Welcome to Handling Today’s Hidden Ethical Dilemmas. This practical and thought-provoking series with leading experts on ethical practice will explore current ethical guidelines for therapists. The first session with Mary Jo Barrett will delve into how to reconcile boundary maintenance and will cover why peer supervision and consultation are vital to ethical therapy, plus many issues that are consistently confusing for clinicians.
How has digital technology changed the ethical challenges practitioners face in the consulting room? Join psychologist Ofer Zur in this practical discussion of the new ethical trials that exist due to new technologies such as email, social media platforms, the Internet, cell phones, and more. Zur will break down the new issues and provide suggestions as to what therapists should do in order to best handle these ethical quandaries.
Join Clifton Mitchell for a practical discussion on the latest legal developments on therapists’ responsibility to handle self-injurious behavior in clients, report abuse or rape, and handle right-to-die issues. Mitchell will delve into significant legal and ethical situations and discuss practical case studies that’ll help you better understand the best ways to deal with these important issues—ethically and legally speaking—in the consulting room.
Learn from veteran therapist William Doherty as he’ll delve into complicated ethical situations by showing video clips from the popular HBO series, “The Sopranos” and “In Treatment” to lead discussions on useful and unbeneficial ways to bring up terminations when clients are no longer benefiting from therapy. Doherty will explain the most common scenarios when termination is—or should be broached—and will go over strategies for initiating termination topic at the right time and in the right way.
During this session you’ll have the opportunity to hear from Steven Frankel, who’s a certified clinical and forensic psychologist as well as an attorney at law. Frankel will discuss the best ways to deliberately avoid the most common ethical dilemmas in order to protect your clients and yourself.
As the final session, Marlene Maheu, a leader and pioneer in telehealth, will discuss how to effectively provide online therapy while maintaining ethical boundaries. She’ll explore such tools as Skype, Google, virtual self-help products, and more.
After the session, please let us know what you think. If you ever have any technical questions or issues, please feel free to email email@example.com.
By Rich Simon Two years ago, when we put out an issue about digital technology and how it was revolutionizing the way we experienced our relationships, I was having a little revolution of my own. A long-time Luddite who’d been dragged into the Computer Age, I had just acquired my first iPod and was in a state of deep infatuation, entranced by the possibilities for connection and entertainment promised by that little digital baby. Read more …
By Rich Simon Like a lot of us in this field, I’ve had boatloads of therapy over the years, but never a coach. At least not until recently, when Andrew—my 26-year-old basketball coach—came into my life to school me in the fine art of the crossover dribble and how to slide my feet on defense. At no extra charge, he’s also begun providing me with some of the best therapy I’ve ever received. Read more …
As a parent are you overstressed or burned-out? As a therapist is your client’s child shutdown? Learn how to apply PACE (play, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy) to reestablish a more empathic conversation. Join Daniel Hughes as he teaches how to apply these skills and reunite parents and children through dialogue.
After the session, please let us know what you think. If you ever have any technical questions or issues, please feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn how to bring freshness and novelty to your life and practice by moving beyond habitual patterns. Join Eugene Gendlin as he shows how to use our “Felt Sense.”
After the session, please let us know what you think. If you ever have any technical questions or issues, please feel free to email email@example.com.
Q: I know that the first session with new clients is crucial, especially when doing brief therapy. How can I make the most of it?
A: Like it or not, many of us are brief therapists by default. Stats tell us that clients go to an average of five to eight therapy sessions, but most of them go only to one, making it essential that we hit the ground running.
We all know the essential tasks of the first session in any kind of therapy: building rapport and a sense of collaboration, assessing and diagnosing, and formulating and offering a preliminary treatment plan. The tasks in brief therapy aren’t different, but they’re done in less time–meaning that therapists need to get to work immediately, and there’s little leeway for mistakes.
I find it useful to think of the first session the way a family physician might when a client shows up with an ailment. Basically, there are four goals to meet: getting on the same page, changing the emotional climate, clarifying the link between problems and personality, and offering a clear treatment plan–and if you miss any one of them, the client probably won’t return.
