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Ep. 180: Dr. Monica Marsee - Aggression & Callousness

March 17, 2022 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 180
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 180: Dr. Monica Marsee - Aggression & Callousness
Show Notes Transcript

We are wired to be social and socializing and connecting depends on theory of mind, perspective taking, and being able to sympathize or empathize with others. Empathy, one of the vital ingredients for social and interpersonal success, facilitates prosocial behaviors, promotes social understanding and helps us to regulate ourselves in the complex social world. However, antisocial behaviors in others such as aggression, callousness, and other unemotional traits can wreck havoc in our social success.

On this episode, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Iowa State University and Director of the Marsee Aggression and Delinquency Lab (MADLab), Dr. Monica Marsee, discusses the nature of reactive and proactive aggression and ways to  expand emotional bandwidth so that complex situations can be handled with insight.

About Dr. Monica Marsee
Dr. Monica Marsee graduated from the University of New Orleans in 2005 with a Ph.D. in Applied Developmental Psychology. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Iowa State University and is the Director of the Marsee Aggression and Delinquency Lab (MADLab). Dr. Marsee’s research is generally focused on risk factors for antisocial behavior in children, adolescents, and emerging adults. Topics of interest include the forms and functions of aggression, bullying and victimization, Dark Triad and callous-unemotional traits, emotional dysregulation, and social-cognitive risk factors. Research is also focused on improving the measurement of these constructs. All research questions are grounded in a developmental psychopathology perspective, which allows for the study of the development of behavioral problems within the context of what is known about normal development.


About Host, Sucheta Kamath
Sucheta Kamath, is an award-winning speech-language pathologist, a TEDx speaker, a celebrated community leader, and the founder and CEO of ExQ®. As an EdTech entrepreneur, Sucheta has designed ExQ's personalized digital learning curriculum/tool that empowers middle and high school students to develop self-awareness and strategic thinking skills through the mastery of Executive Function and social-emotional competence.

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Sucheta Kamath: Welcome to prefrontal, not prefrontal, sorry, under that again, welcome to Full PreFrontal exposing the mysteries of executive function, we talk about everything related to executive function, self management, self control, self regulation, how to connect to our inner selves, to produce a better future self, and how to change our ways so that our future self benefits. And one of the interesting topics that's very close to my heart is our social skills. You know, we are all wired to be social, and socializing and connecting depends on a lot of executive function skills, particularly the concept of theory of mind, or perspective, taking cognitive and affective flexibility, our ability to empathize and sympathize with others. And those skills collectively help us regulate ourselves in the complex social world. But I don't know about you, but have you ever been bullied? Or have you when you were younger, particularly during, you know, middle school and high school years? Were you ever subjected to torment by your peers, and I had some traumatic experiences, I would like to think that I was a popular girl. But I think now that I look like I think my self esteem was better than my popularity. So I wasn't popular. But I was a kind of a leader, but a leader amongst the losers. And I hate to say that, but I was well liked by certain peers who were not included by anybody. And because I was inclusive, but it also kind of reduced my social creds. And that was very annoying, because all of them would latch on to me, but there was definitely the most popular girl in the school or in my grade was quite, quite mean to me. And one particular thing I remember was my mother, who was a great seamstress. And when we went to 10th grade, or 11th, and 12th, it was K to 12. And we in India, you have matriculation intent. And then it's considered, you know, many college but we were allowed to not wear uniforms, and then my mother sewed this dress, it was an Indian dress. And it literally I cannot translate this, but it kind of semi translates into this idea that it's a sack of potatoes. So the dress was a straight I was very, very skinny and, and tall, Indian tall. And I was where I would wear that dress. And this girl started rumors to call me a sack, and obviously not in a flattering way. And eventually that was written on my backpack and on my you know, many places, let me say unsavory ways, and that I could never shake it off until I left for college. And that kind of traumatized me in a way. So as I think about our today's guest, we definitely want to talk about these very delicate moments in our lives where our social value either is upgraded or degraded by our peers, and their own empathy or lack thereof can determine our savory or unsavory experiences. So we all know that empathy facilitates pro social behaviors and promotes social understanding. But one of the vital ingredients for social and interpersonal success is this highly cultivated social skills. But all kids don't bring the same level of emotional bandwidth. And with that comes the challenge of handling them, particularly if they're your contemporaries. And in that young mind, we may be either devastated by their behavior, or we may be the one causing devastation to them. And then fast forward. It's not too often that you suddenly a non bully person becomes a wonderfully divine person. So no, there are some traits, we have contemporaries and our peers as adults who also behave this way. So the question is a Why do people behave this way? And what can we do? Because executive function is also about creating connections, creating communities where we actually are pursuing collective goals and managing our emotions, and our social and cognitive abilities so that we all can live in a harmonious way. Well, with that, it's a great pleasure and honor to invite Dr. Monica Marsee. She's a graduate from the University of New Orleans and she has a PhD in applied developmental psychology. She's she's currently an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Iowa State University and is the director of the Marsee Aggression and Delinquency Lab. Kind of fun acronym is MADLab like mad lib. And she, her research is generally focused on risk factors for antisocial behaviors in children, adolescents and emerging adults, so many conversations to be had about that. And her topic. topics of interest include the forms of functions of aggression, bullying, and victimization, dark triad callous, unemotional traits, and I'm very interested in knowing a little bit more about these callous unemotional traits, and ultimately emotional dysregulation, social dysregulation, and social cognitive risk factors. So, such a pleasure to invite you to the podcast. How are you, Monica?

