Catching the First Boat off Isolation Island - Me, You, and Everything in Between

Psychology For Dummies - Adam Cash 2013

Catching the First Boat off Isolation Island
Me, You, and Everything in Between

In This Chapter

Image Knowing thyself

Image Connecting with others

Image Enjoying family

Image Hanging out with friends

Image Getting to know you . . . and me

Image Communicating with others

One of the things that distinguishes psychology from other social sciences is the focus of its investigations and applications. Although psychologists do focus on groups at times, they focus a majority of their work on individuals. Therapy, for example, is typically an individual affair, even if it’s group therapy.

Americans love the classic individual. John Wayne walked tall and independently for years. Rambo single-handedly took on entire divisions of enemy soldiers. These guys stood on their own. They were individuals who resisted pressures to go along with the crowd. They seemed to know who they were, and they were never willing to compromise their self-identity. Sometimes that’s called integrity — which fits because one of the meanings of the word integrity is wholeness or completeness, and these guys were complete individuals. They had strong character and dominant personas. They knew who they were, and no one could tell them otherwise.

In case you haven’t noticed, however, psychologists take nothing for granted. If I had John Wayne in therapy and he came in with his macho, “I know who I am, and I’m not going to change” attitude, I’d take the bait. I’d say, “Okay, who are you?” It’s easy to take knowing who you are for granted. Until someone asks, most of us go around assuming we know who we are. This is the age-old question of self. What is a self, and how do I know if I have one? What is my identity? Who am I?

Feeling Self-Conscious

Have you ever seen a dog stand in front of a mirror? Sometimes they bark at themselves or stand there with a puzzled look. Believe it or not, the ability to recognize oneself in the mirror is pretty advanced, and dogs have yet to demonstrate that they can do it. Some psychologists argue that it is a uniquely human ability, although some research has shown that teenage chimpanzees, magpies (a type of bird), elephants, and orangutans can recognize themselves in a mirror.

When we’ve developed a sense of self-awareness, we’ve achieved a state of self-consciousness. Why do I say “developed?” Aren’t we aware of ourselves at birth? Actually, it may take up to five or six months for an infant to develop anything even remotely resembling self-consciousness.

The mirror technique is one of the tools that psychologists have used to test infants’ and toddlers’ levels of self-consciousness. The simplest form of this test involves just setting an infant down in front of a mirror and watching her response. Some researchers have shown that 5- to 6-month-olds will reach out and touch the mirror image, suggesting they think it’s another baby, or at least different from them.

In 1979, Michael Lewis and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn conducted a sophisticated version of the mirror test. They applied some blush to the noses of two sets of children — 15- to 17-month-olds and 18- to 24-month-olds. The idea: If the kids look in the mirror and see the blush on their nose, they’ll touch it or try to remove it in some way. But this requires the child to realize that the person in the mirror is himself. So what happened? Just a few of the 15- to 17-month-olds actually reached up and touched their noses, but the vast majority of the 18- to 24-month-old children did it. So, the older children were more likely to recognize themselves in the mirror.

Showing up in the buff

I used to have this recurring dream where I would find myself naked in some public place. In one of the dreams, I was back in elementary school, and the only thing I was wearing was a fur coat, with nothing underneath. I was pretty worried about what these dreams meant. Did I have a fur-coat fetish or was I an exhibitionist? I was glad to find out that these dreams were probably about self-consciousness. Each of us has different situations that exemplify feeling extremely self-conscious and exposed. For some people, the situation is public speaking; for others, it’s dancing in a nightclub or wearing nothing but a fur coat.

Image Self-consciousness and self-awareness are the same thing. Being self-conscious just means being aware of oneself. But too much of anything can be bad. Usually when someone says she is “self-conscious” she means that she is aware of some flaw. This is not the type of self-consciousness I am talking about in this section.

Here, I’m talking about these specific types of awareness:

Image Body awareness

Image Private self-consciousness

Image Public self-consciousness

Becoming aware of your body

Body-awareness begins with a simple question: Where do I physically begin, and where do I physically stop? Remember the movie Malice with Bill Pullman, Nicole Kidman, and Alec Baldwin? In one scene, Bill and Alec are sitting in bar, and Alec asks Bill to name the part of his body that is most expendable. In other words, Alec wants Bill to choose the part of his body that he could lose without taking a severe blow to his sense of self. If you’ve seen the movie, you know why he asks this creepy question; it’s foreshadowing.

What part of your body is most important to your sense of self? It may sound strange, but being able to tell the difference between your body and someone else’s body is crucial to self-consciousness. Think about newborns. The physical connection between a child and a breast-feeding mother is undeniable, and a child’s realization of a sense of difference, or separateness, from the mother develops slowly over a period of several months.

Keeping it private

How well do you know yourself? Are you always trying to figure yourself out? The internal focus on your thoughts, feelings, motivations, and overall sense of self is called your private self-consciousness. When you “look within,” you’re privately self-conscious. But if you “look within” a little too much, you can be privately “spaced-out.”

Showing it off

I was leaving for work one morning and realized, when I got outside to my car, that I’d forgotten something. I did the big finger snap and the one-eye squint, made an about-face, and went back inside. What are these things? They sound like something from a Seinfeld episode, but you know these actions, I bet — those behaviors you do when you forget something. Why did I make these gestures? If I didn’t, I’d look like an idiot for walking to my car and then walking back again for no apparent reason. Why did I need a reason? Someone was watching me!

This is the invisible audience phenomenon — a sense that you’re on display when you’re in public and that people are watching you. Teenagers always seem to be on stage. If they trip over a crack in the sidewalk, they turn bright red and run off giggling. This is an example of public self-consciousness, a sense of being in the presence of others, our public image — whether others are actually watching or not.

