Don’t think you can control your emotions? You’re probably right – and it’s affecting your “batting average”

baseball striking bat under high velocity to illustrate the placebo effect

When I was about 10 years old, my dad gave me and my brother a baseball lesson. Specifically, we practiced hitting the ball. The lesson Dad gave was the same for my brother as it was for me, but the results couldn’t have been more divergent. From that day on my brother became a “slugger” and I, a “striker.” If you don’t think you can control your emotions, you’re probably right, and you’ll likely become a striker like me. The placebo effect from drug studies may help, though.

A Little Difference with Big Results

What can science tell us about how my brother elevated his game and I tanked mine? (This is the scientific equivalent of, WTF?) All we know now is that something different happened for my brother and me. It turns out that a simple belief is likely to credit for our diverging batting averages – a belief that is within personal control but not fully controllable by everyone. Huh? Why? How?

A significant component of dad’s instruction addressed the bat – or at least implied its role in getting hits.

You’ve got to Believe

“You may be wondering: how are you going to hit a round ball with a round bat?” Dad posed.

“Yeah, Dad, I was wondering that very thing, HOW CAN I hit a round ball with a round bat?”

This turned out to be a key question and, I believe, THE pivotal condition that put my brother on a path to playoff-bound teams whereas I was never able to get my baseball career to first base.

“You don’t. You hit the ball on the flat side of the bat." Dad encouraged us as he guided our fingers over the barrel of the bat.

“Here, feel here. Here you can feel the flat side of the bat. If you swing this flat side at the ball, you will get more hits.”

The Placebo Effect

My dad was counting on a powerful psychological condition well known in the field of pharmacology – The Placebo effect.

It didn’t entirely work out as Dad planned – at least, not for me.

My brother claimed to feel the flat side of our shared Louisville Slugger. Armed with the conviction that bat and ball actually are designed for hits not strikes my brother saw an immediate improvement in his hitting. I, on the other hand, did NOT feel the flat side of the bat, and, did NOT experience better batting. In fact, now convinced that the flat side of the bat (that doesn’t exist) was THE (missing) KEY to getting hits, I was barely able to make ball contact at all. The easiest explanation for the sudden divergence of my brother’s and my batting was that belief that holding the bat a certain way that favored its “flat side” would lead to more hits, or not.

When a Placebo Becomes a Primary Variable -- i.e., a Big Deal

Here we have the experimental design of the placebo effect. By encouraging my brother and me to “feel” the flat side of the bat (which doesn’t really exist) my dad hoped to establish the critical belief that hits were possible if only one swung with the right side of the bat facing the ball. Confidence in this belief (I know – an oxymoron, "confident belief") was figured to cause an increase in hits as a result. Given this was the only identifiable difference between my brother and myself, belief in one’s potential determined hits. My brother prospered in his newfound belief about the difficulty of the task. But what happened to my placebo effect?

The placebo effect is well known in pharmacological research, or drug studies. This is the standard “psychology only” condition for virtually every drug entering the market. To test the possibility that merely believing in the efficacy of a given treatment has a significant effect on its results beyond any biological agent, the new drug is tested against a placebo condition where no drug is administered to a control group. This simple design has arguably yielded more advances in pharmacological and psychological research than just about any other phenomenon. It turns out that the placebo effect is not only present in just about every drug trial, it's strong, rivaling the physiological effect of many new drugs.

Prove It

How important is the placebo effect to psychological research?

Critical. And in more ways than one.

In fact, THE primary question in psychological research is whether or not a treatment condition is significantly more effective than no treatment at all. This is the tested assumption of the null hypothesis which is the bedrock of experimental design. As an inferential, data-driven science, the job of the researcher is to disprove the possibility that nothing happened. Placebos are a staple of pharmacological research aimed at rejecting the null hypothesis that nothing happened in favor of the presented alternative. This alternative account of results isn’t proven true, the hypothesis of no effect is simply proven to be relatively improbable as compared to the hypothesized effect. In this regard, properly scientific psychological research seeks to prove that “nothing” is an inferior explanation to the alternative hypothesis.

