Why ‘Maybe You Should Talk to Someone’ is my favourite book of 2019

This year I have read the stories of spies, terrorists, serial killers and generals. Yet the book that had me flipping pages the fastest mostly takes place in an ordinary office in suburban LA, where regular people receive standard pyschotherapy.

In Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Lori Gottlieb – a TV producer and journalist turned clinical psychologist – examines the purpose of therapy and how it works. However, it is not a monograph. Instead, Gottlieb conveys this message through the interlinked stories of four of her patients, along with her own experiences in therapy.

Gottlieb spent most of her TV career working on ER, so knows how to craft drama. So she chooses a case with plenty of mysteries and revelations to serve as the spine of the book. That allows her to create cliffhangers and deliver emotional gut punches.

However, the real appeal is the way Gottlieb recreates the intense empathy inherent in therapy on the page, drawing her readers into the lives of other people and then showing us how people who seem utterly lost can, with the right help, find a path to contentment.

Hat-tip: The book was flagged up to me by YANSS and Longform

The rest of my top ten of the year:

10. Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages by Gaston Dorren

9. Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep

8. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre

7. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

6. Ottoman Odyssey: Travels through a Lost Empire by Alev Scott

5. Why We Need Religion by Stephen T. Asma

4. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Stephen Brusatte

3. Yes to Europe by Robert Saunders

2. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

How to avoid terrorism getting to you

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An apt response from Londoners

So, dear reader, we are now at the end of our long series of posts on the dangers of overreacting to terrorism. While its existence is grotesque, it kills relatively few people and has limited scope to increase that number. It is not a civilisational threat like fascism or communism. Instead, it is merely an unusually malicious form of criminality. By treating it as a more severe issue than it really is, we not only worsen the problem itself, but also create a host of additional problems like the loss of civil liberties or a greater risk of war between states.

What I have not addressed up till now is that it is easier to recognise logically that there is an extremely low likelihood of you or anyone you know being harmed by terrorism, than it is to feel that. David Spiegelhalter, a Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University, has written that it feels inappropriate to compare the probability of terrorist attacks with other equally unlikely events because:

terrorism presses many of the buttons that psychologists have identified as features of “dread” risks: we feel out-of-control, it affects the vulnerable, and we have seen media coverage of the consequences resulting in a strong sense of “outrage”.

Cass Sunstein, a senior advisor to Obama, claims that people display “probability neglect” when confronted with vivid images of terrorism, so that:

when their emotions are intensely engaged, people’s attention is focused on the bad outcome itself, and they are inattentive to the fact that it is unlikely to occur”. So the “true” risks are ignored: it’s been shown that people are, rather illogically, willing to pay more for insurance against terrorism than insurance against all risks, just because the use of the word conjures up dread.

How are we to avoid this trap? How can we take charge of our emotions?

1. Turn off the TV

In an article for Berkley University’s Wellness Magazine, the clinical director of their anxiety centre suggests that:

one problem contributing to our fears is that we’re exposed to too many triggers—words and images that appear on TV or social media—that can make us anxious…If you always have the news on, your mind stays on constant alert. Regular exposure to images makes it feel as though the event is happening more frequently, and we’re retraumatized each time we see them. I believe that much of our anxiety comes from this nonstop access to information we’re all flooded with.

Therefore, she recommends that we:

Turn off the TV, meditate, or go for a walk in the neighbourhood…Do something calming and soothing to activate a different part of your brain.

I think part of the problem is that we consider terrorist attacks to be highly important events and therefore feel the need to scrutinise what is happening. Given that attacks tend to become a big part of our national conversation, it is probably true that you need to know the basics, but once you have got those, feel free to tune out. In particular, you should not feel the need to wallow in harrowing images or alarmist punditry.

2. Do not reward people who magnify the threat of terrorism

If a TV station is producing lots of lurid and sensationalist coverage of attacks (real or potential) then you should turn it off. Programmers know that coverage of terrorism is emotionally compelling and their reasons for producing so much of it are, at least partially, commercial. We should start giving them an incentive to act more responsibly by not watching. Better still, write to explain why you turned off.

