Are You Asking the Right Questions In Your Search For a Therapist?

If you were searching the web as a consumer, looking for the best Psychologist, would you know what to look for? 

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If you said that you would look for someone experienced, it is a good guess, but years of experience don’t seem to make too much of a difference when it comes to improving therapeutic outcomes (Minami et al., 2009).

What may be important is that they are a Psychologist and not a Counsellor. In Australia, anyone can call themselves a Counsellor and open up a practice, even without having undergone training. However, if they are a Psychologist than they have to have completed at least four years of undergraduate training, plus a post-graduate degree or at least 2 years of formal supervision. Psychologists are also obliged to abide by the Australian Psychological Society’s (APS) code of ethics, whereas Counsellors are not.

If you said the company that they worked for or how much they charged, these are both good guesses too. However, private practice Psychologists are either self-employed and set their own price for their service, or are employed by a company that they work for, and have their price set for them. It is unlikely that all Psychologists within the same practice are equally effective, even if they are charging the same amount.

The current recommended rate for a 45-60 minute Psychological consultation in Australia is set at $238.00 by the APS, but all Psychologists have the discretion to vary this fee. What this often means is that services in more affluent locations with client’s who have a greater capacity to pay a larger amount will charge more (also due to higher rent), whereas services in poorer areas will often charge less.

More expensive Psychologists may believe themselves to be better Psychologists too, but this doesn’t mean that they are. The self-evaluations of therapists are often not very accurate, with a largely positive bias suggesting overconfidence in their general abilities. In a 2012 study by Walfish, McAllister, O’Donnell, and Lambert (2012), they found that out of the 129 therapists that were surveyed, 25% estimated that their therapy results were in the top 10% compared to the other therapists, and not a single therapist believed that they were worse than the average. If this sample is representative of the general population, this means that at least 50% of Psychologists don’t realise how bad they are, and may therefore not be aware of what they are doing wrong and what they need to do to improve.

What is known is that some Psychologist’s do consistently outperform other Psychologists (Wampold & Brown, 2005). In a 2015 study by Brown, Simon and Minami (2015), they looked at 2,820 therapists, with a combined sample size of 162,168 cases, and found that the lowest-performing therapists required as much as 3 times the number of sessions to produce successful outcomes as the average therapist, and as much as 7 times the number of sessions as the highest-performing therapists. This indicates that choosing the right Psychologist is a very important task. But,

 

What characteristics do the best Psychologist’s have, and what do they do that makes them so successful?
1. They practice a specific model of treatment that is most recommended for your condition or is a good fit for the type of therapy you are interested in

(Model of Treatment = 15% of overall outcome variance)

There are many different schools of Psychotherapy, such as CBT, ACT, DBT, Positive Psychology or Psychodynamic Psychotherapy. They will all have research supporting their treatments as being effective, especially with specific conditions (such as DBT for Borderline Personality Disorder or CBT for Panic Disorder).

What they won’t often advertise is that no matter what school of therapy it is:

  • None of them will help every client
  • The drop out rates can be quite high
  • Clients who do drop out prematurely tend to fare worse than clients who are able to complete treatment, and
  • Other psychotherapy schools tend to produce similar results

So yes, therapy helps, sometimes, and for some people. It is perplexing to think how the research findings are all so similar in the different schools of psychotherapy (Wampold, 2001) until it is made clear that non-specific treatment factors are common across the various schools of psychotherapy. These non-specific factors are described below, and together make up to 85% of the overall outcome variance in psychotherapeutic studies (Hubble and Miller, 2004).

Whilst one mode of therapy may not be generally more effective than another, the goodness of fit does seem to be important, so do choose a Psychologist who has experience in treating your particular concern as well as an approach or therapy model that seems to make sense or appeal to you.

2. They help you to hope, expect and believe that you can improve

(Expectancy of Treatment Effects = 15% of overall outcome variance)

An individuals’ belief that they can improve has a powerful impact on their actual improvement (Bergsma, 2008), with larger reductions in symptom severity at post-treatment often occurring in those with higher expectations of benefit at pre-treatment (Ogles, Lambert, & Craig, 1991; Rutherford, Sneed, Devanand, Eisenstadt, & Roose, 2010).

Greater expectations can improve hope and increase goal-directed determination, which has been shown to predict treatment completion (Geraghty, Wood, & Hyland, 2010).

Greater expectations of treatment outcome can also improve distress tolerance, which has been shown to reduce distress and depression severity across treatment (Williams, Thompson, & Andrews, 2013).

Essentially, the more that you expect that a Psychologist can help you, the more likely it is that you will have hope, persist with treatment, and get better. 

3. They develop a warm, caring and trustworthy environment where you feel safe to explore and grow 

(Therapeutic Alliance = 30% of overall outcome variance)

Another important issue influencing treatment outcomes is adherence to the treatment interventions, recommendations and strategies. Compliance with treatment recommendations can be improved through a positive therapeutic alliance, which plays an important role in the overall success of a psychotherapy treatment (Wampold, 2001).

A positive therapeutic alliance improves outcomes, by providing professional input, and ensuring that the strategies are implemented effectively. If therapeutic alliance can be established, developed and maintained (Cahill et al., 2008), patients are less likely to drop out of treatment and more likely to achieve clinically significant improvements (Miller, Hubble, & Duncan, 2008).

Regardless of the theoretical orientation or the experience of the therapist, the best outcomes are achieved when therapists are flexible to the needs of the patient and responsive to the feedback that patient’s provide, repairing any ruptures in the therapeutic alliance as quickly as possible (Cahill, et al., 2008; Miller, et al., 2008).

Other research suggest that it is important to meet relatedness needs, which are dependent upon the therapist displaying warmth and genuine involvement in the treatment, and the client feeling both a sense of caring and connection in the relationship (Ryan & Deci, 2008).

Essentially, the more that you can relate to the Psychologist, and feel that you are allies working towards a common objective, the more likely you are to improve.

4. They make sure that therapy is the right step for you at the moment, and help you to develop the skills, knowledge and motivation needed to successfully improve

(Client’s Life-Circumstances, Personal Resources and Readiness to Change = 40% of outcome variance)

The biggest factor in determining whether or not treatment will be successful, and this may be surprising to some people, is the client. If their current life circumstances are unstable, unpredictable, and emotionally or physically unsafe, then it will be difficult for the one hour of therapy every week or two to be sufficient to overcome all of the negative events that are taking place between sessions.

Not everyone is a good candidate for therapy, and therapy definitely isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. If a client prefers to not question things, has significant cognitive disabilities or memory difficulties, is currently manic or severely delusional or psychotic, or is too emotionally labile or reactive in close interpersonal settings, then therapy can either have no effect or be potentially harmful.

Lastly, if a client does not believe that they have a problem, then there is not too much that can be done by a Psychologist to help them, even if their family or friends or partner or the legal system believes that a problem exists. Unless some type of intrinsic motivation, or personal reason for changing can be created in the client, positive change is unlikely to occur.

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Before seeing a Psychologist, you need to be sure that:

  • You are wanting to change or improve something about yourself
  • You are willing to put in the time and effort that it requires
  • You are willing to explore things to develop and grow, and
  • Now is a good time for you to begin the amount of treatment (both frequency and duration) that is being recommended for you.
If you follow these recommendations when seeking out a Psychologist, it will not guarantee you a successful outcome, but it will definitely help. I wish you the best of luck with your search and therapeutic experience!

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

 

 

 

Divorce: Common, Tough, and Sometimes Necessary

In July 2015 my divorce was officially finalised. It was a tough decision to end the marriage, and for this reason, I have yet to speak about it on my blog, but there have been a few events recently that have made me want to speak up and share my story.

The first is that I went to a wedding late last year and felt pity from many of my extended family members that I spoke to. I’m not sure if this is what they felt or if I was projecting this onto them, but part of me wanted to say “It’s okay. I’d rather be happily divorced than unhappily married!

The second is that I see a lot of clients in unhappy or abusive relationships and marriages, and for whatever reason, they choose to stay. This occurs even when deep down they know that in the long run, they (and probably their partners too) would be much happier and better off if they were to leave.

There are many reasons for people choosing to stay in an unhappy marriage, including:
  • they have made a commitment to each other in front of all of their friends or family, and they want to stay consistent with this,
  • they married in a religious ceremony, and it is frowned upon in their religion or culture to get a divorce,
  • they have invested so much, time, effort and emotional energy into their lives together, and find it hard to let this go,
  • they fear the repercussions in how they may be treated after the split,
  • they have children together and believe that they should stay together for the kids,
  • that things will be better off financially if they remain,
  • that things will be a logistical nightmare if they leave,
  • they won’t know how to do everything on their own,
  • they won’t be able to survive on their own, or
  • they fear that they will never find another partner again and prefer an unhappy relationship to ending up alone.

Should You Stay or Should You Go?

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I’m not trying to tell people that getting a divorce or breaking up is always the best option, but it is now legal to get a divorce in every country except for the Philippines, Vatican City and Sark (Dependency of Great Britain). In some cultures, it is still more frowned upon, and this may be due to both religious beliefs or how recently it became legalised in their country of origin. Italy only authorised divorce in 1970, and many other countries are even more recent, including Brazil in 1977, Spain in 1981, Ireland in 1996. Chile in 2004 and Malta in 2011.

Relationships do take effort and work and are worth trying to repair if both people still love each other, feel safe, have their personal boundaries respected and want things to get better going forward.

It is also especially important to try to make it work if you have children. A 2011 book titled ‘The Longevity Project’ by Friedman and Martin looked at factors that influenced longevity over eight-decades and found that individuals whose parents divorced when they were children died about five years younger than individuals from intact families. They were less likely to do well educationally or occupationally, more likely to engage in unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking alcohol, and were also more likely to get divorced themselves.

It is not a good idea to just stay together for the kids, especially if there is a lot of conflict and you and the children are unsafe. Having parents who get a divorce can be traumatic for children, but seeing two people that they love always fighting and feeling stuck in the middle without being able to do anything can be traumatic for children too.

If you have recently divorced and are worrying about your children’s well-being:
  1. make sure that they understand that they are not to blame,
  2. try to maintain a positive relationship with your ex after splitting if it is safe to do so,
  3. don’t bad mouth or put down your ex to your children or make them choose sides,
  4. seek emotional support for yourself from friends, siblings, parents or professionals – not your children,
  5. help your children to build healthy social relationships through extracurricular activities, sporting clubs or supervised outings,
  6. help them to stay on track and engaged academically, including keeping communication channels open with the school regarding their progress and seeking extra support or tutoring if needed, 
  7. help them to develop helpful coping strategies, including socialising, exercise, eating healthily, engaging in hobbies, mindfulness, journaling, planning or goal setting, and 
  8. If they are struggling emotionally with the divorce or adjusting to their new life after it, make sure that they have a trusted adult in their life that they can talk to confidentially. If they do not, a child psychologist can also help, and a referral to see one can be sought from your General Practitioner (GP). 

