Sunday, August 24, 2014

“Suicide by Cop” : What Do We Know About It and What Should We Do About It?

Petra Kottsieper Ph.D

A video has just surfaced of the events that lead to the shooting death of 25 year old Kajieme Powell in St. Louis. It is a very disturbing video to watch.  Initially, he is walking around the sidewalk seemingly muttering to himself, after he apparently stole two energy drinks from a convenience store that he had placed on the sidewalk. He ignores other people walking past him until the cops show up, who jump out of their car and very quickly draw their weapons. Mr. Powell is seen walking towards them and you can clearly hear him yelling at the police officers to shoot him, and they do. Apparently he was wielding a knife, which is not clearly visible in the video, and was threatening the officers.

People on the scene, as well as news writers, have been quick to call this a suicide by cop event. From what you can see and hear from the video, it could very well be. So what is suicide by cop? Suicide by cop (SBC) “ is a method of suicide that occurs when a subject engages in threatening behavior in an attempt to be killed by law enforcement” (Mohandie & Meloy, 2000). Usually this involves a subject brandishing a gun at police, both loaded and unloaded, which of course is an extremely dangerous situation for officers. 

SBC stats are not easy to come by, but several studies have attempted to arrive at some percentage of SBC of all police shootings.  One of the more recent studies published in 2009, found suicidal motivation accounted for 36 percent of more than 700 North American police shootings.[i]

These incidents have been around for a long time, but have not received scientific research attention until 1998.  Police departments and the FBI are also clearly aware of SBC, however, it is interesting to note that it was not until 1989 that the FBI began to track the number of justifiable homicides by police. Incidentally, a report from the Department of Criminal Justice, presents a large number of historical SBC case examples in their article.[ii]

Clearly calling a police shooting a SBC involves a clear and present danger to the responding officers. Most often this involves a firearm or what looks to be a firearm, but later turns out to have been a starter pistol or BB gun.  In the case of Mr. Powell; however, it was a knife.

It also requires the police to be aware that the person they are dealing with is actually suicidal and or mentally ill, and some kind of recognition of the behavioral or cognitive state of the person. This is of course not easy to tell, unless the person is yelling at the police to shoot them (which sadly occurred in the case at hand), or behaves in a very erratic manner.

Which brings me to one of my final points. Do police receive specialized training to deal with individuals who appear “erratic”, or may appear threatening either due to drug use or mental health problems?  And the answer is that indeed they do.

As early as 1974, forward thinking pioneers at Montgomery Country Emergency Service (MCES) in Norristown, PA started a training program where volunteer police officers were trained on mental illnesses and dual diagnosis (mental illness and substance abuse).[iii]  This was part of a pre-booking jail diversion training program.  This program was not started as a response to SBC, but rather as a response to the increasing arrest rates of people with mental illnesses for relatively low level offenses such as loitering, simple assault, trespassing etc. There are now numerous programs like this in the country, the best know being the Memphis CIT model (that is based on the local Montgomery Country, PA example). However, these programs fulfill the dual role of not only preventing unnecessary arrest and incarceration of individuals with mental illnesses, but also train officers of how to deal with individuals in crisis without resorting to force.

From their website: “The Memphis Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) is an innovative police based first responder program: 'This program provides law enforcement based crisis intervention training for helping those individuals with mental illness. Involvement in CIT is voluntary and based in the patrol division of the police department. In addition, CIT works in partnership with those in mental health care to provide a system of services that is friendly to the individuals with mental illness, family members, and the police officers.”[iv]

I do not envy police officers for the many challenges they have to face on a daily basis and the often ambiguous and dangerous aspects of their jobs. However, I also believe that the law enforcement community in every single jurisdiction in this country has a responsibility to implement something akin to CIT programs and/or to train all of their officers in how to deal with individuals in the community who may be mentally ill or high on substances; including those wanting to die at the very hands of the people sworn to protect them.  According to a NAMI CIT fact sheet, 2000 communities in more than 40 states have implemented these kinds of trainings for their officers and we can only hope that training on how to deal with individuals in crisis (including those with a mental illnesses) will be provided to all law enforcement officers everywhere in this country for everyone’s safety.  It will not bring back Mr. Powell, but it may help others who are dealing with a crisis they think they cannot overcome. It will also help the officers who are often emotionally scarred when realizing they may have unnecessarily taken a person’s life, realizing that they were dealing with a person with serious mental health problems and could have possibly responded in a different manner.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

How Does It Feel To Be A Problem?”

by Celine I. Thompson, Ph.D.