The same goes for politicians who hype up terrorist groups. That is not only bad in itself but also indicates a lack of judgement and a tendency to get carried away. Use your vote and your financial contributions to indicate that you expect better from your leaders.

3. Take only proportionate precautions

Last year, the US State Department responded to a series of terrorist attacks in Europe by advising Americans visiting the continent to, among other things, “avoid crowded places.” The advisory does not narrow that warning by place or type of gathering. Apparently entering any crowd anywhere in Europe is too great a risk. The State Department might as well have also advised American tourists in Europe to carry an umbrella to guard against meteorite strikes!

Making substantial changes to your behaviour to reduce small risks is not only unnecessary and inconvenient, but also liable to accentuate your distress. Robert L. Leahy, a Psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has written in Psychology Today that:

I live and work in New York City, and after 9/11 many people were afraid that there would be another devastating attack. However, for almost everybody I know, these fears decreased over the following months. The more you normalize your life the more normal you will feel. The more you avoid situations that make you anxious the longer you will stay anxious.

I’m not a psychologist but I gather they generally take a dim view of avoidance. It is a shame that where terrorism is concerned many public authorities actively recommend it. If they do, you should ignore it.

4. Laugh at terrorists

I have not seen Four Lions, Chris Morris’ comedy about a group of wannabe suicide bombers, who are barely competent enough to make a martyrdom video. However, the approach seems like a good one. It’s certainly preferable, and closer to the truth, than the likes of Homeland and 24, that depict Islamist terrorist groups as implausibly nefarious and sophisticated. Deflating the pretensions of terrorist groups seems not only bad for them, but good for our psychic well-being.

5. Befriend the other

It’s a lot easier not to be scared of the Muslim guy next to you on the plane or the train, if you actually know some Muslims. They will make the fact that not all Muslims are terrorists appropriately vivid to you.

6. Do not use your social media to amplify the impact of terrorist attacks

As soon as an apparently noteworthy terrorist attack happens, it will start showing up in my social media feeds. People will start posting messages like “I hope all my friends in Istanbul are safe” or “solidarity with the people of Brussels”. Facebook will turn on its ‘safety check’ feature.  After the attack in Westminster Bridge earlier this year, I saw several friends who live and work in London but miles away from the site of the attack turning it on. At some point, if the attack is horrendous enough, then the option to overlay your profile picture with a symbol of solidarity will present itself. After the killings in the Bataclan, you could turn yourself into the colours of the French tricolour. After the shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, it was the rainbow flag. Then people start opining on what the attack proves, which generally happens to be exactly what they already thought before it happened.

There may be admirable impulses behind this behaviour, but it’s profoundly unhelpful, as it serves to disseminate news about attacks and spread the anxiety that comes with them. Just like conventional media coverage of attacks, discussion of them on social media makes the groups behind them seem more formidable (and therefore more appealing to potential recruits). And even if you are writing a post connecting a place to terrorism in order to show solidarity, that is still helping to forge a mental connection in some minds between that place and terrorism, and as we saw in the previous post that’s liable to damage its tourist industry.

If there is a legitimate question about your safety, then feel free to assure people that you are alright. Otherwise do not post about terrorists.

Indeed, let that be our general rule of thumb: to the extent you can reasonably ignore terrorism, you should ignore terrorism.

A few words of conclusion

Unless something comes up – perhaps a particularly incisive comment that needs responding to – this is the end of this series of posts.

You can find the previous parts here.

The idea that I might write a blog post about how the fear of terrorism has become more dangerous than terrorism itself, first occurred to me over a year ago. It went through numerous actual drafts and many more mental ones. During that process it split, initially, into two posts and by the end, into five. The completed series is now longer than at least one dissertation I’ve written!

So, if you’ve read all (or even just part) of it, then thank you for sticking with me. I hope I’ve repaid your time.

Please also spare a thought for my friend Aaren Tucker. If you have noticed fewer missing words and malapropisms on the blog of late, then she is the one you should thank. She has proof read and edited all this monster series of posts, as well as a number of other recent entries on the blog. Of course, any mistakes remain my responsibility.

