Monday, December 21, 2009

Good People, Bad Behavior

A few days ago, I just got back from a great 5-day conference called the Evolution of Psychotherapy. It’s held once every five years. Over 7500 mental health professionals were there! They had several of the best training sessions I have ever attended. But what struck me the most was the first and last speakers.

The first speaker, Robert Sapolsky, spoke about stress and his studies of the social behavior of baboons in Africa. Apparently, when some baboons are highly stressed by higher-ranking baboons, they beat up their mates. This sounds a lot like human domestic violence – and we know that this is increasing with the stress of the economy. Maybe these urges are biological. In modern society, we learn to manage these urges. After all, most humans don’t beat up their mates under stress. They restrain themselves. But some people need help learning those skills.

The last speaker, Philip Zimbardo, spoke about the conditions under which good people act badly. A prime example was with the torturing of Abu Graib prisoners in Iraq in 2004, which was photographed by the small group of soldiers involved – private photos which became public. There was an absence of the normal authority on the night shift at the prison (actually, the authorities up to Rumsfeld and Cheney officially encouraged this behavior), there was an anonymity to the prisoners (hoods on their heads, naked bodies, etc.), and anonymity to those who participated in the torture (face paint, etc.). These are the conditions that Dr. Zimbardo described in many situations where human beings have brutally treated other human beings. His book “The Lucifer Effect” has been a New York Times Best Seller.

So with these thoughts in mind, I caught up on the news this week:

Dec. 10: Maribel Arteaga, age 28, was stabbed to death in front of her children, ages 4 and 6, by her Husband. They were in the midst of a divorce.

Dec. 14: Elizabeth Fontaine, age 38, her mother and her two daughters, ages 2 and 4, were found dead as an apparent murder-suicide. Elizabeth alleged her ex-husband had sexually abused the children, but after an investigation found no evidence of this, the judge ordered a change of custody. Apparently, Elizabeth or her mother pulled the trigger, rather than appear in court for the change of custody.

Dec. 17: Marie D’Aoust, age 16 pleaded guilty to second-degree murder of her mother with a hammer when she was 14. Apparently, Marie was adopted and her biological parents each had mental disorders. She is reportedly doing much better now with treatment while in juvenile hall.

Dec. 17: Chris Henry, Cincinnati Bengals football star, age 26, died during an apparent domestic dispute with his fiancé. They were raising three children together. Reports suggest that it was a suicide, threatened by Henry when he jumped into the back of a pickup truck while his fiancé was driving away.

And of course, the media is still full of news about Tiger Woods and his many affairs, which just came to light after a domestic dispute at his home on Nov. 27, which apparently led to a late-night single car crash.

All of which leads me to think more about stress and good people. Tiger Woods is perhaps the wealthiest athlete in history, because of his golf and business acumen – he has a reputation for being extremely controlled and well-focused in everything he does. Maybe being so focused is stressful, and his affairs were his release. No one can be perfect anyhow. In fact, maybe that’s part of the problem. In today’s society, we’re seeking a level of perfection – at work and at home – that doesn’t exist.

Maybe it’s time we accepted that we’re human beings and have lots of urges that we need to manage. We’re just good people with bad behavior sometimes, and we need to get help to restrain the bad behavior.

If you’re out-of-control with domestic violence or some other bad behavior, get some help. There’s lots of it out there. And if you’re the victim of domestic violence or some other bad behavior, get some help. It’s not about being a superior or inferior person. It’s about being human in a world of stress. Let’s not take it out on each other.