Getting on the Same Page
It’s useful to set the stage for brief therapy by letting clients know a little about your approach during the first contact–that you think brief, that you focus more on the present than the past, and that you give behavioral homework. You may tell them a little about your experience to convey a sense of your competence. Once they come to the session, like any therapist, you help them feel welcomed and safe. You can do this by listening carefully to their story and being empathic, subtly mirroring their body position or language to help foster rapport, and clarifying their expectations, either to reinforce them or to suggest alternatives.
But you can’t just listen for 50 minutes and then thank them for coming, take out your appointment book, and say, “Same time next week?” Not in the age of Dr. Phil. You must shape the process by offering direction and leadership, not just responses. This gives clients the crucial sense that you know what you’re doing and where you’re going with them.
However, the most important part of getting off on the right foot is what I call “tracking the process like a bloodhound.” This is where it’s easy to get lazy and lose focus. Clients instinctively want to talk content–to dig through their pile of stories and sort through the heap of facts. Of course, to some extent, that’s important, but you want to focus on what you see that clients usually don’t: what’s happening moment-to-moment in the room. Whether you make a comment or an interpretation or provide education, you need to watch closely how the client responds. Make sure you notice the nod of the head or other indicators of solid agreement. If you hear a “Yes, but . . .” or a lukewarm “That makes sense,” or observe eyes glazing over or a frown, don’t move ahead. Stop and address the problem that’s right there in the room: “Hmmm, you’re making a face. It seems like you may see it differently.”
Gently clarify your thinking, connect your thoughts to the clients’ most pressing concern, and make sure they’re in sync with you throughout the session. If they are and you can offer a clear treatment plan, you’re off to a good start. But if not, they’ll balk or seem uncertain about setting up another appointment. Then and there, you need to realize that, somewhere along the line, you fell out of step.
Changing the Emotional Climate
In a first session, clients are expecting something for their time and money: when they walk out, they want to feel differently from how they felt when they walked in. This is what I call changing the emotional climate. Simply listening and being empathic, allowing clients to vent, goes a long way toward accomplishing this. So does education. Talking to clients about the brain physiology of anxiety, for example, or typical family patterns can help normalize their distress and place it in a larger, fixable context. This is what your family doc does when she tells you that you have an infection or that your rash is simple contact dermatitis caused by the new cream you put on your face. You feel better having a label, an explanation, and a palpable sense of your physician’s educated concern.
In brief therapy, though, you need to ramp it up experientially. One of the most effective ways of changing the emotional climate is, again, zeroing in on the ongoing process with the client. You want to pay extremely close attention to the nonverbal communication, to tap the subtle feelings that are just below the surface. When Sara looks hurt, stop the story and focus: “Hold on, Sara, what just happened? You’re looking sad.” If you say this gently, with real sincerity, Sara may be able to drop her defenses and actually begin to tear up or cry. This open and shared vulnerability will help her emotionally bond with you. You can also do this by asking directly about these often softer and less obvious emotions: “What causes you to feel sad? What worries you the most?” Or ask about positive feelings to offset all the focus on negative ones: “When do you feel your best? What are you most proud of?” By asking, you move to a different level in your relationship with a client and change the climate in the room. Even if Sara seems to push your questions away, you’re still letting her know that you’re noticing how she feels and that this is a safe place to talk about difficult things when she’s ready.
While these points may seem fundamental to being a therapist, I’m always surprised when I see clinicians failing to create this powerful shift. They get too caught up in gathering history for assessment to notice these emotional subtleties, or they rationalize that it’s too soon to tap them. But that’s a mistake.
Linking Problems to Personality
The first question I always ask myself is: What keeps this person from solving this problem on his own? Sometimes it’s because clients have situational stress: they just got fired from their job, they have a medical crisis, their kid got busted for drugs. Normally, they can cope, but now there’s just too much on their plate. They need support and help to be able to zero in on the problem. Other times, it’s a matter of skill or lack of it: they have continual financial problems because they really don’t know how to set up a budget, or can’t talk with their partner without triggering conflict or disengagement. Once you help them understand and implement a budget or master the keys to good communication, the problem begins to fade.