The last thing to consider when determining if divorce is the right option for you is your gender. Women are more likely to do well if they remain single following divorce, primarily if they are working and have strong social connections with friends, family, and social organisations. This is less likely to be the case for men, and longitudinal research has shown that single men tended to die younger than married men, due to their higher risk of social isolation, reduced emotional support and increased drug and alcohol abuse. They may also be less likely to seek help if they are sick, or have someone around to call an ambulance if there is a medical emergency. For this reason, males also tend to remarry much quicker than females, and the longer they remain in their subsequent marriage, the better their health prospects become (Friedman & Martin, 2011).

Essentially, a happy, warm and loving marriage is very positive for the long-term health and happiness of the whole family, especially males. An unhappy or abusive relationship tends to offer none of these positive benefits, and women who are happily single are generally better off than women in an unhappy marriage.

If you are in an unhappy marriage, it is okay to admit to someone that you trust:
  • that you have made a mistake by getting married, or
  • that maybe you married the wrong person, or
  • that maybe you just changed and grew apart over time, or
  • that you have fallen out of love, or
  • that you don’t feel safe, or
  • that you have tried your best to make something work and it still hasn’t, or
  • that you want to leave and start all over again, either by yourself or with someone else.

What Does It Feel Like to Get Divorced?

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For me, I felt isolated, embarrassed, and like a failure. I remember talking to a psychologist during my undergraduate studies who specialized in relationship counseling and research and also happened to be divorced and I thought “I wouldn’t see her for couples counseling if she couldn’t even save her own marriage!” It was a pretty harsh judgment by me that I never actually said to her. It also became the same judgment that I was then putting on myself once I realised that my marriage was never going to be anything close to what I had hoped and dreamed it could be.

I was 29 years old when the divorce was finalized. This seemed too young to be a divorcee. We had only been married for two years and ten days.

Here I am with my groomsmen on the morning of my wedding day:

I had been warned by numerous people before I married that my wife to be was not an ideal match. However, I was quite stubborn when I was younger, as many people are when it comes to love. I could put it down to the quote “love is blind,” but the truth is I did have some concerns of my own. I just thought that if I put my mind and heart into it, got professional help, read and learnt as much as I could about good marriages and relationships and worked as hard as I could that I would be able to make it work.

I was wrong.

Across my marriage I learned that:
  • If there is a lack of trust and openness in the relationship before the wedding, there probably won’t be much during the marriage either.
  • Past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour.
  • Both people need to care genuinely about each other, share similar values and want similar things when it comes to what they want out of life and their relationship.
  • Opposites attract, but not always in a good way. For example, someone who puts others first may be attractive to someone who puts themselves first, but it doesn’t result in a mutually satisfying relationship.
  • If one person has an avoidant attachment style and the other has an anxious attachment style, it is not a good mix. One person’s insecurities will only trigger the other person’s fear, leading to more conflict and disconnection over time. 
  • How people want to resolve conflict is the best predictor of relationship satisfaction.
    • Someone who prefers to avoid conflict is not going to last long with someone who is volatile and critical but will do fine with someone who is also happy to focus on the positives.
    • Two people that get everything off their chest as issues arise can do fine as well, as long as both partners are on the same page.
  • If either person is trying to win a fight, it is the relationship that loses.
  • Criticisms, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling will erode any goodwill that has been built up in a relationship over time.
  • Long-term change is only possible if people are intrinsically motivated to do so and are willing to put in the consistent work that it takes to get there. 
  • It is therefore much more important to look at what people actually do rather than what they say.

I had always been a strong advocate for marriage and never thought that once I married that I would ever get a divorce. My parents had verbal disagreements at times when I was growing up but never seemed to come close to separating let alone getting a divorce. Neither had any of their siblings or their parents.

The Statistics

Wanting to have a happy marriage and being willing to work for a happy marriage doesn’t mean that you will always have one. In 2014, 121,197 marriages were registered in Australia, and 46,498 divorces were granted (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2015). With this many divorces, it seemed strange that I felt so alone in my experience and like such a failure. But looking at the following Australian statistics from the year of 2014 (ABS, 2015) helped me to understand why:

  • The median age of males getting married is now 31.5 years.
  • The median age at separation for males granted a divorce was 41.7 years.
  • The median age of males at divorce was 45.2 years.
  • Only 3.4% of all divorces involve males under 30 years.
  • The median duration of marriage to separation is 8.4 years.
  • The median duration of marriage to divorce is 12 years.

Even though 50% of first marriages end in divorce and 67% of all subsequent marriages end in divorce, I was still getting a divorce at a younger age than the average Australian male was getting married. I was married for much less time than average too, so it does make sense why it brought about some complicated feelings, including a sense of loss, disconnection, and shame.

Does It Need to Be This Way?

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Leaving an unhealthy relationship is tough, and even to this day, I am reluctant to mention that I am divorced to people that I meet, including clients if they have ever queried me about my relationship status. Surprisingly, only one client ever asked me why I was no longer wearing my wedding band in sessions.

It took a long time to grieve and process the loss that I went through, including all of the old hopes and dreams that I had for my marriage and the rest of our lives. I also lost a lot of money and material possessions in the separation, including our brand new house that we had built in the suburbs and everything inside it except for my clothes.

This was hard, but not because I cared about the money or the stuff. It was just that my life wasn’t meant to go this way. I was reasonably responsible financially and had put enough money aside throughout my adolescence to not only pay for my undergraduate studies but also put a deposit on a house. And yet here I was, nearly 30, with nothing but a car and some clothes in my possession. I felt like a complete failure, and wondered if I had done it all wrong.

I now understand why they say that divorce is risky for men. The first 6-12 months after leaving weren’t easy, as I spent a lot, ate unhealthily, drank more than I should have on the weekends, and gained weight. I had moved into the city, resumed playing sport and was able to go on some great holidays. However, I also fell sick whenever I did take some time off and was generally exhausted by the end of the week, struggling to keep up with all of the administrative duties alongside the hectic lifestyle that I was trying to live.

Fortunately, getting divorced also taught me more about myself and who I am, what I feel and what I need than I ever could have learned by remaining in an unhappy marriage. By continuing to read about relationships and reflect on my past ones I was able to figure out where things had gone wrong and what I needed to address to improve things going forward. I then sought regular individual psychological therapy to begin working on building up these skills and breaking old habits. I was also able to reconnect and develop stronger and more genuine relationships with my family and close friends.

Two years post-divorce, and I am now the happiest that I ever been in my life. I have continued to make a lot of positive changes, and the proof of these improvements and changes have become evident in my recent personality assessment, schemas, and defense mechanism test results.

Conclusion

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Getting divorced is sometimes necessary, but it is never an easy decision. If deep down you know your marriage is not working, it’s highly unlikely that it will just get better without any affirmative action taken together.

If you are thinking of separating, the best advice I can give is to do whatever gives you the best chance of having a warm, safe and loving relationship with someone going forward. This is worth it, even if it feels like you have to backtrack, admit that you have made a mistake, or start all over again, as relationship warmth and strong connections with others are the most important predictors of long-term health and happiness.

If you do not feel safe in your current relationship or are unsure of what to do, a referral to a psychologist could help you to clarify your thoughts, develop a plan, and get you the support that you need until things improve. Many psychologists also specialise in relationship counselling, and can see both you and your partner together if you would like to try to make it work or separate as amicably as possible.

Whenever we step out of our comfort zone, it will be scary, but it can also provide us with a greater opportunity to learn and grow.

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

The Top 20 Movies of My Lifetime (10-1)

Looking at the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Films of All Time list that came out in 1998, the majority of films are super old. ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941) ranked at #1, ‘Casablanca’ (1942) ranked at #2, ‘The Godfather’ (1972) ranked at #3, ‘Gone With the Wind’ (1939) ranked at #4 and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1962) ranked at #5.

I loved ‘The Godfather’, but fell asleep in both ‘Casablanca’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. I don’t disagree with ‘Gone With the Wind’ being up there, especially seeing that it is the highest grossing movie of all time, adjusted for inflation. I also need to see ‘Citizen Kane’ before I make any judgments on it, but I do tend to like modern movies more than most movie critics.

Out of the entire top 100, only 8 came out after 1985, the year that I was born:

  • Schindler’s List (1993) – #9
  • The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – #65
  • Forrest Gump (1994) – #71
  • Dances with Wolves (1990) – #75
  • Platoon (1986) – #83
  • Fargo (1996) – #84
  • Goodfellas (1990) – #94
  • Pulp Fiction (1994) – #95

None of these movies made my top 20 countdown either, so clearly, the movie critics and I don’t always see eye to eye.

In 2008, the AFI came out with their 10th-anniversary list, and ‘Raging Bull’ (1980) and ‘Singing in the Rain (1952) had replaced ‘Gone With the Wind’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in the top 5. The top 100 choices were still predominantly old movies, with only 14 movies released after 1985:

  • Schindler’s List – #8
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – #50
  • Unforgiven (1992) – #68
  • Saving Private Ryan (1998) – #71
  • The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – #72
  • The Silence of the Lambs – #74
  • Forrest Gump – #76
  • Titanic (1997) – #83
  • Platoon – #86
  • The Sixth Sense (1999) – #89
  • Goodfellas – #92
  • Pulp Fiction – #94
  • Do the Right Thing (1989) – #96
  • Toy Story (1995) – #99

In this list, there were two movies from my top 20 countdown in the list, which makes me feel a little better. Interestingly, ‘Fargo’ and ‘Dances With Wolves’ became less admired over time and dropped out of the list. and ‘Unforgiven’, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, ‘Titanic’, ‘Do the Right Thing’ and ‘Toy Story’ became more admired since 1998 and made the 10th anniversary list after missing the first countdown. I hope they come out with another list in 2018 to mark the 20th anniversary and look forward to seeing what they include.

After I see a movie these days, I do get interested in knowing what movie critics thought of the movie. Rotten tomatoes is a great website that accumulates all of the professional movie critics reviews on a particular movie and gives an aggregate score out of 100% based on how many reviews are positive for the film. Here are the Tomatometer ratings for numbers 20 through to 11 in my top 20 movies of my lifetime countdown:

#20 – The Conjuring (2013)86%

#19 – The Castle (1999)88%

#18 – Midnight in Paris (2011)93%

#17 – Groundhog Day (1993)96%

#16 – Donnie Darko (2001)86%

#15 – Before Sunrise (1995)100%

#14 – The Truman Show (1998)94%

#13 – The Sixth Sense (1999)85%

#12 – Inglourious Basterds (2009)89%

#11 – Good Will Hunting (1997) – 97%

To qualify for this countdown, I need to have seen the movie, enjoyed it, and found that it had an emotional impact on me in some way. Here is my top 10, with their IMDb star rating and their rotten tomatoes Tomatometer score:

# 10 – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – IMDb star rating: 8.3/10, rotten tomatoes Tomatometer = 93%

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The tagline for the movie says it all: “You can erase someone from your mind. Getting them out of your heart is another story.” A strange but touching movie about a couple who keep going to a memory clinic to try and erase the memories of someone they love in the hope that they can move forward with their lives. However, without even knowing why, something keeps bringing them back together. Seeing that Jim Carrey now has 2 movies in my top 20, it seems that he should have played serious roles more often.