It is hard to have completed at least one course in African American studies without hearing DuBois’ question posed from The Souls of Black Folk.  A century later this same question dominates my thoughts about the recent Michael Brown shooting.  I think about my own brothers and male cousins and am thankful that such violence has not claimed them.  Unfortunately, my hurt and rage are not assuaged, because even though the urban, young, Black males closest to me have managed to skirt violent ends, nearly all of them have had encounters with law enforcement and the justice system before the age of 25.

 Additionally, they have lost peers to violence, incarceration, and have vicariously (if not personally) experienced unwarranted police surveillance and brutality in addition to other forms of violence in their communities.  Every time the media covers the shooting of a young unarmed Black male, my own anxiety increases as well as my concern for the physical and mental welfare of my loved ones.  However, I do not have the exact same ominous thoughts about my young female relatives, or for myself, although being Black and female has its own experiences and challenges.  For the most part I maintain the privilege of being able to walk down and across the street and not fear if a rolling cruiser will stop me on my way, and what might happen if it does.

However, Arizona State professor Ersula Ore cannot do just that at the college campus where she works, so it would seem that I should add to my list of things to be mindful of as a young Black woman the prospect of being arrested for jaywalking.  Although, I think I would have handled the situation differently from Professor Ore.  I probably would have done everything the police officer asked of me, given my ID, thoroughly explained what I had been doing in that area, mentally rewind and scan my last steps and actions in order to build a credible defense for any possible trial coming against me. I would feel the need to prepare and present my whole life story just to persuade the police officer that I had done nothing wrong, or if I did do something unlawful that I was not aware it and would have apologized immensely.  That would be my totally “warranted” response… for jaywalking.  And whether I was allowed to continue on my way or if I found myself sitting in the back of a police cruiser on the way to jail, I would feel useless.  I would feel powerless and hurt and scared and uncertain of what to do, if I could do anything.  If I did not know that I was perceived as a problem before such an encounter, I would definitely know what it felt like to be one.

Many young men in our city know how it feels to be a “problem.”  Two months ago I had the opportunity to sit in the audience of Alice Goffman, the author of the recently published book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City.  She read a selection from her ethnography detailing the vulnerability of young Black males in encounters with law enforcement and the justice system of our dear city of brotherly love.  While listening to the stories Goffman shared, I reflected on the experiences of my own young male relatives and heard in her words what many will view as legitimate recognition of what it means to be young, Black, and male in Philadelphia in the 21st century.   Such vindication should be a relief, but in a room with a majority of educated women of color, you could feel tension and sorrow grow in our silence as Goffman spoke of the young men who were lost to violence and the struggles that many endure to try to steer clear of law enforcement for their own survival. 

It is the same tension and grief that I experienced in a conversation with a soon-to-be kindergartner. When I asked him if he was excited about going to a new school, he responded that he was a little “nervous.”   He continued to explain that “kids get locked up for fighting” at this school and if he was ever bullied, he was not sure if he could keep from fighting or getting into trouble.  I really wanted to tell him that he did not have to worry, but the most I felt that I could responsibly do was give him a few tips on how to deal with bullies.  The possibility of having to prepare a five year-old to deal with police officers is simultaneously distressing and surreal.

Perhaps these same emotions fuel the ongoing protests and riots in Ferguson as well as the peaceful protests observed throughout the country.  As psychologists experiencing such times and circumstances, we should be drawn to ask and search for answers to the following questions:  
  • How do developing young men manage these disproportionate and unfair experiences?
  • What “healthy” forms of parenting can take place under the threat of raising children so  undervalued in our society? 
  • And these captive young men, what can motivate them to strive for success under the     inescapable reality of how the world will view and treat them?