Other problems persist, not because they’re rooted in stress or lack of skill, but are intrinsically linked to their personality and coping style. I think of this from the Buddhist standpoint: How you do anything is how you do everything. In fact, this is where some clients are stuck. While they’re worried about the what–the content of their problems–the real source and solution to their current problem, and many of the problems in their lives, lies in the how, their overall response to problems. This is what I call their core dynamic–an expression of their primary childhood ways of coping, such as accommodation, anger, or withdrawal. While these ways may have helped them survive the challenges of their early environment, now, like outdated software, they’re no longer helping them negotiate the more-complex demands of an adult world.
To move out of the 10-year-old’s perspective and better handle the problems in their lives, they need to update their inner software. More traditional approaches might track this down by a long march through the past, but in a brief approach, you can tackle it in the first session by asking how they concretely and specifically cope with current problems on the job or at home. Of course, you may even detect their coping style during the session itself, through their responses to you.
Once I’ve defined their coping style, I often try to link it to their current problem, helping them see the latest manifestation of the same outmoded response. By doing that, I set the stage for their attempt to challenge their early wiring: instead of being good and accommodating, as they’ve always done, the might push back and say what they need; or, instead of spraying anger around the room, they might self-regulate and use their anger as information. I let them know that they can update the software, which will not only fix their current problem, but prevent future ones.
This focus on defining, understanding, and challenging the core dynamic is empowering for clients. The message is that you can help them map out new ways of taking acceptable risks, breaking old patterns, and acting more like the adult they are than the 10-year-old they often feel like.
Offering a Clear Treatment Plan
Finally, like the physician, you need to leave clients with a clear set of next steps. If you decide the client is stuck because of situational stress, talk about ways of navigating this challenge in the scope of their broader lives. If it’s about coping skills, map out what skills you feel would be important for them to learn. If it’s about their core dynamic and ineffective approaches to problems, or a combination of all of the above, let them know what you’re thinking and what they concretely need to do.
Then, as always, track the process and see what happens next. Does this make sense to them? Do they agree? Do they understand how this is all related to their presenting concern? If there’s a sincere and congruent yes, you may give them concrete behavioral homework to help develop new skills or reduce their stress. If there’s hesitation, ambivalence, or accommodation, stop, clarify, or ask questions until you’re clear about what’s going on. Just remember that their resistance isn’t the problem, but a source of valuable, additional information about what the solution might be. As in any other phase of psychotherapy, it’s hard to go wrong if you bear in mind the clinician’s most useful mantra: track the process like a bloodhound!
Robert Taibbi, L.C.S.W., trains nationally and is the author of more than 200 articles and five books, including the forthcoming Therapy Boot Camp: Brief, Action-Oriented Approaches to Anxiety, Anger & Depression. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell us what you think about this article by e-mail at email@example.com, or at www.psychotherapynetworker.org. Log in and you’ll find the comment section on every page of the online Magazine.
Debbie, who’s in her fifties, called: “I’m so upset about my relationship with my daughter. She and I are always in conflict, and my husband agrees this needs to be changed.”
When she came in, she reported feeling sad because she couldn’t enjoy visiting her daughter, an only child who lives nearby. “It’s such a noisy household. The children scream and squabble; there are two of them under the age of 6. I wish my daughter would be more organized and keep them quiet, so I could enjoy being there. I get so tense, I have to leave her home in the middle of a visit.”
I didn’t have a clear strategy, so I asked her to bring her daughter, Emmy, next time. Then the dynamics became clear. Emmy is a high-energy, outgoing, modern, in-your-face 35-year-old woman. Mother Debbie is quiet, somewhat distant, a loner, who needs her space. I was reminded of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Mom is a lot like the uptight couple who come into the vibrant Greek gathering.
During the hour with Mom and daughter, it became clear that Emmy wanted her mother to change and just enjoy her high-energy household. “Why can’t you be like other grandmothers, and just come in and enjoy the family?” And Mom wanted Emmy to change. “Why can’t you be more organized and quiet, so I can be comfortable with you? I can’t stand all that commotion.”
