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How attachment theory explains Trump’s success – and Hitler’s too

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.02.10Donald Trump has done it. He’s won the Republican nomination, having convinced enough Americans that he has the qualities needed to be a Presidential candidate. The rest of the world is looking on with disbelief, confusion, terror and derision.

Many commentators are firmly of the view that, given the statistics, Trump has no chance of actually being elected Presidentcome November 2016. But in many ways, that’s irrelevant now. Trump has already changed America. He has unleashed extremity, humiliation, suspicion and blame. He has done that with a personal style that is abrasive, rude, narcissistic, belligerent, untruthful and ludicrous. Yet he has drawn support from across the USA.

How can that be explained?

Some analysts have put his appeal down to the economic struggles facing many AmericansOthers have attributed it to educational divides. Statistician Nate Silver has highlighted Trump’s ability to manipulate the media. Journalists for the magazine The Week ascribe his success, alternatively, to conservative Republicans’ willingness to abandon traditional norms of governing and also to liberal Democrats’ intolerance of views that they find objectionableThe commentator Steven Poole even jokingly (or maybe not jokingly?) put it down to linguistics: Trump loves to punctuate his dazzlingly vague speeches with the thrillingly seductive morpheme ‘so’. “Together”, he says, “we are going to win so much and you are going to be so happy.” Presumably his supporters are so so happy now.

I want to add another explanation to this mix. Attachment theory can go a long way toward helping us make sense of Trump’s popularity.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.05.37I think we will need such an analysis in the coming months and years – regardless of whether or not Trump wins the election. The American political system is in meltdown. So are other political systems. The UK will shortly hold a referendum on withdrawing from the European Union. The outcome of that could well prompt a second Scottish referendum on separating from the UK. The refugee crisis currently engulfing Europe is prompting the return of very real, razor-wire boundaries between countries. Political distrust holds consequences that matter for the whole of our globe. Political distrust is driven by fear. And that’s what’s driving Trump’s success. Fear.

So what is attachment theory? It’s an explanation of why humans (and all other mammals) seek out a sense of safety. Attachment theory helps us realise that this search is a biological drive. We humans have a physiological need to feel safe – not simply to be safe, but to feel safe. Our brains don’t believe we are safe until we feel safe.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.50.42Attachment theory first emerged in the 1950s, led by paediatrician and psychologist John Bowlby. Since then, the core tenets of attachment theory have been repeatedly affirmed. Particularly helpful has been the development of technologies that allow neuroscientists to track brain development. This new evidence confirms what Bowlby and his colleagues suspected: early life leaves a long legacy. Our experiences as babies and toddlers lay down neural pathways in our brains that determine how safe versus how risky the world seems. Those pathways are obstinately robust.

Thus, fear starts early in life. If the environment often feels scary to you as a baby, then it’s very likely to feel scary to you as an adult. That continuation happens because your brain and body became wired with enough fear sensors to keep you trapped within the physiological emotional framework your brain set up as an infant. Your brain sees no reason to question that framework. Why question reality?

How, then, does attachment theory help to explain Trump’s success?

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 03.00.28The answer lies in appreciating the extent to which fear is driving Trump supporters. Last September, a political scientist named Matthew McWilliams gathered some striking data while completing his PhD. His findings are drawing considerable attention across social media. He found that the factor most predictive of support for Trump is authoritarianism. The surprise was that this factor cuts across conventional demographic boundaries: education, income, religiosity, age, class, region. McWilliams argues that what binds such diversity together is authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism is a type of personality profile. It characterises someone who has a desire for order and a fear of outsiders. Authoritarians look for a strong leader who promises to take action to combat the threats they fear.

In short, authoritarians are seeking a sense of safety. Their political choices are driven by an attachment need. Trump makes his supporters feel safe.

That’s why Trump supporters can hold views that can sound scarily extreme to others.  Muslims should be banned. Mexico should pay to build a wall. Gays and lesbians should be prevented from marrying. In fact, let’s ban them from the country too! And while we’re at it, why not critique Abraham Lincoln’s decision to free the slaves?