Charles Blow in a recent NY Times op-ed piece captured this sentiment in an equally poignant version of the question posed by DuBois:“What psychic damage does it do to the black mind when one must come to own and manage the fear of the black body? The burden of bias isn’t borne by the person in possession of it, but by the person who is the subject of it.”

My mentor, Dr. Howard Stevenson, Constance E. Clayton Professor at Penn, has worked to help Black families manage this misplaced burden.  His work helping Black boys manage anger and racial stress in schools and to help African American families raise children in an environment affected by racism has brought attention to these issues and provides families with information and guidance on promoting resilience in our youth.  As mental health professionals, we need to be aware of and familiar with research literature and resources available to guide our understanding and treatment of the issues that affect vulnerable youth and those who are responsible for their care and survival.  For a soon-to-be kindergartner it cannot begin soon enough.

Dr. Celine Thompson is an Assistant Professor in the Clinical PsyD program.  Dr. Thompson obtained her PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies in Human Development from University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, where she also completed her Master’s degree in Psychological Services (currently known as Counseling and Mental Health Services).  Her dissertation research focused on understanding “racially-gendered” identity development processes in Black adolescent females.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Not Sorry I'm Not Sorry

Jessica Glass Kendorski, Ph.D

Pantene's recent commercial depicting women apologizing for being assertive has been getting lots of attention from national media outlets such as Good Morning America and ABC News.  In the ad, several women are seen saying “I’m sorry” in situations that clearly don’t call for it—for example, one woman apologizes for interrupting a business meeting, and another apologizes for handing her husband their child after he comes home from work.

The ad comes at an opportune moment; this week, President Obama is hosting the first-ever White House Summit on Working Families, which will address improving gender equality on the workplace. In light of all of this, I wonder if gender differences in communication account for some of that disparity.

Women make up 47 percent of the work force. Working married women bring home 44 percent of their family’s income, and women make up 59 percent of the recipients of college degrees. Yet women only earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.  Could the tendency for women to constantly apologize, and engage in less assertive communication, be a possible contributor to this wage gap?

Expectations are key. Expectations guide communication in the workforce and also guide how adults communicate to impressionable children. Men are expected to ask for what they need and women are expected to apologize for asking. Fostering equal environments in the workforce begins with fostering equal expectations for men and women—starting in early childhood.

Early on, girls are taught to stifle displays of negative emotions such as anger and frustration, and often express the opposite of what they’re feeling, such as smiling even though they’re not happy—and apologizing when they’re not sorry.  On the other hand, it is more acceptable for boys to show evidence of anger and frustration. Because boys can externalize their feelings, they are able to learn to express these behaviors appropriately through assertive communication. If girls continuously suppress their emotions, then they may never learn how to truly be assertive.

Regardless of gender, children experience intense emotions and need to be supported and taught appropriate ways of dealing with these emotions. Adults should be aware of their expectations and the behavior these expectations foster in children.  Boys are expected and taught to grow up strong and assertive, but girls should be taught the same. And as the Pantene commercial shows, women can find strength in the ability to truly express their feelings.
Chaplin, T.A., Aldao, A. (2013). Gender difference in Emotion Expression in Children: A Meta-Analytic Review. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 4, 735-765.

Friday, June 27, 2014

What Colors (are) Your Nation? Nationalism and the World Cup

Petra Kottsieper, Ph.D

A day after a vital soccer game where the US played Germany in the world cup (and thankfully both teams advanced into the next round), I have been thinking about soccer, the construct of pride and national identity.  As a native German who came to this country in 1991, I have been firmly rooting for Germany unless my adopted home team (USA) is playing. However, for yesterday’s game I went red, gold and black all the way. This raises the following question; what is it about the world cup, and soccer specifically, that has suddenly seemed to make it okay to me to paint my nails in the above colors, something I would have not been caught dead doing when younger?

This post is not about the merits of soccer, which I understand can be boring for people not raised on it. This post is about nationalism, pride and identity.  See, if you grew up German and were in my particular high school in the 1970's, your high school history curriculum consisted of pretty much the Third Reich and the Second World War.  We did not just learn “facts” but were asked questions such as “would you have sheltered a Jewish neighbor when they were in danger of being deported?” …… and the answers to these questions never came easy.  And they should have never come easily. Because how do you know for sure what you would do when your own life might be at stake? 