First, I tried some conventional strategies, like helping them listen nonjudgmentally to each other, but there was no movement in their relationship. I didn’t see any point in seeing them together again, so I asked Debbie to come in alone.
Again, she told me, “It just isn’t me to be like other grandmothers who get on the floor and play with the children and enjoy all the noise. And I like me the way I am. She’s asking me to be someone I’m not.”
I assured her: “You’re fine just as you are, and Emmy is fine the way she is. You just happen to be very different personalities. She’s AM, and you’re FM: she’s rock-and-roll, and you’re chamber music.” She agreed.
“Fortunately, there’s a solution. I’m thinking about Meryl Streep, and how she takes on a different personality for every role, but off-stage, she’s still Meryl Streep: she doesn’t have to change who she is. I wonder if you’d enjoy inventing a role that works well when you’re with Emmy and her family? (Here, I slowed to my hypnotic voice and watched her slip into a trance.) When you open the door to her home, you can see it like a stage. You pause at the door, view the scattered toys, and listen to the active children as part of a stage set. You may find it amusing. You’re Meryl Streep slipping into a role. Your creative inner mind will be alongside your conscious mind, enjoying the flow as you engage with your daughter and your grandchildren in fun ways, and every time you enter that stage, that family stage, you’ll find yourself expanding into your new role in satisfying ways, sometimes surprising yourself, always enjoying your secret strategy. It’s OK to let your husband in on it. Afterward, you and your husband may chuckle about the relaxed grandmother character you’ve created. You’re both director and actor on this stage. Really enjoy surprising them.”
She came out of her trance and exclaimed: “I can do that!” After some additional mental rehearsal, she left in a very good mood. Three days later, my phone rang: “This is Meryl Streep calling. I just earned an Oscar. I spent a whole day with Emmy and her family, and at the end of the day, my husband asked Emmy, “How did your mother do today?” Emmy said: “She did great!”
It was their first pleasant, relaxed day together in many years, a day without tension and conflict. I asked Debbie what she found interesting while playing her new role. She replied, “I felt so calm–very different–calm and comfortable.” ;
A well-deserved Oscar!
A few weeks later, she called to say, “I’m so excited and happy because I entertained my entire high-stress clan, and did my Streep thing, and enjoyed myself!”
A couple of months later, she said, “I’m so glad I did it. Strangely, now I feel more motherly and understanding toward my daughter than ever.”
By Steve Andreas
This is a really lovely example of many different important aspects of change work, and the importance of a careful choice of words.
The first session doesn’t offer a clear direction for intervention, so Ronald Soderquist wisely brings in the daughter, so he can observe them interacting, rather than knowing the daughter only through the filter of the mother’s perceptions and report. Although the interaction becomes much clearer when the daughter joins the mother for the second session, having them both together makes it difficult to intervene usefully.
In that session, it becomes clear that, for both of them, the issue is one of identity, in contrast to behavior. Both want the other to change, and each speaks of this change in terms of being different–in contrast to acting different. The daughter says, “Why can’t you be like other grandmothers,” and the mother says, “Why can’t you be more organized and quiet.” (Most answers to either of those questions would lead only to justifications and rationalizations, neither of which would be useful.)
For most people, being different seems to be much more difficult than doing something different. If you describe a certain behavior as “being different,” most clients will object, as both mother and daughter do in this case, and this is one source of what many therapists describe as “resistance.”
As long as both mother and daughter think of their differences in terms of the other having to be different, not much is possible. Demanding that someone else be different is an ill-formed outcome that gets many of us stuck and frustrated, because while you have at least some choice about your own behavior, you really don’t have any choice about what someone else does. That’s why having them “listen nonjudgmentally to each other” in the second session went nowhere, despite how useful that intervention often is.
But if you describe the same behavior as “doing something different” or “acting different” a client will often be willing to consider it. This distinction between identity and behavior is one that many therapists have never learned, and it’s often a crucially important reframe. In this case, it’s the key understanding that allows the mother to change her behavior and have a new internal response to the chaos of her daughter’s household.
