Tuesday, July 31, 2018


Here's why I've been absent:

For the last 19 months, under contract with Academic Press: Elsevier Science Publishing, I’ve been writing Descriptive Psychology and The Person Concept: Essential Attributes of Persons and Behavior

The volume starts with an orientation to Descriptive Psychology and then turns to the fundamental concepts of “Individual Persons”, “Intentional Action”, “Language and Verbal Behavior”, “Community and Culture”, and “Reality and Real Worlds”. It ends with an examination of empathic action as the behaviors that make people humane, and the construction of a person's world.  It should be on sale Spring, 2019.  

From the Preface:

Inauspiciously, I started graduate school skeptical about my field of study –– clinical and experimental psychology.  As an undergraduate, I was impressed by the reasonably designed experiments described in my psychology classes, but the personality theories taught read like warring theologies. And making it worse, the more scientific they sounded, the less I recognized anyone I knew. Where was the person in the theory? Not alone, I remember one of my professors saying, "with so much horseshit around, there must be a pony in there somewhere". 

Other than refinements in experimentation and the acknowledgment of failures to replicate classic studies, not much has changed.  Except, too often, theory replaced by practices speciously prefixed with 'neuro'. Clinicians, when they bother with theory at all, still align as partisans of faith. Even today, my students interviewing for training sites are asked if their orientation is psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, or humanistic.  To quell their anxiety, I suggest they answer they’ve a psychodynamic and social-learning appreciation of relationships, and a set of cognitive-behavioral tools they empathically apply.  Some hear this and relax, intuitively feeling it expresses what they actually try to do. I’d like to offer their intuition explicit coherence.

What gives a subject matter coherence and integrity? Once a subject matter is identified –– in our case, the behavior of persons –– what must it account for, and what manners of observing, formulating, theorizing, explaining, etc., are compatible with the subject or violate its integrity? And, crucially, are there concepts so fundamental they must be maintained?  Here’s a first reminder: As a psychologist and a behavioral scientist, all my work, all our work, is the work only persons can do. As a psychologist who practices psychotherapy my interests center on the behavior and characteristics of people, especially how we come to be the way we are and how we can change. This requires having the concept of a person in the first place. Fortunately, we already do, but it’s mostly implicit. This book is about making it systematic and explicit. Being systematic and explicit provides clarity and facilitates negotiation about where we agree, disagree, or don’t have a clue. 

My introduction to the Person Concept came early fall 1972 when I read somewhere NASA had asked, "If green gas on the moon speaks to an astronaut, how do we know if it's a person?"  God knows why it came up, but north of Nederland, high in the Rockies, warm around a campfire, a classmate said one of our professors had an answer.

I entered doctoral study having read Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Stephen Pepper's World Hypotheses.  Kuhn taught that when a scientific community encounters enough empirical facts –– important anomalies that cannot fit the established paradigm, the establishment is eventually replaced by a new paradigm. From Pepper I learned the troubling idea that most contemporary personality theories stem from incompatible 'root metaphors' grounded in ancient metaphysical assumptions that the world is a machine, or an organism, and so on.  Working my way through Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, its end notes especially resonated, ".... For in psychology, there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion." From these texts I gathered that psychologists have significant knowledge and useful practices, but their theories aren't built on a coherent conceptual base.  Fundamental concepts in one theory can mean something quite different in others. Nor, for that matter, do their theories start with a similar appreciation of what is real. One theory's thorny anomaly is another's starting point; an unquestioned given for one is treated as unreal by another.

It still seems that concepts of accountability, choice, reason, and intention –– ideas at the cornerstone of civilization and my practice of psychotherapy –– when taught along with a ‘scientific’ requirement for reductionism and determinism, reside in contradictory intellectual universes. When I read physics, chemistry, and biology, the foundational concepts in one text resemble their use in the others, and when they don’t, that fact is recognized as requiring a shared lexicon, and if the data requires, an improved paradigm. Psychology is different. Psychology lacks a common lexicon and a comprehensive foundation. And psychology is different in other ways as well. 

Psychology is special.  It has, at least for me, a more interesting problem than sorting out the meat and potatoes of the natural sciences. Psychology must have a place within its domain for the creation and practice of science itself. The physicist, chemist, and geologist do not have to account for their personal interests as part of their subject matter, but the psychologist must. Inescapably, every scientific theory and experiment is someone's theory and experiment. Behavioral science has to account for scientific behavior  –– the sort of behavior only persons can do. Fundamentally, behavioral science has to provide an explicit and comprehensive account for the behavior of persons as persons –– and not as if we are something else. 

So, I entered graduate school ambivalent about the discipline, expecting contradictory and barely relevant theory, but with faith I would learn reasonable methods for establishing facts. Sticking close to the empirical seemed a smart way to go.  But being no fan of theology, what was I supposed to do with all those theories?  No surprise, I ended up in my chairman's office worried I'd made a bad choice.  Not smiling, he responded, "I suspect you might like Pete's stuff ", and with that I went off to meet the guy pondering the green gas problem. This book is mostly about what I learned from him and the people that formed a community around his work.

Peter Garcia Ossorio introduced me to the job of making explicit and systematic the knowledge and competence of living as a person in a world of people.  He called this discipline Descriptive Psychology. By 1972 he was well into working on the Person Concept, the central concern of Descriptive Psychology.  He told me to start with what I already know about people; to start with what is required to live as a person in the community of others. The work of Descriptive Psychology, he said, was to carefully and explicitly formulate concepts and rules that can systematically interconnect everything we know about people without leaving anything out. He also reminded me, "things that aren't intellectually satisfying tend to be unsatisfactory in other ways as well".  Sharing this aesthetic, I began.  

What I will present here is not the usual fare for the practice of behavioral science. Descriptive Psychology is not psychology in the conventional sense of a comprehensive personality theory. It is not a theory, but instead a pre-empirical conceptualization, a formulation of the essential attributes of persons and behavior that any adequate theory must encompass.  The function of Descriptive Psychology's Person Concept is to provide an explicit, extensive, and systematic analysis and connection of all the 'moving parts' of what we implicitly mean by persons and behavior.  To accomplish this requires a sharable lexicon and set of rules, clearly articulated and suitable for coordinating all possible facts regarding people and behavior.  As such, one use of this project is a framework for comparing theories and judging their scope and adequacy. The goal is a map with a place for what is already known with room for what is yet to be found. 

