What Does Your Desktop Say?

I’m always changing the desktop wallpaper on our computer at home. I just got rid of the Valentine Day’s hearts for February and replaced them with a couple of Irish Dancers for March and St. Patrick’s Day. The boy dancer looks a bit goofy, so I will probably change it again— I’m thinking a leprechaun or shamrock. Over the holidays I had a slide show of Thanksgiving and then Christmas pictures set up in the screen saver , which irritated my wife Diane. When the grandchildren come to visit, I usually put up something like images of SpongeBob Squarepants or Disney princesses.

On my work computer I have our company logo on the home screen. My daughter and her husband have a slide show of pictures of their children constantly playing on the computer in their kitchen. For a lot of people these screens have become our personal art galleries.  A few years ago a British study of the psychological meaning of computer desktops was commissioned by Microsoft. Psychologist Donna Dawson reviewed a sample of office workers’ desktops seeking factors which reflect personality traits. She said “….desktops are our personal space and as such provide a fairly accurate personality description of an individual.”

According to eMarketer, the average American spends over 5 hours a day looking at screens. BioniX a company that makes software that helps people customized their computers, quotes a customer who says, ““One of the things I love about getting a new phone or computer is not just the things I can do with it, but the fact that I can personalize it and make it my own. I like my technology to reflect who I am, what I’m into, my opinions and beliefs.” The website also says that such customization helps people “feel at home” with their device and implies that no one would ever “dream of using the factory settings” for their desktops.

BioniX also says that getting a new device is much like buying a new home. The first thing you want to do is to redecorate it and make it your own. Since we spend so much time with our screens they say, “the choice of the image that greets us every time we fire up our laptop is an important one”. Brian McGannon, a columnist from postgradproblems.com says, “Maybe you’re a minimalist who likes to keep it simple, or maybe you’re the flashy type who has a beautiful cityscape with lightning flashing in the background. Either way, that desktop background can provide a deep look into your personality.”

Many people consciously choose images that are a source of inspiration. These pictures may be spiritual or religious in nature. Personal beliefs may also be expressed through political and historical images or quotations. Calming images that evoke relaxation or pleasant reveries are often seen on work desktops used to reduce the ill effects of on-the-job stressors.  Desktop visuals may also serve as reminders for goals we want to achieved or resolutions we wish to keep. Additionally the number and organization of icons on your desktop also may have psychological significance.  Along with Dawson and McGannon, writers Jeff Wysaski from pleated-jeans.com and Sophie Daste from Sparklife have offered their take on the different kinds of desktops people use. These along with some interpretations stemming from the content analysis of common symbols are presented for several desktop themes below.

1. Windows/MAC Default: Use of factory loaded defaults is generally associated with older users who may not be very tech savvy regarding how to personalizes the device. They also imply a lack of artistic temperament, being overly simplistic and old fashioned. It may also point to depression and a lack of energy or perhaps contempt for modern technology. You also may just be “stuck using your dad’s old laptop.” On a MAC it suggests someone who is easily pleased, unimaginative, and perhaps uses the use computer sparingly and only bought a MAC because of its association with youth.
2. Plain Blue Wallpaper: This simple, but often used, wallpaper suggests that the user possesses the technical skills to personalized the computer. This ability, however, is overpowered by a defensive and guarded unwillingness to disclose very much. Overall it suggests someone who likes to keep their personal life private.
3. Cute Animals: In all likelihood this user is an animal lover, compassionate, optimistic, imaginative, charitable and very possibly a little girl. These images suggest some degree of distancing of the self from others. Cartoon animals represent one step further away from reality.
4. Sports Photos or Logos: This wallpaper is associated with personality characteristics such as team/city/college loyalty, adventurousness, hero worshipping, and possibly beer drinking. It also suggests aggressiveness, competitiveness, extroversion, and a high energy level. Unless of course unless it’s the Green Bay Packers, then it’s okay.
5. Nature: These images are often used by people value travel and tend to be dreamers. They are commonly associated with people who lack windows in their workspace and need a vacation.
6. TV/Movie Characters or Scenes: People who use these backgrounds tend to be homebodies and loyal Netflix users. They may be imaginative and have an active fantasy life. This type of screen may overlap with the Celebrity Crush desktop, which is generally harmless unless you are over 15 years of age, when stalking becomes a viable possibility.
7. Personal Photos: These users tend to be family-orientated, as they are often they are people with children.. They may also reflect travel or hobbies. Subcategories include photos of: (A) You and your significant other, which reveals romantic tendencies, but also exhibitionism, since it invites personal conversations; (B) you accepting an award . Such self-portraits strongly indicate narcissism — folks with big egos who revel in past triumphs. This category reminds me of a guy that Diane once worked for, who didn’t have any pictures of his family around his office, but instead had many pictures of himself; and (C) college days: these indicate a desire to return to the good old days where there was less pressure and responsibility. Unless you just got out of college last week, authorities agree that it might be time to move on.
8. Inspirational Quotes: These are used by people who are overly conventional, easily influenced, and generally happy with their lives, although they may feel pangs of ambition at times.
9. Cluttered Icons on Desktop : When a desktop has icons strewn across the screen it suggests the owner is disorganized and tends to easily lose focus. Research reveals such people are e likely to be male, liberal, have higher education, be career-oriented, and are math whizs.
10. Highly Organized Icons: People with very tidy desktops are likely to be younger, non-urban, tech savvy, and place personal life ahead of work. When the icons are arranged symmetrically its suggests obsessive-compulsive features. If can also indicate they value balance and that they have the ability to keep a cool head, even in thorny situations.
11. Several Rows of Desktop Icons: This type of a desktop arrangement reflects a strong need to feel in control and prepared for every contingency. At the same time it indicates underlying anxiety, insecurity, and internal disorganization.
12. Seasons of the Year: Seasonal images are most often used by elementary school teachers who are constantly decorating bulletin boards and, of course, talented writers.

Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News Tribune

DSM-V: Psychiatry’s New Bible

Last May the American Psychiatric Association (APA)   published the latest version of its diagnostic and statistical manual, the DSM-5. While some mental health professionals are already using it, many are holding off until October 1, 2014 when the United States adopts the 10th edition of the International Classification of Disease (ICD-10-CM) as the nation’s standard medical coding system.  The ICD-10 and the DSM-5 are compatible and share the same numbering system.

This new manual is a far cry from the slim amber-covered booklet that I was given when I first started working in the field of mental health in the early 1970’s. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-II (DSM-II) I used then was just the second revision of this best-selling manual and it was published in 1968. It contained a list of all the common psychiatric diagnoses along with a very short paragraph describing each one. These descriptions were very general and loaded with Freudian terminology and theoretical references. My favorite diagnosis back then was something called “Inadequate Personality”. I was told that this diagnosis, which is now long-gone, was used to describe people who no matter how hard they try, just can’t seem to succeed. These were folks like Charlie Brown, in the Charles Schultz comic strip Peanuts who seem to have “endless determination and hope, but who are ultimately dominated by his insecurities and a permanent case of bad luck”.

The DSMs evolved from the definitions use when collecting state hospital statistics and a World War II army publication classifying mental disorders.  Since the original DSM was published in 1952, there have been six major revisions.

The DSM has always been thought of as mental health’s most authoritative source. It was developed so that professionals could agree on what they were talking about in regards to research, diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of various kinds of mental disorders. There have been several rival systems, but none have posed a serious threat to the DSM, which has probably maintained its eminence because of its widespread use in insurance billing.

The DSM-II that I used contained 182 disorders and was 134 pages long.  The new DSM-5 is the size of a dictionary and has well over 300 distinct diagnoses. Over the years the DSMs have created a very financially successful cottage industry within APA, with the special hard-covered, soft back, on-line, and pocket-sized editions, to say nothing of all the accompanying commentaries.

Debate over the DSM-5 has been especially contentious with criticism coming from both inside and outside the DSM community.  It was hardly released before Thomas R. Insel, the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, issued a statement that hi agency would no longer fund research projects that rely exclusively on DSM diagnostic criteria, due to its poor validity. This bombshell was followed by extensive disparagements from Duke University psychiatrist Allen Frances, an insider who was the chairman of the APA’s last DSM taskforce.

Francis says that the release of the DSM-5 represented, “the saddest moment in [his] 45 year career of studying, practicing, and teaching psychiatry.” He claims that APA has approved a “deeply flawed DSM-5“ which contains changes that are “clearly unsafe and scientifically unsound”. He advises clinicians to just ignore the changes that make no sense.  Francis has published two books describing the inadequacies of the DMS-5, the last one entitled, Saving Normal: An Insider’s Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life. While the title smacks of conspiracy theory, the work describes the controversial political processes involved in making the DSM and points out   how a scientific best-seller can impact what treatments and medications ultimately will receive insurance reimbursement.

Therapist Gary Greenberg’s book wonderfully entitled, The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry, describes how in his opinion the “DSM-5 turns suffering into a commodity, and the APA into its own biggest beneficiary”.

One of the first major public criticisms of the DMS-5 came from advocates in the Autism treatment community.  The clinical criteria for when a child can be diagnosed with autism has been tightened considerably and there has been estimates that these narrower criteria might   reduce the number of children who meet the new standards by anywhere from 10% to 50%. Results from a new government study, just published  in late January,  found that about 19%  of 8-year-olds previously diagnosed with an autistic  disorder no longer  meet the updated criteria.  Advocates understandably are afraid that this might lead to the disqualification and expulsion of   children from much needed school and other services.

Francis, Greenberg, and others critics are especially concerned about how DSM-5 pathologizes everyday experiences. One of the more contentious issues in the new DSM-5 involves the elimination of what had historically been called the “bereavement exclusion”.

In the old DSM people who had lost a love one and were grieving were excluded from being diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), because it was thought that giving such a diagnosis would mistakenly define the normal grieving process   as a major psychiatric disorder. The DSM-5, however summarily ends this exclusion and allows the MDD diagnosis to be given to people in the process of mourning a love one.

The framers of the DSM-5 mood disorders section believe that while depression and grief may overlap, they are not the same and can be clinically distinguished.  Also the maintain that such  grief and MDD can co-exist, just as MDD can coexist with other major life losses such as   a job loss,   being assaulted,  or experiencing a major disaster, such as a flood, tornado, or hurricane.   In their opinion, the bereavement exclusion often kept people with legitimate depressive disorders from getting the help they needed.

The DSM-5 has also been criticized for blurring the lines between other normal processes and psychiatric illnesses. Francis is  concerned that in  using the  DSM-5 criteria everyday  temper tantrums   might be  diagnosed as  Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder,  simple overeating could be  diagnosed as a Binge Eating Disorder, and  even common place worries  might be viewed  as a case of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. He believes that even very small changes in such definitions can have negative unintended consequences such creating millions of new patients. In another example, changes in the criteria for the substance abuse disorders, for example,   may result in first-time abusers being placed into the same category as hard-core addicts.

