Monday, 3 March 2008

Problem Solving with Organised Thinking

Everyday life problems are of different varieties and of different degrees of complexity. Nevertheless, there are general procedures that could be applied in different cases. Organised Thinking proposes the following five steps to solve a problem:

► Representation of the problem.
► Generation of options.
► Look ahead of options.
► Evaluation of options.
► Decision making.

Representation of the problem

The representation of the problem is the key to its solution. If the representation of the problem is not accurate, one could perform the subsequent steps of the process and reach misleading solutions.

At this stage one should be able to answer the following questions:

► What is the aspect of the current situation that I wish to change?
► Which is the situation in which I would like to be?
► Do I have enough skills to solve the problem?

Sometimes, the problem we think we have is only the consequence of another more important problem. On other occasions, we do not evaluate our skills and we try to solve a problem that we cannot afford to solve. If we consider that our skills are not sufficient to solve the problem, we should rather spend time to acquire the necessary skills, or we should look for someone that has the necessary skills.

Generation of options

Usually one option to solve the problem pops up and we start consider its consequences. This procedure is not efficient because we may miss other alternatives (usually the more creative and interesting). Organised Thinking proposes spending some time generating a list of options before analysing each of the options.

By doing so, we know that if one option is not plausible we have other alternatives to consider. Given that we tend to look for data that confirms our original idea, the proposed procedure helps to produce more objective evaluations.

Look ahead of options

Looking ahead is the analysis of the consequences of choosing a particular option. A way of anticipating the consequences is to gather data: asking questions to those who experienced a similar situation, inspect statistical data, research in the internet, etc.

When the problem involves change (e.g., moving to another country or buying a new flat to live) the option of status-quo should also be considered. Otherwise, we could make two mistakes: 1) we may choose an alternative that involves change when the best option is not to change; and 2) when the options that involve change do not look promising, we may decide not to change, but not changing (an alternative that was not analysed) may be worse than all the other alternatives.

Evaluation of options

The evaluation of options consists on giving a numerical value to options in order to determine a ranking of preferences. Sometimes this value is the sum or the average of a series of values that evaluate different factors. For example, if the problem to solve is what car to buy one might analyse the following factors (space, quality of engine, price, design, etc.).

Each car under scrutiny should be evaluated using a 1-to-10 scale in each of the factors. Moreover, each factor has a different degree of importance; hence, one should assign each factor a number in a 1-to-10 scale.

For example, if the space of the car is very important to me, I would assign a 9 to the factor “space”. The next step is to multiply the value that I assigned to each car by the value I assign to each factor. For example, if I assigned a 2 to car A and 5 to car B in the factor “space”, the final value for car A in this factor would be 18, and the final value for car B would be 45. The last step consists of adding all the values to get the final overall score for each car. The decision of which car to buy should be made taking these final scores in consideration.

Decision making

In some cases the end result of a decision making process is the election of an alternative (e.g., choosing to buy a particular present for a friend’s birthday) and in other cases, once the decision is made, one should execute the decision for a long time (e.g., the election of a university degree).

In the latter case, one of the most common errors that we tend to make is not to eliminate of our thoughts the alternatives that we discarded. When we have this attitude, we tend to suffer, we do not enjoy the process of executing our decision and we do not execute it efficiently. Furthermore, this might make us abandon the option we had chosen without having learnt anything of the experience.

This does not mean that one should not monitor the execution of the decision and should never abandon the chosen alternative. It could be the case that the decision made was the wrong one and, in this case, it is better to stop it sooner than later. Rather, it means that if one abandons the option chosen it should not be due to the lack of commitment with it. Instead, one should only abandon the chosen option if a new evaluation of the situation leads one to make that decision.

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Friday, 22 February 2008

Obama and politics of hope

Senator Obama’s campaign to be the nominee of the Democratic Party for the US Presidential elections in November this year has been criticised of lacking in substance.

Senator Clinton has claimed that being president is not about producing good speeches but about delivering good policies.

Obama repsonded to the message by being very explicit about his policies in his last speech, delivered in Houston, Texas (after winning the Wisconsin primary) and during his debate with Hillary Clinton yesterday.

The question: is the message of hope that Obama tries to transmit positive or negative?

