Weekly Roundup 2-24-13

School: As if you need more reasons – than the obvious – to mind your p’s and q’s. Here’s an editorial in the Harvard Business Review written by a CEO who gives grammar tests to potential employees. Kyle Wiens writes, “On the face of it, my zero tolerance approach to grammar errors might seem a little unfair. After all, grammar has nothing to do with job performance, or creativity, or intelligence, right? Wrong. If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use “it’s,” then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with.” [as a side note, a friend pointed out that when Wiens ends a sentence with ‘with,’ he hyperlinks to an Oxford Dictionaries explanation of why it’s sometimes okay to end a sentence with a preposition. This guy is serious!]

Psychology: Can two strangers become “Fast Friends”? Yes, as long as neither one overshares personal information too quickly.

Scholarship: Musical training in childhood leads to neurological changes in the brain that are related to better reading ability. Researchers conclude the evidence “suggests…musical expertise modifies the neural mechanisms of letter reading.”


Harper High School, Part Two

HarperPartTwoYesterday This American Life aired part two of their two-part series about Harper High School in Chicago. As a side note, in the week since part one aired I found out that I know the school psychology practicum student at Harper, and others in my cohort are currently working in schools in the area. So aside from being a Chicago story in general, this series really hits close to home.

Link to Part Two.
to Part One, aired February 15, 2013.

Harper High Updates

Picture 14

Photo credit: Bill Healy

Last weekend I wrote about a recent This American Life episode featuring Harper High School in Chicago. That was part 1 of what will be a 2-part series. The show has received a lot of interest, including from people who want to donate to the school. In response, Harper has set up an online donation page for people who would like to contribute to the school.

TAL has updates on their blog, and also recently posted a few pictures taken just a week ago on the show’s Flickr page.

I’ll post a link to Part 2 of the show after it airs this weekend. Stay tuned!

TAL press release about the shows.
TAL Flickr page.
Harper High donation page.

Inspiration of the Week: Holly Marschke


If you need a little pick-me-up, I suggest reading this great profile of 14-year-old Holly Marschke in the NY Times. Deaf since birth, Holly attended mainstream schools through middle school, at which point she switched to the New York School for the Deaf-Fanwood at the age of 12 (the article hints that perhaps her hearing peers were not so kind as they approached the teen years).

When the girl’s basketball team at her school folded – because most of the girls wanted to switch to cheerleading – Holly gracefully shifted to the boy’s team. Since then she’s been known simply as No. 34. She’s not “a novelty,” she’s not “the girl player,” she’s not “the deaf girl player.” She’s just No. 34. Sometimes inclusion can happen in ways you couldn’t anticipate, with outcomes better than you could imagine.

Holly’s been playing basketball since she was four, and has no intention of stopping any time soon. Way to go, Holly! You’re an inspiration to all of us.

“I’m never going to give up on basketball,” Holly said, with her mother serving as her sign-language interpreter. “I want to be famous.”

Weekly Roundup 2-17-13

School: “According to the most recent annual study conducted by…the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, nearly 63% of more than 400 of America’s largest and most prestigious colleges maintain policies that seriously violate First Amendment principles.” The trouble is these codes are not challenged often enough. But a recent legal decision may change that, and it may help taxpayers avoid the cost of defending administrators who act illegally to suppress free speech.

Psychology: As a follow-up to Valentine’s Day, an article that will clear up once and for all “Two Myths and Three Facts About the Differences in Men and Women’s Brains.”

Scholarship: New research discusses Münchausen by Internet: the condition in which people fake their own medical illnesses in an online setting. “What is particularly worrying is the ease with which the deception can be carried out online, the difficulty in detection, and the damaging impact and potential danger to isolated victims.”

The Trouble With Pre-Crime Assessment


Still from “Minority Report” (2002).

In the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook, there has been increased interest in looking at ways to prevent such devastating crimes. Variations on the theme of gun control is obviously at the forefront of that discussion, judging by the national debate at the moment. But others are talking about psychological screening tools to asses future risk of violence in criminals.

With echoes of the fantastical PreCrime Unit in the sci-fi thriller Minority Report, the desire for a pre-screener for violence is nothing new. But a recent article published in the journal Behavioral Sciences & The Law details what the authors – preeminent forensic psychologists – conclude is a fatal flaw in actuarial risk assessment instruments used to predict recidivism rates. From the abstract:

“Consistent with past research, ARAI scores were moderately and significantly predictive of failure in the aggregate, but group probability estimates had substantial margins of error and individual probability estimates had very large margins of error.”

Described another way,

“[T]he researchers established through a traditional statistical procedure, logistic regression, that the margins of error around individual scores were so large as to make risk distinctions between individuals “virtually impossible.” In only one out of 90 cases was it possible to say that a subject’s predicted risk of failure was significantly higher than the overall baseline of 18 percent.”

