Monthly Archives: December 2012

Do You suffer decison fatigue?


August 17, 2011

Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?

 

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Three men doing time in Israeli prisons recently appeared before a parole board consisting of a judge, a criminologist and a social worker. The three prisoners had completed at least two-thirds of their sentences, but the parole board granted freedom to only one of them. Guess which one:

Case 1 (heard at 8:50 a.m.): An Arab Israeli serving a 30-month sentence for fraud.

Case 2 (heard at 3:10 p.m.): A Jewish Israeli serving a 16-month sentence for assault.

Case 3 (heard at 4:25 p.m.): An Arab Israeli serving a 30-month sentence for fraud.

There was a pattern to the parole board’s decisions, but it wasn’t related to the men’s ethnic backgrounds, crimes or sentences. It was all about timing, as researchers discovered by analyzing more than 1,100 decisions over the course of a year. Judges, who would hear the prisoners’ appeals and then get advice from the other members of the board, approved parole in about a third of the cases, but the probability of being paroled fluctuated wildly throughout the day. Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.

The odds favored the prisoner who appeared at 8:50 a.m. — and he did in fact receive parole. But even though the other Arab Israeli prisoner was serving the same sentence for the same crime — fraud — the odds were against him when he appeared (on a different day) at 4:25 in the afternoon. He was denied parole, as was the Jewish Israeli prisoner at 3:10 p.m, whose sentence was shorter than that of the man who was released. They were just asking for parole at the wrong time of day.

There was nothing malicious or even unusual about the judges’ behavior, which was reported earlier this year by Jonathan Levav of Stanford and Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University. The judges’ erratic judgment was due to the occupational hazard of being, as George W. Bush once put it, “the decider.” The mental work of ruling on case after case, whatever the individual merits, wore them down. This sort of decision fatigue can make quarterbacks prone to dubious choices late in the game and C.F.O.’s prone to disastrous dalliances late in the evening. It routinely warps the judgment of everyone, executive and nonexecutive, rich and poor — in fact, it can take a special toll on the poor. Yet few people are even aware of it, and researchers are only beginning to understand why it happens and how to counteract it.

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move — like releasing a prisoner who might commit a crime. So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time.

Decision fatigue is the newest discovery involving a phenomenon called ego depletion, a term coined by the social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister in homage to a Freudian hypothesis. Freud speculated that the self, or ego, depended on mental activities involving the transfer of energy. He was vague about the details, though, and quite wrong about some of them (like his idea that artists “sublimate” sexual energy into their work, which would imply that adultery should be especially rare at artists’ colonies). Freud’s energy model of the self was generally ignored until the end of the century, when Baumeister began studying mental discipline in a series of experiments, first at Case Western and then at Florida State University.

These experiments demonstrated that there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. When people fended off the temptation to scarf down M&M’s or freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, they were then less able to resist other temptations. When they forced themselves to remain stoic during a tearjerker movie, afterward they gave up more quickly on lab tasks requiring self-discipline, like working on a geometry puzzle or squeezing a hand-grip exerciser. Willpower turned out to be more than a folk concept or a metaphor. It really was a form of mental energy that could be exhausted. The experiments confirmed the 19th-century notion of willpower being like a muscle that was fatigued with use, a force that could be conserved by avoiding temptation. To study the process of ego depletion, researchers concentrated initially on acts involving self-control ­— the kind of self-discipline popularly associated with willpower, like resisting a bowl of ice cream. They weren’t concerned with routine decision-making, like choosing between chocolate and vanilla, a mental process that they assumed was quite distinct and much less strenuous. Intuitively, the chocolate-vanilla choice didn’t appear to require willpower.

But then a postdoctoral fellow, Jean Twenge, started working at Baumeister’s laboratory right after planning her wedding. As Twenge studied the results of the lab’s ego-depletion experiments, she remembered how exhausted she felt the evening she and her fiancé went through the ritual of registering for gifts. Did they want plain white china or something with a pattern? Which brand of knives? How many towels? What kind of sheets? Precisely how many threads per square inch?

“By the end, you could have talked me into anything,” Twenge told her new colleagues. The symptoms sounded familiar to them too, and gave them an idea. A nearby department store was holding a going-out-of-business sale, so researchers from the lab went off to fill their car trunks with simple products — not exactly wedding-quality gifts, but sufficiently appealing to interest college students. When they came to the lab, the students were told they would get to keep one item at the end of the experiment, but first they had to make a series of choices. Would they prefer a pen or a candle? A vanilla-scented candle or an almond-scented one? A candle or a T-shirt? A black T-shirt or a red T-shirt? A control group, meanwhile — let’s call them the nondeciders — spent an equally long period contemplating all these same products without having to make any choices. They were asked just to give their opinion of each product and report how often they had used such a product in the last six months.

Afterward, all the participants were given one of the classic tests of self-control: holding your hand in ice water for as long as you can. The impulse is to pull your hand out, so self-discipline is needed to keep the hand underwater. The deciders gave up much faster; they lasted 28 seconds, less than half the 67-second average of the nondeciders. Making all those choices had apparently sapped their willpower, and it wasn’t an isolated effect. It was confirmed in other experiments testing students after they went through exercises like choosing courses from the college catalog.

