Letters to the Editors, November 2009

Letters to the editor about the July/August 2009 issue of Scientific American MIND

As a psychologist very familiar with the research, I think in “Do Parents Matter?” Judith Harris is conflating personality and behavior, which are two different concepts. Personality has more to do with genetic traits related to mood and energy (which plenty of research indicates are strongly influenced by genetics). Behavior, on the other hand, depends on context and is guided by laws of behaviorism—that is, reinforcement principles. If parents do (or do not) provide reinforcement for specific types of behavior, you will either see or not see those behaviors. Likewise, certain behaviors will be reinforced in the classroom by teachers.

I teach these basic principles. When people apply them, they work “like magic.” Simple but effective television shows, such as Supernanny, demonstrate their power. To suggest that parents “do not matter” or have little influence is beyond laughable. There is no doubt that peers matter, as Harris says—but the research shows they matter more when the parents ignore their impact, do not address their impact or do not take actions to ameliorate negative impact.

adapted from a comment at

We disagree with the conclusion Robert Goodier presents in “Brain Training’s Unproven Hype” [Head Lines]. As professionals working in this area, we use personalized computer-based brain-training protocols to help children and adults improve targeted skills. The improvements transfer to other tasks and endure over time.

The story concludes with the message that exercise, a good diet and an active social life have brain benefits, but it is doubtful that software can improve on these standbys: “the evidence isn’t in.” As for this article? Frankly, we have our doubts. The evidence presented here is incomplete and unconvincing.

Rohn Kessler and Amy Price
Boca Raton, Fla.

Emily Laber-Warren’s article, “Can You Be Too Perfect?” contains a clear description of the nature of perfectionism and the ways in which it can bedevil the lives of those who experience it. Yet as a psychologist who has studied the issue for more than 30 years, I suggest that “healthy perfectionism” is a contradiction in terms—what we really need is a distinction between perfectionism and striving for excellence.

Perfectionism is about being perfect—not simply outstanding. The emotional problem for perfectionists is not failure per se but rather the perceived meaning of failure: it implies a personal flaw. Perfectionism is a self-esteem issue; a common conviction for perfectionists is that “unless I am perfect, I am worthless.” Perfection is imagined to be the road to personal acceptability. In contrast, many conscientious, positive, striving people have excellence and success as their goals, but they do not worry that imperfect performance is a sign of personal failing.

Perfectionists can have many positive qualities, none of which would disappear if we could magically eliminate their perfectionism. In counseling for this problem, a specific recovery process is launched with the aim of helping perfectionists feel more acceptable for who they are, not for what they do.

Thomas S. Greenspon

I read with interest your article on perfectionism. I am an educated, degreed woman of 50 years, and I consider myself to be of above-average intelligence. I took the quiz knowing that I am a nonperfectionist. I have always been very content with that.

This article was originally published with the title "July/August 2009 Issue."

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