# 9 – Requiem for a Dream (2000) – IMDb star rating: 8.4/10, rotten tomatoes Tomatometer = 78%

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I feel like this should be shown to anyone who thinks that drugs are cool, especially teenagers. I haven’t spoken to anyone who has watched this movie and hasn’t had a strong visceral reaction to it, either positive or negative. It may be why it has the lowest Tomatometer score out of any movie on my countdown. The director Darren Aronofsky achieved more critical acclaim for his 2010 movie ‘Black Swan’, which was also quite unsettling to watch, but this one had more of an impact on me.

# 8 – The Lion King (1994) – IMDb star rating: 8.5/10, rotten tomatoes Tomatometer = 92%

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Drawing inspiration from William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, I was obsessed with ‘The Lion King’ when I was younger, and it first came out. The story and the music were amazing, and I bought the soundtrack on CD and the movie on VHS as soon as they were released. It’s heartbreaking, uplifting and hilarious, and my favourite Disney cartoon of all-time.

# 7 – Back to the Future (1985) – IMDb star rating: 8.5/10, rotten tomatoes Tomatometer = 96%

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A movie that almost never got made. When the script of ‘Back to the Future’ was first sent around to the Hollywood studios, nobody wanted to touch it. It was knocked back about 50 times, and it wasn’t until the director had success with another move first that it was greenlit for production. A movie about a hero who befriends a weird old scientist who takes him back into the past where he has to evade his biological mother who is crushing on him seems like a weird premise for a movie. However, it went on to become a massive box office hit with two sequels and a huge fan base even to this day. Time travel, when done well, is another truly magical aspect of going to the movies. Being able to learn about where you have come from and what your parents were like when younger is another really fascinating thing that we will never be able to see unless it was captured on video.

# 6 – The Usual Suspects (1995) – IMDb star rating: 8.6/10, rotten tomatoes Tomatometer = 88%

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“The smartest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”. A very clever movie by Bryan Singer and the best in his career in my opinion, although some of his X-Men movies were good too. Like ‘The Sixth Sense’, it also has a twist at the end that completely changes the viewing experience of the movie. Who is Keyser Söze? You need to watch to find out, and then see it a second time to see what signs you missed.

# 5 – The Matrix (1999) – IMDb star rating: 8.7/10, rotten tomatoes Tomatometer = 87%

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I remember the marketing campaign for this in Australia when it first came out – “What is the Matrix?” It gave nothing away about the movie and yet made me feel like I had to watch it or I would miss out. Once I saw it, it blew my mind. Probably the most original action movie that I have ever seen. It has been copied and emulated many times since, so probably doesn’t seem as groundbreaking these days, but the bullet dodging and slow-motion sequences were amazing. I just wish that they didn’t bring out the sequels, as they took away some of the magic from the first movie. If you had a choice, would you take the red pill and be exposed to the truth, or would you take the blue pill and live in ignorant bliss?

# 4 – Inception (2010) – IMDb rating: 8.7/10, rotten tomatoes Tomatometer = 86%

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Another very creative and inventive premise with great visual effects. I think Christopher Nolan is a great director, and he likes to get his audiences to think. The difference between reality and dreams is something that has come up a few times on this list, but Inception takes it to a whole new level, saying that we can implant an idea into the subconscious mind of someone else during their sleep to then impact their behaviour when they are awake. The way that time is altered at the different levels of dreams is great. As is the spinning top at the very end of the movie, which leaves the interpretation for what actually happened wide open.

# 3 – Fight Club (1999) – IMDb star rating: 8.8/10, rotten tomatoes Tomatometer = 79%

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David Fincher is another of my favourite directors. He has an especially great knack for turning good books into excellent films, including this, ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Girl With a Dragon Tattoo’. The antisocial, antimaterialistic and anarchistic nature of this film really appealed to me at the time and made me question a lot of what I thought I knew about what was important in this world. It didn’t make me want to start a fight club or punch anyone, but to live a life that was more autonomous and genuine. The surprise ending is almost as good as ‘The Sixth Sense’ and ‘The Usual Suspects’ too.

 # 2 – The Dark Knight (2008) – IMDb star rating: 9.0/10, rotten tomatoes Tomatometer = 94%

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This movie is epic in scale and is really all about Heath Ledger as the Joker. I was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to match up to Jack Nicholson’s version, but he surpassed it in every way possible and stole the scene whenever he was on the screen. It is one of the greatest performances of all-time in my opinion, and he truly deserved the Oscar for the role, especially considering the toll that it seemed to take on his emotional and psychological well-being. It was annoying that the character of Rachel changed from Katie Holmes in ‘Batman Begins’ to Maggie Gyllenhaal. Apart from that, this is the greatest Batman movie of all time, and the car chase scene through the tunnel is also the best chase scene of all time.

# 1 – The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – IMDb star rating: 9.2/10, rotten tomatoes Tomatometer = 91%

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The highest rated movie of all-time on IMDb and therefore well-deserving of the #1 movie on my list. Interestingly, this wasn’t a big hit when it first came out but continued to build an audience over time once it was released for home movie consumption. Morgan Freeman is always great in movies, especially when he plays the narrator, but this one is his best. The ending is exceptionally uplifting too and would give hope to even the most cynical viewer out there.

Thanks for checking out my list. Do let me know if you agree or disagree with any of these titles in the comments section below, or if you think another title should have made the countdown!

The Top 20 Movies of My Lifetime (20-11)

A list like this is always going to be subjective, and I don’t expect others to agree with it. I still think it is worth highlighting the movies that have had a significant impact on my life and why this is the case. If you believe that something amazing is missing from the list, please let me know in the comments section below.

I was born in 1985, so the movies on the list have to have been released in 1985 or later. All films on the list also have to be movies:

  • that I have personally watched,
  • that I have personally enjoyed, and
  • that have emotionally impacted me in some way.

WHY MOVIES ARE IMPORTANT

Unfortunately, the longer that I practice psychotherapy, the more that I can see the limitations to it. Over time, it has become easier for me to look at the traps that people consistently fall into, and the logical steps that people need to take to successfully overcome these difficulties.

However, people are not just logical creatures. They have emotional reactions to things, based on their past experiences and beliefs. For long-term change to take place sometimes, we need to be able to truly connect and bring about change on an emotional level.

This is where stories become relevant. Whether it is through a good fiction book or a great movie, stories can connect with us on an emotional level and move us more than a rational argument ever could. Without further ado, here is my list, ranked based on their IMDb star rating:

# 20: The Conjuring (2013) – IMDb star rating: 7.5/10

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Quite simply, I have never been more scared watching a horror movie in the cinema than this one. I locked my arms between the armrests so that I didn’t jump too much, and the amount of sweat I produced by the end of the movie was intense. The sequel is almost as good, but the scene where the mother wakes up and thinks that her kids are playing a clap-clap version of hide and seek is genuinely terrifying. James Wan is a master of his craft, and his supernatural stuff is much better than the Saw series.

I was tempted to include ‘Wake in Fright’, the Australian outback horror instead of this as it has a higher IMDb rating and it was an uncomfortable watch. However, the success of a scary movie needs to be about how scary it is, and therefore ‘The Conjuring’ is the perfect way to kickstart the list.

# 19: The Castle (1997) – IMDb star rating: 7.7/10

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My only Australian movie to make the list. I was thinking about my most quoted movie of all-time, and this is a close battle with ‘Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy’ and ‘Happy Gilmore’, however ‘The Castle’ has a higher star rating and gets the nod for being an Aussie film. From “tell ’em to get stuffed” to “the vibe” to “the serenity” to “he’s an ideas man” to “we could talk for hours” and “I dug another hole”, The Castle is a truly classic Australian film. For anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, do yourself a favour and check it out. Truly knee-slapping fun.

# 18: Midnight in Paris (2011) – IMDb star rating: 7.7/10

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The best Woody Allen film by far in my opinion. A lot of people might say ‘Manhattan’ or ‘Annie Hall’ or even ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’ may be better, but I tend to prefer the movies that Woody actually doesn’t appear in himself. When Owen Wilson’s character gets to go back in time and meet F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway and Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso, this is movie magic at its finest. Plus, Marion Cotillard as Adriana is magical too. I’d escape Rachel McAdams as Inez for her any day.

# 17: Groundhog Day (1993) – IMDb star rating: 8.0/10

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Just brilliant in my opinion, and the best Bill Murray film by far. What would you do if you were stuck living the same day over and over again in a town that you didn’t want to be in? The main character Phil first tries to take advantage of others, then commit crimes, then kill himself, then learn skills, then help others and finally find true love. Another great example of movies being able to teach us something using a method that couldn’t possibly happen in real life.

# 16: Donnie Darko (2001) – IMDb star rating: 8.1/10

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This is an example of the right movie at the right time. I was experiencing a lot of suicidal ideation at the time that this movie came out in 2001, and the main song from the movie ‘Mad World’ by Gary Jules connected with me in a way that not much else did. It seems to be the closest depiction I’ve seen of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, my favourite novel at the time by the author J.D. Salinger. It was a dark time for me, and Donnie Darko really helped me to feel that I wasn’t alone in my struggle. It looked to be the start of a promising career by director Richard Kelly, but he doesn’t seem to have done much since 2009’s ‘The Box’.

# 15: Before Sunrise (1995) – IMDb star rating: 8.1/10

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I enjoyed all three films in this trilogy, but the first one was my favourite by far. Two strangers, randomly meeting each other on a train in a foreign land, spending the night together wandering around the streets of Vienna and developing an amazingly strong connection in the process. I also really liked ‘Boyhood’ and ‘Dazed and Confused’ from Linklater, but ‘Before Sunrise’ takes the cake for why I love travelling and meeting new people and saying yes to spontaneous experiences.

# 14: The Truman Show (1998) – IMDb star rating: 8.1/10

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This and ‘EdTV’ were really at the forefront of the reality TV movement that has taken over commercial TV these days. ‘The Truman Show’ is a much better movie, however. Who hasn’t imagined themselves as the main character in a story? I know I have. What if everything was just a set up to create conflict and tension for the millions of viewers out there? Would you like this, knowing that you are likely to be safe and cared about for the rest of your life? Or would you rather break free and experience an authentic and genuine life experience, and give yourself a chance of finding real love and happiness? We all have a choice between what is expected of us and what it is that we would really like to do.