Why not call this a theory? Unlike a theory, a conceptualization of a subject matter attempts to establish its full possible range by identifying what it is about rather than the empirical or historically particular form it takes. The focus is the range of possibility. Finding out what really happens, on the other hand, is the empirical task. But before attempting systematic observation, it is usually wise to have some idea what you are looking for. Descriptive Psychology's mission is this sort of pre-empirical formulation. The job of theory is post-empirical to explain why out of the possibilities only certain patterns occur. Good theory can then be vindicated by predicting new observations that are found and fit.  Then we face the dilemma of how to fit our theories together.  Under current conditions, attempting integration can be a fool's errand. 

The continued absence of a shared framework for investigation and practice has resulted in the fragmented state of current psychology and the neurosciences. As an aesthetic judgment, some find this more troubling than others. Descriptive Psychology was invented in response to those who find this difficulty troubling.  To the extent the Person Concept is well-formed, its explicit conceptualization should sharpen observation and refine the ability to share and integrate what is found.  I believe it has for me. 

What follows is a work in progress.  The essential nature of Descriptive Psychology requires room for significant distinctions yet to be recognized. Nonetheless, what is already built is nuanced, systematic, and entirely interconnected. The Person Concept has complex interdependent component concepts: Individual Persons, Behavior as Intentional Action, Language and Verbal Behavior, Community and Culture, and World and Reality. Tying these together are transition rules, The State of Affairs System, for unpacking and connecting everything. 

Some words of caution. The foundational concepts are interdependent –– resemble aspects of a map –– so grasping them will be easier after they have all been filled in. The reward for effort will require patience.  I have a promise for the practitioner. Descriptive Psychology is a pragmatic enterprise, its success rests on enhancing effective action.  I earn most of my keep in the practice of psychotherapy. Any adequate understanding of persons and behavior necessarily involves an appreciation of how people change.  If this is your interest, this book should hold some value for you. That's my intent. 

Another few words before we begin. I am writing in first person. This book is my understanding, shaped by my interests. As a member of the community that developed these ideas, I believe they accurately represent Descriptive Psychology and the Person Concept.  Still, this is my understanding, and the idiosyncrasies, examples, and digressions reflect my values, practices, and fascinations as an academic clinical psychologist. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

What Do Competent People (Psychologists Included) Know?

An abstract of "What Do Competent People (Psychologists Included) Know?" to be presented at the Mid Winter Meeting of The Society for Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology,
Division 24 of the American Psychological Association.
March 2, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona.

I hope it will serve as a useful introduction to one of the core concepts in Descriptive Psychology: Intentional Action.

They allow 200 words for the abstract, so I wrote this:

"Competent action in the world of people entails having the concept of a person and knowing how people behave. Much of this is implicit. The psychologist's job is to make this knowledge explicit, coherent, and systematic. But what knowledge is required to manage social life? (A corresponding question: what must an adequate psychology account for?) Descriptive Psychology's Person Concept approaches this question by pre-empirically starting with: 1) People make sense. 2) People are what they are and not something else instead. And, 3) Don't count on people being simpler than they have to be. Implicit is the base-line expectation that people are intentional and cognizant actors able to deliberate about theirs and others behavior. This understanding, compatible with ordinary meanings of action and responsibility, is made explicit through a systematic unpacking of the Person Concept's formulation of behavior as Intentional Action. This is accomplished through a Parametric Analysis of intentional action consisting of 1) an Actor, 2) what the actor Wants to accomplish, 3) what the actor Knows or distinguishes in the circumstance relevant to what the actor Wants, 4) what the actor Knows-How to do, 5) the real time Performance of the action, 6) the action's Achievement, 7) the action's Significance and, 8) the Personal Characteristics expressed by the action. These eight parameters are expandable and locate how any behavior is alike or different from any other.  This analysis provides the teacher and clinician both a checklist of behavioral constituents, and, when relevant content is absent, where to look."

Here's Peter Ossorio's conceptualization of behavior as Intentional Action:

 Behavior = Intentional Action = < I, W, K, KH, P, A, S, PC > 

I: The Identity of the actor.
W:  What the actor Wants to accomplish.
K:  What the actor Knows, distinguishes, or recognizes in the circumstance that is relevant to what the actor Wants. (In Deliberate Action the actor recognizes different options, in Cognizant Action the actor is self-aware of the ongoing behavior).
KH:  What the actor Knows-How to do given what the actor Wants and Knows about the relevant circumstance.
P:  The procedural manner or Performance of the action in real time.
A:  The Achievement of the action.
S:  The Significance of the action for the actor.  What the actor is up to by performing the act in question.
PC:  The Personal Characteristics of the actor expressed by the action. 

I use this as a checklist to formulate questions about where to look when I am trying to understand someone's behavior  or when I am asking someone what they know about someone else. For regaining empathy, I might, for example, wonder:

1. Given their understanding of the overall circumstance, what does this person want and value? (And do we share an understanding of what the overall circumstance call for?) (The "W" parameter)

2.  What exactly do they recognize in their circumstance that is relevant to what they want and value? (And do we share a common appreciation of the situation?) (The "K" parameter)

3. What do they know how to do given what they see as their current opportunity or dilemma? (And do they have the skill or competence that is needed to successfully manage the circumstance?) (The "KH" parameter)

4. What is the significance to them of how they behave in these circumstances? (The "S" parameter)

5. What personal characteristics are they employing and what is the significance of these characteristics to them? (The "PC" and "S" parameters)

6. Can they tolerate the way I express what I understand about them?

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Wandering, the Directed, and the Coerced Mind: A note on satisfaction, optimal learning, and oppressive strain.

I've been thinking about wandering attention, when it's a gift, not a diagnosis. This led to some thoughts about three states of choice and some of their implications. 

1. My favorite state and I'd wager yours, too: Being free to follow the whims of the moment. A period of flexible, easily revisable interests and choices without dire consequence. A state free of desperation.

2. Here's what I think for most of us is our usual state along with a strategy I find optimal for learning.  Most of time there is something we've been assigned or taken on to do. There's always something on the agenda. When time is limited, and it's always limited, my advice is first attend to what is most interesting.  This is my favored learning strategy. My second strategy, should the task, at the time, be too daunting, and you can get away with it: Find another mission with a greater expectation of satisfaction. 

3.  This one I hate.  It’s a potentially pathological state: Finding or creating circumstances that distort, constrain, or coerce the capacity to attend to much else. Practically speaking, this is when we feel we have no choice where to attend.  We are compelled –– held in place. This is especially the case when there is a sense of jeopardy. This can come from inescapable circumstances and/or unyielding personal values and priorities. Here the weights we give the reasons are high enough, we need attend them as first priority. If we fail, we expect trouble. If we succeed we feel relief with or without satisfaction, we’ve dodged the bullet

My clinical work is frequently with people who find themselves in this third condition, people feeling strained and unhappy by needing to constantly think about things they'd rather not. Often what they feel is at stake is the integrity of honoring what they take to be vital commitments.  It becomes a matter of character for them.  They are never on vacation.

