Monday, February 2, 2015

False Attributions, Groupthink and other Methods of Avoiding Responsibility that lead to Adverse Child Custody Decisions

I suggest setting aside some time for yourself to fully contemplate the following discourse. This is a condensed version of the reasoning I provide to clients that once fully integrated into their lives provides the perspective that facilitates greater well-being and more positive relationships.

The basis of my life-coaching, which is founded upon the training I received at the US Olympic Training Center, is that our success is dependent upon our performance. Our performance is greatly affected by the dedication we put into that performance. The untapped best idea produces less than the implemented half-baked idea. Action counts. In athletics the untrained or lay observer may assign accomplishment or defeat in one’s chosen sport to the competitors’ physiology, practice or luck. But to the elite athlete the mind is the most powerful influence on one’s perception of accomplishment or defeat. It is the mind that guides the body.

Various philosophies and cults are based upon the premise that the individual must relinquish self control and give into the concept that his or her actions are guided by an external force. Just as the successful athlete acknowledges his role in his success or failure and the perception of each, so too must parents involved in child custody proceedings. What follows is a detailed explanation using a psychological basis of how and why I think it is important to view one’s self objectively and through the lens of personal accountability.

During my clinical work I seek to provide my parent clients with the tools and knowledge that will best help them in the child custody proceedings. I am blunt in articulating my observations which best serves my attorney clients whose advocacy would be jeopardized by surprises and the unexpected appearance of less than admirable traits by their parent clients. I have neither the time nor the ethical flexibility that would allow me to counsel parent clients for years on end with useless therapy. I therefore cut straight to the root of most child custody problems -- personal accountability which is what I am examining here.

In 1963 Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment whereby he had a subject give an “electric shock” to a “learner” [a confidant of Milgram] when errors were made. This was done under the direction of another confidant of Milgram, the “teacher”. The subjects had been instructed that they were participating in an experiment on the effects of punishment on learning. Milgram actually sought to measure the propensity of people to obey authority figures, particularly when the orders violated the subjects’ ethical standards.

The learner, who sat in another room and was observed through a two-way mirror, was connected to the “shock machine” which actually did nothing to the learner. The subject would be instructed to administer a shock when the learner made an error. These shocks were to progress from “SLIGHT SHOCK” up to “XXX” [which meant potentially lethal]. The results were that every subject administered some level of shock to the learner. Two-thirds administered a lethal shock although the learner may have ask to discontinue the experiment, screamed, collapsed in pain, or appeared to have passed out.

Millgram concluded that the subjects did not have “pent-up anger or aggression” being released but rather that “[t]hey had given themselves to authority; they see themselves as instruments for the execution of his wishes” and were otherwise good people. Milgram has been criticized for drawing a correlation between the behaviour of the subjects in the shock study and soldiers in the Third Reich who committed atrocities. Milgram seemed to absolve both groups of accountability for their actions. His test subjects, as he noted, had succumbed to the command of authority known as ‘allocation to authority.’ The prior year the Nazi soldiers who stood trial in Nuremberg for war crimes [which were carefully defined to include only offenses which US soldiers had not also engaged in] had made the same claim in their defense -- they were acting under command of authority -- which ultimately failed upon their convictions. Both groups claimed to not be responsible for their actions. Although, at least on the part of the test takers, they have many supporters for their claim to which Milgram agreed. However, I contend that Milgram was incorrect in his assessment and am one of the detractors of the ‘allocation to authority’ excuse.

Milgram was incorrect - Man is responsible for his actions
I propose, and intend to demonstrate, that man -- who possesses free will -- is responsible for his actions. Milgram and some philosophers contend that man cannot have free will but is influenced by his environment and thus his actions are not entirely of his choosing. Milgram absolved his subjects of the responsibility of free will by contending that they allocated responsibility to authority and were only a tool of that authority figure.

The ability of man to perceive has long been established. “I think therefore I am” In the first century C.E. the stoic philosophers observed that people do not have an emotional state that corresponds with actual events but because of their interpretation of those events. What can be funny to one may be offensive to another. The Greek philosopher Socrates advised his students to “know thyself.” We are often unaware of the motives behind our own puzzling or self-defeating actions. Numerous cults and philosophies advise that we practice mindfulness.

Clearly we are not born with a mind that is a clean slate ready for programming. Many psychologists believe that temperament is genetically predetermined during prenatal development. Temperaments are only potentials though. Deliberation is still needed to produce an action. Strict behaviourists counter that people do not possess traits but only exhibit patterns of behaviour which are situational. Thus all actions are deliberate and subject to spontaneous modification.

The fluidity of temperament [be it innate or situational] is demonstrated in ethnic attitudes towards and performance in school. Americans of South-East Asian descent, a group who values education, score highest amongst ethnic groups. Americans of sub-Saharan African descent, a group who admittedly regards academic success as “selling out to the white establishment,” has academic performance that corresponds to the negative attitude. Yet each is capable of spontaneous change. Some black students choose to discard the attitude of their peers and succeed academically while some Asians become “Americanized” and take on an attitude of entitlement.

