Psychology Today

The dawn of The New Year is traditionally an occasion for all sort of useless list making. In that spirit, here's a random, incomplete list of the Top 9 (yes, nine; get out of the box and live a little) things we could do without in the next year, but will probably have to endure anyway.

The global warming "debate"--True, we are not certain how quick and deep the warming trend will move, and how much of it is caused by humans. But to use this uncertainty as reason for inaction defies logic. There are two types of errors a system can commit when addressing a threat: a 'false alarm' and a 'miss'. If you tilt the system to avoid one, you'll inevitably get more of the other. For example, because we don't want to imprison the innocent (false alarm), we have many criminals walking free (miss). When it comes to Earth, we cannot afford a miss. We don't have another earth to run to or experiment with. True, by working to avoid a miss we increase the risk of a false alarm--it may indeed turn out that global warming was not so much man-made or so bad--but that mistake will be far less costly and more reversible than doing nothing and learning the opposite. And there's another bonus to moving on global warming. Had we channeled the resources we've invested in the Iraq war toward finding alternatives to fossil fuel and achieving energy independence, we could have actually made positive changes in the Middle East by compelling oil-based economies and societies to modernize. But that would have required a visionary leader right after 9/11, and we had, well, Dick Cheney.

Ads--Observe: from the moment you wake up you are bombarded mercilessly, ceaselessly with ads--on the radio, the TV, the newspaper; on computer screens, gigantic billboards; ads on cars, blimps, signs, stickers, articles of clothing and pieces of mail; a thousand invisible sticky fingers prying at your pockets, waving for your attention, poking at your chest, grabbing at your neck, imploring, threatening, admonishing you to buy more stuff. The dominating force in our overstuffed lives in this richest of nations is the one harassing us to get more stuff. No wonder nobody's wondering about how and why shopping has turned from a means to an end (I buy what I need) into an end in itself (what I need is to buy).

Spam email--Some spam scams (try this fast after three beers) mine timeless human conditions: greed (a Nigerian prince has an offer for you!); insecurity (take this pill--the ladies will melt and your erection won't); loneliness (your friend just sent you an e-card. Click here to see your hard drive exploding). Newer scams exploit a contemporary archetype: the hurried multi-tasker, who is distracted enough to respond to an official-looking invitation from a bank to fix a security problem, or to an attachment titled, "The files you've requested." This is the story spam tells about us: we are greedy, insecure, lonely, and out of time. Last year, as the markets continued their spectacular meltdown, my spam shifted too, looking to bail me out of my insolvent mortgage, fix my destroyed credit, and negotiate my bankruptcy dealings. I can't wait for the Viagra e-mails to reappear, it will be a sure sign that the American economy is rising again.

Youth culture--I'm not sure when I made the transition from a young with-it hipster to an old curmudgeon who thinks all teenagers look alike; who tells his daughter to turn down "that noise you call music;" and who's targeted by Viagra spam emails. One day you wake up, and feel lucky just for that; and that's a sign you're old. They say you're only young once, but if you do it right, once is enough; and I did it right...I think; you see, my memory is not what it used to be... 

Airport security--So there was one weird guy years ago who had a bomb in his shoe, and now all of us have to take off our sandals at the airport. Does that make you feel safer? No. Does that actually make you safer? Of course not. When terrorists succeed, it's usually because they try something new; an approach that nobody had expected. I hope the government has as many dedicated people thinking about that as it has feeling me up at the pat down station.

Storms--Really, how long before some unhinged Pat Robertson clone pipes in with the wrath-of-God explanation for all the recent weather nastiness? I say not long. And while every believer knows why God would smite the reprobates of New York, what could He possibly resent about the Midwest?

On location storm reporters--Here's a clue: when you report from a hurricane, it is not useful to stand in it. You don't look rugged and relevant, you look like a narcissistic fool, and we can't hear the nonsense you're spouting over the howling wind. So save us the fake drama and the patented forward lean. It's a big wind; we get it; even without witnessing the damage it's doing to your hair. Get in the media van that's two feet to your right just outside the frame, chill, and spare us the hot air. 