For a real-world test of their theory, the lab’s researchers went into that great modern arena of decision making: the suburban mall. They interviewed shoppers about their experiences in the stores that day and then asked them to solve some simple arithmetic problems. The researchers politely asked them to do as many as possible but said they could quit at any time. Sure enough, the shoppers who had already made the most decisions in the stores gave up the quickest on the math problems. When you shop till you drop, your willpower drops, too.

Any decision, whether it’s what pants to buy or whether to start a war, can be broken down into what psychologists call the Rubicon model of action phases, in honor of the river that separated Italy from the Roman province of Gaul. When Caesar reached it in 49 B.C., on his way home after conquering the Gauls, he knew that a general returning to Rome was forbidden to take his legions across the river with him, lest it be considered an invasion of Rome. Waiting on the Gaul side of the river, he was in the “predecisional phase” as he contemplated the risks and benefits of starting a civil war. Then he stopped calculating and crossed the Rubicon, reaching the “postdecisional phase,” which Caesar defined much more felicitously: “The die is cast.”

The whole process could deplete anyone’s willpower, but which phase of the decision-making process was most fatiguing? To find out, Kathleen Vohs, a former colleague of Baumeister’s now at the University of Minnesota, performed an experiment using the self-service Web site of Dell Computers. One group in the experiment carefully studied the advantages and disadvantages of various features available for a computer — the type of screen, the size of the hard drive, etc. — without actually making a final decision on which ones to choose. A second group was given a list of predetermined specifications and told to configure a computer by going through the laborious, step-by-step process of locating the specified features among the arrays of options and then clicking on the right ones. The purpose of this was to duplicate everything that happens in the postdecisional phase, when the choice is implemented. The third group had to figure out for themselves which features they wanted on their computers and go through the process of choosing them; they didn’t simply ponder options (like the first group) or implement others’ choices (like the second group). They had to cast the die, and that turned out to be the most fatiguing task of all. When self-control was measured, they were the one who were most depleted, by far.

The experiment showed that crossing the Rubicon is more tiring than anything that happens on either bank — more mentally fatiguing than sitting on the Gaul side contemplating your options or marching on Rome once you’ve crossed. As a result, someone without Caesar’s willpower is liable to stay put. To a fatigued judge, denying parole seems like the easier call not only because it preserves the status quo and eliminates the risk of a parolee going on a crime spree but also because it leaves more options open: the judge retains the option of paroling the prisoner at a future date without sacrificing the option of keeping him securely in prison right now. Part of the resistance against making decisions comes from our fear of giving up options. The word “decide” shares an etymological root with “homicide,” the Latin word “caedere,” meaning “to cut down” or “to kill,” and that loss looms especially large when decision fatigue sets in.

Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision making. In the rest of the animal kingdom, there aren’t a lot of protracted negotiations between predators and prey. To compromise is a complex human ability and therefore one of the first to decline when willpower is depleted. You become what researchers call a cognitive miser, hoarding your energy. If you’re shopping, you’re liable to look at only one dimension, like price: just give me the cheapest. Or you indulge yourself by looking at quality: I want the very best (an especially easy strategy if someone else is paying). Decision fatigue leaves you vulnerable to marketers who know how to time their sales, as Jonathan Levav, the Stanford professor, demonstrated in experiments involving tailored suits and new cars.

The idea for these experiments also happened to come in the preparations for a wedding, a ritual that seems to be the decision-fatigue equivalent of Hell Week. At his fiancée’s suggestion, Levav visited a tailor to have a bespoke suit made and began going through the choices of fabric, type of lining and style of buttons, lapels, cuffs and so forth.

“By the time I got through the third pile of fabric swatches, I wanted to kill myself,” Levav recalls. “I couldn’t tell the choices apart anymore. After a while my only response to the tailor became ‘What do you recommend?’ I just couldn’t take it.”

Levav ended up not buying any kind of bespoke suit (the $2,000 price made that decision easy enough), but he put the experience to use in a pair of experiments conducted with Mark Heitmann, then at Christian-Albrechts University in Germany; Andreas Herrmann, at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland; and Sheena Iyengar, of Columbia. One involved asking M.B.A. students in Switzerland to choose a bespoke suit; the other was conducted at German car dealerships, where customers ordered options for their new sedans. The car buyers — and these were real customers spending their own money — had to choose, for instance, among 4 styles of gearshift knobs, 13 kinds of wheel rims, 25 configurations of the engine and gearbox and a palette of 56 colors for the interior.

As they started picking features, customers would carefully weigh the choices, but as decision fatigue set in, they would start settling for whatever the default option was. And the more tough choices they encountered early in the process — like going through those 56 colors to choose the precise shade of gray or brown — the quicker people became fatigued and settled for the path of least resistance by taking the default option. By manipulating the order of the car buyers’ choices, the researchers found that the customers would end up settling for different kinds of options, and the average difference totaled more than 1,500 euros per car (about $2,000 at the time). Whether the customers paid a little extra for fancy wheel rims or a lot extra for a more powerful engine depended on when the choice was offered and how much willpower was left in the customer.