McWilliams’ data are compelling because they have proven so predictive. He has conducted several large polls, and the factor that keeps coming up as most predictive of Trump support is authoritarianism. Here, for example, is the graph showing his data from the South Carolina primary. The higher a person’s score on the Authoritarian Scale, the more likely they said they were to vote for Trump. The slope of that line is so steady it’s unnerving. Little wonder, then, that Trump has won 26 primaries so farThat’s half the states in the USA.

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McWilliams isn’t the only one to have highlighted the importance of authoritarianism. Political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler reached similar conclusions in their 2009 book, Authoritarianism and Polarisation in American Politics. They argued that the Republicans, as the self-proclaimed party of law and order and traditional values, would inevitably prove attractive to large numbers of Americans with authoritarian tendencies. They just hadn’t predicted it would happen as quickly as 2016. But what’s happening completely fits their predicition: “Trump embodies the classic authoritarianism leadership style: simple, powerful and punitive.”

How is authoritarianism measured? It’s astoundingly simple. You just ask four straightforward questions:

  1. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
  2. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
  3. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
  4. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

These four questions were devised by political scientist Stanley Feldman in the 1990s. The responses that emphasise behaviour, as opposed to internal qualities, are associated with authoritarianism. Feldman’s studies showed that these four questions turned out to be so reliable in assessing authoritarian tendencies that they now form the field’s ‘industry standard’ and are regularly incorporated into all sorts of political surveys.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 03.14.25It was, though, earlier research that had provided the platform for Feldman’s thinking. Psychologist Diana Baumrind carried out ground-breaking work in the 1960s that identified three main parenting styles in America. Her findings have stood the test of time.

  • Authoritarian parents tend to be rigid and controlling, focusing on external behaviour rather than internal experience. They expect a lot from their children, but without offering warmth or being responsive to their emotional needs. Children are expected to do as they are told, without questioning. The data showed that children raised in environments where they have such little control over their own lives tend to be unsure of themselves, don’t trust easily and have difficulty completing tasks. Baumrind emphasized that parents might adopt such a style due not only to their own personality but because they were trying to protect their child from a dangerous environment.
  • Permissive parents offer lots of warmth. However, they don’t set limits or impose expectations. These children often grow up impulsive and frustrated, with difficulty in adjusting their own desires to meet those of the wider society or relationship partners. It is harder for them to adapt to the restrictions of adult life.
  • Authoritative parents have high expectations of their children, like authoritarian parents. However, they also offer warmth, like permissive parents. They are responsive to their children’s emotional needs; they are flexible; they listen. Children’s internal experiences and emotional needs matter to them.   These children tend to become self-reliant and independent, with high self-esteem and respect for others. They function pretty well in the adult world.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.35.40While three descriptive categories absolutely do not explain the whole of a person’s character, Baumrind’s account provides a starting point for making sense of adult behaviour that can, at first, seem bewildering. It helps us to see how a parent’s style of relating to their child intersects with that child’s attachment needs, resulting in a mindset for the child as to how risky or safe the world is.

Except its more than a ‘mind’-set. It is actually a biological orientation to the world. It is a reflection of the child’s early emotional experiences, which may bear absolutely no relation to the present, but which is now woven into their very physiology. Their brain is stuck in the past, filtering the way they perceive and react to the present.

What’s really sobering is that Baumrind’s research with the children started when they were 3-year-olds. Children were already of an age that “rendered them unlikely to alter their genuine, instinctive reactions.” That sounds unbelievably early to most people who are new to the science of the early years. Yet, the age of 3 years is commonly identified by neuroscientists and by attachment theorists as marking a shift in children’s developmental trajectories.

This all explains why it does not matter to Trump’s supporters whether he grasps international affairs, diplomacy or honesty. What matters is that he makes them feel safe.

And guess what? That’s exactly the approach that Hitler took too.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.24.34Hitler made Germans of the 1930s feel safe. No, not all of them. Far from all of them. Many resisted his vision, including his fellow politicians. But Hitler made enough of his citizens feel safe. His message resonated with enough Germans to to allow the Nazi Party to prosper.

The problem wasn’t Hitler. The problem was support for Hitler.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 03.22.21I hope that, at this point, you might have taken a deep breath. It is very clear that I have just compared Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. I am not, of course, the first to do that. The Mexican President, Enrique Pena Nieto, has done so, as has Holocaust survivor Zeev Hod. Commentator Adam Brown carried out a detailed policy analysis of that comparison in October 2015, and the Philadelphia Daily News made the same comparison on the front page of their paper in December 2015. The historians Robert Paxton and Fedja Buric have taken such uncomfortable debates to a new level by seriously discussing whether a comparison to the fascist Mussolini might be more accurate. The NY Daily News chucked Stalin into the mix.

