American Psychological Association
HOST: -- President of U.S. Newswire.
DR. MARTIN SELIGMAN: Well, good morning. As our kids go back to school, I want to talk about the two main epidemics that I think are afflicting American youth. One is depression, and the other is violence. I'm going...what I'm going to say in the next 25 minutes is I'm going to tell you something about the facts of the epidemics. Then I'm going to ask the question: What has changed in the last 40 years that might be responsible for an epidemic of depression? And speculate on an epidemic of violence. And then I'm going to suggest to you why psychology is relevant, what psychology can do about it. How psychology in general has to change to be useful in these epidemics. So that's what we're in for this morning.
Starting about 20 years ago, we began to do surveys of how much depression there had been over the century. And we discovered two astonishing things about the rate of depression across the century. The first was, there is now between ten and 20 times as much of it as there was 50 years ago. And the second is that it has become a young person's problem. When I first started working in depression 30 years ago -- more than 30 years ago now -- the average age of which the first onset of depression occurred was 29.5. Essentially middle-aged housewives disorder. Now the average age is between 14 and 15. It is green. It has become a teenage disorder. So the two facts about depression we need to keep in mind is that there is vastly more of it among Americans, particularly among American youth. And the second problem is more evident to you -- and I'm less of an expert on it -- and it is violence. I'm going to speculate about its relationship to depression.
Murders in school were simply unheard of in the 1950s and the 1960s. And now we've had, by my account, more than a score of them in the last 18 months. So what I want to ask today, what has changed? I'm going to suggest to you there's a link between the two epidemics. And the first thing I want to say is the existence of an epidemic of depression among young Americans is a serious paradox. The hands on the nuclear clock are farther away from midnight than at any time since Bikini. There are fewer soldiers dying on the battlefield today than at any time since the Boer War.
There is a smaller percentage of children dying of starvation in the world. Every statistic we have on the, quote, objective, unquote, well-being of young Americans is going north. And every statistic we have on their demoralization, on depression, is going in the other direction. There is more purchasing power, more books, more records, more education, and so the question is: How do we explain the worst demoralization we've had since we've been able to measure it among youth against a background of strong objective statistics on well being?
Well, that's what I want to talk about for the next 10 minutes or so, and then I'm going to try to link it to violence. So I'm asking how, how come there is so much depression in a country that's rich and at peace and has unprecedented opportunity? And I should say, by the way, when I'm talking about an epidemic of depression, I'm not just talking about a generation of kids who whine, and complain, and feel bad. My work over the last 30 years on depression has been essentially about productivity and helplessness. And when I talk about depression, I'm not just talking demoralization. But strongly linked to an epidemic of depression is lower productivity, more absenteeism, less response initiation. And so, what we're talking about here today, I believe, is a threat to America's position in the world 10 or 20 years from now, if this trend continues. It will undermine our economic status in the world. So let's talk for a couple of minutes about what's happened in the last 40 or 50 years that might explain an epidemic of depression. And I'm going to suggest to you there are three things going on. And what I'm going to have to say will not be congenial to some of you.
The first is what I'm going to call the I-We balance. I'm going to suggest it has gone out of whack. The second is the self-esteem movement. Something that originated in California around 40 years ago. And the third -- and those of you who are fans of Princess Diana should probably close your ears --the third is victimology. The national ideology that when something goes wrong, "you did it to me". And I'm going to suggest that these three things have combined to make our young people fertile soil for depression. When they fail, when things go badly in life it has made them the opposite. It has made them a brittle generation, rather than a resilient generation.
So first, the "I-we" balance. America has always been an individualistic country. But by the measures of individualism we have today, the "I" is maximal. All our measures of individualism are sky high among kids today. Now, there is nothing wrong with individualism. And it brings delicious freedoms in its wake. But depression is, by all of our lights, a disorder of individual failure. It is what commonly happens when you're thwarted. And the individual fails at the goals that are most dear to the individual. Now, if you've got a big "I," if you believe that "I'm the only important thing in the world," "my successes and failures are monumental," it sets you up for depression. At the same time, if you have a small "we", -- and that is what I believe has happened in the last 50 years -- then you don't have good buffers against depression. Our parents, our grandparents had relationships, had comfortable spiritual furniture to sit in when they failed. They had their relationship to God, their patriotism relationship to a nation, relationship to a large community, and probably best of all, a large and stable extended family. All of these larger factors, all of the spiritual furniture, has in the last 50 years become threadbare. So I believe that the combination of a huge "I" and a small "we" is the first factor in making our young people such a set up for depression.