The most noticeable aspect of public self-consciousness is awareness and focus on appearances. People don’t spend billions of dollars a year on nice clothes, gym memberships, and diets for nothing. Public self-consciousness is a big part of who you are and how you see yourself.

Identifying Yourself

An easy way to find out who you are is to ask other people. Your identity is often deeply tied to the way other people see you. When you look into the mirror, what do you see? Have you ever wondered how you look to other people? Do they see the same person you see in the mirror? The part of your self-concept that is based on other people’s reactions to and views of you is called your looking-glass self, one of the most basic concepts of self. People are, after all, social creatures, and it would be hard to argue against the idea that at least part of a person’s self-concept depends on the views of others.

Daniel Stern (a notable psychoanalyst specializing in infant development) proposed a theory of self-concept that gives us a good look into how people develop a unique “self.” From his studies on infants, he proposed that all people are born with an innate ability to become aware of themselves through a series of experiences.

Image People are born with the emergent self, which basically consists of subjective experiences of joy, distress, anger, and surprise. Feelings! The core self begins to arise between the ages of 2 and 4 months, when memories start to form and people develop a sense of their physical capabilities. Next comes the subjective self, which emerges when an infant realizes that she can share her experiences with other people. A good example of this is when a baby tries to give you a drink off her bottle before she drinks it. And finally, the verbal self develops as we use language to organize a sense of self.

Arnold Buss, an American researcher and psychologist, provides a good look at the meaning of identity. Two aspects comprise a person’s identity:

Image Personal identity

Image Social identity

Forging a personal identity

My personal identity consists of the things that make me stand out in a crowd — like my massive biceps and athletic prowess. Actually, I’m thinking of something a little more psychological, even though physical appearance does make up part of a person’s identity. According to Buss, the personal identity is comprised of a public self and a private self, each with its own components.

Three important aspects make up the public self:

Image Appearance: As I mention earlier in the Showing it off section, being aware of your appearance is very much a part of your identity. This is not a uniquely western perspective. Cultures all over the world engage in elaborate and sophisticated attempts to improve appearances and enhance personal beauty, as defined by each particular culture. Some philosophers state that a sense of aesthetics is essential for the good life — central to a person’s self-concept.

Image Style: George Clooney, Johnny Depp, and Jay Z have style. The way they talk, their body language, and their facial expressions are undeniably “them.” Everyone has a peculiar way of speaking and moving. Even a person’s handwriting is unique. These things make up a person’s style. Don’t get confused by the Clooney, Depp, or Z examples though; style isn’t about being “cool.” My style is unique to me, whether it’s cool or not. It’s the “Dr. Cash” style, and no matter what others may say, I think it’s very cool.

Image Personality: Personality theories attempt to account for individuality based on differences among personalities. If someone put my personality inside another person’s body, would my friends recognize me? Maybe not at first, but they may eventually start to notice that something is up because personalities make people unique; they make a person identifiable. Personalities are enduring, and they don’t change easily. Because of their consistency and stability, personalities are good representations of who a person is, even if he acts differently from time to time. Chapter 9 is about personality.

The private self consists of characteristics that are difficult for others to see and observe. When a patient comes in for psychotherapy, a psychologist has a difficult time helping him if he refuses to talk about his private self — his thoughts, feelings, and daydreams and fantasies.

Image Thoughts: Knowing what someone is thinking is hard, unless he tells you. Some people are better than others at figuring out what people are thinking, but it’s really nothing more than a sophisticated guessing process. My thoughts are unique to me.

Image Feelings: Mental health professionals often evaluate new patients at psychiatric hospitals with something called the mental status examination. The professional observes the patient, partly to figure out how the patient feels. This observable aspect of how someone feels is the affect. But what about what the person says? I’ve often not seen someone’s depression even when she tells me that she is extremely sad. This is called mood, a person’s own private experience of feeling. When patients tell me how they feel, I have to take their word for it. It’s pretty hard to tell someone that he’s not sad when he tells you he is.

Image Daydreams/Fantasies: Who would you be without your daydreams and fantasies? Again, fantasies are typically private, especially the sexual ones. Yours are unique to you, and they define you.

You are what you do

The most interesting aspect about identity is that, as people grow older, the way they define themselves changes. Elementary school children often define who they are by the things that they do. Very young children may identify themselves by saying, “I run. I play. I ride my bike.” When these children become teenagers, this shifts to psychological concepts such as beliefs, motivations, desires, and feelings. “I want to go to the dance” or “I feel very sad today.” How do adults define themselves? Probably by combining both types of self-definition: activity and psychological concepts, “I’m a sad psychologist who can’t golf.”

Carving out a social identity

What’s your name? Where are you from? What’s your religion? Each of these questions is a component of one aspect of your social identity — those things that identify you with a particular societal category.

Group affiliation refers to things such as your vocations and social clubs. Many people identify themselves by the type of work they do for a living. “I’m a fireman!” “I’m a cop!” I’m a psychologist. But another important dimension of the social identity is the kinds of social clubs and cliques a person affiliates with. One would be hard pressed to deny the strong identification that many college men have with their fraternities. Other people see themselves as “cowboys” because they strap on boots, jeans, and a cowboy hat and go line dancing at a local Western club. No matter what you’re into, it often gives you a sense of uniqueness that goes beyond the other aspects of personal identity. Your social identity is comprised of certain identity factors that, when taken all together, equal the social “you.” These factors include kinship, race and ethnicity, and religious beliefs.


Most people realize that kinship is central to social identity. Your relatives are your “kin,” and most people get their last name from their family of origin. In the United States, last names are legal names and a fairly reliable way to identify people. Although many people have the same name, many more do not.

