Today would have been B.F. Skinner‘s 111th birthday. One of the first to apply the scientific method to psychology, Skinner built on the work of theorists like John B. Watson and Edward Thorndike to create a comprehensive explanation of behavior.  His theory of operant conditioning states that behaviors that get rewarded tend to repeat themselves. This deceptively simple point is now the foundation for everything from business-management theory to weight-loss apps.

AboutBehaviorismWhen he retired from Harvard in 1974, no one would have predicted such dominance. Outside of psychology’s community, “therapy” was synonymous with “psychoanalysis” and his theories were seen as totalitarian mind control. About Behaviorism, published that year, was his parting shot; a comprehensive defense of his work for non-academic readers.

He starts by discarding most of other theorists’ concerns. As he saw it, psychology has only one sensible question to ask: why do people behave the way they do? Inside that limit, there are only two reasons to inquire: either to predict someone’s behavior or to control it. An explanation like, “I went to a movie because I was in the mood,” is useless because we can’t predict when or why the mood might strike. An account based in operant conditioning, such as, “I went to a movie because I expected it would relieve feelings of boredom and reward me with feelings of being entertained,” tells us when someone might go (when they are bored) and how you might get them to go (bore them).

When he claims there are no such thing as ethics, motives, concepts or goals, Skinner sounds nihilistic. In fact, he believes in three things: behavior, reinforcers and rules. Rules are just  summarized predictions of how behavior and reinforcers will work together, so they only half-count. He believed in reflexes and evolution too, but didn’t see them as being relevant to psychology. Although he denies purist black-box thinking, he relentlessly pares all that is human down to operant conditioning.

bfskinnerbjorklol2On topics where his theories are best-validated, he writes with confidence, even benevolence towards his detractors. When he hits the edges of what behaviorism adequately explains, a detectable hint of snippiness leaks through.  Knowledge? It’s a behavior of responses reinforced by others telling us we are right. Language? It’s a behavior reinforced by people responding the way we like when we speak. Creativity? It’s the behavior of experimenting with different combinations until something reinforcing emerges.  Thought? It’s a behavior, too. Or anyway it’s the mental articulation of words, so it might as well be the same thing.What goes on in the brain? It doesn’t matter. Physiologists, he says with a sniff, will someday understand.

That someday has come closer. Neuroimaging has revealed both insights into brain function and the limits of Skinner’s work. In considering his views, we have to consider our luxury of a viewpoint illuminated by MRI scans. All-encompassing theories hold a seductive allure that can infect our perceptions.  Psych 101 students often develop “Freud-o-Scope”, a temporary disturbance that causes unresolved conflicts, todestrieb and phallic symbols to dominate the visual field. Most sufferers recover in a few weeks when the class moves on to operant conditioning. Given the confines of 1974’s technology, Skinner’s insistence that everything comes down to behavior and reinforcement is understandable.

Java the cat, 1998-2015

Java the cat, 1998-2015

When our cat reached old age, the vet recommended canned food to supplement the dry stuff.  After fourteen years of kibble, pâté with Pacific salmon was so intoxicating, she ate until she vomited. I managed to wipe up only half of the mess before she came back, purring and sniffing. “Forget it, Java,” I told her. “You’ve had enough,” She cocked her head at the strangest angle and meowed – imploringly, it seemed – with sounds and cadences we’d never heard from her before. Skinner-Vision took effect. “Of course,” I thought. “She’s experimenting with new behaviors to see what will get reinforced with more canned food.”

@ 2015 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved

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Emotion Differentiation and the strengths of specificity

“I have learned now that while those who speak about one’s miseries usually hurt, those who keep silence hurt more.” – C.S. Lewis

The last post covered a metaphor to encourage people to embrace their emotions. More research is showing there is power in calling them by name.


Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University.

“Emotion differentiation” is the ability to say what one feels. It’s a central focus for emotional-intelligence researchers such as Lisa Feldman Barrett at Northeastern U. and Todd B. Kashdan at George Mason U. They’ve found that the people best able to regulate their feelings are the ones who can say they feel more regret than remorse, less guilt than shame or more miffed than peeved¹. Compared with those who only report feeling, “fine,” or “bad,” those with a fine-grained view of their emotions respond more resiliently to rejection². While they are more likely to employ many strategies to cope with unhappiness, they’re less likely to cope via alcohol abuse³ or violence⁴.