Dr. Monica Marsee: I'm doing great. Thank you for having me.

Sucheta Kamath: So all the saga that I described, is this something? Was I abnormal to be subjected to the torment of my peers? Or is it quite common to experience this being ostracized or slightly picked on? So maybe you can start talking to us first about aggression. So we talk about pro social behaviors all the time, which is being collaborative and kind and empathic. So what is pro social and anti social behaviors?

Dr. Monica Marsee: Okay, so my pro social behaviors geared towards engaging socially with others, and anti social behavior is usually geared towards harm. And that's how we define aggression. So aggression tends to be defined as the intent to harm another person. And this can be done in a number of different ways. You are describing what we call relational aggression, which is aggression that's geared towards harming someone's reputation, or their social relationships, friendships, and it can really be devastating to two people. And I think it's a lot more common than we think.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, it's so interesting that you described the distinction between this physical harm, which is actually scratching somebody's face, which I have never done, and nobody ever done that. But mostly, I've had a lot of encounters with relational aggression. And so it is it is, is it safe to think that if I'm hurt, I'm likely to cause hurt through aggression? Or do some people tend to aggress more or unprovoked way than the others?

Dr. Monica Marsee: I'm glad you asked that, because that's one of my main interest actually, is looking at that distinction. So between provoked and unprovoked aggression, because there are many people who will engage in aggression if they're provoked. So if you bump into them, or push them, they might push you back. But there's a smaller percentage of people who will also engage in unprovoked aggression. And it's more proactive in nature. So it's, it's goal oriented. So usually, if you're talking about physical aggression, it could be the classic bully who wants to steal your lunch money. So it pushes you down, takes your money. That's an instrumental goal that they've reached by taking your your money. If you're talking about relational aggression, it could be, you know, knocking you down a few pegs on the social hierarchy by starting a malicious rumor, to, you know, prevent people from befriending you. So it's, there are that is a much less common form of aggression, but it tends to be an indicator of severity of aggression.

Sucheta Kamath: And so is, you know, I had Ryan Martin, who is an anger researcher, and, you know, it was a wonderful to understand this premise of anger, and particularly goal blockage, you know, you have a goal and then and then but also you have some preconditions your internal state prior to somebody blocks your goal. And and so when I think about this, particularly these things that you study about social aggression, what are the goals people are trying to pursue, that they feel their goals are blocked when they aggress? So, you know, I want to speak and if I'm not allowed, then I'm going to kind of insult somebody, right? Or if I see somebody is popular, and my goal, I certainly feel jealous and not equal compared to this better looking person Is that Is that fair to think that way? What are the goals that are getting blocked?