In Arabic culture, a last name is not the primary way to identify someone’s kin. Legally, last names are often used for identification, but a person is socially identified by who his father is, and a father is identified by who his oldest son is. Instead of being “Mr. Nasser Khoury,” an individual in this culture would be “Father of Josef” or “Abu Josef.” The son, “Josef Khoury,” would be “Son of Nasser,” or “Bin Nasser,” or “Josef Nasser.” For more on family, see Cavorting with Family and Friends later in the chapter.

Ethnicity and nationality

Ethnicity is another important aspect of social identity and is defined as a classification of belonging to a particular group based on a similar cultural tradition. Often, you can find these common categories on job and school applications. The categories are rather arbitrary in name, but they do include a lot of information. Some people are more comfortable not identifying ethnic differences between people because they fear discrimination. But ethnicity is very much a part of who people are and the culture that guides their lives.

Image Nationality is not the same as ethnicity. I can be a born-and-raised Canadian citizen with Japanese ethnicity. Both ethnicity and nationality are important pieces of information about a person because a Peruvian citizen of Japanese descent is likely very different from a Canadian citizen of Japanese descent.

Religious and group affiliations

Religious affiliation affects a person’s social identity to varying degrees. In Israel, for example, most of the inhabitants of the city of Nazareth are of Arabic ethnicity, but there are two distinct religious groups: Muslims and Christians. An individual’s religious identity is a core aspect in determining who she is. Some Americans strongly identify themselves by religious denomination: Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and so on.

Mustering up some self-esteem

Unfortunately, sometimes having a looking-glass self can be a bad thing. (See “Identifying Yourself” earlier in this chapter.) As long as other people see you in a good light, all is well. But this is often not the case. Children, for example, are sometimes belittled, put down, or verbally abused by their own parents. Even adults know that others don’t always hold them in the highest esteem, so many people don’t have very high regard for themselves.

Sorry for the depressing introduction, but many people have come to understand the concept of self-esteem, an individual’s evaluation of her self-worth, through its absence. Most of the people I know are pretty quick to point out if someone they know has low self-esteem. These folks are a dime a dozen. I mean, have you ever seen the “Self Improvement” section of a bookstore? It’s usually pretty big, and I’ve yet to come across the “You’re Already a Great Person!” section in the bookstores and libraries I visit.

Image Buss provides a good review of six main sources of self-esteem:

Image Appearance: People usually feel better about themselves when they feel attractive. A lot of social psychology research has demonstrated that people judged to be attractive are granted more favors and preferred for social interaction than those who are not. Looking good means feeling good!

Image Ability and performance: People feel better about themselves when they get good grades, perform well at work, and otherwise do things successfully. The more a person is able to accomplish for himself, the more likely he is going to feel good about himself.

Image Power: When a person feels like she’s in control of her life, she’s more likely to feel good about herself. There are at least three sub-sources of a sense of power: dominance, status, and money. Domination can be achieved by coercion, competition, or leadership. Status and money pretty much speak for themselves. I’m not saying that unknown, poor people feel bad about themselves, but they’d probably feel better if they had some status and a bigger bank account.

Image Social rewards: Three types of social rewards tend to make people feel good about who they are.

Affection: People like you.

Praise: Someone tells you that you’re doing a good job.

Respect: Others value your opinions, thoughts, and actions.

Image Vicarious elements: This source of self-esteem is all about feeling good about yourself because of things “outside” rather than “inside.” Reflected glory makes you feel good because you get a boost from being around or associated with successful, powerful, or popular people. It’s the I-know-famous-people form of self-esteem. Having nice material possessions can also make some people feel better about themselves.

Image Morality: Morality involves being a good person and living according to the standards and rules of social conduct that you admire. Being a good person never hurts self-esteem. For the most part, morality is a relative term. But, when someone feels that he’s taken the moral high ground (however he defines it) in a situation, he is likely to have positive self-esteem.

In addition to these sources of self-esteem, some research also suggests that certain aspects of personality can make an impact on self-esteem. Shyness and social loneliness have been found to be associated with a sense of low self-worth. On the flip side, people who are optimistic and sociable typically report feeling better about themselves. It seems, then, that being social and having good relationships are important to feeling good about oneself. That brings me to the topic of relationships, as I leave the realm of the isolated self behind.

Getting Attached

Humans are unarguably social creatures. Some are very social, and others are less so; but most people have a desire to socialize at least a little bit. In fact, if a person has an extreme disinterest in social interactions, he may have a form of mental illness called schizoid personality disorder. Personality disorders are tackled in depth in Chapter 13.

The most basic human relationships are between two people — husband and wife, brother and sister, friend and friend. How do you cross the divide between your isolated self and the people in the world around you? Psychologists have approached this problem by looking at what is typically a person’s first relationship: mother and child. I realize that this is not the first relationship for everyone. Some people are raised by their grandparents or by foster parents. So in actuality, the earliest relationships that people have are with primary caregivers, who may or may not be their mothers.

Realizing even monkeys get the blues

Researchers often analyze the primary relationship between a caregiver and a child by using a concept called attachment. John Bowlby is considered the dominant figure in attachment research. (Does that mean he has high self-esteem, you think?) Bowlby’s theory stated that infants are essentially dependent on their caregivers for providing the necessities of life (food, shelter, stimulation, love, and so forth). For the most part, infants are helpless, except for their ability to “attach” to and form a relationship with their primary caregiver(s). This connection or attachment ensures that the infant’s needs are met.

