Tag Archives: behavior

Thoughts on School Reform

          If schools desire well behaved and motivated students, involved parents and community support, these constituents must perceive the curricula options as appropriate. There is no one curriculum that is right for every student. The varied abilities, interests and goals of students require more than a single curriculum. Examination of traditional, public-school curricula show that they emphasize preparation for college. Elementary school curricula prepare students for the secondary curriculum, which then prepares students for higher education. Some school systems claim to offer alternative curricula, a few actually do, but the college preparatory curriculum prevails. Further, legislators and others concerned with public education want to strengthen the traditional curriculum. Increasing the requirements in the traditional curriculum may be proper for students with college as their goal. However, such efforts can make the curriculum less flexible and less relevant for students who do not intend to go to college. This latter group accounts for most of the students in the public schools.

In the U.S., estimates suggest that about 25% of the students who enter school will drop-out before graduation. Drop-outs are students who vote with their feet. They choose to get out of an environment that they perceive as negative. Of the remaining 75% who finish high school, about 50% go on to college. Of those that go to college, about 50% graduate. Thus, a college preparatory curriculum only meets the needs of about 20% of the public school population.

Some will argue that the proportion of students entering and completing college should be higher. They might say public schools aren’t doing their job and academic requirements for high school graduation aren’t rigorous enough. Unfortunately, the only way there can be a significant increase in college attendance is to lower the curricula standards in colleges. Only students who, intellectually speaking, are bright-normal or above can benefit from a college education. Given a normal distribution of intellectual ability, only about one-quarter of the population is college material. Further, not all students with the ability want a college education. Thus, there probably isn’t much room for improvement in the proportion of the population graduating from college.

Completing high school or even some college often does not prepare one to make a positive contribution to the adult community. The rate of unemployment for young adults is several times higher than the rate for the general adult population. This would not be the case if most young adults entered the work force with a proper education. Leaders in business, industry and public agencies all lament the level of functional skills in young people seeking employment. Students need functional skills in reading, writing, and mathematics. Skills for problem solving, and independent learning are needed too. There are many life skills such as parenting skills, that are deficit in our youth. Work skills such as taking directions and cooperation that are critical to success are lacking. Finally, there are the skills needed for employment in specific occupations. All of these needs can and should be met by public school programs.

Curriculum

What is a proper curriculum? The curricula options available in public schools are important for students, their parents, and the community. There is wide variation in the needs and goals of these constituencies and within each of them. Therefore, no single curriculum is likely to be proper for every student. Only diverse curricula will meet the wide ranging needs and goals of public school students. Consumers must have input into what curricula will meet their diverse needs. Decisions about curricula matters should not be left solely to professional educators. Students, parents and representatives of the community need to participate in the decision process. An outline of a diverse public school curriculum follows. It is not a proposal but an example. It is simply a stimulus for thought about what a diverse curriculum might look like.

The curriculum example has three levels: Readiness, basic literacy and advanced options. The curriculum is uniform at the first and second levels. It becomes more diverse at the third level. It rests on several assumptions.

1.          The delivery model used will promote flexibility in the choice of teaching materials and methods. Such a model will make it possible     to adapt to different learning styles and rates.

2.          The curriculum represents a continuum. Placement in and movement through the curriculum depends on the mastery of objectives.

3.          The curriculum will be open and movement between options available any time a student chooses. The offerings at the upper level are not age restricted. That is, older individuals wishing to return to school and pursue a different option can do so at any time.

4.          The curriculum is appropriate for most students, including those with mild disabilities and learning problems. Special adaptations and modifications would be necessary for students with moderate to severe learning problems.

The readiness curriculum (see Figure 1) would serve children during the early childhood period. It lays the foundation for basic literacy. There are four strands in this curriculum. First, the language strand would focus on developing language skills including both vocabulary and syntax. It would emphasize interpersonal, language stimulation activities. Second, the developmental abilities strand would focus on gross and fine motor skills and social skills. It would employ stimulating activities involving movement and peer interaction. Third, the psychological abilities strand would focus on various prerequisites for efficient learning. It would work on abilities like visual and auditory attending and memory and problem solving skills. Fourth, the pre-academic strand would lay the foundation skills for reading and math instruction. It would teach skills such as letter and number discrimination, letter sound relationships and number and quantity relationships. Mastery of the readiness curriculum would be the prerequisite for moving on to the basic literacy curriculum.

