Monday, April 18, 2016

Why People Don't Talk About Religion

I'm listening to the Michael Medved radio show, and he's talking about why few people are willing to discuss religion in social situations. Let me offer my response.

Remember when there were two topics not to be discussed in polite company lest someone become upset? Those two used to be politics and religion. No longer. Now, politics may be like a religion to many people, but talking politics reigns, as radio and Saturday Night Live, and outlets for our feelings--like this blog--let us spew our passions about current events to anyone with a smartphone or computer.

But the taboo against discussing religion is stronger than ever, as one's faith is considered extremely personal. Unless you believe that it's your duty and job to lead others to it.

For most people, uncertainty about God and what God wants is a bit disturbing, and sometimes brings guilt, confusion, doubt or discomfort. It involves many emotions, and rests in the intangible and un-provable. That's why it's called "faith."

Making people uncomfortable isn't a nice thing to do. Much better to avoid the topic and keep the relationship on an intellectual, real-life basis.

I confess that at our Shabbat table I made a mistake and asked two guests to explain, in one case what brought her into her religion, and in another case, what led him to leave it.
The one who came to her church said "it just felt right." The one who left it said his research regarding the physical world caused him to disbelieve tenets of the faith.

As a psychologist, I love learning how people think. And I care about the people I invite for Shabbat, and want to know more about them. As a hostess,though, I'm a flop--I made two guests uncomfortable. I hereby apologize for putting them on the spot.

If you believe that scriptures are from God, and that they're the truth, you're going to be passionate about them. Other than from its own material, can any religion prove it's correct, or that other people should believe it? Can anyone be objective about the religion he accepts as God's word?

In a nation becoming increasingly diverse as immigrants from more varied homelands contribute their cultures and beliefs, it's ever-more-difficult to insist any single faith is "the one." The only thing adherents can assert is that it's "the one for me."

That's why the Shabbat guest who answered "it just felt right" is as worthy of respect as the one who said, in effect, "it no longer felt right." And unless you want to get into doctrines--and who does?--what kind of conversation is that?

Much better to just let it go. It's part of our tolerance trend, or the "whatever gender you say you are" shrug, or our 'as long as nobody's hurt" acceptance. Sure, you can do your religion, and I'll either do mine, or, as increasingly politically correct, I'll do none, thank you. Not talking about religion now falls under the banner of respect. You can't knock respect.

Except when you're talking about politics...

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Lucky to live in the US: Murder Rates Down Sharply in the Land of Law and Gratitude

Newly naturalized citizens sing "God Bless America"
In these days when the presidential race is driving everyone batty, and candidates capitalize on how awful everything is, we need some good news. Here it is.

Black lives and all lives do matter, and more of them are being preserved. A new study in the American Sociological Review of 131 of the largest US metropolitan areas found the rate of homicides way down, within and across black, Hispanic and White populations.

Changes in the two decades between 1990 and 2010 are only for the best--and show great strides.

*The black-white homicide victimization rate gap decreased by 40%.

*White homicides are down from 4.8 per 100,000 in 1990 to 3.1 in 2010.

*The black homicide rate went down from 33.9 per 100,000 in 1990 to 20.5 in 2010.

*Homicides of Hispanics crashed from 12.4 per 100,000 in 2010 to 6.6 in 2010--a forty-seven percent decrease.

And the new research contradicts certain candidates' claims, by showing that immigrants very rarely perpetrate crimes. "People who decide to come here are not people with strong tendencies toward violent crime," says study co-author Jeffrey T. Ulmer of Penn State University. "They are coming here for educational opportunities, employment opportunities and opportunities to help their families."

We're so lucky to live in the U.S.