Todd B. Kashdan, PhD, professor of clinical psychology at George Mason University.

Trouble with emotion differentiation seems to appear in different emotional health issues. Demiralp and Thompson⁵ found that people with depression had, “less-differentiated negative emotional experiences”; i.e., they could distinguish more specific positive feelings than negative ones. Kashdan and Farmer found similar findings for those with Social Phobia⁶.

Kashdan, Barrett and McKnight suggest knowing exactly what you’re feeling makes it easier to get those emotions’ message. That information connects us with other knowledge about what to expect and what to do. It also makes it easier to regulate the feelings, because they’re now classified either as motivation or as irrelevant. With less energy devoted to controlling one’s emotions, there’s more to put towards the things you want to achieve⁷.

Poor emotional differentiation in action.

Poor emotional differentiation in action.

They also point to evidence that emotion differentiation is a skill that can be taught⁷. This includes findings that emotionally-differentiating children behave and perform better in school⁹.One study found naming emotions helped arachnophobes tolerate exposure therapy better than distraction or cognitive reframing¹⁰.

For therapists working in community mental health, these findings can be a selling point. Live in a tough neighborhood? Need to keep up a strong front? You want to know what you feel so you can recover more quickly. If a client only values logic, emotion differentiation can be a way of getting them to look at their feelings; Ciarrochi,  Caputi and Mayer⁸ found that those who can identify specific emotions make decisions with less emotional bias.


Clients can get confused when we ask them to identify negative feelings. They come to us to feel better. Why are we asking them to feel worse?  The assumption that it is safest to suppress your emotions is a spin on the post hoc fallacy: “I feel vulnerable when I pay attention to my feelings, so  if I ignore them, I’ll be less vulnerable.” We may be able to tell our clients, “Emotions are only a vulnerability if you treat them that way. Treat them like information and they become a strength.”

All this gives us one more reason to pull out our emotion-word sheets and encourage clients  to name their feelings.  I’ve asked clients rate the intensity of their distress before and after identifying emotions. More often than not, they’re surprised to find their stress level has dropped.

Two examples to motivate clients to practice identifying feelings at home:

1. The tale of Rumplestiltskin. At the end of the story, the wicked little man had to give up his claim on the princess’ child. Why? Because she found out his name.

2. Tribal societies around the world, where members have a public name for common use, and a secret name kept private among family members. Why? Because knowing something’s name gives you power over it.

n.b.: Dr. Barrett responded to this post, and she suggested these for further reading:

Lindquist, K., & Barrett, L. F. (2008).  Emotional complexity. Chapter in M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, and L.F. Barrett (Eds.), The handbook of emotion, 3rd Edition (p. 513-530). New York: Guilford.

Barrett, L. F., Wilson-Mendenhall, C. D., & Barsalou, L. W.  (2015).  The conceptual act theory: A road map.  Chapter in L. F. Barrett and J. A. Russell (Eds.), The psychological construction of emotion(p. 83-110).  New York: Guilford. — this explains one theory for how to become more emotionally granular


(1) LF Barrett, J Gross, TC Christensen, M Benvenuto.  “Knowing what you’re feeling and knowing what to do about it: Mapping the relation between emotion differentiation and emotion regulation” Cognition & Emotion 15 (6), 713-724

(2) Kashdan, T.B., *DeWall, C.N., Masten, C.L., Pond, R.S., Jr., Powell, C., Combs, D., Schurtz, D.R., & †Farmer, A.S. (2014). Who is most vulnerable to social rejection? The toxic combination of low self-esteem and lack of emotion differentiation on neural responses to rejection. PLoS ONE 9(3): e90651. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0090651

(3) Kashdan, T.B., †Ferssizidis, P., Collins, R.L., & Muraven, M. (2010). Emotion differentiation as resilience against excessive alcohol use: An ecological momentary assessment in underage social drinkers. Psychological Science, 21, 1341-1347.

(4)  Pond, R.S., Kashdan, T.B., Dewall, C.N., †Savostyanova, A. A., Lambert, N.M., & Fincham, F.D. (2012). Emotion differentiation buffers aggressive behavior in angered people: A daily diary analysis.-7- Emotion, 12, 326-337.