According to Scientific American writer Ferris Jabr, the DSM-5 may have   an even more fundamental flaw.  Despite all of the tremendous advances in neuroscience, according to Jabr, the DSM-5 says virtually nothing about the biology of mental disorders. It was expected that the new manual would take a decidedly biological direction and incorporated the latest and greatest research in genetics and brain sciences.  In all fairness sophisticated biological markers are included as part of the diagnostic criteria for some sleep disorders, although this may seem like a token inclusion to most neuroscience researchers.

Personally I don’t like how the chapters have been reorganized and how the childhood disorders are scattered all about. It’s hard to find a lot of things. I was also quite surprised by some of the features and diagnoses that have been eliminated such as the multi-axial system, the Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF), and the subtypes of schizophrenic (such as paranoid, disorganized, or catatonic).

My wife Diane and I have completed two training on the DSM-5- one online and the other in person and we are gradually getting familiar with it.  Trying to keep up with all these changes could make you feel like an inadequate personality, if there ever was such a thing.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News Tribune

How to Build a Better New Year’s Resolution

How many New Year’s have you resolved to lose weight, quit smoking, spend less, or exercise more? Research shows that most people make the same resolution for at least five years before they achieve even six months of success. While about 40 percent managed to continue for six months, over a quarter of all resolutions are abandoned within the first week.


People make the same resolution an average of ten times and even all these failures don’t reduce future plans for self-change. Over 60 percent make the same resolution year after year. As you might suspect, behaviors with an addictive quality are the most difficult to change. Relapse rates for these behaviors are extremely high (around 50 percent to 95 percent).


The main reason for failure is having very unrealistic expectations. Like the children in Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, we all believe we are “above average.” People routinely overestimate their abilities, including the amount and rate of self-change they can achieve. In one study 60 percent of adolescents and 47 percent of adults believed that they could smoke for “just a few years” and then easily quit. Self-change is just much harder and takes much longer than most of us realize.


Also we tend to greatly overestimate the benefits obtained from the change. For example, many overweight people believe in what has been called “the power of thinness.” Not only will you lose weight, but you will also be vastly more attractive, popular, successful, and of course happy. The Duchess of Windsor once said that a woman can never be too rich or too thin and today popular culture icons have carried this shallow ideology to the extreme. While such anticipated benefits can motivate future attempts at change, when they are not immediately forthcoming, people are deeply discouraged.


Anther cause for failure is that many people frame their goals negatively — don’t overeat, don’t gamble, don’t drink, don’t spend, etc. Each individual breach of the prohibition is seen as another failure, which can rapidly lead to a total collapse of the change effort. You have a much better chance reaching your goals if they are couched in positive terms over a longer term.


When asked why they didn’t succeed, people usually misinterpret their failures. Typically they blame external factors like, “I was on the wrong diet” or “It just wasn’t a good time to start.” They also blame themselves for lack of will power. They believe minor adjustments can lead to success the next time-like picking a better diet or just trying harder. Since most individuals try to do way too much, it is important to redefine success in terms of modest and realistic goals.


Another major factor contributing to self-change failure is that most people are not at the stage where they are really ready to change. Dr. James O. Prochaska from the University of Rhode Island has worked decades researching self-change and has identified five basic stages:

  1. Precontemplation: You have no intention to change your behavior in the foreseeable future. People in this stage lack awareness even about the need to change. They may, however, “wish” to change and often make resolutions without any plans whatsoever.
  2. Contemplation: You are aware that a problem exists and are seriously thinking about changing, but have not made a commitment to action. People often get stuck in this stage.
  3. Preparation: You make up your mind and start planning. You intend to take action in the next month and have a definite plan in mind.
  4. Action: You actually modify your behavior, experiences, or environment in order to achieve self-change.
  5. Maintenance: This where you work to prevent relapse. Most people do not maintain their gains on their first attempt. With smoking, successful quitters made three to four attempts before they achieved long-term success. Most of us move through these stages in a spiral pattern. Typically we progress from contemplation to preparation to action to maintenance, and then relapse. During relapse, we often return to an earlier stage. However, each time we recycle, we learn from our mistakes and can try something different the next time around.


So this year if you really want to change, level with yourself and decide what stage you are at, then select some modest goal that can help you progress to the next stage.


For example, if you are still in the precontemplation stage, don’t try make some large impossible change. Instead commit to becoming more aware of the problem and how it affects you and your environment. Read about it, talk to others (friends, family and professionals), see films and try to fully experience and express your feelings regarding the issue.

If you are in the contemplation stage consider making a careful and comprehensive written cost-benefit analysis of the problem, listing all the pros and cons. Fully assess how and what you think and feel about the problem. What needs does it meet, are these needs still relevant, and are there other ways to meet them?


If you are in the preparation stage, this is the time for a resolution. Candid discussions with others, self- help groups, and counseling can help you decide and commit to a course of action in this stage.


Finally in the action and maintenance stages, you can benefit most from acquiring techniques to facilitate change, such as establishing self-rewards and learning how to relax or be more assertive. Developing alternatives for problem behaviors, finding sources of social support, and avoiding situations that lead to problem behaviors are other important strategies than you can learn more about through reading, counseling, or attending self-help groups.


