Some problems with no-harm standards in human psychology

It is my understanding that there is a trend in modern psychology to move toward a standard for mental illness based on harmlessness.

Since it is so difficult to fashion a general standard of normalcy or deviance based on current criteria, psychologists want something that looks more objective, and harmlessness seems to be the best option.

Harmlessness is the core of Buddhist morality, as most readers surely know. Each of the Five Precepts is aimed at “taking it upon oneself” to not do the harmful behaviors of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, or getting drunk.

Even Buddhism in just these Five Precepts recognizes the difficulty of gauging “harm.” Drinking in and of itself does not harm anyone. The reason it is the Fifth Precept is it is behavior that often leads to harm—violence, stupidity, heedlessness, or addiction. Some Buddhists interpret the Fifth Precept to mean no use at all of any “intoxicating” drugs or alcohol, while others interpret it to mean “no irresponsible use of alcohol” only.

The Buddha clearly indicated only alcohol in the Pali version of the Fifth Precept, but some today believe he meant more than just booze. When the words are changed to mean “intoxication,” one must wonder how to define that. Or why the Buddha didn’t say “intoxication” if that is what he meant.

What is “sexual misconduct”? Most modern Buddhists would define it simply as sexual behavior that harms someone, not as specific behaviors. The Buddha defined it somewhere, in part, as using the “wrong orifice” for sex acts, but most people today don’t think that way.

In Buddhism these various interpretations of harmlessness don’t cause too much trouble because the Five Precepts are for lay people, so there is leeway. And discussion of moral issues is usually beneficial.

In psychology it can be just as difficult to decide what constitutes “harm”or “harmlessness.” And it can be just as hard to figure out harmlessness as it is to decide what is “normal,” “deviant,” or “mentally ill.”

The well-regarded Hofstede Centre lists a number of variables, or “dimensions,” to help us understand how the cultures we live in affect our judgement of harm and harmlessness, normalcy and deviance, mental health and mental illness.

I think it is hard to disagree that our understanding of these matters is greatly determined by our cultures and that culture can be roughly analyzed based on the Hofstede Centre’s “dimensions.”

“Harmlessness” as a standard for “healthy” psychology  has other problems than just cultural variance, though, because “harmlessness” fails to consider psychological optimization, which arguably is the best sign of mental health. Our wanting to optimize our mental and emotional health accepts striving, a fundamental human quality, as an integral part of who we are.

But again the problem occurs—whose optimization? How do you define optimization? I would define it roughly as “positive extra harmlessness”—being proactive, doing things that help the self and others. But how do we define that?

Most of these questions will never be answered definitively. But as with Buddhism, never-ending discussion within the community is probably a good thing. Individuals can check in and out  of the discussion as they see fit. If you think you are doing your best to optimize your consciousness, your psychology, there is a good chance you are at least pointed in the right direction. If you think you are slacking, maybe you should speak with someone to get a different point of view.

Should psychology seek definitions of mental health that include optimization as well as harmlessness? I believe it should.

The elephant in the room of human communication

 …if a manager at work is grimacing because they are sitting in an uncomfortable chair, a person with increased oxytocin levels may think the manager is negatively reacting to what they are saying instead, which may potentially cause issues in the workplace.

Recent research at Concordia University in Canada has concluded that giving oxytocin to “healthy young adults” may not work. See High oxytocin levels ‘trigger oversensitivity to emotions of others’ for more as well as for the source of the quote above.

I don’t particularly doubt these research findings, but do believe that a much deeper problem—the elephant in the room—is lying right next to them.

And that problem is everyone is frequently faced with puzzles like the one cited above and no one has sufficient “emotional intelligence” or “social reasoning skills” to figure many of them out. All people frequently make mistakes in situations like these.

True, some do better than others and we probably can abstract a bell curve for this via some sort of test.

How do we define “oversensitivity?” Why would emotional sensitivity be a bad thing?

In the example linked above, it is true that most employees will never have an opportunity to ask their bosses why they are looking one way or another. But if they don’t even notice the possibility that their boss is reacting negatively, they are limiting their understanding of the world around them.

Language, facial expressions, and tone of voice in real-world communications are crude tools. There is no way around this fact. There is no “right sensitivity” or “right understanding” of any of these communicative signs that is out there somewhere. There is no stable standard for communication except in highly defined settings and contexts.

I tend to be against taking drugs for emotional “problems,” so I am not advocating supplementing your diet with oxytocin. My concern is how do you deal with communicative ambiguity? I guarantee that ambiguity is common is virtually all communicative acts.

If the ambiguity, such as the one cited above, occurs in an employment situation, should you be judged “emotionally sensitive” and in-touch with your “innate social reasoning skills” if you don’t notice it? Are you supposed to comprehend on the fly that your manager is sitting in an uncomfortable chair? How would you know that?

How could you possibly know for sure what your manager is thinking or feeling? It’s less likely but not inconceivable that your manager  is a nut who intends to attack you after work or fire you next week. There is no standard by which you can judge and be certain of what they feel or are thinking.

In intimate personal relations you can achieve certainty, or close to it, by practicing FIML with your partner.

If you and your partner do not do FIML or something like it, you will be more or less forced to cleave to some sort of “normal standard” for communication. But a “normal standard” for all communicative acts is not just elusive, it doesn’t exist.

This is the even bigger elephant in the room of psychological studies; indeed of all cultures everywhere. No standard for intimate communication exists outside of the one(s) you make for yourselves. If you leave too much to vague notions like “emotional sensitivity” or “emotional intelligence” without having the tools to actually comprehend communicative acts, you will consign yourself to many pointless misunderstandings, any one of which has the potential to snowball and disrupt your relationship.

A New Physics Theory of Life


The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.

Be sure to read the whole article, which describes this tremendous idea in more detail and is a must-read, imo. The original paper can be found here: Statistical physics of self-replication.

I suppose being conscious/aware is also a good way to dissipate energy.

False-Positive Psychology: Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting Anything as Significant

In this article, we accomplish two things. First, we show that despite empirical psychologists’ nominal endorsement of a low rate of false-positive findings (≤.05), flexibility in data collection, analysis, and reporting dramatically increases actual false-positive rates. In many cases, a researcher is more likely to falsely find evidence that an effect exists than to correctly find evidence that it does not. We present computer simulations and a pair of actual experiments that demonstrate how unacceptably easy it is to accumulate (and report) statistically significant evidence for a false hypothesis. Second, we suggest a simple, low-cost, and straightforwardly effective disclosure-based solution to this problem. The solution involves six concrete requirements for authors and four guidelines for reviewers, all of which impose a minimal burden on the publication process.


Biology and religious belief

An Auburn University researcher teamed up with the National Institutes of Health to study how brain networks shape an individual’s religious belief, finding that brain interactions were different between religious and non-religious subjects. (Source)

The study can be found here: Brain Networks Shaping Religious Belief.

This study is based on fMRI imagery and thus is essentially speculative since fMRIs provide little more than shadows of blood flow in the brain. That said, it is interesting.