Thursday, December 8, 2016

More about nudging

There are two street signs in front of our home.  One alerts drivers that this stretch of road is a school zone, maximum speed 25mph.  The second sign warns drivers of a bump ahead.  The first is a mandate: obey or risk a fine.  The second is not a law, it’s a nudge: slow down or risk damage to the car (but it’s your choice).  Although I would like to think that drivers would be more responsive to the school zone designation than the bump warning, the opposite is true (believe me, I’ve collected the data).

Social scientists have demonstrated that nudges exert a powerful effect on our choices – and they exist all around us.  They include default settings on cell phones, automatic appointment reminders from physicians’ offices, the peel of an alarm clock, a text alert, an app that calculates calorie expenditure, the candy display at the checkout counter.   Governments are big users of nudges: health warnings on cigarette packs, nutrition tables on food packaging, feedback about household energy use in comparison to neighbors.   Compliance with a nudge is always voluntary – but the direction it encourages is readily seen.

But not all nudges are effective.   A parent’s remark, this might be a good time to start your homework, may be construed as nagging rather than a well-meaning nudge and yield the opposite behavior from what the parent desired. Social psychologists who research nudges have identified a number of factors that make a nudge more or less effective, such as simplifying the message, using social norms, and providing clear direction. 

I have been applying what I've learned about nudging in my own back yard (literally).  For several years, neighborhood dog walkers who don’t clean up their pets’ mess, particularly when it is deposited in my yard, have irritated me.   So I’ve been experimenting with different nudges to encourage more couteous behavior (on the human's part).  Here’s my latest (and it works!)

Although my objective is less dog poo in my yard, the sign’s goal is to influence human behavior -- not pet behavior.  The city offered to put up a sign citing the law about pet waste and the penalty for breaking it.  But such a sign frames the problem as a legal issue and likely leads many to automatically ask themselves: Can I get away with breaking this law? (The answer: Yes).  So I turned down the city’s offer and duplicated one I had seen at a wildlife preserve. It illustrates several important features of an effective nudge by: 1. Drawing upon reciprocation (we’ve done something for you, now we ask something in return); 2. Referencing social norms (most everyone picks up), 3. Suggesting a specific behavior, and 4. Making it easy and efficient to comply (by providing the poo bags).  Like all nudges, compliance is voluntary, a free choice, but the wording has had the desired effect – I’ve not found any poo in my yard since I posted the sign.  

Although dog poo is not likely to be on most people’s list of top ten annoyances, parents can likely identify any number of child behaviors they would like to influence without nagging and coercing.  Here are some examples of how parents used the power of nudging: 
  • ·       One parent hung a simple sign on the refrigerator on days he planned to do laundry: LAUNDRY DAY. His children understood that he would do any laundry piled in the bin next to the washer, anything not left there would be the children’s responsibility. 
  •         When a mother became weary of her three teenage daughters’ fights over access to their  shared bathroom, she removed the bathroom mirror and placed well-lit mirrors in their rooms.  The girls moved to their rooms to put on their makeup and fix their hair – freeing the bathroom for one another.
  •          Early during every holiday family get-together, one father/uncle/husband/brother-in-law (guess who?) sat the family down to watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with Chevy Chase.  It’s a laugh, but also a reminder of what a disaster a get-together can be if everyone isn’t on their best behavior (and they always were).
  •          A father using a point system to reward “getting along,” posted pictures on the refrigerator of what the points could purchase when enough had been earned.
  •          A father, alienated from his daughters but still seeing them, acquired a dog as the family’s newest pet. He named her Git-A-Long. 
  •          A mother, frustrated by her ex’ uncooperativeness, scheduled a doctor’s appointment for her son and gave her ex the choice of “opting out” and rescheduling or going along with the appointment she arranged. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Reframing a straw man

One of the powerful forces at work in alienation is “frame-flipping” – portraying the favored parent as the victim rather than the rejected parent and the children.  So rejected parents do not just remarry; they want to start a new family to turn the children away from the favored parent.  Rejected parents don’t want to be left in peace to raise their children; they are actually scheming to marginalize the other parent through court actions. And rejected parents are not actually victims of the favored parents’ negative influences, but beneficiaries of a legal system that facilitates their harassment of the favored parent and the children. This is a more persuasive, more respectable form of bias, one that does not seek to bad-mouth or name-call, rather to reframe the subject and create a straw man.