The humanist view provides the strongest assertion for personal responsibility. The humanist movement, which was launched in the 1960’s, was led by Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, and Carl Rogers. They acknowledged that man may be born with temperament, influenced by environment, and subject to the effects of treatment by parents. Although parents may have provided conditional love, a form of psychological abuse, this does not place the child on a certain trajectory to low self-regard, defensiveness and unhappiness. However difficult, the child can still choose to be true to himself and accept the lack of parental love as his state of being. The humanists contend that man has the unique capacity to determine his own actions and future.

Existentialism acknowledges the tragedies of being human which include the burden of responsibility for our actions. Free will carries with it the burden of responsibility. Thus, some people are attracted to philosophies or creeds that pass that burden onto another such as parents or God and Devil. It was God’s will or the Devil made me do it they may proclaim. Culturally this is reinforced through a nearly universal diffusion of blame or responsibility. Through a logical examination though this can be proven false. Causation is often attributed to correlations through faulty reasoning.

It is at this time of year that we can see such fallacies expressed in the utterances about automobile wrecks when roads are icy. The ice gets blamed for the wrecks. This is logically inconsistent as it presumes the ice to be a sentient being capable of selecting which cars it wishes to cause to crash as not all cars that encounter the ice crash. To establish the correlation of fault in the ice the set of drivers who wrecked must be equal to the set of drivers who drove on the ice. To begin we have the set of drivers who drove over the icy road and the smaller subset of drivers who crashed. This equation shows that;
(Drivers who drove over ice)(x) = (drivers who crashed)
(x) is the variable that reduces drivers who drove over ice to drivers who crashed. It is a truism that identical cars are not universally crashed. 100 cars could be driven straight off the assembly line and maybe 10 would crash on the ice but not the other 90. The most obvious variable then is the driver. Drivers can be reduced to two subsets: drivers competent to handle icy roads [they do not crash] and drivers not competent to handle icy roads [they do crash]. This equation shows that;
(All drivers who drove over icy roads) - (Drivers who drove over ice who are competent to handle icy roads) = X or (drivers who crashed)
Now to determine cause we need to eliminate one of the variables. This will be those who did not crash (drivers competent to handle icy roads). To do this we use the equation;
(Drivers who drove over ice who are competent to handle icy roads) + (Drivers who drove over ice who are not competent to handle icy roads) / (Drivers who drove over ice who are competent to handle icy roads) = X.
Next we simplify by dividing, which produces this equation:
(Drivers who drove over ice who are not competent to handle icy roads) = X or(drivers who crashed).
Fault rightly lies with the incompetent driver who committed the error on the ice but doesn’t want to accept his mentally deficient state. Rather than live in the mystery of life and any accompanying anxiety the irresponsible person seeks narrow certainties, answers to life’s big questions, and, when adversity befalls him, someone or something to take the blame and protect his delicate ego.

Initially we are not burdened by the responsibility of free will. As children we tend to follow the constructs and rules of our parents which are conditioned into us. Very young children obey because they fear punishment or having needs withheld. By the age of five years children can distinguish between following orders and doing what is morally right. As cognitive ability matures we are able to elevate our moral reasoning to reflect a person’s intentions and motives. Those who have experienced college with an open mind tend to give higher level explanations for their moral reasoning than those who have not been exposed to greater education. The less educated tend to follow a simplified external moral script.

Morality is properly fluid and, reflective of man’s free will, is subject to modification depending on the situation and the nature of the dilemma. I have previously explained why moral absolutes fail at producing a just society and why morality must be determined on an individual basis by the individual. This is not to say that all moral codes of conduct should be abandoned and that anarchy should rule. About one-third of American and Canadian men in college admitted that they would rape a woman if they thought they could escape consequence. Those are the ones who admitted it. I contend that the ratio is much higher and only held in check by proscriptive consequences -- particularly prison.

This power assertion is precisely what I believe leads to such high rates of anti-social or immoral predilections. Parents who use their size, strength, and authority to impose their will of morals, rules, or desired behaviours upon their children produce children who are more aggressive, anti-social, lack empathy and have retarded or diminished moral reasoning ability.

The parents who use abusive discipline techniques such as those employed under the authoritarian style are conditioning their children to behave immorally. This improper technique is further reinforced by financially motivated institutions who build upon the pre-adolescent conditioning of moral absolutes. While adults may instruct children that they are not allowed to use tobacco or consume alcohol and maintain compliance through the force of a heavy hand this is not an effective deterrent. The government aids in the inducement to children by creating a false reality through an age based prohibition on usage or consumption. The message to children, who have a natural predilection toward maturity, is that mature people -- as stupid as they may be -- are the ones who use tobacco and consume alcohol. Public prohibitions have done far more to promote smoking to children than Joe Camel ever could.

