Psychology entries

Dec
31
2009

Anchors away

I’ve done a whole lot of non-fiction reading over the past eight months. Some of it has been psychology-related, books like Stumbling on Happiness and The Paradox of Choice.

(Incidentally, I categorically recommend that you read Stumbling on Happiness. Not only is the material fascinating and highly relevant to basically everyone who happens to be human, but the man is funny! I’ve read many fine nonfiction books but I can’t recall the last one that had me chuckling on nearly every page.)

Humans have a universal tendency to adapt to new situations by — I call it ‘resetting the baseline.’ Circumstances change, and very quickly we accept — whatever it is — as the new normal. Doesn’t matter whether things got better or worse, it very soon ceases to make any emotional difference. Among other things, this is why — within a few months after their respective life-changing events — paraplegics and lottery winners are about equally happy overall.

Part of this process involves something called ‘anchoring’: the tendency to adjust our expectations and reactions based on something we’ve already got in mind. (Putting a ‘retail’ and a ‘sale’ price on a tag makes use of anchoring.) So the paraplegic anchors on the accident, next to which comparatively simple pleasures — like talking to a friend, or eating a nice meal — seem that much better. Meanwhile the lottery winners compare everything to … well, winning the lottery.

The result is what psychologists call a ‘hedonic treadmill’ — the unending search for happiness, which because of our tendency to acclimate, requires more and more extreme efforts.

There’s more in that vein — if you’re interested, go read the books! — but the reason I mention all this here is that I’m curious whether I can use these tendencies to my advantage, emotionally speaking. If advertisers and psychology grad students can manipulate our expectations — and thereby our emotions — by changing our anchors, why can’t we do it for ourselves?

I’m going to try an experiment through the month of January. First, I’m going to limit what I allow myself in an attempt to keep certain ‘treats’ from becoming ordinary. This won’t be a huge change, as I’ve already done this work on a lot of fronts, especially after my income drop last year. But in the areas of food and drink I will have to be extra-mindful, as that’s where I’m personally most likely to hop on the hedonic treadmill.

Second, each day I will make note of at least three things that I’m pleased with or happy about. They can be small things, but they do have to be specific to that day — no general platitudes like ‘I’m glad to have enough food to eat.’ And I’m going to do it via Twitter so I don’t slack. So when you see me start to number certain tweets, you know what’s up.

Oct
19
2009

Idea rat

In our house, Jak is the “Idea Rat” — it’s a long-running joke, born of part affection and part exasperation. (Read the Dilbert strip at that link if you’re not familiar with the phrase.)

Every so often he’ll make some suggestion and I’ll just stare at him, trying to figure out how in the world he expects that to work, until finally I ask — and he admits that well, he hasn’t figured the implementation part out yet. Hence: Idea Rat.

For longer than I can remember, I’ve been working under the premise that impractical ideas are worthless. They’re distracting and a waste of time. I’m not sure where I picked up that belief, but it’s something I’ve never questioned.

See, I don’t think of myself as an idea person, but … secretly, I am. I just squelch them as soon as they bubble up. When I think of something, I immediately evaluate it for practicality, and if it fails (as it does, 99.9999% of the time) then I clear it from memory. I have hundreds of ideas every day that don’t make it past the first thirty seconds.

For example: it occurred to me yesterday that it would be possible to make some really cool salt-and-pepper shakers in the form of chess pieces. Carved wood (light and dark), or marble (black and white), king and queen, or maybe bishop as a grinder and rook for salt … or even an entire chess set to hold spices, big pieces for the common ones and pawns for the rare …

Then the automatic test kicks in: can I do this? Don’t know any wood or stone carvers. Production issues would be major. Don’t have any connections to — or more than a passing interest in — chess enthusiast communities or salt-and-pepper collectors. No insights into marketing. And poof — out she goes, as if the thought had never happened. (I only even remember this a day later because I was mulling over the subject of this post at the time, and I had a mental flag to hold on to the next idea I had, for example purposes.)