But even with such illustrious company, you might wonder if I haven’t taken things a step too far. It is not a bit far-fetched to compare Donald Trump to Hitler? Is it not just a bit too insulting or too unimaginable? Is it not according him slightly too much power – especially as he hasn’t yet been elected President and many think he hasn’t got a hope in hell of that anyway.

No, its not. Because, as I said, the problem wasn’t Hitler. And the problem isn’t Trump. The problem is support for Trump.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.09.48In his brilliant book Parenting for a Peaceful World, published in 2005, psychologist Robin Grille carried out a psycho-historical analysis of 1930s Germany. He traces the parenting advice popular at the end of the 19th century, just at the time when many Nazi supporters would have been young children. His review shows that the most popular childcare experts were promoting an authoritarian parenting style. They recommended ignoring and even crushing children’s emotional needs, in order to raise well-behaved, obedient adults.

It doesn’t take much to start crushing children’s capacity for connection – especially if experts are encouraging you down a harsh, unwavering path of relating. You can make a pretty good start by the age of 3. By then you’ve had a lasting impact on a child’s brain. And you don’t have to be a parent to achieve that change. Institutions charged with caring for young children, including childcare, social work, orphanages and hospitals can do a lot to damage children. It’s easy. You don’t even have to intend to. Just create policies that prevent staff from meeting children’s emotional needs, make the staff ratios so high there’s too little opportunity to meet them anyway, and be sure to humiliate, exclude and punish bad behaviour.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.12.41Adults who had been raised in authoritarian settings were just what Hitler and the Nazis needed — adults who would dispense with compassion in order to have safety. Adults who could feel so good about themselves in the process.

Robin Grille makes the point that such political success didn’t require all German parents of the early 20th century to follow expert authoritarian advice. He has no doubt that many German parents were highly empathic. Indeed, when comparing autobiographical accounts of Nazi sympathisers versus Nazi resisters, he is able to identify distinct differences in the way their parents treated them during childhood.

So  a country – whether that’s Germany or America or anywhere else — doesn’t need all, or even a majority, of its adult citizens to adopt an authoritarian parenting style in order to wreak widespread cultural havoc. All that’s needed is enough of them. As Robin Grille puts it (pg. 120): “Only a critical mass of harsh, authoritarian upbringing is needed to skew a nation towards dictatorship and war.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.18.22The articles currently circulating on the web that explore this issue tend to focus on ‘American authoritarianism’. And its certainly true that there’s plenty of that about. For example, Daniel Kolman (@kolman) recently tweeted that he was shocked to discover that 19 US states still allow corporal punishment in schools.  I have myself previously written about the book No Greater Joypopular amongst the Christian Right community in the USA, which advocates training babies’ behaviour by regularly beating them with a 12-inch piece of lawn-strimming cord. After the age of 1 year, the authors recommend upgrading to plumber’s supply line, which is thicker and which you can find at any hardware store, in a variety of colours for you to choose from. The book gets plenty of five-star ratings on Amazon.

A petition in 2011 tried (and failed) to ban Amazon from selling the book. A member of the UK Parliament tried to at least get its sale banned in the UK. But Amazon is global, isn’t it? Authoritarianism transcends national boundaries.

And that’s my real point in this piece. Authoritarianism transcends national boundaries. It isn’t present just in America. It is present in all cultures where humiliation, shame or violence is used to control children. It is present in all institutions where adults become more concerned about managing children’s behaviour than responding to their feelings. It is present in many of the homes in your community where parents are simply trying to do their best to raise their kids.

Donald Trump is dangerous NOT because he is now the Republican nominee.

Donald Trump is dangerous because he legitimises fear.

Leftover baby fears are oh so powerful, lurking in the dark of our neural pathways. That’s the point of attachment theory.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.39.50If you’re worried about this election, whatever country you live in, don’t fight Trump. Fight fear.

If you’re worried about world events beyond the American election, do the same thing. Fight fear.