# 13: The Sixth Sense (1999) – IMDb star rating: 8.1/10

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One of my friends, unfortunately, spoiled the twist at the end of this movie before I saw it, so I’ll never get to experience watching it without knowing what was actually happening. The fact that I still loved it and that it made this list is a true credit to how great the movie is. Early on, I would have listed M. Night Shyamalan as one of my favourite directors. How far his and Haley Joel Osment’s career fell after this gives you an indication of how fickle Hollywood can be, but it was nice to see the director return to some type of form with the recent ‘Split’. Hopefully, his upcoming sequel to ‘Unbreakable’ will be good too. At its essence ‘The Sixth Sense’ is an exploration of the topic of grief. I wonder what mediums think of this movie and its most famous quote “I see dead people”?

# 12: Inglourious Basterds (2009) – IMDb star rating: 8.3/10

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The best Tarantino movie in my opinion. The tension that he is able to create through dialogue is amazing, especially with the extended scene at the beginning of the film and the even more extended scene in the basement bar. Tarantino is a movie nerd through and through, and many people will say that ‘Pulp Fiction’ is his masterpiece, but this is better than that in many ways for me. Christoph Waltz was amazing, and getting to revise history in a way that leads to Hitler being shot in the face by a machine gun would have no doubt be satisfying to many. It just shows that big budgets and lots of action can never make up for poor dialogue when it comes to building up suspense. It’s a pity ‘The Hateful Eight’ was so bad. Here’s hoping that Mr Tarantino makes a return to form with his next film.

# 11: Good Will Hunting (1997) – IMDb star rating: 8.3/10

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My favourite movie about therapy and the benefits that it can bring. It’s great to see Robin Williams in some of his more series roles too, including this one, ‘What Dreams May Come’ and ‘Dead Poets Society’. The scene where Robin Williams character Sean says to Matt Damon’s character Will that it’s not his fault for the prior abuses that have taken place in his life is compelling, as it finally leads to a breaking down of the barriers that Will puts up to defend himself. This is something that is all too obvious with many of the clients that I see who have had abusive pasts. The fact that many of them continue to treat themselves as harshly as they were once treated by their perpetrators is heartbreaking to see time and time again, and I wish that they too could truly grasp and genuinely feel that they were not responsible for the abuses that they have suffered.

Stay tuned for #10 through to #1…

My Top 20 Inspirational Quotes

20. “A Year From Now You Will Wish You Had Started Today.” — Karen Lamb

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19. “Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.” – Maria Robinson

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18. “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

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17. “Instead of condemning people, let’s try to understand them. Let’s try to figure out why they do what they do. That’s a lot more profitable and intriguing than criticism; and it breeds sympathy, tolerance and kindness. ‘To know all is to forgive all.'” Dale Carnegie

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16. “Rules for Happiness: Something to do, Someone to love, Something to hope for.” – Immanuel Kant

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15. “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.” – Jimmy Dean

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14. “Though philosophers have traditionally been concerned with the pursuit of happiness, far greater wisdom would seem to lie in pursuing ways to be properly and productively unhappy. The stubborn recurrence of misery means that the development of a workable approach to it must surely outstrip the value of any utopian quest for happiness” – Alaine de Botton

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13. “In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” – Warren Buffett

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12. “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” – Albert Einstein

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11. “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller

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10. “The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.” – Elbert Hubbard

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9. “Find A Group Of People Who Challenge And Inspire You, Spend A Lot Of Time With Them, And It Will Change Your Life.” – Amy Poehler

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8. “It Is Not The Strongest Of The Species That Survive, Nor The Most Intelligent, But The One Most Responsive To Change.” – Charles Darwin

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7. “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” – Aesop

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6. “The Ultimate Measure Of A Man Is Not Where He Stands In Moments Of Comfort And Convenience, But Where He Stands At Times Of Challenge And Controversy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

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5. “Never Believe That A Few Caring People Can’t Change The World. For, Indeed, That’s All Who Ever Have.” – Margaret Mead

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4. “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

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3. “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are!” – John Wooden

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2. “Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

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1. “Two roads diverged in a wood … I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost

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Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Can Psychologists and Psychics Read Minds?

phil-coffman-161251.jpgA question that I often get asked when I tell people that I am a Clinical Psychologist is “Are you reading my mind, right now?

The interesting thing about the question is that it really isn’t what psychologists do.

Sure, I can pick up on other people’s emotions much more than I could before I started clinical work. I’ve also become more skilled at reading people’s body language and tone of voice and what this might mean. These skills could help me to be a better poker player, but they definitely don’t make me a psychic.

Do people get a psychologist and a psychic confused?

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I’d like to hope not, but I’m also sure that I’ve never met another psychologist who has claimed to be a mind reader.

Well, maybe some of my friends and I used to during our undergraduate studies, but we weren’t psychologists yet, and we definitely weren’t psychics. Just using some silly tricks that we had read in the book ‘The Game’ by Neil Strauss, an exposé on the pick-up-artist community. When anyone asked us if we could read their minds we would say one of two things:

1. Think of a number between 1 and 10.

Go ahead, think of it.

It turns out that a surprisingly high number of people say 7. Not sure why, but when people guessed this, and we got it right, they confirmed their beliefs that we were mind readers.

2. Imagine you are driving along a road in the desert, and in the distance, you see a cube up ahead on the side of the road. What size is the cube (small, medium, big)? Is the cube opaque (see-through) or solid? What colour is the cube? Now imagine that there is a ladder in relation to this cube. Where is it? 

With each response, an “hmm, interesting” was all that we would say until all questions were answered.

We would then give generic, generally positive responses such as:

  • big cube = extraverted
  • opaque = open and easy to get to know
  • red = passionate
  • ladder on top of cube = high achiever

The funny thing was that people were generally pretty happy with their analysis, and were sufficiently impressed with our mind-reading skills.

The Problem With Horoscopes

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It often perplexes me that horoscopes written in the newspaper claim to apply to the 625 million people in the world that have that star sign. It’s also fascinating to me how many people read them each day and believe in what they say. But maybe that is typical of me as a Sagittarius to be a doubter and an unbeliever. Who knows.

In my year 11 Psychology class, I remember a little experiment that our teacher did with us. To begin with, we were all given a description of our personality based on our horoscope. To provide you with a sense of how accurate it was, I have programmed my website to figure out your character based on your horoscope. Let me know how accurate my description of you is from 0 = poor to 5 = excellent:

  1. You have a need for other people to like and admire you. 
  2. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. 
  3. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. 
  4. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. 
  5. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. 
  6. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. 
  7. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. 
  8. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. 
  9. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
  10. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. 
  11. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. 
  12. Security is one of your major goals in life.

How accurate was my assessment?

When we were given this description in class, most of us rated it a 4 out of 5. It turns out that we were all given the same explanation regardless of our horoscope, and if you haven’t guessed it yet I have done the same with you.

All of these 12 items are all known as Barnum statements, which Psychologist Bertram Forer first used in his 1948 study to observe this phenomenon. He found that people tend to believe that general and mostly positive personality descriptions apply specifically to them without realising that they could also apply to many others too.

These findings have been duplicated several times since, with most results supporting the initial findings that these statements are rated at about 85% accurate at describing an individual’s personality. Now commonly known as the Forer effect, it is thought to be one of the main reasons why astrology, fortune telling, some personality tests and other forms of supposed mind reading are so popular and perceived as valid.

Well Then Explain To Me How..?

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Whenever I tell people that I doubt these types of things, most believers will come back to me with a testimony, either from one of their experiences or that of a family member or friend. They’ll tell me about a time when someone they saw was able to accurately know or predict something that they believe could not have been possibly known in any other way.

Just because I don’t believe in mind reading or fortune telling or communicating with spirits does not mean that I can know with 100% certainty that they do not exist. If anyone could prove their gifts scientifically, I would be genuinely amazed. I’d even be happy to utilise and recommend their services.

Until I see much scientific proof, however, I recommend this. If a clairvoyant, fortune teller, medium, aura reader or anyone else helps you to feel better or gain more clarity on the path that you would like to take going forward, then that is great. If they cause you to worry more about a horrible fate or not take control or action in your life, then that is not good. Especially if they are charging you a lot of money. If a psychologist is doing the same thing to you, then this would be equally as bad too.

Tricks of the Trade

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It doesn’t matter what field it is. Some people are generally warm, intuitive and empathetic, and genuinely want to help the people that they see. Other people may have less altruistic intentions and motivations for doing what they do.

I just want people to be aware of the various tricks that may be used by certain people to convince others that they have the power to read people’s minds, communicate with spirits, or predict the future.

In ‘The Full Facts book of Cold Reading’, Ian Rowland lists 38 persuasion techniques (including Barnum statements). Known as elements, they are used to extract information from clients, convince them that they know something about their character, about the facts and events of their life, and about the future. Some of my favourites are:

Elements to extract information:

  1. ‘Jargon Blitz’ with a ‘Veiled Question’: Explain the traditional meaning of a tarot card “the five of swords indicates a struggle in the affairs of the heart” then make a statement about the client’s life “I sense your personal goals are taking priority over romance at this time”, followed by “is this making sense to you?” If it is, you’ve got a hit. If not, they give you more information about their lives without realising that a question has been asked.
  2. ‘Vanishing Negative: State a negative question with ambiguous tone and phrasing, such as “you don’t work with kids, do you?“. It can be a hit whether they agree or disagree, as the negative part of the question simply vanishes if they say they do work with kids – “yes, I thought so. A strong affinity with children is indicated…

Elements about character:

  1. ‘Rainbow Ruse’: Credit the client with both a personality trait and its opposite: “sometimes you are very outgoing and confident, even the life of the party when the mood strikes you, and yet there are other times when you can retreat into your shell, preferring to keep quiet or distance yourself from others.” It sounds perceptive, but literally covers the whole scope of the personality trait.
  2. ‘Jacques Statement’: Depending on what stage of life they are at, talk about the usual crises that tend to occur around their age. Rowland shares his one for someone in their mid-thirties to early forties: “if you are honest about it, you often get to wondering about what happened to all those dreams you had when you were younger, and all those wonderful ambitions you once held dear. I suspect that deep down, there is a part of you that sometimes wants to scrap everything, get out of the rut, and start again, but this time do things YOUR way.”

