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The Conformity Epidemic August 9, 2007

Posted by federalist in Education, Human Markets.

We have a society that is in certain dimensions so rigid that it creates disorders out of differences.

As I read this recent article on autistic adolescents I was surprised at how intent families and public schools were to put children into mainstream schools and social situations for which they are obviously not suited. (The WSJ has also done a recent series on mainstreaming mentally disabled children, highlighting many cases with traumatic results.)

It may be that a majority of children will realize their maximum return on investment within the standard system of schooling (though even that is open to debate). I can appreciate the desire to keep things simple by squeezing every person through the same system, but there are some people who will just not fit. The attempt strains the system and traumatizes the deviant.

How much better could these cases turn out if parents and teachers accommodated the differences instead of trying to overcome them? If someone can’t connect, communicate, or comply then figure out what they can do — based on innate ability and interest — and accommodate their development in that direction.



1. bwv - August 13, 2007

As the parent of an autistic child, I can tell you that this attitude permeates the treatment providers as well. ABA and other treatment regimes take Skinner behavior modification training to train autistic kids to “act normal”. Alot of the medication perscribed as well tends to simply mask the outward manifestations of autism.

2. Hamilton - August 20, 2007

As a psychologist, I find both behavior modification techniques (formerly known as ‘animal training’) and psychoactive medications to be low points of our civilization.

3. Juneau - August 20, 2007

Psychoactive medications are low points? Sounds like someone hasn’t been taking his Prozac!

4. Hamilton - August 21, 2007

The ugly truth is that most of these “mental illnesses” that are treated biochemically… cannot be proven to exist biochemically. Not a single medical test can prove that schizophrenia, ADHD or bipolar depression exists.

You can examine every cell, every drop of blood and not be able to determine if somebody has one of these problems. Only by meeting certain behavioral criteria does one make a diagnosis. The biggest joke of all is “oppositional defiant disorder” aka ODD.

I think a good rule of thumb would be, why have a biochemical treatment for something that doesn’t appear to biochemically exist? Create a biological test that proves that somebody has it, otherwise, don’t let massive pharmaceutical companies drug you up for the rest of your life. Such medications never cure any of these problems, only control symptoms and create side-effects. Symptoms are usually controlled simply by putting somebody in a trance-like daze. Is that really helping somebody to get better?

5. federalist - August 21, 2007

Well there is newer research showing physical variations in certain phsychopathologies using things like fMRI and DTI.

Independent of that I don’t see what the big deal is: In the worst case, commercial pharma is coming out with psychoactive drugs that modify neurological behavior and after the fact we are creating artificial pathologies based on the ability to control minority “symptoms.” This is bad insofar as it establishes a norm that we compel “deviants” to adhere to through the medication, but I wouldn’t call it “ugly” or a “low point of our civilization.” As I argue in the post above, we should be open to working with deviations instead of forcing deviants to conform to the mean or majority. But I am also a big fan of (voluntary) “better living through chemistry:” Human beings did not evolve to deal gracefully with the conditions of post-industrialized society. If we can give free individuals the option to buy drugs (and accept side effects) in order to enjoy enhanced concentration, adjusted moods, or any other desirable effect we can engineer how is that worse than giving them the option to buy sports cars, exotic food, or other luxuries?

6. Hamilton - August 23, 2007

Well I work with a mind-numbing number of troubled youth who have no real say, judgment or understanding of why psychiatrists prescribe them anywhere between 2-10 psychoactive medications after having one meeting with them You cannot even properly diagnos a minor with a psychological disorder, but that doesn’t stop lower-class and undereducated persons from being placed on hardcore medications indefinitely.

My point is that nobody gets ‘better’ through these drugs. Deviance does not go away, it is in fact maintained or replaced by another kind of deviance. Indeed, using the effects (and side-effects) of many psychoactive medications would be criteria for a DSM diagnosis by themselves!

A 13-year-old girl I worked with was placed on lithium, among other drugs, for her outbursts of anger and property destruction against her mother. Now she has permanent tremors and shakes. The psychiatrist and his prescription pad have truly made her abnormal and outcast from her peers.

And as for the ‘physical variations’ you mention, it becomes a matter of chicken and egg. If somebody is severely depressed, of course their patterns of brain activity are going to be different. There is no reason to assume that the neurological activity is causing the depression. Causality is assumed in these correlational studies. Bad science.

Stress is an extremely powerful agent of psychosomatic change. One young lady I met had lost every single hair on her body due only to stress, not a medical or biological issue.

Indeed, I probably will spend the rest of my life and career campaigning against the use of psychoactive medications to treat behavioral problems.

7. Hamilton - August 23, 2007

You seem to take an economic / market stance on the issue (which is stimulating in its way)… but for me it is a matter of bad science, big pharma and psychiatric propaganda, and human rights!

8. federalist - August 23, 2007

W.R.T. the original topic I agree insofar as the belief that a clinical condition and treatment exist obscures the fact that an unrealistic expectation of conformity is the real problem. Some minor isn’t “adapting” to the conditions of public school? Rather than consider that he might perform better in different circumstances he will probably be “diagnosed” with ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, et. al., and the system will insist on treating him to enable him to conform, rather than look at alternative training or roles in which he might naturally excel. This is inefficient at best and (as you suggest) probably abusive in many cases.

9. federalist - February 16, 2008

Tony Woodlief has an excellent essay on “multiple intelligences theory.” Howard Gardner, MI theory’s originator, believes “that the real measure of education is the extent to which it prepares children to create value….” The sad reality is that our educational institutions seem largely unaware of that basic mission statement.

Gardner is also paraphrased as warning:

[W]e should not try to make our children good at what we were good at, or good at what we did poorly. Our job is to help them become who they are supposed to be, not who we wanted to be.

Obvious wisdom too often buried by selfish preoccupation.

10. TCW - February 26, 2008

Ken Robinson wrote a good book about the way our current education system is designed around a very limited scope of achievement: Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative. Recommended reading for anyone who wants to explore this idea further.

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