 

 

Changing nappies is as much about babies’ brains as their bottoms

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 11.13.53We are conflicted about nappy changing these days. As a society, it makes us uncomfortable. It is distasteful, involving dirty, smelly bodily substances. It is anxiety provoking, requiring the exposure of babies’ genitals. It is inconvenient, necessitating a pause in the midst of whatever other activity a parent has underway. And it frequently emotional, with babies refusing to lie still or staring intently into their caretaker’s face.

For all these reasons, nappy changing is something we don’t usually talk about in polite circles. It may be a necessity of life with a baby, but it’s not exactly a subject for the dinner table, is it? It might therefore seem too inconsequential a topic for a whole article, especially when you consider that other pieces in this blog series have focused on ‘serious’ subjects, like terrorism and abuse and brain development.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 11.06.25Yet, to my mind, that is exactly the reason for writing a piece on nappy changing. Babies’ brains grow more rapidly during the period of life during which they need their nappies changed than will ever be the case again. Approximately 1000 synaptic connections are formed every second during this period. Astounding. And it is the emotional experiences that babies have over and over again that build the most robust neural pathways. Nappy changing is undoubtedly an activity that babies encounter repeatedly. Indeed, over just the first six months, there are approximately 10 changes per day, each lasting, say, 5 minutes. That’s 9000 minutes or 540,000 seconds, and thus half a billion synapses.

So nappy changing isn’t quite as inconsequential as we might at first have thought. It has an impact on babies’ brain development. More specifically, the emotional experiences that caretakers give babies whilst changing their nappies are being built into babies’ brains.

I thought, therefore, that it would be interesting to reflect on the ways in which modern society encourages us to approach the task of nappy changing. This is an appropriate moment for such reflection, given that Real Nappy Week is taking place this very week in London. Most people won’t have any idea there is a group of committed individuals who want to celebrate the benefits of real cloth nappies. This article is my way of supporting their efforts.

So what are some of the big messages we get about nappy changing in today’s society?

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 10.59.48One message is that nappies are disgustingly funny. Take, for example, the videos that regularly travel the web that show fathers wretching whilst changing nappies. In August 2015, a tattooed, uniformed father gained international attention when the video of him vomiting as he soldiered on with nappy changing went viral, featuring eventually on television and in newspapers.

Why is it always Dads? I know that we regard ourselves as having ‘moved on’ as a society, because once upon a time fathers never changed nappies at all. But this humiliating form of humour says something darker about the way we frame modern masculinity. We are either laughing at dads’ incompetence – or turning them into heroes for coping with something ordinary. Indeed, if you want a gag gift for new fathers, you can buy a doodie apron, which comes complete with nose peg, face mask and gloves, all designed to help a father keep the disgusting productions of his baby’s body at bay.

I know it’s supposed to be funny. And I know I sound like I need to get a life if I’m not laughing at the innocent joke. But I find myself wondering about the baby’s experience. Is the baby scared when confronted with Dad clad in a face mask? Does the baby feel ashamed when Dad looks disgusted in reaction to the substances that her body produces? Does the baby feel embarrassed when parents start laughing whilst filming ‘poo faces’ to send to Pampers as part of an advertising campaign?

Here’s my point: we feel okay about all this laughter because we think it’s only about the adults. We don’t think it matters to the babies. We wouldn’t laugh at older people with dementia who are pooing, because we would think that was disrespectful. But when it comes to babies, we think they don’t notice. That why the joking seems innocent and can’t do harm to anybody.

Except it’s not true. Babies are born with a connected brain. That means they are already aware of and attuned to and reading other people’s emotions, facial expressions and behaviour. Babies learn about themselves by the way we treat them. This includes the way we treat them during activities as ‘inconsequential’ as nappy changing. If we react often enough to babies’ bodies with disgust, then they start to see themselves as disgusting. It is ominously fascinating to realise that we can build a sense of shame into our child’s brain by the way we treat them during nappy changing. As parent, we can do that without ever realizing or intending to. And modern society makes it more, not less, likely that we will do just that.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 11.09.21What’s another message that we get in today’s world about nappy changing? How about this one: the less it happens, the better. Pampers and Huggies make disposable nappies designed to last 12 hours without the need for a change. The idea is that parents don’t have to be interrupted in the midst of other activities with their wee ones. Babies can remain strapped into car seats and strollers and carry cots. They don’t have to risk being woken at night.