Image When an infant finds himself in a threatening situation, he attempts to reconnect to his primary caregiver. This is called attachment behavior — anything an infant does to attain or maintain closeness to someone perceived as better able to cope with the world. A primary caregiver is viewed as an attachment figure. If you know that your attachment figures are available when you need them, you feel more secure.

Bowlby viewed attachment as an essential aspect of leading a productive and psychologically healthy life. In fact, when attachment is lacking, infants often suffer from depression, anxiety, and a generally poor psychological well-being. In the 1950s for example, mental health professionals began to investigate the effects of long-term hospitalization and institutionalization on infants, and they documented severe problems. The adverse effects of inadequate or absent care during infancy and early childhood were undeniable. Children need access to caregivers whom they know and are connected to.

In 1959, University of Wisconsin-Madison psychologist Harry Harlow conducted an interesting experiment with monkeys. He put baby monkeys in a cage with two different dummy versions of mother monkeys. One of the dummies was made of soft cloth and had no food; the other was made of wire but had food for the babies to eat. The babies preferred contact with the soft dummy over the wire dummy in spite of the presence of food. Harlow conducted another experiment in which he deprived baby rhesus monkeys of social contact with other monkeys for as long as six months. When these monkeys were released to be with others, their behavior resembled that of a depressed and anxious human with severe levels of withdrawal, self-harming behavior (such as biting themselves), and nervousness.

Attaching with style

It should be undeniable that attachment represents an essential relationship for all people, but I’m sure you well know that the gap between ideal and reality can be vast; the concept of human attachment is no exception. Some people are in therapy today because of the less-than-ideal relationships they had with their primary caregivers. So if Bowlby presented us with the ideal, what else is there?

Various attachment styles theories address the variations on Bowlby’s ideal relationship. They used the strange situation technique to determine the nature and extent of children’s attachment. In the strange situation, a child and her primary caregiver are put in a room with some toys to play with. Then, the primary caregiver gets up and leaves the room. Researchers observe and record the child’s reaction. After a while, a stranger comes into the room, and the child’s reaction is recorded again. Finally, the primary caregiver comes back into the room, and the child’s behavior is recorded one last time.

Researchers designed the strange situation to determine if a child uses the caregiver as a secure base from which to explore the environment. A child sees a caregiver as a secure base — a safe place to launch explorations into the world from but someone to safely return to if there is a need. The strange situation observed the following in order to answer these questions:

Image When the caregiver leaves, does the child fuss or react with protest?

Image If there is a protest, is it because the child prefers to be with the caregiver, or is it because the child fears that the caregiver won’t return?

Image When the caregiver returns, does the child welcome him or her back, or does the child react in some other, more resentful or distant manner?

The answers to these questions lead to a description of three basic attachment styles:

Image Secure: Securely attached children exhibit the following 'margin-top:0cm;margin-right:0cm;margin-bottom:6.0pt; margin-left:57.5pt;text-indent:-9.75pt;line-height:normal;text-autospace:none'>• They use their primary caregiver as a secure base from which to explore their environments.

• They protest a little when their caregiver leaves but eventually calm down, seeming to trust that he will return.

• While with strangers or other adults, they’re friendly but not overly so.

• Upon reunion, they go to the primary caregiver and seek connection.

Image Anxious/ambivalent: Anxious/ambivalently attached children act in the following ways:

• They do not use their caregivers as secure bases to explore from.

• They sometimes resist initial contact with the caregiver but staunchly resist any attempt to break it off after it has been established.

• They are avoidant or sometimes aggressive in the presence of strangers.

• They cry excessively upon separation and are difficult to console.

Image Avoidant: Avoidant attached children act as follows:

• They seem to need less contact from the caregiver.

• They are indifferent when left alone or cry only because they are alone and not because they seem to miss the caregiver.

• Upon the return of the caregiver, they either avoid or ignore her.

Before anybody designs his own little “strange situation” at home to see how much his children love him or not, let me tell you about goodness-of-fit. Goodness-of-fit refers to how well the primary caregiver and the child are matched in terms of temperament and personality. This fit can have an effect on attachment style and should be considered before anyone writes himself off as a horrible parent or “unlovable child.”

Caregivers and infants sometimes can look like they’re engaged in a harmonious dance, perfectly synchronized with each other. Other times, they look like they both have two left feet. If a mother is high-strung and energetic, she may not do well with a mellow baby — and vice versa. The style of interaction and how smoothly it happens is a powerful factor in establishing a secure attachment. So if you’re having trouble and you think that your child is poorly attached, take a look at the style of interaction and see whether there’s anything you can do differently to improve it.

Cavorting with Family and Friends

Ever wonder why so many people get depressed during the holidays? Maybe they’re not looking forward to going into debt to finance all those gifts. Or maybe the holidays remind them how lonely they are. I’m not buying it. Here’s my explanation: The holidays mean getting together with family, and families are pretty good at embarrassing and belittling each other by pointing out weight problems and receding hairlines or pitiful salaries. That can be pretty depressing! Fortunately, families are good for some positive things, too.

A family consists of at least two people related by blood, marriage, or adoption. It seems like families have changed quite a bit over the last 20 years, including increasing numbers of single-parent families, gay marriages, and blended families of divorce. A lot of marriages end in divorce, so children are learning to manage two sets of parents, half-siblings, and split holidays. Even though the modern face of the family has changed, many of the basic functions of a family have not.

The McMaster model of family functioning breaks down seven major components of, you guessed it, family functioning:

Image Problem solving: The family’s ability to resolve issues and maintain family functioning.

Image Communication: The clarity and directness of information exchange in a family. You knew this one was coming.

Image Roles: The different behaviors and responsibilities of each family member in terms of meeting basic needs, performing household tasks, and providing emotional support and nurturance.

