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Posts Tagged ‘positive thinking’

So, you know that special brand of squelched eye-roll/mini-smirk you trot out whenever you find yourself cornered by your Positive Thinking-evangelizing sister/friend/coworker? Turns out, raining on her parade might be the best thing you can do for her.

In a comical opinion piece in Sunday’s NYT that’ll make the cynic in you chuckle, Oliver Burkeman lays out a solid argument for being an Eeyore. The impetus for his piece was last month’s debacle involving 21 Tony Robbins devotees who wound up being treated for burns after “Unleashing the Power Within” (read: attempting to walk across hot coals).

(Quoth the fire captain: “We discourage people from walking over hot coals.”)

Schadenfreude aside, Burkeman lays out a pretty solid argument for leaving the power alone, and instead unleashing the grouch within.

He quotes social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, cites The Stoics and principles of Buddhist meditation, debunks the power of visualization:

Consider the technique of positive visualization, a staple not only of Robbins-style seminars but also of corporate team-building retreats and business best sellers. According to research by the psychologist Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues, visualizing a successful outcome, under certain conditions, can make people less likely to achieve it. She rendered her experimental participants dehydrated, then asked some of them to picture a refreshing glass of water. The water-visualizers experienced a marked decline in energy levels, compared with those participants who engaged in negative or neutral fantasies. Imagining their goal seemed to deprive the water-visualizers of their get-up-and-go, as if they’d already achieved their objective.

Interestingly, elsewhere in the paper (O, glorious Sunday on the couch!), in a (much-emailed) piece titled “Raising Successful Children” Madeline Levine, practicing clinician and author of “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success,” takes down not just helicopter parents and tiger moms, but “overparenting lite.” It’s a topic we’ve covered before, but Levine mentions an interesting study:

In a typical experiment, Dr. Dweck takes young children into a room and asks them to solve a simple puzzle. Most do so with little difficulty. But then Dr. Dweck tells some, but not all, of the kids how very bright and capable they are. As it turns out, the children who are not told they’re smart are more motivated to tackle increasingly difficult puzzles. They also exhibit higher levels of confidence and show greater overall progress in puzzle-solving.

Interesting, huh? Taken together, the two certainly got me wondering. How much positivity is too much? Exactly how deeply rose should our glasses be colored? Where does healthy stop and delusional begin? And, maybe more to the point: why does this kind of stuff feel, in some (albeit slightly uncomfortable) way, like a relief?

We write often about the importance of embracing failure, how it is not only surmountable, but a teacher. We also write often about the crushing pressure of great expectations. How they can turn out to be more paralyzing than empowering. (And how the message so many of us are fed, that you can do anything you want, is internalized with the pressurizing conclusion: so it better be something really freaking good.) And so I wonder: how much better off would we all be were the pressure to be positive ratcheted down, even just a tad? And not just because the pressure would be off: because failure, imperfection, moments of (gasp!) mediocrity are kind of a fact of life.

In her piece, Levine notes that becoming who we are (and being allowed the space to accomplish this deceptively simple task) is kind of the most important work at hand for a fledgling human being (or the people tasked with raising said human being). I’d agree. And accepting and getting to like that person is pretty important work, too. And accepting and liking ourselves is considerably easier if we’re not expecting perfection, not least because people–all people–are inherently imperfect. (And through no fault of our not thinking positively enough.)

Here’s a little more from Burkeman:

Buddhist meditation, too, is arguably all about learning to resist the urge to think positively — to let emotions and sensations arise and pass, regardless of their content. It might even have helped those agonized firewalkers. Very brief training in meditation, according to a 2009 article in The Journal of Pain, brought significant reductions in pain — not by ignoring unpleasant sensations, or refusing to feel them, but by turning nonjudgmentally toward them.

From this perspective, the relentless cheer of positive thinking begins to seem less like an expression of joy and more like a stressful effort to stamp out any trace of negativity. Mr. Robbins’s trademark smile starts to resemble a rictus. A positive thinker can never relax, lest an awareness of sadness or failure creep in. And telling yourself that everything must work out is poor preparation for those times when they don’t. You can try, if you insist, to follow the famous self-help advice to eliminate the word “failure” from your vocabulary — but then you’ll just have an inadequate vocabulary when failure strikes.

Everything’s not always going to be great. And that’s perfectly fine.

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Two new studies, just out this week, show that the brain is mightier than the baggage — especially when it comes to those stereotypes we women carry around in our backpacks.  It’s fantastic news for women, but before we dive in:

Parallel parking: Good at it?  And speaking of driving: Get lost much?

Stereotypes tell us that if you’re a woman, your answer to the first question is probably a “nope.”  And to the second, often a “yes.”  But guess what?  A new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior tells us that it’s often garden-variety confidence at play when it comes to spatial tasks like parking the car or reading a road map — rather than gender-related abilities (or lack of same.)