In the third session, the mother states even more blatantly that her understanding of the issue involves her identity, “It just isn’t me to be like other grandmothers. . . . I like me the way I am. She’s asking me to be someone I’m not.” That brief utterance makes six references to her identity and five to her being: isn’t, me, be, I, me, I, am, me, be, I’m.
Soderquist begins his intervention by exquisitely pacing her focus on her identity, assuring her, “You’re fine just as you are,” relieving her of any pressure to change who she is, and implying that her daughter’s attempt to change her isn’t valid. He follows this up immediately with saying, “And Emmy is fine the way she is,” which implies that the mother’s attempts to change her daughter are just as invalid. Since the mother already agrees with the first statement, she has to agree with the second, which only reverses the direction of the logic. Abandoning her attempts to get her daughter to be different closes a door that leads nowhere, and opens a door to a more useful alternative.
To strengthen this understanding, Soderquist first offers a generalization about two of them being different. “You just happen to be very different personalities.” Then he follows this up with two metaphors that express this difference in who they are, “She’s AM, and you’re FM: she’s rock-and-roll, and you’re chamber music.” Both metaphors are drawn from contexts in which differences clearly don’t need to change.
He begins his description of Meryl Streep, and the difference between her self and the roles she plays, with the word, “Fortunately,” a cognitive qualifier that creates an expectation of good things to come. If he’d used a different adverb, such as “unfortunately” or “sadly,” the mother would have had a very different expectation about what he’d say next. Saying “there’s a solution,” further directs her attention away from the problem and builds even more positive expectation.
“I wonder if you’d enjoy inventing a role that works well when you’re with Emmy and her family,” is called an embedded question, a hypnotic linguistic form often used by Virginia Satir, one of the greatest therapists who ever lived. Although it’s a statement, it elicits an internal response as if it were a gentle question, but without demanding an overt response the way most questions do. This invites the mother to consider changing her behavior without any demand that she do so, and with no need to respond verbally.
Notice how different an overt question with the same content would be. “Would you enjoy inventing a role that works well when you’re with Emmy and her family?” would demand a verbal answer, and keep her externally focused on Soderquist, making it harder to turn inward and consider whether she could enjoy doing that. The embedded question focuses her attention on whether she’d enjoy playing a role, implying that she can do it; the question is merely whether she’d enjoy it or not. Before, she demanded that the daughter change; now she’s invited to change her own behavior (while keeping her identity intact)–an enormous shift in attitude that most clients can benefit from.
As she begins to consider this possibility, she’ll naturally become more internal, a perfect time for Soderquist to slow his voice to be more hypnotic and set up the specific cues for her new role play–all in present tense, so that she can rehearse it as if it’s happening at the moment. “When you open the door to her home, you can see it like a stage. You pause at the door, view the scattered toys, and listen to the active children as part of a stage set.”
Then he permissively suggests a response she might have, “You may find it amusing,” and follows with even more detailed suggestions that continue to encourage a rehearsal of new behaviors. “You’re Meryl Streep slipping into a role.” The use of “slipping” implies that it will be easy and effortless. Think how different it would be for her if he’d said “trying to get into role” or “struggling to act differently”! He then goes on to suggest other behaviors, and possible pleasurable responses for her.
When he says, “Your creative inner mind will be alongside your conscious mind,” it implies that the creative mind is unconscious and will assist her. As he goes on to say, “enjoying the flow as you engage with your daughter and your grandchildren in fun ways,” it implies that much of this will occur unconsciously and spontaneously. Notice all the words that make this rehearsal an enticing prospect: enjoying, flow, engage, fun, expanding, satisfying, surprising, enjoying, secret.
A bit later, when Soderquist says, “Afterward, you and your husband may chuckle about the relaxed grandmother character you’ve created,” it invites her to take a future vantage point and look back on what she’s imagined, as if it had already happened, further cementing its reality as something she can do. With all this elegant hypnotic language, it’s not surprising that when she emerges from her trance, she says, “I can do that!”