Elements about facts and events:

  1. ‘Fuzzy Fact’: Ask them an apparently factual statement that is quite likely to be accepted initially, and leaves space to become something more specific with additional prompting. This can be related to geography (“I see a connection with Europe, possibly Britain, or it could be the warmer Mediterranean part”), medical (“the gentleman with me now is telling me about a problem around the chest area”), or an event (“There’s an indication here of a career in progress, or in transition. This could be your career, or it could be someone else’s career that affects you”).
  2. ‘Good chance guesses’: Ask a question that has a higher chance of being true than the other person would think, such as “I see a house with the number 2” or “I see a blue car”. If they have lived in a house with a number 2 or owned a blue car at any point in their life, it’s a hit. If not, it could be someone that was close to them or someone that they knew, or even a neighbour, which makes it unlikely to be wrong.
  3. Trivia stat: Most people have a box of old photos around their house that haven’t been sorted, or medical supplies that are years out of date, or a key that is now redundant, or books associated with a hobby or interest that is no longer pursued. Most people will have had a scar on their left knee, been involved in some sort of childhood accident that included water, have an item of clothing in their wardrobe that they can no longer fit into, and tried to learn a musical instrument as a child that they later gave up. Of course, people are not likely to realise how common these traits are, so they are also good chance guesses.

Elements about the future:

  1. ‘Pollyanna Pearls’: State that whatever has been difficult lately is likely to improve: “It’s been a bit of a bumpy ride romantically these last few years for you, but the next year or so will be a lot easier!”
  2. ‘Self-fulfilling Predictions’: When making predictions about mood or personality, these have the added bonus of potentially becoming self-fulfilling: “You will begin to adopt a more confident and optimistic disposition. You will let go of old regrets, and start being more compassionate to yourself and others. You will soon have a greater sense of connection and belonging with others!”
  3. ‘Unverifiable Predictions: These can never be verified either way, so no chance of them being wrong. Here is Rowland’s example again: “Someone you know will harbour a secret grudge against you. They will plan to put obstacles in your way, but you will overcome their plans without even realising it.”

I’ve shared my 10 favourite elements with you, but there are still another 28 in ‘The Full Facts book of Cold Reading’. Check it out if you are interested in learning more about the persuasion techniques that are typically employed in the psychic industry.

Conclusion

jonathan-simcoe-88013Some people may be able to convince you that they can read your mind. But from my experience in life so far, I have never come across any substantial scientific evidence that suggests that this is the case.

The truth is that to understand and help people, I generally have to rely on how they present in session with me, as well as what they say to me and how they say it. Communication with their partner, family members, friends or other treating doctors can also help at times too (if the client consents to this).

If you are going to see a psychologist, please do not assume that they can read your mind. If you’d like to speak about something, make sure that you say it. Especially if the session isn’t going in the way that you want it to, if you are uncomfortable, or if the treatment isn’t as helpful as you’d like it to be.

I have no doubt that a client could successfully withhold or deceive me if they wanted to, but all this would do is create a barrier in the therapeutic relationship that would then prevent me from being able to help them in the best way possible.

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A lot of people assume that others should know precisely what they need and how to give it to them. But if both psychologists and psychics can’t even read your mind, then it is unlikely that someone else will be able to either. The reality is that it is okay to ask for what you need and to teach others to support you in the ways that you find most helpful.

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

 

 

6 Thinking Traps That We All Fall Into

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Snow in Las Vegas – I never thought that could happen! But it did, in December 2008, when this photo was taken. Luckily an American friend warned me how cold it could get in the winter. Otherwise I would have expected it to be hot, just like the other two times that I had previously been there. It is a desert after all, and I had to drive through Death Valley, the hottest place on the planet, in order to get there each time. My past experiences had negatively impacted my ability to predict what the weather would be like in winter.

But why was this so?

Have you ever wondered why past experiences can damage judgment?

or

Why you should never accept a “free” drink?

Why we prefer a wrong map to no map at all?

Why you should forget the past when making a decision?

Why less is sometimes more?

and

Why a lame excuse is better than none?

‘The Art of Thinking Clearly’ by Rolf Dobelli answers all of these questions and more. He lists 99 cognitive biases, or thinking errors, that research has shown that the majority of us get trapped by. Each chapter is only 3-4 pages in length, and introduces a cognitive bias, gives an example of what it is, and gives some advice for how we can avoid these errors. It has sold over a Million copies, and is extremely popular in Europe. I would highly recommend it for anyone who wants to be as effective as possible at work and as happy as possible outside of it.

Here are the answers to the above questions:

1. Association Bias

As well as me expecting Las Vegas to always be hot, our past experiences can also affect our judgment through the development of superstitions. Let’s imagine that I’ve played an excellent game of Basketball. My mind may reflect on the game afterwards, and think about what it was that led to me playing so well. Even though it is unlikely to be a particular cause, I could attribute it to the bowl of pasta that I ate for lunch, or that I had the orange and not the red Powerade during the game, or that I wore my special socks that were just the right level of thickness and comfort. I then try to do these same things again the next game in precisely the same way, but I don’t play as well. Instead of breaking this association then and there, my mind is more likely to look for other reasons why I didn’t play so well, and try to avoid these things too for the next game. Pretty soon, if I’m not careful, I have 20 things that I must do to play well, and I’m still not playing any better because I’m stressed out about having all of the things go “just right”. In reality, the thing that may have allowed me to play well in the first place was that I was relaxed and engaged fully in what I was doing, without having to do anything except for play the game.

I see the same issue in individuals with insomnia, who “can’t sleep” unless they have their eye mask on and earplugs in, even though they aren’t sleeping well anyway, and they used to sleep well without these rituals in the past.

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The association bias was first discovered by the Russian Scientist Ivan Pavlov with his work on classical conditioning. He was studying the digestive system of dogs, and he realised that the dogs were able to quickly associate two previously unrelated things (bell = food) if they occurred in close enough proximity to each other. While responding to a bell that signals dinner time is helpful because the dog is better able to eat and digest their food, it may be less useful if they became hungry and started salivating each time they heard the bells of a local church. This can be applied to humans too. Not eating a poisonous berry that has previously led an individual to be sick would increase their likelihood of survival, but not being able to enjoy any berries and the antioxidant properties inherent in these may actually reduce their health over time.

The reality is that there are a lot of things in this world that are out of our control, and that sometimes things just come down to luck. Our mind doesn’t like to think this, however, and tries to develop an illusion of control by assuming that things that are merely correlated are actually causally related to each other. Just because carbon emissions and obesity have both increased since the 1950s doesn’t mean that increased carbon emissions lead to an increased risk of obesity. Many other factors are likely to explain our generally expanding waistlines much more efficiently.

The solution is to realise what is in your control and read up on what research has shown to be helpful for whatever it is that you are trying to do. Focus on what you can influence, and accept whatever you can’t. Carbohydrate loading before a big game or race could be helpful, as could electrolytes when dehydrated. It’s unlikely that the colour of the Powerade or the socks had anything to do with how well I played, however.

Don’t let one experience influence how you react to all similar situations in the future. Build up a bigger sample size of experiences before deciding if the two things that your mind is trying to create an association between are actually helpful for you to maintain. If 10 minutes of mindfulness consistently leads to a better quality of sleep for two weeks in a row, it is worth keeping up. If not, let it go, and see what else can help.

2. Reciprocity

I remember a few summers ago stopping off at a winery to do a “free wine tasting” with my brother and father on the way to a hike. Fortunately, I don’t enjoy drinking wine and declined, buying some food and a drink from the cafe instead. My brother and father participated however, and both walked out with at least two bottles of wine each from the cellar door, at what I thought was a fairly hefty price for a winery that I had never heard of.

Robert Cialdini, a Psychologist, has studied reciprocity, and has found that people struggle to be in another person’s debt. Where possible, they will naturally feel the urge to try to repay the favour, so that things seem equal or balanced again. Whilst this can lead to a collaborative and co-operative society, some people know about the pull of reciprocity all too well, including Kevin Spacey’s character in the ‘House of Cards’ TV show, and will use it to their advantage to get what they want when they want it. A lot of pharmaceutical companies used to go to extreme lengths (and may still try at times) to get doctors to use their products with patients, ranging from giving them pens or a nice bottle of alcohol to sponsoring conferences and all-inclusive weekends away at a lovely beach resort somewhere in the Caribbean. Even those Timeshare nights where you get a “free dinner” may not sound like such a good idea if you understand our natural urge to repay the debt to someone who gives us something for free.

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The solution is to think twice before saying yes to something if you really don’t want what is being offered.

3. Availability Bias

Imagine this scenario:

Your 9-year-old child comes to you and asks if they can go to the house of either of their two friends on the weekend – one family has guns in the house, and the other family has a swimming pool.

Which house would you feel safer letting your child go over to?

If you said the family with the swimming pool, you would be wrong, but I don’t blame you for thinking it. It is an availability bias, where what comes to your mind most easily is confused with what is right. We assume that guns are more dangerous than swimming pools, but don’t realise that guns are often locked away in a safe and secure spot in the house, whereas kids can drown very quickly in a swimming pool if they are left unattended, even briefly. In the US, as pointed out in a Steven Levitt article, one child under 10 drowns annually for every 11,000 pools, whereas only one child under 10 is killed by a gun for every one million guns. So swimming pools are almost 100 times more likely to kill children under 10 than guns. When we think of pools, we don’t think of them as a death trap typically, but instead think of summer and fun with family and friends.

brooklyn-morgan-390.jpgWe are much more likely to think of the risk of death and severe injury when thinking about guns. Our risk map is therefore often wrong, replacing what is right with what information comes to our mind the easiest. We tend to overestimate the risk of dying from a plane crash or by murder and underestimate the health risks associated with smoking, binge drinking, an unhealthy diet and inactivity.

The solution is to look at the statistics, and to spend time with people who think differently than you. We need external sources to understand that what is most available to us isn’t always what’s true.

4. Sunk Cost Fallacy

This problem was posed to me when I was learning about this phenomenon at University:

Let’s imagine that you have booked an upcoming holiday for yourself, and have already put down a non-refundable $500 deposit towards this trip. You still have $400 to pay. You are looking forward to this trip, but wished that you were going with some friends, as you usually don’t enjoy solo trips as much.

You speak to your friends who say that they have already booked a trip for the same week. It’s at not as lovely a place, but it will only cost you $400 a week, and you really do prefer going on a trip with friends than by yourself.

What do you do?

The sunk cost fallacy occurs when people let their past investments, whether it is time, money or emotions, influence their decision about what they should do going forward. Both trips are only going to cost you $400 from this point onwards, so the $500 that you have already spent shouldn’t factor into it. The only logical thing to do is to take the holiday that you are likely to enjoy more. I hate to waste money, so I probably would decide to say no to my friends, and try to enjoy the holiday by myself as much as possible, or see if I could get another friend to come along. This doesn’t make it the right choice, however.