The basic literacy curriculum (see Figure 2) would serve children during the middle childhood period. It would provide basic literacy skills at a functional level. That is, the essential skills generally needed to function in the everyday world. Delivery of this curriculum would be through classroom instruction with extensive use of both simulated and real-life application experiences. In short, instruction would focus on developing functional academic skills.

This curriculum would also have four strands. First, the language arts strand. This strand would have three sub-components: Oral expression, reading and written expression. Second, the math and science strand. This strand would have three sub-components: Arithmetic, physical sciences and biological sciences. Third, the citizenship strand. This strand would also have three sub-components: U.S. history, civics and current events including geography. Fourth, the career development strand. This strand would have three sub-components: Social skills for daily living, occupational awareness and leisure skills. Minimal competency in this curriculum would be a prerequisite to move on to the advanced curriculum options. Minimal competency would be at about third to fourth grade level in traditional terms. Mastery would be competency at about fifth to sixth grade level in traditional terms.

 

The advanced options curriculum (see Figure 3) would serve students in late childhood, adolescence and occasionally adults. The curriculum would have two major strands: College preparatory and vocational. Entry into the college preparatory curriculum would require mastery of the basic literacy curriculum. Entry into the vocational curriculum would depend upon the strand entered. Entry into the technical and business strands would require mastery of the basic literacy curriculum. Entry into the arts, trades and service strands would require minimal competency in the basic literacy curriculum.

The college preparatory curriculum would have three sub-components. The arts sub-component would be for students interested in pursuing higher education programs in such fields as art, music, literature, history or religious studies. The science sub-component would be for those interested in pursuing higher education programs in such fields as biology, physics, computer science or mathematics. The professional sub-component would be for those interested in pursuing higher education in fields such as education, medicine, law, business or engineering. This curriculum would have two parts. The introductory phase would emphasize advanced instruction in a broad range of academic disciplines. Advanced instruction would concentrate on the core curriculum in higher education programs. In addition, there would be career development activities for daily living skills, social skills for employment and career exploration. The specialization phase would emphasize advanced study in the disciplines related to a student’s specific career goal. This would also include career internships in appropriate settings.

The vocational curriculum would have two parts. In the first phase, the students would focus on career specific development of applied academic subjects. This would include career development programs that address daily living skills, social skills for employment and career exploration. In the specialization phase, the emphasis would be on vocational preparation and supervised work experiences. The vocational curriculum would have five strands. Entry into strands one and two would require mastery of the basic literacy curriculum. Entry into strands three through five would require meeting minimal competency in the literacy curriculum.

The first strand would be the technical strand. This strand would be for those individuals who desire careers in technical fields. Technical careers would include laboratory technician, electronic repair and maintenance work, and communications media. The second strand would be the business strand. This strand would be for individuals interested in careers in fields such as office management, commercial sales and secretarial services. The third strand would be the arts strand. This strand would be for those pursuing applied careers in commercial art, graphics, and entertainment. The fourth strand would be the trades strand. This strand would be for individuals seeking careers in areas such as construction trades, home appliance repair and equipment operation. The fifth strand would be the services strand. This strand would be for those interested in careers in service occupations such as retail sales, personal grooming and child care.

Comfort and Safety

The school environment should be a comfortable setting. There should be adequate provision made for a comfortable level of space. Every classroom should have adequate space for the students and the class activities. Adequate space certainly means providing ample room for seating. It also means providing room for specialized functions such as small group work, learning centers, and individualized programming. Space requirements include storage space for each student and for the storage of instructional materials and records. Teachers also need suitable space for non-teaching duties such as planning, conferences and record keeping. In addition, teachers need an area where they can get away from the classroom to take a break. Finally, there must be suitable space for functions such as eating, recreation, discipline, administration and toileting. Furthermore, the physical facility must have good lighting, ventilation, heating and cooling.

Safety begins with a well maintained physical facility that is adequate for its purpose. In addition, safety depends on having a good discipline policy and following it. Many of the points discussed earlier concerning discipline policy and support programs impact directly on the issue of safety. Safety is an issue throughout the school and not just in classrooms. Safety is also important in bathrooms, the lunchroom, recreational areas, and hallways. Safety concerns include the school grounds and transportation services for students as well. Discipline policy and support programs must satisfactorily address all of these areas of concern.