It's free--One thing you know about the word 'free' in America--the object, entity or event it describes will cost you plenty. You get a 'free' dumbbell if you're dumb enough to you buy this overpriced, useless home gym. Really free things are never advertised as such. Nobody advertises 'free air to breathe.' The word 'freedom' at the mouths of our politicians is always bad news, a cover of darkness under which we are gearing up to do something nasty to someone, most likely ourselves. Even things that we most hoped would be free end up not so. Look at 'free love,' which turned out to have been not free at all once you consider the Chlamydia. Free anything is never free, and the least free of all free things is the 'free market,' unless by 'free' you mean a system where crooks are free to steal others' money and then use the stolen money to buy themselves a get-out-of-jail-free card once the whole charade spins into a freefall.

Cell phones--Ah, who am I kidding? Cell phones are great; a wonderful, almost poetic invention. It's the cell phone users who are the problem. Cell phones don't annoy people; people annoy people, and it's clear that...oops, hang on a sec, I have to take this call...Hello, what? You're at the airport? Stuck because of the storm? yeah, I saw that on the TV; yeah, our new flat screen. O, well, maybe the airline will give you a free voucher...Yes, Happy New Year to you, too.





James Frey wrote his best-selling memoir "A Million Little Pieces" some years back. A few reviewers had their suspicions as to its veracity even before his actual life story (a few hours in jail after cooperating while being arrested for an open container of beer in his car) was contrasted to the story in the book (several stints in jail, one for three months, crack-fueled rages upon arrest).

But readers like me figured the story for false before a scandal confirmed it, too. It wasn't easy to pin down precisely what was so unsettling about his description of his decline. The events he associated with his addiction were no different than what we would expect. To me, the details he provided were in no way worse (in many ways far better) than those in countless addicts' lives. I ended up figuring that what made the story so hard to buy was the strange bravado with which it was told. "No addict," I jotted down in the margins, "thinks he is this cool." The main character was a hero to the others, respected because he had been so reckless and done so many drugs. It just rang untrue. I had never, and still have never, had an actual addict recall any moment of debauchery with pride.

Addiction remains a puzzle to us. If I've just described one small piece of the puzzle, I don't know of anyone who explains it other than Aristotle. I think Aristotle could be a corrective to some of the ways we have of thinking about addiction today. And the recently published anthology of advances in addiction research, "What is Addiction?" from MIT Press, is wholly convincing when it comes to the need for refinements in our common sense take on addiction. Seeing addiction as a lack of willpower can keep us from acknowledging a difference in addicts' brains. Regarding it as a disease can mask the very real possibility of recovery through a choice to stop. Thinking of the "chemicals" themselves as the cause of addiction obscures the real cause (and the fact that gambling is as addictive as anything else).

To meet researchers where they are, we need to think anew about how to categorize addiction in moral terms. Would addiction researchers want us to look all the way to Aristotle to do this? Why wouldn't they if it could get us to rethink, to abandon the ways we've come to think about addiction that only obscure what is happening to an addict? Our current concepts over-simplify and mislead us. Let's see if it is helpful to think about addiction while leaving "willpower" and "disease" out of it. If we apply Aristotle's proposed distinctions between voluntary, involuntary, and non-voluntary actions to addiction: we get walked through the matter like this.

Is addiction voluntary? Well, we do decide to take each drink. Aristotle would acknowledge this much- the behavior sure looks voluntary, "for the principle that moves the instrumental parts of the body in such actions is in him, and the things of which the moving principle is in a man himself are in his power to do or not to do."

But Aristotle would also have us consider that some voluntary actions are, at the same time, involuntary. On what basis does he make this claim? Some things "no one would choose" for itself. I usually show a slide of a heroin addicts' mottled arm when making this point in class. Would anyone choose this?

Ah, but I am focusing on a side-effect and not the pleasure. Pleasure is complicated. We have appetites for pleasure, and this is not the same as having made some "choice", Aristotle writes. Yet despite this, when it comes to pleasure "it is absurd to make external circumstances responsible, and not oneself, as being easily caught by such attractions, and to make oneself responsible for noble acts but the pleasant objects responsible for base acts."

He continues, "the compulsory, then, seems to be that whose moving principle is outside, the person compelled contributing nothing."

Are changes in an addict's brain external to that person? You could see arguing for this one way or the other. To what degree do addicts' brain work against them? Wouldn't this be a fruitful thing to consider in light of data on addiction? I eagerly await such a discussion. But Aristotle points another way out. He points us in the direction I was going in with James Frey.

How would we know if the person is "contributing something", in regard to their pursuit of pleasure or not? Aristotle tells us to look for pain and repentance. When you find these, you have found a person whose behavior is not wholly voluntary. Yes, exactly what the Frey book had me thinking.