(5) Demiralp E1, Thompson RJ, Mata J, Jaeggi SM, Buschkuehl M, Barrett LF, Ellsworth PC, Demiralp M, Hernandez-Garcia L, Deldin PJ, Gotlib IH, Jonides J. Feeling blue or turquoise? Emotional differentiation in major depressive disorder. Psychol Sci. 2012;23(11):1410-6. doi: 10.1177/0956797612444903. Epub 2012 Oct 15.

(6) Kashdan, T. B., & Farmer, A. S. (2014, February 10). Differentiating Emotions Across Contexts: Comparing Adults With and Without Social Anxiety Disorder Using Random, Social Interaction, and Daily Experience Sampling. Emotion. Advance online publication.

(7) Kashdan, T.B., Barrett. L.F., & McKnight, P. E. (in press). Unpacking emotion differentiation: Transforming unpleasant experience by perceiving distinctions in negativity. Current Directions in Psychological Science.

(8) Ciarrochi, J., Caputi, P., Mayer, JD . The distinctiveness and utility of a measure of trait emotional awareness. Personality and Individual Differences 34 (8), 1477-1490

(9) Brackett, M. A., Rivers, S. E., Reyes, M. R., & Salovey, P. (2012). Enhancing academic performance and social and emotional competence with the RULER feeling words curriculum. Learning and Individual Differences, 22, 218-224. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2010.10.002

(10) K. Kircanski, M. D. Lieberman, M. G. Craske. Feelings Into Words: Contributions of Language to Exposure Therapy. Psychological Science, 2012; DOI: 10.1177/0956797612443830

 @ 2015 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved

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The Skunk in the Basement

“Never, for any reason on earth, could you wish for an increase in pain. Of pain you could wish only one thing: that it should stop.” – George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part Three, Chapter One.

Therapy can get stuck for the same reason our clients come in: their emotions are too upsetting to bear. It’s easy to vent on how unreasonably others  behave; addressing how it affected us is harder. To focus a client on their own thoughts and feelings can take sales-work. Some are satisfied with explanations of why catharsis is not therapy, how containment exercises can save them from being a wreck, or how mindfulness practice lets us both experience and contain our emotions. Others want an answer to a more basic question: why feel pain you could suppress?

Skunk, copyright 2006 by Torli

“Just stay present with that emotion. It’ll rise… peak… decline… and go trundling off through the grass.

Suppressed emotions are like a skunk in the basement. Our clients weren’t raised with wildlife-management skills, so down in the basement it went. Even though the animal can’t be seen, the house stinks from the foundation up. To experience an emotion means to let the skunk out. If we tolerate the disgusting sight and smell of Mephitis mephitis parading through our home, it can walk out the door and leave.

Most people believe little comes from painful emotions but pain. There can also be relief and increased tolerance for one’s feelings. Why accept sadness, fear or embarrassment? For the same reason we exercise, floss, save money, give birth, and eat habanero peppers. The pain fades. It’s replaced with relief, and sometimes joy.

@ 2014 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved


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Stress Management Blogging #6

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“Hard on yourself” can mean a hard time seeing support.

If you’ve been in a child therapist’s office, you’ve seen posters illustrating basic emotions – joy, terror, humiliation, etc. Research using photos of such broadly-expressed feelings has shown those with schizophrenia and autism struggle partly due to difficulty identifying others’ emotions. At the University of Cardiff, Kirsten McEwan and  her research team investigated people’s responses to photos of more-understated sentiments. They’ve found that highly self-critical people may have subtler difficulties recognizing a subtler emotion: compassion.  Embed from Getty Images

McEwan, et al began by photographing actors they’d asked to express ‘social emotions’, such as sympathy, embarrassment or a critical attitude. They kept or discarded images for future research, based on whether their first group of study subjects could consistently agree on the emotion shown.


A sample set of social-emotion expressions from the research study.

They asked their second group of study subjects to watch the images on a screen, and press a button whenever a dot appeared. Such “computer visual probe tests” give clues to a person’s attention: the farther their eyes are from the dot, the longer they take to press the button. McEwan, et al separated their study participants into two groups: those who were highly self-critical and those who were no tougher on themselves than average. They found that those in the average category were quicker to respond when a compassionate face was replaced by a dot. Those who were higher in self-criticism took just as long or longer  – suggesting they were less attentive to supportive expressions.

