Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

On April 20, 1999, four years and one day after Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb in Oklahoma City (the date was no coincidence), Columbine stopped being the name of a high school in Colorado and took on a new meaning – a horrifying American tragedy, a deadly school shooting, a massacre. I did not hear about Columbine or the Oklahoma City Bombing until years later, when other school shootings were referred as ‘Columbines’. Or, I might have heard about a shocking shooting on the other side of the world, but the word ‘Columbine’ never really registered. In 1999, I was in high school myself, and can hardly imagine an 18-year old cooking napalm on his stovetop, or having the imagination and brains to envision and plan a massacre, and be consumed with so much wrath as to desire to blow up a school full of people. For that was their vision – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did not intend to kill twelve students and a teacher, but wipe out the entire school. Columbine was a bombing that fizzled out.

In a perfect world, Eric would extinguish the species, Eric was a practical kid, though. The planet was beyond him; even a block of Denver high-rises was out of reach. But he could pull off a high school.

They had a plan: A diversionary bomb in nearby park to keep the police occupied while they detonated bombs in the school cafeteria during lunch break (for maximum impact), manned exits to shoot down any escapees, and finally kill themselves. Fortunately, Eric’s bomb making skills were not top-notch and all of the bombs failed to detonate. The guns worked, though. Eric and Dylan shot at students and teachers, killing thirteen and grievously injuring many more, before blowing their own brains out.

Dave Cullen’s account of the shooting, Columbine (2009), was published a decade after the event, fleshed out, he says, from official documents, journals and videos made by the killers, police records, summaries of counseling sessions, and memory of the survivors, with any remaining gaps (and there were some) filled by criminal psychologists. Cullen starts out describing the shooting as it played out from the victims’ point-of -view, and weaves back and forth between Eric and Dylan’s evolution to becoming partners-in-crime, to the aftermath – a stunned community, the media frenzy, the investigation, and the survivors’ lives. Cullen also aims to clear up myths that sprang up easily and abundantly in the hysteria and confusion that followed the incident, and to paint a profile of the killers. Eric and Dylan, he concludes, did not kill because they were part of the ‘Trench Coat Mafia’ (although they did wear trench coats that fateful day), or because they were Goths, or listened to Marilyn Manson, or because they were outcast loners who were bullied by rich, snotty jocks. The killers had no specific trigger, they had no specific target. They dreamed of making a large, indiscriminate kill and ending their own lives.

Eric, Cullen writes, was a textbook psychopath, “charming, callous, cunning, manipulative, comically grandiose and egocentric, with an appalling failure of empathy”. Eric killed for two reasons – “to demonstrate his superiority and to enjoy it”. Dylan, was depressed, angry, and suicidal. Together, they formed an effective dyad – “the psychopath and the depressive“, a murderous pair who fed off each other.

An angry, erratic depressive and a sadistic psychopath make a combustible pair, The psychopath is in control, of course, but the hotheaded sidekick can sustain his excitement leading up to the big kill.

Eric’s psychopathy had been simmering for at least two years before the shooting, and he was convinced of his own superiority over the witless idiots all around him. He didn’t snap, but an incident did set his plan in motion: Eric and Dylan were arrested in their junior year for breaking into a van (they’d got into trouble earlier for vandalism and such). Eric’s contempt grew into a seething rage, but, he maintained a cool and charming, even repentant, exterior, as most psychopaths do. Nobody – his family, his psychiatrist- had a clue. Dylan, on the other hand, was painfully shy, but prone to angry outbursts. His parents thought he might be suicidal, but certainly not homicidal.

Cullen devotes a considerable part of Columbine to the post-shooting years. The mourning, the slow recovery, the post-traumatic stress disorder, and the paranoia that seeped into the entire community. Eric and Dylan’s parents were blamed by many for raising killers. But Cullen says that parenting might not be responsible.

It also appears that even the best parenting may be no match for a child born to be bad.

But the parents still faced a horde of lawsuits.

After years of wrangling, most of the fringe cases were dismissed…That left the killers’ families. They wanted to settle. They didn’t have a lot of money, but they had insurance. It turned out their home owner’s policies covered murder by their children.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that about home owner’s insurance.

Even mental health specialists are no match for psychopaths – Eric convinced his own therapists that he was contrite and well on his way to turning over a new leaf. So, what should adults look out for?

  • Leakage – Cullen says that 81% of shooters confided their intentions, which were not vague, implied or implausible. “The danger sky-rockets when threats are specific and direct, identify a motive, and indicate work performed to carry it out”.
  • An unhealthy, morbid preoccupation with death, destruction and violence. Repetitive violent fantasies with mutilation, guns, brutality and a vivid imagination

As with other works of journalism, I’ll have to take Cullen’s word that his hypothesis is the product of comprehensive research. Columbine is certainly gripping. And scary. I hope that the any lessons that were learned from the shooting would never have to be put to use.