Parent Involvement

A positive school climate is much more likely when parents are supportive of the school and involved in its program. Educators frequently complain about the lack of parent interest and involvement in schools. There are at least two reasons parents fail to become involved. First, if parents’ perception of the school climate is negative, they will probably be either passive or active resisters. Second, parents seldom feel that they have any constructive avenues for influence available. Traditionally, the only role for parents has been as a member of a PTA or PTO or as a volunteer worker. Parent organizations seldom amount to more than cheer leading squads. These organizations do not provide an opportunity for meaningful input into the educational program. With two-income families being the norm today, few parents have the time for activities that don’t make constructive use of their limited time.

Since parents and children are the consumers of our educational programs, they need to have a significant role in the program. Parents need to have a voice in decision making. Every school should have a democratic parent organization that has a voice in the management of the school through an elected advisory committee. The advisory committee should represent the majority and dissenting views of parents on a wide range of matters, including discipline policy, curriculum, and program evaluation. A parent organization should serve as a vehicle for parent- initiated changes. It should also provide a forum for criticism of existing policies and programs. In addition, there should be an advisory committee that represents parents on a system level. A system-wide committee might include the chairperson for each of the school-level committees. The system-wide committee should represent the views of parents to the superintendent and school board. Educators must provide for this type of input and incorporate it into the decision-making process.

If parents have a mechanism for constructive participation, their interest and involvement in the schools will improve. Apathy is, in large part, a product of feeling powerless. Create a process that values parents and makes them feel effective and apathy will decline. Real participation by parents requires that educators recognize the need to share their professional power with the consumer. If educators want parent involvement, they must not be defensive but open and inclusive. Parent participation in education will increase support for public schools and lead to improvements in the schools and their programs.

Community Involvement

A quality educational program not only needs the involvement of educators, parents and students but also the community. Community resources are very important for the support programs discussed earlier. The community is also a consumer of public education and needs representation in the decision making process. Representative members of the community should sit on school advisory committees along with parents. There are many constituents in the community that need an opportunity for input into public education. These include local businesses and employers, public service agencies and organizations, colleges and universities and vocational and technical schools.

Speculation About Transgender Conditions

[Note: I use transgender in a broad sense and do not limit the term to persons who transition physically into the binary alternative to their assignment at birth. Personally, I make a distinction between sex identity (biological basis), gender identity (requires a biological basis but largely socio-cultural) and sexual orientation (biological basis). I consider each to be a separate factor in every individual, in whole or part. I also consider these factors to be variable and interactive producing a wide range of outcomes. While some outcomes are atypical relative to the norm, I consider all to be natural outcomes.]

          Incidence data suggests that TG has a wider occurrence in males than in females and I am more knowledgeable about this condition. Therefore, this speculation will be largely focused on TG in males. I do not intend to dismiss TG in females, I am simply trying to keep the level of complexity in this piece manageable. Thinking about biological factors in males who are TG it seems to that a definitive answer is unlikely simply because such an answer would require experimental research on humans, which would be unethical to perform in the first case and would never be permitted by a human subjects review board even if some scientist or group of scientists had no ethical qualms about performing the research. The animal alternative will not provide a definitive answer because animals aren’t human beings and generalization from animal studies to humans will always be open to challenge, especially in something as unique as human sexual identity.

What is left then? I would suggest that the next best thing to controlled, experiments on humans is what’s often called a natural experiment. These are unplanned, unintentional events that often provide a source of data that would otherwise simply never be available.

For example, there is the case of David Reimer. Reimer was born a male along with a twin brother. Shortly thereafter, the two brothers were taken for circumcisions. The operation on David was badly botched. After consulting with “experts” on sex and development, David’s parents decided to have him surgically modified to be structurally female. From that point on he was reared as a girl and was on estrogen therapy appropriate to developmental needs. At an early age David began resisting his status as a girl and insisted that he was a boy. By the time that s/he reached the age of 14, the parents gave up and explained what had actually happened. From that point forward, David did everything that was within his power to reverse what had been done to him. He subsequently lived as a man as implied by the name David that he took for himself. Unfortunately, David ended his own life at age 38 (more here). There are apparently a number of such failed natural experiments, but David Reimer is the best know because he decided to allow all the details of his case to be made public.