Realistically, most of what we do is neither freely chosen nor coerced. The choices we have are bounded by the available options and our priorities. We find, choose, and accept one mission after another. Think of being in school, months before summer break.

A reminder. The satisfaction of following one's whims is a luxury, similar to Maslow's recognition that creative growth is more likely after survival needs are met. Another way to put this: Desperation and adversity rarely brings the best out of us. Mostly, it makes us mean, anxious, and depressed. It's hard to learn, create, and prosper under the gun.

Here's some examples of states one and two:

At the moment, happily, I'm on vacation.

Vacation involves the time and place to follow one's whims free of desperation and coercion. The missions are chosen for their potential to satisfy. Time to play and have fun, at times, just to be. 

Early this week, anticipating a break from my usual highly structured schedule, I told myself I'd spend Saturday focused on my half-finished chapter, Language and Verbal Behavior.  I've a book due and a clock ticking. But when the day came, not finding the energy to work on my self-assigned chapter, I reassured myself I'd find the time, later.  Even remembering the fable of the ant and the grasshopper, I chose to hop about. My slogan of the week: "Sometimes be the grasshopper, sometimes be the ant. But don't count on the ant bailing you out".

So, I woke up Saturday knowing Verbal Behavior would have to wait. After all, it was Saturday, so rather than move to my study, I went for a walk and enjoyed the first of fall's sunlight.  Finally, near sunset, I was in the mood to summarize what I'd been mulling over. During the walk, I had been remembering a conversation with a friend concerning Csíkszentmihályi's concept of "flow", and about the interesting things that might get captured in the current.

The conversation had started with concerns about my teaching. My students are assigned far more than they can possibly read, and end up reading far less than they should. With that in mind, I advise them to first read whatever interests them most. They should at least get that done. I suggest they prioritize what they authentically value. This is a variation of telling them to play their strengths. It's probably good time management advice. They're not going to read all they are assigned, they never do by half, so they should start with what might help them assimilate additional knowledge. I'll explain why below. (And since they've paid a pretty penny for school and are required to take the course, I suggest they start with what fits who they already are, with what they already enjoy. I give them a choice within the constraints of the lesson I am contracted to teach.)

If they have the requisite competence, what they find most interesting will stick with them better than if they struggle with their lack of interest. I tell them that the knowledge and skills they actually value will naturally assimilate additional knowledge and competence. I'm sure I'm often right about this. I'm vindicated when they end up surprised by the unexpected themes that became intriguing owing to its relation to their initial interest. 

I offer them the image of a seed crystal that enlarges as it attracts kindred content, and a complex rock's fused assimilation of component minerals. 

This sort of learning works like a love triangle. When I teach Freud, I point out this is how his Oedipus Complex can be understood. It begins within the mother-infant dyad, with a dependent infant enthralled with desire for mother. Eventually, as infants grow, they notice mother's significant interest in father, and in so doing, learn more about about him and what he stands for. It starts with the dyad and then moves to the triangle. (Mothers have their version of this triangle that starts with what Donald Winnicott aptly called "primary maternal preoccupation"). 

Our most vital understandings often start with a focus on someone that fascinates us and then turns to what fascinates that person.  Or we start with something we find compelling, and then turn our attention to other things that connect to that.  I know much of my education happened this way, starting with an idealized teacher and then expanding out to learn what that teacher found worthy.

Peter Ossorio has a set of maxims regarding value and behavioral choice that frame some of this behavioral logic:

If a person values a specific something, e.g., an object, a circumstance, a behavior, or, more generally, a state of affairs, they will thereby also value other specific things of the same kind to the extent that they are relevantly similar to the original.

If a person values a general something they will thereby also value a specific something to the extent that it is a paradigmatic instance or realization of the more general value. (Place, 1998/2012)

None of this is particularly helpful for students when they are taught to read for the test.  And for those who do not intrinsically value any of their academic subjects, my advice falls flat. They might as well follow whatever order the syllabus provides. 

Now to condition three.  Consider another truism: Coercion elicits resistance or resigned compliance.  In my clinical practice this shows up in symptoms of chronic anger and depression.

A couple of examples: 

I work with a devoted mother, who is often distressed and exhausted from spending an epoch relearning algebra and studying the life cycle of snakes and snails. It is important to her to be generally available and assist her children with their homework and idiosyncratic pastimes. She knows this will go on for decades. In an ideal world, she'd be free to think about other things, ideas that intrinsically please her, that challenge and enrich her considerable intellect. But she accepts that her consuming duty to her kids does not allow the time or energy to pursue much else. At least not now.  Her domestic obligations, vital and valued, are performed without fail but are implemented through forced attention to her children's needs that require attending some things she'd rather not entertain. This tragic and noble conflict comes with her vision of motherhood.  A lot of life is like this. The life cycle comes with demands. But she keeps faith that in the future she'll return to the other possibilities that also fit her. I expect she will.

Another person I see struggles with the burden of fulfilling his parents' obligations.  He is in a constant state of demoralization, stressed to exhaustion, unhappy, and painfully depressed.  He sighs, "when can I return to my life".  In my sessions with him, I first didn't understand, and unhelpfully thought, "this is your life until you do something else, and reorder your priorities".  It finally dawned on me what he meant, what he desperately wants me to understand:  "When can I have my own thoughts, the one's the come from me naturally, what I'd turn to if I wasn't so goddamned under the sway of parental ghosts, and my family's unfinished business".  Resentfully obliged to hold the family purse strings, he's become his sisters' keepers, obligated by a trust and a mix of competitive revenge.  Making matters worse, despite his sisters' inept and sleazy ways, they were clear parental favorites. He says he would rather have other priorities, but demonstrating to his dead parents that he is the worthy one keeps him enslaved. This tangled narcissism is a  tough knot to loosen, let alone untie.  Here his character, his sense of integrity, is also his disorder.

Sometimes out of compensation, revenge, competition, or just sheer duty, we value something so much that when the opportunity or dilemma arrives, practically speaking, we can't attend to anything else.  We don't have the time or head space to manage it.  And it comes with a terrible sacrifice of freedom. Like finding a beast in the corner of the room, unless we escape or are eaten, we've no real choice where to focus. 

Unlike that tired and burdened mother who will someday launch her children, some obligations even when fulfilled, are pyrrhic victories at best. Some values are an  occupying force that colonize one's mind. 