Modern society creates more and more devices that reduce babies’ opportunities to feel their parents’ touch. Of all the senses, touch is the most important for babies. It is the first sense to develop in the womb and the most developed at birth. Skin is our largest organ, and the sensations that skin sends to the brain are so powerful that they act as pain relief. In our evolutionary history, babies spent much more time experiencing touch, strapped as they were to a parent’s body during the day and sleeping next to a parent’s body at night. Modern babies experience an extremely different type of infancy than did our forebears.

Yes, babies adapt to the modern world. Skeptics will reply that babies are clearly surviving in today’s world of nappies, transport devices and sleeping arrangements. I agree, they are. But I also know that without sufficient touch and physical attention, babies die. That was one of the points to come out of studies of Romanian orphans. Infant humans depend on the physical presence of another human being in order to survive.

Could the decreasing amount of touch that modern babies receive be one of the reasons that our society is witnessing an increase in behavioural problems associated with emotional regulation? The most fundamental pathways that the brain is forming during the early years are the ones that enable to us to cope with – that is, regulate – our emotions.

So maybe it would be better if disposable nappies weren’t quite so efficient? Maybe it would be better for babies’ emotional health if nappy companies could find ways to inform parents about the crucial importance of touch and cuddling and feeling Mum’s warm fingers on your skin — even while they search for ways to keep urine from reaching a baby’s skin.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 11.10.53That’s one of the aims of Real Nappy Week. The celebrations aren’t designed only to highlight the value of non-disposable nappies, but to get us as a culture to rethink the whole business of nappy changing.

So what’s one final modern-day message to which we might pay attention? How about the way in which our fear of sexual abuse now overlaps with nappy changing?

Many nurseries now have a policy that requires two members of staff to be present when nappies are changed, in order to guard against the risk of inappropriate touch. We are scared that the people who have been vetted to take care of our children might harm them, and nakedness makes nappy changing seem a particularly vulnerable setting.

Videos that instruct new parents on how to change nappies are frequently shot from an angle that avoids revealing babies’ genitals, or are edited so that the genitals are blurred out. How ironic that the very parts of the body that generate the need for a nappy change cannot be shown on film. In our struggle to come to terms with the very real risks that children face of being sexually abused, we have further sexualised our youngest children.

In the run-up to Real Nappy Week, my team released our brief film ‘dance of the nappy’. The film is excerpted from our longer feature-length film, ‘the connected baby’, first released in 2011 with funding from the British Psychological Society. We estimate that the longer film has now been viewed by 100,000 people, but this is the first time we have released an entire segment for public viewing on YouTube.

The film shows the intricate emotional dance that goes on between a 5-week-old baby and his mother during an ordinary nappy change. The baby’s emotional responses to his mother’s movements and facial expressions are so nuanced that it would be easy to miss them. That’s why we wanted to make the film: because such moments of connection are happening for babies across the world, but it is easy for parents to overlook them because they are so subtle and fleeting. Video footage makes it possible to slow everything down and reveal what is not apparent to the naked eye.

After filming that session, I realised the baby’s genitals were in full view. The mother realised it too. She commented on it at the time, whilst we were filming. Later, during editing, she confirmed that she was comfortable with retaining the footage. But I had to ask myself: was I comfortable with it? Was it appropriate in today’s society to show a 5-week-old baby’s genitals on a movie screen? What would I say if someone challenged my decision? What if, later, when the baby is grown, he resents having had his bum shown off to the world? What if I was accused of encouraging inappropriate touch because his genitals appear briefly but undeniably?

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 13.15.00My decision was not to change anything. I decided that real-life nappy changing means exposing and cleaning baby’s genitals. I decided that merely alluding to that, by editing out that footage, actually feeds our modern day fear that genitals are inherently sexual, even those of a 5-week-old baby. I decided that I was making a film that was trying to show how connection is possible at all points in a baby’s day, including during an activity as ‘disgusting’ as changing a pooey nappy. Because that’s exactly what the film shows – not just a Number One, but a Number Two. And the interaction between the mum and her baby is still loving and affirming. The baby gets no sense that his bodily excrement is shameful to her. After weeks of fretting, I decided I could defend such a scene to the world.

