Psychology Today

Recently I wrote about a study which found that men with psychopathic tendencies are better than average at picking out vulnerable targets: people with the non-verbal cues that signal social submissiveness. Based on these findings, I wrote that "We are not all equally likely to fall prey. Just as the psychopaths are a special breed, so too are their victims."

This suggestion drew a heated response from readers. Some accused me of "blaming the victim." One of the most pointed critiques came from blogger Donna Anderson, who directed me to her own website on the topic of psychopathy, There Anderson points out that, for one thing, I was mistaken in writing that a psychopaths prefer to prey on the weak. In a post entitled "Blame the victim fallacies" she writes that, on the contrary, many psychopaths who prey on women pick out victims who are outgoing, assertive, and confident:

Personally, I don't think anyone who watched me walk down the street would tag me as timid or vulnerable. I'm an athlete, and my stride is confident. But I was victimized by a psychopath, who took $227,000 from me, and cheated on me incessantly. And the guy started setting his hooks via e-mail, before he ever saw me walk. Maybe projecting dominance would work to avoid muggers. But it's not going to stop victimization by a card-carrying psychopath intent on finding a resourceful new supply.

I am entirely willing to cede this point -- the study that I was referring to focused on muggings, not the sort of predatory romantic relationship that Anderson primarily writes about. But what about the more damning suggestion: was I implying that a psychopath's victims bear some blame for being targeted?

What a horrible suggestion! But rather than just stutter "Certainly not!" and hurry off the stage, I'd like to probe the question a bit. Because the phrase "blaming the victim" is one of the most loaded in the English language, and its reflexive use covers up some very interesting questions.

Whenever something goes wrong in the world -- an accident, a crime, a disaster -- we are naturally compelled to try to understand it, to come up with an understanding of why it happened. And in creating a narrative of this event, we tend to see it in one of two ways.

The more intuitive way of looking at events is what I'll call the judicial perspective. When something bad happens, we want to find out who's responsible, and we want them to be punished. Only when guilt has been assigned and punishment extracted can we feel that justice has been done, and the case closed. Evolution has provided us with powerful, automatic brain circuitry for this purpose. When we see someone do wrong, we feel anger and outrage. This prompts us to extract punishment, which hopefully will prevent the evildoer from repeating his or her mistake in the future. The end result is that the social order is maintained.

The counterpart of anger is guilt. When we do something wrong -- especially something that has made other people angry at us in the past, or is making them angry at us right now -- we feel an emotion that serves as an internal deterrent to carrying out the same behavior again. We don't need to think about what happened and intellectually arrive at a conclusion for what we ought to do. On the contrary, often, it's hard to stop ourselves from doing what we ought to. Husband forgets his anniversary; wife yells at him; husband remembers next anniversary. (This is not a hypothetical.)

The alternative to the judicial perspective is what I'll call the analytical point of view. In this mode, the goal is simply to identify causes. When an airplane crashes, the National Transportation Safety Board sends a team to investigate the accident site and determine what happened. When they issue their final report, the NTSB identifies all the factors that helped contribute to the accident. The NTSB does not lay blame, nor extract punishment. The purpose of the NTSB is not to achieve justice, but to understand what happened so that rational steps can be taken so that they do not occur again.

When we look at the world from an analytical point of view, we tend to find multiple causes. An airplane crash, for instance, might have been partially caused by a line attendant who might have put the wrong kind of fuel into the airplane's tanks -- but a contributing factor might have been that the pilot failed to check the fuel. In future, we might prevent future accidents by, say, making fuel nozzles that only fit into the right kind of tank and putting a sign inside every cockpit that says, "have you checked your fuel tanks?" Multiple causes, multiple avenues to increase safety.

When we see things from the judicial perspective, on the other hand, we tend to see things in far simpler terms. Emotionally, we feel that one party is the perpetrator, the other the victim. One party is guilty, the other party is angry. This duality is implicit in the phrase "blaming the victim." The very word "victim" pre-identifies the party who is the recipient of the malfeasance. From the judicial perspective, to blame them for something does not compute.

All of this is a fairly roundabout way of saying that, in response to the accusations that I "blamed the victims" of psychopaths, a) I wasn't blaming them, but rather pointing out some surprising risk factors in psychopathic predation that in no way a victim should feel guilty for, and b) it was my intention to operate in the analytical mode, not the judicial perspective implied by the phrase "blaming the victim."

I'm not suggesting that the judicial viewpoint in inherently wrong. Personally, I've been feeling quite frustrated by the seeming lack of justice in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown, in which the bankers most responsible for creating the crisis were handed billions of dollars to prevent it from worsening. Such steps were necessary, experts assured us, to prevent a worse financial tailspin. Maybe so, but I would gladly have traded some additional economic hardship in return for a sense that those who caused the problem had been punished, and removed from a position where they could do it again. (Even monkeys are willing to pay a price to see justice enacted.)