So this year don’t set yourself up for failure. Know your readiness to change and strive to make those small achievable steps that lead to success.


by Terry L. Stawar, EdD
Based on a Column that appeared  in the Southern Indiana News Tribune

It Must Have Been Something I Ate

            The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”  Of course, teasing out the difference between facts and opinions is a murky business at best. Residing between fact and opinion is the realm of the theory. A theory is a set of ideas that is intended to explain certain phenomena.  Milton Dawes from the Institute of General Semantics says, “We couldn’t stay alive without our ‘theories’. In a world where we don’t know all about anyone or anything, we have to have ‘theories’, whether we are aware of our ‘theorizing’ or not.”   

            Back in the 1950’s American psychologist George Kelly developed a theory of personality, called “the psychology of personal constructs”.  Kelly believed that humans are biologically programmed to establish some kind of order within their personal experience.  They do this by constantly creating and testing hypotheses. Kelley said,   “Every man is, in his own particular way, a scientist.”. Generally we try to improve the accuracy of our theories so that we can better predict what is going to happen to us. Many of our theories are unstated, because they were formed before we had the use of language.  

Kelley believed that in order to understand other people, one must learn their system of theories, especially the core ones, which are often difficult to change.  Our personal theories are usually about ourselves, other people, and the world in which we live.

A variety of cognitive biases and “lazy thinking” can result in erroneous theories. Cognitive biases are common, but maladaptive, ways of thinking that lead us to over or underestimate certain things. For example, people overestimate their ability to show restraint in the face of temptation and underestimate the influence or strength of their feelings. We also tend to overestimated the value of our own possessions, while underestimating the value of the possessions of other people. According to Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, “Lazy Thinking” is when we make judgments based upon an irrelevant, past experience a situation also referred to as a false equivalency.  

Dawes also has said, “In science, theories are put to the test – and they are eventually modified, updated, improved, abandoned…” As such most scientific theories become more accurate over time. According to Dawes, however, “in our everyday ’theorizing’, we seldom ‘think’ of putting our ‘theories’ to the test.”  When we are asked, “How do you know your theory is correct?” We get defensive, try to garner support from others, and work at convincing others of the accuracy of our theories.  We are very creative in using new factors to prove that we were right, rather than critically reassessing our theories.    

We are imperfect scientists and may cling to our pet theories, long after objective evidence would argue for a change. Dawes believes that we often don’t even see our theories as beliefs, but rather as facts. He says, “We live our lives according to, and guided by, our ‘theories’ and many of us would prefer to die, rather than review some of our more strongly held beliefs…”   

Holding theories about ourselves is how we try to make sense out of what we think, feel, and how we behave.  For example, we might believe that we’re acting irritated because we don’t feel well.  In turn we may also have a theory about why we don’t feel well. People create a lot of theories that dealing with health. Many of these notions are based on what we visualize is going on inside our bodies.  For example, when we get sick and run a fever, we might imagine that there is some sort of internal war being waged, with cowardly germs ambushing our heroic white blood cells. 

Gastro-intestinal  and circulatory problems may result in  colorful plumbing imagery completed with leaking  gaskets and stopped-up pipes  As for pain, we might visualize something akin to  old  television commercials.  The classic 1958 commercial for Anacin portrays headache pain as an annoyingly reverberating sound wave, depression as a pounding hammer, and jittery nerves as sparks from an electrical current.  I especially like the recent commercial for a fungicide that depicts the discomfort of Athlete’s Foot  as  flames shooting up between your toes.

Many of our idiosyncratic health theories have to do with eating. If we’re not feeling well,   our first thought is often, “It must have been something that I ate.”  From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense, since finding edible substances and avoiding food poisoning has  such high survival value.  We blame our diet for almost everything, from memory loss to insomnia.  When Ebenezer Scrooge, in  Dicken’s  A Christmas Carol , is  confronted with  Marley’s  ghost,  his  initial theory is diet-related. When Marley’s spirit asks Scrooge , “Why do you doubt your senses?” He replies,  “A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheat. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you..” All of  which is just  another way of saying, “It must have been something I ate.”

People also maintain a very large store of personal theories dealing with why other people behave the way they do.  When babies are cranky, for example, based on our experience, we may theorize that they are tired, hungry, or need to be changed.  Sometimes we generalize   from our own motives, making the common mistake of believing that other people are just like us.   More likely, however,  we see  the reasons for  own behavior in a more sympathetic  light,  while in our theories  about other people’s behavior, we may more readily attribute  undesirable motives to them, such as laziness, attention-seeking,  or self-centeredness.  Others often resent our theories and seldom respond positively,  especially if we disclose our theory saying something like, “Do you know what your problem is?”    

Finally, over the course of our lives we develop theories about how the world itself  works, from natural phenomena, such as the weather to man-made artifacts, such as  cars, appliances, and  electricity. These personal theories are important for our overall safety and comfort. Since we cannot see inside most things, we just have to imagine what the internal workings would look like.  For those of us with poor visualization skills, this can be quite difficult.

When electricity was first introduced in people’s homes,  I remember reading about folks who  were afraid  that the electricity would dribble out of the outlet and cost them a fortune– a nice  illustration of a personal theory based on a  false equivalency with the water supply.   

My own theory about how the internal combustion engine  works  comes mainly from  a cartoon  I saw  years ago, when I took   driver’s education in high school. These days I   don’t really believe that the air in the combustion chamber looks like a little fat man who gets squeezed,  when the engine compresses, but I do believe that cars are propelled by a series of tiny explosions and that the gasoline in the engine may resemble a small yellow flame with big eyes and a high squeaky voice.


Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com.

