Friday, September 19, 2008

John McCain - Still Angry After All These Years

My gf works in the mental health field. She and many of her colleagues view McCain's anger issues as a manifestation of untreated PTSD from his being shot down, imprisoned, and tortured during the Vietnam War. But as Gerson points out in the link above, McCain has always been a hothead with a short temper and slef-righteous attitude toward his opponents.

Personally, I think it's a little of both -- and that's scary in a man who wants to lead the "free world" (whoever they are).

, which is picked up by Psychology Today, offers a different take on it.

Still angry after all these years

John McCainWhen John McCain gave his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, he spoke at length about his imprisonment in Vietnam, and his harrowing ordeal. What was fascinating about this speech was that he maintained a relatively calm tone, even though he was describing events in which he was beaten and physically broken. This calm tone contrasts with McCain's reaction when he is reminded of the vile attack ads that were used against him when he ran against George W. Bush in the primaries. In those discussions, McCain can get visibly angry.

You might think that McCain is suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder that affects his ability to remember and recall his time as a POW, but a paper in the August, 2008 issue of Psychological Science suggests a different explanation.

BetrayalZhansheng Chen, Kipling Williams, Julie Fitness, and Nicola Newton did a clever set of studies contrasting people's ability to relive physical and social pain. They asked people to describe physically painful past experiences (like getting a root canal, or breaking a bone) and socially painful experiences (like being betrayed by a loved one). The experiences were all judged to be equally painful at the time that they occurred. So, the pain of the root canal or broken bone was just as bad as the pain of the betrayal. When people redescribed the physical pain situation, they did not re-experience the pain. But, when they redescribed the social pain, they did re-experience it. That is, they felt pain again when thinking again about a past socially painful experience.

One nice thing about this set of studies was that the researchers used both self-report and also demonstrations of cognitive deficits caused by the pain. It is well-known that people have trouble thinking when they're in pain. Just try to concentrate with a headache or after an injury. In two of the studies, people were asked to do hard cognitive tasks after recalling physically or socially painful situations. The people who recalled the physically painful situations did much better on the cognitive tasks than the ones who recalled socially painful situations, suggesting that the social pain being experienced was real pain. People were not simply calling the memory for the social event painful. They seemed to be experiencing the pain again.

This result meshes with the observation that the pain of a betrayal or the pain of being neglected by your parents can stay with you throughout your life. Future research is going to have to look at why social pain is so easy to re-experience in order to create ways to dampen that pain over time.

So this is a cool study for what it reveals about social pain, but it's also useful in how we assess McCain and his emotional fitness to be president.

Here is a brief bit on anger and anger management from the American Psychological Association:

Anger Management

The goal of anger management is to reduce both your emotional feelings and the physiological arousal that anger causes. You can't get rid of, or avoid, the things or the people that enrage you, nor can you change them, but you can learn to control your reactions.

Are You Too Angry?

There are psychological tests that measure the intensity of angry feelings, how prone to anger you are, and how well you handle it. But chances are good that if you do have a problem with anger, you already know it. If you find yourself acting in ways that seem out of control and frightening, you might need help finding better ways to deal with this emotion.

Why Are Some People More Angry Than Others?

According to Jerry Deffenbacher, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in anger management, some people really are more "hotheaded" than others are; they get angry more easily and more intensely than the average person does. There are also those who don't show their anger in loud spectacular ways but are chronically irritable and grumpy. Easily angered people don't always curse and throw things; sometimes they withdraw socially, sulk, or get physically ill.

People who are easily angered generally have what some psychologists call a low tolerance for frustration, meaning simply that they feel that they should not have to be subjected to frustration, inconvenience, or annoyance. They can't take things in stride, and they're particularly infuriated if the situation seems somehow unjust: for example, being corrected for a minor mistake.

What makes these people this way? A number of things. One cause may be genetic or physiological: There is evidence that some children are born irritable, touchy, and easily angered, and that these signs are present from a very early age. Another may be sociocultural. Anger is often regarded as negative; we're taught that it's all right to express anxiety, depression, or other emotions but not to express anger. As a result, we don't learn how to handle it or channel it constructively.

Research has also found that family background plays a role. Typically, people who are easily angered come from families that are disruptive, chaotic, and not skilled at emotional communications.

Maybe it's just me, but this isn't the type of person I want running the military and the rest of the nation. McCain admits he has anger issues, proudly, which is no surprise considering that he comes from a military family. He also comes from a generation that is much more emotionally repressed than current generations, or even the Boomers, which leads to more anger control issues.

Then there is the untreated PTSD. No matter how long McCain has been angry -- and in the Gerson article there is mention of him holding his breath until he passed out, as a two-year-old (how freaking unhealthy is that?) -- the experience in Vietnam had to leave emotional and psychological scars.

One has to wonder, especially considering his series of "mental lapses," is this man even fit to be president?


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