A good friend came by, wearing a long face. "What's the matter?" I asked. He was grieving over the murder-by-gunshot of the mayor of his hometown, San Dionisio in El Salvador. He explained that the mayor, elected to his sixth 3-year term, was beloved by all, because he gave building materials, food and assistance to his impoverished constituents. Mayor Julio Torres had gone missing after milking the cows at his dairy farm. A day later, after an intense search, his body was found. 
Julio Torres, beloved mayor of San Dionisio, murdered by gangs

El Salvador has no rule of law. My friend describes bus drivers, fruit vendors and even children accosted on the street by armed robbers, who murder their victims whether or not they have any money to give. Gangs rule and the government can't contain them.


"When you sit down, you'll be US Citizens."
In contrast, my son told me today of his co-worker, who accompanied his wife to her US naturalization ceremony yesterday. The co-worker described the intense emotion with which the new citizens received their status. They rose to raise their hands and recite an oath of allegiance, and the judge told them, "when you sit down again, you will all be American citizens." The tears of gratitude flowed for the significance of that moment.

We should not take our homeland for granted. God bless America.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Is Trump a Sociopath?

At our Sabbath lunch table yesterday, one of my guests asked me pointedly, "Given your expertise as a psychologist, would you say Donald Trump is a sociopath?"

I can't give a professional diagnosis, but from his public appearances and the way he continuously makes inflamatory (perhaps racist, perhaps misogynistic) statements, you'd have to wonder. Here's a list of sociopathological characteristics useful in evaluating Trump*:


  • Superficial charm and good intelligence
  • Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking
  • Absence of nervousness or neurotic manifestations
  • Unreliability
  • Untruthfulness and insincerity
  • Lack of remorse and shame
  • Inadequately motivated antisocial behavior
  • Poor judgment and failure to learn by experience
  • Pathologic egocentricity and incapacity for love
  • General poverty in major affective reactions
  • Specific loss of insight
  • Unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations
  • Fantastic and uninviting behavior with alcohol and sometimes without
  • Sex life impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated
  • Failure to follow any life plan
You can judge for yourself, but I do know that politically, Trump is dysfunctional and self-destructive. How so? He undermines his own progress by needlessly going on the offensive (literally).

Out of the blue, weeks after his last TV debate with Megyn Kelly, he decided to Tweet another hit on the Fox News anchor, adding to his collection of childish names, including "sick," "overrated," "unwatchable," and "crazy."

He got in trouble previously for snarky comments about former rival Carly Fiorina's looks ("Look at that face. Can you imagine that as the face of our next President?"). Then he went after Heidi Cruz, threatening to "spill the beans" about her, and then publishing an unflattering photo with a glamour shot of his wife, a former-model.

Next comes a front-page Enquirer banner story that blared, "It's over for Pervy Ted! Their
Shocking Claims--Cruz's Five Secret Mistresses!" Cruz quickly called the story "trash" and blamed Trump's "henchmen." (Trump denied association to the Enquirer story, adding, "while they were right about OJ Simpson, John Edwards and many others, I certainly hope they are not right about Lyin' Ted Cruz.")

How does this wallowing in the muck help Trump? Even his base must question the sanity of their candidate's uncontrollable tweets. At at time when Trump most needs to look credibly Presidential, he undermines any gains with his impulsive, aggressive jabs. Trump's success at AIPAC with a speech by his son-in-law Jered Kushner (Trump's only teleprompter-read presentation) was immediately undone by his renewed sleazy attacks.

This is dysfunction: Working to set yourself up for success and then undermining your own efforts.

My husband made an excellent observation: Trump wants to win, but he doesn't want to govern. It's a conflict that causes him to self-sabotage.

If he really wanted to win, he wouldn't shoot himself in the foot (reminds me of his comment "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK?"). If indeed he's not stupid, and I am increasingly unsure about that, he would see that to win, he must widen his support, not endanger it.

He needs to prove his grasp of domestic and international issues, leading the military, and working with those who oppose him. Instead, he's mired in cutting comments, personal lawsuits and scandals, and general assurances that we needn't know specifics because, believe him, his solutions will be great and brilliant. His pattern is to foment criticism, and then lash out with an even harsher attack.