Similar results were found in the experiment with custom-made suits: once decision fatigue set in, people tended to settle for the recommended option. When they were confronted early on with the toughest decisions — the ones with the most options, like the 100 fabrics for the suit — they became fatigued more quickly and also reported enjoying the shopping experience less.

Shopping can be especially tiring for the poor, who have to struggle continually with trade-offs. Most of us in America won’t spend a lot of time agonizing over whether we can afford to buy soap, but it can be a depleting choice in rural India. Dean Spears, an economist at Princeton, offered people in 20 villages in Rajasthan in northwestern India the chance to buy a couple of bars of brand-name soap for the equivalent of less than 20 cents. It was a steep discount off the regular price, yet even that sum was a strain for the people in the 10 poorest villages. Whether or not they bought the soap, the act of making the decision left them with less willpower, as measured afterward in a test of how long they could squeeze a hand grip. In the slightly more affluent villages, people’s willpower wasn’t affected significantly. Because they had more money, they didn’t have to spend as much effort weighing the merits of the soap versus, say, food or medicine.

Spears and other researchers argue that this sort of decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class. It’s hard to know exactly how important this factor is, but there’s no doubt that willpower is a special problem for poor people. Study after study has shown that low self-control correlates with low income as well as with a host of other problems, including poor achievement in school, divorce, crime, alcoholism and poor health. Lapses in self-control have led to the notion of the “undeserving poor” — epitomized by the image of the welfare mom using food stamps to buy junk food — but Spears urges sympathy for someone who makes decisions all day on a tight budget. In one study, he found that when the poor and the rich go shopping, the poor are much more likely to eat during the shopping trip. This might seem like confirmation of their weak character — after all, they could presumably save money and improve their nutrition by eating meals at home instead of buying ready-to-eat snacks like Cinnabons, which contribute to the higher rate of obesity among the poor. But if a trip to the supermarket induces more decision fatigue in the poor than in the rich — because each purchase requires more mental trade-offs — by the time they reach the cash register, they’ll have less willpower left to resist the Mars bars and Skittles. Not for nothing are these items called impulse purchases.

And this isn’t the only reason that sweet snacks are featured prominently at the cash register, just when shoppers are depleted after all their decisions in the aisles. With their willpower reduced, they’re more likely to yield to any kind of temptation, but they’re especially vulnerable to candy and soda and anything else offering a quick hit of sugar. While supermarkets figured this out a long time ago, only recently did researchers discover why.

The discovery was an accident resulting from a failed experiment at Baumeister’s lab. The researchers set out to test something called the Mardi Gras theory — the notion that you could build up willpower by first indulging yourself in pleasure, the way Mardi Gras feasters do just before the rigors of Lent. In place of a Fat Tuesday breakfast, the chefs in the lab at Florida State whipped up lusciously thick milkshakes for a group of subjects who were resting in between two laboratory tasks requiring willpower. Sure enough, the delicious shakes seemed to strengthen willpower by helping people perform better than expected on the next task. So far, so good. But the experiment also included a control group of people who were fed a tasteless concoction of low-fat dairy glop. It provided them with no pleasure, yet it produced similar improvements in self-control. The Mardi Gras theory looked wrong. Besides tragically removing an excuse for romping down the streets of New Orleans, the result was embarrassing for the researchers. Matthew Gailliot, the graduate student who ran the study, stood looking down at his shoes as he told Baumeister about the fiasco.

Baumeister tried to be optimistic. Maybe the study wasn’t a failure. Something had happened, after all. Even the tasteless glop had done the job, but how? If it wasn’t the pleasure, could it be the calories? At first the idea seemed a bit daft. For decades, psychologists had been studying performance on mental tasks without worrying much about the results being affected by dairy-product consumption. They liked to envision the human mind as a computer, focusing on the way it processed information. In their eagerness to chart the human equivalent of the computer’s chips and circuits, most psychologists neglected one mundane but essential part of the machine: the power supply. The brain, like the rest of the body, derived energy from glucose, the simple sugar manufactured from all kinds of foods. To establish cause and effect, researchers at Baumeister’s lab tried refueling the brain in a series of experiments involving lemonade mixed either with sugar or with a diet sweetener. The sugary lemonade provided a burst of glucose, the effects of which could be observed right away in the lab; the sugarless variety tasted quite similar without providing the same burst of glucose. Again and again, the sugar restored willpower, but the artificial sweetener had no effect. The glucose would at least mitigate the ego depletion and sometimes completely reverse it. The restored willpower improved people’s self-control as well as the quality of their decisions: they resisted irrational bias when making choices, and when asked to make financial decisions, they were more likely to choose the better long-term strategy instead of going for a quick payoff. The ego-depletion effect was even demonstrated with dogs in two studies by Holly Miller and Nathan DeWall at the University of Kentucky. After obeying sit and stay commands for 10 minutes, the dogs performed worse on self-control tests and were also more likely to make the dangerous decision to challenge another dog’s turf. But a dose of glucose restored their willpower.