Second factor I want to talk about is the self-esteem movement. I have five children who range in age from 5 to 30. So I've had the privilege of reading children's books aloud every night for the past 30 years. And there's been a sea of change in kid's books. Thirty years ago, as it was during the Great Depression, the emblematic children book was The Little Engine that Could. About doing well in the world. I think I can, I think I can. Overcoming. Feeling good as a product, as a by-product of overcoming in the world. Now, pick up any children's books and what you're going to find is a book about self-confidence and self-esteem. About feeling good. I want to distinguish between warranted and unwarranted self-esteem. And I think our hedonistic nation has become a nation that doesn't much care how you get your self-esteem and would prefer to inject it directly.
Now, I'm not against feeling good, I'm not against self-esteem. I think they're delicious states to be in. But unlike most educators and most psychologists, I think self-esteem is just a meter that reads out the state of the system. Generally, when you're doing well with the people you love, with your friends, when you're doing well at school, when you're doing well on the playing field, the meter registers high. And in general, when you're doing badly, it registers low. Now, the self-esteem movement, the movement that has filled our classrooms with mantras like "I'm special," "I'm special because I can play." I was in the classroom the other day, and so "I'm special because I can play," has, I think, told our kids that there is a short-cut to self-esteem; that you can get self-esteem directly.
Now, my belief is that warranted self-esteem comes only as a by-product of how you're doing with other people, and in the world. Now, you should know that the self-esteem movement is a movement with teeth. It is not just about saying I'm special. It is the movement that has gotten rid of I.Q. testing in the schools. The less kids who do badly on I.Q. tests feel bad. It is the movement that has gotten rid of tracking in the schools. Less kids on lower tracks feel bad about themselves. It is the movement that has made competition a dirty word in the United States. Less kids who lose in competitions feel bad. What the movement neglects is that -- I believe that every kid is better at some one thing than ten thousand other kids. I'll say more about this when I turn to the question of positive psychology. Our job is, I'm going to suggest, to find out what these kids are really good at; to amplify it. Let me hold off on that for a moment.
Now, I did something I don't recommend to any of you. I read the entire self-esteem literature a couple of years ago. There is a lot of it. And the California question, what California tells us, is that self-esteem is the vaccine against teenage pregnancy, depression, drug use, welfare dependency, juvenile delinquency, et cetera, et cetera. So the question is, does self-esteem cause anything? Or is it merely a meter? And there are actually pretty neat ways of asking this question these days. And basic design, what you do is you take -- let's say you think self-esteem, high self-esteem causes high grades or causes lack of depression or something like that; very easy to find out these days. You merely take a large group of kids in September when they come to school. You measure the grades they had last year, and you measure their self-esteem, in September. And you take all the B-students. And the prediction is, the B-students who have high self-esteem, if self-esteem is causal, their grades are going to move up toward A's. And the kids with low self-esteem as B-student, their grades are going to move down toward C's. Right? Got it? Never happens. In the entire literature, it merely correlates with how you're doing. It's a meter. And that's what I believed up until about a year and a half ago.
When Roy Baumeister published a singly important article on violence and self-esteem, Baumeister said, "Oh no, Seligman is wrong. Self-esteem really does cause something. It is not just a meter." What it causes is violence. And what Baumeister argued, basically, is he reviewed the literature on hit men, genocidal maniacs, violent juvenile delinquents, and the like, and found, contrary to what psychologists have been telling him for many years, that these people are all high-esteem people. Not low self-esteem people. And I'll return to that in a couple of minutes. So, the second thing I want to suggest that has gone wrong is that we now think we should inject self-esteem directly into our young people, as opposed to producing warranted self-esteem, which I believe comes from doing well with the people you love, doing well in sports, doing well in school.
The final thing I believe has gone wrong over the last 40 or 50 years, that has made our kids fertile soil for depression and maybe for violence has to do with victimology. A student fell asleep in my class recently, and he said, "Oh, sorry Dr. Seligman. I have attention deficit disorder." It has become routine for us to blame our own failings, to blame failings on other people and circumstances. Now, let me just do a cost benefit analysis of victimology with you. First, the benefits of it, and the reason that psychology and the social sciences have been so full of victimology is that you identify with the underdog. And most of us like to do that.
The second good thing about victimology is when you can shuck off failings, blame them on other people or the establishment or racism, you feel better about yourself. Your self-esteem goes up. The third good thing about victimology is it changes the traditional wages of failure from pity and contempt to compassion and support. And the best thing about victimology is it is sometimes correct. That is, sometimes indeed, people are victims. And victimology has a great and glorious history, both in AA - I'm the victim of an alcoholic disease, and then in the civil rights movement. But the problem is that this glorious history has been transmogrified into a daily way in which our kids and our contemporaries think about their failure. The first thought is that, "it is not my fault". What can I, who can I find to blame it on.