I think I developed this system in order to keep from being overwhelmed by the nine billion things I’d otherwise want to do. It’s that Renaissance thing, that fox thing … my interests are so diverse that I’m afraid if I don’t focus focus focus I’ll never get anywhere. And this is why I often find Jak’s ideas so exasperating: because his comparatively weak filters are adding more noise when I’m desperately seeking signal.

One of the books-for-foxes I’ve read this month takes the tack that even the most impractical ideas are little gems to be enjoyed, appreciated, and recorded da Vinci notebook-style for the future entertainment of others. (‘Wow, look at all this crazy stuff Grandma thought up.’) Not that one should go off trying to implement every passing thought, but at least take time to celebrate and even share the idea.

Which is exactly what I never let Jak do. I come down on him like the MamaCat Paw Of Doom if he so much as opens his mouth. ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if—’ ‘Maybe I could—’ and my filter kicks into overdrive. ‘No, that would never work, because A, B, C, D, …’

Even with this newfound perspective, I don’t see myself keeping an idea journal or anything. (It conflicts with my perfectionist issues.) But I can already see the difference in how I react to Jak’s dreaming. I can short-circuit the judgment cycle now, and leave the idea alive for him instead of killing it the instant it sticks its nose out.

And if he wants the practical-filter response — because the voice of reason is occasionally useful — I can do that too.

Oct
16
2009

Foxy lady

About three weeks ago I was chatting online with a friend. ‘Nevermind,’ he typed. ‘It’s probably just TMA.’

‘TMA?’ I queried, wondering if somehow this was a typo for TMI, even though that didn’t make sense in context.

‘Too many aptitudes,’ he explained. And sent me a link.

I flipped browser windows and began reading the article, skimming a bit because it was so long. Right away I could see why this would apply to him; he’s brilliant at a wide variety of things.

But certain phrases popped out at me: “TMAs often don’t fit in well with organizations or groups … They feel that they are anyone’s equal and want to be treated as such … cannot act as if the boss were always right … either domineering or overwhelming in relationships with others …”

“TMAs are usually hypercritical, a side effect of high reasoning aptitudes. They notice flaws and loopholes, errors and inconsistencies. … They are usually good arguers and can tear just about anything to shreds–including themselves.”

That last part? Ask any sweetheart I’ve ever had about my mad arguing skillz.

‘Wow’, I typed back after a few minutes.

‘Yeah. Sorry, I thought you knew.’

‘Not surprising that it describes you, but um, some of it sounds awfully familiar to me, too.’

‘It’s exactly you!’

‘You think so too?’

‘Certainly. “Like onions in a chocolate cake” sound like every job you’ve ever had?’

‘Hahaha. Oddly, I feel almost like crying. … I have a lot of reading to do now.’

•   •   •

“Having a lot of strong talents is a bit like dealing with high voltage. You can do a lot of things with high voltage. However, it can also fry you. … A lot of that voltage for TMAs is emotional. Few people know how to handle normal emotion, let alone powerful, ongoing emotion.”

Um, yeah.

So I started researching this ‘Too Many Aptitudes Problem’. There’s less out there about it than I had hoped. Two life/career coaches have made something like it their focus, and written books, both of which I ordered from the library and read.

First of all, the labels all suck. Making ‘TMA’ into a noun is wrong in so many ways I don’t even know where to begin. One author uses ‘Scanner’, which doesn’t make me think of anything so much as a really bad scifi movie. (Jak points out that it was a bad scifi movie, which mercifully I’ve never seen.) The other uses ‘Renaissance Soul’, which is both a bit too pretentious and vaguely woowoo. And too long for ordinary conversation.

I was so exasperated by the lack of usable label that when I found this blog post I was ready to hug the author.

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

Archilochus, 7th century BC

So there we are. I’m a Fox.

And this fox is having a bit of a personal paradigm shift. More on that note later.