But I question the use of the phrase "blaming the victim." I feel that it is emotionally inciting and tends to obscure rather than shed light on important issues. It's a rallying cry -- a call to action, not to thought.



It is well accepted that dogs, like humans, use specific vocal sounds to convey information. Barks, growls, whimpers and other vocal signals, give nearby individuals information about what the dog is thinking, feeling, and intends to do.

Sometimes vocal information used by dogs can carry quite specific information, as demonstrated by Péter Pongrácz, an ethologist at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, and his colleagues. They demonstrated that there is a specific growl that canines use when they are guarding a desired object. Thus when hovering over a bone it might mean "This bone is mine!" When other approaching dogs hear that particular sound they inevitably stop moving toward the growling dog, as if anticipating that if they draw any nearer they will be met by hostility.

More recent work by this research team suggests that dogs also make estimates about the physical characteristics of other individuals based upon the sounds coming from their mouth. Specifically, they seem to correlate the pitch of the sound with the size of the animal that is making it. This is possible because of a basic physical principle. The larynx, or voice box, of a larger animal is bigger. Sound resonating in a large chamber tends to be lower in pitch, as can be observed by noting that the pitch of the sounds from a cello are lower made by its smaller cousin the violin. This means that the growl of the larger animal will be deeper and lower than the corresponding growl in a smaller animal. From the viewpoint of evolution, it is certainly helpful and adaptive to recognize the size of the animal that is producing a particular growl, even before it is visible, since obviously larger animals are likely to be more dangerous.

dog communication growl sizeAlthough this relationship between size and sound exists in nature, the question is whether or not dogs recognize it and use this information. To answer the question this Hungarian research team used a procedure which is becoming more common in our studies of the canine mind, which involves modifying tests which are used to see how much young human infants understand (even if they are too young to have useful speech) so that they can be used to test dogs.

This time the test involved something called "selective viewing." Owners brought their pet dogs to the laboratory for testing. The dog was seated in front of a screen, with his owner seated quietly behind. The dogs were shown images of two dogs, one on each side of the screen. One of the dogs was large, and the other was considerably smaller. The researchers then used food guarding growls taken from either a large or a small dog, which were played back from a speaker in the middle of the screen. The notion is quite simple, namely, if the dog believes that the sound is coming from the larger animal on the screen, then he will look in that direction, and if he believes that the sound is coming from the smaller one he will look at it. Cameras were set up to monitor where the dog was looking at any time and the video was later scored by individuals who did not know which images or growls were involved in each instance.

To be sure that the dogs were actually responding to information about other dogs, the large and small dog could be replaced by a large and small triangle or cat. As expected, when presented with the food guarding growl of a large dog, the dogs being tested looked first at the image of the large dog and stared at it for a longer time. The flipside of the coin is that when presented with a growl from the smaller dog, it was the small dog's image which attracted the viewing dog's attention. When presented with images of cats or triangles, dogs first flick their eyes to the left (the most common response of dogs to unexpected events) but then did not selectively stare at one or the other images based on the sound that had been played. The simple conclusion is that dogs recognize the size of another dog based upon his vocal communication. Furthermore dogs recognize that these sounds are coming from dogs not from cats or inanimate objects.

Pongrácz summarized his research by noting that the findings mean that "when growling, dogs don't lie about their size, so a listening dog can find out exactly the other dog's size"-and then decide whether to fight or step away."

This is useful and helpful information for any dog, but it also opens the question as to what other characteristics dogs may be inferring from the vocal sounds made by other dogs or perhaps even people. For example, although it is not unusual for dog owners to report that their dog seems to be afraid of men, I have yet to hear someone say that their dog is selectively afraid of women. One notable characteristic difference between men and women is that males have a deeper voice. Perhaps this same mechanism that causes a dog to recognize that the deep sound and lower pitch of a vocal utterance means a bigger and perhaps more dangerous animal is near can also account for the difference observed in the responses of dogs to men and women.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission



Celebrate predictions that hit. Ignore the misses.

This simple tendency appears constantly in the news media and it goes a long way to explaining why the prediction business rolls along, as vast and profitable as ever, despite its sorry record. By paying a lot of attention to expert predictions that succeed, while quietly forgetting predictions that fail, the media give the impression that the talking heads on TV can accurately foresee the future. The price of oil? The stock market? Elections, economies, wars? They predicted it in the past. So pay close attention to what they say now.

This is a perfect example.

CNBC is right that Elaine Garzarelli forecast a stock market crash not long before the great plunge of 1987. It made her a superstar. But what about Garzarelli's other calls? How accurate were they? Was her successful prediction a typical result or was it more like the occasional bull's eye that even a chimpanzee could be expected to nail if it threw hundreds of darts at a board? The article doesn't say. The only reference to Garzarelli's record is that one spectacular hit.