Beyond the Placebo Effect

In psychological research, the placebo effect goes beyond the simple issue of whether a given effect is due merely to the non-treatment condition or the presence of some stimulus (e. g., taking a pill). Here the matter applies as much to independent psychological mechanisms (i.e., variables and their nature of influence) as much it does to the simple question of whether or not any effect is present. A placebo effect holds out the possibility that a given variable may have a more insightful role in behavior than serve simply as a placebo.

The possibility THAT something (oftentimes a psychological variable) can influence study results begs the question: “HOW?”

When a placebo advances in research from the fact that it has SOME kind of effect on results to the specific mechanism(s) of the “placebo” the placebo becomes a key variable for study beyond the original focal variable(s). Science turns to addressing HOW the former placebo works instead of asserting THAT it exists. This is when the placebo becomes an independent variable with a specific mechanism of action. This is when powerful psychological insights are made -- insights that aren’t immediately written off to a placebo effect, but rather depend on the main effect of a placebo effect-like psychological condition.

For our hitting practice, belief in a flat side of a bat minimized the negative attitudinal, or motivational effects underlying a known difficult task -- hitting a round ball with a round bat. The change of attitude associated with our evolving placebo effect emulates a well-researched condition known as cognitive reappraisal.

Typically, this emotional motivation is deliberately and noticeably manipulated via an explicit experimental condition in which participants are guided through the act of cognitive reappraisal. Such an act is not necessary in this case because motivation is already provided by the goal of getting hits. The only thing necessary is to manipulate the participant’s belief in their ability to hit the ball.

That’s not funny

The punchline to an old psychology joke goes, … “one, but the lightbulb has got to WANT to change.” The common understanding is that beliefs are precursors to acts and that any change in action requires/carries a change in causal/supporting beliefs. In most cases cognitive reappraisal is triggered directly by asking a study participant to consider the emotions (or beliefs, in our example) associated with the task in a new light. By reframing an emotional state this way an individual can manage the emotional impact of a situation so as to have less of a negative impact on immediate performance. In this case the motivation to perform is assumed rather than directly manipulated. Here, motivation depends upon beliefs about the difficulty of the task. As these beliefs are enhanced, the motivating attitudes are similarly predicted to change.

Reaping value

So – how can one get value out of this insight?

Wanting to change isn’t the same thing as believing one can, but it is a measurable and influential effect strongly predictive of being able to change. In this case, wanting to get hits is a motivational condition preceding the act of hitting the ball AND resulting from the consequence of getting hits. Therefore, managing one’s motivation for a task has the potential to enhance task performance. But how do you do this?

We’ve seen one good example for how to manage your emotions already – cognitive reappraisal. This is the equivalent of hitting the “reset button” to current thinking and concomitant feelings. By changing the emotive nature of a task we change its desirability and increase(decrease) its motivation. Another means of emotions management is via mindfulness meditation. I write about my personal experience on a week-long silent mindfulness meditation here.

In conclusion

  1. Attitudes matter. They influence motivation which has a corresponding influence on task performance by framing expectations/beliefs.
  2. Motivations matter. They are a form of attitude (which already matters) that can be deliberately controlled by adapting and associating various emotional effects/influences from one situation to another. In our batting example this was accomplished by changing beliefs about the probability of a successful/desired performance.

“It” may all be in your head – but there’s no guarantee that you will have control over “it.” However, if you cannot control it, then it will control you.

Psychology at work – it’s more important than you think!

Psychways is owned and produced by Talentlift, LLC.

People with no personality are more common than you think

An empty suit

“They have no personality.” We’re all familiar with this casual saying (it’s no compliment) and we know not to take it literally (or out for drinks). But what exactly does, or could it, mean? Have you ever thought about what “no personality” really looks like?

Personality is arguably the most popular and practical contribution psychology has made to society. Here is a construct or phenomenon that isn’t just for geeky researchers but is decidedly mainstream. From selection assessments and team building events to everyday use and language, personality is big these days; heck, dating services may be the “biggest users” of personality assessments going and everyone has been on a dating site (admit it). Personality is obviously important, so what does it mean when we say someone has no personality?

A literal interpretation would be to say the person really isn’t a person (why do you think we call it PERSONality?). Instead, “no personality” has come to describe someone with a behavioral style of little interest (aka, “boring”).  An apt simile is that no personality is like (plain ‘ole) vanilla ice cream – familiar to all but not the most colorful. But “no personality” is more accurately described as “light” vs. zero personality – featureless but not absent, what are we really talking about?