High self-criticism is a common aspect of depression. While our depressed clients tell us, “Nobody cares,” their friends and family may well be wondering, “Can’t they see how worried we are? That we’re all here for them?” McEwan, et al’s data shows the answer, to an extent, may be, “No. They can’t.”


Therapists in private practice may want to consider the researchers’ comments about beaming faces:

“Recent research suggests the ‘full-smile’ of a happy/joyful face can actually be aversive, and processed as a threat by some individuals. Schultheiss and colleagues (2005, 2007) suggest that this is because some types of smile – especially broad smiles – communicate social dominance; hence, smiles can be aversive.”

Psychology Today‘s “Find a Therapist” site is a parade of clinicians grinning like lottery winners. Our photos may draw more clients if our expressions say, “Compassionate, gently-concerned clinician,” more, and “The cat who ate the canary,” less.


McEwan K, Gilbert P, Dandeneau S, Lipka S, Maratos F, et al. (2014) Facial Expressions Depicting Compassionate and Critical Emotions: The Development and Validation of a New Emotional Face Stimulus Set. PLoS ONE 9(2): e88783. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088783

@ 2014 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved

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Wim Wenders on Psychotherapy

An opposing view from the director of Wings of Desire and Pina:

"My advice is don't spend your money on therapy. Spend it in a record store." Wim Wenders




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New Warning Signs of Suicide

Doctors worry they might kill their patients. Therapists have to worry their clients will kill themselves. Lethality assessment shouldn’t be a nerve-wracking process of guesswork and intuition, but clients can’t always think clearly enough in crisis to give us straightforward answers. Three recent studies identify newly-substantiated risk factors for us to consider.

Trauma and suicide are clearly linked. In a 2009 article [i] for the Journal of Traumatic Stress, Jakupcak, Cook, et al found that veterans who meet criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder are four times more likely to consider suicide than those who don’t. Researchers at the University of Manitoba [ii] have identified key post-traumatic symptoms that indicate higher risk. After talking to 2,322 subjects and controlling for other mental health issues, they found that physical reactions to reminders of the trauma, being unable to recall some part of the trauma, and having a sense of foreshortened future were all strongly associated with suicide attempts. If you felt wrenched with every reminder of something you couldn’t remember properly, how long could you tolerate a persistent sense of doom?

Client’s families can also give clues to the risk of suicide.  Anju Mathew and Anil Prabhakaran of the Government Medical College, Thiruvanathapuram, Kerala, India, tracked “expressed emotion,” a measure of how much criticism, hostility, or emotional over-involvement family members show. Per their findings [iii], the more clients felt criticized after a suicide attempt, the more likely they were to try it again. We wish all of our clients returned from the hospital to supportive, understanding families. Unfortunately, it’s too rare that people with such serious issues have families that respond in a caring, validating way.  Prabhakaran and Mathew suggest therapists involve the family members in sessions after a suicide attempt. They suggest families will be less critical if they have the chance to work through their thoughts and feelings, and better understand their loved one’s needs. At the very least, we should ask such clients, “How did your family take this?”

If you’ve ever told clients, “Everyone thinks about suicide now and then,” stop.  A 1999 review of nine western countries [iv] found the highest percentage that had considered suicide at some point during their lives was only 18.51%.  (This was in New Zealand – apparently a hobbit-ridden archipelago of despair.) Ideation is highly correlated with attempts. Simon, Rutter, et al [v] reviewed Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) Depression Screens  completed between 2007 and 2011 by 84,418 primary-care patients; 704 of whom would attempt suicide and forty-six of whom would die from it. The PHQ-9 asks, “Over the past two weeks, how often have you been bothered by the following problems?” Those who reported, “Thoughts that you would be better off dead, or of hurting yourself,” had bothered them nearly every day were ten times more likely to attempt suicide over the next year than those who answered, “Not at all.” They were ten times more likely to succeed. If the actual percentages are relatively small,  (from 0.4% to 4% for an attempt, and 0.03% to 0.3% for successful suicide), the factor of ten makes it worth our time to ask how often clients think about ending their lives.

