Monday, 16 November 2015

Book Review: The Big Ego Trip by Glynn Harrison

I met Glynn Harrison at a recent Christian Medical Fellowship conference in the UK. He is a psychiatrist with a strong biblical worldview and the ability to speak clearly into some of the more challenging issues facing today's society. Having heard him speak, I was keen to read his book entitled, 'The Big Ego Trip', subtitle, 'Finding true significance in a culture of self-esteem'.

In the first section of the book, he moves quickly through the the philosophical and psychoanalytical work that led to the concept of 'self-esteem', making the key findings of these works accessible to those who would not be inclined to read the full texts. He rapidly touches upon a key limitation in much of this work: Association does not mean the same as causation. Just because something is observed, it does not mean that one caused the other. For example, I may sit at my desk to work. I might only work at my desk, and only sit at my desk when working. The two could be very strongly correlated, but one could not jump from there to suggest that it is my desk that makes me work. It sounds quite obvious when stated like that, but sadly throughout science, it is a common error to make. In the more quantifiable sciences (biochemistry, pharmacology etc), researchers are often keen to point out the limitations and the difficulties in unravelling causation. In epidemiology, we are asked to consider the 'Bradford Hill criteria' for causation. Yet somehow in the 'softer' disciplines of sociology and psychology, it seems a major error has been made here.

However, as Harrison points out, the emerging data on self-esteem meshed perfectly with societo-cultural changes in the 1960s and 70s and became mainstream thought. Acting on somewhat flawed and limited evidence, leaders in education, in the USA and then later in the UK, decided to build 'self-esteem' into the curriculum. Some shrewd critics have pointed out that if there were so little and such limited evidence evidence available for a drug treatment, there is now way it would ever be marketed! However, this 'new thinking' was rolled out and has become entrenched into mainstream society.

Some of the fruit (or fruitlessness) of this is exposed. For example, how can children be widely taught to believe that they are 'special' or 'above average'? Doesn't the very term 'average' imply a middle point? And also, although surveys show that teenagers today have higher belief in themselves and higher expectations of life, they also show a higher sense of disappointment and lower satisfaction with life. Does that not naturally follow, since such boosted expectations are surely only going to lead to disappointment. As a medical educator, I have also been witness to the rising trend amongst students to complain against or appeal against their marks, sometimes in a somewhat aggressive manner, as though a distinction or top grade is somehow their right. Other examples are given in the book.

Throughout the first part is woven the thread of thought: What is life all about? Why I am here? What is it for? What is my place in society? How do I contribute to the greater good? And it is pointed out that there has been a real cultural shift here - again longitudinal data is quoted to clearly show this. But of equal concern is the way this thinking has infiltrated the church. Around the 1970s, there was a real shift in the words of popular Christian songs - the emphasis is increasingly on 'me', on my response, my worship, my adoration, my heart. Songs that speak of sacrifice and humility are less popular. The concept of suffering in this world is also going out of fashion, and there is a rise in prosperity teaching (you can have it all, and you can have it now).

So the second part of the book seeks to bring truth into the situation. The correct Biblical stance is outlined. Yes, we are made in the image of God (what could be greater?) with the hope of heaven (again, an amazing privilege). There is that part of us which is unique, pure, noble and made for higher things than this. But at the same time, as individuals we have fallen, we have sinned, we lack hope and we need redemption. The gospel is clearly and appropriately presented.

As a psychiatrist, Harrison daily deals with broken, suffering people. He does not at any time dismiss the devastating impact of abusive relationships and traumatic situations. However, he provides an approach to begin to deal with these (whilst acknowledging that such change may be a lifetime task). He points out, time and time again, that we are part of something bigger. And that either skill or mistakes in one area of our life does not define the whole of our being. For example, I could be a terrible doctor, and excellent mother and a mediocre friend. So what does that make me? Terrible? Excellent? Mediocre? None of the above?

One quote study that caught my interest was where students were randomised into two groups and given the same task. One group was praised for the output (ie that is a beautiful picture, you must be a gifted artist), and the second was praised for the effort (I really like the way you have given attention to detail here or here). The students were then given a choice for their next task - either something they knew they could accomplish with ease and do 'well', or something which would be more of a challenge. Interestingly, the students who had been praised for output went for the safe option, whereas those who were praised for the process aimed higher and were willing to stretch themselves, not being afraid of failure. This made a lot of sense having considered the data presented, and will influence the way I encourage my boys.

I am glad I read this book. I had been increasingly concerned about some 'modern' approaches, such as the 'positive' parenting which praises good things and ignores the bad. I've been concerned about the boosted (often inappropriately so!) self-belief of young people, and I have also been aware of a drift in our understanding of suffering and sin in this world.

This is a refreshing read - it draws on a wealth of academic work in a fully accessible way, and speaks as a voice of Biblical reason into our current generation.

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