Am I enabling?


Loved ones often struggle with the question of whether they are enabling. offers a good post on the subject.

By way of quick review, “enabling” actually means doing positive things that will end up supporting continued negative behavior, such as providing your child with money so they won’t “go hungry” during the day, knowing they use it to buy pot. Another example is going to talk to your child’s teacher to make sure she doesn’t get a bad grade, even though her bad test score was due to drinking. Or calling your husband’s work to explain he’s sick today, when he’s actually hung over.

These are examples of doing something “nice” for your loved one that actually (from a behavioral reinforcement standpoint) might increase the frequency of the negative behavior, not decrease it. The logic: if they act badly and nothing happens, or something good happens, this behavior is encouraged, even if what you are doing is “nice”. This IS enabling, and this is not helpful in changing behavior in a positive direction.

But everything nice is not enabling! And that’s the quicksand we have developed in our culture. Staying connected, rewarding positive behaviors with positivity, being caring and loving; these things are critical to positive change.

So what’s the difference? Positive reinforcement is doing “nice” things in response to positive behavior. Simple as that. When your loved one wakes up on time in the morning, when he takes his sister to school, when she texts you tell you she’ll be late, when he doesn’t smoke pot on Friday night, when he helps you make dinner instead of going for a quick drink with the boys on the way home. These are positive actions, and acknowledging them, rewarding them, being happy about them, is a GOOD thing, not enabling.

Correlation does not equal causation

On the oft used phrase, “correlation does not equal causation“:

The correlation phrase has become so common and so irritating that a minor backlash has now ensued against the rhetoric if not the concept. No, correlation does not imply causation, but it sure as hell provides a hint.

The limits of empiricism

While listening to On Point last week I was struck by an argument on a show that focused on Charles Murray‘s new book. I have no interest in arguing the merits of his thesis here, but he believes that, for a variety of reasons, America has been dividing by class and he is profoundly concerned about the implications. In one segment he expresses concern that one result is an growing concentration of the smartest people in the elite class, and, by extension, an growing concentration of the least smart people in the lower classes. The host and other guest push back against what they hear as genetic determinism. Exasperated, Murray says, “There’s a statistical relationship between parental IQ and child IQ… on average, parents with high IQs will produce offspring with higher IQs than parents with lower IQs…It’s a fact!…I’m talking about an empirical relationship that is not contestable!”

I have no interest in entering this debate on this blog, but I think the exchange offers a chance to step outside of the debates in our field.

Murray’s insistence that he was simply reporting a data point shows how blind we can be to our own narratives. He seems only vaguely aware that he has already attributed meaning to the data point—its source, its implications, its importance, and its characteristics. (fixed vs. static, that genetic determinants are powerful and important in comparison to other determinants, etc.)

The other host and the other guest were so troubled by the meaning that Murray ascribed that all of their responses focused on this meaning and they never really responded to the data point.

It seems like a lot of drug policy debates follow a very similar pattern. I find myself frustrated with people who argue that their position is empirically based as though the meaning they derive from their facts is self-evident, that they hold the only rational understanding and their conclusions are value-free.

In turn, I could do a better job of responding to their data and concerns.