The psychologist with her finger on the pulse of our relationships

Psychologist Terri Apter made her name with a ground-breaking book about mothers and teenage daughters. More books followed, including a fascinating exposé of the bonds between sisters. Her latest book, published last week, explores the power of praise and blame in everyday life.

Praise and blame are fundamental to survival. Newborn babies quickly learn the value of others’ praise and approval. They also learn to fear the terrifying consequences of blame. Fundamental to this learning is mindsight, the ability to sense the subjective world of others as similar but distinct from our own.

Blame feels like a punishment — it really hurts. That’s why blame is such a strong teaching tool — it shows us what we want to avoid. Praise can feel as life-sustaining as food and warmth. But it isn’t as simple as that. Praise can also be patronising or diminishing — it depends on context. And we know that for children, praise is also an essential teaching tool, but constant praise can be counter-productive.

Human brains have a high number of neurons. We used to think this high neuron count evolved to process factual information and solve problems. In the 1980s another hypothesis emerged. We now understand that the size of the brain’s network reflects our sociability — the need to form attachments, cooperate, communicate and make judgments.

Each of us has something I describe as a judgment meter. Within milliseconds of perceiving something, we not only process information about what it is, but we also form an opinion, positive or negative. When we encounter someone new, our judgment meter assesses that individual. Are they friend or foe? Can we trust them or not?

My book looks at judgments made in different contexts. I bring together studies by evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists and others, and also draw on my own research into how we navigate relationships. We have different but overlapping systems of judgments within families, among friends, at work and on social media.

A few years ago research revealed something extremely useful about successful marriages. Couples constantly exchange praise and blame, and the ratio between the two appears to be a key factor in couples’ survival rates. Roughly speaking, for a marriage to be successful there needs to be five times more praise than blame.

Social media is awash with extreme judgements. It’s a context that triggers quick judgments for small reasons, and discourages reflection and nuance. In a face-to-face context we’re a lot more adept at picking up cues from facial expressions, tone of voice and gesture, to monitor the impact of our judgments on others. Online, simplistic and polarised judgments abound, and extreme negativity gets rewarded.

I’ve been fascinated by relationships for as long as I can remember. I grew up in Chicago where my father was a psychoanalyst. As I grew up, I felt increasingly critical of the explanatory framework of psychoanalysis, though the interest in understanding meanings of words, behaviour and desires was undoubtedly a formative influence. I loved to hear people talking about other people — soaking up the gossip that’s part and parcel of being human.

At college I majored in philosophy. As a discipline, it taught me to look at conceptual frameworks and to have great respect for logic. These days when I read some of the latest publications in philosophy of mind, I think: “This is all very well, conceptually, but you’ve got to go out and gather evidence.” For me, the wonderful thing about psychology is that it involves listening and learning from people about their guiding needs and desires.

After university, I embarked on a career as a novelist. I had two novels published in my 20s. Fiction is one of the ways in which we explore people’s inner worlds. I’ve always read a huge amount. At the moment I’m reading Joanne Limburg’s memoir Small Pieces: A Book of Lamentations and Laura Cumming’s The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velasquez. Both are brilliant examples of the human hunger for understanding and reflection, and the willingness to keep revising one’s views.

I came to live in Cambridge in the late 1960s. It was while my children were young that I became interested in developmental psychology and, in my 40s, I took a PhD in psychology. From the perspective of a woman and mother I could see that women were under-researched. My earliest work was on women in mid-life and on mother-baby interactions. I later went on to study relationships between sisters.

In 1991 I was appointed a Research Fellow at Clare Hall. I became a member of the Department of Social and Political Sciences. Later on, Psychology became a Department in its own right. When I was appointed Senior Tutor at Newnham College, I gave lectures on adolescence. It was terrific working both with students and researching young people’s development.

As Senior Tutor, you oversee academic and pastoral provision of students. You’re at the interface of College/University policies. The role involves balancing individual students’ needs with general welfare. Overseeing the demanding teaching loads of dedicated and ambitious academics can be a challenge, but I loved the job.

A conversation with my youngest daughter was a turning point. We were on the train from Cambridge to London. She must have been about six. She remarked that when she was older she’d be able to come to London with me more often. I responded that when she was a teenager she wouldn’t want me with her. She looked shocked and sorrowful. A thought that was painful for me was also painful to her. I came to wonder whether current theories about adolescence were correct.

The tumult that accompanies the teenage years was seen as a need to separate. But was this really the case? My study of 65 mother-daughter pairs in the UK and USA revealed that what teenage girls most wanted was not to reject their mothers but to renegotiate their relationships and remain close. Daughters were saying: “Look at the new me!”

Human lives are messy — and that’s part of the fascination. My research is based on interviews and observations with hundreds of people generous enough to share aspects of their lives. Methodology, how you plan and carry out research, is hugely important.

Qualitative studies involve sensitive and disciplined listening — for themes, pauses, contradictions and omissions. It requires a tricky balance between personal engagement and setting aside your preconceptions. We can learn an awful lot from each other. People are curious, reflective and highly intelligent.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.

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