Grappling with my country’s WW2 history, similar to the generation before mine, left a shameful and horrible taste in our collective mouths. Were we guilty as a nation? Were we guilty as individuals?  The question of the condition under which people can commit terrible acts of torture and extermination, and if Germans had a special psychological or constitutional “propensity “ for this were investigated in social psychology research.  The famous Milgram experiments that started in 1961, uncomfortably demonstrated that “average” people administered at times deadly fake (unknown to them) shocks to others in a learning study. These experiments were some of the most famous investigations into the issue of conformity to authority.  Several other studies like this were conducted here in the US and these studies showed that under certain conditions a lot of people might do things that after the fact they themselves might be horrified by.

What does any of this have to do with soccer?  Soccer is one of the few team sports that is played all over the world. And, while of course it is as corporate as anything else these days, it can be played anywhere you can set up a goal and give people a ball. It makes people identify with their team, which really in the end for most people is about identifying with their city or town in league soccer, or their country in the case of the World Cup.  I also learned quickly, and to my utter amazement, that in the US seemingly few people have issues with showing their pride of being American at sporting events.

Just yesterday, an extremely vocal contingent of US fans had decided to watch the game in a German bar, which initially I thought would make watching the game even more fun.  However, it became clear very quickly that these particular fans seemed kind of oddly determined to drown out the Germans present, shouting them down with “USA USA” chants and “We believe we can win” (even when the game had 1 minute left and they were clearly losing). This had the rather odd effect of making the Germans become quiet instead of yelling back, and I observed several Germans in my vicinity shaking their heads at these fans, or just laughing at this very overt display of nationalism. 

You need to know, if you do not already, that draping yourself in flags and national colors and walking about the street chanting “Germany” is something you would have never seen when I grew up in Germany unless you had some kind of fascist tendencies. Nationalism, or national “pride” was often equated with fascism. And seeing this kind of display yesterday in the US carried out with such ease and apparent thoughtlessness, makes me uncomfortable....

However, as I think back to the World Cup in 2010, I see a change in the outward display of German nationalism.  I, for the first time, noted significant numbers of people carrying German flags (both here and in Germany) and wearing little cute face flag painting etc.  And I painted my nails for the first time. It was and remains odd for me to do, but I have come to realize that identifying with my heritage is not the same as thinking it is better than anyone else’s. I identify with being German, because I was raised on Rainer Fassbinder movies, read Herman Hesse, Boell, and Grass in high school, grew up on the humor of Loriot and Otto, love Broetchen and Nutella for breakfast and knew that when the bus schedule says the bus comes at 10:02 am and I showed up at 10:03 I was sheer out of luck.   

I watch World Cup soccer because I love the game. I wear the colors of the country that shaped me with joy, but also with a sharp awareness that we can and should never forget its victims;  and hope that our re-identification will never be equated with exceptionalism. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

When Enough is Never Enough: The Psychology Behind Animal Hoarding.

Petra Kottsieper, Ph.D

If you have been following the regular Philadelphia evening news you may have come across one of the biggest recent animal hoarding cases in Philadelphia, which also made it into some international newspapers.  On March 26, some 239 cats were removed from a double row house in the Frankford section of Philadelphia, after the same person had previously surrendered about 40 of her cats voluntarily.  The woman who lived with and took care of the cats also officially ran an animal rescue group, a situation that very clearly got out of hand.   Hoarding has become popular in recent years with TV shows such as the now cancelled “Hoarders” on A&E, and “Hoarding: Buried Alive” on TLC.  I assume, and I am assuming because I have never watched them, most people watch these shows with a mixture of curiosity and disgust.  It seems, however, that animal hoarding presents its own unique challenges that, until very recently, have not been explored at all.