This entire intervention probably took less than four minutes, showing that when you know what to do–and how to do it–change is easy.
I think Ronald Soderquist deserves an Oscar, too!
Ronald Soderquist, Ph.D., a hypnotherapist and licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, is the director of Westlake Hypnosis in the Los Angeles area. He’s served on the staff of California Lutheran University and other universities and graduate schools. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steve Andreas, M.A., has been learning, teaching, and developing personal-change methods for more than 53 years. His books include Virginia Satir: The Patterns of Her Magic; Transforming Your Self; and Six Blind Elephants: Understanding Ourselves and Each Other. His new book is Transforming Negative Self-Talk: Practical, Effective Exercises. Contact: email@example.com.
Tell us what you think about this article by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at www.psychotherapynetworker.org. Log in and you’ll find the comment section on every page of the online Magazine.
By the time you’re reading this, the 2012 election will have been decided, and we’ll all have had our fill of the partisan rancor that’s become commonplace in politics. Perhaps you yourself have had the experience of getting lost in an argument in which you became exasperated that people on the other side couldn’t see what was so obvious, despite your best efforts to reason with them.
When caught in the stalemate of a political debate, the advice of Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion and a social psychologist in the New York University Stern School of Business, is to save our breath–or at least recognize that what we think we’re arguing about isn’t really what we’re arguing about. Haidt believes that most political debates, at least the way they’re usually conducted, are useless because the underlying issues aren’t what they appear to be on the surface. Politics, he says, is ultimately about our stance on fundamental moral beliefs and group loyalties–things that aren’t usually influenced by facts, figures, or rational policy debate. In the interview that follows, he offers a perspective on why we vote the way that we do that differs from what you’re likely to read about in our mainstream election-season coverage.
RH: Your book is based on the idea that most of us don’t understand the true roots of political differences. What are we missing?
Haidt: People often assume that politics is primarily about self-interest. They wonder why someone would vote for a candidate who’s going to raise their taxes or cut their benefits. But politics, especially at the presidential level, is more like religion than a shopping excursion. Despite all the individualism and materialism within our culture, our group affiliations matter deeply to most of us. Politics begins to make more sense when you understand it as a tribal phenomenon.
RH: So, in politics, group membership trumps individual need?
Haidt: Yes. The more we care about our ethnic group, our city, our state, our occupational group, the likelier we are to vote for politicians who we believe will advance those interests, even when they diverge from our individual interests. For example, it’s striking how many liberal parents with children weren’t more opposed to forced school bussing in the 1970s. Politics is largely about moral missions for the nation, and the president is expected to be the high priest of the American civic religion. It can be illuminating to see the left and right in this country as practicing different civic religions, and looking to very different high priests.
RH: From a moral standpoint, what’s the difference in the outlook of the left and the right?
Haidt: To begin with, left and right have different understandings of fairness. The left tends to focus on equality, with an emphasis on equality of outcome. In contrast, the right cares exclusively about proportionality of outcome: if outcomes are equalized when deservingness isn’t the same, they consider that an abomination. This is why welfare is such a contentious issue. When social conservatives look at people who might have contributed to their own sorry state, they’re deeply offended by the thought of bailing them out, but on the left, compassion for those who are suffering is more widespread. There’s a basic difference in moral attitude about how each side thinks about “fairness.”
RH: But fairness is often raised by both sides in debating social-justice issues, like gay marriage.
Haidt: The left tends to focus on victim groups–on people whom they see as being treated badly and denied opportunity. We’ve had several civil-rights revolutions in this country since the ’60s, first for African Americans, then for women, and then the disabled. Gay people are pretty much the last group against whom it’s legal to discriminate. That’s become one of the central issues for the left in recent years.
RH: It’s no secret that most therapists are politically progressive and aware of the limitations of the right’s perspective.
What are the limitations of the left’s perspective?
Haidt: The basic principle of moral psychology is to begin by understanding someone’s concept of sacredness. Once you do, you’ll find an intense energy, as well as some blindness. If you know what a group holds sacred, you’ll see what most animates it, but you’ll also see places where it loses its perspective and can make mistakes in the name of politics.