Despite this series of findings, brain researchers still had some reservations about the glucose connection. Skeptics pointed out that the brain’s overall use of energy remains about the same regardless of what a person is doing, which doesn’t square easily with the notion of depleted energy affecting willpower. Among the skeptics was Todd Heatherton, who worked with Baumeister early in his career and eventually wound up at Dartmouth, where he became a pioneer of what is called social neuroscience: the study of links between brain processes and social behavior. He believed in ego depletion, but he didn’t see how this neural process could be caused simply by variations in glucose levels. To observe the process — and to see if it could be reversed by glucose — he and his colleagues recruited 45 female dieters and recorded images of their brains as they reacted to pictures of food. Next the dieters watched a comedy video while forcing themselves to suppress their laughter — a standard if cruel way to drain mental energy and induce ego depletion. Then they were again shown pictures of food, and the new round of brain scans revealed the effects of ego depletion: more activity in the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s reward center, and a corresponding decrease in the amygdala, which ordinarily helps control impulses. The food’s appeal registered more strongly while impulse control weakened — not a good combination for anyone on a diet. But suppose people in this ego-depleted state got a quick dose of glucose? What would a scan of their brains reveal?

The results of the experiment were announced in January, during Heatherton’s speech accepting the leadership of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the world’s largest group of social psychologists. In his presidential address at the annual meeting in San Antonio, Heatherton reported that administering glucose completely reversed the brain changes wrought by depletion — a finding, he said, that thoroughly surprised him. Heatherton’s results did much more than provide additional confirmation that glucose is a vital part of willpower; they helped solve the puzzle over how glucose could work without global changes in the brain’s total energy use. Apparently ego depletion causes activity to rise in some parts of the brain and to decline in others. Your brain does not stop working when glucose is low. It stops doing some things and starts doing others. It responds more strongly to immediate rewards and pays less attention to long-term prospects.

The discoveries about glucose help explain why dieting is a uniquely difficult test of self-control — and why even people with phenomenally strong willpower in the rest of their lives can have such a hard time losing weight. They start out the day with virtuous intentions, resisting croissants at breakfast and dessert at lunch, but each act of resistance further lowers their willpower. As their willpower weakens late in the day, they need to replenish it. But to resupply that energy, they need to give the body glucose. They’re trapped in a nutritional catch-22:

1. In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower.

2. In order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat.

As the body uses up glucose, it looks for a quick way to replenish the fuel, leading to a craving for sugar. After performing a lab task requiring self-control, people tend to eat more candy but not other kinds of snacks, like salty, fatty potato chips. The mere expectation of having to exert self-control makes people hunger for sweets. A similar effect helps explain why many women yearn for chocolate and other sugary treats just before menstruation: their bodies are seeking a quick replacement as glucose levels fluctuate. A sugar-filled snack or drink will provide a quick improvement in self-control (that’s why it’s convenient to use in experiments), but it’s just a temporary solution. The problem is that what we identify as sugar doesn’t help as much over the course of the day as the steadier supply of glucose we would get from eating proteins and other more nutritious foods.

The benefits of glucose were unmistakable in the study of the Israeli parole board. In midmorning, usually a little before 10:30, the parole board would take a break, and the judges would be served a sandwich and a piece of fruit. The prisoners who appeared just before the break had only about a 20 percent chance of getting parole, but the ones appearing right after had around a 65 percent chance. The odds dropped again as the morning wore on, and prisoners really didn’t want to appear just before lunch: the chance of getting parole at that time was only 10 percent. After lunch it soared up to 60 percent, but only briefly. Remember that Jewish Israeli prisoner who appeared at 3:10 p.m. and was denied parole from his sentence for assault? He had the misfortune of being the sixth case heard after lunch. But another Jewish Israeli prisoner serving the same sentence for the same crime was lucky enough to appear at 1:27 p.m., the first case after lunch, and he was rewarded with parole. It must have seemed to him like a fine example of the justice system at work, but it probably had more to do with the judge’s glucose levels.

It’s simple enough to imagine reforms for the parole board in Israel — like, say, restricting each judge’s shift to half a day, preferably in the morning, interspersed with frequent breaks for food and rest. But it’s not so obvious what to do with the decision fatigue affecting the rest of society. Even if we could all afford to work half-days, we would still end up depleting our willpower all day long, as Baumeister and his colleagues found when they went into the field in Würzburg in central Germany. The psychologists gave preprogrammed BlackBerrys to more than 200 people going about their daily routines for a week. The phones went off at random intervals, prompting the people to report whether they were currently experiencing some sort of desire or had recently felt a desire. The painstaking study, led by Wilhelm Hofmann, then at the University of Würzburg, collected more than 10,000 momentary reports from morning until midnight.