Now, let's talk about the costs of having victimology as our national ideology, as opposed to individual responsibility, which is what we used to have as our national ideology. Well, the first cost is that the feeling better only works for a little while. If in fact you are the cause of the problem, the problem is still going to be there. That is to say, sometimes, in fact, the problems we run into are caused by our decisions, our character, what we do. And so it is inaccurate; it is sometimes inaccurate. And when it is inaccurate, it is very dangerous to blame problems of your own making on other people or circumstances. A third problem of victimology is it erodes the notion of responsibility. The fourth is that it deforms what is heroic. And one only had to look a year ago, at the mourning for Princess Diana, as opposed to the mourning for Mother Theresa, to see this.
As President of the American Psychological Association, I've had to learn a little bit about politics and political mistakes. Diana made every political mistake that you could make, at least in this nation. She was anorexic, she was depressive, she was suicidal, she was bulimic, she blamed her troubles continually on being put on by the royal family, on being betrayed by Charles. She was the Princess of Victims. And that is indeed the reason we loved her so much. We were able to - "oh, she's like us". And I suggest to you and to any student of politics that the - I think more people wept for Diana than at any loss in human history. And you really have to ask why. And I want to suggest to you, she was the perfect emblem of victimology. And we could identify with her. It was a different hero. So I think our heroism is deformed by victimology.
And finally, and this is what I've spent my entire life working on, victimology is about "I'm helpless." "You did it to me." "There is nothing I can do." I've spent my whole life working on something called "learned helplessness", and its relationship to pacifity and depression. And the one thing I can say this morning with confidence, is that if you have someone who believes they are a victim and there is nothing they can do and they're helpless, you have someone who is set up for depression. And that is what our kids believe.
So, to summarize what I have said in the first ten minutes, I believe that the epidemic of depression has three sources. The paradox is solved by three things. First, the "I" is too big, and the "we" is too small. Second, we have a generation of kids who feel unwarranted self-esteem. They have been taught to feel good about themselves regardless of how they are doing in the world. And third, we have a generation of kids who have come to believe that when things go wrong, you're a victim.
Now, let's talk about violence in this context. There are three elements that you know well, and I'm not going to dwell on them. I'm going to suggest two others to you in schoolyard murder; schoolyard violence. The first is the availability of guns. You don't need to hear more about that. And the second is loose family supervision. The latch-key kids. You know more about that than I do. And the third, you're responsible for, and I should take you to task for it. Others have as well. And it has to do with the 11:00 news, and the way in which the media covers schoolyard shootings. Now, if I'm a potential Kip Kinkel, if I'm a kid at the level of concreteness that these kids probably are, and I can watch on the 6:00 or 11:00 news every night for a week the weeping of families, the mourning of families that have been robbed of their children, that is going to feed in very well to my fantasy life. Maybe I can reek this vengeance too. So I want to suggest to you that the fact that you treat the reactions of families to these terrible events as news and broadcast them, feeds directly into the mentality of potential teenage killers. "I can do this too. God, I can get back at these people." You make it too concrete. I don't think it is news, and you know better than I that it is not news in a traditional sense of news.
But the two things I want to add that are new to this are the two psychological elements that add to guns and lack of family supervision and the delicious revenge that I can reek that I see on television. The first is what Baumeister tells us about self-esteem. That if you've got a kid with a mean streak -- and mean streaks are real things -- if you've got a kid with a mean streak that has been taught high self-esteem, regardless of how well that kid is doing in the world, and that kid now comes across something in the world that says, "you know, you're not quite as good as you think," like a girlfriend who says that or a teacher or principal who says that, that kid is apt to lash out with violence. And if you combine that with the national ideology of victimology, and when things go wrong -- "it was done to me, I didn't do it" -- what you've got is seething anger underneath that. So, here's the recipe for schoolyard murder; speculation on the recipe. You've got a kid with a mean streak. You've got a kid that has an unwarranted sense of self-worth. When this boy comes across a world that tells him that he's not as worthy as he sees himself, and he further sees that he's a victim of that person, this will fester into seething anger. If this candidate has easy availability of guns, if he's got minimal parental supervision, this can explode as murder. And that's my speculation about the link between the epidemic of depression and the epidemic of violence.
Well, in the last five minutes I want to ask the question, what can we, and by we here, I mean psychologists and social scientists; what can we do about it? And I want to suggest to you that there's a major change coming over psychology that may be of help in this situation. And my thinking about this comes out of work I've done for the last decade about prevention. So I've been interested in the question of depression, given that you have millions of kids at risk for depression in the way I've just described. What can you do in advance before a kid becomes depressed that might actually prevent depression from occurring? And to tell you about this, I want to talk more generally about something I call "positive psychology," or "positive social science."