In my post Recession, money, thinking and confidence, I concluded:

“A healthy economy is one in which the aggregate confidence of people matches their aggregate skills. More confidence than skills is as bad as less confidence than skills.”

If there is more confidence than skills, bankers lend money, consumers spend money, but since there is a shortage of skills, productivity does not match the spending; this leads to inflation. If there is less confidence than skills, bankers lend less money, consumers spend less; thus resulting in lower demand and consequently unemployment would rise and skilled human resources are not fully employed (i.e., recession).

This analysis calls for realistic optimism rather than blind hope. However, hope and confidence that is not matched by current level of skills could still be a good strategy if it is used with intelligence. In other words, if hope motivates people to improve their skills, the aggregate skills of the population will eventually match the level of hope.

People that have hope and are confident about their future, spend time improving their skills. For example, an 18-year old who is confident about his/her future may decide to take out a bank loan to go to university rather than settling for an unqualified job. (Of course, the bank manager must also be confident that the university graduate will repay the loan). Tertiary education will improve the skills of this young person and the more people doing the same the more it would increase the aggregate skills of the society and its productivity.

A case in which hope would be damaging for the country is when a person has blind hope about his/her future situation, starts borrowing money to spend and does not do anything to improve his/her skills.
To conclude, if hope is used to mobilise resources to a good cause, it is positive. On the other hand, if hope is used to indulge, it is negative. Given that Obama also asks people for commitment, his politics of hope are positive for the US.

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Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Society functions because we have jobs

This is a translation from Spanish of an excerpt of my book Pensamiento Organizado: Una psicotecnología para ser feliz, eficiente y colaborar inteligentemente [Organised Thinking: A psychotechnology to be happy, efficient and to collaborate with intelligence].
Human societies survive as a result of what human beings do. We, human beings, produce objects (buildings, pavement, bridges, automobiles, etc.) and provide services (health, education, communications, justice, etc.). If we do not carry out these activities society would soon collapse. People naturally wish the society in which they live survives. Hence, they should contribute to society by working.

So you see that our jobs are not merely tasks we do in order to get paid, but our contribution to the proper functioning of the society we live in. Consequently, a small group of producitve people will not be sufficient to support the entire society. If there is an insufficient number of productive people contributing to society, the society will eventually collaspe.
However, it is not entirely true that people who work contribute positively to society because not all jobs are useful to the society we live in. For example, production of tobacco, psychoactive drugs, weapons, etc., are harmful to society. Moreover, useful jobs could be done with varying degree of efficiency. The more efficient we are at our jobs, the more we contribute to society. If everyone follows this concept, charity would be almost unnecessary. This is the Organised Thinking’s concept of intelligent collaboration.

Organised Thinking proposes that we should be responsible citizens, that we think of our behaviours as having effects over others, and that we aim at acquiring knowledge so we, as members of a society, could improve on the quality of good and services we provide to others.
Society needs our production and benefits when we improve our skills and knowledge. Through our production and improvement, we build a better society to live in. Hence, to be a responsible citizen is not only beneficial to others, but also to ourselves.

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Monday, 11 February 2008

Recession, money, thinking and confidence

Many economists advocate that US economy is heading into recession. But few of them explain the reasons with the clarity of Charles McMillion, President and chief economist of MBG Information Services in Washington, D.C.

His article, “The Economic State of the Union 2008”, posted yesterday by itulip, explains that the US economy is heading into recession because the Bush administration borrowed heavily in order to favour the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE) sector. This combined with a dramatic increase in war spending and a lack of interest in stimulating the industry and research is increasing the deficit and decreasing productivity.

The explanation is simple. If the government encourages private spending (for example, by cutting taxes) without stimulating productivity there will be an increase of prices. That is, if there is more money in the market and there is the same amount of goods to buy, then the money will loose its value and the prices of goods will go up.

This is happening with house prices. The Federal Reserve reduced interest rates; hence banks offer cheap money to buy properties (i.e., mortgages with low interest rate). This leads to an increase in borrowing, so more people started buying houses. If there are no incentives to build more houses, then the price of houses goes up. An increase in demand without a matching increase in supply generates an increase in prices.