Image Affective responsiveness: Each family member’s ability to express and experience a range, intensity, and quality of emotions.

Image Affective involvement: The family as a whole’s interest in the values, activities, and interests of others.

Image Behavior control: The rules and standards of conduct. Belching at the dinner table was never a laughing matter in my family — even if we were supping on soda and cauliflower!

Image Overall family functioning: A family’s ability to accomplish its daily tasks across the other six areas. If you had to give your family a grade, what would it be?

Image Children of divorce

The effects of divorce on children have been a matter of controversy since the first pen scrawled across the dotted line of those famed papers. And many parents stay together “for the sake of the kids.” Yet most research tends to show that children are not necessarily adversely affected by the divorce of their parents. Boys seem to do a little worse than girls in the long run, but research indicates that the most important predictor of how children will cope with a divorce is the nature of the marriage. If the parents always fight and have a tumultuous relationship while married, then the divorce is also likely to go poorly and have a negative impact on the children’s adjustment. Researchers often advise couples to not argue or discuss divorce-related issues in front of children and to keep overall conflict to an absolute minimum in order to avoid undue stress and strain and coping difficulties for the children.

Parenting with panache

A good friend of mine recently had a baby. Just when I was about to offer him some psychological advice on parenting, he started talking about all the advice people had been giving him and how it bothered him. I kept my opinion to myself. “Crying opens up their lungs.” “Don’t give babies a pacifier.” There are almost as many opinions on how to raise children as there are people on the planet. Fortunately, psychologists have been trying to simplify things.

Diana Baumrind, a clinical and developmental psychologist, took on the task of trying to boil down parenting into something a little more manageable. She came up with three main parenting styles: authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive:

Image Authoritarian: These parents are rigid and dictatorial. Some kids feel like prisoners in their own families; parents are overly strict and don’t listen to what the children have to say. They’re like the drill sergeants of parenting. What they say goes, and there’s no discussion about it. Unfortunately, all that toughness tends to backfire. Authoritarian parents tend to have children that are either overly passive or excessively rebellious and sometimes hostile. These parents can learn a lot from the next style of parenting.

Image Authoritative: These folks tend to approach parenting with a more democratic style. Parents from previous generations often criticize how “today’s” parents try to reason with their children too much. “What that kid needs is a good spanking!” Authoritative parents listen to their children and allow them to have input, while maintaining parental authority and control. Children seem to thrive in this environment, and they tend to act more sociable, feel more capable, and be more well-adjusted in general as they grow up.

Image Permissive: There are two types of permissive parents:

Indulgent: Ever go to one of those backyard beer parties in high school? Me neither, but I hear they can get pretty wild. I’ve always wondered where those kids’ parents are. Oh, I get it; they’ve got the “cool parents.” Indulgent parents are involved with their children but shy away from control, authority, and discipline. They sometimes even enable their children to engage in questionable behavior because they don’t want to alienate their kids.

Indifferent: These parents are neglectful due to a range of possible factors, including career obsession, drug abuse, or self-centeredness. Whatever the reason some people adopt this style, permissive parents tend to have children who report feeling ill-equipped to deal with the demands of growing up.

Embracing your rival: Siblings

Ever wonder what siblings are good for? Those of you who are only children may have fantasized about having a brother or a sister. Those with siblings may think those creatures are pretty much only good for fighting and stealing your crush, but psychologists have found that there’s actually more to it.

Siblings have a powerful effect on a person’s development. They create a family environment that would be very different without them. Siblings are also good sources of friendship, companionship, and affection. Sometimes they can even be role models. Here are three other distinct functions that siblings provide for each other:

Image Mutual regulation: Acting as sounding boards and testing grounds for new behavior, like practicing a break-up speech before delivering it to an unsuspecting sweetheart

Image Direct services: Easing household burdens and sometimes providing practical support, such as rides, help with homework, or fashion advice

Image Support: Helping each other in times of need by forming alliances and sticking together

Many people are familiar with sibling rivalry and discord. Research shows that the most common negative qualities associated with siblings are antagonism and quarreling. Some people think that the fighting goes away as people grow older, but the truth is that the basic emotional character of sibling relationships remains pretty stable over time. Interactions can change, but the feelings remain much the same.

Getting chummy

How does that old saying go? “Friends are forever?” Or is it “Diamonds are forever?” I never can remember. I don’t have many diamonds, so it doesn’t really matter much anyway. But I do have friends, and friendship is an important element in life. Why do we remember Tonto’s name? Because he’s the Lone Ranger’s friend.

Psychologists Willard Hartup and Nan Stevens provide a nice review of research related to friendship. They basically define friendship as a relationship between mutually attracted people engaged in a reciprocal relationship of exchange. Friends are different from non-friends in that our relationships are typically mutual. There’s a lot of giving and taking and giving again in most friendships.

Good friends provide support and help people cope with life’s problems. But making friends isn’t necessarily easy; it requires a fair amount of social skill. It doesn’t hurt if you’re socially well-adjusted. Being equal and fair also helps. And knowing how to manage conflicts when they arise helps maintain the friendships you develop.

Who are your friends? I’m guessing they’re people much like you. Friends are typically similar in age, gender, ethnicity, and ability. A lot of times friends also have a similar lifestyle. Generally speaking, as people get older, friends tend to be people you work with, which means that they’re probably of the same socioeconomic class as well. This still remains relatively true despite the popularity of social media and the use of the Internet as a social tool. Shoot, guess that means no rich friends for me!

Friendship tends to have a positive effect on psychological well-being. People who have good friendships tend to be more sociable, helpful, and confident. Friends are good for your health. So go out there and make a few!

