The Tendency of Power to Corrupt and How to Avoid It

I recently completed a massive open online course (MOOC) from the University of California, Berkeley.

One of my instructors of the positive psychology course, Dacher Keltner, really inspired me with his passion and research.

I picked up one of his books, Born to be Good, and I’m fascinated with the ideas presented.

Meanwhile, I was discussing the topic of mindfulness with my wife, and she picked up the Harvard Business Review’s Mindfulness book for me. Coincidentally, it contained a chapter written by Keltner titled “Don’t Let Power Corrupt You.”

Keltner writes:

My research has shown that power puts us into something like a manic state, making us feel expansive, energized, omnipotent, hungry for rewards, and immune to risk—which opens us up to rash, rude, and unethical actions.

To avoid succumbing to the downsides of power, he offers advice—backed by research—to individuals in senior roles. First, one must reflect and develop self-awareness. Next, Keltner stresses three practices (again backed by research)—empathy, gratitude, and generosity.

Couldn’t we all cultivate a little more empathy, gratitude, and generosity?

Imagine the jen then, my friend.

My Daughter’s Clean Drawing

“What should I draw?” my six-year-old daughter asks.

“Draw a turd,” her younger brother replies.

“Kids, you’re obsessed with pee and poo,” I say. “Why don’t you drawing something clean?”

“Okay, fine.”

So my daughter draws the following: bar soap, hand soap, dish soap, and laundry soap. Very clean, indeed.

A clean picture
My daughter’s clean drawing of different soaps.
Photo by M. Fleming

Columnist Contributes to Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness and Falls Short with Apology

I was disappointed to learn that a recent column in my local newspaper contained some language that stigmatizes people with schizophrenia.

“Winter is a schizophrenic psychopath out to get me” was the title of Neil Crone’s column.

Fortunately, many readers called him out on it. For instance, Shane Christensen of Oshawa wrote a poignant letter to the editor. Christensen, whose son deals with schizophrenia, was appalled by the title Crone’s column. Christensen notes that his son has been stable for many years, but believes—and I wholeheartedly agree—that his son will continue to suffer due to others’ ignorance and stigmatization.

Crone and his editors must have received a lot of backlash, and rightly so. As a result, the original headline was changed and a follow-up column, titled “Column’s intention was never meant to belittle or shame,” appeared shortly after the original column was published.

Although Crone writes, “It was never my intention to belittle or shame […] anyone dealing with mental health issues,” the fact is that by describing winter as a “schizophrenic psychopath out to get me,” he did indeed hurt many people. Whether intentional or not, nonchalantly using metaphors connecting schizophrenia with psychopathy is insensitive and contributes to the continued stigma surrounding mental illness.

And Crone’s apology falls short. According to Aaron Lazare and other experts on apologies, there are five parts to an effective apology:

  1. Express remorse
  2. Acknowledge offense / accept responsibility
  3. Offer empathy
  4. Undo harm; offer reparation
  5. Reassure that there’s a low likelihood of recurrence

Crone’s apology is lacking in a number of these areas. Instead of fully owning the mistake, he places blame on his editors and the sensitivity of readers. He also doesn’t reassure me that he won’t hurt readers again; in fact, he argues that he will continue to use metaphors at his own discretion.

As I read Crone’s apology, something didn’t sit right with me. Granted, that was my subjective response. However, looking at the apology using Lazare’s research on effective apologies, I could objectively discern why the apology was insufficient.

The columnist failed to make amends with me, someone whose life has been affected by mental illness. The consequence: his readership will decrease by at least one.

 

My son's seven pennies

Cents for the U.S.

My five-year-old son was emptying his piggy bank.

“Dad, I want to give my pennies away.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, I want to give them to the United States.”

I found this very interesting. I wondered why he wanted to donate money to the States.

He said, “They still use pennies.”

 

Increasing Number of College Students with Anxiety

I have worked with students for nearly two decades, and the increasing number of students struggling with anxiety is alarming.

A recent article in Psychology Today outlines reasons why so many college students have anxiety disorders.

Diane Dreher states:

Research points to three changes in our culture that could be undermining the mental health of today’s college students.

  1. An increase in materialistic values…
  2. The rising cost of college…
  3. Delayed adulthood and external locus of control…

Let me briefly touch on each point. First, I agree with the author’s statement that today there is more emphasis on materialism, consumerism, and financial success. Just the other day, my wife and I had a conversation with our young children who have begun to place too much importance on material things. “Remember,” I said to my kids, “people are more important than stuff.”

Second, Dreher points to rising costs of tuition and living expenses in the U.S., but the trend is similar in Canada. For example, when I was an undergrad 20 years ago, the average cost of tuition in the country was around $3000. Today, it is more than $6500.

Third, on the idea of delayed adulthood and external locus of control, I concur. Just last week, I was talking with a young man who dropped out of university in his second semester. He blamed everyone but himself for his lack of success.

I agree with Dreher that these factors are affecting students’ development and mental health. But I would add another societal change that also plays a major role: use of technology. Sounds like a topic for another blog.

 

 

Daddy Versus the Volcano

“Dad, tell me what should I draw,” my six-year-old daughter says.

“Um, I don’t know. Draw Joe jumping into a volcano.”

“Who’s Joe?”

“He’s from a movie. Joe jumps into a volcano to save an island.”

My daughter puts pen to paper. She quickly finishes her artwork and laughs as she shows me her masterpiece:

Dad volcano
Drawing of daddy jumping into a volcano.
Photo by M. Fleming

“That’s not Joe. That’s me jumping into the volcano!”

“Funny, eh dad?”

Yes, funny. But it makes me think at a deeper level. How would I face an impending death due to brain cloud? Would I discover meaning? Would I jump into a volcano? Would I learn how to live? Would I realize my Meg Ryan is right in front of me? And if I would, if I could, I should be able to now—in the present—without a brain cloud.

A Reply from No Frills and Bigger Problems for Loblaw Companies

Recently I wrote to No Frills about my concerns over some print advertisements I saw outside my local supermarket.

A Letter to No Frills About Offensive Ad

Another Letter to No Frills About Another Offensive Ad

I feel their use of the words bananas and nuts in their ads are hurtful to many individuals and add to the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Some readers may disagree, but remember words like gay and retarded were acceptable vernacular not too many years ago.

Dr. Gail Saltz, psychiatrist and author, shares my views and suggests society needs to banish words such as crazy and nuts. I quoted Dr. Saltz in a separate post, cra-zy.

I want to let readers know that I received a response from No Frills’ parent company, Loblaw Companies. Loblaw assured me that they did not mean to offend and that my concerns would be passed along to the marketing department.

Unfortunately, the print ads remain. And I’m skeptical that the marketing department gives a shit, for I view marketers in the same light as used-car salesmen and politicians.

Coincidentally, I read an article in CBC news today about a woman with a disability who was banned from a No Frills store because she couldn’t pack her groceries fast enough.

Woman with disability banned from No Frills store after failing to pack groceries fast enough

Kudos to Linda Rolston for complaining to head office and being an advocate for people with disabilities.

To Loblaw Companies, I would simply encourage you to treat every customer with respect; other critics, however, would say your behaviour in this case is nuts.