The noted scholar of love, Marvin Gaye, had some things to say about preoccupation: Too Busy Thinking About My Baby  

But sometimes, Mose Allison reminds us, your mind is on vacation but your mouth....

Csikszentmihályi, M. (1988) Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 
Maslow, A. H. (1968). Toward a psychology of being. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co.
Ossorio, P. G. (1998/2012). Place. Ann Arbor, MI: Descriptive Psychology Press.
Winnicott DW (1956/1984) Primary maternal preoccupation. in Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis: Collected Papers. London: Karnac, 300–305.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Personality Disorders are Different. A note on clinical and moral labels and Presidential psychopathology.

Clinical and moral language serve different functions. The clinician's diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is the disliked neighbor you think is an entitled, self-absorbed asshole. Both fit our current president. 

I have mixed feeling regarding the psychiatric diagnosis of American presidents, an indoor sport currently stimulated by the reasonable conjecture that Donald Trump manifests a Narcissistic Personality Disorder; his condition severe enough to render him dangerously unfit for office. I have no doubt his desperate self-centered hunger impairs his judgment. Who in their right mind trusts his honesty and leadership? I don't, and the statistics suggest you do not, either.

Regardless of the accuracy of this diagnosis, and setting aside my concern with the Goldwater rule, I need moral language to adequately describe Trump. His condition may be psychiatric but it's clearly a moral pathology.  

There is a literature detailing past president's depressive grief and alcoholism. We know about Nixon's paranoia and Reagan's Alzheimer's.  Some presidents have been intellectually unsuited for the job, incurious, prone to the other's sway. The second Bush is a prime example. But pointing out that many American presidents have been mentally ill offers a false equivalency and blurs an important distinction that moral language is better positioned to expose. Some conditions of the psyche, call them sicknesses if you like, are morally problematic.  In particular, the Personality Disorders, the so-called Axis 2 pathologies of the old Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.  Among clinicians, it's usually pejorative to comment that someone is "an Axis 2".  And for good reason. These are disturbances where the bearer of the diagnosis locates their problems not so much within themselves as with the faults of those around them.  They have been wronged, hurt, and let down. They become sullen and belligerent when their vulnerability is exposed. 

Trumps's narcissism is a malignancy on the American body politic. Narcissists of his ilk indulge in fantasies of greatness and require an admiring audience to confirm it. When challenged, their claims of greatness have clinical and moral consequences. All presidents probably think they are grander than the rest of us. They almost have to. Some even had the stuff to back it up, but not our current one. Trump is not like other presidents. Trump is profoundly different. Even at his most paranoid, Nixon was far more competent. Trump's threatened narcissism severely warps his judgment. I don't know if he aches in the early morning when he tweets, but I wouldn't be surprised. His boasts, his fragmented attempts to shore up his entitlement and grandiosity are painful to read.  But his pain is our hazard. 

Psychiatric illness is awful, the carrier dreadfully suffers, but the character disorders of narcissism and paranoia target and harm the rest of us. The narcissist's pain, their knee-jerk reaction to failed attempts to hold admiring attention, is defended through escalating claims and demands, and a preoccupation with victimization and revenge.  The problem from the narcissist's perspective is you. You didn't appreciate their grandness. You got tired of their endless winning.

A focus on Trump's illness, undoubtably real, obscures the most important point. It misses the importance that political leadership requires accountability and authentic service to the citizenry.  Trump serves himself.  Suggesting he's sick rather than bad, clinical language lets him off the hook.  Given Trump's privilege and power, the moral language of blame and condemnation is a better fit. Maybe he is sick, but he's a very bad person. He may be a sad little man, but he's a danger to us all.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Degradation Ceremonies and the Goldwater Rule: A note on clinical diagnosis, community, and moral indignation.

My vigilance and preoccupation with the incompetence, bluster, and threat pouring from the White House is exhausting.  I should have better things to think about.  Worry and outrage coerce my attention, stink like dog shit I can't ignore or avoid. It needs to be cleaned up.  

I am a clinical psychologist with license to diagnose and a citizen now over-disposed with indignation. No doubt Trump comes across as deeply disturbed, but my provoked distraction is that he's so god-damned disturbing. Although it may be ethically problematic for me to diagnose from afar, I'm on firm moral ground writing about my disdain and disgust.  Frankly, a diagnosis might suggest disability, a sort of excuse that lets Trump off the hook. I don't find that satisfying or adequate when it comes to our President. (I just avoided the impulse to write "so-called" but that fits the degradation ceremony I have in mind).

Two years back, writing about monsters and evil, I wondered about the differences of moral, legal, and clinical language. This is relevant now.  Earlier, I wrote, "Clinical language is appropriate when the goal is to avoid the moralistic stance of blame and to facilitate empathy. We appeal to clinical language when we examine the personal history of the character in question. This can help our understanding. It provides the mitigating facts. It facilitates psychotherapy, disclosure, and confession. We use clinical language to explore a performance under the guise of not being judgmental.

But at times judgment is called for. Clinical and moral language may cover the same performance but with different intent and significance.  Moral language is appropriate when blame is at stake and where agency is treated as irreducibly given. Moral language is employed when we judge a person's place in our community. We employ concepts such as evil when we make the judgment that a person's actions reveal they are not, and perhaps never were, one of us in good standing."  

On February 13th, a letter to the New York Times, co-authored by an old classmate of mine, Lance Dodes, and signed by 34 other mental health professionals argued that, 

"Silence from the country’s mental health organizations has been due to a self-imposed dictum about evaluating public figures (the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 Goldwater Rule). But this silence has resulted in a failure to lend our expertise to worried journalists and members of Congress at this critical time. We fear that too much is at stake to be silent any longer.

Mr. Trump’s speech and actions demonstrate an inability to tolerate views different from his own, leading to rage reactions. His words and behavior suggest a profound inability to empathize. Individuals with these traits distort reality to suit their psychological state...."

The next day, that letter provoked a response from Allen Frances, the chairman of the task force that wrote the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV. Frances replied,

"...Most amateur diagnosticians have mislabeled President Trump with the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. I wrote the criteria that define this disorder, and Mr. Trump doesn’t meet them. He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.

Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy. 

..... Psychiatric name-calling is a misguided way of countering Mr. Trump’s attack on democracy. He can, and should, be appropriately denounced for his ignorance, incompetence, impulsivity and pursuit of dictatorial powers.

His psychological motivations are too obvious to be interesting, and analyzing them will not halt his headlong power grab. The antidote to a dystopic Trumpean dark age is political, not psychological."

It is arguable whether Trump "does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder."  I don't have first-hand clinical data, but I stand with shared certainty when Frances writes, "Mr. Trump causes severe distress..." And when he points out, "He can, and should, be appropriately denounced for his ignorance, incompetence, impulsivity and pursuit of dictatorial powers.... The antidote to a dystopic Trumpean dark age is political, not psychological."   

