Monday, April 9, 2007

More Speakers and Hands-on Opportunities: An improved Psychology Program for USC

This weeks post is in accordance with the 2007 University of Southern California’s College Dean’s Prize for the Enrichment of Student Academic Life. Responding to the following is required to gain candidacy for the award, “How would you go about making the educational experience at USC College even better?” My experience as a psychology student from the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences (top left) has been incredibly enriching and rewarding, yet, I feel that providing students with more real-world experience can improve the psychology program at USC. “Faculty in the Psychology Department are engaged in ground-breaking research on a wide range of topics,” however, students need to be given the opportunity to exploit their resources as well. USC’s strategic plan stresses the importance of focusing on the needs of students rather than the structure and needs of the teaching institution. It emphasizes an innovative “learner-centered” approach to education in which every student’s needs are taken into consideration. The document states, “Traditional lecture courses will decline, giving way to a variety of more flexible and interactive approaches to learning.” This can easily be accomplished by bring more speakers into the classroom and by providing students the opportunity to do more hands-on work.

Speakers expose students to a realm of reality that is not provided in textbooks of related material. Psychology Professor Patricia Mullins believes that speakers “are able to convey current, realistic information and a perspective on a subject that is not available from textbooks.” It is important to cater to the learning demands of all students. USC’s mission statement reads, “Our first priority as faculty and staff is the education of our students, from freshmen to postdoctorals, through a broad array of academic, professional, extracurricular and athletic programs of the first rank.” Some students can read a book and feel competent with the material, yet for others, day-to-day accounts from professionals on a subject area are more beneficial. In the psychology program, for instance, a professor for clinical psychology can invite a renowned cognitive behavior therapist, such as Albert Ellis who can enlighten with anecdotes and personal experiences as the creator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Thus, providing students with direct accounts of the benefits and challenges in the field. This information can either turn a student away from a practice or inspire interest. In case of the latter, it is important for students to have an array of contacts in the professional arena and speakers are great for networking purposes.

Hence, another method for aiding students in the quest of career discovery is real world experience through hands-on work alongside experts. This can be made possible with the development of field-specific laboratories that would introduce students to a more realistic environment. Stanford psychology’s website asserts, “It has been the leading psychology department among American universities for decades.” Perhaps this is due to the seventeen laboratories located within the university. Such as, the cognitive development laboratory (seen to the right), and the mood and anxiety disorders laboratory, and are available for Stanford students to volunteer in. The interdisciplinary collaboration provided by these facilities is especially important for students who are indecisive or confused about what field to pursue. By volunteering in various laboratories the student will be able to narrow down the numerous options available. USC can provide a similar program. Laboratories would take months to build; thus, the equivalent can be accomplished through workshops where students, for instance, interact and assess behavior of children with autism or mental retardation as part of a child development course.

It is important for students to become active participants in their learning experience especially when there are so many available fields to follow and so little time to choose. Without experience it is difficult for a psychology scholar to be confident they are making the right career choice. “The central mission of the University of Southern California is the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit.” The mind cannot fully be developed with mere classroom interaction. Individuals need exposure to the options allocated to every possible profession. Were this opportunity made possible, the psychology undergraduate would no longer experience emotions of perplexity when deciding what path to pursue.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Antonio Damasio: Possessor of Profound Understanding of Human Cognition

This weeks post is inspired by the University of Southern California’s honorary degree award. I will discuss who I think should be the next recipient of this prestigious prize. I have chosen a deserving individual in my field of study. Psychology has an array of different fields, therefore, narrowing the candidates down to a single person is a very difficult task. Yet, there is a remarkable psychologist who has made incredible innovative contributions to the field.. He is an internationally famous neuroscientist and a neurologist. He is a brilliant professor, head of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, author of a best selling book, and publisher of many well known papers, he is Antonio Damasio.

