Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Psychozoology in the Courtroom: Dodo Birds, Woozles, Heffalumps, and Parenting
Extinct or imaginary creatures seem to make good shorthand for referring to issues in the field of psychology. Psychologists who talk about Dodo Birds are usually concerned with the claim that all forms of psychotherapy are equally effective-- as in the statement by the Dodo Bird in Alice that “all have won, and all shall have prizes”.
I have recently become acquainted with a new and important analogy-animal, thanks to Dr. Linda Nielsen of Wake Forest University, who kindly sent me her article, “Woozles: Their role in custody law reform, parenting plans, and family court.” (Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 2014). Readers who have, or have been, children, may recognize the word “woozle” from A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories (sorry, Disney, you may have gotten your hands on them, but you didn’t write ‘em!). The woozles who concerned Pooh and Piglet were fearsome imaginary animals, the evidence of whose existence was the many tracks Pooh and Piglet had left in the snow as they walked around and around looking for woozles. As Nielsen uses the term with respect to psychology, “a woozle is a belief or claim that is not supported – or is only partially or tentatively supported—by the empirical evidence. But because the claim has been repeatedly cited and presented in misleading ways, the public and policymakers come to believe it.” Nielsen applies the woozle concept to beliefs and assumptions about the potential harm of overnight visits for infants and toddlers to an estranged parent. To quote another bit of Lewis Carroll, she is concerned that “what I tell you three times” is taken to be true.
Nielsen kindly sent me a synopsis of the paper, which I give immediately below. She also says that people who would like a copy of the complete paper may contact her at Nielsen@wfu.edu.
“What’s a woozle? And what role does it play in child custody decisions and custody law reform?
If you remember Winnie the Pooh, he and his friends become obsessed with the idea that they
are being stalked by a frightening beast they called a woozle. In fact, they are being deceived by
their own footprints as they walk around in circles. In social science a woozle is a belief or a
claim based on inaccurate, partial, or flawed data – data that have been repeatedly
misrepresented, misinterpreted or “woozled” in ways that end up influencing public opinion,
individuals’ decision making, and public policy.
This paper illustrates the woozling process that has contributed to the creation of a powerful
and damaging child custody woozle: After parents’ separate, infants and toddlers who spend
even one night a week in their father’s care are more irritable, distressed, inattentive, vigilant and
anxious with their mothers, and physically stressed. In short, up until the age of four children
should live exclusively, or nearly exclusively, with their mothers. The one study that has
frequently been proffered as evidence that overnighting has a “deleterious impact” on infants and
toddlers is an Australian study commissioned by the attorney general’s office (McIntosh, Smyth,
Kelelar & Wells, 2010, Post separation parenting plans: Outcomes for infants and children).
By examining the discrepancies between the actual data and the woozles that have arisen
from the study, this paper deconstructs the mythical woozles. For example, the “wheezing
woozle” claims that infant wheezing is a valid and reliable measure of stress – stress that is
caused by spending more than 3 nights a month in the father’s care. In reality, wheezing is
caused by many factors having nothing to do with stress – including mold, pets, cigarette smoke,
and carpet in the house. Moreover, the toddlers who frequently overnighted wheezed less than
those who rarely overnighted. Likewise, the “whining woozle” claims that overnighting causes
infants to be more irritable and to exhibit “severely distressed” behavior towards their mothers.
The woozle conveniently ignores the fact that the frequently overnighting infants had exactly the
same mean score on the irritability scale as the infants in intact families – and that infants who
frequently overnighted were no more irritable than infants who never overnighted. As for the
“severely distressed behavior” woozle, the overnighters’ scores on the behavioral problems test
were well within normal range – and 50% of the mothers in the nationwide survey reported these
same types of problems with their two to three year-olds: sometimes refusing to eat or gagging
on food, clinging to her when she tries to leave, getting angry with her, or hitting and biting her.
More disturbing still, the “anxiety/insecurity woozle” was based on three questions taken from
the Communication and Symbolic Behavior Scale which is designed to assess infants’ readiness
to begin talking. This novel “scale” was created solely for this study and had no established
validity or reliability as a measure of anxiety, stress, attachment or insecurity. Because the
overnighting infants tried to get their mother’s attention and gazed at her more often – which on
the Communication and Symbolic Behavior Scales is a positive sign of readiness to learn
language – these researchers concluded that the infants were more “watchful and wary” about
their mom’s whereabouts, indicating more anxiety and insecurity in their relationship with her.