Why both pain and gratitude drive us to pray

A few days back the Rev Giles Fraser had a very good column in the Guardian about praying after tragedies like the terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge. In the light of a radio presenter tweeting:

Fraser explains why he opened up his church – only a short distance from the scene of the attack – and invited strangers into pray:

Prayer is not a way of telling God the things he already knows. Nor is it some act of collective lobbying, whereby the almighty is encouraged to see the world from your perspective if you screw up your face really hard and wish it so. Forget Christopher Robin at the end of the bed. Prayer is mostly about emptying your head waiting for stuff to become clear. There is no secret formula. And holding people in your prayers is not wishful thinking. It’s a sort of compassionate concentration, where someone is deliberately thought about in the presence of the widest imaginable perspective – like giving them a mental cradling.

But above all, prayer is often just a jolly good excuse to shut up for a while and think. The adrenaline that comes from shock does not make for clear thinking or considered judgment. Those who rush to outrage say the stupidest things.

Naturally, I agree entirely. The only thing I would add is that because Fraser is writing in the context of a dark incident, he doesn’t touch on a key aspect of praying: being thankful.

Being grateful is really good for you. The Harvard Mental Health Newsletter has reported that:

Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much of the research on gratitude. In one study, they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics.

One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.

Another leading researcher in this field, Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, tested the impact of various positive psychology interventions on 411 people, each compared with a control assignment of writing about early memories. When their week’s assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness, participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.

The article goes on to suggest ways of making oneself more grateful: writing thank you notes, keeping a gratitude journal, and, yes, praying. When pastors and youth workers teach children to pray, they often use the mnemonic: teaspoon. It helps you remember to say thank you, sorry and please. You see, the Christian tradition demands not only an active prayer life but also one that includes a great focus on being thankful.

There’s been a great deal of research on the objective, scientifically demonstrable benefits of mediatation. That’s led to its repackaging and propogation as mindfullness, a technique that’s now used both as a form of medicine and as an aid to personal development. I wonder if we might see a similar body of research emerge around prayer.

The most infuriating paragraph you will read this week

In  a reflection on why Donald Trump’s proclivity for making stuff up doesn’t seem to bother his supporters Anna Pluta of FiveThirtyEight highlights some research that is as depressing as it is annoying:

In 2000, James Kuklinski and other political scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign established an important distinction: American citizens with incorrect information can be divided into two groups, the misinformed and the uniformed. The difference between the two is stark. Uninformed citizens don’t have any information at all, while those who are misinformed have information that conflicts with the best evidence and expert opinion. As Kuklinski and his colleagues established, in the U.S., the most misinformed citizens tend to be the most confident in their views and are also the strongest partisans [Emphasis added].These folks fill the gaps in their knowledge base by using their existing belief systems. Once these inferences are stored into memory, they become “indistinguishable from hard data,” Kuklinski and his colleagues found.

This is not a new idea. Back in the 1930s Bertrand Russel wrote that:

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt”.

This unfortunately tallies with research outside the political arena. For example, some studies indicate that parents who believe that vaccines are dangerous become more resistant to vaccinating their children when presented with scientific evidence that they are safe.

A ridiculous proportion of Islamist Terrorists have engineering degrees

As it’s 9/11 today, here’s a terrorism related fact to ponder. Loads of Islamist terrorists have studied engineering. The attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon were inspired by, planned by and lead by men who all all appear to have gained engineering degrees of some sort. (Osama Bin Laden, Muhammad Atta and Khalid Sheik respectively)  Two sociologists, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, have estimated that around half of all those Islamist terrorists with degrees studied engineering.

While the obvious explanation for this would be the utility of engineers to a terrorist group, Gambetta and Hertog found that this pattern held even for those terrorists who were not engaged in roles like bomb making where their technical skills would be useful.

They instead conclude that it is a combination of economic and psychological factors:

The engineer mind-set, Gambetta and Hertog suggest, might be a mix of emotional conservatism and intellectual habits that prefers clear answers to ambiguous questions — “the combination of a sharp mind with a loyal acceptance of authority.” Do people become engineers because they are this way? Or does engineering work shape them? It’s probably a feedback loop of both, Gambetta says.