What this natural experiment clearly suggests is that there is no significant socio-cultural contribution to sex identity. You cannot have a cleaner test of the socio-cultural hypothesis than a young child surgically modified to conform to external female morphology, estrogen therapy and socialization during childhood as a girl. Even if one argues that the parents weren’t fully committed to the path they had chosen, the influences marshaled to affect a change in sex identity were far greater than can be imagined under any set of typical childhood circumstances. The likelihood that the parents weren’t fully committed to making this natural experiment a success seems remote. They were convinced that it was possible by doctors who were supposed to know about these things. They chose to embark on the recommended course of treatment, which for all practical purposes was irreversible once the surgical procedures to remove the male testes and modify the genitalia was completed. They, no doubt, gave the project their best effort knowing that there was no going back. It just didn’t take.

Another natural experiment that has bearing on some of the issues is that of individuals with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS) [more here]. The cells of which these individuals are comprised either do not have receptors for testosterone or do not respond to the hormone. The default morphology in such cases is female. When this occurs in a male fetus, the outcome is a child that is genetically XY or male and whose external morphology is female. Such individuals do not, however, have the internal female reproductive organs. In other words, a male genotype and a female phenotype, at least in most observable respects.

Individuals with CAIS are reared as girls and the parents and the child are often unaware of the presence of the condition until puberty. Many of these individuals do suffer psychological issues when they become aware of their condition but they do not grow up thinking they are male. Further, they almost invariably live as women and follow a typical female life course. They are sexually oriented toward men and usually marry. Many also become mothers and rear adopted children within their marriages. When there are other than temporary identity problems in these cases, they seem to be mostly accounted for by partial AIS (PAIS) in which the male child is born with deformed or incomplete genitalia. In such cases, the insensitivity to testosterone is not total. In some such cases, they may be surgically modified to be female depending on the status of the genitalia.

What this natural experiment suggests is that sex identity is not a simple product of DNA or genes. The outcome in CAIS is, for all practical purposes, a woman with male genes. These genetic males have female physical features, female sex identity and a female sexual orientation (i.e., toward males), which seems to be the human default condition. A cell biologist, Bruce Lipton, argues that DNA directly controls nothing and these cases appear to bear him out. Lipton argues that DNA is simply a blueprint for various proteins and that like any blueprint it is not self-activating. DNA in a cell’s nucleus must be turned on or activated before it will respond and produce a protein. What turns it on, according to Lipton, is a signal that is external to the cell. Such signals attach to a receptor on the surface of a cell and cue the cell to send a signal to the appropriate DNA sequence or gene in the cell’s nucleus to activate it. Testosterone clearly seems to be a signaling chemical that can activate sex related genes and modify some cellular functions. In the absence of the external signal, the genetic sex of a male remains unexpressed.

Sorting out the particulars and understanding the mechanisms and the variations may be possible by a careful study of natural experiments. The two types of cases discussed above seem to clearly rule out socio-cultural factors and simple genotype. The answer to the questions about TG in males will probably be found in exploring natural experiments that represent the middle ground between these two types of cases. It appears that the middle ground is probably formed by individuals with PAIS. What seems probable is that in TG males, sex hormones in their role as external cues that activate genes will be critical.

In TG males, testosterone production is adequate for activating the genes that modify the fetus to follow a male line of morphological development. However, there apparently are further functions for testosterone that are in whole or part not carried out. It seems likely that the critical function is related to a signal to the cells, especially the neurons in the brain, masculinizing the male fetus. Several possibilities follow but do not represent an exhaustive list:

1.              The testes fail to produce a sufficient quantity of testosterone during a critical period of brain development.

2.              The testosterone production of the testes is adequate but blocked or neutralized by some interfering chemical during a critical period of brain development.

3.              There is some interference with the sensitivity of the testosterone receptors on neurons by an outside agent during a critical period of brain development.

4.              Testosterone production is normal, there is no external agent interfering and the cell receptors are functioning normally but the timing of the testosterone release must match closely with a critical period in brain development and the timing is off.