Hoarding is finally gaining its own entry as a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, 5th Edition (DSM-5; 2013).   Hoarding disorder, as it is now called, appears to affect between 2-5% of the population.  It furthermore appears to be a distinct disorder and not just a symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) , or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  Hoarding has been referenced in the literature going back all the way to Dante, and was first discussed by psychoanalysts as one of the determinants of having an "anal personality."  In the 1980’s the anal personality construct (also containing orderliness and obstinacy) developed into Obsessive compulsive Personality Disorder.  To make things more difficult hoarding has also been thought and is still thought to be a part of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.[i]

So now in essence we have 2 types of hoarding categorization. Hoarding disorder in itself and OCD with hoarding behaviors.  Differences between these two manifestations are that in hoarding disorder the accumulation and refusal to discard things (or animals) is often thought to be “normal” by the person and may even be associated with positive experiences. Whereas individuals with OCD who engage in hoarding are more likely to experience their behavior as distressing and not really part of their self-identity. Individuals who clutter are not necessarily hoarders, but individuals who hoard have excessively  cluttered and largely unusable work and living spaces, often resulting in serious health and safety concerns.

Why do people hoard compulsively? Many reasons have been put forth. One example is the belief that individuals who have grown up in poverty or serious deprivation may grow into someone who engages in hoarding.  This theory has not been substantiated by research. Hoarding has been thought of as a pathological excess of capitalism, and several psychoanalytic theories have conceptualized hoarding as a drive to acquire in one’s self-development for a variety of functions.  More recent research has begun to outline psychological and cognitive processes closely related to or may even causally related to some hoarding behavior.  For example, one recent study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to compare neural activity and self-reports in individuals with HD, OCD and individuals with no mental health diagnosis.   It was found that individuals who compulsively hoard exhibited very distinct neural activity in specific brain regions that mapped onto their self-reported and observable psychological states in response to specific stimuli.   Compared to the other two groups, the individuals with HD reported significantly more difficulty with decision making around personal objects they had brought to the study, especially around the emotional value they assign to the objects in question. In addition these same individuals reported experiencing significantly more sadness and anger when thinking about discarding any of these items.[ii]  

Other emerging theoretical approaches have pointed out the importance of a dysfunctional attachment style in individuals who hoard animals.[iii]   Even “normal” animal rescue behavior probably function as a means of deriving meaning and a sense of self as a “good” person. Additionally, rescuing an animal from a "kill shelter" or the streets, which may otherwise mean “death” for the animal, can afford the person a special feeling of control, a sense that individuals who develop hoarding behaviors may not experience in other areas of their lives. These individuals may have disrupted or dysfunctional attachments to other humans, and their attachment to the animals develops into their primary means to build and maintain a sense of self. The control experienced often becomes so extreme (and some have argued delusional) that these individuals believe that no one else can take care of the animals as well as they do, despite evidence of death , disease and squalor all around them.

What does this mean for the woman in our recent local animal hoarding case? Animal hoarding has been described as significantly more difficult to deal with for public health departments as compared to complaints about individuals with non-animal hoarding behaviors.  Individuals who hoard animals are much less willing to cooperate with authorities during the resolution of hoarding complaints leveled against them.  In a very comprehensive overview of animal hoarding, it was noted that animal hoarding largely overlaps with object focused hoarding, but it may constitute even more severe cases , especially as it is often associated with extremely squalid living conditions . 

Individuals who hoard animals often develop the hoarding behavior in middle or older age, as opposed to a younger age as seen in individuals who hoard objects, and they seem to be more often women.  Animal hoarding seems to also be associated with more dysfunctional beliefs and attachments to the animals they hoard as compared to other hoarding situations. Individuals are often unable to bury them or discard the animals even when they are deceased. Furthermore the extreme distress experienced when having to give up the hoarded animal might be greater in individuals who hoard animals as compared to object hoarding. [iv] 

Hoarding in general , but animal hoarding specifically, is in significant need of more research. Very little is known about animal hoarding and the etiology of this possible subtype of hoarding disorder (it is not mentioned as such in the DSM-V).  However, animal hoarding is not an infrequent occurrence, carries not only significant risks to the person and the animals involved but also the nearby community, and can be an expensive and frustrating problem to deal with.  Additionally, animal hoarding has an extremely high relapse rate, reportedly as much as 100% . Historically it has been left to be dealt with by predominantly animal control and law enforcement.  This is clearly an area in dire need of interdisciplinary collaborative efforts and attention from human welfare and mental health agencies. Maybe the inclusion of hoarding disorder as a separate category into the DSM-V will be one important step in this direction.  