Marsha Linehan’s UWRAP and UWRAMP protocols are helpful checklists to use when assessing suicidal clients. They don’t tell us which clients are more likely to reach a suicidal crisis. These studies give us three more questions to ask when considering how carefully to watch a client: “How did your family respond when you attempted suicide?” “Have you been having physical reactions to reminders something you can’t remember, but left you feeling jinxed?” and, most simply, “How often does suicide cross your mind?”

@ 2014 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved


[i] Jakupcak MCook JImel ZFontana ARosenheck RMcFall M. Posttraumatic stress disorder as a risk factor for suicidal ideation in Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans. J Trauma Stress. 2009 Aug;22(4):303-6. doi: 10.1002/jts.20423.

[ii] 2. Zeynep M.H. Selamana, Hayley K. Chartrandb,  James M. Boltona, Jitender Sareena, Which symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are associated with suicide attempts?

[iii] Mathew A, Prabhakaran, A. Perceived Expressed Emotion as a Risk Factor for Attempted Suicide – A Case Control Study International Journal of Recent Trends in Science and Technology, Volume 9, Issue 2, December 2013 pp 299-302

[iv] Weissman MM, Bland RC, Canino GJ, Greenwald S, Hwu HG, Joyce PR, Karam EG, Lee CK, Lellouch J, Lepine JP, Newman SC, Rubio-Stipec M, Wells JE, Wickramaratne PJ, Wittchen HU, Yeh EK. Prevalence of suicide ideation and suicide attempts in nine countries. Psychological Medicine, Volume: 29  Issue: 1  Pages: 9-17, DOI: 10.1017/S0033291798007867

 [v] Simon GE, Rutter CM, Peterson D, Oliver M, Whiteside U, Operskalski B, Ludman EJ. Does response on the PHQ-9 Depression Questionnaire predict subsequent suicide attempt or suicide death? Psychiatric Services 2013; doi: 10.1176/


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Sex Addicts and Cheerleaders on a Hot Stove Lid

(Today’s post talks about sexual addiction, whether it’s a genuine mental health issue and whether ‘addiction’ is the right word. To keep this readable, I’ve used ‘addicts’ to mean people who report trouble controlling their sexual behavior.)

Like sex? Vaughn R. Steele, Cameron Staley and others in the Southwest U.S. ran MRIs on people who really like sex (1). They tested two groups – people who reported trouble limiting the time they spent on porn, and those who reported powerful libidos, but denied it caused them any trouble.

Bartus LeventeliquorresizedSteele, et al watched how the brainwaves changed as the subjects looked at various pictures – neutral, pleasant, unpleasant and pornographic images. For their study, the researchers focused on the P300 – a section of the brain wave that swells when we evaluate something. Mention alcohol, and it will grab an alcoholic’s attention – you can tell by the way their P300 increases in amplitude. When the porn addicts viewed sexy images, their P300 didn’t – at least not more than for those who reported only strong sexual desire. Moreover, there didn’t seem to be any pattern of greater or lesser P300 amplitude in those who reported greater or lesser degrees of compulsive sexual behavior.

This means sex addiction isn’t a legitimate problem, right? Maybe.  The debate has gone on long enough to be discussed on Cartoon Network (NSFW).  The most common points of view can be condensed like so:

If it Walks Like a Duck and Quacks Like a Duck…:

Thesis: Of course it’s an addiction. Around the world, thousands of people report they used sex to cope with anxiety, continued to do so despite negative consequences, but could stick to healthy limits with addiction-model treatment and twelve-step groups.

Pros: Describes the sex addicts’ experience with a clear, compassionate metaphor

Cons:  This study, which found very non-duck-like brainwaves.

No Addictive Substance? No Addiction:

Thesis: Addiction isn’t a pattern of behavior, it’s a state of the brain. If you aren’t introducing an addictive substance to the body, then you don’t have an addiction.

Pros: Adheres to a formal biological definition of addiction

Cons: The brain produces showers of neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine during sexual arousal – and they’re substances.

There Ain’t No Such Animal #1:

Photo @ 2005 by Paddy Briggs

Photo @ 2005 by Paddy Briggs

Thesis: There’s no addiction,  just selfish, greedy people trying to excuse their irresponsibility.

Pros: Speaks to our values of self-reliance and self-control. Based on careful, clinical assessment of gossip-column items, it seems to fit celebrities well.