5.              Normally, there is an additional surge of testosterone in male babies perinatally or immediately postnatally. There might also be a failure of this late surge or variable levels of weakness in it that could affect brain development related to sexuality.

 In any of the proposals above, the outcome is likely to be variable depending on a variety of factors. The outcome could be the default (female sex identity) resulting in a transsexual condition. The outcome could also be only a partial conversion of the default female sex identity to a male sex identity (mixed sex identity) resulting in a range of TG associated outcomes.

The speculative hypothesis put forward here is that TG males arise from hormonal signaling gone awry. The errant signaling is likely to be largely, if not wholly, related to testosterone, especially too little hormone or weak sensitivity to the hormone at the wrong time. It seems likely that the explanation for TG females might also be found to be related to errant testosterone signaling or receptor sensitivity that occurs too late in the gestation process to affect morphology but could still cause neurons to activate DNA with male sex identity functions. It seems likely that TG males and females are due to errant androgen biology. In the former, this is probably due to a deficiency of some sort and in the latter probably due to an excess of some sort. It also seems likely that there would be fewer TG female outcomes simply because the default biology is female and should thereby be more robust and less susceptible to errant hormone signaling.

Genetic activation, to one degree or another, of biological sex identity probably has limited but necessarily some biologically based behavioral implications. There is some pretty clear evidence from evolutionary analysis that there are some basic differences in male and female reproductive strategies that lead to differences in behavioral styles. For someone who has some degree of sex identity associated with the morphologically opposite sex, the greatest behavioral impact will be through socialization. Much of socialization takes place through social learning, which is observation based. The most critical factor in observational learning is attention to models. Thus, sex identity might be considered an attention orienting variable. For example, a male with a female sex identity, in whole or part, will to some degree be biologically oriented toward attending to female models. This is not unlike the priming that a fetus’s brain receives to focus attention on language models to facilitate acquisition of language in its developmental environment.

The content that makes for femininity is largely socio-cultural and will vary by time and place. An individual with a focus of attention for female behavior will through observation or social learning acquire some degree of those behaviors and attitudes associated with the female models in his or her life. The strength of this biological orienting response will affect how strong or weak are the learning conditions. A further impact on the strength of the learning will be governed by whether or not the environment supports and reinforces the learning of feminine content. In the case of TG males, there should be variability in the strength of sex identity both for male and female aspects. This should result in variable degrees in the attention orienting response to both male and female models. Combine this with variability in the environmental support for or disapproval of attending to and imitating cross sex models and there exists the potential for a wide range of outcomes ranging from fantasy male femaling (to borrow a term from Richard Ekins) to medically orchestrated sex change, which in fact is what is seen in TG males.

In sum, the hypothesis is that a male’s sense of sex identity is determined at the biological level and is related to hormonal signaling. When this signaling goes awry, TG males result. It seems likely that the errant signaling is related to diminished androgen signaling at a critical time or selective cellular insensitivity such as in neurons to androgen signaling at a critical time or more generally. The degree to which the signaling goes awry accounts for different degrees of expression seen in actual TG males. That femininity and masculinity are learned expressions of gender is, no doubt, largely true. However, it is also proposed that the focus of attention needed to readily acquire expressions of gender through observational learning has a biological basis in one’s sense of sex identity. Finally, attempts to socialize against one’s biological sense of sex identity, as in the Reimer case, will be met with resistance and will likely fail.

Comment on a Klan Rally

 

          The picture above is from a Klan rally held in a small town not far from where I live in north Georgia. I was at first reminded of the Klan rallies that took place during my youth. Regular rallies were held on the top of Stone Mountain in Georgia, east of Atlanta. I recall sitting in my car at a highway intersection waiting to exit onto the highway while a seemingly endless stream of Klan “kars” passed by in route to the mountain and the inevitable cross burning.

 As I considered the current event, which was much smaller than those earlier events, an observation made by a psychologist, Charles Carver, came to mind. Carver’s observation was that if you want to understand a behavior, you must first understand the goal to which it is directed. This thought led to questions about the goal of the Klan and of the protesters present at the rally.

I don’t seriously believe that the Klan thought they were going to persuade anyone to adopt their position on any issue, so what did this small band of men belonging to a marginalized and socially impotent group hope to accomplish? Further, what was the goal of the protesters at the Klan rally? I very much doubt that the protesters thought they were going to persuade the Klansmen to throw off their robes and become advocates for freedom and liberty for all.