Those who do gloat and crow over how much they just drank: I'll actually take that as a good sign. They aren't addicted (yet) to what they are doing.

I also take it as a sign that Aristotle was on to something that might be useful to us today, when he discussed ways to classify behavior. Referring to his ideas might help us to recognize the ones we already have.




Yep. It's that time of year again. The dreaded New Year's resolutions time, a time where many of us reflect back on the past year and earnestly vow to make changes in our lives for the better. Ugh!

But wait a minute! Honest reflection? Sincere commitments to improve ourselves? Those are good things, aren't they? What could be so dreaded about that?

The truth is ... fear. Fear of change and fear of failure are the underlying reasons why most people dread New Year's resolutions. And for high-achieving women, this dread is often so powerful that it makes many simply decide to opt out of the entire tradition. Why? The answers lie in two separate, but related points: 1) the nature of high-achieving women, and 2) the nature of resolutions themselves.

First, as I explain in my book, High Octane Women, high-achieving women "possess some rather unique qualities." They're driven to succeed and motivated by achievement. They enjoy having multiple pots on the fire at all times and pride themselves on not burning anything. They get things done faster and better than anyone else, often with seemingly little effort. If there is a new frontier, they conquer it. If there is a problem, they solve it. Simply stated, they seek out new challenges that will keep their engines racing because they're internally driven to strive for excellence.

So what's the problem? Shouldn't New Year's resolutions fit perfectly with that kind of nature? Shouldn't high-achievers breeze right through resolutions as easily as Superwoman blasts through steel? Well, yes ... and no, which brings us to the second point.

New Year's resolutions possess some rather unique qualities of their own, qualities that make them a tad more difficult to accomplish than, let's say, a major project at work or an unwieldy problem at the office. Resolutions typically reflect a significant and unfulfilled challenge in our personal lives, something we wanted to accomplish or change the year before, but weren't able to do because it was either too challenging or too complex, such as losing weight, getting fit, making more money, or enjoying life more.

Adding to this difficulty is the fact that most New Year's resolutions, such as the ones outlined above, are nonspecific, ill-defined, and easily complicated by a variety of factors that aren't necessarily within our control, which moves them beyond the "very difficult" category and squarely into the "practically impossible" realm. And that, my high octane friends, pretty much sums up where all the dread comes from.

But the good news is it doesn't have to be that way. Each New Year represents an opportunity to make positive changes in our lives, and change is important. In fact, it's the foundation of life as we know it. Change is what keeps us interested and invested in life. It improves our well-being and makes us more adaptable. Without change, we become stagnant. We don't grow personally or professionally.

So who needs resolutions? You do! In fact, we all do. And whether we make them at New Year, on our birthday (which, of course, is everyone's own personal new year), or on any other day we choose, resolutions have the power to move our lives in new and more positive directions if we set them up right. And by right, I mean set them up in a way that optimizes your chances for success.

The first step is to redefine the generally accepted meaning of a resolution (New Year's or otherwise). Most high-achieving women are wired to shoot for the stars, and in most cases, they catch them. But as you should recognize by now, trying to accomplish a gargantuan task that you, with all of your amazing strengths and skills, haven't been able to accomplish all year (or maybe even longer) is obviously not the kind of star you're going to be able to capture in one leap. If it was that easy, you would have done it already.

So instead of viewing resolutions as an "all or none" goal that you either accomplish or you fail at, try to reframe resolutions as smaller, more realistic tasks that, over time, will eventually get you to that ultimate goal. For example, a very common New Year's resolution is: "I will get out of debt." The problem is that it's vague, ill-defined, and lacks any sense of time, which are all qualities that set resolutions up for a rather quick and untimely death. To breathe life back into them, you need to make smaller resolutions that are precise, well-defined, and time-sensitive tasks that will bring you closer and closer to your ultimate goal. For example: "I will bring my own coffee from home and stop going to Starbucks every morning before work;" "I will use the money I save by not going to Starbucks to add $100 to my minimum payment on my VISA account every month." Both tasks are realistic, measurable, and achievable.

Another way to improve your chances for success is to make sure the tasks/goals you set for yourself are within your control. High-achieving women can do a lot of amazing things, but they can't control what other people do. So instead of setting a resolution to "get a promotion before the end of the year," try framing it in terms of specific things that you can do at work to increase your chances for promotion.

