Friday, March 27, 2015

Evaluating Risks

Yet again, a suicidal/homicidal person causes a tragedy. In this case, the person flew a plane into a mountain. As usual, media reports are full of quotes that make no sense. Authorities quoted in The New York Times report that the pilot, Andreas Lubitz, was "100 percent flightworthy" (obviously he wasn't) and that they are pondering "whether" it was a suicide or homicide (don't the facts speak for themselves?). Many laypeople may assume it's impossible to determine whether or not someone is homicidal or suicidal, if the person decides to lie. This is only partly true.

Most people who truly want to commit suicide or a homicide will lie about it if asked directly, because they want to succeed in their plans. But that doesn't mean organizations can't screen out persons with serious pathology.

Psychological testing is a simple and accurate way to screen for serious pathology. I don't do psychological testing, but I have read many psychological test reports. Some were done on patients I was seeing and in a couple of cases, I participated in appeal evaluations for NYPD and Dept. of Corrections applicants, which allowed me to read the test results performed by the NYPD and Corrections psychologists. What I have found is that these tests are accurate. In the clinical cases, they weren't that helpful, because if you're someone's therapist and you're competent, the results of their standardized psychological tests should come as no surprise. In the cases of the appeal evaluations, although I felt sympathy for the rejected applicants, the results that I and the other professionals performing the appeal evaluations came up with were similar to the NYPD and Corrections evaluations' results (if you're wondering about how someone can pass the NYPD psychological tests and still murder someone by strangling them to death, I don't have a good answer. One possibility is an incompetent examiner).

One common psychological test, the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) has a built-in "lie scale" that determines the level of truthfulness of someone's responses. One would think that any applicant for a sensitive job with a high score on the "lie scale" would be rejected. One hopes that this is true, anyway.

Another well-known and occasionally ridiculed test is the Rorshach inkblot test. Although results from Rorschach tests don't diagnose particular illnesses, they give clues that could guide an examiner or clinician to ask further questions.

People don't become homicidal or suicidal overnight. There are many psychological problems that create risks for future homicidal or suicidal behavior. These include not only depression, but also impulsivity, sociopathy, and narcissism. I don't know how Lufthansa pilots are screened and can't comment on whether I think Lufthansa is doing the right tests. What I do know is that personality remains more or less consistent during adult life and that there are many types of psychological tests and interviews that can reveal the types of problems that indicate a risk for future suicidal or homicidal behavior.

UPDATE 3/29: I just found out, through reading The New York Tiimes, that most airlines don't conduct any psychological testing on pilots or prospective pilots. This is incredible. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Know Who You're Talking To

Recently, I was invited to join a few "Closed" or "Secret" Facebook groups. They looked like fun, so I accepted. Within a few days I had left all the groups. One reason was that they cluttered my Facebook feed with posts from people I don't know. But another reason was that I realized they were neither "Closed" nor "Secret." Anyone could easily take a screen shot of a conversation in the supposedly "Secret" group and post it anywhere and everywhere on the internet. I thought about an old adage, "if you wouldn't be comfortable seeing something on the front page of The New York Times, don't put it in writing."

Of course, today, many people put almost every communication in writing, via text messaging or email. This is a mistake. I find that many people don't know their friends as well as they think they do. Of course, voicemail is also recorded, but it isn't as easily transmissible.

The best way to communicate is in person. Not only is it confidential, but it allows for the nuances of tone and body language. People also feel more free to insult, abuse and harass people when they don't have to face them. The more you communicate virtually instead of in-person, the more you're likely to expose yourself to the type of cowardly and abusive people who like to harass people online, where they can usually hide behind anonymity or at least not have to face their victim.  The New York Times recently published a long feature on people whose lives were ruined by Twitter:

I've been a professional writer, which puts me at an advantage compared to most people in terms of writing for the public. One of the rules of writing is to know your audience. I think that one of the mistakes Justine Sacco--one of the individuals profiled by the Times--made was to assume that her Twitter followers were people like her. She made a joke that was a type of ironic self-parody. It apparently didn't occur to her that people who understand ironic self-parody are those who have higher-than-average intellectual capacity. There's a reason why most newspapers are written on a reading comprehension level of 10th grade or below.

Many of us live in bubble worlds, in which we associate with co-workers, friends and relatives who work in similar types of occupations, have similar educational/intellectual abilities and similar values. If you don't associate with a wide variety of people, it's easy to forget, or to never learn, that other people aren't like you. They may be stupid, they may lack a sense of humor, and they may be malicious. Today people are "friending" people on Facebook  and "following" people on Twitter whom they do not know. Facebook requires people to use their real names (although many find ways around this rule) which means anything you write is attached to you. Twitter has a special risk created by the fact it uses short sentences or sentence fragments as a form of communication. Not only are these easily misunderstood, but this type of communication attracts many followers who can't understand or don't have the interest in following a complex argument. They prefer reading tweets to newspaper op-eds or blog posts such as this one, because 145 character tweets don't strain the brain. Do you really want to be "followed" by such people?

I've read some comments (on the internet!) that people should "own" what they say, because, they said it. This point of view is naive. Anything that is said can be misunderstood, taken out of context, or otherwise twisted. There's a reason why the police "Miranda" warning states "ANYTHING you say can, and will, be held against you." The New York Times' profile is a perfect example--ironic self-parody was interpreted as racism.

I have a private Facebook profile, but more importantly, I limit what I say and post there and keep my "friends" list to less than 100 people. If you are using Facebook for business networking, you should  have a "page" rather than a "profile" for that purpose. Don't confuse the two. Business and friendship don't always mix. If you want a forum to talk to people you don't know and say whatever you think, join a message board where you can post under a pseudonym. And still be careful what you say.