Desire turned out to be the norm, not the exception. Half the people were feeling some desire when their phones went off — to snack, to goof off, to express their true feelings to their bosses — and another quarter said they had felt a desire in the past half-hour. Many of these desires were ones that the men and women were trying to resist, and the more willpower people expended, the more likely they became to yield to the next temptation that came along. When faced with a new desire that produced some I-want-to-but-I-really-shouldn’t sort of inner conflict, they gave in more readily if they had already fended off earlier temptations, particularly if the new temptation came soon after a previously reported one.

The results suggested that people spend between three and four hours a day resisting desire. Put another way, if you tapped four or five people at any random moment of the day, one of them would be using willpower to resist a desire. The most commonly resisted desires in the phone study were the urges to eat and sleep, followed by the urge for leisure, like taking a break from work by doing a puzzle or playing a game instead of writing a memo. Sexual urges were next on the list of most-resisted desires, a little ahead of urges for other kinds of interactions, like checking Facebook. To ward off temptation, people reported using various strategies. The most popular was to look for a distraction or to undertake a new activity, although sometimes they tried suppressing it directly or simply toughing their way through it. Their success was decidedly mixed. They were pretty good at avoiding sleep, sex and the urge to spend money, but not so good at resisting the lure of television or the Web or the general temptation to relax instead of work.

We have no way of knowing how much our ancestors exercised self-control in the days before BlackBerrys and social psychologists, but it seems likely that many of them were under less ego-depleting strain. When there were fewer decisions, there was less decision fatigue. Today we feel overwhelmed because there are so many choices. Your body may have dutifully reported to work on time, but your mind can escape at any instant. A typical computer user looks at more than three dozen Web sites a day and gets fatigued by the continual decision making — whether to keep working on a project, check out TMZ, follow a link to YouTube or buy something on Amazon. You can do enough damage in a 10-minute online shopping spree to wreck your budget for the rest of the year.

The cumulative effect of these temptations and decisions isn’t intuitively obvious. Virtually no one has a gut-level sense of just how tiring it is to decide. Big decisions, small decisions, they all add up. Choosing what to have for breakfast, where to go on vacation, whom to hire, how much to spend — these all deplete willpower, and there’s no telltale symptom of when that willpower is low. It’s not like getting winded or hitting the wall during a marathon. Ego depletion manifests itself not as one feeling but rather as a propensity to experience everything more intensely. When the brain’s regulatory powers weaken, frustrations seem more irritating than usual. Impulses to eat, drink, spend and say stupid things feel more powerful (and alcohol causes self-control to decline further). Like those dogs in the experiment, ego-depleted humans become more likely to get into needless fights over turf. In making decisions, they take illogical shortcuts and tend to favor short-term gains and delayed costs. Like the depleted parole judges, they become inclined to take the safer, easier option even when that option hurts someone else.

“Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there,” Baumeister says. “It’s a state that fluctuates.” His studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.

“Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low,” Baumeister points out. That’s why the truly wise don’t restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don’t make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach. “The best decision makers,” Baumeister says, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”

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John Tierney (tierneylab@nytimes.com) is a science columnist for The Times. His essay is adapted from a book he wrote with Roy F. Baumeister, “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” which comes out next month.

Editor: Aaron Retica (a.retica-MagGroup@nytimes.com)

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Licenses to Be a Person

Licenses to be a Person

Should couples be required to obtain a license before they are allowed to become parents?

I have been asking this question since hurdling the requirements of Heartsent Adoptions, Inc. in becoming qualified to be an adoptive parent. Why is it, I have asked myself that I had to be certified free of any psychological illnesses, that I had to be evaluated as a “mature” person, been earning a living, have had a home that I maintain, and been married to a person of the opposite sex who is similarly disposed in order to adopt? Why?
It was when I began to educate myself about the odds of producing healthy children when any one of these simple factors are askew that I began to move towards agreement with this common practice in adoptions. I further began to tentatively assert that this makes sense for the biological rest of us. To take but one example: If you put children with a sociopathic, immature, drug-addicted, teenage mother there is a high percentage chance that the child is also going to become a sociopath. Mothers of illegitimate children are on average 10 points lower in IQ than mothers of legitimate children. Approximately 60% of all crime comes from individuals raised in such families: a fatherless home and an illiterate mother. Working as a psychologist at San Quentin, I kept asking the question: why is the population here overwhelmingly black? Many answers have been proposed…. most of them dripping with political contaminant. What I have come to believe that is most consistent with the data (crime rates dropping post Roe vs. Wade for example) is the simple fact that illegitimacy is six times higher in the black population than the white. This means that one-eighth of the population is responsible for one-half the crime. If we could somehow magically reduce illegitimacy in both races crime would be lowered proportionately. I believe that someday, social eugenics will arrive at a station where a license is required in order to have children, and that we will not help ourselves with criminal behavior in any significant way until this happens.

There is no rationale why people who can produce children and become parents by their own devices are free to do so even for the least wholesome of reasons, while people who cannot bear children must undergo scrutiny for good reasons to be afforded the same privilege. Everyone should be certified as a parent.