It's also important to reward yourself as you make progress rather than waiting until the ultimate goal is completed. For example, if your ultimate goal is to lose 20 pounds by next year, it will be a lot easier to accomplish if you reward yourself in some way as you make progress toward that goal instead of waiting until you drop the whole 20 pounds. High-achieving women are notoriously bad at rewarding themselves for a job well done. And even if it's just a pat on the back, positive reinforcement is a great motivator that can go a long way in helping you get where you want to be.

Finally, although high-achieving women are often reluctant to share their wants/needs or ask for help from others, when it comes to resolutions, not doing so can be short-sighted. Making your resolutions public is not only likely to increase your motivation to succeed, it also helps family and friends know what you're trying to accomplish so that they can offer support and encouragement along the way.

The truth of the matter is, whether we like it or not, we are all a work in progress. So what are you waiting for? The New Year is right around the corner. Why not resolve to change the way you make resolutions so that it can be your most personally productive year ever?

Wishing you all have a happy, healthy, and high octane 2011!



When I drive past restaurants with signs boasting "Family Style Dining" I put the pedal to the metal, leaving skid marks and surprised State Troopers in my wake.


I used to start shaking and biting my lower lip but the medication has helped.


The words "family-style" and "dining" cancel each other out--form an oxymoron--just like "jumbo shrimp" or "academic salary."


Let's face it: the entire concept of "family style dining" scares me.


What does "family style dining" (or FSD as we will call it) mean, exactly?  People yell at you while you eat? 


Your older brother is allowed to grab the bigger piece because he's a boy?


Your cousin will start kicking you under the table even though she is now thirty-eight years old and a successful journalist (two words, by the way, that also arouse suspicion when placed together)?


You have to finish everything on your plate or your car will be towed at your own expense? 


If you ask for water you will be given a look so bitter and resentful that it is ordinarily reserved for the loyal girlfriends of serial killers? 


These are not business-attracting thoughts. These ideas are not the sort of "get-ahead" ideas promoted in marketing classes at any reputable business school.


And I say all this as a kid coming from a family that liked to cook and loved to eat. What do people from other kinds of families think?


I did a highly scientific survey of some of closest friends who could be easily reached by phone and I'm happy to provide the results: they don't like the idea of FSD either.


To my husband (who initially thought FSD was an STD and was suddenly concerned with how my column was catching on), "family style" means that cornflakes and guilt will somehow be involved in the meal, either as a main dish or as a key ingredient in preparation.


To Christine, FSD means that no one will speak during the meal and that the whole affair will resemble a Swedish wake.



To Lili, it means that there will be conversation but it will be on assigned topics in order to prevent anyone from saying anything meaningful which might, after all, disrupt the digestive process.


(Imagine the contrast to my family of origin where it was announced, more or less ritually at every meal--including lunch on the weekends-- that someone's affair was destroying the family or that someone's child had been allocated the wrong paternity).


To Jess it means that everyone will be watching what morsel you eat, silently computing calories from fat and protein in order to tell you how much more you've consumed than any other woman at the table, suggesting helpfully that you should start ordering clothes from a store called "The Biggish Woman."  


I know, I know: FSD is supposed to mean that you can relax when you walk into the place, that you get to know the servers by name, and that you can bring your screaming children into the establishment without raising any eyebrows.


In that case, however, the sign should read "Family-Style Dining: From The Family You Always WISHED You Had."


As for me, I'll stick to Restaurant-Style Dining. That's where you hear the words that no family member has ever said to any of their kin: "Welcome! Sit down and relax and whenever you're ready, please let me know what I get for you this evening."


For that, I'll happily slow down, chow down, smile broadly, and pay up.






There has for some time been considerable discussion in philosophy about the ethical status of corporations and corporate bodies. Those at the head of corporations have, unsurprisingly, lobbied to have corporations declared to have many of the more important rights of individual persons without also having the more onerous responsibilities of individual persons. Thus corporations have often seen themselves as having duties to their shareholders, and few if any duties to the wider community beyond those explicitly required by law.

The issue of corporate responsibility usually comes to public notice when a corporation acts in a way that the public takes to be ethically irresponsible. Examples of such behaviours are legion, but they usually involve corporations acting so as to maximize their own profits at the expense of the environment, or those in developing countries, or local communities, or individuals, or smaller companies etc etc. The issue of corporate responsibility became salient along a rather different and unusual dimension recently when Visa, MasterCard and PayPal all blocked donations to WikiLeaks.