So, what does “no personality” look like?

Naturally, we know that this saying is not to be taken literally – everyone has something worth listening to (if they don’t then they’re just boring, not a personality-less plant.) Nevertheless, we speak of personality in quantifiable terms, e.g., “Sally has a lot of personality,” the opposite of boring. To have a lot of personality is comparable to interesting and enthusiastic.

So, is it possible for someone (conscious) to have no personality? Literally? The answer depends on how we interpret the words, “no personality.”

{Obviously this is an abstract concept, in part defined by semantics. Nevertheless, the label “no personality” is a fixture – if informal - in characterizing people.}

In this case, “no” refers to a non-existent quantity. We’ve already agreed that there is no such thing as zero personality in a living person, but zero personality does not equal no personality. For all the personality tests I’ve administered, I’ve never had one come back with no scores.

But I have worked with many people who have no ONE definitive personality – or “type.”  I’m not talking about the clinical issues associated with split personality. Some individuals simply don’t have a personality type.

In fact, none do.

The first key to this puzzle is in the specific meaning of “one personality.” If we think of personality as behavioral style, then everyone has one. It’s like the SAT, you get 200 points just for putting your name on it. But if we think of personality as a “type” then I think you’d agree that no one is perfectly described by one “type.”

People change. (It’s what keeps psychologists in business.)

What someone does today may not predict what they do tomorrow. That’s because behavior varies within the repertoire of one person just like it does between people. Today may be a good day for “head down, GSD” while tomorrow may bring about behavior associated with taking a vacation. The way we act in worship probably doesn’t predict what we do (how we behave) at a party. Same person, different behavior.

But not that much. (It’s what keeps personality practitioners in business.)

Especially not after reaching adulthood (which is later than you think; about 30 years old) by which time it’s been estimated that 90% of personality (behavioral style) is in place. Imagine how difficult things would be if people were completely unpredictable even if you like variety. Communication and social behavior in general depend on some degree of consistency – it’s required to allow reliable interpretation.

Some change more than others.

Research has suggested that Emotional Intelligence, also referenced by its quantitative measure, “Emotional Quotient” (EQ), is more predictive of performance and satisfaction than intellectual intelligence, or IQ. This is a big deal.

Emotional intelligence pertains to an individual’s ability to identify and respond accordingly to the pleasure and expectations of present company in an emotionally effective manner. Unlike most psychological research, EQ is a rather simple and practical phenomenon that has become quite popular with the general public thanks to Daniel Goleman, a science reporter for the New York Times. Goleman “chanced” upon the term in the academic literature, simplified and refined the concept and described it.

Just how much of a breakthrough is EQ?

“Self-monitoring” was defined by Mark Snyder as an attribute related to the cross-situational consistency of behavior well before Daniel Goleman’s article that launched the EQ movement. Self-monitoring refers to the ability to discern another person’s or group’s attitude and moderate one’s own behavior to suit intentions for the other.

The stability, hence, predictability, of an individual’s behavior depends on the degree to which a person is a high or low self-monitor.

People with low scores on self-monitoring behave relatively consistently from situation to situation. These are people of principle that are less concerned with being popular than with being right. As a result, people with low self-monitoring scores act more predictably across situations.

People with high self-monitoring scores tend to be entertaining, attractive and popular. Elected politicians are among the prototypical example of high self-monitors. The high self-monitor can determine and adopt the mood of the audience in order to be more relevant and potentially influential to the individual or group.

People that have high levels of self-monitoring are less likely to be behaviorally consistent in a crowd. These are the people often referred to as “social chameleons.” They’re one person with corresponding behavior in one group and “another person” with a different group.

Can a single score capture all the behavior for an individual on a given trait?

Most personality test reports provide a single score for an individual on various characteristics. This can be considered the average behavior as scores reflect the responses to items comprising the trait. While averages are useful to capture the degree to which a reflects some personality attribute, they are not always that accurate. For example, Sally and Jeff may receive the same score on extraversion, but the way they get there is different. This can be illustrated by examining the responses that make up a given character trait.