At issue is whether or not such actuarial surveys can be admissible in court. Researchers Stephen Hart and David Cooke say ‘no,’ and declare they have definitively proven that any accuracy in predictive ability is a statistical artifact resulting in “fundamental uncertainty,” whereas the massive margin of error is “reality.”

For a very readable summary and analysis of the research, I suggest this blog post by forensic psychologist Karen Franklin, Ph.D. Some highlights:

  • The APA ethics code requires psychologists to inform clients of “the strengths and limitations of test results and interpretation” and to “indicate any significant limitations of their interpretations.”
  • The fundamental uncertainty of actuarial risk assessment “cannot be overcome,” therefore Hart and Cooke recommend use of such statistical algorithms be stopped.
  • The “image of certitude” projected by actuarial risk assessments is misleading and can result in cognitive biases, therefore their admissibility in court should be seriously questioned.
  • Courts should not rely on any one assessment of an individual’s supposed traits or characteristics, but instead must look at all information in context.

As I see it, the implications for school psychologists are twofold. First, school psychologists should be wary of any assessment instrument purporting to determine a student’s risk of future violence. Just the legal implications alone should give pause to anyone considering administering – and interpreting – such an assessment in the context of a school setting.

Second, Hart and Cooke’s final recommendation that legal professionals and the courts “recognize that their decisions ultimately require consideration of the totality of circumstances – not just the items of a particular test” is exactly in line with best practices for school psychologists. We are never supposed to make an academic or clinical decision based on the results of only one test.

The pressure is on right now, and in such a climate schools may be tempted to change or adopt practices quickly in order to ease political tension. Research like this reminds us of the importance of ethics codes and best practices guides: they provide a steady rudder to guide us through periodic storms.

Further reading:

Link to original journal article.
Link to Karen Franklin’s blog post about the article.
The Minority Report and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick

The State of The Union and A State of Mind

Picture 4“His melancholy was stamped on him while in the period of gestation.
It was part of his nature.” –Henry C. Whitney

Tonight is the President’s State of the Union address. In honor of this important American tradition, I tried to come up with something linking psychology with the American Presidency. Perhaps not surprisingly, I actually found something!

Did you know that Abraham Lincoln wrote eloquently about depression (melancholy)? I think it’s pretty common knowledge that President Lincoln was known for his “gloomy” temperament. But it’s probably less well-known that he wrote poetic and touching letters to grieving citizens and friends at various times during his life.

Here’s a great page about Lincoln and his depression from a website devoted to Abraham Lincoln research. Called the Abraham Lincoln Research Site, it was created by an ex-history teacher named Roger J. Norton for “students, teachers, schools, and anyone interested in…Lincoln.”

The page on depression is a pretty quick read and engaging from start to finish. So I definitely recommend just reading that. But here are a few quotes, written by Lincoln, that stood out to me:

“Remember in the depth and even the agony of despondency, that very shortly you are to feel well again.”
“A tendency to melancholy…let it be observed, is a misfortune, not a fault.”
“You can not now realize that you will ever feel better…and yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again…I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once.”

Book links for further reading:

“Lincoln’s Melancholy,” by Joshua Wolf Shenk.
“The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln,” by Michael Burlingame.
“Herndon’s Life of Lincoln,” William H. Herndon.

Weekly Roundup 2-10-13

School: A recent NY Times article examines why some people handle stress better than others. Whether or not a student breaks down or thrives under pressure – during high-stakes standardized testing, for example – may have something to do with an enzyme in the brain that clears dopamine.

Psychology: The new DSM-5 will cost an astonishing $199. Here’s a breakdown of some possible reasons for what appears to be blatant price gouging.

Scholarship: What should a publisher do when it comes time to reissue an influential book that has been referred to as “iconic journalism,” but that we now know contained errors or even downright fabrications? In reissuing “Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case,” the publisher has decided not to mention the considerable evidence now available which undermines the author’s original claims.

The Scared is scared (of things you like)

Here’s a wonderful little movie created by a 6-year-old boy named Asa (with a little help from a grown up, but still).

The movie, called the Scared is scared, tells the tale of a bear, a mouse, swimming pools, sleepovers, friendship, pizza and life. It’s excitement, fear, joy and bewilderment wrapped up into a story full of heart and humor that only a six-year-old’s imagination could provide.

It also is a great lesson in handling adversity. When you find yourself facing a challenge – a major life transition, a metaphorical door closing, anxiety, a monster under your bed – Asa has this advice:

“You should just say ‘OK! I’m fine!’ I usually let it go. I just think of something that I really like to do…just think of something else until the nervous has gone out of you…”

In other words, by thinking of something you like, you can help relieve sadness, anxiety, tension, etc. Asa: “The Scared is scared of things you like.” 

Asa doesn’t know it, but his approach is a lot like cognitive behavioral therapy: by challenging your negative thoughts, you can have a positive impact on your mood and behavior. Way to go, Asa. Thanks for the important reminder!