Understanding Person Perception

Humans are social beings, and no small part of survival depends on a person’s ability to understand the human environment. Social understanding — including alliances, enemies, allocations of resources, division of labor, relationships, communication, and self-awareness — is vital. Each person must possess a basic level of social skill to get along within the human environment. Researcher and psychologist Ewing Phillips offers a good working definition of social skill: the ability to communicate and interact with others in a way that allows for one’s needs and goals to be met without interfering with others’ goals.

In this section, I describe three very important social skills: understanding other people’s behavior, understanding your own behavior, and communicating.

Explaining others

People are always watching other people. When you go to a public place like a park or a busy shopping mall, how often do you just watch people? You may notice people’s clothes, the bags they’re carrying, or the conversations they’re having. You’re noticing all kinds of things about them and using your observations to draw conclusions.

Don’t believe me? How many times have you decided that the teenager with purple hair and a pierced nose is just looking for attention? When’s the last time you figured that the woman driving a brand-new SUV with kids in the back is a stay-at-home soccer mom with a successful husband paying the bills? Where do people come up with these ideas? Maybe, the purpled-headed kid is conducting a psychology experiment. Perhaps the woman is a CEO and single mom. How do you know? If you’re like most people, you almost instinctively begin drawing conclusions about other people based on what you see, hear, and experience.

The area of psychology that’s devoted to understanding how people go about thinking about people, including themselves, is known as social cognition; it tries to break down the mental processes involved when people observe, think about, and make inferences about other’s behavior.


Trying to explain other people’s behavior can be difficult. You can’t look inside their minds, so you can only guess what’s going on in there. But this doesn’t stop people from trying to explain others’ actions. In fact, it’s so common that there’s a word for it. The complex process of drawing conclusions about other people’s intentions and characteristics, based on a person’s observations of them, is the social cognitive process known as person perception. Almost everyone uses some assumptions in the person-perception process, including these:

Image People are causal agents; they play an active and intentional part in producing their own behavior. Nobody or nothing else causes them to behave in a particular way.

Image People are like me, thinking and feeling in the same ways I do. Thinking like this allows people to use themselves as a baseline when trying to understand other people.

Snapping to judgment

Have you ever experienced love at first sight? I’ve always wondered how that works. How can you fall in love with somebody based on just looking at him or her? Maybe research in the area of snap judgments can help answer that question. Snap judgments of people are instantaneous, automatic, and unconscious evaluations.

Image Snap judgments follow two types of cues:

Image Static cues: Things that are relatively unchanging about a person like appearance, gender, and body type (not including clothing). People use this information to make evaluative judgments about other people, and these judgments can be right or wrong. I may evaluate a person with a particular hairstyle as laid-back and easygoing (long and hippie-esque), or I may see him as nerdy and uptight (high and tight around the ears). Either way, I’m using an aspect of someone’s physical appearance to make a judgment about what kind of person he is.

Image Dynamic cues: Things that tend to change depending on the situation, such as facial expressions, clothing, and mannerisms. When I see a person smile, I may evaluate him as generally happy, or I may assume that he just heard a funny joke. Either way, I’m using relatively basic information to make snappy evaluations of a person’s personality or life.

Making an impression

Snap judgments are really just the beginning of attempts to figure out other people. We all make snap judgments and usually are unaware it’s happening. In the process of impression formation, people go beyond snap judgments and make in-depth inferences about the kind of person someone is.

Solomon Asch, at Swarthmore College, came up with a popular theory of impression formation that focuses on the existence of central traits that color interpretations and perceived meanings of observed traits. It’s like people have an internal sense that certain traits go together. For example, an attractive person may have an easier time getting someone to help him change a flat tire than an unattractive person. This may be related to an assumption that the attribute of attractiveness is automatically connected to the attribute of gratefulness. I’m not going to help an unattractive, ungrateful person change his tire.

Implicit personality theory

Jerome Bruner and Renato Tagiuri in the 1950s considered the internal sense of traits that belong together as part of an implicit personality theory. People learn that certain traits go together because they’ve either been told that they go together or observed them going together. I was told a thousand times that polite people don’t interrupt, so I guess I’m pretty rude because I interrupt all the time. Interrupting and rudeness “belong” together in my implicit personality theory.

Basically, implicit personality theories are stereotypes. Stereotypes are an inevitable consequence of attempts to make sense of the social world. Stereotypes are thinking shortcuts. No one can possibly store independent evaluations of every single person he ever meets. This would take up way too much space in the human memory. Instead, people categorize other people, and sometimes this categorization results in the formation of stereotypes. Unfortunately, in an attempt to simplify the world, people often over-generalize negative aspects of others, which too often leads to prejudice and racism.

Figuring out the causes of others’ behavior

Snappy judgments based on limited information aren’t the only thinking shortcut; most people also attempt to determine why a person did what she did or what caused a particular behavior. This is known as attribution, a process by which a person’s behavior is linked to either internal or external causes.

Image When making an attribution, a person typically considers three important pieces of information:

Image Consistency: People generally behave in the same way every time a particular situation occurs.

Image Distinctiveness: When a person behaves differently with different people and/or in different situations, his behaviors are considered “distinct.”

Image Consensus: There’s agreement that all people act in a particular way when engaged in particular activities or within specific contexts.

Numerous possible combinations of these three pieces of information exist in varying degrees, and these variations provide clues to whether a behavior is internally or externally motivated. For example, the combination of high consistency, low distinctiveness, and low consensus leads to a personal attribution (internal cause or explanation for a person’s behavior). When I act consistently across situations, respond to the same stimuli the same way every time, and act differently than other people in that same situation, it’s probably me. High consistency, high distinctiveness, and high consensus lead to an external attribution. When I act the same across situations, but I respond differently — but the same as other people in the situation — to the same stimuli, it’s probably the situation or the external environment. So what would you attribute my passion for polka music to? Doesn’t everyone love polka?