Dr. Monica Marsee: Yeah, there are a number of goals that I think aggressors or bullies have, I think one, as I said, you can category categorize some of them as as instrumental goals. So they want to get something from you. So maybe they want to steal your best friend, they want that person for their own, you know, so circle and they don't want you to be a part of it. You know, that's something that could be achieved by, like I said, starting rumors or social exclusion, or leaving you out of activities and inviting everyone else, but you use things like that. I I, a lot of the research suggests that the goal of social or relational aggression is to increase your own social status. So whatever way that you can do that, you know, it could be any number of different things with more anger, related aggression, which we call reactive, like it's a reaction against something that's provoked, that's less goal oriented, it's much more impulsive in the moment, it's associated with hostility and anger, and a number of different cognitive biases as well.

Sucheta Kamath: So what is the relationship between executive function and aggression? Or particularly this relational aggression?

Dr. Monica Marsee: Well, there are a lot of interesting studies out there that look at attention in the role of attention and aggression, particularly what we call attentional bias. So what do you pay attention to when you're in a social situation? Do you pay attention to things? Do you percent rate on things that are potentially threatening? And are those things you? Are they actually threatening to you, or you over attending to something that's ambiguous, that you know, could be a threat? People who are aggressive, tend to make a number of errors and in their interpretation of situations, right, and they tend to over focus on what they consider threat, even if others would consider that an ambiguous situation.

Sucheta Kamath: Hmm, so in psychology, that's called appraisal, right? Like ability to evaluate the potency of a situation, I guess.

Dr. Monica Marsee: Exactly. So it's, it's part of social information processing. So you go into a social situation. And you first like you said, you start appraising the situation by noting and attending to different stimuli in the environment. And if you have maybe deficits in, you know, your attention, your focus, that are related to these biases, then you may be paying more attention to things that are really not relevant or threatening, but to you, they are very salient.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, it's reminds me of the taxi driver, "you talking to me?", you know, feeling constantly, that even a glance is almost a stare, or a stare is kind of judgy. You know, look at the person.

Dr. Monica Marsee: Right? Yeah, right. We, in the in the research, we call that a hostile attribution bias. So you go into a situation and there may be an ambiguous, you know, someone accidentally knocked your your books off your desk, and you think they did it on purpose. So you react aggressively and people who have that bias, they do tend to be overly aggressive.

Sucheta Kamath: So do we have any particular psychological characteristics or temperament versus cognitive profile of these people who are aggressed upon versus aggressors? What are your findings in that?

Dr. Monica Marsee: Great question. We tend to find that if you look at people who are aggressors, and they they're not victimized, you know, there, there are people who are kind of at the top of the hierarchy, so they're not, they're not victims, they are the bullies. That's, that's not as common is to have people who are both aggressors and victims, there tends to be a cycle. The people who are both aggressors and victims tend to have more depression and anxiety, more loneliness, other psychological problems or symptoms. People who are victims also tend to be very anxious. And they may, they may have awkward social skills or lack, you know, lack social development of their, you know, that matches their peers. So, there are some differences between people who are just straight aggressors and people who are also victimized. But it's not, it's not super clear cut, you know, because they, oftentimes, people are in both of those roles.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, in my clinical work I've seen very interesting and maybe I'm more biased because, you know, confirmation bias here, but in two particular populations that I see, you know, children and young adults with ADHD diagnosis and children and young adults with autism spectrum are particularly the milder Asperger's traits. And I always see those with Asperger's tend to get bullied a lot. Because they're missing on social cues. They are not attentive, they're also not seeing an onslaught of aggression. You know, they're not reading the room, so to speak. And then I see the ADHD, they're often the aggressors, and I don't mean, mostly, this is the hyperactive, even subset, but they tend to be the ones who speak impulsively insult and thoughtfully, they are very quick to reveal a secret, and and socially cause shame to other people or reduce their social capital by oopsies. So, do you see similar? Or is this clinical hunch validated?

