Written and researched by Bob Murray, PhD
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Chronic Self-Doubters More Materialistic
A new study found that people with enduring feelings of self-doubt scored higher than others on a measure of materialism -- the tendency to value monetary success and material possessions over other goals in life. Specifically, they were more likely to believe that success was defined by what a person owns.
"Feelings of self-doubt can send people looking for meaning in their lives, with a goal toward boosting their self-worth," said Robert Arkin, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University. If they aren't deriving a sense of self-worth from other parts of their lives, they may feel that owning a lot of things proves they are successful."
The study was published in a recent issue of the journal Psychology & Marketing.
Arkin said research in countries around the world show that people tend to believe that materialism is a weakness of insecure people who doubt their self-worth. However, he said there has not been much evidence to confirm that.
In one study, Arkin and his team had 416 undergraduate students complete a variety of measures that examined their levels of self-doubt, several forms of materialism, and other psychological traits. The results showed that people who were chronic self-doubters scored higher in materialism. In particular, they scored higher on a measure of materialism in which people define success in terms of what they own. For example, they were more likely to agree with statements such as "I like to own things that impress people" and "The things I own say a lot about how well I'm doing in life."
The link between self-doubt and materialism was confirmed in a second study that found that inducing feelings of self doubt could increase materialistic tendencies in those with chronic self-doubt. This study involved 95 undergraduates -- half who scored high in chronic self-doubt and half who scored low. Participants were asked to memorize words by relating these words to their own personality and experiences. Half the subjects memorized self-doubt words (insecure, doubtful, uncertain, etc.) while the other half memorized words unrelated to self-doubt (inside, double, unicorn, etc.).
Prior studies have shown that this technique increases feelings of insecurity in those who memorize doubt-related words. In this study, participants were asked about their current state of mind regarding materialism, rather than their long-term feelings. Results showed that when participants memorized doubt-related words, those who scored higher on chronic self-doubt showed significantly higher levels of current materialism than those who did not have chronic self-doubt. But among those who memorized the unrelated words, there was no difference in immediate feelings of materialism between the chronic self-doubters and the confident participants.
"For those people who are chronically insecure, materialism seems to be a coping mechanism that they use when they are put in a situation that makes them doubtful about themselves," Arkin said. She added that it is noteworthy that self-doubters score high on a type of materialism that equates possessions with success.
"Chronic self-doubters are not interested in possessions because they bring happiness or because they simply like owning a lot of things," Arkin said. "They are interested in possessions because of their meaning, the status they confer. They believe their possessions demonstrate success." That's why materialism can be seen as a coping response for people who are uncertain about their identity, he said.
The results also showed that materialism is related to another type of uncertainty -- anomie. While chronic self-doubters tend to be uncertain about their own abilities and identity, those who score high in anomie tend to feel uncertainty related to their society and culture. They tend to feel rootless and believe society lacks clear guidelines for behavior.
But whether a person suffers from anomie or self-doubt, Arkin said materialism is a poor coping mechanism. Other studies have shown that a materialistic orientation to life is linked with poor psychological functioning and lower life satisfaction.
Read more in Psychology and Marketing
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Eccentric People More Extreme as They Age
July 7, 2002
Odd and eccentric behaviour increases with age -- but flamboyant behaviour becomes less pronounced, according to a new UK study. The team at Imperial College, London followed up 202 patients with diagnosed personality disorders. The patients' ages varied widely, with an average of 35. They were categorised into one of three groups. The first, "odd or eccentric," included people diagnosed with schizoid, schizotypal or =aranoid personalities. The second, "flamboyant," were antisocial or histrionic. And the third, classified as anxious or fearful, had been diagnosed as having strong obsessional or avoidant personality traits. Twelve years later, the team re-assessed 88 per cent of the patients. And they found a significant change in personality status over time. The personality traits of patients in the flamboyant group had become significantly less evident, whereas the personality traits of the odd or eccentric and anxious or fearful groups were more pronounced. "The tendency to be a little odd or eccentric can often be kept under control in younger people, as they modify their behavior to social norms," says Peter Tyrer, professor of public mental health at Imperial College, who led the study. "But as people get older there is evidence of reduced plasticity of the nervous system, which makes them less adaptable and increases expression of their odd personality traits," he says.
Read more in New Scientist
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Social Factors "Cause Ethnic Schizophrenia"
July 7, 2002
In fact, according to the latest study, the rates of schizophrenia are up to twice as high among this sector of the British population. The study by the Centre for Caribbean Medicine at King's College London suggests the main reasons may be social.
The researchers compared rates of schizophrenia among African-Caribbeans in London with those in Trinidad and Barbados. They found that the rate was much higher in the UK -- strongly suggesting that social, rather than genetic factors played an important role.