Should we also be licensed as person?

In order to approach this ambitious question, let’s talk a bit about genes. Genes and environment are like Siamese twins. They are distinct but inseparable. So let’s not quibble like most folks spend heir lives doing, over which half is more responsible for what. It hardly matters since, among other reasons, there is ample evidence that we in fact make our own environment over time and respond to it based upon our genes. We all need a leg up to start with and the good enough parenting model has proven to be indeed good enough. It is the really deprived, neglectful, abusive homes that are not good for any kid… And such homes will retard their development. This we know.

We also know a lot about genes from the twins reared apart studies. In 1969, just two years after my twin died, Tom Brouchard began to study twins at the University of Minnesota. Brouchard had been part of Free speech movement at Berkeley and was used to controversy. What he proposed was to use the “twins reared apart” model to go after environmentalists way of sizing up reality. This he did after studying with BF Skinner! He did not get much support in the beginning, since the zeitgeist said that such research would discourage monies being spent to help the poor. But he got my attention at least and so I began to write to him every so often. I have followed him, like others of his ilk such as Nancy Segal, because they were unafraid of challenging the majority opinion. Any differences in twins reared apart, who by definition are genetically identical can be deduced as environmentally caused. It is not the fascination that twins hold about themselves which people are admittedly drawn to, but rather what twins tell us about singletons that I am interested in here.

Brouchard went after twins recently reunited and especially those he himself could reunite though obtaining data from adoption agencies, whose polices during earlier times actually favored twin separation due to the difficulties of rearing multiple children. He was keenly aware of the contaminating influences of notoriety and the natural pull for rejoined twins to mimic each other, show up on talk shows, etc., in a bid to mythologize their similarity. He rightly rejected such twins from the database. What Brouchard and his team began to see in twins, the unheard-of coincidences, the exhaustive counterintuitive findings, flabbergasted everyone. It never mattered the age at which the twins were separated or length of time they had been rejoined. (Oddly, twins separated earlier tend to be even more alike each other than those separated later…) I recall the reared apart (from birth) British women who were afraid of ocean bathing and would get into the water by backing in slowly. This pair arrived at the airport in Minneapolis (city of Brouchard’s lab) each wearing 7 rings… This was their first meeting. They each reported having similar nightmares, imagining doorknobs and fishhooks in their mouths, and smothering to death.

Then there were the famous Jewish twins in Germany who were separated, one going into Hitler’s Nazi youth program, the other hiding out in Spain during the war. If ever the environment was going to assert itself it would have been with these two. As Oscar and Jack stepped off the plane, (as a result of one of the wives pushing for their reunification in this controlled study) they could not even speak a common language. But each walked with the same swagger, each wore the same glasses, style of moustache, and each wore blue two-pocketed shirts. They had dozens of truly quirky habits in common such as storing rubber bands on their wrists, reading magazines from back to front, flushing the toilet before using it, sneezing loudly on elevators just to frighten people, and on and on. Their differences were of course made of their religious and political orientations and their family lives that produced vastly different memories and experiences. But their personalities, their tempos, their mannerisms, and their core styles of being in the world were profoundly similar. All this was observed despite the fact that women raised one and the other was raised by his father; one a Jew, the other a Nazi.

The team went on over the years to document other unlikely similarities, such as marrying people with the same name, giving their children and pets the same names, owning the same model of car, choosing to play the same musical instruments, and so on. Even religious attachment, which most people still might believe to be a matter of family upbringing showed a 50% genetic basis. In fact, as the data grew over the years, the patterns settled in: well over half the variance in most measurable personality traits turned out to be genetic: from extraversion, to agreeableness, neuroticism, radicalism, authoritarianism, tough-mindedness, openness, and conscientiousness, aggression, achievement, social dominance, and even sense of well being in the world, were strongly heritable. Only occupational interests were slightly less than %50.

In terms of brain function, an enhanced tendency for telepathy with one’s twin was demonstrated by Brouchard (this actually relieved me at the time, since some of own experiences of telepathy with my twin felt more than a little spooky). There is a .86 correlation in IQ of twins reared together, much as if you had tested the same person twice (.87). There is a .76 correlation in IQ of twins reared apart. Brain wave patters of all monozygotic twins are virtually identical.

Even more controversial has been the twin studies of behavior. To name but a few, genetic factors account for about half the risk of alcoholism, smoking, choice of hobbies, use of contraceptives, consumption of coffee, menstrual symptoms, and suicide. Another oddity about twins that no one can explain is that I, as a an example, am twice as likely in comparison to a singleton to develop heart disease early in life. (With my father having died at 53 of heart attack a geneticist once counseled me that I would be very lucky to live past the age of 70 and that 65 would be pushing it. In case you wonder why I seem to live as if there were no tomorrow…
Underlying these momentous assertions is the insistent yet to be answered question of: how? Is there a gene for neurosis, alpine skiing, conservative values, or serial murder? I will say the obvious here. There is no DNA for an event per se. Events happen to people and give to them experiences. Genetic influences of experiences are a result of their influence on the characteristics of the individual, not the event. Those characteristics then find their way to manifest themselves in the environment and may well be what we mean and experience by such clichés as “finding oneself”, or even “Born to kill.”