Here's what I think. The sterile, ostensibly nonjudgmental use of clinical language, the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, misses the point, whereas my judgmental and degrading appraisal of Trump as a thin-skinned, ignorant, self-absorbed, entitled asshole doesn't. This doesn't violate the Goldwater rule. I can make that judgment based on the effect of his public performance, regardless of the state of his psyche. Clinical language gets in the way of confronting his effects on others.  A more honest option, moral condemnation, directly addresses his standing in community. The place of moral language is when judgments of disgust and indignation, of community violation and outrage are appropriate. This our call. 

We are all in a position to assert, as an act of community, an affirmation of the essential shared values of truth and justice.  As a
community of Americans, apparently still a majority, we have the standing to witness, denounce, and judge this vile perpetrator. Regardless of whether Trump eventually requires the legal language of "treason" and "impeachment", for now moral language fits. It does the trick. It brings us together.

Degradation and accreditation ceremonies require a community that honors shared values required to remain a member in good standing. Isolation and lonely preoccupation are insufficient, inadequate as antidote when the dilemma "is political, not psychological".  And community is essential not just to address the political but as a remedy for the psychological.  We are facing an extraordinary psychological stress. With the possible exception of the days that followed the Kennedy assassination, and maybe during the Watergate hearing, I've never witnessed this much anxious attention and preoccupation with the state of America and American leadership. The point of good governing is to be free to attend to other things. Many of us are not.

For far too many, America does not feel like a safe place.  When those in charge who should be adult look mad and incompetent, the unresolved vulnerabilities of childhood awaken. This vulnerability stokes personal fears and traumas and an unsettled memory of mine.  

An October midmorning in 1962, I was twelve and scared, pacing the playground and refusing to go back to class, needing to listen to the transistor radio I'd brought to school after hearing the factory my father worked, Lithium Corporation of America, was a potential target of rockets headed for Cuba. This last month I've felt glimmers, uncanny resonances from that day. 

The bombardment of lies, absurdity, and threat has been relentless since January 20th. The signal to noise ratio hard to decipher. With friends, family, and clients, I've never seen so much preoccupation or defensive avoidance.  A tense sense of necessity undermined by helplessness. Only a month in, and already many of us face exhaustion, demoralization, or numbed indifference. So what can we do? 

I avoid crowds. I don't like to be in the midst of large groups of strangers. I love fireworks but spending a 4th of July on the Esplanade is now unthinkable. But the Saturdays of the Woman's March and the demonstration that immediately erupted in the wake of the Muslim ban offered me comfort and joy, hours of restoration. A companionship of strangers sharing the vitality of united indignation. One sign in particular evoked laughter and hope, "Listen asshole, we can do this every week!"

Demonstrations are not enough, but a necessary first aid. Demonstrations also scatter seed crystals that can organize larger, stronger structures. We need many structures, communities of separate and overlapping interests to harden rock-like to smash the threatening tyranny. Action, participating in what we intrinsically value, provides satisfaction. We'll need a lot of that to resist and persist.  

Here's a practical guide to community action: INDIVISIBLE

Take part. As Woody Guthrie said, "Take it easy, but take it."

All together now, Sing!

I take this a bit further in The Personality Disorders are Different. A note on moral and clinical language and Presidential psychopathology.
Some related thoughts On Choice, Sickness and Evil  and on Degradation Ceremonies.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Degradation, Accreditation, and the Community of the Deplorables.

Today the Boston Descriptive Psychology Study Group began with
the case of a 13 year old boy whose school system was isolating him as a sexual predator. A smart kid with an elaborate but flaky explanation for his actions, he seemed unmoved by scorn or guilt.

A small bit of context. He is growing up on the undesirable outskirts of a mid-sized New England town in a family that for a number of generations has been considered a clan of deplorables. Well known and ridiculed, their family name is an insult hurled among grade school children. Getting called that starts fights. I knew a few kids from families like that where I grew up in the South. Those kids never stood a chance. Born to lose; treated as losers.  As far as I know, none of them did well. Most are now dead.

So we starting talking about the understandable and likely consequences of being born into a degraded family.  As a Southerner, I am familiar with the lore of Kallikaks and Jukes, not as a sociological tale regarding eugenics, but as an image of marginal white families with yards filled with soiled diapers, chained mangy dogs, broken car parts, and rusted wash machines. People treated as trash, uncouth, considered incapable of civility or redemption. Thought of as inbred, violent, and sexually wanton; a danger to society managed through ridicule and arrest.

Such families are rarely happy and seldom have the economic or psychological resources to provide good enough care. Nor are they cared for. Depression and mental illness follow these families who never become members-in-good-standing with their local community even though they share the common ethnicity and religion. They could be one of us but aren't. This is different from the degradation that attends racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. The difference is profound. 

Here's some of the difference. This morning a member of the study group pointed out that "everyone needs a code to live by." People need a code, a set of significant values that potentially establishes a through-line that provides the evidence they are persons of integrity. An integrity both honored and witnessed. 

Communities have their honored and required social practices, the policies and choice principles people must follow if they are to be recognized as authentically one of us.  So what can groups of people who have learned to expect disrespect do?  They can turn the table. And here's an important social consideration. Groups of people large enough to function as a community have an option unlikely to be successful in an isolated family. With sufficient shared identification, people in marginalized communities have the potential to celebrate their own values especially if they make their implicit code explicit and act politically. Expect conflict. Expect values and practices at odds with those with the previously established power to inform and remind the broader culture what is acceptable and treasured. 

The marginalized and disrespected have good reason to resist degradation. Why wouldn't they? They know they can't expect the established elites and their media to help them feel good about themselves. The code most useful to disparaged folk intentionally undermines the establishment. One way people counter degradation is to discredit those with the power to discredit them by invalidating the judge and affirming the values previously degraded.  What had been deplored becomes a source of pride and membership, of righteous indignation and opposition. Collectively engaged, antagonism becomes an act of integrity and a source of satisfaction. Collectively saying fuck you is defining and establishes the boundaries of community. But this only works when there are sufficient numbers to effectively affirm actions that reflect the values of difference and opposition.  In-your-face anger, rage, protest, and indignation becomes an antidote to counter depression and demoralization. But it takes a community acting together. 