Antonio Damasio is a pioneer in the study of emotion. It is due to Damasio’s research that scientist have come to understand all concepts of the subject. He has conducted extensive work on the nature of the conscious and thoughts, and has been successful in discovering patterns that link consciousness to the brain and an individuals underlying emotions. Damasio says that; “‘thinking’ is done by patterns of nerve cell activation”, which means that people do not have much control over what they think, many thoughts are unconscious. His work, thus, contributes to all fields of study, as there are only small percentages of people who suffer from disorders in which emotions are not felt. His work can help the lawyer, teacher, dentist, social worker or architect, understand more about the emotions they feel and their everyday thoughts.

Damasio’s work is very original, in the past many felt that emotions were innate and therefore, took no interest in the study. However, Damasio developed a theory about their origin and has been persistent in finding answers and patterns that help explain where and how they are initiated. Bruce G Charlton, wrote in a review of Damasio’s "The Feeling of What Happens"; “he achieved the long sought-after integration of emotions into mainstream explanatory schema of cognitive neuroscience; so we can now understand emotions in exactly the same way we understand vision.” His book has been translated in over 30 languages and was nominated for numerous awards. Damasio has found patterns between the external world and internal brain activity, which he calls, cognitive representations. This is amazing information, it implies that mental psychological disorders can possibly be cured by examining patterns in never cell activity.

There are numerous talented and deserving psychologists, yet Damasio is especially deserving of the honorary degree because his research has rendered many encouraging and remarkable data that apply to all people, not just certain subgroups. His work on emotions has been linked to consciousness, thought, and intelligence. Damasio states that; “contrary to some popular notions, emotions do not ‘get in the way’ of rational thinking, instead emotions are essential to rationality.” Every field, every person strives to maintain rationality, it is not always easy to be rational, and some fields are very stressful, which leads to the experience of psychological turmoil. Hence, Damasio’s research is essential for the prevention of overwhelming emotions that interfere with the pursuit of successful career paths.

USC has a renowned psychology program and Damasio’s work is exceptionally influential. Damasio is currently a professor in the University and has received many grants to conduct his research. He has done numerous case studies of reasoning in people with neurological damage, people that do not register emotions the same way others do. For instance, their response to a fearful stimulus undergoes a different process than that experienced by the normal person. His work has been very successful and helps the department of psychology in USC gain additional recognition. For this, Antonio Damasio should be honored and present the opening speech to the upcoming graduating class.

Damasio has a extensive range of knowledge and can use his expertise in the area of emotions to provide the graduating students with advice that will help them succeed in future endeavors. Being that he is a professor he has contact with college students and is completely aware of what they are experiencing. Graduation brings many contradicting emotions. While it is a joyous occasion it is also a stressful one, as the future becomes more real. Damasio knows exactly how emotions are created and caused, therefore, he is the perfect candidate to address the students, calm their nerve-racking sentiments and provide motivation.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Real and the Ideal Self: Let’s Drop The Act

This week, inspired by the This I believed Media Project, I decided to write about a core belief that helps to explain why I have chosen to go into the field of psychology. I have always been a very shy, intrinsic person. I do much more observing than I do speaking and sharing my own feelings and experiences. It is due to this, my biggest flaw that I began to see that the mind is truly a powerful mechanism. That people act in ways they think are appropriate, expected and acceptable without realizing that in doing so, they often times create a false persona. It is due to this that great mental turmoil lurks in our society. The fixation people seem to have on creating a perfect image in the eyes of others disables many to pursue a life of happiness and draws some to commit malevolent acts towards themselves and/or others. Yet, I believe that the majority of people are inherently good and that if surroundings, peers and society did not play such a significant role in shaping a persons behavior, there would be less crime and less mentally unstable people.

I believe that people can avoid stressful situations and mental dispositions like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other psychological problems if they were to let go of their ideal self and focus on their real self. Psychologists Carl Roger’s theory of personality states that there is incongruity when a gap between the “I am” and the “I should” exists in a person’s mind. He introduced what he called, conditions of worth, which are social influences that affect ones self-concept. Rogers writes, “We begin to like ourselves only if we meet up with the standards others have applied to us, rather than if we are truly actualizing our potentials.” Analyzing the theory closely reveals that were it not for the influence other individuals impose on a person, the world would be a different place. If people would realize that merely being themselves is a beautiful thing and that no other being should have any influence on their life decisions, there would be more blissful and fulfilled people with reduced levels of stress. Satisfying others would no longer be a top priority.

