.  You can add notes if you choose, but can also just quickly select a number.  The app will track the numbers and chart them for you providing a wonderful visual of your mood over time.

The “Journal” section is hard to use on an iphone (for those of us who have a hard time typing more than a couple sentences on the device) but easier on the larger ipad.  It is a section for recording notes about mood, activities, thoughts, etc.  This section is pretty standard.

Mood Kit is one of the best CBT apps I have seen.  The mood tracking ability (complete with graphs) is great, and the simplicity and ease of use make this app one that even the most reluctant user will have a hard time avoiding.  I have used this app myself and frequently recommend it to teens in my clinical practice.  To learn more go to:


CBT iphone apps: CBT Referee

CBT Referee is a basic (and fairly bare bones) iphone app that enables you to be able to write down your thoughts and evaluate the validity of the thoughts through the “referee” feature.  The actual referee is a list of general cognitive distortions (all or nothing thinking, labeling, etc) that are explained.  The user checks the terms that best fit their thought (for example, if the thought is “I always mess up!” the user could label that thought as “Nothing or All”- essentially all or nothing thinking with a different name).  The user than is directed to the referee section where there is a space for them to write out why the thought  is or is not true.

The app serves as a basic Daily Thought Record.  This app does not provide significant advantage over a pen and paper thought record for an experienced CBT user, but it may be useful for someone new to the ideas as it automatically generates lists of distortions to help the user identify and also creates on-going “thought lists.”  These thought lists have the potential to be very useful in identifying the frequent (automatic) thoughts that interfere, and helping the user to identify thought patterns.  The app also stores the data (passcode protected) thereby allowing the user to track changes and progress over time.

Overall, this is a good app for the user learning CBT techniques.  A more experienced user will appreciate the convenience of having it readily available on their phone, and the storage, but may find it too basic.  It can be viewed in the Apple app store and also at the website:

CBT iphone apps

Typing “CBT” into the itunes app store pulls up a number of applications designed to teach and/or implement Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques.  Over the next few weeks I will review some of the apps I have found more useful in my practice with kids.

I will focus on the more general CBT apps first and later go into more specific apps for phobias and other specific issues.

“CBT Referee” will be reviewed this week.

Your teen’s drinking behaviors most influenced by….

the peer group of their significant other.  This is confusing but fascinating research that looks at the role of peers in influencing how much a teen drinks.  It seems that the group your kid is a part of is not the group that most influences their drinking, rather the group their boyfriend/girlfriend (and not the boyfriend/girlfriend themselves) that influences how much your teen drinks.

In the study (published this week in the American Sociological Review) binge drinking is defined as 5 or more alcoholic beverages in the same sitting.  The study found that binge drinking was influenced by factors including: best friend binge-drinking (30% more likely for your kid to drink if their best friend binge drinks) and by their boyfriend/girlfriend’s behavior (32% more likely to binge drink if their b/g binge drinks), but most significant was the finding that if your kid’s boyfriend/girlfriend’s peer group had a history of binge drinking your child was 81% more likely to binge drink themselves.

The authors of the study speculate that the teen feels the need to “cement” the relationship and sees the peer group as an essential step towards that end.  To read more about the study go to:

Friday Sept. 30th: Catherine McCarthy, MD on Fox News to discuss teen suicide prevention and research

For readers local to the DC Metro area, Dr. Catherine McCarthy, a leading child and adolescent psychiatrist, will be speaking at 9:15am on Fox 5 on the latest research regarding adolescents and suicide.  The warning signs, risk factors, and preventive steps will all be featured as well as local resources.  This is worth checking out!

Marshmallow study holds up for adults

In the 60’s and 70’s researchers at  piloted studies that explored whether the ability to delay gratification as a young child (4 year old) would be a consistent trait as the children aged.  The researchers had the kids sit down by themselves with a marshmallow right in front of them.  There were no adults in the room.  The kids were told that they could have the marshmallow, but if they waited until the adult returned they could have an additional marshmallow.  Kids who held out and waited for the combined reward have showed an ability to delay gratification that lasted through adulthood.

The newer research also isolated areas of the brain that play a role in the ability to delay gratification.  It appears that the prefrontal cortex was strongly linked to the people most able to delay gratification and the ventral striatum was very active in low delayers.  These physiological factors are significant, and help guide future research especially in the area of addictions.