A community can resist degradation more effectively than an isolated family. A community has political power. Degradation and accreditation require valued judges and witnesses with the standing to make such appraisals.  Parents recognized as part of a broader community can feel the affirmation of each other, their children, and their neighbors. An isolated family has only each other to assign the values of success and failure. When pathology and degradation are already part of the picture, life is not likely to unfold well. Self-regulation is too restricted.  Still, people will do what they can to maintain or improve their position, to feel good from their perspective, whether or not that perspective is shared and validated by others. Individuals are idiosyncratic, communities set standards. An individual's self-valued idiosyncrasy may appear crazy and pathological but when done as a community practice is simply the way we are.  

Depression and demoralization go hand in hand with isolation.  Isolation makes it hard to establish a code to live by enacted successfully and witnessed by others who share those values. Whether we like it or not, it matters what other people think, how we feel we look in their eyes.   Some of what we require to feel good rests on significant others seeing it so.  I am thinking of depression and demoralization as the consequence of a degraded personal world, of a severely restricted expectation and achievement of the satisfactions of successful engagement in the world of a valued community. Still, even in isolation there is an alternative in a sort of lawless indifference, a guiltless disregard for other people's established values.  This is a generalized fuck you; a version of if I ain't got nothing, I've got nothing to lose.  I wonder if this speaks to the adolescent boy we discussed today, his predation his way to feel some effect and power whether or not his behavior is considered OK by his family.  We don't know whether he even treats his parents as valued judges given what he knows about how his family is seen.

It takes an affirming village to become a citizen even if that citizen's community is at odds with others. Families in isolation are insufficient unless invited in and can play by the rules.  

                                                                        Tula, Roberto Luti and the Playing For Change  Band 

A link that further elaborates: On the Degradation Ceremonies of Everyday Life.  

Anthony Putman's Parametric Analysis of Community provides useful reminders of what constitutes the moving parts of a system capable of successfully assigning and maintaining values and codes of membership and conduct.

Communities = <M, SP, S, C, Lc, CP, W> 
M: The Members eligible to participate in the practices of the community. 
SP: The Social Practices of the Community that members engage in when they are doing the community's "done thing."
S: Statuses are the places (roles, jobs, behavior potential, etc.) a member may have within the community.
C: Concepts are the distinctions that members are expected to competently appreciate. 
Lc: Locutions are the verbal behaviors, the general and technical language employed by competent members of the group in engaging in the practices of the community.  "Baseball talk."
CP:  The Choice Principles typify the decisions usually made in acting as "one of us".
W: The World is the domain of objects, processes, events, and states of affairs germane to acting as a member of the community. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Trump requires an admiring mirror. The politics of malignant narcissism.

The object relationship framing this affect expresses concretely the desire to destroy or dominate the object. An almost unavoidable consequence of hatred is its justification as revenge against the frustrating object; the wish for revenge is typical of hatred. Paranoid fears of retaliation also are usually unavoidable accompaniments of intense hatred, so that paranoid features, a wish for revenge, and sadism go hand in hand.  Otto Kernberg

Last Saturday, Trump ended his "Thank You Tour" in Mobile, Alabama. His intent was to entertain his base and bask in their reflection. Since he's good at this, we can expect a lot more to follow. He needs to play his strengths. Get ready for a permanent campaign where he avoids the informed press, dodges critical negotiation, and ignores the disgust he evokes.  He will constantly rally but not govern.  Akin to an angry, hungry infant, he doesn't care what he doesn't know and his thin-skinned defensiveness will keep this ignorance unchallenged.  And it's much worse than that. Infants mature.  At this late date in his game, Trump apparently can't afford to acknowledge his glaring intellectual and emotional weakness and incompetence. 

Demagogues and fascists require an admiring mob, and Trump thrives in co-dependence with an undereducated, aggrieved crowd who will never call him out.  They reflect well on each other but it's a devil's bargain:  this mob needs their feed. Watch him fan their impotent rage and wink and nod at nativism and white supremacy.  Where there aren't enough Muslims to attack, anti-Semitism will do. He'll continue to employ misogyny and hate to distract from his nepotism and theft. He plans to make out like a bandit.  He brags there are no laws to stop him.

He'll reject ethics and embrace kindred demagogues, foreign and domestic, who support his malignant narcissism and greed.  Those who resist collusion can expect revenge.  Watch our president-elect's handlers, Flynn, Putin, and Bannon, get the last laugh. 

I hope I've got this very wrong.

a continuation of The Man in the High Tower: Thoughts on Accreditation Ceremonies and Trump's Narcissism.

No surprise from the Washington Post:  Trump Attempts a Reset with a Rally

The permanent campaign continues. From the "failing" NYTimes:  The Post-Campaign Campaign of Donald Trump.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Man in the High Tower: Thoughts on Accreditation Ceremonies and Trump's Narcissism.

An unhappy followup to Burning down the house: Trump, mobs, and narcissistic rage .  Apologies to Philip K. Dick.

Trump is president-elect. Where do we find hope? 

Our Alt History, The Man in the High Tower, opens with an unmoored executive branch, a broken one party Congress, and the absence of a working Supreme Court. The sequence starts with adoring crowds gazing upward at a towering glitz then pans to brown faces hidden behind drawn shades. Interspersed are headlines, The Markets Wobble, and night vision shots of Russian irregulars crossing borders, and in Massachusetts and California people too stoned to hear the loud knocking on the door.  

So where can we find hope when the world's most significant Accreditation Ceremony degrades practically everything so many of us value?  

Parallel to a Degradation Ceremony’s denouncer, witness, and perpetrator, an effective accreditation requires the witness of a community that shares common values, an affirmation of the newly accredited, and an acknowledgment by the affirmed.  If there is a glimmer of hope it might come from Trump's narcissism and the people who support it.

Trump's thin-skinned vulnerability might have a mitigating upside that comes with his continuing need for admiration.  Caught now in the sticky web of dysfunctional government, soon to be hearing  “show me the meat”, where will he turn?  For months, Trump's closest circle’s been sycophants skilled in dark and nasty branding, successfully marketing his off-message rants as manna from heaven.  In the corridors of power, that message will not fly. There will be no wall, no mass deportations, no religious bans.  He will have to stop grabbing pussy. But, unless he's a fundamentally changed man, an unlikely possibility, he'll still need his narcissistic feed or face his emptiness. He won't be hanging out with his about to be betrayed base.  Soon enough, they'll know they've been screwed again. 

He’ll need skilled operatives to manage the machine and will require their adoration. He'll need to feel respect from significant international players. Whoever these folk turn out to be, this is where he'll turn. Let's hope he's not an ideologue committed to the darkest desires of his base but a brilliant manipulator with an unquenchable thirst for admiration. 

It will boil down to his inner circle of advisers. Let's hope he has more in mind than getting the trains to run on time. 

We have no real choice but to stay tuned.  