Abracadabra: Why it Reaches Out and Grabs Ya

I recently attended a silent auction and was the high bidder on a walking stick that I added to my small collection.  Although I don’t really like walking all that much, I was attracted to this stick because of its unique design and because it reminded me of the sumac walking stick that Emma Thompson use in the Nanny McPhee movies. Whenever Nanny McPhee needed to conjure up some magic to teach naughty children a lesson, all she had to do was tap her stick twice on the floor. Oh, if it were only that easy! 

Oklahoma State University social psychologist and Psychology Today blogger, Melissa Burkley refers to the continuing popularly of magic as the “Harry Potter Effect”  after  J. K. Rawling’s hero from her immensely popular series of books and movies.  According to Burkley, “If there is one thing psychologists can learn from the Harry Potter phenomenon, it is that people love magic.”

 Part of our attraction may stem from the fact that all of us have had experience with magical thinking.  Magical thinking is defined as believing that one event takes place as a result of a second event, without any plausible connection.   From ages two to seven years of age, magical thinking predominates and youngsters have considerable difficulty with logical thought. 

Magic may also appeal to people who feel powerless or lacking in control over their environment and circumstances.  This may be especially true for adolescents and young people who struggle with interpersonal situations. Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, and on-line and other role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, can provide an alternative magical universe where they have limitless power in contrast to their everyday life.

But do people really believe in real world magic?  According to Burkley, “Recent research suggests that not only do people believe in magic, it is likely hard-wired into our brains…”.  We often see this in everyday superstitions.

Just the other day my wife Diane and I were discussing the “knock on wood” superstition and also how our granddaughters play the childhood “jinx” game.  Various cultures have different explanations for the “knock on wood” custom.  It is one of many forms of “apotropaic magic” which is intended to “turn away” evil influences. According to one explanation at the divinecaroline.com website, the ancients druids, worshipped trees, believing that spirits lived in all wooden objects.  To encourage these spirits to work on their behalf, they would knock on wood.  Thus, whenever we want a good thing to continue or to prevent a bad thing from happening, we rouse these elemental  spirits by knocking on the nearest piece of wood. Diane and I also recently received a clock and a bracelet, that came from Turkey as a gift, and both of them were decorated with the traditional apotropaic blue eyes, for protection. 

The “knock on wood” superstition also reflects the magical belief that just talking about something good happening can cause bad luck, since it tempts fate. Athletes tend to be very superstitious in this regard. For examples in baseball, it is widely held that you can jinx a no-hitter by talking about while the game is still in process.  A recent study by Jane Risen from the University of Chicago and Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich explored the magical thinking  behind the belief that is bad luck to “tempt fate”.  They theorized that this belief stems from two sources.  First is the strong human tendency to be disproportionately attracted to negative events.  They contend that, “negative events simply “pack a bigger psychological punch” than positive ones, probably because of evolutionary associations  with survival.  Second research has consistently shown that thinking about an event makes it seem to us more likely to take place.  Combining these two phenomena, the researchers then hypothesized that since the bad outcomes that might result from tempting fate are very negative, we automatically think more about them.  Next, because we think more about them, we also conclude that they are more likely to occur, than the bad outcomes resulting from not tempting fate.  Their studies clearly demonstrate that people are predisposed to expect the ironic. An example might be the careless college applicant, who ostentatiously wears a sweatshirt from the college to which he wants to be admitted, only to be rejected.

Our granddaughter’s “jinx game”, which also purportedly brings bad luck, is initiated when two people simultaneously say the same words. The rules vary on just how to resolved the jinx created, but usually it ends when one child pronounces the name of the other, who is then considered the jinxed party. The historic penalty for violating a jinx, is a “pinch or a poke” in the arm or buying the other person a drink, hence the phrase, “Pinch and a Poke! You owe me a Coke!” San Francisco psychoanalyst Jerome Oremland has described the game as a ritualized expression of preadolescent conflicts over their emerging new identities.

One of Diane’s aunts once wrote a family history of her mother’s side of the family, who were German farmers in east central Wisconsin. In this narrative there were several references to “hexes”, which were spells casted by neighbors to account for unfortunate events, such as cows going dry, bad crops, and at least one fretful baby.  Historically such beliefs are common as prescientific explanations for events with unknown causes. When Diane questioned her mother about this she said, “Yes, it was true.”

Such magical thinking is still present in various forms.   In a 2006 Princeton University psychologist Emily Pronin and her colleagues conducted a study to determine if college students  could be lead to believe that they possessed magical abilities.  The participants were first introduced to a confederate of the experimenter, who posed as a fellow student. With half of the subjects, he acted extremely cordial and friendly.  With the other half, however, he acted as obnoxiously as possible, in an attempt to evoke hostility.  Then the subjects were given a voodoo doll and directed to stick pins in it, in the presence of the confederate, who was the intended “victim”.  The “victim” feigned having a headache and then the participants were asked how much they believed they had actually caused the headache. As predicted, the people who had interacted with the obnoxious confederate were more much more likely to believe that they had   actually caused the headache.

According to evolutionary psychologists, the human mind is especially adept at identifying patterns, since such casual links are critical for survival.  Unfortunately this process is far from perfect, so we often believe that events are connected when they are not, resulting in magical thinking and superstitious behavior.  It may well be that we are so receptive to magic because as Burkley asserts , “…we are hard-wired to overestimate our control over external events”.

Although I enjoy magic as entertainment, personally I’m not a superstitious person and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I stay that way.    

Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com.