Dr. Monica Marsee: Yes, I definitely think that you're onto something there is, it's so with, with children with ADHD, you know, they have a lack of impulse control. Like you said, they blurt out inappropriate things, they, they can't wait their turn. They feel like they need it. Now, you know, they don't delay gratification well, and so it may. So they that those temperament traits are more associated with difficult behaviors like aggression. So you would see, like you said, impulse control problems being one of the main predictors of this type of postural reactive aggression. And it's very thoughtless, in a lot of cases, it's not right, it just kind of comes out. And with with someone on autism spectrum, that would be, like you said, a lack of awareness of social cues and more anxiety appearing, right. So you know, they may, they may just not fit in to social groups, and don't even care if they do and people think they're awkward, and, and so they, they're much less likely to be aggressors, they're much more likely to be victimized, but like you said, not necessarily even know why or even pick up on it. Because they don't necessarily pick up on those cues in general.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, I had a very interesting client once and in my practice, to clients, but they didn't know they were both seeing me, but one was the bully and one was being bullied by the bully. And it was such an interesting opportunity for me because I could make an impact, teaching one how to stand up for yourself and teaching the second to stand down, so to speak. But one thing that was very interesting to me that from the, as I observed the bully one, there was self focus. There was a lot of hyper in self engulfed thoughts, you know, am I benefiting am I'm propelling my agenda, and general disregard for this collaborative, big picture, thinking about the needs of others. It wasn't even necessarily motivated by harm or personal gain by hurting, but there was no regard for any hurt that would be it's like just, you know, using a torch to, you know, make a thumbay. But you're also burning the house down and you're like, oh, it's not my house, so it doesn't matter. So, I was very intrigued by this general, disregard this callousness. And I'm very curious as I came across your work and Dr. Frick's, work about this, you know, callous unemotional traits. Can you talk a little bit about what that is? And is that psychopathy?

Dr. Monica Marsee: Sure, so callous unemotional traits research kind of started as a downward extension of psychopathy research and adulthood. So we know that individuals who are psychopathic lack empathy, they, like you said they have a general disregard for harm. And they don't feel guilt when they are remorse when they do something wrong. And this was applied to the most severe criminal offenders, right. So but then people started to notice that children also would show some of these traits and that's where this concept of callous and unemotional traits was born. It describes just a general lack of concern for even doing well in school or friendships or you know, other people's feelings there could be active maliciousness associated with it and sometimes there is, but it tends to, it tends to be studied in conjunction with conduct disorder. So children who are aggressive and who engage in delinquent behavior who are also callous and unemotional are going to show a greater severity of symptoms, they're going to be harder to treat, because they don't respond to things like anger management. So if it's I'm not angry when I'm doing what I'm doing, I'm just doing it to reach a goal or fall asleep, you know, engaging in this behavior without any emotion attached to it. So you can't really intervene with the emotion because it's not, it's not there.

Sucheta Kamath: And so is there. Is there a difference between when this callousness, which is more, you know, measurable, as you're saying, and because I've worked with several families where I see these behaviors in the son, or daughters, and then I see them in the parents, one of the parents and, and there's just generally like, lack of concern, you know, lack of, like, not deeply emotional people. So is there some connection? Is there a genetic component to this? And does this kind of when somebody exhibits these traits in childhood, is there should our alarm bells be going off in our heads?

Dr. Monica Marsee: Yes to both of those. So they are there is a strong genetic component. So if you look at twin studies, which are the gold standard for studying genetic effects, you do find that these traits are inheritable, and so they can be passed down are common among family members. But there's there's also another pathway, if you will, to developing these traits, which is via traumatic experiences. So if you think about callousness, as kind of emotional numbing, that's also associated with post traumatic stress disorder. So there are two kind of what we think of as pathways to these two developing these one, you're kind of born with this genetic predisposition and then the parenting and the environment that you receive. compound that, you know, that lack of emotion that that difficulty, it tends to be more stable, if you if you, you know, if it's if it's following that pathway, versus consistent traumatic exposure to abuse or other experiences like that, that can over time lead to nomming that looks like callous and unemotional traits. And I think you had another a second part to the question, oh, you asked whether it was stable into adulthood, and whether it should be ringing alarm bells in it, it definitely should, because it does predict delinquent behavior, aggressive behavior, and just a general pattern of dysfunction. And it's, it's stable, and, you know, has shown that it is stable across many individuals into their adulthood years.