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So how does this play out in your life? Should you stay in a uni course or job or relationship because of how far you have already come, even if it is quite evident that it is no longer the right choice for you and that another option would lead to higher happiness? It’s a tricky question again because we are horrible at being able to predict what will make us happy in the future, as highlighted in the book ‘Stumbling on Happiness’ by Dan Gilbert.

The solution is to use a surrogate, and find out how happy people are that have just done or are currently doing what you would like to do. If it’s a holiday, movie, show, or restaurant, check out the reviews. If everyone else likes it, there is a good chance you will too, so go for it. And if you don’t, don’t feel that you have to see it through to the end just because you have started it. Close the book you aren’t enjoying, turn off the movie, or quit the course, providing that you think there is a better option that will allow you to achieve your long-term goals. Be brave, forget the past, and do what is likely to serve you best going forward.

5. The Paradox of Choice

Ever noticed how the more of something there is, the harder it is to choose. It is the problem with online dating, cable television, potential career options, choosing what to eat for dinner, and where to go on a holiday. The more decisions we have to make, the more fatigued we become, but everywhere that we turn these days there seems to be constant need for exactly this. We used to just be able to order a coffee, but now it has to be a tall (or another size), skinny (or no milk, 1%, 2% or full cream) soy (or almond or regular cow’s milk) decaf (or caffeinated weakly, normally or extra strong) caramel (or no sugar, raw sugar, stevia, white sugar or other flavours) macchiato (or espresso, latte, flat white or cappuccino) without the cream on top (or with cream, foam or powered chocolate). No wonder people sometimes become nostalgic for a time when there were less choices and things just seemed to be easier.

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In his book ‘The Paradox of Choice’, Barry Schwartz, a Psychologist, talks about an experiment that was done at a supermarket where they offered 24 different samples of jelly to customers on day one, and only 6 different samples of jelly on day two. Which day led to more jelly being sold? Day two, by ten times the amount. Too many options led to indecision and paralysis, and most left without getting any jelly. By providing fewer choices, it became easier to choose which one they liked the best, and they bought it. So while we may always think that more potential partners, channels, dinner options, and holiday brochures equal a better final decision and outcome, this isn’t always the case. Large selections often lead to more unfortunate choices and greater discontent after a decision has been made.

The solution is to think carefully about what you want before you decide to search through the options. If you know you want to watch a recent, Australian Horror Movie set in the outback; suddenly your search is likely to be more specific with a higher likelihood of a more favourable outcome (for your watching enjoyment, not for the characters in the movie). Then once you have made your decision, stick to it, at least for a set period of time before reviewing the situation and deciding once again. Another research study found that people were actually happier with their decision when they were unable to take it back than when they were able to change their mind whenever they felt like it in the future.

6. ‘Because’ Justification

This one is great, because it just doesn’t seem like it would work, but it really does. In the 1970s, Ellen Langer, a Psychologist, did an experiment in a Harvard library where she asked to cut to the front of the line at a photocopier.

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In the first scenario, she asked “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the photocopier?” 60 percent of respondents agreed to it.

In the second scenario, she asked “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the photocopier because I’m in a rush?” 94 percent of respondents agreed to it.

In the third scenario, she asked “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I go before you because I have to make some copies?” 93 percent of respondents agreed to it.

Notice how the third scenario is asking the exact same thing as the first scenario, with no other reason apart from needing to make copies being provided, which would be the same as anyone else in the queue at the photocopier. Yet because the word ‘because’ is used, 33 percent more of the respondents agree to it. This was only 1 percent less than for those in a rush, a seemingly much better excuse, and one that you would expect people to allow more if they weren’t in a big hurry themselves.

The solution is, therefore, to justify your reason whenever you want to do something or get away with something, even if the idea isn’t convincing or logical. It may give you that extension that you really need on the assignment because you preferred to go to the party on the weekend or get you out of the speeding ticket because it was more fun to go fast. I dare you to try it next time, because it very well may work. Just remember to include the word because.

There are plenty more thinking errors that the majority of us succumb to from time to time or all the time. I am sure that I will touch on these more when talking about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in more detail. Until then, check out ‘The Art of Thinking Clearly’, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman, or ‘Predictably Irritational’ by Dan Ariely if you are interested in learning more.

Once we realise that we are not as rational and in control of our actions as it seems, I think that it becomes a lot easier to be compassionate towards ourselves after we fall into the same trap for the 100th time. The key is to identify once you have fallen into the trap and learn the steps and the skills that you need to get yourself out.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

How Should We Define Success As A Nation?

The Olympic Slide

Following the completion of the Rio Olympic Games, a theme of concern became evident across the various media platforms in Australia. Our overall medal tally at the Olympic Games has been in decline since it’s peak of 58 in Sydney in 2000, with 49 in Athens in 2004, 46 in Beijing in 2008, 35 in London in 2012, and now 29 in Rio.

The final medal tally in Rio puts Australia in 10th place with 8 gold medals, 11 silver and 10 bronze, well behind the Australian Olympic Committee’s predictions of 13 gold and 37 medals. Australia’s performance still wasn’t too bad considering our population size, but we were miles behind the two countries with the most gold medals. First place was the usual victors, the U.S.A, with 46 gold and 121 medals overall. Second place was the U.K., with 27 gold and 67 medals overall.

Australia is a proud sporting nation, and part of our national identity has taken a hit seeing the sharp decline in Olympic glory this century in comparison to the ongoing ascension of the U.S. and the U.K.

The U.S. has increased their tally from 37 gold and 93 medals in 2000, while the U.K. has dramatically improved theirs from 11 gold and 28 medals overall back in Sydney. We used to be better than the U.K., not even that long ago, and now we are not even close. Let’s not even get started on ‘The Ashes’, where we have now lost five of the last seven test cricket series to England dating back to July 2005.

If we were to look at these statistics alone as a measure of a country’s overall success, then it is a worrying trend for Australia and a very positive sign for the U.S. and the U.K.

If we wanted to reverse this trend, it would be essential to figure out exactly what the U.S. and the U.K. are doing right and try to emulate what they are doing so that we can get closer to their levels of success in the future. It would really come down to spending more taxpayer’s money on:

  1. improved programs to get people to participate more in a sport at a young age,
  2. enhanced facilities to increase opportunities to excel,
  3. improved coaching to help bring out the best in athletes, and
  4. more focused investment towards the sports and top athletes that have the highest potential of producing multiple gold medals at the Olympic Games.

The problem is that we have already tried to do this, with the Australian Sporting Commission following the lead of the U.K.’s recent success with their own ‘Winning Edge’ program. In the four years leading up to Rio, this program unevenly distributed $340m towards summer Olympic sports, particularly the events that Australia was thought to have a better chance to win in, such as Hockey, which cost us $28million for zero medals.

At over $11million of taxpayers money per medal won in Rio, it becomes crucial to wonder if the extra cost is really worth it, or if there are better ways that Australia can try to measure ourselves or improve on the world stage?

What if there was a medal tally for non-Sporting indicators of success?

1. Gross Direct Product

Traditionally, apart from Olympic Glory, Nations have utilised their Gross Direct Product (GDP) to compare themselves to other countries and show the world just how successful and prosperous they are. If we were to look at the nominal GDP of all nations in 2016, the U.S. once again smashes the field and collects the gold medal with $18,558,130 million, China collects the silver with $11,383,030 million, and Japan picks up the bronze with $4,412,600 million. The U.K. comes in fifth place with $2,760,960 million, and Australia is lagging behind again in 13th place with $1,200,780 million.

Per capita, the country with the highest GDP is Luxembourg with $101,994, Switzerland is second with $80,675, and Qatar is third with $76,576, based on the 2015 International Monetary Fund 2015 estimates.

If we look at GDP calculations that take into account purchasing power parity (PPP) relative to inflation rates and local costs of goods and services, China picks up the gold, the U.S. is relegated to silver, and India comes from nowhere into the bronze medal position. The U.K. drop to 9th and Australia drop all the way down to 19th.

Per capita adjusted for PPP, Qatar wins the gold, Luxembourg pick up the silver, and Singapore takes home the bronze, based on the 2015 estimates provided by the International Monetary fund.

2. The Human Development Index

The United Nations no longer believe that GDP should be the sole factor when determining which countries are best at helping their citizens to successfully develop. Taking into account GDP at purchasing power parity (as a measure of standard of living) alongside life expectancy, education and adult literacy levels, it is known as the Human Development Index. Based on the 2015 Human Development Report results, Norway picks up the gold, with Australia claiming the silver, and Switzerland taking home the bronze.

Importantly, Australia’s score has slightly improved both from 2013 to 2014, and 2014 to 2015, a good indication that we are not in an overall decline as a nation. Our ranking has also improved from 4th in 2008 to 2nd from 2009 onward. Meanwhile, the U.S. rank 8th in the world, a significant drop from their third place rank in 2013, and the U.K. are 14th, a massive jump from 27th in 2013.

Once inequality is taken into account, the average level of human development in Australia is still the second best in the world, with Norway continuing to claim the gold medal, and the Netherlands stepping up to claim bronze. The U.K. drop down to 16th in the world, and the U.S. slide all the way down to 28th.

But what if GDP isn’t the best way to measure a country’s standard of living? What other factors could we also compare nations on to see how Australia stacks up?

3. The World Happiness Report

The first World Happiness Report was released in April 2012 after a resolution in July 2011 invited member countries to measure their citizens’ happiness levels and use these findings to guide their public policies. Reports are now issued each year, with the 2016 release considering 6 main elements to be crucial to how successful we can perceive a Nation to be. These elements are:

  1. GDP per capita
  2. Level of social support
  3. Healthy life expectancy
  4. Freedom to make life choices
  5. Level of generosity
  6. Trust, or perceived absence of corruption in government and business

Based on the results of this report, Denmark wins the gold medal, with Switzerland getting the silver, and Iceland taking home the bronze. Australia is currently in 9th place, with the U.S. 13th, and the U.K. 23rd.

Once again, Australia has improved slightly since the last report, a good indicator that we are not rapidly declining as a country, whereas the U.S. and the U.K. are both on the decline. No country has taken a more prominent hit recently than Greece, with their significant financial difficulties also beginning to influence the social fabric of the once proud nation.

Surely overall Happiness, as measured by these factors, is more important than sporting or Olympic success. Assuming this is true, shouldn’t we be emulating Denmark or the other 7 countries that are ahead of us on this instead of always trying to look up to and compete against the U.S. or the U.K.?

4. The Happy Planet Index

The Happy Planet Index has a slightly different take on what matters most, and to them, this is sustainable well-being for all. They combine life expectancy with individual levels of well-being adjusted for inequality of outcomes within a country and divide this by their ecological footprint to obtain the overall result on the Happy Planet Index. Most Western Countries fare poorly on this scale, with Costa Rica winning the gold, Mexico the silver, and Colombia the bronze. The U.K. is 34th, with both Australia and the U.S. far behind in 105th and 108th place respectively.