Bigger Than A Breadbox

The September 15th issue of Time Magazine reported that intrepid Mississippi alligator hunters recently bagged a 727 pound gator, setting a new state record. Time said that the alligator weighed as much as a Harley Davidson motorcycle and was almost as long as a Jeep Cherokee. I found myself struck by this report. It wasn’t because the alligator was so large. When I lived briefly in Mississippi, I quickly learned that it was no exaggeration that every irrigation ditch in the state contained at least one big alligator.  It was the specific comparisons to the motorcycle and the Jeep that interested me. I wondered what motivated the writer to use these two mechanical comparisons. 

Were these objects very familiar ones to the writer, or was it assumed that these comparisons would have the most impact, prompting the readers to think, “Wow, that’s one huge alligator.” I would also be interested in knowing the gender of the writer. These seemed like especially masculine comparisons.  I would guess that most women writers might use the car analogy, but not specifying the make and model.    I   don’t believe many of them would   use the Harley Davidson comparison at all. 

Personally I had no idea how much a Harley weighs.  In any case, it is not a very precise comparison, since a 2012 Electra Glide weighs 889 lbs. while a 2006 Sportster 883C is only 562 lbs.  For the record, up until last Monday you could have seen an even larger alligator (Mighty Mike) at the Newport Aquarium.  Mike, who is now off to a Michigan zoo, weighed in about the same as a Harley Road King at 812 lbs.

All of this, of course is about how best to communicate the relative size of something. People use a wide variety of metaphors and similes for such comparative purposes.  As our culture has becomes more technology oriented, it seems like we tend to use more technological artifacts as analogies to help us describe the natural world, especially animals.  

Looking at some recent headlines I discovered there is Venezuelan oil pit  that contains  the remains of various extinct animals, “including a giant armadillo as big as a car” and a “bus-sized crocodile.” Last year at  Mobile, Alabama’s Gulf Coast Exploreum there was an exhibit featuring  a  Megladon, a school bus sized” ancient shark. A Blue whale’s heart is as big as a “small car” and in the Philippine’s a volcano was said to have spewed “rocks  as big as a living room”.  Since we are all familiar with cars, buses, and living rooms, these comparison function  fairly well for us.   I wonder if this process works in reverse.  For example when Native Americans saw their first automobile, did they said to each other, “Gee, this thing  is as big as a buffalo.”

The use of such comparatives are large part of our popular culture and frequently  show up in the media. In the early days of television, there were game shows such as I’ve Got a Secret and What’s My Line, where celebrities had to determine some fact about a challenger by asking questions.  The standard question used to help estimate the size of something was, “Is it bigger than a breadbox?”  Comedian Steve Allen claims to have originated this question, which never failed to get a laugh, probably because even back then, breadboxes were considered a bit old-fashioned.  For my younger readers, breadboxes were containers usually made from metal that were intended to keep bread fresh,  In modern terms, they were the size of small microwave.  

Commenting on a phenomena that many people have noticed, Daun Thompson, a  Dallas-based comedienne says she is fascinated by the fact that “hail is usually described as the size of a sports ball, while tumors are usually described as the size of a breakfast fruit.” In the her blog “The Assertive Cancer Patient” (assertivecancerpatient.com) writer Jeanne Sather notes that a Google search for “tumor grapefruit” turned up 214,000 matches referencing articles with titles like, “Grapefruit-sized tumor removed from giraffe’s head in  historic operation…”.  Her search for “pea-sized tumor” turned up over 25,900 matches.  She says, “I’m still trying to find a psychiatrist who can explain oncologists’ fixation with fruit.”   

Some people believe that fruit analogies are used because tumors are usually described in centimeters and most of  us Americans  don’t understand the metric system.  Even if standard measurements are use it’s still difficult for most of us to visualize something that is said to have diameter of two inches or circumferences of 6 inches, but we all know what a grapefruit looks like. Comedian Gary Gulman, has a popular routine in which he rants about how awful grapefruit tastes. He concludes that God created grapefruits for the sole purpose that doctors would have a way to describe tumors.  But the comparison only is used one way, as comedian  Janeane Garofalo observed  saying  “Have you ever noticed nobody has ever ordered a grapefruit the size of a tumor?  There’s no reciprocity” 

When it comes to the weather, sports balls are the ticket especially to describe the size  of hail. The National Weather Service’s actual chart of hail sizes includes:  Ping Pong Ball, Golf Ball,  Tennis Ball, Baseball, and Softball sizes. Sports balls, however don’t adequately  cover all the  possibilities, so they’re  supplemented by other objects such as Peas, Plain M&Ms, Pennies, Nickels, Quarters, Walnuts,  Half Dollars, Limes, Teacups, Large Apples, the ever popular Grapefruits, and the modern Computer CD-DVD. Hen eggs are also  used in reference to hail,  while goose eggs seem reserved for describing bumps on the head. .  

There is occasionally some overlap in and  sports ball are used to describe health issues such as when  Cancer survivor Liz Holzemer’s wrote a book entitle Curveball: When Life Throws You a Brain Tumor.  This memoir is about a meningioma the size of a baseball. A former boss of mine once told me that his brother had an abdominals cyst the size of a football—one image that I would gladly forget.       

In a more upbeat vein, the website www.babycenter.com/slideshow-baby-size uses fruit and vegetables to give expecting couples some idea as to how fetal development is progressing.  For example at 4 weeks the average embryo is the size of a poppy seed, at 7 weeks a blueberry, and  at 9 weeks  the size of a grape. By 40 weeks, however, the fetus is said to be te  size of a small pumpkin. Perhaps that’s why we use it as an affectionate pet name.