Sucheta Kamath: So this is a little bit of a sidebar conversation from experience. So I'm curious, what do you think of this, but I've seen some people who are in my friend circles or general social you have encountered where people just stick to things like a dog, oh, who catches the, you know, pants leg of pants or something. And so they go to the extent of filing a complaint or making a federal case out of everything, or they actually will pursue it till death, and they will kind of miss out the big picture. So it is a kind of executive dysfunction, because you're not balancing priorities, you're completely hyper focused on this idea of spite or taking revenge. But you also have this an uncalibrated, a sense of justice, which is favoring self, you know, so I've seen some of that, like, we had gone somewhere with some friends. This is many years ago, and there was hair in the entree. And so this person, we returned the entree, they not only honored, you know, they didn't charge they replaced on tray. So everything was, you know, just as our ordinary bad, good experience, you know, no, no, no, this person went and wrote a review, and then called the whatever local authority and made sure they knew there was a hair. And and, and kind of kept refreshing the link to see if there are additional comments, and then made another comment with Anonymous, you know, anonymous comment. And so just I felt that was like this person went bonkers. Like, this doesn't sound at all reasonable. So I don't know what to make of that. But I see executive dysfunction and in everyday life where people are behaving in an unbalanced way. They're kind of hyper focused under focus, and they particularly take this idea of vigilante justice in their own hands, which is not even proportionate to the, you know, situational faux pas. So I don't know what to make of that.

Dr. Monica Marsee: I've seen that too, just anecdotally, among adults that I know who they won't let it won't let it go and will take things. It's it does seem to be centered around a sense of righteousness that I just want, yes. So that they that they need to make this right, that they've been treated unfairly, and that they need to be over the top and get revenge on whoever it is that treated them unfairly. And, like you said, it is a dysfunction because it's, it's a hyper focus on some outcome, that they only they know what it is, and, you know, only they know, what could work with what would make it right. Whereas for the rest of us, you know, it would be something much easier to remedy the situation. But I think it's related to some cognitive biases that that they may have. You know, they, they tend to blame other people a lot. So there's yes, there's never, it's never my fault, if anything bad happens that that's never ever my fault. I don't take responsibility for it. And, and that's, that's like the knee jerk reaction that they have is to blame others, which can be a treatment target, you can work on that, you know, with cognitive therapy. Yes. But but if you if you pair that with this general callousness, and this kind of, to me, it's more like a personality disorder. That's what he that, right. So it's personality to sort of being very inflexible and rigid in your thinking. And being you know, all of the disorders in that category are kind of focused on right, that inflexibility. So, like, the hallmark of what you're talking about.

Sucheta Kamath: And, and then I think the, you know, let's kind of talk now about we live in a highly socially connected world, and searchability. And at the same time, we can have some level of anonymity when we, you know, kind of bark at somebody right? In this highly connected web, or social worlds social media world. So the social media has given people the freedom to aggress and cause damage to people's reputation. Talk as you do, you have a great interest in this area. So can you define what cyber aggression or cyber bullying is? And is that different than in person bullying, or aggression?

Dr. Monica Marsee: That's a question that we've been interested in looking at. I've been very curious about that, too. So cyber aggression, or cyber bullying, I think people use those terms kind of interchangeably, sometimes. But it's, it's still involving that harm component. So aggression involves the harm component. And bullying is repeated aggression against someone who you perceive as weaker than you. So that's kind of the difference between those two things. So you could have one incident of cyber aggression where someone posts a mean comment about you and then that, you know, that's it, but if they are repetitively stalking you, you know, Doxxing, you doing whatever it is people do, making anonymous accounts to harass you, then it becomes bullying because it's that repetitive. It's the repetitiveness of it that really makes it in makes it bullying rather than just one incident. But I was curious, and we've been looking at this in our research lab as to whether they that people who engage in well, are there people who only engage in cyber bullying and don't, wouldn't, would never do it in person? That was one question that I had. And I think we are finding that some studies have found that that they do that those individuals do exist. In our study, we didn't find, we didn't find that there were people who were only cyber bullies, we found that if they were cyber bullying, they were also reporting regular bullying. In person bullying, we asked to write. And we wanted to know, do they show similar personality traits, maladaptive personality traits? And, you know, we found some some similarities there. So I see. But this is based on one study. So I think this is a new area that people are still looking at, as to whether these two types of bullying are distinct people or is this just another opportunity? You know, if you're a bully, then you're just going to do it however, you can. Right. So this is just one more avenue that you can use right? doing it online. So that that's, that's kind of how I think this is gonna play out.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, it's interesting, you, you said that I think you you kind of probably, you know, lots of opportunities to study this because we're, the cyber world is here to stay. And I was listening to a podcast this morning with a philosopher David Chalmers and his commentary on our virtual world versus our in-person world. That sounds crazy, but what is the nature of reality? And, and, and to me, I was very curious as I was listening to it, it just made me think about our upcoming conversation and I said, you know, so there is a in person world, then you have this cyber world, then you have virtual reality where you can actually be simulation in the midst of a simulation, and you can continue to bully in the simulation, too, you know what I mean? So it sounds like very much pertaining to the person's characteristics, in addition to provocations that may be encountered. So I too was wondering, is there a particular tone to cyber aggression is, is the agenda typically a harming person's reputation, or ruining people's connectivity? So is that a more than the relational aggression there? Or is this all about relational aggression?