How are woozles born and raised? And how can they be used to dupe judges, parents, and
policy makers into opposing shared overnight parenting plans for children under the age of four?
Woozling is a process where many factors work in conjunction to distort the data. Among these
woozling techniques are exaggerating, misrepresenting, and frequently reporting only the data
that support the woozles, while ignoring and failing to report the data that undermine them.
Another is downplaying or completely overlooking the limitations of the study – especially those
that make it in appropriate to generalize the findings to the general population. Discussions and
presentations about the Australian study seldom, if ever, mention its many limitations –
especially in reports to the media and presentations or articles that reach large audiences of
professionals involved in custody decisions. Among the limitations were that: 90% of the
infants’ parents had never been married to each other and many had never lived together; no
more than 20 infants were in the rarely overnighting group, and no reliability or validity was
reported for four of the six instruments. Then too, this study was predicated on a theory that is no
longer widely held by attachment theorists: the belief (woozle) that infants form a “primary”
attachment to only one parent – the one who provides most of their daily care - and that spending
time overnight away from this primary parent jeopardizes the security of their attachment. In
fact, however, empirical studies have shown that infants form attachments to both parents at
about the same time, and that one attachment is not more important than the other. When we peel
back the layers of the woozles based on this Australian study, the highly publicized and alarming
warnings against overnighting are unwarranted and grossly exaggerated. In short, the study is ill
suited for making any recommendations for or against overnighting for children under the age of
Unfortunately the woozles arising from this particular study have been repeated frequently in
the media, in academic journals, and at conferences – woozling judges, lawyers, legislators,
custody mediators and other professionals involved in custody decisions. And as is the case with
woozles, those studies that have found no ill effects and some positive effects for infants and
toddlers who overnight in their father’s care have been overlooked. How do we corral these
damaging woozles once they are on the loose? First, share the woozles article with people who
are involved in making custody decisions – especially with parents who are in the process of
designing parenting plans for their very young children. Second, make the media aware of how
this particular study has been woozled in ways that are depriving many infants and toddlers of
loving, attentive care from both parents. “
Nielsen has a specific serious purpose in circulating this discussion of woozling as it may be influencing judicial decisions about child custody and shared parenting. There is an additional, overarching serious purpose to alerting the public and policymakers to the woozling use of psychological ideas in all kinds of decision-making. But this article has made me think: have we identified all the analogy-animals that can interfere with appropriate use of psychological concepts ?
Woozles do not seem to be the exact animals at work in problem areas like the overuse of attachment concepts (and, recently, of the idea of trauma). Woozling convinces people that events exist, when the evidence does not support this idea. But there really is attachment, with thousands of well-done studies about its phenomena, and there really is trauma too. What animal analogy is at work when the focus is too strongly on attachment or on trauma, when other factors are ignored, and when the power of an event is much exaggerated? Going back to Pooh, I offer the term “heffalump” to describe this. The heffalump seen with such trepidation by Piglet was simply his friend Pooh with his head stuck in a honey pot-- a real creature, but not the fearful heffible horralump Piglet fled. Similarly, attachment (for example) is simply one of a number of factors that determine human developmental outcomes, and giving it the heffalump treatment leads people to ignore other important considerations. Curiously, this analogy even holds at the level of “heffalump traps”, as we see measures of attachment used in an effort to grab the exaggerated factor and use it in custody decisions as it was never meant to be used (see, for example, an article by Isaacs et al., Journal of Child Custody, 2009).
The heffalumps may not seem to be on the same topic as Nielsen’s woozles/overnights paper, but I would speculate that these two imaginary animals may be cooperating when there are conflicts about shared parenting. Why are some parents and some authors so adamant that overnights must be prohibited until a late age? Why are others seeking overnights so enthusiastically? No doubt some of this conflict is simply left over from a dysfunctional marriage, but… what do these people believe about attachment? Is one parent convinced that the child will lose attachment to him/her if not put to bed by him/her? Does he or she believe that attachment is time-limited, and that less than ideal attachment conditions in early life would mean that the whole relationship would be ruined and never recover? What beliefs do judges and attorneys bring to these disagreements? My bet is that the heffalumps have been romping with the woozles to create an unnecessarily increased tension about attachment, between parents who are already in many cases beyond rational decision-making.