This penchant for self-destruction is now leaving even those who once admired his chutzpah astonished. There's no point in crudely attacking a fellow Republican, especially if Trump has confidence (as he often asserts) that he'll earn nomination. Trump has lowered the campaign to where parents now must shield their children from the political process.

A new Bloomberg poll taken March 18-22 finds Trump's net favorability rating just 29%; his net unfavorable is 68%. Hillary's favorable is 44% and her unfavorable 53%. In a contest between the two, who wins?


John Kasich: I think, therefore I can
Therefore, I repeat my post of two weeks ago: a vote for Trump is a vote for Hillary. At this point, Republicans desperately need a candidate who can attract both Hillary haters and Trump disdainers. Cruz is also disliked, with unfavorables at 55% and favorables just 32%. Kasich seems too far from getting the nod, but his favorability, according to the same Bloomberg poll, is 46%, higher than Hillary's, and his unfavorability is lower than hers, at just 32%. He's actually the best-liked of the lot.

I find Kasich a bit creepy, but I do admire that he refused to join the Trump mud-slinging, and focuses on policies and experience. He might be the best bet to save the GOP, and the nation, from spiraling disaster.

We certainly cannot afford to have a sociopath for President.

* Characteristics of a sociopath from Thomas, M.E., "How to Spot a Sociopath," Psychology Today, May 7, 2013.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

You support Trump? Here's my Reply

Donald Trump. It's not easy being orange.
Recently someone I respect sent me a newsy email in which he casually mentioned that he supported Trump.

It was as if a giant elephant just fell into the room. "How could you possibly support Trump?" I asked, agog.

 I do try to understand; I read articles with quotes from Trumpites, and they say the GOP front-runner expresses their anger, or he says what they're thinking, or he's politically incorrect and will shake everything up, or he's a deal-maker and running the country is about deals.

Few Trumpsters say they support him because they like his policies, or they revere his upstanding character, or for his record in international relations, domestic lawmaking, handling crises or joining together opposing groups.

Far from uniting us, as he claims he'll do, feelings about Trump are polarizing Americans, individually, and in small and large groups. Politics' divisiveness is impinging on our lives and causing depression. And speaking of psychoses,  I cannot understand how Ben Carson endorsed him, after Trump called out Carson's "psychological disease," and suggested he's a "child molester" and a “sick puppy.” (Dr. Carson in his endorsement said there are "two Donald Trumps." Is that the doctor's diagnosis of schizophrenia?)

 I am flummoxed that Chris Christie endorsed him so shortly after asserting Trump "did not have the temperament" for the presidency.

It's true that a president needs tact. Trump demonstrates little understanding of the delicacy of diplomacy in any context. And were he to have access to nuclear bombs and armies, it could mean literally the end of the world. Those stakes are too high.

Trump may be right that he "could shoot someone without losing voters." Thousands of Trump University students and the New York Attorney General are actively suing, claiming enrollees were misled into a fraudulent educational experience. Doesn't matter, Trumpers know it's fine, since Donald shrugged it off on TV.

If he were honest in and about his business dealings, I wouldn't care that some of his endeavors failed. Much more important to presidential success is proven ability to work in the milieu of Washington. The culture and protocol of national politics will not crumble, even if a brazen president wills it. Thousands of people have built careers within a reliable web of agreements and relationships, and will not scrap their investments in Washington's political structure.

Trump can never win the presidency because the majority of voters, even voters and politicos in his own party, disdain him. Not just because he's an arrogant bully (though he is) but mainly because he is dangerously unpredictable. We don’t know what he plans to do, and if he hints at something in response to a journalist's questioning, he’s only too willing to totally change it, even on the same day, if his feelings change.

Every debate and speech Trump makes teaches us how he operates, and that is, Donald Trump wings it. He says what he feels at the time, unplanned. His speeches are off the cuff; his responses to charges are counter-attacks, often ad hominem.

And that teaches us, the American people, that his policies and messages to dignitaries will be winged, too. What Donald feels, Donald says—until he changes his mind and undoes it.
 