Other works about true-crime that I (and many others, I’m sure) have read and enjoyed:

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders

In True Blood

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When I search for Nurtureshock, the very first search result informs me that the book “has been featured on Good Morning America, Nightline, All Things Considered, Fresh Air, and in Newsweek”. It also has consistently good reviews across many websites that allow user-led discussions. Any residual reservations that one may have about reading a parenting manual, are addressed by the authors when they insist that they’re not the kind to parent by the book either. They then entice us with the tried and tested formula of telling us how the book will challenge many of our “bedrock assumptions” and question what we’ve always assumed to be true.

The central premise of this book is that many of modern society’s strategies for nurturing children are in fact backfiring – because key twists in science have been overlooked.

Nurtureshock: New thinking about children, written by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, is divided into several chapters, each addressing a trait or behavior that parents may consider desirable or undesirable in their children, but will agree are wholly unavoidable: confidence, intelligence, lying, sibling tension, teen rebellion, aggressive behavior, self-control, and so on.


The first chapter, and the best in my opinion, works on shattering the myth that praising children’s intelligence boosts their confidence. Research has shown that children who are praised for being smart, and praised frequently, begin to discount the importance of effort, get more competitive and become risk-averse. Even before I became a parent, I noticed how at playgrounds, parties, and other public spaces where I encountered children, parents, both enthusiastic and distracted, were generous with ‘Good job!’ and ‘Great work!’. And why not? Conventional wisdom says that expressions of praise boost a child’s self-esteem, and self-esteem is an important predictor of later success. What parent would not want to be thought of as encouraging and unconditionally loving?

Interestingly, research has found that parents might have a less noble agenda:

…the continued appeal of self-esteem is largely tied to parents’ pride in their children’s achievements: it’s so strong that “when they praise their kids, it’s not that far from praising themselves.”

Praise, researchers says, works best when it is not frequent, but intermittent; when it is really specific and sincere. Let your child know that he did a good job listening to you, or being careful with his books, or not spilling her fruit. Let them know that the effort they put in is important; that the brain is a muscle, it grows and becomes smarter when you challenge it.


For many new parents, the joy of parenthood can be dulled by the rather debilitating sleep deprivation they face those first few months. Soon, the baby starts sleeping for longer periods of time, and the parents’ bodies learns to cope with what it learns is going to be a chronic condition. Parents learn to function with half the amount of sleep they are used to. Bronson and Merryman say that parents often forget that children and adults are built differently, and assume that what works for adults, works for children as well. Since praise works well in adults, they assume it must do their kids a world of good. Since adults seem to be able to function fairly well with moderate sleep deprivation, they reason that their kids might be tired but they’ll manage just like their parents do. Not true.

[In children] “a loss of one hour of sleep is equivalent to [the loss of] two years of cognitive maturation and development”.

Several scholars have noted that many hallmark traits of modern adolescence – moodiness, impulsiveness, disengagement – are also symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation.

Among the middle schoolers and high schoolers studied, the odds of obesity went up 80% for each hour of lost sleep.

The lesson here is to protect your child’s sleep time consistently. Sometimes, parents tend to schedule their children’s bedtime around their own convenience. Understand that children need sleep more than adults, and are affected by sleep deprivation differently.

Talking about race

Parents also assume that exposing children to diverse environments is essential and sufficient for their kids to understand that everyone is equal. Not true.

…kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they’re going to form these preferences on their own. Children categorize everything from food to toys to people at a young age. However, it takes years before their cognitive abilities allow them to successfully use more than one attribute to categorize anything. In the meantime, the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible.

…which is often the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, or the language they speak.

Merely sending your child to a diverse school is no guarantee they’ll have better racial attitudes than children at homogenous schools – they self-segregate by race and ethnicity within the school.

So, be explicit about how it is wrong to judge people based on these attributes, and don’t shush your kids when they bring it up on their own.


Contrary to what most parents think, their children tell lies and learn to do so at a very young age. Their lies are mostly motivated by a desire to avoid conflicts and displeasing their parents. They start with bad, obvious lies (saying they didn’t take the cookie when they are holding one) and move on to more sophisticated deception (learning to dust the crumbs after they take a cookie), as they learn what works and what doesn’t. Lying is actually a huge developmental milestone, and a sign of intelligence.