Dr. Monica Marsee: My opinion, and so far is that it is just another form of relational aggression. And I think that the research is going to bear that out as well. So if you, if you're cyber aggressing, or cyber bullying, usually you are trying to harm someone's reputation, there's not a whole, you know, or you're trying to scare them. I mean, it could be you know, like, threatening, invoking fear. So I think there could be a couple of different goals. But it seems to be that a lot of the behaviors that when we study this that people report are, you know, they're spreading a rumor, a lie about someone or releasing a picture that know that the person other person doesn't want someone to see or doing things like that, that would follow you around for the rest of your life, because they're on the internet. So I tend to think of it as kind of a subtype of relational aggression, because it, you know, really is geared towards harming a person socially. Although, as I said, I could think of a couple of other reasons why someone would do it. But to me, they it has a very similar feel to the agenda of someone with relational aggression, or who engages in that.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, as you're talking, it just occurred to me, you know, when we, we empower teens and in pre adolescents by talking about sex talk, you know, in anticipation that they are going through puberty, I wonder if we should have a special curriculum just to talk about the idea of social connectivity or when there's face to face interaction is lacking, you know, we are missing out on tone, the emphasis, there is no conversational emphasis, there is no phrasing, there are no other nonverbal cues, when we are dealing with this in what is it in personal interactions? And do what do you think about its impact on our young minds that are developing? Because I think you and I did not grow up with this. We kind of escaped it, but I can actually even see now as an adult, I can, like just brace myself if there's a comment, like always like, ugh.

Dr. Monica Marsee: Right. I think that there, that this virtual world that the children are living in, is going to definitely have an impact on their development of social skills, potentially their empathy development. Because as you said, there, in order to feel empathy for someone, you usually need to be able to read their emotional cues when you're looking at them or talking to them. And so that's not there that's lacking. I think it remains to be seen what the overall effect is going to be. I don't I don't think that I think that there are a lot of potentially negative effects. And I do think that some some schools seem to be doing attending to this, you know, and seem to be talking to kids about this. And I don't know if it's an official part of curriculum, but it is when children's minds are developing in their, their, their ability to see things from another person's perspective. and they're only, you know, they're mostly taking it in via this kind of dry, you know, cold online virtual world, I can see how that would impact normal empathy development.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, I have a client, who as an adult with mild autism, and definitely has social interpersonal difficulties or has a robust virtual life more than in person. And one of the behaviors that I encountered or kind of noticed was lots of virtual gaming, and in that, making friends by bribing people in the game, so it's a complicated game. But anyway, you want one of these games that he plays that, you know, he has a lot of weapons, so he was very masterful, so he collected a lot of weapons. And so when he meets people in order for them to like him, he will give freebies of his weapons. And then he will also make terrible comments to those who are performing slightly poorly than he is, if there he perceives them to be competition. And so in fact, he was the one client, I would say that I had to work on this bullying, where it was a very mild form of bullying, like almost weak bullying, because all the bells and whistles were not there. But there was definite intention of harming other persons propelling of social status. And so I'm wondering if there is any kind of do these things go those who exhibit the this aggression? Do they exhibit the capacity for social charm and manipulation? So that when they want it, they kind of are able to yield what they want from people without aggression? Yeah, typical sociopath.