Looks like POTUS, LLC a division of The Trump Empire, is his bottom line. That, and filling his narcissistic void. I posted this on Facebook after reading that Trump will not go after Clinton and sees no illegality, ethics aside, in attending to his businesses while in the White House. 

"Smart move to normalize Bannon and distract from what should actually outrage. Clinton was never going to be prosecuted. Trump's masterful manipulation with his misogynistic rant excited hate and now its retraction will appear presidential. Meanwhile, his abortion of liberal democratic and cosmopolitan values runs rampant. His goal, a nepotistic kleptocracy. A derailed focus on his corruption will continue hardly checked. He'll seem more human when he concedes that he can't deport the 11 million and that Muslims have Constitutional protection. Unless he profits from the concrete, the wall isn't going to be built. Looking for eight years, he'll keep the Democrats in line with infrastructure pork and maintain his alliance with Republican reactionaries by appointing to SCOTUS judges who take a primitive Federalist view of the Commerce Clause. Hello state's rights, goodbye voter rights, LBGT protection, Roe v Wade. Inequality will widen, dynasties will prevail, and the white lower middle class will remain screwed. Meanwhile the slime that's slithered out from under the rocks will comfortably don their hoods and find it much easier to recruit. I hope I am so very, very wrong.".


A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.  Joseph Goebbels

Effective propaganda rests on the absence of a free press and the constant promotion of "alternative facts".  Discrediting the independent press is an effective first move to enforce propaganda and indoctrination. Spicer and Conway are Trump's tools of fascism. They've started to silence the watchdog agencies. They cannot tolerate independent credible voices. Given our low information, post-fact and angry population, this will work well for Trump's base. It got him elected.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Burning Down the House: Trump, Degradation Ceremonies, and Narcissistic Rage

A person will not choose less behavior potential over more.  Peter Ossorio, Place

If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.  Matthew 18:9

A group is impulsive, changeable, and irritable. It is led almost exclusively by the unconscious.  Sigmund Freud agreeing with Gustave Le Bon, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego

Narcissistic rage is characterized by the relentless and ruthless need to exact revenge and rectify a perceived injustice, accompanied or proceeded by intense shame or humiliation.  Auchincloss and Samberg, Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts

"Blinded by Medieval Vampire"  Ashley Sinclair

The great analyst of narcissism, Heinz Kohut, quoted Matthew to describe the intensity of rage against a self that sees its fall.  I'm going to use it another way: The urge to destroy the witness of one's humiliation and the denouncer who pointed out the awful deed.        

We're watching the rise and expected defeat of a grandiose narcissist for the Presidency of the United States claim he's being cheated, denying what should evoke shame and humiliation. Apparently immune to mature guilt, Trump's entitled and thin-skinned grandiosity cannot tolerate the insult of being seen for what it is: a compensation for God knows what. Here is a man who has mostly gotten away with it. But what will happen when he doesn't?  And what will happen with his most vulnerable supporters, folk without advantage who've been taken along on his ride, identifying with his promise of greatness and revenge? For many of them, Trump shouting his free associations tells it like it is and evocatively gives voice to their understandable but suppressed desire for vengeance. Justified with grievance, inflamed by betrayal, what will his base do with their frustration when he loses and they've been told the election was rigged? Impotent to redress real social and economic problems, will they seek satisfaction in the spasm of the mob? Trump is inviting this.

We are watching the spectacle of Degradation Ceremonies played out across the American community. Harold Garfinkel described the ritual of the degradation ceremony as involving a denouncer, witness, and perpetrator. The denouncer and witness present themselves as community members in good standing, represent the community's values, and indicate that the perpetrator's actions are both a violation of those values and a true reflection of character not to be explained away or otherwise excused. The effective degradation demonstrates that in some significant way the perpetrator is not one of us. From where I stand, Trump is a perpetrator that deserves a degradation ceremony. 

There are various ways a perpetrator can regain good standing in the community or undo their degradation.  The normal path to regain status is repentance and reparation but that requires authentic guilt. There are darker options: in reprisal, the degraded can attempt to discredit the denouncer, blind the witness, or blow the whole thing up.  

Regardless of merit, a degradation ceremony can be effective or ineffective, accepted or rejected.  And don't forget that the actions one community finds degrading, another may affirm. Turning the table on his denouncers, a charismatic perpetrator like Trump may attempt to change the community's acceptable values or remain within the crowd, now organized, of those who already value what others despise. Here the perpetrator becomes the denouncer and Trump's base the witness. A Trump media platform and a third party would serve this goal.

When this election ends, there's going to be a large population of painfully insulted, angry, and betrayed people. And their Leader who needs adulation to compensate for injured pride.  Trump will want someone to degrade to feel whole. His crowd will want to direct their rage, and Trump has been pointing the targets out.

Continued in November's The Man in the High Tower....

Dana Milbank writing in the The Washington Post added  Trump Can't Just Be Defeated. He Must Be Humiliated.

On Trump's vulnerability to humiliation: What Drives Donald Trump? Fear of Losing Status, Tapes Show

Trump is vulnerable to Degradation Ceremonies and this suggests he will have profound reason to undo humiliation by establishing a media platform and perhaps a third party. He needs to keep admiring attention. And violence committed in his name, vengeance for his "stolen election" would also serve this narcissist's grandiosity. Where Trump support remains a large part of a population, support that isn't fundamentally anti-Clinton but instead an identification with Trump's racist and ultra nationalist rants, targeted violence is something to worry about.

Trump will not admit defeat if he can claim he was robbed. From the 10/16/16 NYTimes on Trump's claim that the election is rigged.

This from the Washington Post: Trump supporters are talking about civil war.  Could a loss provide the spark?

Earlier I wrote about Degradation Ceremonies in Everyday Life.

And on what turns an American Conservative into a reactionary: A Note on American Reactionary Politics.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Transgression, Denial, and Keeping Two Sets of Books

She is profoundly aware of the desire she inspires, but the desire cruel and naked would humiliate and horrify her. Yet she would find no charm in a respect which would be only respect.... she refuses to apprehend the desire for what it is; she does not even give it a name.... But then suppose he takes her hand....to leave her hand there is to consent in herself to flirt, to engage herself. To withdraw it is to break the troubled and unstable harmony that gives the hour its charm.  The aim is to delay the moment of decision....  We know what happens next; the young woman leaves her hand there, but does not notice that she is leaving it.    John-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness

I work with people who start by telling me they don't understand their transgressions since they have a "strong moral compass". It should be no surprise that the subject is sex. (If not sex, it tends to involve money or violence.) When caught they act bewildered, maybe panicked, and claim their action was out-of-character, a result of seduction, or coercive pressure. I think they are giving lip service to ideals they say guide them while not acknowledging what they actually do when sufficiently tempted or when the chips are down. 