All of this judging begs the question of whether or not people are accurate in their attributions. A consistent mistake is called the fundamental attribution error. Most of the time folks underestimate the role of external causes as determinants of other people’s behavior. There’s a tendency to see what people do as inherent to them, as actor-caused, because you lack significant information about a person’s behavior across situations. When in doubt, attribute it to the actor. The more information you have, the better judge you become.

Conversely, people also have a tendency to see their own behavior as a result of external causes more so than other people’s behavior (Jones and Nisbett). This is called the actor-observer effect/bias. Again, this tendency is probably due to the fact that people have access to more information about themselves.

Similarly, when it comes to success and failure, people tend to attribute their successes to internal causes and their failures to external causes. This reverses for other people’s successes and failures.

Explaining yourself

Do the famous people who endorse products on television commercials actually use the products they promote? Does Beyoncé really drink Pepsi? Does Lebron James really use a Samsung smartphone? Does Shaq drive a Buick? Maybe so, and maybe no. I don’t know Beyoncé, Lebron, or Shaq, so all I can do is guess. But let’s just say for the sake of discussion that they do use the products they endorse. If I asked them why they endorse those products, what would they say, and what would these responses tell you about how well these people know themselves?

Researchers Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith performed a classic experiment that offers some insight into the “Lebron James question.” They asked research subjects to perform a dull and boring task and then offered the subjects money to tell other people that the task was really interesting. There were two groups. One group was paid $1 each, and the other was paid $20 each. The subjects that received only $1 reported that the task was more interesting than the $20 subjects did when asked about their true feelings as opposed to their “endorsement” feelings. The $20 created a larger gap between the subjects’ actions and what they thought they felt. This experiment demonstrates cognitive dissonance, the process of changing one’s beliefs to match one’s actions. If I do something that contradicts my beliefs and I can’t think of a another plausible explanation (like they paid me big bucks to lie — $20 then would be worth about $150 now), I will alter my beliefs to match my behavior.

The subjects who were paid $1 must have figured that, if they were only getting bribed with one measly dollar, they must not have been so bored after all. The bigger the bribe, the more we perceive the task as being contrary to our true beliefs. In this case, the extra money represents an easy explanation for our behavior.

What does this tell us about our famous product endorsers? If they do use the products they endorse, they may do so because they don’t want to admit that they only endorse the products for the money. Lebron may not want to admit to himself that he really wants an iPhone but endorses Samsung because he loves the money he gets to say that’s the phone he prefers. So he may change his attitude to match his behavior.

Cognitive dissonance says a lot about how people know things about themselves and engage in the process of self-attribution. Daryl Bem of Cornell University developed a theory of self-perception that states that people know their own attitudes by drawing inferences based on observing their own behavior in the same way that they observe others. You know yourself in the same way you know others — by observing behavior.

When trying to figure out yourself and judging your own behavior, you may be guilty of some pretty interesting distortions. Here are three common distortions:

Image False consensus effect: This is a tendency to overestimate how common your opinions and behaviors are, especially the undesirable ones. “Everyone’s doing it!” People tend to see a consensus that is consistent with their opinions, whether or not one exists.

Image False uniqueness effect (FUE): There’s a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous, “You’re terminally unique!” The phrase is used for people who think that their problems are so different from everyone else’s that no one can possibly understand them. The FUE is the tendency to underestimate how common one’s beliefs are, especially the desirable ones.

Image Self-handicapping: When I was in college and I knew I had a tough test coming up — one I was pretty sure I was going to fail no matter how much I studied — I wouldn’t study for it at all. That way, when I failed it, I could blame it on not studying instead of my lack of ability or intelligence. When people create excuses for failure in order to protect their self-esteem or self-image, they’re engaging in self-handicapping.

Communicating Is Easier Said Than Done

One of Ronald Reagan’s nicknames was “The Great Communicator.” Supposedly, he could really get his point across, and people responded well to his speeches. I personally haven’t taken the time to analyze Reagan’s communication skills. But whether you’re negotiating with nations as the president of the United States or trying to order a hamburger at a drive-thru, communication skills are vital to being a socially skilled person.

Owen Hargie, Christine Saunders, and David Dickson at the University of Ulster developed a model of interpersonal communication that identified several important components of the communication process. All episodes of communication are goal-directed, and several goals may be pursued simultaneously. A conversation varies as a function of the intended goal. If my goal is to visit with an old friend, I may talk about different things than if I’m conducting a psychological evaluation.

There are also several mediating processes that shape the communication process. Any psychological process that affects the meeting of a communicative goal or the outcome of communication can be a mediating process. One important process is called focusing (what one pays attention to), which can have a major impact. How you connect current conversational information with previous knowledge is also important, and inference — going beyond the surface information being communicated — is also important.

Another core aspect of the communication process is feedback, which is information provided to me by the other person about how effectively I am communicating, and how I use it. If you use feedback to change the way you communicate, then you can better meet the conversation goals. But some people seem to just ramble on, oblivious to signals from other people in a conversation that they’re not making any sense. These ramblers are not picking up on the feedback. Here’s a hint: When someone falls asleep while you’re talking to her, that’s important feedback.

Being a great communicator involves being good at three specific communication skills: asking questions, explaining, and listening.

Asking questions

An important feature of all effective communication is the process of questioning. Questions are a good way to open a conversation, gather information, and express to another person that you’re interested in what he’s saying. There are several different types of questions, such as:

Image Recall: A question like “Where were you on the night of November 12 at 10 p.m.?” asks you to remember basic information. Just a little advice if the police ask you this question: Call a lawyer.