Before World War II, psychology had three great missions. One was to cure mental illness. A second was to make the lives of all people more productive, more fulfilling and happier. And a third was genius, the assessment and building of genius. Now, an interesting thing happened in 1946 that changed all of this. In 1946, the Veteran's Administration system was founded and psychologists found out you can make a living treating neurosis in Omaha. That is, you can make a living fixing broken things. Psychology became a part of the medical model, and became one of the health professions. Now, there are two great victories about that kind of psychology. One is, by my count, there are now 14 mental illnesses that were untreatable 50 years ago, which are now imminently treatable with either psychotherapy or drugs. And the other great victory of psychology changing into part of the health profession, changing into a healing profession alone, was that we developed a science of mental illness. Basically, we learned how to measure rigorously such states as anger and depression. We learned something about how to figure out the causal skein about who becomes depressed. Who becomes schizophrenic. And we learned about how to create treatments and evaluate them. Those are the two great victories.
But the great loss was that we forgot about the other two missions. We forgot about making the lives of all people better and more fulfilling, and we forgot about genius in its entirety. Now, the reason I mention all of this to you is I want to suggest that the key to prevention is not fixing broken things. If you've got a kid who is vulnerable to substance abuse because he lives in a place where there is a lot of drugs, or a kid who is genetically vulnerable to depression or schizophrenia, there is nothing we know about the biochemistry of substance abuse, schizophrenia, depression, there is nothing we know about the psychotherapy for these things, that is any help in prevention. And I want to suggest to you where the help lies.
To do that, I want to tell you a story that was actually an epiphany for me. It happened a year ago with my five-year old daughter in the garden. The background for this, by the way, it will come as no surprise to you that the view of child rearing that has come out of fixing broken things, of being a healing profession, has to do with, you have to find out what is wrong with your kids. And make them better. Well, I'm in the garden with Nikki, and I have to confess to you that even though I write books about children, I'm really not all that good with children. And the reason I'm not is when I'm weeding in the garden, I'm actually trying to weed. And Nikki is throwing weeds into the air and dancing around, and I yelled at her, and she looked at me and she said, "Daddy, I want to talk to you." "Yes, Nikki?" "Daddy, you remember before my fifth birthday, from the time I was three to the time I was five, I was a whiner. I whined every day from the time I was three to the time I was five. And when I turned five, I decided not to whine anymore. And that was the hardest thing I've ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch."
Now, what is going on here in this remarkable story for me? Well, what I learned at that moment -- not only about Nikki, but psychology in general -- raising Nikki, raising our children, is not about correcting whining. It is not about fixing what is wrong with them. It is rather about taking this marvelous skill that she has - I call it seeing into the soul, what psychology really is made of when it is done well - identifying it, amplifying it, nurturing it, getting her to lead her life around it.
So the theme of what I'm going to say in the last three minutes is that the way psychologists can help in this epidemic does not have to do with healing what is broken. It has to do with finding what is right about kids. Finding their strengths, finding the ways to build them. You don't find kids who are depressed who are extremely good at something; who live their lives around it. None of the murderers we've had are kids who have been very good at something and have led their lives around it. Substance abuse is not a problem in a kid who is in flow a lot. And let me just say something about that. That when we became a healing profession, when the social scientists became all about fixing broken things, what we forgot about was human strength. And I want to suggest to you that the best set of buffers we have against substance abuse, against depression, against violence in our children have to do with a set of human strengths: Courage; interpersonal skill; the one I've spent my life working on is optimism; hope; future-mindedness; perseverance; work ethic; honesty; just to name a few. But because the social sciences, because psychology has worked in a medical model for 50 years, it turns out we know a lot about what goes wrong with people, but we know very little about the human strengths. We don't have a science of the human strengths. We don't have a taxonomy. We don't have a good way of measuring them. We don't -- have not investigated how they grow and how you can maximize them or minimize them. So what I want to suggest to you is that where psychology can help now, and will be much better able to help, has to do with the creation of a science of human strength to compliment the science of healing.
Now, you may think that I'm whistling Dixie here. And that we're never going to turn to asking the question scientifically of what are the best things in life. In the same way that we've turned to the question of what are the worst things in life, and how to heal them. But I want to suggest to you that we may well do that as a nation. When nations are poor, when nations are in famine, when nations are at war, when nations have social turmoil, it is perfectly understandable that the art, the novels, the science that they underwrite should be about defense and about damage. But when nations are wealthy, when nations are in surplus, when nations are not in social turmoil - and, by the way, if you think we are in social turmoil, you -- well, I don't have to tell reporters this, but relative to Rwanda or Northern Ireland, I just came back from Northern Ireland, what we have is minimal social turmoil relative to the rest of the world. When nations are wealthy, when nations are at peace, when nations are not in social turmoil, they turn to something quite different from defense and damage. And the best historical example of this is Florence of the 15th century. In the 1450s, as you all know, Florence became immensely wealthy from its wool industry and its banking industry. And it had the choice of becoming the most important military power in Europe, and it consciously decided not to do that. Rather, it decided to invest its surplus in something else. It decided to invest its surplus in beauty.