They went on to find that UK African-Caribbeans who had been separated from one or both parents for four years or more during childhood were more likely to develop schizophrenia. A similar link was also seen with unemployment in British Afro-Caribbeans.
Dr Rosemarie Mallet, a medical sociologist based at King's College Institute of Psychiatry and lead author of the paper, said: "This research highlights the significance of social disadvantage as a cause of severe mental illness. It's important we find out why this disease is more prevalent in this ethnic group, not least because of the distress it causes to patients and relatives in this disadvantaged section of the population. The knock-on effect of the increased rate is a greater strain on psychiatric services in London and inner city hospitals. Plus, on another level, finding out the cause of the disease in African-Caribbeans will help us to understand it better in all populations, because it is clear that schizophrenia isn't just down to poor genetics or neuro-developmental patterns."
This is only the latest piece of evidence in the unfolding schizophrenia story. Science is coming back to the old theory that the disease has social and familial roots as well as genetic and prenatal ones. See our earlier story Schizophrenia Linked to Racism. BM
Read more in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology
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Narcissists Brilliant Workers, But Terrible Colleagues
June 24, 2002
Narcissistic people do not make pleasant colleagues, but they perform better than average at tasks that would daunt others, according to new US research. The team studied 248 people, who completed questionnaires assessing the degree to which they agreed with statements such as: I am an extraordinary person, I like to look at myself in the mirror, the world would be a better place if I ruled it. They then took part in four tests: the children's board game Operation (a test of manual skill), darts, and measures of arithmetic and creativity. People who scored higher on the narcissism measure performed on average about 20 per cent better on the tests when they were given the chance to shine. According to the researchers "If you need someone to make a crucial presentation or to do something spectacular, they could be good to have around." On the other hand they will frequently steal the glory from fellow workers and claim all success as their own. The researchers claim that narcissists have a "noxious sense of self-esteem." The study is the first to find that narcissistic people perform better on tasks that give them the opportunity for glory.
Read more in the New Scientist
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Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Linked to Piety
June 10, 2002
The notion that a strict, possibly even God-fearing, upbringing may contribute to obsessive-compulsive disorder has been boosted by a survey which discovered that devout Catholics were more likely to show symptoms than less religious people.
Patients with OCD get caught in a vicious mental cycle that can take over and cripple their everyday lives. For instance, a sufferer may become convinced that everything around them is dirty, and in extreme cases spend up to eight hours a day cleaning in a bid to banish the thought.
The causes of the disorder, which affects at least five million Americans and a million Britons, are still obscure. But genes, upbringing, head injuries and emotional trauma have all been implicated.
Now Claudio Sica at the University of Parma in Italy and his team have found that committed Catholics are more likely to show symptoms of OCD.
The researchers compared people, such as nuns and priests who worked in the Church, with committed lay Catholics and others with virtually no religious involvement. Each subject was asked to document mild OCD symptoms, such as intrusive mental images or worries. The more devout Catholics reported more severe symptoms. "It is tricky to tie these findings to clinical OCD," Lynne Drummond, a psychiatrist at St George's Hospital in London told New Scientist. She thinks a patient must have a genetic predisposition to develop such symptoms. However, she adds that many OCD patients do say they had a strict upbringing where actions were either right or wrong.
There is a movement in many churches, including the Anglican Church, to class the forcing of undue strictness in piety and morality as "spiritual abuse." No doubt there will soon be an officially listed psychiatric category for it. BM
Read more in New Scientist
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Bisexuality Linked to Mental Health Disorders
June 10, 2002
It has long been recognized that members of the homosexual and bisexual community have a higher rate of mental problems than their heterosexual counterparts. However up to now there has been no studies separating the homosexuals and the bisexuals to see what differences there were. The new research was carried out by a team led Professor Anthony Jorm, of the Center for Mental Health Research at the Australian National University.
The team surveyed 4824 adults, divided between those who were heterosexual, homosexual or bi sexual. They looked for instances of anxiety, depression, suicidality, alcohol misuse, various personality disorders and a range of risk factors for poorer mental health.
The found that the bisexual group was highest on measures of anxiety, depression and personality disorder, with the homosexual group falling between the other two groups. Both the bisexual and homosexual groups were high on suicidality. Bisexuals also had more current adverse life events, greater childhood adversity, less positive support from family, more negative support from friends and a higher frequency of financial problems.
Homosexuals also reported a high degree of childhood abuse and less positive support from their families than members of the "straight" community.
The researchers concluded that of the three groups, the bisexuals generally had the worst mental health, although homosexual participants also tended to report more mental and emotional distress than heterosexuals.