NY Times pic of Donald Trump at his University

The one thing to look for in a leader is long-term perspective. Someone who doesn’t wing it, but looks far into the future at potential ramifications of short-term steps, toward a lofty, worthwhile goal. Trump has no aspiration to a virtuous future more moral or dignified than the kind of ambiance he fosters now. He has no affinity for any religion, and suspicious enmity toward Muslims. He only mentions God when trying to win over preachers and congregations.

 When someone peppers his comments with “Believe me,” you know you can’t. When someone criticizes him, Donald automatically goes on the offensive with something more rude and outrageous than what was lobbed at him.

There is one commonality in the responses of Trump admirers--they're based on emotions. If you're angry, if you're resentful, if you feel threatened by immigrants who could take your job, or who change the character of your neighborhood, you're driven by powerful emotions. And seldom can logic dissuade you.

I'm a psychologist, and this principle applies to behavior in every realm, marriages, work, and  friendships: Emotions trump logic. I've been using that phrase for decades before Donald Trump made it so apropos.

Donald Trump fires up emotions, but we should not be led by emotions. The central Jewish prayer "the Shma" warns not to follow your heart, lest you're lured away from duty and nobility. Because emotions are compelling, my logical arguments probably won't sway my emailing friend away from Trump. But we risk severe peril if we collectively succumb to emotion and eschew the calm pursuit of civility in a long-term context.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Why Tech Companies Can't Keep Good Women Employees

Nathalie Miller pitches Doxa to a Venture Capitalist
My son recently got a job in development at a Tech firm, and one of the many praises he has for the company, SmartSheet, is that half of its staff are men and half women.

"That's not the usual composition in a tech company," he adds, and indeed, a story on the cover of the New York Times Business section by Claire Cain Miller bears him out, noting that "30 percent of employees at big tech companies including Google, Facebook and Apple are women..."

The question is, "Why?" The NY Times story implies why, but you'll never find the answer stated explicitly, because it's completely politically incorrect--though hardly a secret.

The reason is that women choose to divert attention to their families.

Nathalie Miller, now 34, went on the fast track to career success. Raised in Berkeley, California, she got a degree from Harvard, then moved to VietNam (she's of Vietnamese and European descent), starting a micro-finance nonprofit.

Returning to the US in 2013, she signed on as employee number 20 with Instacart, a grocery-delivery start-up, and watched it expand to 120 employees and 4,000 contractors within a year.

Then "a new employee told her that he had ranked the hottest women at the company, and she was No. 1. She reported the comment to managers, and the employee was fired the next day," reports the NY Times piece.

This brought interest in matching female candidates with pro-women high-tech openings, leading her to leave Instacart, partner with an engineer, and create Doxa, a site that would collect data on companies, give job seekers online personality tests, and facilitate hiring. She hoped to increase awareness of issues important to women by including info on companies' policies.

She built the company to "820 active users and 300 companies on a waiting list to be included," and so sought money to expand. About then she discovered that she and her husband were expecting their first child. She "plotted strategy," and planned to mention her impending parenthood only on a second meeting with potential investors, and then say "...I'm married to a man who will be a primary caregiver, and this is no different from investing in a man whose wife is pregnant."

Nathalie Miller worked diligently to hone her pitch, refining her content and look with a mentor. She met with more than 40 venture capitalists, one a Ms. Yuan of Cowboy Ventures, who said of the software, "It enables companies to be responsive: 'Let's get a maternity policy because we don't want to be up on your platform without that.'" Still, none she approached chose to fund Doxa, and when her engineer partner got greater responsibility at this day job, Ms. Miller was faced with finding a new technical expert. 

The article details issues facing women in Silicon Valley, including differences in men's and women's presentation styles, and the way women are received by male execs and co-workers. It relates the difficulties of a start-up in the competitive tech world to the problems encountered by Doxa.

 Ultimately, however, Nathalie Miller chose another worthwhile path: motherhood.