If this little “dance” on the Ellijay town square wasn’t about one group trying to change the mind of another group, what then was it about? I think that for the Klan, a true home grown terrorist organization that is now marginalized and socially unacceptable, the rally was primarily about validation. They sought and obtained public attention, which affirmed that they weren’t forgotten relics and could still command an audience by their public presence. The Klan reminds me of youths I’ve observed who know just the right buttons to push to aggravate some adult in their lives (teachers and parents seem to be favorite targets) and take considerable pleasure and satisfaction from having so manipulated an antagonist.

In addition to the self-affirmation obtained from public attention, the rally seemed to me to possibly serve a second purpose — communication. How does a small, isolated group recruit new members and give support to other scattered and isolated groups and individuals of a similar mind? One answer I think is through publicity. The news coverage generated by the event turned protestors and the media into the unwitting accomplice of the Klan in disseminating its message to its kin, “we’re here and we still matter.” In support of this analysis consider this from Scott Atran an anthropologist and expert on terrorism, “Media and publicity are the oxygen of terrorism. Without them it would die.”

Even in this day of digital communication, the context of a public event has significant messaging potential, as all of the “terrorist” groups in the world know so well. A public event, whether a rally or a car bomb, is both a cheap and effective way to obtain an outcome not otherwise possible for such a group. Thus, contributing to a publicity event conducted by the Klan, whether by showing up to protest or showing up to cover the “event” for the media, is to assist the Klan in meeting its goals. Empowering the Klan in stressful and contentious times is especially hazardous because it remains a spark with the potential to become a fire.

What led the protesters to become dance partners with the Klan? Clearly, there was a bit of self-affirmation going on here as well. What better way than a public dance of defiance with a defanged cobra to demonstrate one’s righteousness and moral superiority. The Klansmen in their white robes provided a stimulus to elicit the moral outrage of the most sensitive members of the community — the Klan’s dependable foils. The protestors came out because of the Klan but they demonstrated to affirm their own beliefs and to signify publicly to one another and the community that we are truly good and caring people. The rally also provided the protesters an occasion to identify kindred spirits in the community, form new associations and weave a new thread into one’s personal narrative.

In the end, the Klan cared only that the protesters showed up and the more the better for their purposes. The dance goes on.

Why We Believe

          As a psychologist I have often asked myself, why people seem to easily commit to belief systems? This predisposition is clearly evident in a wide range of human activities. It includes things as diverse as religions, conspiracy theories, political ideologies and pseudo-scientific theories.

Albert Ellis’ rational-emotive theory (see also Foundations sub-section Part I) makes a useful distinction between what he calls rational and irrational beliefs. The former have some objective basis and depend upon evidence. The latter have no empirical basis and their adherents usually have a strong emotional investment in the belief, which is largely supported by faith in its correctness. Ellis’ theory rests upon two assumptions about human nature. First, we have a biological predisposition toward irrational thinking, e.g., over generalization and illogical association. Second, one of the major tasks of socialization is to establish a system of beliefs. It is a major developmental task because belief systems help us interpret our experiences, organize our thoughts and observation and make decisions to act.

The second assumption helps to explain why we adopt beliefs systems. They are to varying degrees useful schema for imposing order on our world, understanding the events in our lives and guiding our behavior. The first assumption indicates why many of the belief systems we adopt are irrational and without empirical foundation.

What might be the basis for the assumed predisposition for irrational thinking? Michael Gazzaniga found evidence, in his research on the brain, for what he calls the Left Brain Interpreter (LBI). Gazzaniga thinks that the LBI is a function of the brain acquired through evolutionary selection pressures. The LBI evolved because being able to organize and explain experience has survival value. Having an explanation for a phenomenon, even an incorrect explanation, makes it easier to interpret and respond quickly. If our beliefs lead to successful responses more often than not, this success would give an ability to use explanations to quickly evaluate and respond survival value. While it is often the case that our beliefs lead to successful responses, such success doesn’t necessarily make them valid. However, we usually take success as evidence confirming the correctness of our belief. For example, if you believe that people who look different aren’t trustworthy and are potentially dangerous, you will avoid contact with such people. If you then find that you are seldom assaulted, you will probably attribute your safety to avoiding contact with people who look different from you. Of course, the absence of assault experiences may be due to entirely different reasons but it will be attributed to the belief that motivated your avoidance behavior.