As an early teen I witnessed one of my closest friends loose herself in a dangerous battle between the real and the ideal. I was her neighbor, her companion, her “best friend forever”. However, the beautiful innocence of childhood quickly passed us by. The bubble that was our world soon burst into a reality that is all too known by most but that is often impossible to avoid. High school brought about more peers and external influences to what seemed to be an unbreakable friendship. She began a quest for popularity, which in turn meant meeting up to the expectations of the in-crowd by engaging in deviant behavior. Our decision making lead us to completely different paths and interests and drove us to loose touch. Yet, it is hard to believe that a person you have known for years can from one instant to the next completely change. Hence, there was always a sense of connection between us upon encounter.

At the time, I did not know I was dealing with what could have been an Oscar winning performance. On the outside she looked so healthy, cheerful, full of poise and esteem. I never realizing the truth was the complete opposite, it was all an act, a farce. My beloved friend was hurting on the inside. The behavior that others applauded and reinforced was not at all something to be proud of. She was ashamed and filled with guilt for breaking morals she greatly valued. Her screams and cries for help were disguised with a smile. How could I ever have known that she needed my help? I could have talked to her, knocked some sense into her, made her realize that life is a lot more than gaining the acceptance of others. You must first accept and be comfortable with yourself. Maybe I could have prevented her from cutting herself, from undergoing repetitive self-mutilation, like the one seen on the picture to the right, which almost took her life.

I am an observer, I look at people and wonder what their true intentions are. I continuously find myself questioning whether it is all a performance and if so, why? What ideal is to be reached? In the case of my friend, who in trying to please others found herself lost in a web of behaviors that went against everything she believed, approval becomes an obsession. I have applied this example to theorize about many other areas in the realm of psychology and the human psyche as it relates to criminals and controllable mental disorders. It exemplifies the extent to which people are willing to go to reach an ideal sense of self, to the extent that ones own life becomes expendable.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Starving for Perfection: Anorexia Nervosa has a Strong Genetic Component

The problem surrounding teenage eating disorders as a direct result of the media’s portrayal of thinness and beauty is an issue that is gaining great attention. However, while many feel mainstream media (such as ad pictured on left) is to blame for mental health problems related to eating, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, some researchers argue that the etiology of these afflictions may be primarily genetic. The ongoing, decade long study, The Genetics of Anorexia Nervosa Collaboration, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has revealed that the disorder may be biological and inherited. One of the principal investigators of the study, Craig Johnson, states that it is 12 times more likely that a person will develop anorexia if someone in the family suffered from the disease. Although researchers have found strong genetic components, they also emphasize that the environment plays an influential role. In Dr. Johnson’s words, “Genetics loads the gun, the environment pulls the trigger.”

The NIH used this information to file an article countering the recent statement made by Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen (pictured on right) claiming that unsupportive families cause anorexia nervosa, not the fashion industry. This statement is unaware and misinforming because it “only perpetuates misconceptions and further stigmatizes eating disorders,” says the NIH press release. Yet, after the research was published, a skeptical Bundchen declared: “Everybody knows that the norm in fashion is thin, but excuse me, there are people born with the right genes for this profession.” Gisele is 5’11 and weighs 125 pounds, yet she emphasizes she has never suffered from anorexia because she “had a very strong family base.” Nevertheless, statistics show that most fashion models are thinner than 98% of American women. This makes one wonder how it is they manage to stay so thin, and amidst such denial, how prevalent eating disorders truly are in the fashion industry.

If weight related problems were not an issue in the world of modeling, as Bundchen seems to think, Spain, Italy and London would not have, in the past year, created a minimum Body Mass Index, BMI, of no less than 18 for models. Spain was the first country to ban size zero models from the catwalk. “They are concentrating their efforts on promoting a healthier body image,” declare regional official Concha Guerra. This action was taken following the death of Luisel Ramos who after suggestions from her agency to “lose a couple of pounds,” acquired the much desired size zero and died of heart failure after stepping off the catwalk. Ramos’s tragic death shows that although research is concluding that anorexia has biological origins, societal pressures can too lead women to take their dieting and exercising regimens far beyond healthy limits to reach the “ideal” body type.

Although the principal investigators of The Genetics of Anorexia Nervosa Collaboration feel their research can aid the development of prevention methods for those who have the genetic predisposition, what can be done to help individuals who develop the disorder due to cultural pressures? Walter H. Kaye, professor of psychiatry in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine says, “Many individuals in our culture, for a number of reasons, are concerned with their weight and diet. Yet less than half of 1 percent of all women develop anorexia nervosa, which indicates to us that societal pressure alone isn’t enough to cause someone to develop this disease.” However, a teen (like young girl pictured on left) looking for information about eating disorders on the Internet can easily be misguided. There are websites that consider the disease a “lifestyle,” they have come to be known as “pro-ana” sites. These web pages contain links to tricks and tips about fasting, food listed into calorie and carbohydrate categories, and excuses, broken down by parent strictness (i.e., casual family, moderately strict family), for avoiding meal times. With outrageously disturbing advice like “hunger hurts, but starving works” and a list of 10 commandments for not eating, the first one reads: “Thou shall not eat because you ARE a big fat cow. No one wants to tell you. But you know.” How strong mentally does a person have to be so that information like this does not affect them? Especially since teenaged girls are often vulnerable during such a critical period of development. The images and statements made in “pro-ana” websites can be very traumatizing to an already confused mind.

Thankfully most search engines have removed links to these webpages and many have been shut down. Nonetheless, they can still be accessed and do present serious danger. Anyone with availability to a computer with Internet connection can maneuver around the restrictions and find a "pro-ana" site. Which brings back the question of what extent genetic influence has on eating disorders when there are so many societal pressures and norms to be followed. “Pro-ana” sites make it clear that not eating, for some, is a consciously made decision. So it appears the linkage to biological factors is minimal. However, if there really is a connection to genetics, overall, does the environment play a bigger role? Psychologist Bulik of Virginia Commonwealth University, is of the opinion that, "Sociocultural factors are only important in that they might elicit an expression of someone's pre-existing genetic predisposition." Hence, the debate is on-going, scientists attribute a greater link to genetics, while society focuses more on apparent cultural factors. Fortunately, the issue is now exposed and preventive measures can now be developed to avoid an increase in the number of those affected.

no food untill im this skinny

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Beauty and the Geek: Science is Progressing But Are Societal Values Backwards?

In this weeks post, I will be commenting on two other blogs. I have decided to focus on two very different areas in psychology. The first comment is directed at a post that deals with technology and scientific discovery. After much research, it appears that a person’s personality can now be determined by looking at his or her eyes. “The Iris is the Window to the Soul” gives fascinating insight on the topic. The second comment is on a post discussing the American Psychological Association’s research on the media and the shocking effects it has on today’s youth. “APA Task Force Condemns Sexualization of Girls” provides detailed evidence and explains what the outcomes on girls in specific have been. It also gives suggestions to positive alternatives that may be helpful in solving this societal problem. The following are the comments I submitted on each subject matter.

1st Comment: “The Iris is the Window to the Soul”

I find this very fascinating. This almost seems like it should be expected, the eyes, a person’s outlet to view the world, should serve the opposite purpose right? looking into them, should too, reveal some sort of deeper information about the person that cannot be seen on the outside. Perhaps that is why it is said that cops look for movements in the eye to determine lies. Or why some people find confessions to be more meaningful when one looks them in the eyes. The crypts, pigment dots, and furrows of the iris psychologist have been looking at almost take the form of a ”vortex” like those seen in science fiction portrayals that lead to other dimensions, in this case to a person’s traits. I would however, like to pose a question that may not yet have an answer. Professor Humayan at the University of Southern California has been for some years now working on restoring vision through the implanting of a bionic eye. He recently received permission by the FDA to conduct an exploratory patient trial on about 50-75 patients. I wonder what kind of information these bionic eyes would reveal about a person, and if in the near future, airports begin to use eye scans to identify people like you mentioned, how this would affect those with implants.

2nd Comment: “APA Task Force Condemns Sexualization of Girls”

Although I agree with most of the research reported by the APA, I have to say that I also side with the counter argument given by Ann Pellegrini. The media does indeed objectify women and provide images of beauty that should not, but in some cases do become the center of a woman’s or young girl’s values. However, there are a lot of factors influencing this effect. Most people, even young kids are aware of the fact that, except for the news, most, if not all, even reality shows are scripted and are not real. With this in mind, parents and peers, have a lot to do with the “sexualization” of girls. Hence, I feel the report puts too much fault on the media. A person can only apply this view on physical attractiveness, sexual appeal or behavior to his or her own life, if that is what everyone in their surroundings has taught them to do. If a young girl, for instance learns that due to her good looks, she gets the response she wants from her peers, she will then assume that this a very important and valuable characteristic. In a way, a situation like this, although problematic, can be like professor Pellegrini states, be an “empowering” experience. A girl internalizes a sense of power among others and since this is constantly proven correct, she in turn feels more confident and has higher self-esteem.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Puffin' and Sniffin': The War on Drugs Must End

Those who feel the war in Iraq has progressed far too long and think it is time the U.S. government starts spending its money on more important things, need to also consider looking into the U.S. War on Drugs. The Drug War Clock shows that as of Tuesday February 20, 2007 the U.S. government has spent over 7, 132,404,175 dollars on the War on Drugs. Yet, according to research conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Mental Services Administration, over 112 million Americans aged 12 and over reported having used an illicit drug at least once in their lifetimes, which is nearly half of the U.S. population. This radical data is evidence that although the government is using so many of its resources to end drug use, deeming certain drugs illegal does not equate a stop in their consumption.

Lou Dobbs anchor of the weeknight program Lou Dobbs Tonight on CNN, posted an editorial February 14, 2007 titled, “The War Within, Killing Ourselves”. In which he emphasizes the need for treatment programs that actually work. Dobbs says; “We must end the abuse of drugs and alcohol, and provide successful treatment for Americans whose addictions are destroying their own lives and wounding our families and society.” He criticizes John Walters, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, for claiming that anti-drug policies have helped reduce drug abuse. Although Walter is correct in claiming that there has been a minor decline in drug use, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported an increase of 113 percent in drug overdose rates. Lou Dobbs also discussed what he calls “The War Within” during a series of programs in his weeknight show, it is now available for viewing through

Like Dobbs, there are others who feel strongly about putting an end on the war on drugs. “Allow drugs but Control and Enforce, Activist Says” appeared Sunday, February 18, 2007 on the Palm Beach Post. Peter Christ, a retired police captain and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, states how although he is against illicit drug use, and recognizes that drugs are dangerous, banning drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroine does not work. Christ says; “Because of prohibition, gangsters, not the government, decide where the drugs are sold, of what quality they are and what the price is.” The government should review its efforts against the War on Drugs, considering that it has been going on for almost three decades and there have been no significant improvements.

The problem has gone from being a street related, urban neighborhood problem, to an issue that is continuously being addressed in mainstream culture. For those who have spent their entire academic career in the U.S. the programs D.A.R.E. and S.A.N.E. are indicators that drugs are commonly introduced at a young age and that it is important for children to be educated enough to say “no”. A Survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse finds that 28% of middle school students say that drugs are available in their schools. However, this is no longer a problem that occurs away from the public eye in school playgrounds anymore, now celebrities are openly checking themselves into rehabilitation centers and making their addictions public. Stars such as actress Lindsey Lohan and former pop princess Britney Spears have been subject to this during this last month. They are attempting to regulate their lives, drug and alcohol problems. Courtney Love has been in and out of rehabilitation battling drug abuse since 2003. Likewise, in 2006, prominent actor Robin Williams admitted to having a cocaine and alcohol problem and worked on ameliorating his addiction. These are just a few examples, celebrity gossip almost makes it seem like no celebrity can escape being tempted into consuming drugs. Like stated by Courtney Love in an interview with E! News, “it is almost like a rite of passage.”

This “rite of passage” has not only cost the U.S. government billions of dollars every year, but most importantly it has taken people’s lives. From the homeless person, to the richest celebrity out there, drugs are a part of every industry and institution. Those unfortunate people who have become addicted to any illicit substance present greater danger risks because the process of obtaining illegal drugs can be a dangerous act in an of itself. People go to many extremes to satisfy their cravings, yet, once “high” the satisfied person does not pose such a major threat. Therefore, legalization, but strong regulation seems to be the best possible alternative. For, people are still finding ways to get their hands on what they desire, and without legalization, it is harder for people to openly admit they have a problem and get help.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Technological Advancements: Should All Technology Be Trusted?

Although we are a highly innovative society and strive to find ways in which to make everything easier, there are certain limits to how far we “should” exploit today’s technology. In a recent
Press release from the Max Planck Institute (8 Feb), researchers have discovered a way to determine people’s intentions from patterns of brain activity. Although it seems like a great tool there are certain concerns that should be taken into consideration before putting to use such highly advanced and technical tool. Another highly sophisticated device that people of all ages have become very familiar with is the Internet. Yet, although its purpose is to serve as a life facilitator, predators have, in some cases, turned it into a weapon. Thus, making the cyber realm a place to enter with caution. This may account for Internet anxiety disorder, an illness that has recently manifested itself on some part of the population. The following are my comments on blogs I found pertaining to both these issues.

1st Comment: Revealing Secret Intentions of the Brain
Being able to tap into someone’s mind is an incredible scientific breakthrough. Technology has really come far. However, to say that hidden intentions can be read with looking at patterns of brain activity raises red flags in a skeptics mind. If, like you mention, in the future this tool may be used in criminal interrogations, how sure can we be that this technology will not yield the same results the lie detector test did? A human mind is very complicated and to think that a machine could tell you what a person is going to do before he or she does it is very difficult to determine. From personal experience I can say that my intentions are many, however my actions are often times completely different than what my initial intentions were. This poses the question of accuracy and reliability. The lie detector test is currently not admissible in many court rooms due to the great percentage of false positives it yields, it seems that technology of this capacity would produce the same results. And the last thing we need is more innocent people in jail.

2nd Comment: What Is Internet Anxiety?
When used wisely and carefully the Internet is great tool and resource. It almost seems like life before the Internet should be defined as a prehistoric age, a time where “doing research” probably meant spending days in a row looking through book stacks at library basements. Mastery of the Internet can definitely be helpful in facilitating less stressful, more convenient, do it all from your own home lives, but of course, there is a dark side. Perhaps this Internet anxiety people demonstrate is rooted from the horrible news reports we so often hear about internet predators. The horror stories so common to the public about scams and deadly encounters with strangers (through chatting devices like the one in the picture to the right) can bring some to fear and become anxious when using the Internet. However, Internet anxiety should not be labeled a “disorder”. I think its more reasonable to inform people on how to take necessary precautions when using this resource than to solve the problem by classifying it a disorder. We have plenty of serious illnesses to worry about, Internet anxiety disorder seems like something that can very easily be treated.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Compulsive Buying Disorder: A Habit Gone Wild

A study recently published in the American Journal of Psychiatry reveals that compulsive buying disorder affects more than one in twenty people in the U.S. Although it might sound harmless, this often-misunderstood condition can be very detrimental to one’s health and personal life. It is often associated with depression, anxiety and other psychiatric disorders and may in some cases lead to suicide. A mental disorder is defined as, “any clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome characterized by the presence of distressing symptoms, impairment of functioning, or significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or loss of freedom.” Hence, mental health professionals are considering its inclusion in the next edition of the DSM-IV, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. However, this issue continues to cause great controversy, on the one hand those suffering from the disorder are reporting feeling the above mentioned symptoms, yet, most unaffected individuals do not agree with including overspending issues in the next DSM-IV.

The “Estimated Prevalence of Compulsive Buying Behavior” in the United States was a study conducted in the summer and spring of 2004. It consisted of a national, random-sample household telephone survey, including 2,513 adult participants. Participants were questioned about their buying attitudes, behaviors and their demographic and financial data. Dr. Lorrin M. Koran, author of the study and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, feels that compulsive buying disorder fits the characteristics of a mental illness. The sufferer gets an irresistible and intrusive impulse to buy. “Kristi,” a person suffering the disorder says, “It’s just like something I feel like I have to do or I’ll literally panic and I’m in almost a trance when I do it.” This feeling often leads to shopping binges in which the person accumulates unnecessary items that later result in feelings of remorse, shame and guilt. “People don’t realize the extent of damage it does to the sufferer,” said Koran. It is difficult however, for the general public to accept that this is an uncontrollable problem. Jerrold Pollak, a psychologist at Seacoast Mental Health Center, states, “It’s a societal and cultural issue that’s not taken seriously or seen as an issue. ‘Shop ‘till you drop’ is considered a cool thing to do.” In a materialistic society like ours, the factors contributing to compulsive buying disorder are vast.

One factor is the overpowering effect the media has on the population. According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than 4 hours of television each day (or 28 hours per week, or 2 months of nonstop television-watching per year). This includes corporate influence through commercials, subliminal advertising, and the television programs themselves. Rachel Bilson, actress in the highly viewed television show The OC, is shown to the right advertising a very costly brand. The main goal of commercials is to get people to purchase their products. Expert, Helga Dittmar, author of a study investigating the psychological roots of compulsive buying, published in the September 2005 issue of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, asserted that, “unrelenting pressure from advertising and the media are pushing people to spend more recklessly than ever before, and that spending is even easier now via 24-hour shopping channels and the Internet.” Unmistakably, there are those who are easily persuaded by these images and portrayals of materialistic products. Those trying to emulate celebrities and their possessions can develop serious health related problems such as poor eating habits due to the anxiety experienced while on a buying binge or extreme headaches when stressed once billing time arrives. Catherine Steinberg, a marital family therapist says, “compulsive shoppers often don’t feel good enough, so being dressed well and wearing lots of jewelry is used to enhance a weak self image.”

However, there is one major difference between celebrity figures and those on the other side of the television set, money. Undoubtedly, it would be more difficult for those with more capital to experience stress and remorse after overspending, considering the fact that capital is being replenished at a faster rate than it is being spent. Hence, this is where some of the controversy on making compulsive a disorder arises. There is no other mental disorder with monetary requirements or restrictions. A mental disorder transcends all racial and economic barriers and affects the rich and poor the same way. Of course, compulsive shopping disorder can affect the rich as well as the underprivileged, yet, it would take a lot longer for a negative impact to be felt. Dr. Koran’s study showed that, “households of young adults (ages 24-34 years) with incomes below $50,000 are the most affected by compulsive buying.” This information is quite obvious without extensive research, those who make less money are quickly affected by large amounts of spending.

Those who suffer from compulsive buying disorder have psychological issues that need to be carefully treated. There is therapy, counseling, and self-help groups such as Debtors Anonymous that seek to help those whose lives are unfortunately disrupted by this disorder. The consequences of overspending are vary harmful and one needs to examine at the real underlying cause for this behavior. The issue is complicated because although it fits the definition of a mental disorder, the effect is not equally distributed among all social classes. While mental heath professionals discuss the issue, those living with this disorder must learn to better control these invading impulses to spend.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Reconsidering Liberty and Justice For All: The Innocent Behind Bars

The United States Bill of Rights was formed to provide every citizen of this country with inalienable rights that need always be enforced and respected. Each person is entitled to be treated fairly, justly, and according to proper law and principle, symbolized by the justice scale to the left. The U.S. justice system is thus probed with the difficult task of condemning the guilty. Yet, how accurate can our justice system be at ensuring the conviction of those truly culpable? The very laws afforded to protect the citizens of this country are condemning the innocent and making the system unreliable and fraudulent. “The land of opportunity, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is quickly becoming the land of poorly and unjustly executed criminal cases. Ann Fecteau, experienced the effects of an unjust system firsthand, and discloses the abysmal words her boyfriends public defender said to him; "its not about justice anymore, its about money and power and you don’t have either one! Your case is a very strong one but without representation you wont win.” Sadly, this trend can be seen all over the country, every day inmates petition for the opportunity to be exonerated for crimes they did not commit.

One of the leading causes of wrongful convictions can be attributed to erroneous eyewitness identifications. These accounts are considered compelling evidence that the prosecution and jury rely heavily upon in both civil and criminal trials. However, research reveals that this kind of testimony is greatly fallible. Dr. Edmund Higgins, a clinical assistant professor of family medicine & psychiatry investigated the injustice of wrongful convictions from 1997 to 2003. He feels that “authorities in the criminal justice system make no effort to collect, organize and review their mistakes.” His research found 360 innocent people convicted of a crime and sentenced to life in prison due to eyewitness identifications. Although this tool is prevalently used in criminal cases and within law enforcement, it is imperative to note that continued psychological research in the area shows that it is inaccurate at least 50% of the time. So, what hope is there for an innocent inmate to be acquitted if a victimized person is convinced they accuse the right person?

Recent technological advancements such as DNA testing are valuable tools in acquitting the innocent. The Innocence Project has tracked more than 100 cases of DNA proving innocence of wrongfully convicted criminals. On January 19, 2007, DNA evidence cleared Atlanta resident, Willie O. “Pete” Williams, who was convicted of rape in 1985 principally on eyewitness accounts. A woman claimed Williams had threatened her with a gun in a parking lot, the attack then proceeded in a dead end street by an apartment complex in Sandy Springs, where he allegedly raped the victim. While in the witness stand she assured the jurors and the prosecutors that she was "120% sure Williams was her attacker." Now, 21 years later, the Innocence Project has intervened in the case and is looking to conduct the proper court proceedings to set Williams free. Although the DNA test demonstrate his innocence, a judge must still review the case and take the new evidence into account.

In a similar case, Marlon Pendleton (seen to the left) was sent to prison on an account of rape in 1992 and was vindicated through DNA testing in November 2006. Pendleton was identified in a line up. The victim had seen the authorities lead Pendleton to the line up in handcuffs and became convinced he was her attacker. In 2002 the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences posted a research study entitled; Accuracy and Qualities of Real and Suggested Memories which touches upon the high power of suggestion of certain line-up techniques. The Pendleton case serves as an example, where the eyewitness observing the suspect in handcuffs generated a constructed memory. Although the DNA test results completely exclude Pendleton as the rapist, the victim holds her ground. When informed of the suspects exoneration she said, “I still stand strong. No one was in that dark alley with me, only Jesus and this person. There is a certainty, sir, and I am standing on that." In this way victims make themselves believe that those whom they convict are the real offenders, without taking into consideration that their mental states are agitated and disturbed while an attack occurs and there is room for error in what they “witness.”

The system cannot be perfect, however taking into account how potent eyewitness identifications are in our legal system, and the rate at which they demonstrate fallacy, one can only approximate how many more innocent people remain behind bars. According to the Justice Department, as of November 30, 2006, 7 million people or one in every 32 American adults were behind bars, on probation or on parole by the end 2005 and of those, 2.2 million were in prison or jai. With these disturbing statistics, one can only wonder what part of the population of millions imprisoned fall under the group of unfortunate beings whose lives are disrupted by our failing justice system.

After years of false imprisonment, one’s life can be more challenging. When an innocent person is given a verdict of life in prison, sometimes without parole, trust in the justice system may be lost. Family members vanish not only due to biological circumstances but through free-will. A distancing occurs, friends and remaining relatives visit less and less. Marlon Pendleton’s unfortunate wrongful incarceration prevented him from attending his mother’s funeral or being with her during her dying hours. Dr. Higgins states the reality of what the exonerated encounter, “the typical wrongfully convicted innocent is quietly released, with no ceremony, or apology, or assurance that a similar mistake may be prevented in the future.” People’s freedom is being taken away with the continued use of a technique that has incessantly been proven flawed; it is time our justice system truly begins practicing justice.