Psychologists Zach Estes from the University of Warwick and Sydney Felker from the University of Georgia found that when you boost women’s confidence, they do much better at the kinds of things at which they are presumed to suck.  In the study, the researchers had women perform a standard 3D mental rotation task while manipulating their confidence levels, and suddenly their performance soared.

“Men tend to outperform women on spatial tasks, but this difference is at least partially due to women’s lack of confidence on such tasks,” Estes told us.  “What we showed in four experiments is that when women are able to ignore this under-confidence, and when their confidence is boosted, they do just as well as men. What was most surprising to me was how simple, and possibly even obvious, it was to repeatedly eliminate this sex difference. The sex difference in mental rotation, which is what we measured, is the largest and most robust cognitive sex difference known. Yet, we managed to eliminate it four times with four simple controls and manipulations of confidence.”

Pretty amazing, right? All of which has implications that go far beyond, say, packing a suitcase or playing a drop-dead game of Tetris.  And that’s the fact that the stereotypes that hold us back in the workplace, at school, in life itself can often be overridden by — like the little engine that could — giving ourselves a good kick in the self-esteem.

Back to Estes:  “There is some really good research by social psychologists showing that if you reject stereotypes, performance by the stereotyped group typically improves,” he says.  “For instance, women also tend to do relatively worse than men on mathematical tasks, but getting women to reject that stereotype leads them to actually perform better too. Presumably, this has to do with increasing their confidence.”

Wait. Mathematical tasks?  Hold the calculator! We ourselves have written about the role of confidence (or lack of same) in holding women back, especially when it comes to careers in science or technology.  Indeed, Taylor points out that just knowing about a stereotype — even if you don’t believe in it — can affect our performance, which often makes us more more tentative and less assertive.

“But at a more fundamental level,” Estes says, “what appears to happen is that the effort required to monitor one’s stereotyped behavior actually uses up cognitive resources that are necessary to do the task. So for instance, a female scientist might unconsciously monitor whether she’s acting or thinking in a stereotypically female way, and that cognitive monitoring leaves fewer mental resources (e.g., active memory) for solving scientific problems.”

Wow. But we digress.  What Estes’s study suggests is that negative stereotypes, and all the baggage they drag along with them, can be counteracted by a fat dose of confidence. “Our study suggests that boosting confidence in some other, unrelated task can also improve performance on the stereotyped task.  The really good news for women is that negatively stereotyped behaviors are very easily improved. Even the largest cognitive sex difference [like those spatial tasks] can be eliminated by making confidence a non-issue. So whether a woman musters up the confidence on her own, or whether she gets it from some other source of positive feedback, the research suggests that she’ll perform better. And that improvement can then create the opposite, more positive cycle, such that confidence begets better performance which in turn begets even more confidence. Eventually she’ll reach her true potential, rather than wilting under the weight of the stereotype.”

We think, therefore we can? Absolutely.  What’s more, we can change the way we think.  One other study, by social psychologists Yuri Miyamoto and Li-Jun Ji found that power promotes more analytic thinking which, at least in North American society, is associated with the ability to influence others and, well, more power.  But that power business wasn’t the most important part of their study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. What was most exciting, says Li-Jun Ji, a social scientist at the University of Ontario, was simply this: our thought processes are flexible — more determined by social context than any sort of pre-programming.  “Thinking styles can be learned or trained, for example, through social experience,” she told us.

What this means, especially for women, is that our brains can adapt to suit the situation, which in turn gives us more agency and control in achieving our own goals — possibly giving us a larger presence at the top of the ladder.  Says Ji: “Social psychological research has shown that our own expectations of ourselves, as well as others’ expectation of us, will affect our behaviors in social interactions, resulting in behaviors that confirm the original expectation.”

In the women-are-screwed scenario, that can lead to a self perpetuating cycle.  But the good news, as both Estes’s and Ji’s studies have shown, is that it’s a cycle we have the power to break.  As Ji points out, thinking is malleable, and in terms of her power-begets-power research,  it’s as easy as learning some basic influencing techniques.  “Even small success will be rewarding and encouraging, and can come a long way in terms of increasing women’s confidence in their opinions and in terms of boosting their self expectations,” she says.  In other words, whatever those stereotypes in our backpacks may be, we’re not locked in.

To be sure, it takes more than a plucky sense of positive thinking to override all the structural and other issues that hold us back, but the overall message is this: we have more power than we may think.  So long as we seize it.

Meanwhile, back to those original questions: I can parallel park like the best of them (though my bumpers might speak otherwise), and as of today, trust me on this one, I will never get lost again.

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