Image Hypothetical: Questions designed to engender some creative thought such as “If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?”

Other questions that ask the responder to analyze, evaluate, or problem solve often have different formats that solicit different types of answers:

Image Closed-end questions require just a yes or no or identification response.

Image Open-end questions require description and elaboration.

Image There’s an art to being a good questioner. Giving the responder a context and structure often helps the responder form answers that meet your actual information needs. You may start out by saying, “I have three main questions.” The point is to clue the person in to what you are trying to learn.


In addition to being good at questioning, the gift of gab often requires a certain level of skill at explaining oneself. Explanations provide information and clarify messages, and they’re often used to demonstrate a point.

Image When making a point in a conversation, an individual can often bolster her argument by providing a solid explanation for the position being taken. Good explanations are clear, focused, and linked to the listener’s knowledge base. Being brief and avoiding a lot fillers like “um,” “uh,” and “ya know” also helps. These terms interrupt the fluency of communication and can lead to loss of interest.

Sometimes it helps to pause and review so the listener can organize and absorb what has already been explained. It’s also very important to use language that is appropriate to the audience or listener. If you’re too technical, too gross, or too basic, you may lose their interest.


A third critical aspect of effective communication is listening. One-way conversations are poor excuses for communication. If no one is listening, there’s no “co” in communication.

Image Here are some good listener guidelines:

Image Focus: Turn off the TV, put away your phone, reduce extraneous noise, and don’t fidget or fool with stuff around you. Doing your taxes or looking at your mobile phone while someone is talking is a dead giveaway that you’re not really listening.

Image Clear your head: Be aware of your biases and preconceived ideas and mentally prepare yourself to pay attention and absorb the information being offered by the other person.

Image Mentally engage: Keep yourself focused by asking questions to clarify what the speaker is saying.

Image Wait: Don’t interrupt if you can help it. Respond when the other person finishes making a point.

Image Process: Mentally identify the main point of the speaker’s communication and organize what he is telling you into categories such as who, what, when, why, and how.

Image Remain open and attentive: Don’t use blocking techniques, such as denying someone’s feelings or changing the topic. Take in what the person is saying.

Image Demonstrate attention: Maintain eye contact, nod, and orient your body toward the speaker and keep an open posture. Don’t cross your arms or turn away.

Asserting yourself

One of the most common problems I see in my clinical practice is that people don’t know how to stand up for themselves and communicate their needs in a direct and confident manner. Complaints about pushy coworkers, jerky bosses, and grouchy spouses are commonly the result of a person’s lack of assertiveness. For some people, assertiveness seems to come naturally; they’re just good at telling people what they think in a way that doesn’t put anybody off.

Image I’m not talking about being aggressive; that often involves a certain level of hostility and a denial of the other person’s rights in the interaction. I am talking about something a little milder than aggression, assertiveness.

Assertiveness can be defined as standing up for one’s rights and expressing one’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in a direct, honest, and appropriate manner that respects others. Ever have someone cut in line when you’re at the grocery store? Did you tell them to go to the end of the line, or did you keep your thoughts to yourself only to get increasingly resentful about it later? What about ordering food at a restaurant and getting something you didn’t order? Did you eat it anyway or did you send it back? It sounds easy, but a lot of people won’t say anything because they fear being seen as a jerk, being disliked, or hurting another person’s feelings.

Assertiveness is a social skill that you can learn. Typically, when people get better at being assertive, the overall quality of their relationships improves. They no longer feel that they can’t say what they really think or that they have to keep quiet for the sake of friendships. When people learn how to communicate assertively, they awaken to a whole new realm of possibilities in communication.

Want to be more assertive? Basic assertions are expressions such as “No, I don’t like that movie” or “Thank you, but I’ve had enough fruitcake.” Empathic assertions are statements used to convey that you understand the other person’s position even if you’re not going along with it. “I understand that you prefer fast food over Italian, but I’m really craving spaghetti.”

When someone begins with a basic assertion and then progresses into more straightforward statements with little ambiguity, she engages in escalating assertiveness. This is a good skill to use with pushy salespeople, as this example demonstrates:

Salesperson: Can I help you find something?

Customer: No thanks.

Salesperson: Well, we’ve got these great deals in women’s apparel today.

Customer: Really, I’m not interested.

Salesperson: How about. . . .

Customer: For the third time, can you please leave me alone? I don’t want your help.

Image A particularly useful tool in assertive language is the “I statement” — using a personal position rather than pointing out the other person’s behavior and using the “you” word. Instead of telling my boss that he’s been hounding me and he’s starting to tick me off, I may say, “I get the sense that you’re putting unfair pressure on me, and I’m feeling frustrated.” Easier said than done, I know, but it works pretty well. Try it!

Image The following is a quick list of verbal defense strategies that you can use against manipulative and rude people:

Image Broken record: Simply repeating oneself over and over again. “I said no! What part of no don’t you understand? I’ll say it again. No! No!”

Image Fogging: Agreeing with what someone is saying but not changing one’s position. “You’re right, I should watch what I eat. I have gained a few pounds.” All the while thinking to yourself, “I’m going to eat whatever I feel like eating. When can I get away from this jerk?”

Image Meta-level: Taking a conversation to a more abstract level than the original conversation. “I think this is a good example of how hard it can be to get one’s point across. I’ve often wondered how we can get past this.” I like to call this the old therapist switch-a-roo! “What is the ideal weight anyway? Being heavy used to be a sign of beauty and prosperity. I’m beautiful and prosperous, not fat.”