Sally

Jeff

Although Sally and Jeff have essentially the same average on extraversion Sally and Jeff are not that similar. Sally could be described as being moderately extraverted. Jeff, however, appears to be extraverted about half the time. Essentially, Jeff is harder to predict based on his “split” responses to items that make up the behavior (in this case, extraversion).

Jeff’s responses are consistent with those of a person high in self-monitoring. He may be more extraverted with a group of friends (items 8, 9, 10) versus a group of strangers (items 1 and 2). One can’t say whether Jeff is extraverted or not.

Self-monitoring changes the interpretation of personality tests

Although self-monitoring can be inferred based on item/scale scores (see “Jeff”, above), going the other direction (i.e., from self-monitoring to the behaviors) is more helpful. Since self-monitoring is actually a sub dimension of Emotional Intelligence, EQ scores provide a proxy for self-monitoring. Armed with knowledge of an individual’s EQ scores the interpretation of high self-monitors must be distinguished from low self-monitors.

Low self-monitors are who they are for the most part. Interpreting personality test scores from these individuals is relatively straightforward and reliable. Low self-monitors are generally well described by their scores and their environment is not that much of an influence, they will be consistent regardless of the context.

High self-monitors, on the other hand, are highly influenced by their environment. In the right circumstances they may demonstrate one behavior, in another something else. In order to predict how a high self-monitor will behave it is beneficial to know about their environment; as the environment goes, so goes the high self-monitor.

No <ONE> personality

High self-monitors provide one example of how a given individual cannot be said to have one personality type. In this case, the more accurate assessment would be that the individual’s behavior varies. The same is true for low self-monitors but not to the same degree.

To summarize, people’s behavior is the result of both person- and environmental factors. As such, taking a personality test at face value is unlikely and under-informed, other data must be included for the best picture.

Psychways is owned and produced by Talentlift, LLC.

Can’t we all just get along?

Two masks staring at each other. Can we get along?

Nope. No matter how much we want or pray for peace; how much we want the yelling on cable news networks to cease; or how badly we want to end acts of violence taking place in our schools, we must recognize that aggressive behavior is hardwired in our DNA. We can’t “all just get along?”

As social animals, humans have immutable, instinctual, irrepressible needs: the need to bond with others “get along” and the need to dominate, or “get ahead” relative to others. That’s simply the way it is. We will ALWAYS relate to other humans in these instinctive ways. Even your most revered saint is subject to this reality. And you most definitely are, too.

The ONLY people apparently exempt from both of these needs are, in psychological terms, “crazy,” “nut jobs,” “whackos,” etc. Apparently, I say, because an argument could be made that they are labeled, “abnormal” for the very reason that they don’t have both needs met.

The “sticky wicket” here is how we define, “get ahead.” Here’s my crack at it.

The pivotal criteria between hippies who’d “like to buy the world a Coke” and cowboys who take evil-doers and “hang ‘em high” hinge on intent and intensity.

We can all identify with the good old rivalry of game-based competition (good intent, strong intensity), and the trivial “rounding errors” in tax returns (bad intent, low intensity). {I’ve only heard about these.}

A simple taxonomy of "getting ahead."

The table, below, depicts one of the oldest, but strongest, means of influence due to its simplicity - even if a bit inadequate. (Hey, I’m a fan of tales of “ducks and bunnies.”) ANYWAY, in this case two variables (Intent and Intensity), each with two values (good/bad, high/low), are put together. Alas; the classic 2 x 2.

 

A simple taxonomy of "getting ahead."

 

The labels in the grid are mine, but others would work just as well.  (However, if you disagree, you’re wrong. AND bad! – JK*)

BUT...

“BOHICA” (I really shouldn’t say what this acronym represents, so I won’t say that it ends with, Here It Comes Again.)

“Intent” is particularly squirrely. It’s hard to ascertain the intent of someone else: "I did this for you, not me." (hmm) “I didn’t mean to eat all of the ice cream.” (Not hard). And what if the act of intent affords no value to the one in question, “Yes, I drank all your champagne, but I didn’t enjoy it.” (Guilt by confession)

What isn’t so slippery: Few (sane) people proudly parade the image of being “Hostile.” Most don’t even like the idea of being “Mischievous.” We don’t like (allow?) the possibility to arise from our unconscious identity that we may be "bad." The more intense our point of view, the less we like (allow?) it to be anything but affirmative and decisive. "From now to eternity, I will NEVER vote for a ...."