In the future I hope to see not only the rescue of the animals from these terribly sad and awful situations, but also envision the provision of (either voluntary or court mandated) help and assistance to the people who very clearly are in need of treatment and relapse prevention.  

[i] Mataix-Cols, D. et al. (2010). Hoarding Disorder: A new disordered for DMS-V?. Depression and Anxiety, 27,  556–572.
[ii] Tolin D.F., Stevens M.C., Villavicencio A.L., et al. (2012). Neural Mechanisms of Decision Making in Hoarding Disorder. Archives of  General  Psychiatry, 69, 832-841.
[iii] Nathanson, J.N. & Patronek, G.J. (2009). A theoretical perspective to inform assessment and treatment strategies for animal hoarders.  Clinical Psychology Review, 29, 274–281.
[iv] Frost, R.O.,  Patronek, G. ,  and Rosenfield, E. (2011). Comparison of object and animal hoarding. Depression and Anxiety, 28, 885–891.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Returning to Life After the Olympics: Taking Home More Than the Gold?

Sarah Levin Allen Ph.D, CBIS

Within a minute, the life of Saraka Pancochova, a Czech Olympic snowboarder, went from smiles and High Fives to lying prone on the snow of Sochi. I counted the seconds wondering when the medical staff would arrive. Within minutes, Pancochova got up and was applauded for finishing her run. This was after a fall in which she lost consciousness and cracked her helmet down the back. USA Today[i] quoted Pancochava, “I didn't think I really got any concussion, maybe a tiny bit, but nobody told me…I just got really lucky. It could have been worse. I got knocked out, and that hasn't happened in a while, but I was lucky the snow was soft, and you know, it just happens sometime in snowboarding."

She got lucky? Let’s hope so. I would call it lucky if Pancochova could read this blog and respond to it tomorrow. My guess is that she, and the athletic community in Sochi, mean “lucky” in that she could compete in the next round. What about after that round? What about tomorrow when she attempts to read the articles about her?

“Luck” or “success” is not in finishing the race, but in protecting her brain from future injury and ensuring that she can function on a day-to-day basis. Just ask the students with whom I work. My job is helping students who have sustained brain injuries, desperately trying to succeed in the school setting.

As I reflect on these students, I think about what it takes for me to complete this passage. I am suddenly overwhelmed with understanding for students with concussions and other brain injuries. I’m sitting in front of the television dividing my attention, grasping ahold of all the ideas floating in my head, organizing those ideas, sequencing them, and pulling my attention toward my computer and away from the Olympic games. I’m doing all this while occasionally telling my 3 year old not to clobber her brother and telling my 2 year old to choose an activity other than throwing things down the stairs and sliding on his head to the bottom. 

Then I think about typical students. In high school, students must change classes a minimum of 6 times a day, switch their attention from one topic to another every 40 minutes, selectively attend to the teacher and not the Hottie in the front row; not to mention control their emotions which are triggered repeatedly as hormones reek havoc on their bodies. 

When school ends, they are expected to go to practice or debate team, collect coats for the homeless, and finish their homework preparing for 3 tests before falling asleep in front of the television and doing it all again the next day!  Then there is the socialization that is essential during all of this. Socialization that includes constant texting or group chats in which a significant amount of divided attention, focus, and exposure to stimuli is required, without which, a student would be isolated and lack an identity.

With all these daily requirements, my head is spinning. Yet, despite these demands in the setting in which these athletes are required to return, there hasn’t been much discussion about how to help these “typical” students return to full functioning.

There has been a significant amount of conversation about sports concussion. The NFL and NCAA have been in litigation accused of failing to educate athletes on concussions[ii]. Brain injury advocacy groups as well as the NFL have helped to increase awareness around the issue of brain injuries, specifically concussions. In 2011 and 2012, PA[iii] and NJ[iv] respectively passed a youth sports act that required schools to develop “return to play” rules for athletes who have sustained concussions. Once these laws were passed, identification of concussions increased along with the need to support these students once they return to school.