In “Organised Thinking” I am interested in the thinking process of the banker that lends money and that of the buyer that borrows money. Why the banker takes the risk of not being repaid? Why the buyer takes the risk of not being able to repay the mortgage and loose his/her property?

The bankers’ thinking process is easy to infer. They think that lending money for an interest is their business. The best case scenario is that everything goes well; the borrower pays capital plus interest. The worst case scenario is that the borrower cannot repay. This risk is contemplated: banks will keep the property. Although selling properties is not the business of bankers and they try to avoid this situation, the benefits are higher than the costs; therefore, they lend as much money as the borrowers are willing to borrow. Moreover, bankers are organized and powerful; they can lobby to obtain compensation from the government if there are many foreclosures.

Understanding the buyers’ thinking process is a bit more difficult. The main component of their thinking process is confidence. Buyers are confident that they would maintain their current incomes, so they would be able to pay. In this case, there is no problem at all. However, there are many persons that borrow more money than they can afford. Not only have they borrowed money to buy a property but also to buy a plasma TV, a videogame console, a laptop, etc. At some point these people cannot afford to pay any more and they start borrowing to pay debts. In a continuously growing economy this may last for the lifetime of the borrowers. However, if the productivity of the economy does not grow, the bubble will burst at some point and lenders would not lend more money.
In psychological terms, recession is lack of confidence. While there is confidence bankers lend money, consumers borrow money and, most importantly, producers invest to increase their production and their productivity. A healthy economy is one in which the aggregate confidence of people matches their aggregate skills. More confidence than skills is as bad as less confidence than skills. In the case that people are more confident than what they should be, there is a high probability that there will be inflation, whereas when people are less confident than their skills there would be recession.

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Friday, 8 February 2008

Do we think with our body?

The Situationist is an interesting blog created by Jon Hanson –Professor of Law at Harvard Law School- and Michael McCann –Assistant Professor at Mississippi College School of Law. This blog is associated with The Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School. This project

is devoted to identifying, inventorying, archiving, blogging, and otherwise promoting research, writing, conferences, colloquia, and presentations directed toward understanding the implications of social psychology, social cognition, and other related mind sciences for law, policymaking, and legal theory.

In February 7th they posted the article “A (situationist) body of thought”. This article is a commentary on another article published in The Boston Globe by Drake Bennett on January. The latter was titled “Don’t just stand there, think” and is a summary of a number of scientific papers that advocate that the body and its interaction with the environment have an important role in high-level cognitive processes such as thinking.

This approach is called “embodied cognition” and is against the traditional view in cognitive sciences in which mind is investigated independently of the body. The separation between mind and body in current cognitive sciences is reminiscence from Descartes conception of an immaterial mind separated from the material body. In a controversial book “Philosophical foundations of neuroscience”, published in 2003, Hacker and Bennett avowed that cognitive neuroscientists –despite rejecting Descartes’ mind-body dualism– use a new version of that dualism: brain-body dualism. Instead of ascribing mysterious powers to an immaterial mind, cognitive neuroscientists (mistakenly) ascribe the same powers to the brain.

Antonio Damasio, in his book “Descartes error” published in 1994, had already pointed out that neuroscientists do not pay attention to the role of the body in high-level cognitive processes such as decision making.

My view

I accept the embodied cognition view that the role of the whole body (not only the brain), the characteristics of the environment, and the idiosyncratic interaction of the whole body with the environment are part of cognition. I also accept that the theories of several neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists do not take into account the role of the whole body and its interaction with the environment.

However, this view is not entirely new. For example, Herbert Simon –one of the founders of traditional cognitive science– was a strong advocate of the influence of the interaction of the cognitive system with the environment in the way experts solve problems.

Furthermore, Piaget’s theory of the development of intelligence published in 1950s is an embodied theory of cognition.

What is new, then, in the embodied cognition approach?

In fact, although I am sympathetic to this approach, there is nothing new. Until some researcher does not develop a general theory of psychology that incorporates embodied cognition views, this approach is just gaining some space in academic psychology because media finds it attractive.

Drake Bennett’s article in The Boston Globe presents a number of new evidence that favours the embodied cognition approach. However, all the evidence showed, could be interpreted in a different way. (I will write about the role of evidence in psychology in a future post).