Peas, seeds, berries, and BBs seem to among the items most favored for making  small comparisons. When talking about faith, the New Testament employed the analogy of the “mustard seed”.  Appliances are often used for slightly larger things. John Lennon once said that  his grandmother’s radio was as big as a  refrigerator and, of course, there was the very large and bulky Chicago Bears football player William “Refrigerator” Perry who played in the  1980s and 1990s. When we are talking about things larger than cars or buses,  we enter the the realm of things as big as a house, as big as a barn, as big as a football field, or even as big as the state of Rhode Island.

Size comparisons are frequently used  in works of humor to exaggerate things for comic effect, such as the Seinfeld episode in which George Costanzo describes his vision of paradise as  a  place where he is eating “a block of cheese the size of a car battery.”  In the 1977 movie Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer says to Diane Keaton, “Honey, there’s a spider in your bathroom the size of a Buick (a car known for its size and bulk).”  Finally there is the very wise nutritional advice from the National Lampoon Magazine to never eat anything “bigger than your head.”

Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com.

Emotional Support Animals: Has ADA Gone too Dog-gone Far

Several months ago a customer walked into a small shop and plunked an unrestrained Chihuahua onto the checkout counter.  The customer handed the manager a card that said according to the Americans with Disabilities Act you can be fined up to $10,000, for refusing to serve disabled people who use emotional support animals.  The employee working at the checkout counter happened to have health problems, and an allergy to dogs, which resulted in a sort of “dueling disabilities” scenario. 

ADA does require that businesses, that serve the public, refrain from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. Business concerns must allow people with disabilities to bring service animals onto their premises in all areas where customers are generally allowed. They cannot segregate people with service animals from other customers. They also cannot charge higher prices, cleaning fees, or require a security deposit. Businesses may charge for damages that service animals cause, as long as it is the usual business practice for any customer who causes damage.

Most of us think of the famous “Seeing Eye” dogs” when we think of service animals, but today a wide variety of animals are used for all sorts of assistive tasks. Animals are used to help people with hearing impairments, detect seizures, obtain help, pull wheelchairs, carry and pick up items, help with balance, and offer emotional support.

If emotional support is included as an assistive task, almost any animal can qualify. In addition to every sort of dog possible, monkeys, goats, miniature horses, ponies, pigs, and even ducks have been used. The duck in question was dressed in doll’s clothing and was routinely taken into places of business. Thankfully some animals such as reptiles, rodents and spiders are exempted from the usual service animal rules.

Service animals are not considered pets and they are trained in their assistive task and generally have official certification.  It has been suggested that some animals should not be subject to certification requirements because they are said to naturally able to provide emotional support without formal training. Some argue that emotional support animals who have not been trained should not qualify as service animals.

ADA requires that the person accompanying a service animal must have a diagnosable disability, and for people using an emotional support animal, there should be a written statement from a healthcare professional indicating that the animal is necessary to assist the person. Businesses cannot, however, refuse service, because the person is unable to provide documentation on site (which seems to make the rule meaningless). This requirement for access has been extended to allow service animals on airplanes and in housing settings that previously did not allow the presence of animals.

If the animal is extremely disruptive to the core aspect of the business, like a dog that barks during a movie, it can be excluded. Likewise an animal that presents a danger to employees or other patrons, such as one that bites, growls, or snaps at people may also be disallowed.

Writer Susan Semmel has described how a woman brought a 300 pound pot-belly pig with her on a plane trip from New Jersey to Washington State. The woman claimed it was a service animal and following ADA guidelines, the airline allow the pig to fly free, despite complaints from other passengers.

ADA guidelines are not very helpful in situations when other people may be allergic to these animals. They suggest separating the animal from the allergic passenger as far as possible, which seems preposterous on a small aircraft. Such cases may quickly evolve into dueling disabilities. These guidelines also suggest that two or more service animals may also be quite legitimate.

Miami Humor columnist Dave Barry has satirized the use of miniature horses as emotional support animals on air flights, after receiving a letter from a mystified flight attendant. Barry wondered if security would require the animals to remove their horseshoes before boarding the plane.

New York Times, writer Beth Landman has described how in the last few years New York City restaurants have become inundated with customers claiming that their dogs are emotional support service animals. She quotes one woman who claims, “I can fine people or have them put in jail if they don’t let me in a restaurant with my dogs.”

Unfortunately some people who want to take their dogs with them everywhere, are not disabled and don’t have a genuine need. A few even seems to go out of their way to be provocative. Also not all professionals are particularly discriminating or judicious in regard to providing letters of verification of need.

Cynthia Dodge the owner of Tutor Service Dogs in Massachusetts is quoted in Landsman’s article as saying that she has met people who try to get their dog certified as a service animal on a whim. She says “This is a total insult to the disabled community. They are ruining it for people who need it.”  Also any one can easily get special cards and even dog vests on line that declare that their animals are service animals.

So what do you think?  Should ADA define emotional support animals as “service animals”? Would you   allow people with emotional support animals in your offices, waiting rooms, lobbies, vans, or houses? Do you think emotional support animals should require certification or evidence that the animal is trained, licensed, vaccinated or healthy?  Do you think that customers should be required to have evidence of a disability that they can immediately produce?  

I know the tremendous value that animals and pets  can have in improving the quality of life,  but do you believe  this a legitimate modality that should be protected by law?   

Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D.