Much has been said in the public media about this course of events. Some commentators have thought it outrageous that corporations like Visa should take it upon themselves to make what are essentially ethical decisions on the part of those who use Visa services. The thought, I take it, is that while Visa the corporation can have whatever view it likes about the WikiLeaks site, so too each of us in the community has a right to an opinion about the ethics, or not, of the WikiLeaks site. Those who think that WikiLeaks is a danger to government and society, and that it is flagrantly unethical should refrain from donating any money to the site. Those who think it provides an important source of information about government activities so that government can be accountable to the people who elect it and that this is important in a democracy, should, if they choose, have the right to donate money to the site.

Commentators pointed out that by blocking payments to WikiLeaks, Visa, MasterCard and PayPal effectively made the choice for everyone. Moreover, as many pointed out, this is surely hypocritical given that these same corporations do not in general police the processing of payments to other organisations that are ethically ambiguous. For instance, you and I can donate money through Visa or MasterCard, to explicitly militant right wing racist organisations. We can pay money for pornography using Visa and MasterCard. We can donate money to exit international, a lobby group and information provider about euthanasia.  Visa, MasterCard and PayPal have no policies about these organisations - so why pick on WikiLeaks?

Visa, PayPal and MasterCard have all claimed that the reason they are blocking payments to WikiLeaks is not because of anything to do with ethics at all, but is an issue about legality.  Their statements say that their rules prohibit customers from facilitating any action that is illegal. Thus, their claim is that that they are not taking an ethical stand at all; they are merely following the law. But this is a difficult argument to swallow.

The legal status of the WikiLeaks site is unclear, and as yet no charges have been proven. It is difficult to see how donating money to the site can be considered facilitating illegal activity prior to it being proved that the site has engaged in any illegal activity. So it is difficult not to read Visa's decision as not being motivated by other concerns, some of which are presumably ethical concerns (though some are no doubt political).

Whatever one thinks of the motivations of Visa and their ilk, serious and interesting questions have been raised by their actions. In particular, quite aside from the particulars of the WikiLeaks case there are questions about how such corporations ought to approach ethical questions arising from (in this case) the processing of payments to organisations. At first blush one might defend the view that Visa and MasterCard ought to process any and all payments unless those payments are to organisations that are, at the time of payment, illegal (such as particular terrorist organisations). Then individuals are left to make their own decisions about to whom to donate their money. This is by no means a crazy view. Certainly one should have considerable worries about the prospect of organisations like Visa and PayPal implementing policies about which transactions they will process and which not, based on a policy derived from their own ethical considerations. That such organisations should dictate the manner in which we spend our money is a frightening proposition and one that has, in very small part, been made more real to us in the wake of the WikiLeaks situation. This worry is a very real one, and might lead one to contend that ethical considerations ought never to play a role in organisations like PayPal deciding whether to process transactions or not.

But as always, nothing is completely clear-cut. It is not clear that we want organisations like Visa to process payments utterly regardless of the ethical considerations at play. During the second world war Swiss banks rather notoriously dealt with both the German government and with individuals who had goods and monies that were morally, if not legally, stolen. The Swiss banks effectively took the view that they were merely the processors of financial transactions, and that it was not up to them to make decisions about processing or not processing transactions based on any ethical views they might or might not have about the circumstances in which the monies were gained. That is essentially the attitude that we have just considered applying in the case of Visa and MasterCard - one that leaves decisions about what is ethical and what is legal up to governments and individuals within a society and allows no role for such decisions within corporations. But that seems attractive just as long as the society in question has laws that support ethical behaviour. If the British government were to change its laws and start seizing the property of everyone with red hair and freckles and if it were to then process the transacting of that property through organisations like Visa, we would not, I expect, be so sanguine as to think that Visa ought to simply process those transactions no questions asked. If that is right, though, then we must think that corporations like Visa have some ethical responsibilities in terms of the processing of financial transactions that go beyond merely following the letter of the law within any particular country.

The WikiLeaks case raises larger issues about the extent to which corporations like Visa and MasterCard ought to impose some sort of constraints, borne from ethical considerations, on the individuals who use their services. There are not clear cut answers to this question: it is not enough to simply say either that ethics should be completely left out of the equation, nor that they should exert whatever pressures they happen to desire. The truth must lie somewhere in between. But in the heat of the argument about WikiLeaks, this more nuanced discussion has largely been lost. And that is a pity.