Embodied cognition is not a good approach to cognitive sciences because there is new evidence that favours it. It is a good approach because it is obvious that the body and the environment are essential aspects of cognition.

First, even if we only use the brain to think, since the brain is part of the body, we use our bodies to think. There is no immaterial mind doing the thinking; it is, obviously, the body that does it.

Second, just observe a scientist thinking of a theory. Most probably, the nervous system is consuming a lot of the energy, but in the process of thinking, the scientist takes notes, looks at the notes, stands up, goes for a walk (this may help him/her seeing things from a different perspective), drinks a cup of coffee, types the keyboard of the computer, draws graphs, etc. It is an experience in which the whole body is participating, not only the brain.

Third, the dissection of the human body in a number of systems (nervous system, digestive system, musculoskeletal system, immune system, etc.) is only convenient, it is not necessary. In other words, the human body is a whole, we sometimes observe at different parts of it, but the separation in systems is absolutely arbitrary.

Almost all of us started counting with our fingers. So, we used muscle cells (cells of the musculoskeletal system) of the fingers. But we also used neurons (cells of the nervous system) connected to the muscle cells. When we stop using our fingers to count (if we ever stop, that is!), we are probably still using the same neurons connected to the muscle cells of the fingers when we count. The only difference between a group of cells (motor cells) and the other (brain cells) is that the former are connected to parts of the body that are in contact with the environment and the latter are only indirectly connected to those parts of the body.

Summing up, the human body is more connected than modular; therefore, when we think we may use more or less parts of our body depending on the situation. Sometimes we may use mainly our brain; sometimes, we may use the brain plus other parts of the body. One thing is sure: our brain is part of our body, so we always think with our body. We do not need any new evidence to affirm this. v

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Thursday, 31 January 2008

Positive Psychology and Happiness

The New York Times reported yesterday that the most popular course at Harvard University is the “Positive Psychology” course taught by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. Since Dr. Ben-Shahar has published the book “Happier”, this course has come to be known as “the happiness course”. More than 800 students enrolled in it, and it will also be opened to the masses on-line (after paying a $700 fee) from February, through the Harvard Extension School. (More details of the course here).

As president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, Martin Seligman was the first advocate of Positive Psychology as a new branch of Psychology. He noted that Psychology was increasingly interested in individuals with psychological problems and in psychotherapy. He advocated that psychology should also be the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.

The likely reason why Seligman advocated that Positive Psychology was a new approach is that the majority of the members of the American Psychological Association are biased towards the study of abnormal individuals and psychotherapy.

However, the scientific study of strengths and virtues of individuals is not new. Indeed, the field known as Psychology of Expertise has been researching the nature and acquisition of high-level skills and knowledge for many years. One of the most important expertise studies was carried out by Adrian DeGroot in 1948. This field became more popular with Herbert Simon’s studies in 1973. After these seminal works many authors made contributions in this field: Ericsson, Charness, Saariluoma, Gobet, Sloboda and myself, among others. As a matter of fact, most of scientific psychologists investigate normal human beings, rather than abnormalities.

Taking this into account one wonders whether Positive Psychology is a new trend without substance or whether it is a new branch of psychology with sound scientific methods.

There are positive and negative aspects of Positive Psychology. The primary positive is that Positive Psychologists are doing research into a number of interesting subjects that only a handful of psychologists were interested before. For example, they carry out scientific studies of happiness and well-being. Eminent psychologists –such as Nobel Prize Lauraute, Daniel Kahneman- are developing measures of well-being in order to supply this field of sound scientific tools.

On the other hand, Barry Schwartz –the author of “The paradox of choice”– pointed out two negative aspects of Positive Psychology in his article”Pitfalls on the road to a positive psychology of hope”.

First, Positive Psychology is about being happy about oneself. There is much advice on how to improve our own well-being, how to achieve our goals or how to capitalise on our innate psychological tools. Contrarily, nothing is said about the side effects of our happiness. For example, people who are over-optimistic likely to be classified as happy. - Positive Psychologists seem to ignore the unwise or reckless decisions which one may make with their over-optimism.