"Ms. Miller's plan was to take a month off and get back to work," explains the NY Times story. "Then...she gave birth to a girl, Zadie Mai, and changed her mind. 'I feel a mixture of intense love and protectiveness,' she said. 'I want to hang out with the baby forever. There are my real physical needs and the physical dependence of the baby, all this stuff I didn't expect to be so consuming.'

...She decided to take at least six months off, doing some work from home after three or four months," the article notes. "Her husband, meanwhile, had found a full-time job in advertising."

Yep. The setting might now be Silicon Valley, but the same switch of ambition happened to a generation before the millennials. Feminist baby boomers (like me), took advantage of new openings in a raft of fields, and yet found themselves pairing up, responding to biology and, when their babies came on the scene, falling in love. Whether it's hormones, or simply gaining the perspective that raising your own child is valuable and rewarding, women often opt out of promising careers at a certain stage. Is this really a surprise? Or a problem?

Companies may find that they can populate their tech staffs with competent, sharp women right out of college, who serve them eagerly and well for several years and then realize they've "been there, done that." These women know they've got a window of time to have children and raise families, and prefer to fully participate in that (just as they fully embraced their tech jobs) rather than take a month or even a few and then leave their babies in day care or with a nanny.


It's ironic that Nathalie Miller, whose start-up aimed to place women in responsible roles in companies sensitive to women's needs, stepped away from her own such position, lured by the sweet coos of her baby--but it's also laudable and not unusual. Silicon Valley and Seattle, where I live, are filled with growing tech companies snapping up capable college grads, but most of their hires aren't women in the mothering phase (who often carve out part-time or work-from-home alternatives), or older males or females.

I'll be interested to see the proportion of tech companies who keep their women employees throughout long careers. But I expect that many women launched in upward trajectories in these demanding enterprises will be attracted to a pause, the kind that brings a payoff far exceeding dollars and cents.

Photo credits: Top, Jason Henry for the New York Times; below, Laura Menenberg.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Why A Vote for Trump is a Vote for Hillary

Results from the Nevada GOP caucuses show Donald Trump with more than 45%, nearly twice the percentage vote of each of his runner-up rivals, Marco Rubio (24%) and Ted Cruz (21%).

I do not understand how anyone could entrust our nation's future to one whose vocabulary consists of superlatives and digs.

My husband is wrapping up writing a book on Providence in American history with a chapter on Abraham Lincoln. Trump and Lincoln--polar opposites in their characters and their perspectives of the presidency. I only wish we could produce a Lincoln-esque candidate with the humility to deferentially serve God and the United States people, driven and able to absorb the intricacies of history, international relations and domestic policy.

Instead,GOP front-runner Donald Trump has demonstrated expertise in braggadocio. He exclaims in speeches that he did very well in school, is rich, very rich, and plans to use The Art of the Deal as his presidential guidebook. He emblazons his name in two-story letters on skyscrapers. He blithely insults women, Mexicans and his fellow candidates.

 Jimmy Kimmel capsulized the Trump approach in a Dr. Seuss book parody that he read on-air to the approving real Donald.



Most voters share my incredulity with this Trump phenomenon. A January Gallup poll found 60% of Americans view Donald Trump unfavorably. (The same poll found 52% viewed Hillary unfavorably.) Who are these people supporting Trump? How come I've never met any?

But it's numbers that explain why a vote for Trump is a vote for Hillary: Even with her 52% unfavorable rating, Mrs. Clinton is amassing enough delegate votes to win the Democratic nomination. People who like Bernie just haven't come through in the primaries and caucuses--at the moment Hillary's sewn up 503 delegates, while Bernie earned a paltry 70. Apparently promising free stuff--like free college tuition, free preschool, and free medical care--isn't bringing in the delegates.

So, as Hillary's totals rise, Bernie's support weakens, and we can assume she'll be the Democratic nominee, just as everyone always said.