And it’s returning to school that becomes the most difficult. The supports that are typically in place to support students (i.e. 504 plans or IEPs) don’t happen fast enough or are too taxing on an already bleeding system. What do we do when a student shows up to school the next day or the next week and needs help? How do we tell all 6 teachers, physical education instructors, specials instructors, administrators, counselors, and nurses how to support this student? Who is responsible for identifying learning issues, monitoring the rehabilitation that is happening in the classroom, and helping the student gain some self-knowledge into their injury and recovery?

How do we avoid spending 2-4 weeks (up to ½ of a semester) allowing a student to flounder in a typical environment with no supports, before we put things in place to help him/her succeed? These are the questions that have now become the focus of school administrators as the awareness and identification of students with concussions increase.

So, where does that leave those like Pancochova or my high school students? Well, the majority of those with concussions will get better. They’ll need minimal supports for 2-3 weeks, and then they’ll begin to get back to their normal routine. Those with 2 or 3 concussions will struggle more, and those with more significant brain injuries will need even more assistance.  The minimal deficits I experience as a sleep deprived, working mother pales in comparison to the uphill battle these young athletes and students go through as they attempt to get their brains back to normal.

I’ll continue to think about them, and tighten the helmet I have decided to wear around 24 hours a day, as I finalize this blog, change the laundry, break up the wrestling match on the floor of my office, turn off the television, and start dinner. All the while, I’ll be hoping that I never get an injury that could make all these “other jobs” virtually impossible.

For more information on return to school programming for students with concussions see Dr. Allen’s webinar for the BIANJ at


Hale, J.B., Metro, N., Kendorski, J.G., Hain, L.A., Whitaker, J., & Moldovan, J. (2009). Facilitating school reintegration for children with Traumatic Brain Injury. In A. Dvis (ed.), Handbook for Pediatric neuropsychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

"Celebrity" Guest Blogger:
Sarah Levin Allen, Ph.D., CBIS is an Assistant Professor at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. She is a licensed pediatric neuropsychologist, certified school psychologist, and certified brain injury specialist, who specializes in the area of evidence based interventions for schools. Her passion is in promoting and integrating brain based learning approaches in the classroom. Dr. Allen consults with school districts on return to school programming for students with brain injuries and works closely with advocacy groups to promote awareness of concussions in the classroom.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Psychological Treats for Halloween Tricks

Jessica Kendorski, Ph.D  & Stephen R. Poteau, Ph.D.

If someone breaks out the Ouija board at the Halloween party you’re attending in attempts to contact and converse with their late Uncle Bernie, do them a favor, and tell them any movements they make on the board can be explained by the theory of ideomotor action (I’m sure it’ll make you the life of the party). The gist of ideomotor action is that people are prepared to initiate movements they think about performing even if they are not going to actually enact the movement, and most importantly, that there is a tendency to enact the movement the more vividly it is imagined. [1]

Ideomotor action has been used as far back as the 1800s to explain various psychic phenomena such as water witching (using a diving rod to find water underground, a debunked practice which is still very much in practice today), magic pendulums (used to ascertain the sex of an unborn baby; also debunked), and yes, those seemingly involuntary movements made on Ouija boards.[2] There is support for a particular type of ideomotor action that is called intentional induction, which entails the greater likelihood of instigating a movement if it results in something we would like to see happen.[3] One could liken intentional induction to a confirmation bias or self-fulfilling prophecy. Applied to the Ouija board, if your friend expects Uncle Bernie’s psychic powers to move their hands, the intentional induction facet of ideomotor action theory suggests their hands will be more likely to move across the board and spell out what they think is Bernie’s message. It turns out Bernie’s message is merely what you would like to hear from Bernie. 

Interestingly, there is some knowledge to be gleaned from Ouija boards. In a study involving a memory task that specifically examined implicit sematic memory, which is not accessible to conscious recall, participants providing volitional responses to questions they had to guess the answers to were accurate at chance levels (about 50%).[4]  However, participants who used a Ouija board to respond to questions they were guessing the answers to were accurate 65% of the time, a significant difference from the volitional response group. It turns out ideomotor actions can tap into knowledge we have but don’t know we have. Ouija boards can be a useful tool to communicate information about ourselves to ourselves, but falls short of tapping the communication lines of ancestral ghosts. In short, belief in the traditional powers of Ouija boards is plain, old superstitious.
Superstitions. What are they? Why do so many of us believe in them? And how is it that people will do seemingly irrational things in order to continue their good fortune and not invite misfortune? Superstition is defined as an irrational belief that an object, action, or circumstance not logically related to a course of event influences its outcome. It’s October, and it seems the month of October is bombarded with superstitions like “playoff beards” in baseball and the ominous sign of black cats on Halloween night. What these things have in common are people engaging in behaviors to support the belief that they are somehow in control of the outcome.