Here's what the story should have noted but did not: After Garzarelli shot to fame for calling the crash of '87, she struggled. Even though she continued to use the same analytical system that supposedly called the crash, the mutual fund she managed did poorly. In 1994, the fund was closed and Garzarelli's firm showed its former superstar the door.

Maybe Garzarelli's current prediction will prove to be bang on. I don't know. But I do know that someone who knew only what CNBC said about Elaine Garzarelli would have a lot more faith in that prediction than someone who knew more.

So why do the media celebrate hits and ignore misses? There are many reasons. One is that the news media want people to feel their stories are important and informative, and when the story is an expert's prediction about the future, the best way to do that is by playing up the expert's hits and omitting her misses. Laziness can also be a factor since the expert will happily tell the reporter about his past hits but the reporter will have to do his own digging to find the misses. Then there's simple forgetfulness. Hits tend to be spectacular. They stick in people's minds. But misses? They seldom involve an "aha!" moment. Instead, they slowly and quietly emerge from the passage of time, making it likely they will be slowly and quietly forgotten.

Few people remember that one of the best-selling books of the late 1980s was The Great Depression of 1990. But if there had actually been a Great Depression in 1990....

But there's also some basic psychology at work. "The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits but not when it misses," Sir Francis Bacon observed, and centuries later psychologist Bertram Forer demonstrated just how right he was.

This is a new personality test, Forer told some students one day in 1949. Please take it. The results will be used to generate a personality profile. Read that and tell me how well the test captured your personality.

The students thought Forer's new test was amazingly accurate. They all felt it captured their personalities perfectly. Which was odd. Because Forer had given all the students the same personality profile. He had cobbled it together out of vague statements -- "you have a tendency to be critical of yourself" -- culled from a book on astrology.

Why had the students been fooled so badly? Their minds were biased. Statements in the profile that seemed to fit what they believed about themselves grabbed their attention. They were impressive. And memorable. But statements that did not seem to fit did not impress and were quickly forgotten. Thus, they celebrated the hits, ignored the misses, and concluded that a collection of nonsense statements was dazzlingly insightful.

Which is a pretty good summary of how far too many people deal with expert predictions.


I just gave an interview about guilt. The way these conversations typically go is that I start to wax eloquently (or so I imagine), and only a half of a handful of what I say ever appears in print. So here are a few nuggets (or fool's gold) that I think may be worth mentioning:

1) Guilt is mindless. Because our behavior always makes sense at the time or else we'd behave differently, feeling guilty suggests we aren't aware of why we did whatever we did. If I didn't spend a full day with my kids, I might feel guilty unless I mindfully made the choice to go to work for good reason.

2) Guilt is mindless because the guilt-ridden are presuming that if they did whatever they think they should have done or didn't do whatever they think they shouldn't have done, all would be good. This is the illusion of predictability that I've written about since the 1970's. If you had spent more time with the children, that does not mean that they'd now be happier. Many stay-at-home moms raise unhappy children and many moms who work all day raise happy kids. There's no way to know that a single variable like that will have a clear effect. Children usually need to feel loved and supported, but that can be given in brief doses over time or by inundating them with attention.

Life only consists of moments. When we make the moment count, guilt never need appear.



During the last few years, I've often turned to thoughts of my Grandmother Bridget McMahon, an Irish immigrant who found herself newly transplanted, and suddenly left alone raising three young daughters in Chicago.

If she were still alive today, I know that she'd have much to tell me about resilience, and courage and pushing forth against all odds. Instead, I draw on the strength I saw with my own eyes and the stories I've heard about her supporting herself and her children as a nanny, having to lug logs up three flights of steps to heat the small West Side three-flat.

Always, these memories push me forward, make me feel better, and strengthen my resolve to stay on course and stay steady in the storm on days when I find myself faced with the challenges of raising three children solo myself.

So, a gift this holiday season came in the form of a new study that says remembering our ancestors boosts our performance on intelligence tests and actually makes us feel better as well.

Psychologists have always made it clear that thinking about our own goals and where we are going, boosts our self esteem. But little research until now has pointed to the psychological effects of thinking about those who came before us. They call it "the ancestor effect," according to the study.

Turns out Peter Fisher and his colleagues at the Universities of Graz, Berlin and Munich have shown that thinking about our ancestors reminds us that as humans who are genetically similar to us we can successfully overcome a multitude of problems and adversities, the British Psychology report says.

The researchers looked at 80 college students asking them to spend five minutes a day thinking about their 15th century ancestors, their great-grandparents or a recent shopping trip. Afterwards, those students in the two ancestor conditions were more confident about their likely performance in future exams, an effect that seemed to be mediated by their feeling more in control of their lives.

Think about it, can you remember a time when thinking about those who came before you helped you in some situation where you were afraid or faced adversity in moving ahead? Please share your experiences.