Read more in the British Journal of Psychiatry
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Unmarried Men Have More Personality Disorders
June 10, 2002
According to an article in the British Journal of Psychiatry about 9% of the entire population suffers from a serious personality disorder of some sort. In a study of 742 people in Baltimore aged 34-94, researchers at Johns Hopkins University tried to find out what groups in the community were more prone to personality disorders. Their findings were quite startling. They found that the group most likely to suffer from a personality disorder were men who had never married. After them came young men without a high school degree and running a close third were all those who had a high school degree but who had never married.
Read more in the British Journal of Psychiatry
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What's Evil? Who Decides?
June 10, 2002
Webster's New World Dictionary dispatches the word evil in 11 lines. But inspired by Sept 11, psychiatrists have devoted thousands of words to the topic at their annual meeting in Philadelphia. They've explored what evil is, what kind of people do evil things, and what can be done to prevent evil.
Defining evil, especially in a legal way, is not as easy as you might think. There's so much variation in what constitutes depraved or vile or heinous behavior that it's not far from the famous definition of pornography. "I know it when I see it," said forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner, chairman of the Forensic Panel, psychiatrists who consult in legal cases.
This is an important problem because legal punishment -- especially capital punishment -- can hinge on whether jurors think a crime was particularly vicious.
So Welner, a New York psychiatrist who led a forum at this week's meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, has decided to "wade in the cesspool of this topic" and try to figure out if people of different ages, sexes, religions and races can agree on what constitutes depravity. He's developing a "depravity scale" based on an online survey about criminals' intent, actions and attitudes. Participants decide whether an act is especially, somewhat, or not depraved.
Eventually, the Depravity Scale will be pruned to a smaller number of items about which there is widespread agreement. Some examples:
- Intent to emotionally traumatize the victim, through humiliation, maximizing terror, or creating an indelible emotional memory (such as causing a child to witness a violent crime).
- Prolonging the duration of a victim's suffering.
- Targeting a victim because he or she was helpless.
At a forum chaired by Welner, Michael H Stone, a Columbia University psychiatrist who studies sadistic parents, recited a litany of "true crime" cases. There was the father who poured boiling water over his 9-year-old son's penis and then set off a cherry bomb under his puppy, the mother who locked her daughter in the closet overnight before church, and the uncle who made his niece choose the stick with which he would beat her.
"There is always a case more revolting and depraved than the one you and I think of as the worst," he said.
Psychiatrist Joseph Merlino of the New York University School of Medicine argued for a lower threshold for defining evil, as behavior that deprives people of their humanity. He talked about evil in the workplace -- actions that involved violations of trust by ordinary people, such as embezzlement by a well-liked, religious executive.
The traditional approach to evil is that it "resides in certain kinds of people who are different from us," said Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist at Stanford University who is president of the American Psychological Association. Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and, now, Osama bin Laden top the list of evil people. Most people think there is an impermeable line separating good from evil that they themselves would not cross. But Zimbardo has spent his career studying what makes average people do bad things and he said he has learned that barrier is "much more permeable than we would like to believe."
A famous example was the famous 1954 study by Stanley Milgram, in which he told people they were giving others electric shocks to help the victims learn. Sixty-five percent administered shocks they believed were dangerous. When critics said that maybe the study subjects had not really believed they were hurting anyone, two California professors asked students to shock a puppy to help it learn. The students saw the very cute puppy yelping in pain after real shocks. Half the male students went ahead and administered shocks to the puppy. "What about women, nurturing, caring, loving women?" Zimbardo told the Philadelphia Enquirer recently. "One hundred percent... They were crying, but, in fact, they were more obedient to the teacher."
Zimbardo identified factors that push ordinary, "good" people to do bad things: obedience to authority, anonymity, diffusion of responsibility, indoctrination, and dehumanization of the enemy. Blind obedience to authority is a particular problem. "We don't teach our children how to distinguish between just and unjust authority," Zimbardo said.
Personally I believe that the experimenter who set up the experiment where the puppy was repeatedly traumatized demonstrated real evil. It seems to me that there is a thin line between him and the leaders of the SS special forces who shot Jews in Eastern Europe and the Cambodian leader Pol Pot. Once we become desensitized to doing harm to a fellow creature -- any creature -- we have crossed a line which leads to the death camps. BM
Read more in the Philadelphia Inquirer
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Peek in the Bedroom Before You Venture into a Relationship
March 11, 2002
Depending on what character traits you desire in a mate, you may want to look at his or her office or bedroom. If you're looking for someone who's extroverted and agreeable, you'd probably do better meeting him or her as well. But if it's principally conscientiousness and openness you want, a look in their bedroom is an absolute must.
In fact, according to new research by University of Texas, Austin psychologist Dr Samuel Gosling and his colleagues, personal spaces such as bedrooms and offices are an incredibly rich source of information about people's personalities. Their study will appears in the March issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The research team found that people are remarkably accurate at guessing some aspects of others' personalities -- in particular whether they tend to be open and conscientious -- based only on a look at either their offices or their bedrooms.