Now, I'm not suggesting to you that this nation is about to create an aesthetic monument. But rather, I believe that we have the choice of creating a scientific monument at this point at which we turn our social sciences from the question of understanding and healing of the worst things in life to understanding and building the best things in life. I want to suggest to you our body politic is ready for this. The nation is ready for this. The sciences are ready for this. This will have as its side effect, I believe, the prevention of substance abuse. It will have as a side effect the ending of the epidemic of depression. It will have as its side effect the curbing of the epidemic of violence we've had. But it will have as its main effect the scientific study and practice of personal strength and of civic virtue.
Thank you. I'm happy to take questions for a while. Yeah?
Q: In Wooster, Massachusetts, last week I guess it was, we were all handed the 32 page booklet produced by the Department of Education suggesting ways for teachers and others to identify violence and potential violence in school. I took the time to read the 32 page booklet, and I came out with zero tolerance for guns, school uniforms, and curfews. Is this enough to throttle violence in schools?
SELIGMAN: Well, I think in the short run it will curb violence. Just like metal detectors in airports. But I don't think it gets to anything like the curbing the epidemic of violence. I think it will just occur outside of school, by and large. And I think what's going on -- you can have a quick fix about metal detectors, and uniforms, and curfews and the like -- but I don't think I'm that interested in the quick fix here. I think rather there are two psychological states, which are the underpinning of both depression and violence. One is the enormously widespread unwarranted self-esteem that we're teaching our therapists, our teachers and our parents. We're teaching them that your primary job as a -- with your charges is to make them feel good, as opposed to do well in the world. And we're teaching our kids that when things go wrong, look for who did it besides you, and it is those two deeper problems that I believe do a lot more than metal detectors and uniforms. But they're not a quick fix. They're a major change in the way we think about child rearing and education.
Q: I did look for that in this booklet by the Department of Education, and there is reference in one paragraph to taking a problem child and helping them to accept responsibility. Why do you think they don't see this as warranting more than one paragraph or one sentence in one paragraph?
SELIGMAN: I think that's a difficult question. I think that in the confluence of two larger movements that education and child rearing are part of. One is in general in wealthy societies, you think that you want people to feel good. And that it is very natural to want to do this directly, as opposed to indirectly. So partly, I think we have a feel-good society. And so, the more you can do to make people feel good, the better job you're doing. Which I think neglects warranted feeling good as opposed to unwarranted feeling good. And the second reason is, that goes back to the 19th century. Where education and the social sciences as I traced them find their mission come out of, of all things, the Haymarket Square riot of 115 years ago, in which -- indulge me for a moment, and I'll tell you why this is relevant. A hundred and twenty years ago, when people did bad things, the dominant mode of explanation in our society was bad character. And 120 years ago, there was this riot in Haymarket Square in Chicago, in which seven policemen were killed, and it was done by a bunch of immigrants, and many of them, seven of them, I think, were hanged. And the press said, you know, bad people, bad moral character and the like, and a group of Protestant theologians got together and said, nope. What's going on here is poverty and ignorance. These people don't speak the language. This isn't bad character; it is bad circumstances. Let us form a social science, let us do education, and its mission will be to explain bad action as coming from bad environment. And indeed, this is where victimology comes from generally. It is the mission that social sciences had for over a hundred years. It has been very successful when in fact things have been about victimology, but what it has done has been to imbue education, social science, the press. By the way, we analyzed the front page of -- I think we took October 1st of the New York Times every year for the last 60 years, and we looked for trends in victimology. We looked for -- there are ways of blinding content-analyzing the press, to ask questions like how much reference is there to choice as opposed to being a victim. And what you find is just the steady erosion over the last 60 years of the notion of choice, and a steady increase in the notion of being a victim on the front page of the New York Times. So I think what I'm saying is the lack of concern that we have for the psychology of our very young people comes from a well-intentioned, but misguided self-esteem movement, a hedonic movement, and a well-intentioned but out of control victimology movement.
Q: You mentioned issues like tracking and - (inaudible) --
SELIGMAN: Could you speak a little louder? I am having trouble hearing you.
Q: You mentioned tracking, for example - (inaudible) --
SELIGMAN: Tracking, and I.Q. tests, and competition.
Q: What would you say is the cure in terms of education if tracking and the elimination of I.Q. tests is wrong, what do you think would help?