If Republicans divide on the other candidates and propel The Donald to nomination, his negatives "trump" Hillary's. More people are offended by Donald's racist-sounding anti-immigrant rants and his rudeness to Meghan Kelly than love his unplanned bursts of feeling and optimism. So, if he's the Republican nominee, the party shrivels as members defect and Independents cast their votes for the more predictable, and therefore least dangerous of the two offerings.

It's great fun to watch debates where the frowning Comb-over King lets loose his assurances we'll be the best country and fix everything. But when it comes down to our safety and the delicate diplomacy needed in this fragile world, it's clear Americans just don't want an apprentice.

Monday, February 1, 2016

"Inequality" has nothing to do with divorce. But personal behavior does.

Sen. Rubio: Marriage is a route out of poverty
So, I'm writing a book on divorce. Actually, it's on why you should NOT divorce. Therefore I collect articles on the subject, and one I was just filing was from last week's New York Times, titled "Marriage, Poverty and the Political Divide."

The piece suggests that economic inequality works against marriage. It discounts Sen. Marco Rubio's assertion that marriage can lift parents and children from poverty.

But it doesn't get to the point--that the values of marriage shrink poverty rates, and it takes personal behavioral choices, not scrapping "inequality" with legal and policy change, to both support marriage and curb poverty. 

Sen. Rubio bases this pro-marriage remark on a Heritage Foundation report showing that 71% of families in poverty are headed by unmarried individuals. Of those who are not poor, 73% are headed by married couples. Married people are better off financially.

Makes sense. Certainly a couple pulling together can bring in more income than a single parent, and make what they have go further. Stay-at-home parents contribute by saving on day care and providing other services that make the family function.

One would hope that an absent parent would contribute to his child's support. The trouble is, among the poor, this is infrequently the case. In 2011, only half of all custodial parents had a child support agreement. Those with child support agreements actually received only 62% of what they were due. Of all custodial parents receiving child support, 24% were in poverty. Thirty percent of custodial mothers live below the poverty line.

So how does inequality shape a couple's future together?  How does the fact someone else earns a lot more than you do harm your marriage? Not clear. 

Writer Andrew L. Yarrow's article claims "Poorer Americans already aspire to marriage at similar or higher rates than their higher-income counterparts, according to a 2012 UCLA study. But when they do marry, their marriages are much more likely to end in divorce."

The piece neglects to mention that divorce not only correlates with poverty but also with education of the partners. The more education partners have, the more likely a couple will stay together, finds the Heritage Foundation.

And of course education is highly correlated with income. In other words, those with the tenacity and ability to make it through college or advanced degrees more often have the tenacity and ability to both earn more money and form an enduring marriage. 


This isn't sinister "inequality,"a societal ill to be corrected by policy-makers. This is simple variation among individuals. Certain personal abilities, values and behaviors promote certain outcomes. It's less a governmental problem than a personal problem, a values and behavioral problem. Individuals who exhibit characteristics that promote happy marriage can much more often sustain happy marriages.

The term "inequality" implies that something's askew, that everyone would have the same positive outcomes were it not for unfairness. Look at how the poor scramble to survive, while the rich buy $5,000 designer purses! If you believe that all individuals begin with the same potential, it follows that only factors imposed by luck or malice stand in anyone's way. And therefore laws and policies should remove those barriers. But if you look around, you notice that humans were not created with the same potentials, though we rightly offer everyone the same opportunities to maximize the potentials they have.

"Marriage is far from the magic bullet to end poverty that some conservatives claim," says Melissa Boteach of the Center for American Progress in the Times piece.

Nobody says it's magic, but being in a marriage is one of those opportunities that allows us to maximize our best selves. Says W. Bradford Wilcox of the National Marriage Project,"Americans are more likely to realize the American dream if they get and stay married, and grow up in communities where marriage is stronger. Marriage fosters saving, facilitates economies of scale and encourages stability and family life, all things that are good for the average American's pocketbook."

In other words, the same values that support marriage support financial success. So it seems Sen. Rubio is right--a shortcut out of poverty could be living the commitment and values marriage requires.