February 2011


I go swimming most Friday evenings with my six-year-old friend, Akira. We started about a year and a half ago, calling it “swimming lessons.” Now we just call it “swimming.” It has been a joy to watch him learn to swim, just the way I think people should learn to swim: Having fun in the water, discovering new skills and games at whatever pace feels right. It took him almost exactly a year before he actually swam. He had slowly gotten comfortable putting his face in the water of the hot tub, and then found that when he did, he could lift his feet off of the bottom and float, which he started doing for 15-20 seconds at a time. Then one night he just started swimming, face down, slowly and relaxed, all the way across the hot tub. When he came up for a breath he was so excited. “Nathen! I don’t even have to swim! The water holds me up and all I have to do is pretend to swim!”

He is swimming three times a week now, and looks like a real natural–complete comfort in the water. You would never guess how nervous and circumspect he had been about water. He wouldn’t even blow bubbles for eight months–the bubbles popped uncomfortably close to his nose and eyes.

I am also getting to watch him grow up, which is mostly delightful. He is getting confident and funny–not surprising, since his parents are two of the funniest people I know.

Tonight, we were in the hot tub with another kid Akira’s age, and that kid started trying to make friends. “What’s your name?” “Can you do this?” Stuff like that. He seemed like a nice, friendly kid, and Akira was playing along. At a certain point the kid made an awkward move, standing too close and smiling too much. I realized later that he was going to try to lift Akira up out of the water a little, like he had seen me do. It created this awkward moment, though, and Akira said, “Weird.” The kid’s smile turned a little anxious, but he didn’t move away. Akira said “You’re weird. Get away from me.” The kid followed through with the lifting-up move, but instead of the original, playful feel, it ended up feeling aggressive, like, “This is what you get for calling me weird.”

I had an impulse to intervene, to stop the misunderstanding somehow. I had thought of this kid as a potential friend for Akira. I just didn’t think of anything to say besides, “Stop!” or “Don’t be mean.” Neither of those seemed right. The kid’s dad was there too, watching, and he didn’t say anything either. Akira started staying close to me, making a game of walking over my lap. I realized that he was nervous, that when he had said, “You’re weird,” he had been uncomfortable, a little scared.

Then it hit me what a powerful tool “You’re weird” is to a kid. Weird is the worst thing you can be at that age, the doorway to isolation and bullying. Being able to say “You’re weird” with enough poise shows where you stand in the hierarchy and rallies the troops of conformity to your aid. It is also a way to avoid vulnerability: A year ago, Akira would have just retreated, outwardly scared and confused. He would have whispered in my ear, “Can we go to the cold pool now?” Saying “you’re weird” was standing up for himself, a six-year old’s way of saying, “The way you are standing close to me is making me uncomfortable. Please stop doing that.”

So partly I was proud of him, and partly I was sad about the struggle he is entering into. It takes constant vigilance. Don’t be the weird one, the one who cries, the one who stands too close, the outcast, the one you can safely tease. Then, a few years later, don’t be the uncool one, the awkward one, the kid who gets beat up with impunity. Then, a few years later, don’t be the unhip one, who doesn’t quite know the right music in time, who has to pay close attention to stay on the tail-end of trends, the wannabe. For God’s sake, don’t let yourself be vulnerable! Every action must shout invulnerable and in control. And inside it’s, “Please believe me. He is the weird one. Not me. Him.”

I think conformity is a stage, unavoidable unless you are truly incapable of achieving it. I think it has to be negotiated by the kids, between the kids, for the most part. When Akira told me, “That kid is weird,” I said, “Well, I think he just wants to be friends,” but I couldn’t tell if it sunk in. And I don’t know how useful it would be if it did. Maybe the sooner he masters conformity, the sooner he can reject it and start exploring the joys and pain of vulnerability again.

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I think this is brilliant:

In some ways it is nice that psychology research is fed to us in the discrete package that is the journal article: Each package can be edited into some version of readability and peer-reviewed for credibility.

That the process stops there, however, is an anachronism. It used to be that publishing the actual data interpreted in the article would have taken up too much space in paper journals, but on the internet it would be easy to do, and far more useful than just the analysis.

Imagine being able to go back in and re-run the statistics for an experiment, or try out other analyses–especially while analyses that throw away information like that old standby, the median-split ANOVA, are still accepted by journals. Imagine how much more powerful meta-analyses could be if it was standard practice to publish the data. Every research project would be a potential collaboration.

In fact, like scanning the Library of Congress, we could retrospectively publish all the data from every published article in the archives! What a resource that would be.

It might not work so well for qualitative research, the data of which are interviews with individuals whose confidentiality has to be protected. For quantitative research, though, it would be easy to protect anonymity. I see no downside except, I suppose, for researchers who are fudging their numbers.

John Gottman’s research show evidence that one of the most important things in making a heterosexual relationship is that the male “accept influence” from the female. That is, the male listens to and is influenced by the ideas and opinions of the female. He shares power with her. If he does not do this, they will end up divorced 80% of the time.

One of the reasons Gottman is such a famous couples researcher is that he finds effects that strong. Your average couples researcher would love to find something that predicted anything about a couple’s future with 30% accuracy, but Gottman’s work is rife with 80% and up findings. 80% is huge. At 80%, you’ve left the realm of “more likely” behind and have solidly entered “probably.” If you are a man who has trouble conceding a point to your wife, you should take note. You will probably be much better off if you spend your energy scouring your conversations for ways to agree with your  wife than ways to disagree. If that is difficult, get some help with it.

And it does not go the other way. Gottman found that while wives tend to be good at accepting influence, whether they are or not did not correlate with anything he measured.

Which, of course, brings up the question of same-sex relationships. How does accepting influence influence things there? The answer, as is usually the case in couples research, is that we have no idea, which hip researchers are often apologizing for but rarely doing anything about. My advice is to notice and accept influence regardless of your gender or sexual orientation–better to lose arguments than  your relationship.

John Gottman says, in his book The Marriage Clinic, that there are basically two things that make the difference between couples who stay together and those who do not. First is what he calls the partners’ “uninfluenced stable steady states,” which are a result of the temperament of each partner plus the history of the relationship.  The second is the partners’ “influenced stable steady state,” which is the emotional direction that each partner takes, once they are interacting.

If the way you feel and act worsens when interacting with your partner–that is, if your influenced steady state is more negative than your uninfluenced steady state–you may well be heading for a divorce. The crucial question is, how much negativity from your partner does it take to turn your mood negative? If you can respond in a positive way to your partner, regardless of their mood or complaint, that’s a real strength. If you respond in a negative way, this is trouble. Negativity will tend to escalate in each conversation and throughout your relationship. Gottman says that if you cannot maintain a ratio of 5 to 1 positive-to-negative interactions at worst (that is, during conflict) you are heading towards (or are in) an unhappy relationship. If you dip below a 1 to 1 ratio, you are heading toward divorce.

“Negative affect reciprocity” is a closely-related pattern that Gottman says is the best predictor of happy or unhappy couples. (“Affect,” remember, is just a science-y word for emotion.) The extent to which you are more likely than usual to be negative when your partner is negative (as opposed to when your partner is neutral or positive), you are showing negative affect reciprocity. This could look a lot of ways, like responding to anger with your own anger, responding to criticism with stonewalling or defensiveness, responding to sadness with irritation, and so on.

Gottman says that negative interactions are inevitable, so what he calls “successful repair attempts” are all-important. That is, emotional repairs such as humor, taking responsibility, compromise, and soothing, must be offered, recognized, and accepted. When couples can recognize and accept all of each other’s repair attempts, he says, they are finished with therapy.