Be more aware of your own ‘white’ lies, as children are keen observers, and learn a lot from their parents. No matter how big or small, white or not, don’t let kids’ lies go unnoticed. In addition to teaching them that lying is wrong, teach them the value of being honest. Kids usually know that lying is wrong, so the threat of punishment alone is not going to keep them from lying. Let them know explicitly that you will not be upset by whatever they have done, and will be happy if they do tell you the truth. Don’t try to trap kids and try to test their honesty (by asking them angrily, “did you do this?”, when clearly they have done ‘it’).

Intelligence and IQ tests

Again, unlike in adults, measured intelligence is not a constant in children. IQ tests administered to children are not meaningful until they reach second or third grade, and are not good predictors of academic success when given to younger children. The authors use supporting research to make the point that by testing for intelligence in preschoolers, the ‘gifted children’ programs are not allowing for late-bloomers to test in. This flawed structure also often does not allow for retesting in the later years to ensure that the children who got in the programs really belong there.

As a child ages, the location of intellectual processing shifts. The neural network a young child relies on is not the same network he will rely on as an adolescent or adult. There is significant overlap, but the differences are striking. A child’s ultimate intellectual success will be greatly affected by the degree to which his brain learns to shift processing to these more efficient networks.

Sibling tension

Having a sibling does not necessarily translate to better social skills, especially in older siblings. Children learn social skills more from friends and non-sibling playmates (who they’ve to take care not to lose) and practice these skills on their siblings (who are always going to be there). If you have more than one child, encourage them to value each other’s company, and find common interests.

Teen rebellion

Although arguing with a teen-aged son or daughter can be the source of much distress for the parents, the teenagers themselves might think of arguments as constructive and strengthening. Teenage deception is as ubiquitous as preschool lying, and for much the same reasons – to avoid conflicts and unpleasantness. Being the super-permissive parent does not necessarily mean that your child will be less dishonest as kids can take it to mean that their parents don’t really care.

The type of parents who were lied to the least had rules and enforced them consistently, but they had found a way to be flexible that allowed the rule-setting process to still be respected.

Make fewer rules and enforce them, but be willing to listen to your child and negotiate if required. Be a collaborator and don’t stonewall them with the conversation ending “Don’t argue with me!”.

…moderate conflict with parents [during adolescence] is associated with better adjustment than either no-conflict or frequent conflict.

Self-control can be taught

Turns out that children can be taught to perform amidst distractions, control impulses and be disciplined. The authors discuss a pre-school program called Tools of the Mind, where kids come up with their own play-plan and script their imaginative play; engage in buddy reading in pairs, where they learn to take turns to read, listen while their partner is reading, and control their own impulses to read first; recognize ‘good’ work from average work where they’re asked to practice writing the alphabet and circle the best ‘A’ (or another letter) that they’ve written. Such exercises are thought to strengthen the part of the brain that is responsible for concentration and setting goals, develop an awareness of how well they are doing when their work is completed accurately and motivate them to perform better.

Being socially competent

Is aggressive behavior in children always a sign of future problems? In this chapter, the authors challenge the conventional notion that “a truly socially-competent child is non-aggressive” and alert parents to the idea that pro-social and antisocial behaviors are not necessarily the opposite ends of a single dimension, and that many kids tend to use both behaviors effectively. Even children who are not physically or verbally aggressive, may be what the authors call relationally aggressive and engage in ignoring peers, telling lies, or withdrawing their friendship. While parents tend not to let their kids watch violent television for obvious reasons, even educational media for kids might teach them to engage in these subtly aggressive behaviors (and in prosocial behaviors, as well). Children are also affected by the relationship between their parents.

The problem is not witnessing conflict between the parents, the problem is not witnessing the resolution of the conflict – being exposed to constructive marital conflict can actually be good for the children – if it doesn’t escalate, insults are avoided, and the dispute is resolved with affection. This improves their sense of security, over time, and increases their prosocial behavior at school as rated by teachers.

Language skills

Early language skills are not dependent on exposure but interaction.

The central role of the parent is not to push massive amounts of language into the baby’s ears; rather, the central role of the parent is to notice what’s coming from the baby, and respond accordingly.

In other words, parent responsiveness may have an impact on an infant’s rate of language acquisition.

This book is essentially a compilation of research, and because it deals with so many disparate topics and brings up the details of a number of research projects (which often seem to contradict each other’s findings), I did find the book rather overwhelming. I wish the authors had been a little more discriminating about discussing the research in detail, and dwelled a bit more on the practical implications of the findings. In some chapters, the authors do describe their experiences with their own children and I would have loved to read more of them.

The first chapter on praise made the most sense to me and I now mentally cringe everytime I praise my son with a ‘Very good’ and am learning to be more specific and less generous with my compliments. I am also learning to be more aware of my own behaviors when he is around.

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