Since we have a strong disposition to formulate explanatory beliefs about our experiences, why do we so often formulate inaccurate and incorrect beliefs or explanations? This happens in part because evolutionary pressures favored those who quickly formulated explanations about experiences. The day-to-day struggle by our predecessors to survive allowed few opportunities for reflection. In the evolutionary environment that led to human beings the quick-witted were usually survivors and the reflective were often someone’s dinner. Thus, we acquired a disposition to formulate beliefs or explanations on the basis of little or no information and what information we had was frequently incorrect.

Frank Barron, a creativity researcher, pointed out many years ago that his research suggested that an inability to explain something made most people anxious or uneasy, which of course provides an incentive (anxiety reduction) to conjure up an explanation or accept some proposed explanation. This is possibly a motivational component to the evolved predisposition to create explanations. Barron found that most people would accept almost any explanation rather than live with uncertainty. He also found that among creative people the opposite was generally true. In short, a small minority of people would rather live with uncertainty than accept a dubious explanation. Barron would probably agree with Steven Pinker, a contemporary psychologist, who has suggested that the human mind frequently functions less like a chief executive and more like a “spin doctor” that is always busy creating post hoc explanations for our decisions and actions.

 There are many examples of this near compulsion to create explanations in human history. One need only think about the many, varied and incorrect beliefs that societies have created to explain natural events, e.g., floods, volcanic eruptions, failed crops, plagues, etc. In many cases, these beliefs have led to behavior that, from our perspective, was irrational. An irrational belief arises in one or more individuals and if it has appeal is adopted by others and often becomes a cultural belief that is perpetuated through the socialization process.

Ellis contends that our tendency to think irrationally results in distortions, flaws, and inaccuracies in our thinking. Parents, peers, community institutions (e.g., schools, churches, political parties, etc.), and the media can introduce distortions into our belief systems. Not only are distortions possible in commonly held beliefs, but personal aspects of our belief system are also prone to distortions that result from our own faulty thinking. Cognitive psychologist Yaakov Kareev’s research has identified one particularly important source of distortion in human thinking. His research has demonstrated a tendency in humans to find positive cause-and-effect associations among events. In fact, he found that people are more likely to see a positive association between two observations than a negative association even when a valid negative association is present. When we attempt to understand an event, we can usually only identify a few of the apparent components of the event. Further, due to limitations in our working memory capacity, we can only consider a small number of the apparent components at one time. Kareev and his associates have shown that our strong predisposition to find positive associations between things that appear to be associated with an event increase as the number of variables in working memory decreases.

There are differences between people in working memory capacity due to differences in cognitive abilities and due to differences in temperament, which make some people more susceptible than others to seeing false connections between events. Anyone who is susceptible to anxiety may experience a reduction in working memory capacity because anxiety has been shown to reduce working memory capacity. As the size of working memory decreases the likelihood of finding false positive associations increases. A predisposition to find positive associations among things we observe and experience has positive benefits, such as, making it easier for a young child to make associations between vocal sounds and environmental stimuli during language acquisition. It also makes it possible and even likely that we will develop cause-and-effect associations that are erroneous. This tendency to make erroneous cause-and-effect associations is sometimes called magical thinking and is most clearly reflected in superstitious and delusional behavior. In addition to our susceptibility to magical thinking, there are many other common errors in thinking that we are prone to make. In fact, Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini has investigated and compiled a catalog of errors in thinking common to human cognition.

Finally, Gazzaniga indicates that once a belief is established it is difficult to change it. There are several reasons beliefs are difficult to change. First, we find it easier to think of evidence for rather than against a personal belief; that is, validating evidence is easier to recall than contradictory evidence. Second, we also have a strong tendency to look for evidence that supports our beliefs and to ignore evidence that does not. Third, when we encounter ambiguous evidence we are disposed to interpret that evidence so that it supports our beliefs. Finally, when we are confronted with evidence that directly conflicts with our beliefs, we are inclined to discredit the evidence rather than change our beliefs. The single best antidote for irrational thinking that we have developed is the scientific method.