In two separate studies, Gosling asked people to rate others' personalities -- using the standard and quite broad "Big Five" traits of openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and emotional stability -- after looking through either their offices or their bedrooms. He then compared how well these personality-raters agreed with each other as well as how accurate their assessments seemed when compared to self- and peer-ratings of the office and bedroom inhabitants.
The 94 offices examined in the study belonged to employees of five businesses: a bank, a real estate firm, a business school, an architecture firm and an advertising agency. The 83 bedrooms belonged to college students or recent college graduates living on or near a college campus.
Other researchers have carried out similar experiments, but Gosling is the first to try it without providing any direct visual or biographical information about the person whose personality is being assessed. Instead, they had to rely on cues such as personal items (though all photos and references to the occupants' names were covered up), decorating style, neatness and level of organization.
Not only did Gosling find that personality raters -- eight in the study looking at offices and seven in the study looking at bedrooms -- agreed among themselves, but he also found that they were relatively accurate in their assessments. At least for certain traits.
While earlier studies found that people could accurately assess extroversion and agreeableness by viewing photos and video clips but had a harder time assessing conscientiousness and openness, Gosling found the opposite is true for viewing people's personal environments.
"Should you decide to date someone by looking at their bedroom?" says Gosling. "If openness is important to you, sure. But if extroversion is important, you might want to meet them first. It seems to depend on what information you want."
By evaluating the cues in the offices and bedrooms that people use to assess personality traits, the authors found many cues that people could use to judge openness and conscientiousness -- such as distinctive decorating for openness and neatness for conscientiousness -- but few for judging the other traits. Gosling and his colleagues then determined which of these cues were "valid." In other words, if a bedroom was neat, they looked to see whether the room's occupant tended to be conscientious. If so, neatness was considered a valid cue for that room.
Based on their list of valid cues, the researchers found that people seemed to use valid cues to assess openness and conscientiousness but were less likely to do so to assess the other traits. The researchers also found that people relied on gender and racial stereotypes -- based on their guesses of occupants' gender and race -- when few cues were available. So, for example, they tended to use stereotypes to assess emotional stability but not to assess conscientiousness.
Read more in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
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Abuse Triggers Schizophrenia
January 23, 2002
Psychologists have found evidence of a high rate of childhood physical and sexual abuse among children who were later diagnosed as schizophrenic. In particular they found an especially strong link between childhood abuse and hearing voices. In some cases the voices being heard were those of the people who carried out the abuse.
The researchers also found that the changes in the brain seen in abused children were similar to those found in adults with schizophrenia. In both children and schizophrenics, similar parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus, were damaged and brain chemistry was affected the same way.
Stress caused by abuse is thought to alter the development of a child's brain, which at a young age can be moulded by the stimulus it receives.
Lead researcher Dr John Read, from the University of Auckland in New Zealand, said science had to tackle the possible link between upbringing and mental illness head on.
"For far too long efforts to understand and treat people with psychotic experiences have been dominated by simplistic and often unsubstantiated biological and genetic theories," he said. "What we are advocating is a more integrated approach where the horrible life events reported by so many people diagnosed schizophrenic are no longer ignored or inappropriately dismissed as part of their illness. It is time to break the silence about how frequently people with psychosis have been abused, whether inside or outside the family."
"I anticipate a degree of outrage, from biological psychiatrists and people acting as spokespersons for relatives' groups, but the facts speak for themselves and cannot be brushed aside because some people find them upsetting."
The outrage duly arrived. The press and other media spent more time quoting opponents of the study than the original findings.
My own clinical experience certainly supports the results of this study. Though by no means all schizophrenia sufferers have been abused as children, the majority seem to have been. The question is: does the abuse come as a reaction to the odd behavior of the young schizophrenic or is the illness trigged by the abuse? What seems to me to be certain is that there are many forms of schizophrenia. They share broadly similar symptoms but may have very different causes -- genetic, environmental (see our earlier story about racism and schizophrenia), pre-natal (mis-wiring of the brain) or maternal self-abuse (smoking, drugs, alcohol etc). There seems, in my clinical experience, to be a powerful link between depression and schizophrenia and between overly intolerant parents (especially fathers) and early-onset schizophrenia. More research needs to be done in these areas. BM
The University of Auckland study was reported in Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes
For the reaction
read more in BBC News
For similar research on abuse and changes in brain chemistry and structure
read more in Psychiatric Times
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About the Author
Dr Bob Murray is a widely published psychologist and expert on emotional health and optimal relationships. Together with his wife and long-term collaborator Alicia Fortinberry, he is founder of the highly successful Uplift Program, and author of Raising an Optimistic Child (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and Creating Optimism (McGraw-Hill, 2004).
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