John Siracusa’s Inner Troubled Teen

I used to work in a group home for troubled boys, many of whom were survivors of unhealthy families or environments, or sometimes of the corrections system. As part of my initial training, I learned a set of concepts and techniques developed at Cornell University and collectively known as Therapeutic Crisis Intervention (TCI). TCI training emphasized the importance of understanding the “Conflict Cycle”, which goes like this:

A Stressful Incident -> The Young Person’s Feelings -> The Young Person’s Actions -> An Adult’s Response

In plainer terms, a young person in crisis (and all residents of a group home can broadly be understood to be in crisis at nearly all times) will experience a stressful incident or situation. If they cannot successfully manage their feelings in response to that trigger, they will act out in unacceptable ways. The adult(s) responsible for the young person will then respond to the unacceptable behavior.

If the Adult Response is successful, the unacceptable behavior will end, and the young person will learn better skills for coping with stress or painful feelings. If the Adult Response is not successful (that is, not therapeutic), it will constitute a new Stressful Incident that will retrigger painful or unmanageable feelings in the young person, beginning the cycle anew.

I thought about the Conflict Cycle as I listened to the most recent episode of Reconcilable Differences, a podcast by John Siracusa and Merlin Mann in which they discuss the development and expression of their two disparate personalities. I highly recommend it, and if you want to skip straight to the content I discuss, the 1:06:25 marker is a good place to start.

As the main topic of the episode, Merlin interrogates John about the processes by which he maintains the primacy of his critical faculty, for which he is renowned. In a particular corner of the nerdosphere, invoking John Siracusa is a well-recognized shorthand for the ability to identify and analyze a shortcoming or flaw in reasoning or execution. Merlin references this reputation in asking how John developed the skill of detaching his own ego and personal feelings from his analysis of even highly-charged issues. In response, John detours into discussing what he refers to as his “Mental Model”.

My brain has two parts. It has the rational part, and it has the other part. And the rational part of the brain—everyone can relate to this, I think—something happens that is significant, or upsetting, or traumatic, or exciting, or whatever it is: a significant event. 25 years pass, and you look back on that event; you have a better perspective on it, because so much time has passed that, hopefully, a lot of the trauma or the excitement or whatever has drained out of it, and you can look back on it, and you can engage with that event in a way that you could not when you were sort of in the heat of the moment, right? That is my attempt to explain what the rational part of the brain is… So that’s one part of the brain is the rational part, and the other part is all the parts with the feelings and the reactions and so on and so forth. And I use this mental model because I’ve always felt that the rational part of my brain—probably since mid-to-late adulthood—massively dominates the other part of the brain. That I’m able to engage it very close to the heat of the moment, like within hours or days, or sometimes immediately, and sometimes pre-emptively: engage the rational part of my brain to win over the other part… This is the tool I use to manage myself. Something is super-upsetting, or whatever; I engage the rational part of my brain to try to bring myself down, to try to say, “Look, I know you’re upset, or whatever, but let’s try to think about this, and not do something stupid.” Or, “Think about what we did: what really happened there? I know you’re angry at this person, but were you actually the one who was at fault there?” It is super-important to me that the rational part of my brain is the part of my brain that has control.

Note: my transcription is edited for brevity and clarity, but I feel I’ve represented John’s thoughts accurately.

In his description of his Mental Model, John almost perfectly adapts the Conflict Cycle, except that instead of an Adult and a Young Person, he substitutes what I’ll call “Rational John” and “Everything Else John”:

A Stressful Incident -> Everything Else John’s Feelings -> Everything Else John’s Actions -> Rational John’s Response

Rational John’s response sometimes results in a de-escalation of Everything Else John and an opportunity for Everything Else John to learn better coping skills. Or, more frequently—as John clarifies later in the podcast—Rational John fails to successfully de-escalate Everything Else John, who proceeds to wreak some harm upon a relationship that Rational John values

To aid group home workers in responding therapeutically, TCI instructs them to ask themselves Four Questions when confronting a young person in crisis:

  1. What am I feeling now?
  2. What does the young person feel, need, or want?
  3. How is the environment affecting the situation?
  4. How do I best respond?

Based on John’s description of himself, Rational John seems to have about the same success rate I had when I worked with troubled teens. I never performed particularly well at responding to young people in crisis, because I could get through Questions 1-3 fairly well but would usually fall apart at Question 4 and end up responding only neutrally, not therapeutically, to the client. Often I completely forgot to stop and ask myself the Four Questions before responding, and this usually accounts for my frequent failure to successfully respond to my own non-rational self as well. Much like Rational John, Rational Ryan often doesn’t even get a word in until Everything Else Ryan has already steamrolled forward into relational disaster. In that case, Rational Ryan just comes in to do the “mop-up”, as John refers to what I would call a “post-crisis interview” with Everything Else Ryan.

In the remaining hour of the podcast, John and Merlin discuss how this Mental Model can apply not only to preventing or mitigating harmful personal behavior but also to the pursuit of greater clarity of thought and belief. Merlin briefly refers to another set of techniques I practiced with similarly mediocre success in the group home: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. John—consciously or unconsciously—adapts those concepts to his own goal of constantly self-correcting his own erroneous beliefs to achieve a better grasp on reality. It’s a jam-packed hour of wrestling with the flawed mental processes that guide our ideas and relationships, and well worth your time and consideration.