For example, a rejected mother opposed to her ex’s plan to relocate the children because she wants to maintain proximity and involvement may be portrayed as over-controlling and only interested in destroying the father’s chance for happiness.    A rejected father requesting more parenting time to repair their broken relationship may be accused of being motivated solely by a wish to pay less child support.  One of the most frustrating reframes encountered by rejected parents is an alienated child’s accusation:  “You don’t care about me. I know you don’t. Because if you did, you would respect my wish never to see you again.”  The child is saying, in effect: “The fact that you are trying to care for me proves that you don’t care for me. I am a victim of your caring.”    Rejected parents also encounter advocates who declare that the issue is not about rejected parents’ rights or children’s long-term needs, but rather the children’s rights “to have a voice” – even if that means losing a parent (would these same advocates support a 12-year-old’s voice insisting upon the right to drop out of school?)     

In these instances, it is easy for rejected parents to get caught in a circular trap: justifying their actions and explaining their motivations defensively such that they run the risk of reinforcing rather than neutralizing the negative reframe:  “You don’t listen, you don’t care, you don’t respect my feelings and needs, you’re selfish, you don’t consider any perspective but your own.  I knew you wouldn’t understand.” 

To help offset the pernicious effects of such reframing, rejected parents and professionals can encourage alienated children’s independent critical thinking skills, oftentimes with carefully crafted and timed questions.   Here are five ideas:

1.       Ask general questions:  How do you know what you think you know?  Which is likely more reliable: Something you’ve seen and heard for yourself – or something you heard about from someone else?

2.       Encourage the child to question their basic assumptions:  Do you think the other parent is completely unbiased, completely objective about his/her view of me?

3.       Try reversing the scenario: You’re saying that you know I don’t care because I won’t respect your feelings and walk away.  Does that mean that since you don’t respect my feelings about wanting a relationship and want to walk away that you do care about me? 

4.       Help the child evaluate the evidence:  What is a deadbeat?  Some parents really are deadbeats, but do you have real evidence that your father/mother fits that definition?

5.       Remind the child that no one thinks critically all of the time:  Do you think your mother/father get so caught up in their anger with each other that they lose objectivity?  Does that ever happen to you?

Monday, October 24, 2016

Children talk about trash-talk

Psychologists have given considerable thought as to how to persuade angry divorcing parents not to trash talk the other parent to the children.  The primary tool is education: backing up the assertion that “children need two parents” with research studies and first person accounts from adults who endured and were damaged by their parents’ negative attitudes.   It’s not clear, however, how effective these programs are. And when persuasion doesn’t work and the trash-talking continues, the family is labeled “high conflict” and often written off as intractable to anything but aggressive legal remedies. 

I think many psychologists, however, underestimate how frequently parents self-correct through the influence of their children rather than through educational, legal, or therapeutic interventions.   A divorced colleague was caught up short by her teenage daughter who responded to her complaints about the father by saying: “It’s not fair of you to put that on me, knock it off.”   My colleague agreed, it wasn’t fair, and she knocked it off.   An 11 year old boy and his divorced father crossed paths with his mother at the local grocery store.  After a brief exchange during which the father made a few unnecessarily nasty comments to the mother, his son said simply: “Get a life, Dad.”   Taken aback, the father realized his son was right, it was time to move on and get a life.   An eight year old girl endured her father’s trash-talking and criticisms of the mother on the car ride home after every weekend visit.   She finally spoke up: “Why do you talk like that about Mom? She never talks like that about you!”  His badmouthing never recurred. As an adult, she realized the father assumed that his ex was badmouthing him and that he had to counter with criticisms of her (think Donald and Hillary).  His young daughter’s spontaneous outburst helped him realize that his assumption was wrong. A particularly clever 9th grader, tired of her parents’ mutual bad-mouthing, unobtrusively and without comment left out promotional materials about boarding schools at each parents’ home.   They got the message and quieted down.  And in one remarkable instance, a resilient 12 year old boy said to a therapist in his divorcing parents’ presence: “They are great parents, but about each other they are just being what they are, idiots, and I don’t pay either one of them any mind.”  Taken aback by their son’s superior maturity to their own and concerned that they were only earning his contempt, they apologized and took a more positive direction in their divorce.