SELIGMAN: Well, the key to what I believe about tracking, education, I.Q. tests, and the like, has to do with my belief that every kid I've ever met is really good at some one thing. And I would say roughly better at some one thing than 10,000 other kids. It is a way of stating a notion of multiple intelligences. I think that one of the great things about our world as we come to the 21st century is that there is an enormous array of choices of things that kids can find to find the one thing they're really good at. So I think what we have to do as educators and parents, is essentially tracking. But it is a very different kind of tracking. It is tracking, it is finding what does this kid own? What is he or she really good at? Making the kid keep around what they're good at. Making them lead their lives around what they're good at. So for me, what is wrong with notions like I.Q. and tracking is that they're talking about only one kind of intelligence. In the case of I.Q., "G." And if you know anything about "G," what -- everyone in this room is probably "high-G," otherwise, you wouldn't be here. What "high-G" is about is having the remarkable combination of both verbal and mathematical intelligence. Being in the top 90, 95, 99 percent, but if you know anything about "G"; that's like being a pitcher in baseball who can also hit very well. These are two relatively rare and probably independent abilities. You put them together and you get some small percent of the population, which is sitting around this table which is good at both. But what we're not doing is we don't have a taxonomy. We don't have a way of assessing, and we don't have a way of building this enormous range of things that kids can be good at. So I guess that's my unsatisfying recipe for the way to proceed about strength.
Q: People in this administration among other things has heard, or has talked about doing away with social promotion in schools. And also more activities, programs. Which will enable kids to find out what they're good at, in sports, or in arts or music or something that are other types of intelligence, other types of abilities. And so far it hasn't gotten anywhere on it. Is that the way --
SELIGMAN: I think that -- I think they're both good proposals. There is an economic limitation on this. That is, what schooling is about is mass production. What the notion of "G" is about is mass production. It is a way of not having to spend the time and money to actually assess in great detail what a kid is good at, or let them find out. So I think we've got a titration here between mass production of education, which is a disservice to many of the kids in it, and much more specialized assessment training; nurturance. That's what parents are supposed to do. But we've seen an enormous abrogation of parental responsibility over the raising of our kids to our schools. So, I don't know that we can have a mass production in-school solution to the problem.
Q: What about eliminating social promotion?
SELIGMAN: Yeah. Well, I mean, I'm generally for that. You can see the economic reasons for wanting to do that. I think it feeds right into a kid's belief that it doesn't matter what I do. I'm helpless, I'm going to get good things; I'm going to get bad things; I'm a victim.
Q: My question is, do you need direct evidence that it in these sprees, in some specific situations in the shooting sprees, that self-esteem or feel-good self-esteem was stressed at some of the schools?
SELIGMAN: I just don't know. I have not interviewed any of the murderers myself. I have read, just as you have, whatever I could get my hands on. And we don't have people who are asking the questions of these kids that I want to ask. So what I want to ask of these kids is this inflated, unwarranted self-esteem question; the victimology question. It is much easier to find out that they had guns available to them. So what I told you about violence, I think, is based on the general literature and is a speculation that I think we need -- we urgently need to test.
Q: I'm not a reporter, though I write about situation violence. And I am deeply invested in the standards movement and assessments that you are talking about, and in not, you know...(unintelligible). The point is, in high poverty schools, I get a lot of resistance because the teachers themselves are products of the whole structure. And they're under such scrutiny at the moment their morale is very low. And there are a lot of excuses for terrible, terrible circumstances. My question is, how do you balance all of that out? You've got teachers with low self-esteem, kids with unwarranted self-esteem. And it is very hard to -- what kinds of tools, say explicitness, what do you use to leverage this system to get us out of this psychological mess?
SELIGMAN: Well, you probably know much more than I do about the how-to within schools. I don't think I've got a -- one, I recognize and endorse what you are saying. I also work in schools, in poor schools as well. I think I'm giving us a general formulation of how to get out of it. I think if our society turns from the question of what is wrong with kids to what is right with kids, and our Congress, our body politic decides what we want to do with our wealth, and our surplus is invest not in our defense and damage, but in understanding and promoting what is best in kids; that that is the beginning of the way out. But that is a major change in the way we think about our children. It is a major change in the way we think about where our budget should go, and what our schools should be about. I'm sorry for the poverty of my answer here.
Q: You know, the key to turning people, the attitudes, around, I agree with that. But it is so difficult.
SELIGMAN: When you think about morale as a teacher, and I guess I think of myself primarily as a teacher, since I've spent 35 years of my life teaching. There are two different circumstances you come across in teaching. One of which is joyful, and the other of which I would say is hideous. The hideous one is correcting what is wrong. In general, in life the best you can ever do in trying to rectify what is wrong is get to zero -- get to zero. But finding what is right and nurturing what is best in yourself, nurturing what is best in the kids you are teaching, is to go to zero to very high morale about teaching. So I think I'm trying to say that what I'm suggesting about human strength and civic virtue is not just a policy formula for education, but for every teacher in every school. Asking the question of each of my kids -- what is this kid really good at? how can I devote myself to that? -- is very good for morale.