They may claim, and I believe them, they don't want out of their marriage, that they love their spouse and family. The intense distress they exhibit when caught speaks to a recognition of what they have to lose. Often enough, they deny understanding why they got involved in the first place. 

I'm not talking about the people who betray their vows, want to get away with it, and know damn well that when sufficient opportunity occurs, they'll go for it.  They are not fooling themselves even while they make excuses or claim innocence. They know they are lying. 

I'm interested in the people who don't know they're lying to themselves. With them, I offer the image two sets of books, an accounting concept for hidden assets. One ledger is filled with the ideals they say count heavily, their "moral compass", while the second, hidden from sight, is only opened reluctantly but carries greater weight. When denying or not acknowledging the significance of this second text they engage in the self-deception that Sartre called bad faith. 

This hidden ledger contains active desires and denied values, motivations suppressed from immediate awareness that can't be acknowledged without guilt, anxiety, or shame; and a disposition to notice transgressive opportunity that won't be refused.

When acting from denied motives, it's unsurprising if the outcome is bungled and unfortunate. This unhappy outcome is often the initial reason they come to my office where my job is to empathetically invite the hidden, deceptive, and disowned to become available for examination and negotiation. It would be negligent not to. The struggle to owe up to this self-knowledge is the heart of the analysis of the resistance, a fundamental activity in psychoanalysis. Sometimes this involves confronting unconscious motivation but more often, I think, motivations we're reluctant to see, but could. We resist knowing and acknowledging these facts about ourselves (and others) even as our defensive negligence incurs a high cost. 

Why? It's natural, at times, to be at odds with oneself, to have values hard to reconcile where we can't have it both ways. We're defensive about this when our goodness and morality are at stake.  Here's a self-serving example.  Some weeks ago, mid morning, I was enjoying the frustrations of fishing inside the bay below the gut on Cape Pogue.  After hours of casting, I reeled in a beautiful, but just a wee bit too short, striped bass. I love the taste of bass in the morning.  There was no one else on the beach but my wife and dogs. My grill was in the back of the jeep. Did I mention I was hungry? Reluctantly, very reluctantly, after measuring the fish and confirming what I already know, three inches short of the legal twenty-eight, I eased the poor stripper back into the water. I'm conflicted. I'm hungry. I love grilled stripper. Knowing I can get away with keeping it, I throw it back just the same. Why? Because I'm a surfcaster who honors the conservation rules. They've worked to restore what had been a dangerously diminished stock. So I tolerate mixed feeling: the pleasure in the catch and the frustration and satisfaction in the release. (It is satisfying to do the right thing in a tradition I respect. Fishing ethics matter to me.)  It would be different if I was starving. It might be different if I was much hungrier, I can't be sure.  So I smiled at my wife, asked the dogs to shut the fuck up, and had enough bars to call the Shanty in Edgartown.  I'll settle for their lobster rolls and a Bloody Mary.  

I was working from one playbook that morning, motivationally conflicted or not. At odds with myself, but not that much. And I knew it. (Plus, now I can use it as an example here to illustrate my point and to show what a sportsman I am).

I started this posting with Sartre's famous example of bad faith. Versions of this involve sexual transgression with elements of denial, argued as out-of-character and not understood.  Often the acts seem out-of-character only to the perpetrators. This corresponds to their refusal or inability to open the second ledger where the actual weight given the pleasures of the erotic and the affirmations of being desirable might be inscribed. Finding that you're desirable is powerfully motivating when it's compensation for doubt or other significant kindred loss. Or when it seems the best thing you've got going.  This works many ways.

Are sexual transgressions all that mysterious? Consider the nature of actual human motivation. Why do people do what they do? The simple answer is that circumstance present opportunity. (What makes it opportunity is that it is something wanted, valued). Of course, the circumstances that provide opportunity have more than a few moving parts. We recognize pros and cons, or should. And not all pros and cons carry the same motivational weight, regardless of what we claim about our character. The actual weights, stable, subject to revision, claimed, disowned, or unconscious are a fundamental feature of our individual differences, whether we acknowledge it or not. Our neighbors and intimates will carry the burden of our neglect.

Some Descriptive Psychology, Psychodynamics, and a bit of Freud.

The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Mark 14:38

A person's reasons for action can be grouped into four categories:  Hedonics, Prudence, Aesthetics, and Ethics.  Moral standards will find a place in both our prudential and ethical concerns. The four are intrinsic motivations, understandable without further justification. Having an intrinsic reason is having reason enough to do something. These motives have a complex and dynamic relationship to each other as a person weighs what to do in any given circumstance.  This weighing of values can be immediate, a matter of careful deliberation, unconscious, or some combination. 

Why is problematic sexual behavior so often a feature of self-deception? (I'll turn to violence and money in a later posting). The simple answer is the motivational category of Hedonics, the fundamental, often powerful and intrinsic value of pleasure, and the compelling, often automatic pull of the erotic.  Add to this a common polyerotic disposition that comes with our primate body.  Sexual desire is not always countered or balanced by prudent self-interest or the ideals that a person claims as their ethics. To make it more complex, the actual weight given to ethical standards may require the recognition of choice. Such mindful recognition might not be as immediate or compelling as the erotic.  

We don't ordinarily choose what turns us on. Over time most of us learn to exercise prudent caution regarding tempting circumstances and mortifying outcomes. These recognitions sometimes become automatic and immediate and part of how we see things.  Even if not automatic, we can, if our moral-ethical perspective counts enough, turn away from desire even as it aches. The complication is that renunciation is a deliberate action, involves choice, requires self-knowledge. To the extent a person's actual motivations are, for whatever reason, unavailable for self-examination, they are apt to result in problematic acting out with bungled or otherwise unfortunate outcome. What isn't self-acknowledged cannot enter into good-faith negotiation. What isn't acknowledged cannot be the focus of reconsideration or the socialization of sharing with a trusted companion. What is motivating but unacknowledged confounds emotionally competent judgment and compromises life. It's hard to self-correct what isn't considered in the first place. 

The Psychodynamic Judgment Diagram

Here's an illustration called the The Psychodynamic Judgment Diagram that parses out the components of judgment or appraisal that results in an action. Domain 1 corresponds to the open book. Domains 2 and 3 to the less acknowledged ledger.

If you're interested, the posting Bad Faith, Self-Deception, and Unconscious Motivation: Restrictions in Effective Choice explain and elaborate this model. 

In a similar vein, Sex and a Person's True Colors.