Dr. Monica Marsee: Right? Yeah, exactly. That's what you that's what I was thinking of when you said that it's they can't turn on the charm that is one of the kind of associated traits with you know, callous, unemotional traits or psychopathic traits is this this narcissistic, charming, right? Personality that can be used very instrumentally when it's needed to be and it seems very genuine. And but it's all just in pursuit of a goal also. So yes, that that superficial charm can be one of the characteristics that you would see not necessarily of your garden variety, bully or aggressor, but a subset of people who also show the dark triad traits or the you know, the callous unemotional traits. Those are, those are characteristics that define what we used to define those those traits, Machiavellianism, narcissism, things that are superficially charming or, or useful to the person and you know, the term is useful to the person, and they'll be able to kind of turn it on and off. So I think that's, yeah, I think you're right about that.

Sucheta Kamath: So let's not end our podcast in a hopeless way. So I'm sure there's some ways to help and support and build some of these skills, because ultimately on these skills, socializing and controlling impulses, and a self self centered perspective can be altered with by infusing other person's, you know, theory of mind, for example. So what are some of the things you have explored? Or what does the research say about impact of some interventions or ways to not be callous and unemotional?

Dr. Monica Marsee: So it used to be thought that, that these traits were kind of intransigent, and that you couldn't, you couldn't change them. But a lot of the really interesting research is coming out now looking at parenting and certain parenting strategies that you can use particularly. And it's not necessarily a strategy, but it's a characteristic parental warmth. So there's this, there's this body of research that's coming out showing that high levels of parental warmth can mitigate some of these negative consequences that are associated with children with callous unemotional traits. And that going further. So that's something that's, you know, parent child interaction therapy or other early childhood therapies, take into account or could take into account as a treatment target. So I think that that's just a very fascinating avenue of research that because we used to think, well, there's not much you can do. But I think that that, that the parent training, the parent warmth, is something that's really exploding right now. And interest in this area.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, is so interesting, I happen to watch this new movie with Olivia Coleman. It's called The Lost Daughter. And it's a story about a, I don't want to, I guess nobody cares about the spoiler alert here. But it was a story about a mother who kind of goes through this incredible angst of not wanting two children that she has, she feels tied, and she feels her freedom is gone. And she is not a good mother, she's convinced that she doesn't have the warmth and ability to care and express the incredible nurturing that she's supposed to do. And so shown in a flashback ways, but I was just thinking, it was a really, there were so many moments that she was so incredibly insensitive to her kids. And and every time that the children were getting drawn to the mom for affection, and she wouldn't give it and and it and then it makes reference that that she was a product of the kind of parenting she she received. And so she didn't know any better. And she doesn't know any better, and are just very appalling, because typically we see this, I don't know if I'm showing my gender bias here, but you would think men would possess this, this quality than women would. So is that true that we would see a gender difference in the callous and unemotional? Or is this socializing of gender?

Dr. Monica Marsee: Well, there is there is a gender difference. So but it tends to be because we think more boys show aggression outwardly than girls do. So they tend to be referred to clinics more, and they tend to be more diagnosed with conduct disorder. So it could be a result of a referral bias or the or an assessment bias in the way that we assess conduct problems. For example, girls tend to prefer relational aggression. So there, you know, there's a gender difference there. But when you're and it's very harmful. But when you're looking at diagnosing conduct disorder, that's not part of the criteria. So you wouldn't necessarily capture a girl with severe chronic problems, if you're measuring her using the criteria that were made for boys. And so I think they're, you know, the gender difference has a qualifier, because it's, it's, it could have other methodological factors that are, you know, kind of driving that. And it is, again, boys are boys, aggression tends to be more, more overt, more physical and outwardly shown and girls tends to be more hidden and maybe covert. And so they wouldn't come to the attention of parents and teachers as much.

Sucheta Kamath: Wow. So last series of questions I wanted to talk about one of your research interest in a lot of work you've done is girls and how they behave. And what their middle school and high school experience or young adulthood experience with, with this relational aggression? What are we what are you noticing? And what are the challenges that they are navigating? And is this particularly an aberrant behavior? Or is it a response to the pressures that girls feel which is far different at that age than boys? Do we know? From Jean Twenge's work that, you know, all the, or the suicides in young for 13 to 17 age group is the highest and social media has impacted the girls the most. So I'm just curious, how are they coping? And is this a reflection of poor coping?