The second aspect pointed out by Schwartz is that Positive Psychology focuses too much on the individual. Positive Psychology does not pay attention to the balance of one’s happiness with one’s obligations within the society. No doubt, many times we have to make decisions in which we have to weigh up our rights against obligations as citizens.

Schwartz, rightly points out, that the role of psychology is not only to help individuals in achieving their goals. Psychologists should also warn their patients if what they want to do goes against the normal functioning of society.

In 2006, I wrote a book in Spanish titled “Organised Thinking: A psychological technology to be happy, more efficient and to collaborate with intelligence”. In this book I explain the three pillars of my philosophy: happiness, efficiency and intelligent collaboration with society.

My conception of psychology is that it has an important role in the development of individuals and societies. In order to achieve the goals of individuals and those of the societies’, psychology has to discriminate good individual goals from bad individual goals. Here “good” and “bad” means good or bad for society.

An individual should have the freedom to choose his/ her goals. However, psychologists have the responsibility to advice to their patients that some goals are not permissible. In the case of happiness, it means that one should not choose a path to happiness beyond the boundaries of our legal framework or without regards to other people’s safety.

The second pillar –efficiency– takes elements from the first and the third pillar. Let me explain the third pillar before the second. The third pillar is intelligent collaboration with society. By stating that one of the goals of “Organised Thinking” is the intelligent collaboration with society, I am implying that psychology is not only about the individual. Individuals form societies; without our contribution, societies disappear. Since we all benefit from the existence of society in many ways, we also have to contribute to it. Consequently, psychologists help their patients directly by helping them as individuals; they also help their patients indirectly by building a critical mass in awareness of the concept of intelligent collaboration with society. Thus, everyone, including the patients will help build and live in a better society.

Our collaboration should be intelligent in two ways. First, we should contribute to society without harming ourselves. There are people that give a lot to others; they help others in ways which they do not pay attention to their own needs. This is not intelligent from my perspective. We are part of society. If we are harming ourselves, we are harming a member of society; hence, we are not collaborating with society.

Second, we do not have to engage in complex acts to collaborate with society. The most important thing (but not the only one) we can do is to perform our responsibilities the best way we can. If someone is a teacher, the most intelligent way to collaborate with society is to prepare and deliver classes of excellent quality. If a teacher gives money to charity but gives mediocre classes, he/she is not collaborating to society with intelligence.

Now, we can go back to the second pillar – efficiency. It is an important link between happiness and collaboration. Efficiency applies both to individuals’ goals and to the goals of society. The more efficiently we achieve our individual goals, the more time we have to help society and viceversa. Efficiency means individuals should focus on relevant issues or activities and to avoid those which are irrelevant.

For example, if I spend money on a superfluous item in order to satisfice a desire (e.g., to buy a cellular phone with camera when I already have a camera and a cellular phone), then I have less money for more important things (e.g., to pay the fee of my son’s school). This is not only about personal finance, it is also about how we allocate our time and attention (see my previous post). If I pay attention to irrelevant issues then I have less time to the relevant ones.

I am in favour of a Positive Psychology that aims at investigating how individuals and societies thrive. On the other hand, like Schwartz, I am concerned with the excessive emphasis on the individual and on happiness. If the members of a dumbed-down society are happy, is this a good thing?

Happiness is one of the pillars of my philosophy; but happiness without efficiency, collaboration and intelligence is of little value in itself.

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Monday, 28 January 2008

Attention seeking

Miranda Devine, journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald, described an all too familiar situation in her article “Smack in the middle of hysteria” last Thursday. Ms Devine was at the gym when she heard a child screaming at the top of his voice. To the dismay of all the affected gym-goers who were wishing a stop to the piercing noise, the mother of this hysterical child resigned to do nothing.

The journalist used this example to illustrate that, nowadays, parents are too permissive; they are reluctant or even incapable of putting limits on their kids. Although I agree with her observation, the remedy she proposed in the article missed the point completely – Ms Devine suggested that a judicial smack by the mother might just resolve the problem and put a stop to the screaming.

As a psychologist who apply psychological research to everyday life I will identify the real problem and propose a few possible solutions.

The real problem is that parents do not pay enough attention to their children. By virtue of their inaction, they are not using one of the most important psychological tools to raise intelligent and well behaved kids: psychological reward of good behaviour.