DSM-V and the Goldilocks Syndrome

The January/February edition of The  Nation Psychologist reported that The American Psychological Association is  “leading the charge” against attempts to  further medicalize the new  Diagnostic and Statistical  Manual (DMS-IV) due to be published in May of 2013. 

Among the major concerns  about the new revision are: (1) unwarranted expansion of diagnostic categories by reducing current thresholds and added untested diagnoses (2) pathologizing  “natural and normal” responses to life  experiences. Concerns  that “natural and normal” behaviors will be diagnostically labeled,  have been around a long time and have lead to things like pregnancy being called a disease.  (3)  imposing dimensional diagnoses that are far too cumbersome and complex for clinical use,  and (4) a push to see  all mental disorders  as biological phenomena calling for psychotropic medications. 

Thousand of professionals have signed a  petition calling  attention to these concerns  that was  started by the Society for  Humanistic Psychology (APA Division 32). Long time national DSM leader, psychiatrist  Allen Frances, M.D. has been especially vocal in his criticism of many of the new proposals.  

According to James Bradshaw, a senior editor at The National Psychologist   even the highly conservative   CATO Institute  think tank is opposed to lowering  diagnostic thresholds,  since that might result in thousands of claims against employers, under workers compensation laws,  the  ADA or FMLA.

Ironically there are also  concerns  about DSM-V raising some diagnostic  thresholds.  New York Times reporter Benedict Carey,  says that proposed changes in the definition of autism would greatly  reduce the number of people  diagnosed and   make  it much more difficult for many of them get the services they need.

Analyzing data from a large 1993 study   researchers  Fred Volkmar,   Brian Reichow,  and James McPartland,  (all from Yale) found that  among the 372   highest functioning  children and adults in the study  only 45 percent would met the  new  criteria for   autism spectrum diagnosis.  Among the  highest  functioning individuals, the analysis suggested that about 25% of people diagnosed with   classic autism in 1993 would be excluded, along with  about  85 % of those with P.D.D.-N.O.S.  

Volkmar, director of the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine, says, “The changes would narrow the diagnosis so much that it could effectively end the autism surge”.  

Catherine Lord, director of the Institute for Brain Development and a member of the DSM-V task force working on the diagnosis, strongly  disagrees with these projections, citing the focus on higher functioners  and  the use of old data as possible reasons for the exaggerated numbers. 

Of course the DSM’s  clinical utility has long since been compromised by its use,  both as a billing and an eligibility criteria for benefits and services.

As a side note, in my state there is currently  a law being proposed that would allow employers to take smoking into account when making employment decisions. I suppose this is mainly to save money on health insurance costs and because of beliefs that smokers are less productive.  This could, however,  make obtaining employment even more difficult for many clients. Several state mental health advocates have opposed this proposed law as discriminatory, citing the high  smoking rates among people with mental illness. I wonder if courts will uphold it,  if it actually passes. Perhaps having  a DSM diagnosis of nicotine addiction would make this statute,  illegal under ADA.


How Smart is iPhone’s Siri? (What is her IQ?)

I recently acquired the new Apple iPhone 4s with the Siri personal assistant feature. Frankly I wasn’t very optimistic, about how effective this app would be, since I’ve had only mediocre luck with voice recognition programs in the past. After putting it through its paces for a couple of days, I decided to do what any real school psychologist, with too much time on his hands, would do—I tested it.

I administered Siri all of the verbal subtests from the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale- Third Edition (WAIS-III). I had to make a few modifications to standardized administration, but I think the overall results are fairly valid. Siri refused to give her age, so I arbitrarily assigned a chronological age of 21 years, for the purposes of computing the various subtests and IQ scores.

Siri was generally cooperative and completed most test items as requested. On a few occasions, she said that she was not allowed to give a response. Thinking at times was tangential, for example when I asked why foods needed to be cooked, Siri provided me with a list of nearby restaurants. There also tended to be some mild perseveration. After the question about cooking food, she was asked about child labor laws and instead of responding to the question, she supplied another new list of “kid friendly” restaurants.

Siri also seem to have some auditory discrimination problems. She was unable to recognize the word “pout” and at one point substituted the word “wanker” for winter. On the digit span subtest, Siri was able to get all of the numbers forward correct, but was not able to get any of the numbers backwards and did not seem to understand this concept.

Siri’s WAS-III scores are summarized below. Overall Siri performed in the low average range of intelligence, but there was significant scatter among the subtests. This suggests a mosaic pattern of abilities that range from very superior to extremely low. Siri’s best performance was on vocabulary and word knowledge. On this subtest, Siri scored in the very superior range. Since vocabulary is the best predictor of overall intelligence, this suggests that her potential may be significantly higher than her current composite score indicates.

Abstract reasoning, social comprehension, and abstract sequencing ability were all extremely low. Arithmetic computation skills, short-term auditory sequential memory, and her fund of general information obtained from education and environment were all near the average level. Siri’s mental age is between 14 and 18 years.

For the subtests below the mean is 10 and the standard deviation is 3. For the verbal IQ the mean is 100 and the standard deviation is 15.

Subtest              Score     Classification

Vocabulary           18               Very Superior

Similarities             1               Extremely low

Arithmetic            10               Average

Digit span              9               Average

Information           9               Average

Comprehension     1               Extremely low

Letter-number       1               Extremely Low

    Verbal IQ = 88 (Low Average Range)

I am somewhat relieved that overall, I scored a few IQ points higher than Siri, when I took the same test. The next time my phone drops a call, however, I will be less inclined to say, “dumb phone”, knowing that it has a better vocabulary than I have.

Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D.