Q: There is a foundation in Minnesota, and I can't remember the name of it right now. But they put out a book, a list of 40 assets for kids. Community assets, family assets, school assets, and they -- it's being in applied in Multinomah County, Oregon -- Portland, Oregon. A voluntary program of trying to make these assessments and find out how many of these various kinds of assets which could be everything from a hobby to parents paying attention to kids; it is all listed out. I wondered if you were familiar with that program or -- and if you knew of any others like that, and what you think about it?
SELIGMAN: Well, I'm not familiar with that program, but I have to say that I should be. Because the main endeavor that I have launched within American psychology, and which I will be acting on next year, has to do with the taxonomy and assessment of what kids are best at. What the human strengths are. So I think...you all know what DSM-4 is? DSM-4 is the taxonomy of the disorders. It is all the ways you can be crazy. Schizophrenic, major depression, manic depressed, substance abuse, et cetera. There is no taxonomy of the opposite; that is, what are the sanities? What are the things that people do best? How do you slice that pie? How do you measure it? And then, how to do you build it?
Q: I believe the group in Minneapolis is called the Search Institute, right?
Q: I work for a non-profit network of kids, and I think we have a lot of them - (inaudible) -- that you talked about. But it also sounds like we may have something that - (inaudible) -- So, I'm interested to hear your perspective, and maybe elaborating more on the warranted and unwarranted self-esteem. We don't encourage victimology, and there is a lot of choice. Behavior is included in reinforcing the consequences. But in the choice of (unintelligible) there is a lot of helping them discover what they aren't good in a range of things, realizing that not everyone is good at everything at school. So we have many of these elements going out into the community and less emphasis on -- inaudible -- as you mentioned. But what we also include is art and the Gospel. That God does love you. Even though you don't necessarily deserve it. And you do have an inherent value of who you are, even when you make bad choices and suffer consequences for that, you do have that inherent value. And that is also part of what we include. And that sounds like one of those elements you say - and I think it is a shortcut to the values of feel-good and don't worry about the choices you make or how you blame. So, I wouldn't understand that as a short cut, but it sounds directly like unwarranted self esteem, which is a part of what leads to violence.
SELIGMAN: One of the things I study is religious faith and depression, so let me tell you my reaction to what you're saying. Most of which is positive. First, if you look at what buffers against depression, one of the major statistical buffers against depression is serious religious commitment. That is very interesting. It needs explanation. So, we did a study of 11 American religions a couple of years ago in which what we did was we went to the Sunday or Saturday service, we gave all the adherence, optimism and depression questionnaires. We tape-recorded the sermon, we got a hold of the liturgy and the children's stories and we analyzed them for optimism/pessimism. And let me tell you what we found and how it bears on what you say. First, we found a very strong relationship between serious religious commitment and optimism. The more fundamentalist the religion, the more optimism in its adherence. And therefore, the less depression. So Calvinists, Fundamentalists, strict Roman Catholics, fundamental Islamic people in the United States are optimistic and non-depressed; orthodox Jews -- non-depressed, optimistic. Unitarians and Reformed Jews are pessimistic and depressed. Part one. Part two: we then asked what is going on here? What is the buffer and the ingredient? And we didn't find anything about victimology. Rather, we found the main ingredient seemed to be hope. That the -- as we extracted what we mean by hope, and what we mean by hope is the belief that your troubles now are trangent. They are going away. You can change them. And they're local. They are just in this one circumstance. They are not going to undermine everything you do; that we found that it was that factor that was almost wholly responsible for the effect of religious commitment on optimism. So I don't think the victimology is part of this. Rather, I think it is greatly overshadowed by religion as something that gives hope for the future.
Q: You talked a little bit about the I.Q. testing and things about that nature. Those seem to be concepts evaluating children, finding out what they're good at, that are opposed by the major teachers' organizations. Really, by the educational establishment. Do you have any idea how to change that around?
SELIGMAN: Yes. This was like the question before; that to the extent that what we evaluate in children are enormously global and rare things like being a hitting pitcher; that what you're going to do is you're going to greatly underestimate how strong, worthy, potentially virtuous a kid is. So "G," the I.Q. test, basically doesn't make fine enough distinctions about what we're good at. So, it's perfectly natural that many people would oppose systems in which 50% or 80% of the kids don't get special treatment as a result. What I'm suggesting that we need is really something different. We need a taxonomy of the strengths of kids. Something much more specific than verbal and mathematical intelligence. We need a taxonomy of what kids are really good at. Then we need to track those kids. Really track them into what they're good at. That education should consist in the kids owning what they're good at, leading their academic, their school lives, their little league or whatever, their after-school lives, after their strengths. So I'm not opposed to tracking or I.Q. testing per se. I just don't think it makes nearly fine enough discriminations for us to raise the next generation of Americans.
Q: You're suggesting that as a supplement to basic education, reading, writing --
SELIGMAN: Well, I think I'm suggesting more than a supplement. I recognize in our present system it would just be a supplement. But I think that education must be about much finer strengths than just reading, writing and arithmetic. Those are necessary, but then we need to ask for 50 or 100 other human strengths. What is this kid really good at? What is this kid going to own? How can this kid lead his life around this skill?
Q: How much of what you describe is actually also, maybe just, assisted by the social isolation, the bad example, the parental neglect aspects of watching a lot of television, which many of the children in the violent neighborhoods do seem to do.
SELIGMAN: I have to say that while I think violence on television, pacifity induced by television, parental and social neglect are factors, negative factors, as I read this literature over the last 35 years, I have been impressed by how small factors they are. These are not big effects. You have to do your statistical analyses pretty well to get these to emerge. So, while I think we should try to do away with -- do away --minimize violence on television, we should try to maximize parental involvement, we should try to minimize poverty and the like, we should try to increase classroom -- increase the number --decrease the number of kids per class. These are not big effects, as the literature goes.
Q: Do you see any difference between true violence or reporting factual events on television, and fictional violence and its impact?
SELIGMAN: Well, there...I think I saw an estimate the other day. I may have a zero wrong here. A kid before they're grown watches twenty thousand murders on television and film. It may have been two hundred thousand, although that seems implausible to me. And there is a documented effect of watching fictional violence. But I have to say that this is not an effect that would knock your socks off. That is, you have to be a pretty good statistician to find it, and that's important. We have to distinguish between big effects and small effects. And I think I'm trying to say something like when you've got a kid who believes that he's a victim, and that's the way he looks at the world, that that's a big effect on the production of violence. Whereas watching twenty thousand murders is a small statistical effect. I don't think I could back that up at this point with the data. But the violence on television is a real, but not an enormous effect.
SELIGMAN: Could you talk a little louder please?
Q: I'm talking about helping things in the right ways. And you mentioned a couple of things stem from application of families in helping kids out. They could be really good at nurturing the kids and finding out their - (inaudible) -- I know in the psychiatric profession, you can have an easier impact on maybe the educational institutions. What do you see as the impact of the role of the families building them up to do a lot of these things?
SELIGMAN: I think that the family is a much more natural unit for carrying out the program that I am suggesting than the schools. I think the economic situation of the school is essentially mass-production of education. But the family unit or the individual tutoring unit, if you like, is a system designed for one-on-one interaction. And I'm suggesting the theme of that interaction should be, what is this kid a star at? How do we build it? And so, for me, education...the natural locus of education is the family, not the schools, for the program I'm suggesting.
Q: -- inaudible --
SELIGMAN: I think that's a question that I wish I could do something about. But we have a situation in which, well, yeah, let me say something about it. The most recent statistic I saw on leisure time over the last 100 years has been there is a growth...there has been a growth in this nation from 10 hours a week of leisure time to 40 hours a week of leisure time on the part of adults. Now I recognize we often have both parents working and the like. But we do have a lot more leisure time. What do we do with our leisure time? Well, I think what we've got is the boomer generation grown up and become parents now. And what they're doing with their leisure time is essentially doing things for themselves. They're watching Sunday football. They're working out at the gym. They're getting their hair done. They're not doing, they're not devoting their leisure time to raising their kids; to doing things with their kids. So I think part, a small part, at least of what I'd like to see is that we use more and more of our leisure time to be with our children, and not just with ourselves. And that's not a matter of money or Congress. That's a matter of moral suasion, and a Smokey the Bear campaign about -- spend this 40 hours a week with your kids.
Q: Could I ask what appears to be the final question, is far afield. But the President of the United States and his dealing with the Lewinsky matter. How professional do you think he is dealing with it with many people saying that he hasn't gone far enough in offering an absolute apology. Is there some denial working here or not? Or do you refuse to answer?
SELIGMAN: Well, no, I won't refuse to answer. I don't know too many people who could do better with it given where we are seven months later.
Q: And, to answer the question about many people, Democrats and others urging an unequivocal apology, "I'm sorry." He doesn't seem able to cross that line in the eyes of many, that is.
SELIGMAN: Well, I don't think I have a comment on that. That's more political than psychological. But psychologically speaking, it looks to me like he's doing quite well dealing with a very difficult situation. Thank you for spending your morning with me.
HOST: Thank you