This week, I was reminded about my early worries. Since our public release on YouTube last week, I have received queries from three people, expressing unease that the film shows ‘everything’. I was relieved to realise that I now welcomed such debate, rather than feared it. Those weeks I had spent agonizing had been valuable, for they enabled me to articulate the position I take in this debate.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 10.55.38And here is my position: Something is emotionally askew in our modern society. On the one hand, the global company Pampers can make an award-winning film that is intentionally designed to make us laugh at babies’ unease and discomfort when they poo. On the other hand, we can be made uncomfortable by a film that shows the real poo and the parts of a baby’s body that produced it. Something is awry in our reasoning.

I like the idea that a scene of something as tediously ordinary as a pooey nappy can become a radical act. A baby boy’s bum can make us reflect in new ways on our own humanity.

So, to the grown man of the future who was once that baby boy, let me offer my thanks and my apologies now. It was your bum that offered us this gift of reflection. Your mother says in the film: “One day you might really hate that I did this in front of the camera.” I hope you don’t. Because every time I show this film, I offer you a silent, grateful thanks for the trust you placed in us that day.

The science of Bing Bong and other imaginary friends: On joy, loss and growth

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 08.44.55Bing Bong has made it safe for children to enjoy their imaginary friends.

That’s a worry that parents have carried for a long time. You can find anxious articles all over the web. Is it normal for my toddler to have an imaginary friend?”  “Are invisible friends a sign of social problems?”  “Should parents be worried about imaginary friends?”  Bing Bong reassures adults that the answer is: “Yes! Stop worrying and start celebrating the creativity of your child’s mind.”

If you find yourself asking ‘Who in heaven’s name is Bing Bong?’ then you are one of the few people left in the Western Hemisphere who has yet to see Pixar’s award-winning animated film Inside Out. It has already won a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and now an Oscar.  If you’ve missed all the fun and the tears, can I suggest you take 90 minutes out of your daily life to remedy this gap in your life? This film is, by my reckoning, one of the most insightful films ever made on human emotions. The viewer may never realise they are getting a scientific lesson in attachment, brain function and trauma. They think they are watching an entertaining cartoon.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 08.51.16I have been talking and writing about this film since it was released in Summer 2015. Tons of parents have now written to say they found in it a shared language for talking with their children about feelings. Foster and kinship carers have been in touch to share stores of how the character dolls helped their traumatised children make sense of confused emotions. Staff teams have scheduled a night out together to go see it. One nursery chain – Kirktonholme Nurseries, in Scotland’s central belt – thought it so valuable that they hired a theatre and took 200 of their children to see it. They even got their local paper to do a story on the science behind their outing!

All of that activity has tended to focus on the five characters — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger – who live in the head of the central figure, 11-year-old Riley. The character who has had less attention than anyone else is Riley’s imaginary friend from childhood, Bing Bong. Part cat, part elephant, part dolphin, Bing Bong once rode with Riley on their song-powered rocket ship (better known to adults as a wee red wagon). Now, though, Bing Bong lives forgotten in Riley’s subconscious long-term memory. And (SPOILER ALERT!), before the movie is over, Bing Bong will sacrifice himself to the eternal abyss of the Memory Dump, in order to help Joy find her way back to headquarters in Riley’s brain.

Pixar’s message in Bing Bong’s death is very clear. In order to keep growing up, Riley will need Joy more than she will need an invisible friend. Bing Bong accepts his heart-breaking fate with a final wrenching request: “Go save Riley. Take her to the moon for me.” With those two short sentences, Pixar is aiming to crack open adult viewers’ protective shells. Pixar is bringing us face to face with the loss that is an inherent part of growing up.

Bing Bong’s death scene has been dubbed the most profound moment of the film. It embodies the bittersweet quality of other chronicles of growing up, such as the 1960s hit song Puff the Magic Dragon (by the group Peter Paul and Mary) or the scene from Toy Story when Andy gives away his toys. Calvin and Hobbes, the comic strip adventures of a child and his stuffed tiger, never have to face such a poignant turn because Calvin never grows up. If you are going to move beyond childhood, you must learn to endure loss.

It is striking how tough such an in-your-face message is for adults. Bing Bong’s death scene was originally supposed to be 40 seconds longer. That proved way too heart wrenching. Viewers couldn’t take it. So Pixar cut it down.