Those who should be responsible for properly instructing their children about positive moral development have often shirked that responsibility. Instead they place the predictable and avoidable outcome on the children who are then burdened with the consequences. Children are resilient though. People are constantly interpreting their experiences. Through free will we can decide not to repeat the mistakes of our parents. We can use induction when disciplining our children instead of abusive power assertion. By providing explanations to children of why behaviours are proper or adverse we reward their curiosity and open-mindedness while also teaching them to be responsible. People who have knowledge and make decisions cannot fall back on allocation to authority. They have used their cognitive ability to form their own moral judgments and are accountable for them.

So how is it then that in Milgram’s experiment such a high percentage of the subjects were willing to inflict brutality upon the learner for committing a memory error? Were they raised under the auspices of authoritarian discipline techniques? Did this produce hostility in them or a pattern of yielding to authority? I was hit, ridiculed, humiliated [having to sit outside with my face hovering over a bucket of feces while playmates could observe] and demeaned as a discipline technique during my childhood. Yet, as an adult I do not yield to authority. As everyone should, I have my own set or morals that are situation specific but always under the umbrella of the universal moral do no harm or least harmful act. I gave no credence to the authority of government when I fought to protect the innocent from harm and was imprisoned for it. I sure as hell didn’t blindly yield to the prison rules and got booted from one prison and then put in the jail quite often in the one where I spent the most time. If I wasn’t already aggressive, violent and hostile enough going into prison I was when I got out. I was close to physically attacking someone as I got off the bus returning to Indy upon my release. The reason, he looked at me the “wrong way.”

I live by the universal moral of do no harm. The further I moved away from my childhood home in both time and distance the better I was able to develop that moral and extinguish the hostility, anger and violence that permeated my essence as a young man. But had I been a willing participant in Milgram’s experiment at that time I certainly would not have complied with any request to administer pain to a learner for making a mistake. Nor would I do so now.

Milgram excuses the abusive behaviour of the subjects as the result of their cultural indoctrination that commands respect of authority. Yet these subjects were under no obligation such as the Nazi soldiers were who would likely face death for refusing an order. Milgram’s subjects were free to walk away at anytime. Milgram notes that some subjects presented symptoms of anxiety. Still other expressed reservation about administering pain to the learner before they went ahead and did so anyway.

Milgram refers to these anxious or apprehensive subjects as good people who committed an evil act -- thinking they were delivering a lethal dose of electricity to another human for making a memory error. I suspect that there would be some of Milgram’s subjects who oppose the death penalty -- killing another human through delivery of electric shock for such acts as premeditated murder. I contend to the contrary that these are not good people committing an evil act but are evil people getting to commit an evil act without the dissonance associated with accepting responsibility for the act or damaging the image of themselves they wish to present publicly.

Good and evil are subjective measures relevant to time and place. They always operate in equilibrium with one half of people or actions being at some point on the good continuum while half are on the bad. They are a relative measure that are only knowable when compared to each other. So in the time and place of the Milgram study when we were not at war, the country prospered, and rates of violent crime were low one needed not be a Catholic priest to make it into the evil end of the scale. Consequently a Nazi soldier who pushed, prodded, or kicked prisoners then snuck extra food to them was within the good continuum.

The subjects in Milgram’s study who presented anxiety or expressed reservation demonstrated a desire to conform to expectations of acceptable behaviour but when given the opportunity to place responsibility elsewhere, by a researcher who acquiesced, they readily inflicted pain to the learner. Their latent evil was exposed by this experiment. I have already noted that about one-third of male college students admit to a willingness to rape a woman -- clearly an evil act -- if there was no adverse consequence. An interesting sidenote to this is that aggression in males increases with the rise in testosterone through a circadian rhythm but no psychological condition has been applied to it in the DSM-IV. Conversely, anti-social behaviours by women are attributed to PMS although it is not empirically supported. Some psychologists contend that it has more to do with gender politics than actuality -- that position being that women are too mentally frail to be held accountable for their actions.

In the movie A Few Good Men after the conviction of the two soldiers for the death of “Willy Santiago,” a fellow soldier who was physically disabled, this dialogue took place between the two soldiers;
Downey: I don't understand... Colonel Jessup said he ordered the Code Red.
Galloway: I know but...
Downey: Colonel Jessup said he ordered the Code Red! What did we do wrong?
Galloway: It's not that simple...
Downey: What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong!
Dawson: Yeah we did. We were supposed to fight for people who couldn't fight for themselves. We were supposed to fight for Willy.

Dawson made the point that it was improper to attribute their killing of Willy to the authority of their commanding officer as Downey insisted. They had a moral obligation to do no harm which meant standing up for the disabled soldier instead of killing him. That would have been honourable. Their dishonourable discharge from the imperial army was the accountability assessed to them for their immoral act.

The honourable person accepts responsibility over himself. His behaviour will match his temperament and not be influenced by outside forces such at the ‘teacher’ in the Milgram experiment. One of the subjects who refused to comply commented, “One of the things I think is very cowardly is to try to shove the responsibility onto someone else.” Those are the words of integrity. Those are the words to which I agree. The dishonourable person instead commits the folly of following the societal scripts, rules and laws, or commands of others to avoid responsibility and the concurrent dissonance or guilt that accompanies a resulting immoral act. Evil is as evil does.

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