An example would be the Obama administration’s position on forcing organizations to pay for contraception. Had there been organizations that were actively banning contraception, they would have been an understandable foe. Instead, the question became, “Should Catholic hospitals and schools, despite their moral position, be forced to pay for contraception?” When the Obama team went ahead and pushed that issue, it was totally unprepared for the outrage it triggered.
RH: Does it come down to the left and right just having fundamentally different ideas of how things should be?
Haidt: Well, both sides care about fairness, and both sides care about liberty–but on the right, their version of fairness is much more focused on catching cheaters and slackers. The idea of a person getting something for nothing really makes their blood boil. That’s why we had Republican Congressman Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” moment during Obama’s healthcare speech in 2009. It was over the question of whether illegal immigrants can get free healthcare–something that deeply offends the right’s sense of what’s morally correct. On the left, people approach that issue from the perspective of compassion: some vulnerable, hardworking illegal immigrant is here in America and gets hit by a car, what should happen to him? Are we going to let him die? It’s a fundamental difference of viewpoint, but rational debate leads nowhere because you can’t change people’s minds on moral and political issues with arguments and evidence.
RH: Why not?
Haidt: Political views aren’t like views about factual matters. If you believe that it’s faster to drive to the airport than take mass transit, and I give you evidence that mass transit is faster, there’s a good chance that I’ll change your mind, because your goal is actually to get to the airport more quickly. With political and moral questions, our goal isn’t “the truth.” That’s why it’s always vital to bear in mind the importance of group membership when trying to understand political differences. Political beliefs act as badges of membership, badges that say who we are and give us a sense of meaning and purpose. They’re badges that we display to show our moral character. So simply refuting someone’s views about global warming or needle-exchange programs or abortion or anything else will have little effect, because people aren’t going to betray their team because you show them evidence that they’re wrong.
RH: So why do we invest so much energy in debating politics?
Haidt: The goal is to be a good team member. We argue not so much to persuade as to show off our team membership. Blog debates on the Internet are really instructive about this phenomenon because it’s so clear there’s no chance of persuasion. People just get more and more extreme in stating their case and showing off how cleverly they can state their arguments. They’re really not interested in what the other side is saying.
RH: If we’re so fundamentally different, how do we peacefully coexist without getting more and more polarized?
Haidt: We first need to realize we actually do peacefully coexist. Things are very heated and getting worse by the decade, and yet political violence is extremely low in the United States, so we should thank heavens for that. As a social psychologist, I generally believe that the situation is extremely powerful, and that the context tends to swamp individual personality traits. So the most important single variable in your politics is the part of the country where you grew up. If you were born in rural Utah versus Boston, that’s probably more important than your score on the personality trait of openness to experience. Nevertheless, the big surprise revealed in research over the last 15 years has been that environment isn’t everything. There’s a growing consensus that temperament matters, and that political leaning isn’t somehow different from all the other personality traits.
RH: What’s the contribution of temperament?
Haidt: Our tendency to be on the left or the right is as heritable as anything else–around 0.5, depending on the measure. For example, our genes predispose us to seek change, diversity, and variety, or order, stability, and predictability. People with different brains will find different kinds of arguments and different social settings attractive. To understand political attitudes fully, you have to understand a range of factors, including genetics, neuroscience, childhood development, adolescent development, and cultural psychology.
RH: What do therapists need to know to understand the kinds of conflicts that revolve around political divisions?
Haidt: I’m not sure it’s especially helpful for therapists to empathize with people’s political beliefs per se, but I think they should be sensitive to the moral differences that are underlying cases in which ideology is dividing someone from a loved one on the other side of the political spectrum. I think we need to be respectful of both sides and recognize that both are really wise about the different kinds of threats that exist in the world. What the study of moral psychology can do is help everyone understand the other side and treat them with more understanding, even honor. The alternative is the kind of demonization that happens when our partisan reactivity activates the endless cycle of argument and rebuttal that we see too often these days.
Ryan Howes, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, musician, and clinical professor at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, California. He blogs “In Therapy” for Psychology Today.
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