There has been a lot of work on the “how of genes” over the past 10-15 years, much of it counterintuitive yet compelling, but I will stop here to segue into my last piece of this argument.

In 2007, noting that Personality disorders were on the rise, the National Institute of Mental Health declared the nation’s incidence of Personality Disorders to now hover at 9.1%. One of ten people are walking around with an enduring patter of behavior that is rigid and unchanging, has existed from childhood, and causes untold distress to themselves and to those around them, in part because the behavior is so far outside cultural norms. It challenges the other’s sense of reality in often devious, perplexing, ways. Essentially, there is massive distortion of both internal and external reality by the disordered personality. In contrast, the normal neurotic distorts only internal reality through such means as rationalization and suppression. Given the above discussion, is there any doubt as to a genetic basis for this life long sentence? Whether one is called a Dependent or Borderline or Sociopath is of minor concern since they are all just variations on a theme that is not as well understood as we might think. We do know that these disorders tend to run in families.

There is a tremendous cost to society that is yet to be fully calculated in those segments where the harm is obvious. The sociopath, a prime example of personality disorder, has been exhaustively studied due to the degree of observable harm he does. He breaks laws at will. He rapes, pillages and burns. He does it all and in this sense is truly nondiscriminatory. The public is often under the misunderstanding that the San Quentin prisoner is there for a crime. Indeed he is there almost always for the single crime for which he was caught and convicted. In my dreams I sometimes imagine it would be generally known that the average convict, were he there as punishment for all the crimes he had committed, would be sentenced for many centuries… starting as a youngster just tall enough to reach into his father’s pants pockets hanging on the doorknob and grab those first quarters. But this is dreaming. And yet I ask, is the harm done by the Borderline or Schizoid any less in quantity? After all, they are only different branches of a common tree. They share the same roots.

I will take but one example; the law. Here are some statistics from a recent study in southern California regarding “high conflict” personalities in legal disputes; that is, the accuser. Of high conflict cases, %52 are driven primarily by a mental health problem rather than a legal issue. %56 of cases involving domestic violence involve a personality disorder. %57 of those cases where domestic violence is seriously doubted involve a personality disorder. %81 of those making false allegations of child sexual abuse involve a personality disorder. %57 of those making false but honestly believed child sexual abuse reports involve a personality disorder. Clearly, personality often drives conflict, not issues.

Much of what passes for facts in a courtroom are really emotional facts: emotionally generated false information accepted as true that appears to require emergency legal action. The judicial system unwittingly playing into the hands of the personality disordered person quite nicely. For this example, I know best the ways of the borderline since they manifested in my family of origin. Accordingly, I have spent more than a little time and energy contemplating this issue.

The borderline loves to blame others. The courts are there to decide who is to blame.

The borderline avoids taking responsibility. The courts will hold someone else responsible.

The borderline practices all or none thinking. The courts offer guilty or not guilty choices.

The borderline loves attention and sympathy. One can be the center of attention in a courtroom for a long time.

The borderline very aggressively seeks allies. The courtroom provides a venue for advocates to bear witness to the aggrieved person.

The borderline speaks in dramatic and emotional extremes. The courtroom is a stage to argue in dramatic and emotional extremes.

The borderline focuses intensely on others past behaviors. The courtroom readily listens to past behaviors and constructs a case based on the past.

The borderline’s bottom line is to punish those guilty of harming them. The courtroom is the most powerful place in our society to impose punishment.

The borderline feels that it is OK to lie if they feel desperate. The courtroom, in reality rarely acknowledges lying or punishes people for perjury.

It is my conclusion that it is the nature of this rather perfect fit creates a synergy between these two entities that empowers the borderline to be so effective at making the innocent look guilty while they themselves are made to look innocent. The data in the southern California study support this conclusion. We have gone to great lengths to protect the rights of the accused and done very little to address the wrongs of the accuser.

If our courtroom is a wonderful stage for the borderline accuser it is no less so for the borderline (substitute narcissistic, sociopathic, histrionic, etc.) attorney. A recent study of co-occurring disorders in drug addicted professionals from all fields revealed that attorneys were nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with an Axis II disorder as compared with other professionals. %76 percent of attorneys with alcohol problems are also borderlines. If we had data that was freely volunteered it is likely that this number, would be quite high irrespective of addiction. It only makes sense that a professional would choose a playing field that supports his personality by its very structure. Regardless, the attorney is a key enabler in this process. He must be since the borderline, left to their own story, is not always credible. The lawyer must persuade. This seems to me rather easily done if the enabler: is desirous of control, is misled by charm or anger, enjoys solving problems, likes taking charge, and enjoys telling others what to do. These are typical attorney traits that do not even require an accompanying disorder for the sick dance to take place.

