I have a bone to pick, related to “The Power to Persuade,” by Kevin Dutton. Too often people blame others for their bad decisions. In Mariette DiChristina’s comments in her column From the Editor, she says that she could not figure out what the art salesperson had done to “make” her buy the pen-and-ink set, implying that she had had no option but to buy it. Persuasion may be potent, but it is not helpful to allow people to excuse themselves for not making a better decision. It reminds me of Flip Wilson’s old line, “The devil made me do it!”
Sally Comer
via e-mail

If more than one fourth of the population is considered ill by the psychiatric community, as Robert Epstein wrote in his article “Are You Mentally Healthy?” perhaps the definition of illness should be more carefully examined. For a bacterial infection, it is a patient’s impaired functioning—not just the presence of bacteria in the body—that signals treatment is necessary. If my medical doctor continuously treated infections that created no disability, I’d eventually seek a second opinion.
commenting at www.ScientificAmerican.com/Mind

I think Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce’s argument in “The Ethical Dog” that canine fair play can give insight into human morality is a good one, but I would limit the comparison to early humans living in small hunter-gathering bands. Once groups start to get larger, altering the tight interdependence necessary for survival, patterns of group behavior change. In other words, when you can start to benefit from my losses, I must play by different rules.
commenting at www.ScientificAmerican.com/Mind

When I started this article, I thought, “Humans have spent millennia selecting dogs for certain behavioral traits. What dogs do is not reflective of wild animals.” When I saw that the study included widespread moral behavior in other canids, such as wolves and coyotes, I asked myself, “Have dogs influenced the selection of human behavioral traits?” In some societies, for example the Inuits of North America, dogs played an essential role in the survival of the people they lived with. Could these dogs have made choices, at critical moments, to help or abandon people that did not play by the rules of dog fairness?

Clearly, the power of dogs to select for human traits is not as strong as the power humans have over the breeding of dogs, but perhaps the influence is not negligible.
Spencer Murray
Saint Laurent, Quebec

BEKOFF REPLIES: I think it is conceivable that during the course of the domestication of dogs, humans observed the way wolves  socially interacted—and perhaps people noted that these wolves played fairly and abided by clear rules of social engagement. Although the idea is not testable in any empirical way, I think it is possible that early humans saw the animals’ fairness, cooperation, empathy and other positive social behavior patterns and may have used these “social lessons” in their own interactions.

Thank you for the article “Living with Schizophrenia,” by Scott O. Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz, which conveyed the important social message that many schizophrenics can experience significant recovery and go on to lead relatively normal lives. It is good to state that even when patients do decline, the symptoms need not devastate friendships—and to point out that those patients with schizophrenia who unfortunately never fully recover should not be blamed for their condition.
Greg Westlake
Norfolk, England

I believe that the technique described in “The Pluses of Getting It Wrong,” by Henry L. Roediger III and Bridgid Finn—starting out with a hard test you’re bound to fail—is indeed the best way to learn. I had a college math professor who would pose a question on a topic we hadn’t learned yet. We would then spend the next half-hour trying to collectively come up with the solution as he shot down wrong answer after wrong answer. If you are so intent on finding the answer, when you finally get it, it sticks!
commenting at www.ScientificAmerican.com/Mind

lt is easy to refute an overly simplistic statement about a complex topic, but doing so does not necessarily mean an opposing statement is true. In “Busting Big Myths in Popular Psychology,” by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio and Barry L. Beyerstein, the authors imply that expressing anger is never therapeutically useful, based on studies of people pounding nails or playing violent video games. As a psychotherapist, I find that I can help patients defuse their anger by having them physically express it.

Similarly, negative emotions and attitudes, which might affect cancer and other illnesses, take hard work to root out and bring to consciousness. To claim that the link between emotions and cancer is a myth, based on studies of people who paper over deep-seated negativity with positive thinking, is analogous to concluding that it is a myth to say “vegetables are healthy” based on studying people who consume five servings per day of ketchup. And possibly as harmful.
Ted Riskin
via e-mail

THE AUTHORS REPLY: We agree that there is a danger in oversimplifying complex psychological claims. Nevertheless, we must beware of the logical fallacy of the golden mean: the erroneous belief that the truth always lies in between two extremes. In the case of the myth of anger expression, we did not argue that “expressing anger is never therapeutically useful”; instead we maintained that expressing anger is likely to be helpful only when accompanied by constructive problem solving. Additionally, Riskin is mistaken that studies refuting the link between positive emotions and cancer focus on “people who paper over deep-seated negativity with positive thinking.” As we noted in our article, well-controlled studies of support groups among breast cancer survivors—which do not encourage women to ignore their negative moods—show no effects of positive thinking on survival rates.

In my experience, the display of anger has quite different purposes from the experience of uncontrollable emotion. What I read in this piece was that the authors haven’t spent very long working in a biker bar, or in the noncommissioned ranks of a military force, or (here in the U.K.) on the terraces of a football match. I have found well-developed models for the purposeful and cathartic expression of anger in all these places.

So it is in the case of my letter: I was angry enough about this misrepresentation to write to you but not so enraged that I threw my laptop out the window!
Steve Cassidy

I hate to be picky, but although I appreciate the correction noting that I am a psychologist, rather than a pediatrician, somehow I became a man in the process!
Ms. Rahil Briggs
via e-mail

THE EDITORS REPLY: It is absurd that we ran an incorrect correction regarding your attribution in “Daring to Die,” by Karen Springen [January/February 2010]. We apologize for the error . . . again!