Inside Out is ultimately a story about the power of sadness. Its moral is that growth and loss come together, hand in hand. One doesn’t exist without the other. On a first viewing of the film, it is easy to come away thinking that message is conveyed by the two lead characters, Joy and Sadness.

But look closer, and it becomes clear the story is deeper than that. It is Bing Bong who makes sure we really really really get that message. Pixar has ensured we aren’t merely watching a story about sadness. Instead, they make us experience sadness. They lead us into loving bumbling Bing Bong before we are subjected to his unexpected but inevitable demise.

So is Bing Bong just a metaphor? Is he simply a vehicle that allows Pixar to tell a story about the wistful journey that is growing up? How much resemblance does he bear to children’s real imaginary friends?

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 08.56.08We can turn to the science to answer that question. That’s a surprising turn for many people, because they have no idea that scientific interest in invisible friends exists. Yet there have been several books published on the subject. The classic is The House of Make-Believe, by Dorothy and Jerome Singer, published in 1990. A decade later, in 1999, Majorie Taylor published her own fascinating account in Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. Paul Harris, too, provides delightful insights in his book The Work of the Imagination, published in 2000.

What does that research tell us? We learn three key things:

  1. Imaginary companions are healthy. It is not shy, lonely children who create companions as a way of coping with emotional troubles. In fact, the reverse is true. Research shows that children who create pretend friends tend to be sociable and outgoing. And while companions can help in times of trouble, the main motivation for inventing a friend is fun. So Riley turns out to be pretty typical of children with imaginary friends.
  1. Imaginary friends allow children to try out new perspectives. You can discover what its like to be brave if you have a pretend friend walking with you past a scary dog. You can figure out how to deal with bossy friends if your imaginary companion is forever disobeying your requests. Interactions with imaginary friends give children practice with situations that they will encounter in real life. Perhaps that is why they are so common. Research estimates that 65% of children have an imaginary friend at some point.
  1. Children with imaginary friends are not confused about reality. Interviews with children make it clear that, even if they get very caught up in the fun, children know that imaginary companions are not real. They have not misunderstood the borders of fantasy. Instead, scientists have concluded, the existence of a pretend friend indicates that a child has a pretty good grip on the boundaries of reality.

So when children invent imaginary friends, they are, as Marjorie Taylor puts it, “engaging in a basic human urge” (p. 48). They are discovering what companionship is like. That urge for connection is one that all human beings bring with them at birth, woven into their neural pathways.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 08.58.38In the creation of Bing Bong, Pixar has been brutally deceptive to its adult viewers. They have used animation, a classic children’s form, to confront us the loss of our own childhood. The director, Pete Docter, christens Bing Bong ‘the spirit of childhood’ – while still killing him off. It is not easy for most of us to come to terms with the inevitability of loss in our lives. How do you acknowledge that and still reach for happiness?

That philosophical question explains why Bing Bong had to die in the story. Joy may have learned lessons about the power of sadness. But it is Bing Bong who puts those lessons into practice. It is Bing Bong who shows us what it truly means to embrace sadness with grace.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 09.04.22This is how Pixar describes their decision to play the story out in that way:

“We need to find our characters at their most challenged: ‘What’s the most difficult thing you have to face in life?’ We’re going to go there. And it’s heartbreaking.”

What I love about this movie is that it isn’t just a movie. It’s more like a tool that can help the rest of us figure out how to bumble our way through this journey called Life.

And given the correspondence I now receive, it seems that tool is working for lots of folk. One more example can be found in a New Year’s Eve piece by a young blogger named Joshua Huggins, posted just after he’d seen Inside Out:

“It’s almost New Year. Every year I post a sappy photo about how I’m going to turn this year around and make myself happy. I seem to be failing in a lot of ways. So this year my resolution is the opposite. I’m going to take the sad and miserable parts of my life and explore them in a way I’ve always been afraid to do…I’m a bit excited. My New Year’s resolution is to be sad.”

Joshua Huggins is wise.  We’d all be better off if we could learn the lesson in Bing Bong’s sacrifice for Riley.  In order to know growth, we have to find the courage to embrace loss.

Along the way, there really is fun and joy to be had. As our children know, that’s the real point of having a companion in the first place, whether real or imaginary.

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