I will take the bold position that just as the accused is sometimes evaluated as to his fitness to stand trial, the accuser should be evaluated for his fitness to file suit. The same criteria needs to met by attorneys.

The definition of professional responsibility for persons in a fiduciary role to the public needs to include a minimal standard of mental health. If it is in the genes, as it certainly is to some significant degree, then any argument that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” be honored as the backbone of our democracy must bend to support this disturbing fact. Others lives, liberties, and happiness need not be held hostage to the right of privacy of illness that ultimately robs the healthy in mind of those same freedoms.

Those people entrusted with people (or a gun) must be licensed as a “person in good mental health”. Failing that test, they must undergo therapies by whatever means until they are of sound mind, and monitored accordingly.

If the little data we have on attorneys is reflective of the draw that positions of power have for the disordered personality then what does this imply about the politicians in Washington? Might this discussion cause one to have some inkling as why politicians seem to serve just about everyone’s interests save those who elected them? And what about Psychiatrists? Physicians? CEOs? Bankers? Etc.?

We do ourselves no great favor by ignoring these “inconvenient truths”. We do ourselves no great favor by not screening for these disorders as a prerequisite to holding a public trust, or owning a gun. Why is it that the Army psychiatrist at Fort Hood was allowed to waive numerous red flags in the faces of his colleagues and remain ignored until he killed people? How is it that every single mass murderer in recent years has been diagnosed as suffering major depression along with some personality issue and also allowed to procure enough guns and ammunition to kill many people?
A licensed psychologist should be appointed by the state to screen anyone seeking to own a gun for whatever purpose; hunting or self-defense. In the early 1980’s I participated in the first psychological screening program for rooky policemen in the Bay area in an effort to keep rogue cops off the street. The program has continued to work with shining success and has been adopted by many other states. There is no good reason why similar programs for public citizens cannot exist to save lives at the sacrifice of privacy.

I do not expect in my lifetime that any of these things will come to pass. I believe that perhaps in my daughter’s adult life, time passing will mean that the world will have gotten much hotter, flatter (preponderance of middle class), and more crowded. There will eventually be a strong financial incentive for our society to restrict the breeding of sociopaths. Licensing of prospective parents may become mandatory regardless of the origin of the child. Following this acceptance, the question for early intervention of known genetic disasters of personality will become normative. As prisons grow even more overcrowded reform will mean that the roughly %30 of that population who are there due to drug related offenses only will be placed elsewhere and that the sociopaths will have enclosed societies all to themselves. Gun owners will be screened for major depression and/or personality issues. The doors of courts will be bursting at the hinges, and the costs of justice will become high enough that much needed restrictions on who gets to be in court in the first place will be put into effect. Demands for efficiency in services of all kinds will mean a closer look at professionals of all walks. “Professional” will include a degree in mental health for self and others so that institutionally sanctioned destructive behavior as well as enabling will become a thing of the past.

Ultimately, we will all agree that mental health will be worth the price it extracts to obtain it.

Don Crowe, PhD
11/1/09

International Adoptions in the 21st Century

Over the past decade, many Americans have adopted children from overseas. Recent statistics revealed that while only 7,000 children were adopted from outside of the United States in 1990, that number more than tripled by 2004. The report named China, Eastern Europe, and Guatemala as the three most popular regions where Americans adopted children.

A few reasons account for this change. Many career-minded people decide to have babies later in life and learn about infertility-related medical obstacles that make this process difficult or impossible. Additionally, parents who adopt from other countries are less likely to contend with birth parents seeking to reclaim a child. The celebrity factor played another important role as notables such as Angelina Jolie brought awareness to international adoption. Some credit China for opening its borders and allowing foreigners to adopt its thousands of baby girls in orphanages.

One couple that benefited from foreign adoption was Don Crowe, PhD, and his wife. A licensed clinical psychologist for more than three decades, Don Crowe, PhD, and his wife adopted Rose Marie Summer Crowe from Guatemala when she was four months old. In 2006, Diablo Magazine wrote about the Crowes in an article entitled “Love Without Borders.”

Getting Involved with the Southern Poverty Law Center By Don Crowe, Ph.D.

Dedicated to fighting against racial and social injustice, the Southern Poverty Law Center works to defend the most vulnerable members of American society. To support programs that help fight hate and extremism and for equality and dignity for all, the Southern Poverty Law Center relies on outside support.

Donations help promote and support educational programs at schools that fight hate and promote tolerance. Along with one-time contributions, individuals may elect to make monthly donations. There area also options to make donations in memory or in honor of a family member, friend, or other loved one.

The Southern Poverty Law Center also provides ways to give through corporate programs and estate planning, or through the purchase of merchandise at the center’s online store. In addition to monetary contributions, the center has resources that offer ways to enact change in one’s community. Visit http://www.splcenter.org/get-involved to learn more.

A licensed clinical psychology based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Don Crowe, Ph.D., who works with clients on kindness, gratitude, and forgiveness, is a regular supporter to the SPLC.