Economic frustration also matters, Gambetta says. In their sample of militants, there was only one homeland out of 30 in which engineers were less common: Saudi Arabia — where engineers have always had plenty of work. But “engineers’ peculiar cognitive traits and dispositions” made them slightly more likely than accountants, waiters or philosophers to react to career frustration by adopting violent, right-wing beliefs.

It seems that engineers are in general a conservative bunch. They are overrepresented not only in Islamist terror groups but also in their extreme right-wing counterparts, but not amongst left-wing organisations like Shining Path and the Baader-Meinhof gang. Gambetta and Hertog also cite evidence showing that uniquely in American academia, the staff of Engineering Faculties tend to lean to the right.

We’ve already seen an illustration of this trend, this week on this blog. During his run for the presidency, Dilbert author Scott Adams promised that:

On day one of my presidency I would form a committee of libertarians to recommend ways to shrink government. But I would require them to describe in detail how the country would look when those government functions disappear. When they finish, I’ll turn over their recommendations to independent economists and other smart people for evaluation. Then I’d open it up for public scrutiny and debate. Then I’d let Bill Clinton decide which reductions in government passed the common sense filter.

This and similar pronouncements lead James Warner at Open Democracy to ponder whether “technocracy dressed up as libertarianism the natural political home of the engineer?

He explains that:

Adams studied economics at college but spent enough of his career working with engineers to take on their general mindset. In Dilbert’s company, nobody outside the Engineering department has much acquaintance with reality – other departments are dominated or heavily infiltrated by mythical creatures such as trolls or unicorns – and the engineers themselves are at the constant mercy of what Adams calls “random acts of management.”

But warns that:

China is Adams’s best example of an engineer’s utopia – the Soviet Union’s Politburo in the 1980s, incidentally, were also mostly engineers – suggests the limitations of the technocratic approach to politics. If Adams is truly Libertarian, he should see the danger of a government that makes efficiency an end in itself — defined without reference to what people, however irrationally, actually cherish. Adams wants to strip politics of all sideshow passions, noble reasons, and values — but what look to him like bugs in the political system, the majority of people consider to be features.

I don’t think this is quite right. I don’t think it is technocracy per se that appeals to those with an engineering mindset but ideologies that purport to provide a clear standard by which to evaluate societies. Gambetta and Hertog quote a study of Turkish Islamists finding that:

they entertain a strong belief in the superiority of logical and technical approaches towards societal issues, and see themselves as problem solvers, as “social engineers”, superior to the Kemalist elite of jurists preoccupied with debates on abstract ideas…They assume to know the “one best way” of improving society, and feel therefore entitled to speak in the interests of all.”

It seems that in Scott Adams case economists, engineers and ‘smart people’ substitute for the Qur’an and the findings of radical sharia jurists.


Hat tip: Slate

There is a correlation between physical strength and views on redistribution (in men)

As the Economist explains:

The two researchers came to this conclusion after looking at 486 Americans, 223 Argentinians and 793 Danes. They collected data on their volunteers’ strength by measuring the circumference of the flexed biceps of an individual’s dominant arm. (Previous work has shown that this is an accurate proxy for strength.) They then measured people’s status with questionnaires about their economic situation. And they determined a person’s support for redistribution by asking the degree to which he or she agreed with statements like: “The wealthy should give more money to those who are worse off”; and “It is not fair that people have to pay taxes to fund welfare programmes.” They also asked about participants’ political ideologies.

Dr Petersen and Dr Sznycer found that, regardless of country of origin or apparent ideology, strong men argued for their self interest: the poor for redistribution, the rich against it. No surprises there. Weaklings, however, were far less inclined to make the case that self-interest suggested they would. Among women, by contrast, strength had no correlation with opinion. Rich women wanted to stay rich; poor women to become so.

This is an example of a depressingly common feature: not only are we not terribly rational about our politics but we’re also unaware of our own irrationality. I mean when did you last hear someone explain their views on the welfare state with reference to their biceps?