Recognizing that children’s voices can have an effect, educational specialists have created video documentaries for parents of children speaking out (see:   These videos are likely helpful to alerting many parents’ to the importance of not trash-talking.  But consistent with my observation that the family’s own children often have the influence that other well-intentioned adults do not, I have found these videos most effective when shown to the children as well as the parents and then used to help family members identify how the children have already been saying these things – but the parents simply haven’t heard yet.   

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Litigation aftermath: Good sportsmanship

Barack Obama recently said that one of his biggest mistakes as President was not planning adequately for the political aftermath in Libya once the ouster of strongman Gaddafi was accomplished. I think there is a lesson here as well for family law professionals and parents involved in litigation.  

Some liken family law litigation to a military campaign: the lawyers and clients develop their respective strategies, plan tactics to put the strategy into action, gather supporting evidence and witnesses, consider the other party’s strengths and weaknesses, and time their tactical moves carefully in anticipation of battling in the courtroom.  All this planning and activity is based upon one principle premise:  the “enemy” is the other parent, one’s adversary.   In too many instances, however, planning for trial does not include planning for its aftermath—and once the court has ruled and is no longer involved, the landscape is usually quite different.  

During the period leading up to trial, parents are subject to outside constraints. The court makes preliminary rulings defining what parents can and cannot do and court officers, such as evaluators and lawyers, are always looking over parents’ shoulders, judging their behavior.  As one father remarked: “We’ve outsourced leadership of our family to others.”  In this context, parents are well-advised to do right.  They may not want to do right, they may want desperately to act upon their baser instincts – but it is not in their interest to do so; there is too much to lose.

But after making its ruling, the court closes the case and the legal and mental health professionals step out.  As a consequence, the external constraints, for the most part, are removed.  Although most parents feel relieved that they no longer have outsiders looking over their shoulders, they may be taken aback by the realization that the other parent is also relieved of these constraints.  And once the professionals are no longer involved, both lose ready access to good counsel and guidance.  Parents then worry: “What now will constrain bad behavior?”

In the aftermath, whether they’ve “won” or “lost,” I find that the main focus of these parents often shifts from litigating their interests to trying to manage the attitudes of the other parent: “They only did the right thing before because the court forced them to.   I can’t trust that, they need an attitude adjustment.”   In the absence of external constraints, each becomes over-invested in transforming the other’s mindset to what they view as appropriate and acceptable. 

These efforts, I’ve observed, have something in common:  In almost all instances, they failed. 

Why?  Well, the “winners” in litigation often feel vindicated: “The court said I was right—so why should I do anything different?”  And the “losers?”  For reasons of saving face or not thinking they have anything more to lose or simply because they still feel correct in their beliefs, they feel little incentive to alter their mindset. Indeed, many feel even more entrenched in a position of being victimized, first by their ex, now by the legal system.  It is difficult for these parents to accept that the transformations that they want to see in one another are not under their respective control.  Those changes have to come from within, not from without.

So how will these parents maintain some semblance of normalcy and order for themselves and the children in the aftermath?   The best solution is a cooperative working-relationship between equal parents.  But that gets us back to the problems solved and then created by litigation – the court settles the disputes in question but oftentimes the winner walks away with relatively more power (real or perceived), the loser with less.  It is still possible to have a cooperative working relationship when parental decision-making and parenting-time are not equally distributed, but this is difficult, sometimes impossible, to achieve when feelings are still litigation raw.  Sadly, some parents just aren’t up it – even when time has passed.