There could be a number of reason why parents do not pay enough attention to their children. The demands of our modern work life is the most commonly sited answer. In my opinion, this is seldom the real cause. Hard working parents can (and do) pay attention to their children when they have the time and the will to do so.

In a lot of cases, parents who have too much free time are the ones who are not paying attention to their kids. In Ms Devine’s article the permissive mother was not at work but working out at her gym.

Some parents argue that by not “pay too much attention” to their children, they wish to raise independent human beings. Hence, they leave their children watching television independently, playing videogames independently, etc.

This is a misconception as much as a misguided children-rearing method; these children would not becomee independent just because they are entertained indenpendently from their parents. On the contrary, it just means they have another type of dependency - on television, on videogames, etc. When these crutches are taken away from them, they demand attention from their parents; sadly, the easiest way to command attention from their time-poor parents is to act up.

Raising independent human beings is helping the young to acquire a number of tools that would make them independent human beings. Among others, these tools are: acquisition of good habits (for example, making healthy food choices ), knowledge, problem solving skills, critical thinking, and the ability to adapt to new situations.

Watching television and playing videogames do not help anyone in acquiring these abilities. These abilities require parents to spend quality time with their children. I can provide a few examples here: involve in the kids’ daily life, reading to and with them, ask intellectually challenging questions to stimulate the kids’ thinking and prompt them to use their knowledge in different situations, etc.

For example, one cannot teach children how to swim by throwing them to the pool several times until they learn. I can imagine a frustrated parent after the tenth time smacking his/her kid because he/she does not put enough effort. Quite the contrary, one has to spend time with the kid in the pool until he/she learns how to float and, eventually, how to swim. Only after the kid has acquired these skills, the parent could just watch the kid from the edge of the pool. Consequently, raising independent human beings require a lot of time spent with one’s kids at the beginning and gradually less time, rather than no time at all.

What happens when children do not receive attention from their parents? They use an innate mechanism which proved to be successful to get attention. Babies cry when they need attention (i.e., when they need feeding, cleaning or just a cuddle). They learnt that when they cry they receive attention, so they keep doing it. Crying is something that makes parents paying attention to their children. Older children that do not receive enough attention do the same: they do something that annoys parents, so their parents pay attention to them. Their need for attention is such that sometimes the attention that their parents pay to them when they smack them is better than no attention at all.

Smacking, in psychological terms, is intended to punish bad behaviour. However, for children that are left alone, smacking means that their parents somehow interact with them. Consequently, smacking, rather than being a punishment it becomes a reward.
This means that smacking, instead of punishing bad behaviour; it is a reward of bad behaviour. Therefore, smacking increases the chances that the misbehaviour will be repeated.

Ironically, punishment of bad behaviour usually does not serve the purpose of avoiding bad behaviour. Only in very limited and specific situations can punishment be justified. For example, if your kid is about to put her/his fingers in the socket, saying “no” in a loud voice and, if necessary, physically avoiding your kid from doing so, are necessary punishments.

On the other hand, rewarding good behaviour send a positive signal. By reward I do not mean a candy, or any kind of treat, I mean the most important psychological reward that a child could receive: attention.

For instance, sharing activities with your kids will encourage them to engage in these activities, because they know that these activities would lead to them receiving attention. Hence, accompanying your kids in the activities that you would like your kid to do is the best way of avoiding misbehaviours. Most importantly, it is the best way of encouraging good behaviour.

While you pay attention to your kids you are also helping your kids in developing a psychological skill that would be a reward in itself in the future: thinking.

When your kids learn how to think on their own, thinking in itself becomes rewarding. Therefore, in the future you could reduce your “attention time” because your kids will enjoy their time in intellectual pursuits on their own.

To conclude, smacking and saying “no” are two different things. The latter is necessary in certain occasions and is important for children to know what is wrong behaviour. On the other hand, smacking is usually the sheer reflection that parents did something wrong in the past and formed bad habits in their kids and they are now looking for desperate measures.

Attention is what children seek. Our task as parents is to pay attention to our children and meanwhile helping them to develop their thinking skills, so that in the future they will need less attention from us.