Fifty years ago, one of the greats in Experimental Psychology, B.F. Skinner shaped superstitious behavior in pigeons. In his paper published in 1948, titled "Superstition in the Pigeon," Skinner explained how reinforcing pigeons on an interval schedule (delivering a treat after a certain amount of time has passed) produced superstitious behavior in the pigeon. For example, Skinner would deliver a food pellet to the pigeon after a certain amount of time. He found that the pigeon would then continue to perform any behavior that occurred immediately before the food pellet was delivered. The pigeon's behavior did not control the delivery of the food pellet, but the pigeons began to walk in counter-clockwise circles, bob their heads, or toss their heads as if the pigeon was lifting an "imaginary lever."[5] Although the pigeon's behavior had no control over the outcome, the pigeons continued to engage in the behavior that may have resulted in their fortune. The pigeon’s behaviors sound a lot like lucky socks before a game, a lucky tie before a job interview, never again wearing the shoes that resulted in a particularly bad day. Want to make someone engage in irrational behaviors in their attempt to control the outcome of an event they actually have no control over? Just deliver treats on a time schedule and see what types of behaviors you begin to see. 

And if you want to get a gruesome image stuck in someone’s head while they are performing these irrational behaviors, just tell them not to think of flesh-eating zombies of The Walking Dead ilk. In a study of thought suppression,[6] where participants were instructed not to think of a white bear, what do you think happened?  You guessed it, they reporting having intrusive thoughts of a white polar bear. This is explained by ironic process theory, which states that there is a dual process of cognition: one is automatic and effortless and is responsible for looking for a failure of control, while the other is the conscious operating process.[7] In the polar bear experiment, participants tried to consciously think of something else, but the automatic, effortless process of looking for a failure of control (thinking of a white bear) often kicked in and this restarted the cycle of consciously attempting not to think of the bear yet again…until the automatic, effortless process looking for failure of control forced the white bear back into consciousness (hence the name ironic effects of mental control). It is important to note that these effects are most pronounced under high cognitive load where resources are taxed thereby making those automatic, effortless processes much more influential. This doesn’t take away from the effects of ironic processing theory because in everyday life, we are typically cognitively taxed with the billions of bits of information flooding our senses. In point of fact, the ironic effect of mental control has been demonstrated in several facets of life such as depression, sleep disorders, and even sexual deviancy,[8] which makes this theory one of clinical relevance.

So there you have it, the psychology behind Halloween-related phenomena. Hopefully, a black cat will not cross your path this Halloween night as you are stepping on a crack on the sidewalk, fingers crossed! -just in case. Boo!

[2] Pfister, R., Janczyk, M., Kunde, W. (2013), Action Effects in Perception and Action: The Ideomotor Approach. Frontiers in Cognition.
[3] Knuf, L., Aschersleben, G., Prinz, W. (2001), An Analysis of Ideomotor Action. Journal of Experimental Psychology General, 130(4): 779-98 
[4] Gauchou, H.L., Rensink, R.A., Fels, S. Expression of Non-conscious Knowledge via Ideomotor Actions,Consciousness and Cognition: An International Journal, Vol 21(2), Jun, 2012. pp. 976-982
[6]   Wegner, D. M. (1989), White bears and other unwanted thoughts: Suppression, obsession, and the psychology of mental control, New York: Viking/Penguin
[7]  Wegner, D. M. (1994), Ironic Processes of Mental Control, Psychological Review 101 (1): 34–52
[8] Johnston, L., Ward, T., Hudson, S. (1997). Deviant Sexual Thoughts: Mental Control and the Treatment of Sexual Offenders, 34(2).