The courts and family law practitioners have recognized this problem.  Working with state legislatures, they created roles (e.g., parent facilitators, parent coordinators, decision makers, special masters) for professionals to provide oversight and guidance to families struggling with the litigation aftermath.   The goal of such intervention is modest: Maintain reasonable order and good behavior rather than transformation of attitudes and mindset.  Evidence exists that such interventions can reduce the frequency of additional litigation (see Henry et al., 2009) but, as expected, do not impact parents’ negative perceptions of their co-parenting relationship (see APA Parenting coordination project, 2010). In other words, judges may be pleased that these families appear less frequently in their court rooms, but the parents are not any more pleased or trusting of one another than before. 

When the court recognizes that one or both parents are likely to engage in further bad behavior, it may also write orders with clear behavioral expectations – and equally clear consequences for failing to comply. These types of orders can be effective, although they require one of the parties to bring transgressions to the court’s attention before the consequences can be applied.

I think it is important to note that these programs are a reaction to a problem, rather than an effort to prevent it at the outset.   I said in the beginning of this post that planning for the aftermath of litigation was often missing during the run up to trial. This is where I perceive that family law practitioners, particularly family lawyers, could be helpful.  By insisting that their clients plan for the aftermath, to consider what would be “good” and “bad” behavior regardless of the outcome, and to develop a picture in their mind’s eye of how they want to act and to be perceived by their children, lawyers can help their clients first picture, then plan, then act accordingly.  We coach children what it means to be a good winner and how not to be a sore loser before their first competition.   And with reminders and practices, such coaching usually works. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Don't talk about it; deal with it.

There was a recent article in Scientific American about political leaders in South Florida who are concerned about the challenge of climate change on the economy and living conditions in the Miami area.   Faced with national politicians’ reluctance to address the causes of climate change, they learned to reframe the conversation to one about sea level rise – the effects of which residents can see on a regular basis when high tides flood neighborhood streets. By doing so, they turn the conversation away from debate about the causes of climate change and carbon caps and emission controls towards the undeniable reality of rising sea levels – a challenge everyone agrees must be addressed.   

I was reminded of this article during recent conversations with several parents who allege that their ex-spouses alienated their children.    As you might expect, their efforts to confront their ex’s with their perceived alienating behavior triggered arguments, denials, and additional rejection from the children. One father was doubly frustrated with a mediator who denied that parent alienation existed or that parents would ever deliberately alienate their children from the other parent.   In each instance, the buzz words, parent-child alienation, lead to protracted argument and mutual blaming rather than a thoughtful discussion about how to move forward. Just like arguments about climate change, such confrontations, in fact, tend to entrench parents and professionals in their pre-existing biases.

In the face of such resistance, it might help for parents and divorce professionals concerned that parent-alienation is occurring to follow the example of these south Florida politicians—focus on undeniable realities and mutual interests rather than debate cause and theory.  In other words, change the language to change the problem.


In the instance of the mediator who doubted the validity of parent-child alienation, for example, the rejected parent’s lawyer might focus on the children’s behavior (e.g., they’ve refused parenting time the past three months, their reasons for doing so are flimsy and unreasonable) rather than invoking the parent-child alienation concept. It is particularly important that parents and divorce professionals identify common interests rather than poking blame.  For example, there is substantial research supporting the finding that children are harmed when they lose a relationship to a parent.  Such children are at a higher risk for mood disorders and relationship problems as adults. Most parents can agree that they don’t want to increase the risk of their children growing up to lead unhappy adult lives. 

By presenting undeniable “facts on the ground” and identifying such mutual interests, divorce professionals and parents may be able to shift the conversation from “Who’s to blame?” to “What are we going to do about it?”