Australia does okay in three out of the four items that make up this scale, coming in 7th place at 82.1 years for life expectancy, 11th place at 8% for inequality, and 12th place at 7.2/10 for subjective well-being. What really lets us down is our ecological footprint, which is 139th out of the 140 countries included in the data. Only Luxembourg is worse. The U.S. isn’t much better with their ecological footprint, coming in 137th place, while the U.K. is slightly better, currently in 107th place. Obviously more needs to be done by these Western countries to reduce the ecological footprint that they are having on our planet. Haiti wins gold for the least ecological footprint, with Bangladesh the silver, and Pakistan the bronze.

For subjective well-being, Switzerland wins the gold with a score of 7.8/10, Norway gets the silver with 7.7/10, and Iceland claims the bronze with 7.6/10, well ahead of the U.S. in 18th place (7.0/10) and the U.K. (6.9/10).

For inequality, the Netherlands claim the gold with 4%, Iceland the silver with 5%, and Sweden the bronze with 6%. The U.K. is 19th with 9% inequality, and the U.S. is 34th with 13%.

Lastly, for life expectancy, Hong Kong claim the gold with 83.6 years, Japan the silver with 83.2 years, and Italy the bronze with 82.7 years. The U.K. is 24th with an average life expectancy of 80.4 years, slightly ahead of the 31st ranking for the U.S. with 78.8 years.

5. Health System

If we were to think of ways to further improve our quality of life, having a good health system should be a top priority, yet none of the U.K. (18th), Australia (32nd), or the U.S. (37th) can claim a medal based on the World Health Organisation’s 2000 ratings. France gets the gold, Italy the silver, and San Marino the bronze.

6. Academic Performance

Equally critical to the future of a country should be a good quality of education at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. When it comes to the 2014 OECD global education rankings, the U.K. is 20th for maths and science, and 23rd for reading, while the U.S. is 28th for maths and science, and 24th for reading. Australia doesn’t fare much better, coming in at 14th in maths and science, and 13th in reading.

More worryingly, Australia has dropped from 6th in maths, 8th in science and 4th in reading in the year 2000. When it comes to schooling, we really do seem to be declining as a nation and are now 17th for percentage of students acquiring at least the necessary skills in these areas, and 19th in secondary school enrollment rates, behind both the U.S. and the U.K.

For reading, China claims the gold medal, with Singapore collecting the silver, and Japan the bronze. For maths and science, Singapore claims the gold, Hong Kong the silver, and South Korea the bronze. South Korea was very similar in their academic performance to Australia back in 2000. Although their increase and our decrease may not seem like such a big deal, a 25 point improvement on what is known as the PISA tests would lead to an approximate expansion of $4.8 trillion to Australia’s GDP by the year 2095. Clearly, education matters.

7. Global Gender Gap Index

Based on the 2015 data, Iceland wins the gold with the least gender gap between males and females of 88.1%. Norway the silver with 85%, and Finland the bronze, with 85% also. The U.K. rank 18th with 75.8%, the U.S. 28th with 74%, and Australia 36th with 73.33%.

In regards to the gender gap, Australia has improved in their score from 72.41% in 2008, but have dropped 15 places from 21st in the rankings over that seven-year time span, meaning that we are closing the gap at a much slower rate than a lot of other countries. We’re now 32nd in economic participation and opportunity, 1st in educational attainment, 74th in health and survival, and 61st regarding political empowerment.

8. LGBTIQ Rights

Based on the first countries to legally recognise same sex-unions, Denmark gets the gold, Norway the silver, and Sweden the bronze.

To qualify for a medal, these countries also had to have legalised same-sex marriage and allow same-sex couples to adopt a child. They must have LGB individuals who are able to openly serve in their military and ban all anti-gay discrimination. They must also have legal documents be amended based on an individual’s recognised gender without the need for surgery or hormone therapy.

The U.K. nearly ticks all of these items, except same-sex marriage is still illegal in Northern Ireland. Same-sex marriage is now legalised in Australia, finally. Apart from some tribal jurisdictions, the U.S. now has legalised marriage, but still has some laws that discriminate based on gender identity and expression, as does Australia.

9. Refugee Resettlement Actions

By the end of 2014, one out of every 122 people were internally displaced, a refugee, or seeking asylum, with half of these refugees being children. Wars, persecution and ongoing conflict now mean that we have more people than ever before trying to reach safety and begin their new lives in a foreign land, with 59.5 million being forcibly displaced in 2014 alone. Due to their close proximity to Syria, both Lebanon and Turkey are taking in vast amounts of refugees annually, with 1.59 million Syrian refugees in Turkey at the end of 2014, and more than 25% of Lebanon’s overall population is Syrian as of the 24th of September 2015.

Based on this article, Germany should win gold, Sweden silver and the U.S. bronze. Meanwhile, the recent Brexit scandal was related to the U.K. not wanting to take on as many refugees and immigrants. Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, especially the children, is so notoriously bad that China (not always the best for human rights issues) and the United Nations are publicly speaking out against it. To help end the business of abuse related to refugees and asylum seekers in Australia, please sign this pledge.

10. Freedom of Press

Based on the 2008 results, Finland and Iceland both get the gold medal, with Denmark and Norway taking home the bronze. The U.S. has been the 9th best, followed by the U.K. in 10th, and Australia in 13th.

11. Lowest Infant Mortality Rates

According to the 2015 estimates provided by the CIA World Factbook, Monaco wins the gold with 1.81 deaths per 1000 live births, Iceland wins the silver with 2.06, and Norway and Singapore both claim the bronze with 2.48 per 1000 live births. Australia is 31st, with 4.43, the U.K. is 32nd with 4.44, and the U.S. is 50th with 6.17 deaths per 1000 live births.

12. Soundness of Banks

Based on the 2009 World Economic Forum rankings on a scale from 1 (banks need more money) to 7 (banks are generally sound), Canada picks up the gold with a score of 6.7/7, New Zealand the silver with 6.6/7, and Australia the bronze with 6.6/7. The U.S. comes in at 108th with a rating of 4.7/7, and the U.K. is 126th with a score of 3.8/7. Resilient financial systems are crucial for economic stability, and unstable or unregulated systems were the main culprits in the 2008 financial crisis.

13. Unemployment Levels

Based on 2015 figures, Qatar gets the gold with 0.4%, Cambodia the silver with 0.5%, and Belarus, according to their 2014 data, get the bronze with 0.7%. By March 2016, Australia’s unemployment rate is 5.8%, slightly worse from its 31st ranking in 2013 with 5.7%. In 2013, the U.K. and U.S. were 44th and 45th with 7.3% each, but as of July 2016, the U.K. has improved their rate to 4.9%, and the U.S. have improved theirs to 5.0% by April 2016. Relative to the rest of the world, Australia is declining regarding unemployment too.

And the overall winner is… Norway!

Final medal tally:

Country Gold (3 pts) Silver (2 pts) Bronze (1 pt) Total points
Norway II III II 14
Iceland II II II 12
Switzerland I II I 8
China (excl. Hong Kong) II I 8
Denmark II I 7
Qatar II I 7
Singapore I I II 7
U.S.A I I I 6
Australia II I 5
Hong Kong I I 5
Luxembourg I I 5
Netherlands I I 4
Finland I I 4
Japan I II 4
Sweden I II 4
Italy I I 3
3 3
1 1
U.K. 0

Conclusion:

Australia is doing alright. We aren’t the best country in the world in any of the critical issues that I’ve analysed, and depending on what it is, we could learn a lot from whoever is ahead of us in the rankings, especially Norway and Iceland. This would be much better than always just trying to emulate the U.S. or the U.K., or overreacting to the media every time they catastrophise and tell us that the apocalypse is near.

Worldwide murder rates (per capita) have continued to decline since the fourteenth century, especially since the 1970s. Higher levels of equality and rights have been achieved across the globe for different races, ethnic groups, females, spouses, children, people with disabilities, and animals, with some countries being more progressive than others.

Australia still has a long way to go as a Nation, especially when it comes to obesity levels, mental health, climate change policy, indigenous health and well-being, LGBTIQ rights, gender equality, our refugee and immigration policy, and any other area where people are treated unequally or discriminated against.

At least with the National Broadband System, a higher percentage of the population will have access to a reliable internet connection, which can help more people to become informed, talk about the critical issues through social media, put more pressure on the politicians, and bring about more rapid social change.

I invite you all to speak up, take action, and follow in Mahatma Gandhi’s footsteps in being the change that you wish to see in the world.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Angry Boys Become Angry Men: The Constraints and Consequences of Idealising Hyper-Masculinity

The messages that we deliver to boys about what it means to be a man can have a powerful impact on who they become

I recently watched a fascinating documentary on Netflix titled ‘The Mask You Live In’ about the American masculine ideal and the consequences of teaching boys not to value emotions, sensitivity, connection, caring, and empathy.

Although the data that is presented throughout the documentary is related to American males, the messages that they refer to at the beginning of the film are all things that I remember hearing growing up in Australia:

  • “Man up!”
  • “Be a man!”
  • “Don’t be a mamma’s boy!”
  • “Stop being weak.”
  • “You’ve got to be tough!”
  • “You’ve got to be strong!”
  • “Stop crying!”
  • “Boys don’t cry!”
  • “Don’t be a pussy!”
  • “Grow some balls!”
  • “Don’t let anybody disrespect you!”

The constraints of idealising hyper masculinity

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“Our boys are born with empathy just as our girls are, and yet we socialize that sensitivity, emotion, and empathy out of them.” – Jennifer Siebel Newsom

In ‘The Mask You Live In’, they explain that there are typically more similarities between boys and girls than there are differences. Yes, more males fall on the masculine end of the masculine-feminine spectrum, and more females fall on the feminine end. However, there is approximately a 90% overlap between the two populations if you assess 50,000 boys and 50,000 girls, with results being normally distributed for both males and females. Given this, there is actually a large percentage of children who identify as girls that are more masculine than some boys, and a similarly large percentage of children who identify as boys that are more feminine than some girls. Yet if you looked in toy stores, or on the TV, or even in playgrounds or school yards you’d never realise this.

Males and females do begin with small biological differences at birth, due to having an XX or an XY chromosome, and these biological differences do widen further once children reach puberty. Even so, the gender roles that we now perceive to be normal are still much more socially created rather than biologically predetermined. Thanks to the media, the entertainment industry and marketing, we are now seeing hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity as the ideal.

If you don’t believe me, pay attention to the first answer that pops into your head when you read these questions:

  1. What are girls favourite colours?
  2. What are boys favourite colours?
  3. What toys do girls play with?
  4. What toys do boys play with?

