randombio.com | psychological science
Saturday, October 5, 2019

Do people ever give up childhood beliefs?

Climate catastrophism may be inducing PTSD in many children. But psychologists tell us that trauma can induce PTG, or post-traumatic growth.

A disturbing new fad among climate extremists is to indoctrinate young children or teenagers to believe that the world is going to end in ten, eleven, or maybe twelve years and use them to promote their message of impending climate disaster. Many of these children have clearly been traumatized by this. An example is this fourteen-year-old girl who wrote a stress-filled op-ed in The Guardian complaining about the climate. And there's another one out there, whose name escapes me at the moment, who's even worse. In fact, there are a lot of them.

People generally assume that when these children grow up they will abandon their belief in climate catastrophism after the predicted disaster fails to occur, and adopt a more mature viewpoint. But is this really true?

It depends on whether the false beliefs caused the trauma or vice-versa. Psychologists tell us that childhood trauma causes belief in the paranormal.[1] Psychiatrists at the New York Psychiatric Institute found that belief by abused children in ESP and spiritualism gave them a sense of personal efficacy and control. Oddly, witchcraft was the most strongly held belief, while religion and superstition, which don't provide a feeling of control, weren't correlated with abuse.[2] Thus, trauma doesn't encourage false beliefs per se, but only beliefs that provide a feeling of control.

Now you might say, well, psychology is not hard science. But there is no doubt that childhood trauma has lifelong adverse consequences. Traumas perpetrated by a trusted figure can lead to low self-compassion, posttraumatic distress disorder, and low self-esteem[3]. How the children interpret the traumatic experience, and how they manage emotions, determines how susceptible they are to PTSD and whether they learn to regulate their own emotions. False beliefs, especially if they elicit praise from adults, can be a potent means of boosting self-esteem.

There's evidence that after a natural disaster, posttraumatic stress can induce synaptic plasticity in the brain that allows post-traumatic growth, or PTG.[5] There's little research about PTG in children, and almost none on how neurodevelopmental disorders affect these adaptive mechanisms; the overwhelming emphasis in these cases seems to be on finding a cure and ignoring the patients' subjective belief system.

A 2011 review by Meyerson et al.[7] emphasizes that it is not the traumatic event itself, but the struggle in the wake of trauma, that leads to growth. The authors say that traumatic events challenge the individuals' pre-trauma schema by “shattering their assumptions about the world and forcing a reconfiguration of an individual's goal, beliefs, and more broadly, worldview.” This may include a greater sense of one's personal strength, a greater empathy for others, and a deepening of one's philosophy and spiritual life.

But PTG isn't always a constructive outcome, and it doesn't always happen; even when it does, it can lead the victim into illusion instead.[6] In general, people only give up a false belief when it causes more problems than it solves. The ability to experience psychological pain is linked with the ability to feel empathy; thus, trauma can increase sensitivity to suffering in others,[8] which facilitates post-traumatic growth. If it doesn't, victims may become less empathetic as a defense mechanism, ignore the attacker, or engage in self-destructive behavior.

PTG is different from cognitive rumination, which is the conscious mind's way of building and reinforcing its existing narrative.[8] Meyerson et al. say that women ruminate more than men, and that rumina­tion is not necessary destructive as previously thought, but can help reconcile the trauma and create meaning from the event.[9]

Just as with adults, psychological maturation is a way of overcoming harmful responses to previous trauma. This does not depend on age: maturation can happen even decades later as the learned responses to the trauma culminate in a psychologically painful or “seismic” event that demonstrates their maladaptive nature.

The subconscious mind is always seeking ways of helping us to adapt. Its goal is to keep us alive. It does not bring us closer to the truth. It may be that the only way to dispel the beliefs of climate catastrophists would be to acquaint them with the scientific method. But catastro­phism is a psychological strategy, not a scientific viewpoint. Whether a child latches onto false beliefs to control a threatening environment or to gain favor of its parents, those beliefs are only symptoms of the child's needs. Once one's identity becomes entwined in false beliefs, dispelling them, if it occurs, can be painful, and is likely to be bitterly resisted.

1. Berkowski M, MacDonald DA. (2014). Childhood trauma and the development of paranormal beliefs. J Nerv Ment Dis. 202(4), 305–312. doi: 10.1097/NMD.0000000000000123. Link

2. Perkins SL, Allen R. (2006). Childhood physical abuse and differential development of paranormal belief systems. J Nerv Ment Dis. 194(5), 349–355. Link

3. Boyraz G, Ferguson AN, Zaken MD, Baptiste BL, Kassin C (2019). Do dialectical self-beliefs moderate the indirect effect of betrayal traumas on posttraumatic stress through self-compassion? Child Abuse Negl. 96, 104075. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2019.104075. Link

4. Barlow MR, Goldsmith Turow RE, Gerhart J. (2017). Trauma appraisals, emotion regulation difficulties, and self-compassion predict posttraumatic stress symptoms following childhood abuse. Child Abuse Negl. 65, 37–47. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2017.01.006. Link

5. Bernstein M, Pfefferbaum B. (2018). Posttraumatic Growth as a Response to Natural Disasters in Children and Adolescents. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 20(5), 37. doi: 10.1007/s11920-018-0900-4. Link

6. Schubert CF, Schmidt U, Rosner R. (2016). Posttraumatic Growth in Populations with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder-A Systematic Review on Growth-Related Psychological Constructs and Biological Variables. Clin Psychol Psychother. 23(6), 469–486. doi: 10.1002/cpp.1985. Link

7. Meyerson DA, Grant KE, Carter JS, Kilmer RP. (2011). Posttraumatic growth among children and adolescents: a systematic review. Clin Psychol Rev. 1(6), 949–964. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2011.06.003. PMID: 21718663 DOI: 10.1016/j.cpr.2011.06.003 Link

8. Calhoun LG, Tedeschi RG (2006). The foundations of posttraumatic growth: An expanded framework. In L. G. Calhoun, & R. G. Tedeschi (Eds.), Handbook of posttraumatic growth: Research and practice (pp. 3–23). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. Cited in [7]

9. Greenberg DM, Baron-Cohen S, Rosenberg N, Fonagy P, Rentfrow PJ. (2018). Elevated empathy in adults following childhood trauma. PLoS One. 13(10), e0203886. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0203886. PMID: 30281628 PMCID: PMC6169872 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0203886 Link

oct 05 2019, 6:47 am. last edited 2:27 pm

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