Want Justice? Stop Tolerating These Realities

One in three black male children born in the United States is expected to go to jail or prison at some point in his lifetime, said public interest lawyer and Equal Justice Initiative Executive Director Bryan Stevenson, JD, at an APA convention session on Saturday.

“That wasn’t true in the 20th century and it wasn’t true in the 19th century,” he said “It’s true in the 21st century.”

That sobering fact  was just one of at least a dozen similar statistics about today’s criminal justice system shared by Stevenson, who has devoted much of his career to representing juveniles on death row.

While in 1972 there were 300,000 people in jails and prisons, he added, today there are 2.3 million and the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. That difference has less to do with an increase in violent crime than with broader social and psychological dynamics in our society that need more attention at scientific and professional gatherings.

One such dynamic is “proximity” he said. “We do educational work but we do not go into schools. We work with children and we talk about children, but we don’t actually spend time with them. We talk about criminal justice reform and violence, but we don’t get close to the people who are engaged in and experience these acts.”

One example of how such distance can breed injustice, he said, is the rate of violence against children in jails and prisons. On any given day in this country, 10,000 children are in adult jails and prisons where they face five times a greater rate of sexual violence and eight times greater rate of suicide, he said.

“We have allowed our distance from the needs of children and our failure to understand these dynamics to make us comfortable tolerating these realities,” he said.

Those working toward justice also need to focus on changing the dysfunctional narrative that has emerged about the mental health needs of people in the criminal justice system, which is “simply disconnected from what science tells us,” he said.

“I work in very poor communities and one of the hardest things for me to see is children who are clearly traumatized, so clearly disrupted by a level of trauma and violence that it makes it impossible for them to conform to the behavioral expectations of institutions that refuse to see that disability,” he said. While most of these children live in violent communities, go to violent schools, routinely see and experience acts of violence, “when they act violently, we call them violent offenders as if somehow they are the aberration,” he said.

To change the narrative, the word “trauma” needs to be applied more frequently, he said. “If we don’t use that word, we don’t use all of these resources and skills and interventions we know and have that can help people suffering from trauma recover,” he said.

Is Gaming the New Digital Drug?

Everyone loves a good baby photo, but APA convention speaker Andrew Doan, MD, PhD, of the Uniformed Services University School of the Health Sciences, showed his audience a photo of his young son that Doan finds difficult to look at. The picture upsets him because Doan doesn’t remember much of his son at that age — although he does have vivid memories of his favorite video game at the time.

177253792Doan was addicted to video games for 10 years, playing anywhere from 50 to 100 hours per week while also attending The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Doan recovered – though he came close to losing his wife and family – and is now conducting research on how gaming re-programs the brain. He is also working to educate the public about gaming addiction as Head of Addictions and Resilience Research for the U.S. Navy.

Some studies, he pointed out, estimate that one in 11 U.S. children and teenagers are addicted to video games, he said.

At the APA session, Doan provided an overview of research that indicates that such games have a strong impact on us psychologically and physiologically, including that they overdrive the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal system and deplete cortisol supplies.

“How does your body burn [that adrenalin], if you only move your two thumbs?” he asked.

Doan encouraged attendees to pay more attention to gaming addiction and noted that all types of addiction research can inform gaming addiction and other process addictions, such as addiction to pornography.

Fellow speaker Hilarie Cash, PhD, has also seen the addiction firsthand, and shared her treatment approach for people with gaming addiction at the session. Her reSTART Internet Addiction Program in Washington state helps people who need treatment for Internet, video gaming and technology overuse, including day-trading addiction. The program helps people – mostly young men — develop better sleep patterns, eat more healthfully, exercise and shed addictions that accompanied their gaming, such as marijuana and Adderall. Cash and her colleagues also emphasize such practical skills as how to maintain a clean home and nurture social relationships.

“Almost universally, [our clients] lack good strong social skills, so we really emphasize that,” Cash says.

Why Do Old Habits Die So Hard?

Wish you flossed every night but not able to make it a habit? Blame your habitual mind. According to psychologist Wendy Wood, PhD, of the University of Southern California, we are all of two minds — the habitual mind and the intentional one.

The habitual mind often overrides our best intentions because it’s fueled by potent repetition and cues, said Wood in a session at APA’s 2014 Annual Convention. In other words, we want to floss, but we didn’t last night. Or the night before.

“The thoughtful, intentional mind is easily derailed, easily taken offline,” she said. “And when that happens, people tend to fall back on their habits.”

Our habitual mind is particularly tough to overpower when we are stressed or distracted, or if the right contextual cues are in place, Wood added.

78739972To illustrate this, Wood took a closer look at a contextually cued habit many of us have  — eating popcorn at the movies. To see what might prompt people to bag the habit, Wood gave people who were and weren’t habitual movie-popcorn eaters either stale or fresh popcorn during a movie. Turns out, old popcorn couldn’t override people’s habits: Even those who said they hated their stale popcorn still ate most of their box if they were regular movie munchers.

In fact, most habit studies find that our routines often eclipse our best intentions, Wood said. Part of the problem is that efforts to change behavior —  such as public service campaigns and weight-loss interventions — tend to target the intentional mind rather than the habitual one. These programs are often successful at increasing people’s motivation and changing their intentions, but aren’t overriding their bad habits, she said. To do that, the next generation of behavior change research should focus on finding ways to derail bad habits and disrupt their cues. That can help people repeat desired behaviors to form new habits and ensure that stable context cues are in place to trigger these new paths, she said.
“These are central principles that need to be included in behavior change programs so that we can … ensure those changes are maintained over time,” she said.

One good example, Wood said, appears in a 2013 study of flossing behaviors in the British Journal of Health Psychology. Researchers encouraged people to floss before or after they brushed their teeth for 28 days. They found that people who flossed after they brushed were still flossing regularly eight months later because their tooth brushing cued the flossing. “You can maintain these behaviors if you repeat them in ways that they can be cued by the context in which you live,” she said.