If you instinctively thought 1. pink and purple, 2. blue and red, 3. dolls, make-up and ponies, and 4. cars, balls, and action figures then you have proved my point. Most children do not fit into these categories naturally but are instead socialised into these roles as they grow and are encouraged to do so based on what their parents and the TV says, or what their peers do.

If boys are generally 90% similar to girls, and yet socialised to disavow anything that even resembles femininity, how whole or authentic can they indeed grow up to be? Of course, we all want our children to succeed in life, but can this even be done without feeling pain, vulnerability, sadness, and fear, or knowing how to efficiently deal with these emotions when they arise? Surely it has to be damaging to continue to encourage boys to switch off from themselves at such a young age and to externalise their emotional pain by lashing out at others if they feel vulnerable, insecure,  disrespected, or under threat…

The consequences of idealising hyper-masculinity

Based on the research presented in ‘The Mask You Live In’, the consequences are:

1. Bullying:
  • 1-in-4 boys report being bullied at school.
  • Only 30% of boys that are bullied notify adults, because it is also considered “weak” to get help or tell on someone else.
2. Drinking and Drugs:
  • By age 12, 34% of boys have started drinking
  • 1-in-4 boys binge drink (have five or more drinks in one sitting)
  • The average boy tries drugs at age 13
  • Both drinking and drugs are often used to treat loneliness
  • Also the only time where they can often be emotional, connect with their friends, and tell their friends how much they love them.

9.3% of Australian males between the ages of 16 and 54 are likely to meet criteria for substance use disorder in the past 12 months, with 1-in-3 (35.4%) expected to experience a substance use disorder in their lifetime. The highest rate of substance abuse is found in males under 24 years of age (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007).

3. Suicide
  • Every day, 3 or more boys in the U.S. commit suicide
  • For boys, suicide is the third leading cause of death
  • For 10-14 year olds, the suicide rate for males is 3 times that of females
  • By 15-19 years of age, the suicide rate for males increases to 5 times that of females

Five out of the nearly 7 people that die of suicide in Australia each day are males, which equated to 1,885 male deaths by suicide in 2013. For the 15-19 age group, 34.8% of all male deaths are a result of suicide, with each suicide likely to profoundly impact at least another six people for the rest of their lives (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013; 2015).

4. Mental Health
  • Fewer than 50% of boys and men with mental health difficulties seek help
  • Boys are 3 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD

5.3% of Australian males over 15 are likely to have experienced depression to a clinically significant severity in the past 12 months, with 1-in-8 expected to experience a mood disorder in their lifetime. For anxiety, 10.8% of Australian males are likely to have experienced it to a clinically significant amount in the past 12 months, with 1-in-5 expected to experience an anxiety condition in their lifetime (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007).

5. Academic Performance
  • Compared to girls, boys are more likely to flunk or drop out of school
  • Boys are less likely to go to College
  • Boys are 2 times more likely to be in special education
  • Boys are 2 times more likely to be suspended and 4 times more likely to be expelled
6. Violence
  • Every 9 seconds, a woman is beaten or assaulted in the U.S.
  • 1-in-6 boys is sexually abused.
  • Every hour, more than 3 people are killed by a gun.
  • That’s over 30,000 lives annually.
  • 90% of homocide perpetrators are male.
  • Almost 50% are under 25 years of age.
  • Mass homicides (where 4 or more people are killed) occur on average every 2 weeks.
  • 94% of mass homicides are committed by males.
  • The youngest mass shooter was 11.
  • The rate of mass shootings has tripled since 2011.
  • There has been almost one school shooting per week since the Sandy Hook Massacre.

Girl’s in the US have just as much access to guns, so why are nearly all mass shootings being committed by males?

The documentary suggests that it is because men are taught to externalise their emotional pain. If a girl feels sad or scared, they are usually trained to look within to identify what it is, put a label to it, and express how they feel to someone else (without acting on it). They then decide what (if anything) needs to be done to feel better in time. But if a boy feels sad or scared, it is either dismissed or criticised, and the boy is left on their own to deal with these overwhelming sensations that they cannot even put a name to. Most boys are not taught to be introspective, to tune into to what they feel, or to be self-aware. They are trained to bottle it up or deny what they feel or distract themselves by keeping busy. The one emotion that often isn’t discouraged in boys, especially when you look at the media, is anger and violence. So in time boys begin to learn that if they feel bad, it must be the fault or someone else who was disrespecting them. In a world void of communicating how they feel, the easy way for boys to get this respect and to be heard is through violence.

The Solution

Research by John Gottman in his 2002 book ‘The Relationship Cure’ supports an emotion-coaching (“I understand. Let me help you!“) environment as being the best for helping boys to develop more prosperous and more connected relationships when they are older. An emotion-coaching environment can also encourage boys to turn towards adults more frequently because they learn how helpful guidance from empathically attuned adults can be when they are trying to cope with overwhelming feelings.

We need to create an environment where:

  • it is okay for boys to feel scared or sad or embarrassed or vulnerable or ashamed
  • it is okay for boys to share or express how they feel without having to act it out
  • boys are encouraged to learn and identify what is going on for them internally and to develop self-awareness and emotional intelligence
  • boys are encouraged to seek help and support if they are struggling, whether this is from their peers, family, teachers, coaches, mentors or a psychologist or counsellor
  • we try to understand what boys are going through emotionally instead of dismissing their feelings (“You’ll get over it!“) or disapproving them (“Don’t feel that way!“), and
  • it is not seen as a sign of weakness to be emotional or seek help when things are challenging, as this can actually help boys to develop greater long-term resiliency.

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As they say at the end of ‘The Mask You Live In’:

Everyone deserves to feel whole, and each of us can do our part in expanding what it means to be a man for ourselves and the boys in our lives.

Take the challenge. Exert your influence. We all have a role to play in creating a healthier culture.

If you are a male and are wanting to understand your emotions better, change your behaviours, or just feel whole, an appointment with a psychologist could help.

For more information, please check out Man Therapy or The Representation Project.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

What Do Clients Find Most Helpful About Therapy?

Therapist-and-Patient

When clients first begin their therapy journey, they often ask to be taught specific skills that are going to help them achieve their particular goals.

Clients believe that if they can be taught these skills, they will be able to overcome their difficulties or the problems that led to them entering therapy, and they will have no subsequent complications or need for additional treatment going forward.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a short-term treatment that clients can easily understand. It is based on the premise that all difficulties arise from unhelpful cognitions (beliefs, expectations, assumptions, rules and thoughts) and unhelpful behaviours. CBT aims to help clients see that their cognitions and behaviours are unhelpful, and tries to teach them skills that can help them to replace these unhelpful cognitions and behaviours with more helpful ones. If this is achieved, the assumption is that clients will change and therefore improve.

I do believe that if a client is able to have more helpful cognitions and behaviours, then they will have significantly improved psychological health and overall well-being. I’m just not sure if I agree that the process that is required to get to this outcome is the same as what many CBT clinicians would believe. In fact, focus on distorted cognitions has actually been shown to have a negative correlation with overall outcomes in cognitive therapy for depression studies (Castonguay, Goldfield, Wiser, Raue, & Hayes, 1996).

What actually leads to improvements in treatment?

My previous article “What Leads to Optimal Outcomes in Therapy?” answers this question in detail and shows that the outcome is dependent upon (Hubble & Miller, 2004):

  • The life circumstances of the client, their personal resources and readiness to change (40% of overall outcome variance)
  • The therapeutic relationship (30% of total outcome variance)
  • The expectations about the treatment and therapy (15% of global outcome variance)
  • The specific model of treatment (15% of overall outcome variance)

For cognitive therapy for depression, both therapeutic alliance and the emotional involvement of the patient predicted the reductions in symptom severity across the treatment (Castonguay et al., 1996). Many therapists are now aware of these findings, but clients are generally not.

What do clients view to be the most valuable elements of therapy once they have improved?

By the end of treatment, especially if it is a successful outcome, clients tend to have a much different outlook on what they think are the most valuable aspects of therapy when compared to what they were looking for at the beginning of their treatment.

In Irvin Yalom’s excellent and informative book ‘The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy’, he goes into detail about a study that he conducted with his colleagues that examined the most important therapeutic factors, as identified by 20 successful long-term group therapy clients. They gave each client 60 cards, which consisted of five items across each of the 12 categories of therapeutic factors, and asked them to sort them regarding how helpful these items were across their treatment.

The 12 categories, from least helpful to most helpful were:

12. Identification: trying to be like others

11. Guidance: being given advice or suggestions about what to do

10. Family reenactment: developing a greater understanding of earlier family experiences

9. Altruism: seeing the benefits of helping others

8. Installation of hope: knowing that others with similar problems have improved

7. Universality: realising that others have similar experiences and problems

6. Existential factors: recognising that pain, isolation, injustice and death are part of life

5. Interpersonal output: learning about how to relate to and get along with others

4. Self-understanding: learning more about thoughts, feelings, the self, and their origins

3. Cohesiveness: being understood, accepted and connected with a sense of belonging

2. Catharsis: expressing feelings and getting things out in the open

1. Interpersonal input: learning more about our impression and impact on others

The clients were unaware of the different categories, and only rated each of the 60 individual items concerning how helpful it had been to them.

What becomes apparent when looking at these categories is that giving advice or suggestions about what to do is often not found to be a beneficial element of the therapy process, even though this is precisely what most of the clients are initially looking for. What is far more important is the client developing a more in-depth knowledge of themselves, their internal world, and how they relate to and are perceived by others in interpersonal situations.

 

The top 10 items that the clients rated as most helpful were (Yalom & Leszcz, 2005):

10. Feeling more trustful of groups and of other people.

 

9. Seeing that others could reveal embarrassing things and take other risks and benefit from it helped me to do the same.

 

8. Learning how I come across to others.

 

7. Learning that I must take ultimate responsibility for the way I live my life no matter how much guidance and support I get from others.

 

6. Expressing negative and/or positive feelings toward another member.

 

5. The group’s teaching me about the type of impression I make on others.

 

4. Learning how to express my feelings.

 

3. Other members honestly telling me what they think of me.

 

2. Being able to say what is bothering me instead of holding it in.

 

1. Discovering and accepting previously unknown or unacceptable parts of myself.

Each of the 20 clients that made up these survey results had been in therapy for an average of 16 months and were either about to finish their treatment or had recently done so. Obviously, these items were about group therapy so the most important factors for change in individual treatment may be different. However, even with individual therapy, Yalom believes that in the end, it is the relationship that heals.

For more information, feel free to check out Chapter 4 in ‘The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy’ by Irvin Yalom and Molyn Leszcz (2005), or any of the other studies out there that look into the outcomes or therapeutic factors involved in change across psychological treatment.

If you have ever wanted to discover and learn more about yourself, accept yourself more, express yourself better, take greater responsibility for your life, challenge yourself and develop more trust in others, longer-term psychological therapy may be just what you need!

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist