mindfulness

Is it possible to help criminals with psychological interventions?

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Recent reports in the press suggest yes – but not in a good way.

In fact research shows that rather than make them better citizens it just helps them to be better at criminal activity.

In the latest reverse researchers at the George Mason University in Virginia tested Mindfulness Meditation on 259 prisoners. They were shown how to meditate focussing on their thoughts and accepting negative feelings.

They were tested before and after the sessions to assess their criminal tendencies and chances of re-offending. The results?

It actually made offenders more likely to blame others and psychologists said there was a direct link between mindfulness and the conditions likely to cause criminal behaviour.

It failed to bring prisoners out of “criminal thinking patterns” and actually made them worse because mindfulness encourages people not to judge themselves, which may have led offenders to avoid responsibility for their actions.

And this is a treatment accepted by the NHS for anxiety and depression with 20 or more apps you can use on your smart phone. Yet the warning sign were there. Mindfulness doesn’t work well with men.

Researchers at Brown University found gender differences in the effect of mindfulness meditation. “The mechanisms are highly speculative at this point, but stereotypically, women ruminate and men distract,” said a Dr Briton.

And in the UK the Ministry of Justice has shut down two Sex Offender Treatment Programmes (SOTPs) including a six months psychological group therapy programme designed to rehabilitate rapists and paedophiles. These have cost £100 million since being set up in 1991.

An independent study of the programmes found that it only made the criminals more dangerous and they had an above-average re-offending rate.

For example paedophiles who took the course had a 25% higher re-offending rate over a 10-year period especially those convicted of attacking children.

The programmes included CBT (which the Ministry believes to be the most effective way of reducing offending behaviour) and group discussions to help the sex offenders to understand their crimes and increase their awareness of victim harm. 

A former consultant on the programme who resigned told the Mail on Sunday that they weren’t adapting the course in line with new knowledge and many delivering the programme weren’t qualified but chaplains, prison officers and other para-professionals.

You can imagine that some in the group would relish the re-telling of their crimes and/or learn from others’ experiences.

Some years ago I remember reading about attempts to teach psychopaths to have more empathy and be more emotionally intelligent. It turned out that it just made them better at convincing victims they could be trusted. I couldn’t find the original source of that and it was a few years ago but in my search I came across Dr George Simon’s blog on this topic.

He wrote: “Times were when empathy training was a required component of most treatment programs for sexual offenders and predators. But the evidence indicated that providing such training had no effect on recidivism rates.

Moreover, some evidence emerged that teaching psychopathic predators about empathy only gave them increased knowledge about the vulnerabilities and sensitivities of others, which, in turn, they were prone to use to become even more adept predators“. (George Simon blog – already tweeted).

And more recent research shows that psychopaths do have an “empathy switch” but choose not to use it leading some scientists to believe it could help their rehabilitation. They need to revisit earlier work in this area if they believe that.

Given that some of these criminals will have personality disorders – notoriously difficult to deal with therapeutically – it comes as no surprise to me that these interventions show such poor outcomes.

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Learning to become an Optimist

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glass_half_full_empty_1600_wht_5473Do you see the glass as half-empty or half-full? Are you a born optimist?

Or do you always see the down-side? And can you do anything about it if you do?

Michael Mosley is presenting a BBC2 Horizon programme this week, 10 July at 21.00: “the Truth about Personality” 

He was suffering from insomnia, and worrying all the time so he decided he would investigate the latest ideas on personality and see whether or not he could become more optimistic.

A psychologist and neuroscientist at Oxford University, Professor Elaine Fox, believes that our basic drives are reflected in our patterns of brain activity which determine how we see the world.

She tested Mosley’s brain activity levels and found that he had more activity on the right side of the frontal cortex than the left, which has been found in other studies to be associated with higher levels of pessimism, neuroticism, and anxiety. She then got him to take a test to show whether he had an unconscious bias towards happy or angry faces by responding to flashing dots behind the faces. The results confirmed his bias towards pessimism.

The question was could he do anything about it? Twin studies show that there is a degree of heritability in personality  of  up to 50%. The rest is down to random factors or the environment  including whether or not the genes are switched on in response to life events and the environment (what is called epigenetics). Serious life events can not only trigger depression and anxiety but can alter genes to make people more vulnerable later in life.

He did two things: first he practised mindfulness every day for 20 minutes; secondly he used Cognitive Bias Modification using a computer programme which presented 15 blank or angry faces with 1 happy face. He had to practise finding the happy face to train his body to look for positive images.

put_on_a_happy_face_500_wht_5883After several weeks he found his mood lifting and he was sleeping better. He also performed differently on the two tests he had undergone earlier – in a positive direction.

Previous research in America involving over 1,000 people showed that optimistic people lived on average 7.5 years longer than pessimists.

Mental attitude was more important than any other factor according to the researchers at Yale. So this is clearly something we should take seriously.

 

Charisma pays off

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Not least for charisma coach Olivier Fox Cabane who charges $150k per client, according to a recent interview with her in the Times, and whose book The Charisma Myth is selling very well.

And that’s not bad for someone who has business and law degrees but is a self-taught psychologist.

She is described as an extreme leadership guru who uses neuroshaping or “playing chemist with your own brain” to help people become more charismatic and persuasive.

Like other top end coaches she offers shadowing and video analysis and concedes that the charisma label is just a hook she uses to attract clients.

Starting off by offering free charisma courses to students at MIT she soon developed programmes for Harvard, Yale and the UN. She says she still does pro bono work for charities and refuses to work with politicians.

She is adamant that charisma is not just a genetic gift bestowed on people like Bill Clinton but is mostly learnt. Cabane also says that there are different kinds of charisma e.g. a warm likeable charisma (think Tony Blair at his peak and Bill Clinton) or a colder uncompromising style such as personified by Steve Jobs.

Mmm .. I’ve used a model borrowed from actors which suggests that charisma is a combination of warmth and status. Think of Gordon Brown as high status but hardly warm and cuddly. And that model ties in with US research on charismatic Fire Chiefs who score high on the Big 5 factor of Agreeableness.

Despite the reference to “neuroshaping” (which hints at he current interest in neuroscience) it seems much of what she teaches clients is about assertiveness and the use of NVC (she mentions the MIT research I’ve posted about previously). She also uses visualisation and anchoring techniques used by sports psychologists and NLP practitioners.

Here are the 5 steps outlined in the Times article

Stand like a big gorilla and take up as much space as possible. This is a technique well known to actors and is an example of demonstrating high status

Don’t wave your head about or nod as it indicates low status and confidence. Especially important for women who tend to move their heads to the side when theys peak. This is more a courtship/flirting signal

Make good eye contact but with warmth. Again a sign of confidence.

Lean back rather than froward when closing a deal as this suggests high confidence. In the past people were trained to lean forward and invade personal space to intimidate people.

Be aware of how you are feeling. Be in the moment. Mindfulness is very popular now and anything like it will help you relax and concentrate.

Good emotional intelligence and empathy will also be invaluable.