Cons: Doesn’t actually explain the recovering addicts who couldn’t take responsibility on their own, but did with the help of addiction-model treatment.

There Ain’t No Such Animal #2:

Thesis: There’s no addiction and really, no problem – just a bunch of self-appointed bluenoses who insist anyone who takes pleasure in what’s pleasurable must have a disease.

Pros: Reminds us not to pathologize behavior of which we disapprove.

Cons: Doesn’t actually explain the recovering addicts who report they got zero pleasure from their behavior, but couldn’t stop without support.

Steele and his fellow researchers argue their findings mean these problems might be treatable by lowering sexual desire. They’re willing to believe those who say their sexual behavior stretches out of their control, but they don’t believe it’s an addiction.

Does it have to be?

Is everything that takes athleticism a sport?

Is everything that takes athleticism a sport?

There’s those who  insist cheerleading is a sport, because it requires intense stamina, training and physical effort. That’s also true of the trapeze and ballet, and neither will be in the Olympics any time soon.  There’s a fifth common viewpoint on sex addiction; one that matches sex addicts’ subjective reports, isn’t contradicted by these findings, and elides some of the debate on phraseology:

“Behavioral Addictions” are Actually Compulsions:

Thesis: Gambling, eating, shopping and sexual behavior become compulsive when they are the main tool for coping with stress and unhappiness.  If  a behavior that pushes the pleasure button in the brain is someone’s only way to get by, that behavior will be repeated again and again, long after rewards stop coming and self-esteem crumbles.

Pros: Addicts reports they consistently engage in sexual behavior to maintain emotional and physiological stability, despite negative consequences. That’s (about) as good a definition of a compulsion as you could ask for.

Cons: Compulsions usually involve the belief the behavior will keep one safe. Sex addicts report they often break the limits they planned to hold when triggered. This makes it seem more like an impulse-control problem than a compulsion – and also matches addicts’ descriptions of their relapses.*

Mark Twain“We should be careful to get out of an experience all the wisdom that is in it — not like the cat that sits on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot lid again — and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold  one anymore.” –  Mark Twain

Our knowledge of the brain has grown so fast, our vocabulary hasn’t kept up. When you start with, “Can this fairly be described as addiction?” the conversation turns to an ethical debate of, “Does this word mean addicts avoid  responsibility or accept  it?” before it becomes a semiotic dispute of, “What do you mean when you say ‘real’?” As Rory C. Reid, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA and colleague of one of the researchers points out, the larger question isn’t, “Is this an addiction?” but “What is an addiction?”

Neurology may add so much to our knowledge that terms like ‘addiction’ and ‘compulsion’ will blow apart from within. In science, this is a good thing.  Read Psychiatric Times‘ article (2) on distinguishing impulsivity from compulsivity, and you’ll notice the authors refer to “sexual compulsion” and “compulsive shopping”, while explaining these are considered impulsivity problems.  When newer, precisely-defined, empirically-validated constructs are ready, tangled tongues won’t complicate our understanding. Until then, let’s be careful that, “This doesn’t fit the clinical definition,” isn’t mistaken for, “There ain’t no such animal.”

* Thanks to Karen E. Engbretsen PsyD, LLC who pointed out the important components of impulsivity in sex addiction.


(1) Steele, Vaughn R. ; Staley, Cameron ; Fong, Timothy & Prause, Nicole (2013). Sexual desire, not hypersexuality, is related to neurophysiological responses elicited by sexual images. Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology 2013, 3: 20770 –

(2) Berlin, H., Hollander, E. (2008, July 1). Understanding the Differences Between Impulsivity and Compulsivity. Psychiatric Times

@ 2013 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved

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October is AD/HD Awareness Month

To celebrate 2013’s Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Awareness Month, AD/HD-related groups including ADDitude Magazine, the Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA), and CHADD have scheduled free webinars and created a useful page of resources here.

While you’re perusing those, enjoy this distraction from the golden age of MTV:

“Tell me about your childhood.”

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RIP William Glasser / Minimalist Therapy

… one woman had been attending the clinic for three years and had spent most of that time blaming her nervousness and depression on her now-dead grandfather. Glasser told her that he would see her only if she would never again mention her grandfather. She was shocked and responded, “If I don’t talk about my grandfather, what will I talk about?”

– Frew, J., & Spiegler, M. D. (2012). Contemporary Psychotherapies For a Diverse World., pg. 298, London: Routledge.

William Glasser MD, the founder of  “Reality Therapy”, died August 23, 2013 of respiratory failure. He was eighty-eight years old.

William Glasser, around 1953.

William Glasser, around 1953.

Raised in Cleveland, OH, and initially educated as a chemical engineer, Glasser trained in conventional psychoanalysis. At his first residency, he quickly lost faith in Freud. Attributing clients’ behavior to external factors irked him. He could see their insights weren’t leading to change. He noticed his effective sessions were those focused on action in the present. He decided we weren’t motivated by conflicts or drives, but by needs: survival, freedom, power, belonging and fun. In his view, everything we do is a choice we make to obtain those essentials. Mental illness is nothing but coping through negative choices – including unhappiness. Change comes when we turn away from daydreams and unrealistic hopes, commit to a plan of making better choices and follow through.

Such anti-analytical thinking sat poorly with management. Glasser’s residency ended with the conspicuous lack of a job offer. He moved on to the Ventura School for Delinquent Girls in Ojai, CA, where the most insightful analysis had failed young offenders. His new theories, applied as part of a warm, validating relationship,  helped them change.

Glasser was working in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, a time when great minds were thinking minimally. Artists like Frank Stella and Agnes Martin painted with the simplest of lines, shapes and colors. Composers like Phillip Glass and Steven Reich overlapped tape loops of speech to make music without musicians or instruments. The inspiration was writers like Samuel Beckett, architects such as Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe and designers like the De Stijl school.  The challenge was to create an emotional response with as little stimulus as possible. By stripping away Freudian conflicts, Pavlovian associations and Skinnerian reinforcers, Glasser created a minimalist therapy.

Reality Therapy (RT) was simple enough to help others through a paperback book. With small adjustments, it translated well to other cultures. (In China, therapists don’t ask, “Is this behavior  bringing you closer to your goal?” but, “Do your actions bring shame or honor to your parents?”) Unlike Skinner’s operant conditioning, it addressed the fact that people have innate needs. RT, which Glasser later refined into Choice Theory,  can be viewed as an ancestor to ‘activation therapies’,  like ACT and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Since the therapist’s job is to help the client generate better choices, it’s like an empty apartment – one that can be furnished with any therapeutic intervention that helps the client choose more wisely.

William Ira Glasser, in 2009, photo copyright 2013 by Brother Bulldog

William Ira Glasser, in 2009, photo copyright 2013 by Brother Bulldog

At times, Glasser’s reductionism went too far. To claim that all mental illness consists of poor choices is to ignore the reality of delusions and hallucinations. Telling someone with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to focus on the present and move forward does nothing for their nightmares and flashbacks. In 1998, Glasser wrote, “We choose everything we do, including the misery we feel.”  By then, neurology had already demonstrated that our rational mind’s personal agency is something less than 100%.

Since Glasser’s principles could be surprisingly subtle, they were also easy to misuse. When an adult tells a child with AD/HD, “You can choose to raise your hand before speaking, or you can choose to stay after school,” they’ve twisted ‘personal responsibility’ into a passive-aggressive head game – one that lets them escape the responsibility to properly assess the child’s needs.  Glasser stressed, “No blaming, no punishment,” in dealing with clients;  it’s ironic to see his  “success identity” concept corrupted into, “I chose to be successful. Others chose to be losers. Therefore, they don’t deserve any help or sympathy.”

Glasser’s reductionism was a route to an effective therapy – not the definition of everything involved. He knew no one consciously decides, “I feel like feeling depressed today.” By reframing emotions as actions, he helped agitation seem more controllable. He understood no one leaps into changes in behavior. By repeatedly returning to, “What’s your plan?” he focused the Ventura School students on small steps towards new habits. The girls there had been told their upbringing meant they were not responsible for their criminal acts. In a compassionate, understanding way, he told them that they were. Neurology, environment and abuse all played a role in his clients’ problems.  Glasser succeeded in helping them change, because he ignored everything except what a reform-school kid could control.

Minimalist art sometimes created a minimal impression. Glasser’s therapy provided clients with a more-than-minimal level of control.

@ 2013 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved

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