Dr. Monica Marsee: I think the the research tends to show that when you ask girls, how harmful they find these behaviors like so how much does it bother you, if someone spread the rumor, if someone excludes you from a party, they tend to report more distress over those behaviors than boys do. And so they do tend to be bothered by it more. And it's also a social strategy that they may also need to develop so then that that kind of bully victim thing happens again. So if it's happening to you, you may need to fight back by using those same behaviors. And it tends to be also more effective among girls groups because girls tend to have smaller groups and they have more intimate friendships. And so relational aggression is more effective among intimate friendships than, you know, a group of large group a large group of boys that plays together. 

Sucheta Kamath: Oh, wow, right. That's such a neat distinction. I never thought about it. All the books that you read, you know, particularly one of the favorite, your favorite books that I also read after you kind of mentioned it through our correspondence is Margaret Atwood's book. Yes, yeah. And it makes so much sense now that their relation, like their circle of interactions is with a close group of friends, very few, but the same ones. The interaction pattern is kind of set. Well, Monica, thank you so much for an amazing conversation before I let my guests go. I always ask them, what books you have found influential or you have enjoyed that you think our audience will enjoy as well?

Dr. Monica Marsee: Well, you just mentioned one of my favorite ones, which got me interested in relational aggression. In addition to my experience in high school, it was maybe similar to yours. 

Sucheta Kamath: Oh, I forgot to ask you. How was your high school experience?

Dr. Monica Marsee: Oh, it had some bad moments. Now, there was definitely some mean girls and they were tormentors. And so when I read that the Margaret Atwood book, Cat's Eye, it was kind of like, wow, you know, this is, this is a thing, like and then I started reading Niki Crick's work when I got into graduate school, and there was a word for it. And so I, I was, I was enlightened by that. So I love that that book, I love anything by Margaret Atwood, really. Another book that I just read with book club for our, for some of our students and colleagues here in the psychology department, was the book Inflamed. So it's Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice, by Marya and Patel. So that was, that was a really interesting book that describes how social injustice lives in the body. And it was just very illuminating to me. So I recommend anyone who's interested in social justice issues, and how our environment and the food we eat, and where we live, can impact racial disparities and those sorts of issues, I would recommend that book highly.

Sucheta Kamath: That's beautiful. Thank you. And, you know, we have covered on this podcast, the other end of the spectrum of aggression and bullying, this mindfulness and caring and empathy. So I feel like there's a full circle here, you know, we can go come from this and, and go to more towards creating empathic and nurturing environments for each other. And one last question: Do you have any recommendations for us to improve our interpersonal skills that can really impact when we are experiencing some, an unaddressed hate or just general, you can see sense some type of aggression, but it's not intense enough to become bothersome. But you know, some friends just have an edge and makes the friendship a little bit hard to bear.

Dr. Monica Marsee: Right? I think, having an awareness of that, and being able to distance yourself from it and not internalize it and make it personal about you and realizing that it's a trait that they have, right. Yeah, that could be one strategy that you use, I think we do tend to personalize things way too much and make it about ourselves. If we can maintain some distance, which is not always easy to do, then that that might help with dealing with friends that have those those issues or traits.

Sucheta Kamath: Such a wise advice. Well, thank you, Monica, for being a guest. Thank you, listeners for joining us on this wonderful journey. Please, these are important conversations we are having with knowledgeable and incredibly qualified and passionate experts, as you see, with their unique perspective that influences executive function, interpersonal relationships, and mostly creating communities where each of us have kind of taken the temperature of our own behaviors and thinking so we're a little bit more tempered and self controlled. So I would love some help. If you can find a friend or a colleague or a relative, please share this podcast such an important topic. And definitely if you have a moment, leave us a review that helps people to find us easily. And lastly, keep your executive function in check. You know, that's one of the best tools you have in your arsenal to self reflect and definitely be more strategic and thoughtful. Your approach to life so that's all the time we have enjoy your time and see you again