Distinguishing good and bad is subjective. (Note the ‘wiggle’ room here) For the most part, our interpretation calmly flows with the “river of the rest.” For example, “You shouldn't interrupt someone in mid speech.” (That is, unless they NEVER shut up or are an insufferable boor.) “Going with the flow” isn’t infallible. We can believe we’re absolutely good and right, but somehow do unthinkable harm. Many egregious atrocities have been committed in the vortex of popular thinking (e.g., slavery).

Some will take umbrage with my admittedly loose, but intentionally illustrated sense of right and wrong. “God determines what’s right and wrong.” I can hear from some. “Yes,” I respond, "She does." "But..." our operational legal and moral systems are primarily determined by the populous. And, yes, they may be right or wrong about what’s right or wrong. (Huh?)

Anyway, the point I want to make has little to do with defining what’s right or wrong regarding guns, freedom of speech, whatever you like. I simply intend to give credence to the point that sometimes, some times, good people do bad things. I have my own opinions regarding what’s right or wrong, but who cares?

If you accept the conundrum that good people can do bad things, then the conflict between the person and their behavior must be addressed - more realistically, reconciled. Otherwise we have a bad person. And we don't like this answer. So, we in effect, invoke the moral(feeling)/rational(thinking) equivalent of a psychological “get out of jail free” card.

Cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance. The “slight of mind” that allows us to sleep knowing that we held our nose and voted for ____. OMG.

Cognitive dissonance. It's what you’d guess; mental conflict or disagreement. Cognitive dissonance looms large wherever disagreement lurks.

Take the maelstrom of shootings in US schools. Some say easy access to weapons is at fault,  yet the same people may have guns themselves, or at least want others to have them. Others believe that inadequate defense mechanisms are a weak link in our free society, thus allowing such tragedy. Furthermore, arming trained people with guns in schools is a good start to confronting these horrific maladies.

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Obviously, the answer depends on who you ask. But both points of view, intensely debated, are staunchly justified by those who hold them.

Cognitive dissonance.

A singular event, with the same information available to all, is fiercely contested. Both “sides” have no doubt that they are right; the other side, dreadfully - dangerously, wrong.

How does this happen?

Cognitive dissonance.

Allow me to walk you through the examples of two potential cognitive processes regarding the two most polarizing points of view on gun control. For illustrative purposes, I’m going to make them super simple and extraordinarily extreme. I am NOT going to try to make them “good.” I speak for NO ONE here. I’m just making a point. Here goes...

“Guns are easily obtained and pose deadly force. If we eliminate guns, we’ll eliminate the problem.”

“Guns are our most effective defense in crises like these. By equipping our schools with guns, we’ll eliminate the problem.”

Both positions invoke cognitive dissonance because both are debatable and, moreover, both are obviously ignorant (as written). Note: we also don’t like to think of ourselves as “ignorant.”

Advocates for eliminating guns want to protect our schools by taking away the weapon of deadly force (guns), but know that two guns are better as long as one gun exists. (Unless they have complete trust in the wielder of the first gun.)

Advocates for the right to bear arms (guns) want to protect our schools by inserting the powerful weapon on site as defense, but know that guns carry risk. And more guns create more risk.

Now. Simmer down. The message is intended to make a point, not a point of view.

I say that both sides “know” these things, but that doesn’t mean they acknowledge them. This is where the BIG BUT comes in.

"Sure. Guns offer powerful protection, BUT at what risk to have so many; in our schools?"

"Sure. Guns pose risk and the more guns, the more risk, BUT at what cost do we allow armed attackers access to unarmed schools?"

When you hear someone pivot on a “BUT” they’re invoking cognitive dissonance.

It’s all about the BUT. When you hear someone pivot on a “BUT” they’re invoking cognitive dissonance. They’re creating a way to hold two conflicting beliefs (one, probably suppressed and unconscious) at the same time.

Cognitive dissonance allows both of these positions to ‘jump’ over the line between good and bad intent

Again. This article is not about gun control. The references are used only to make my point because it’s divisive. Both sides have intense beliefs. Both sides have valid points. Both sides have flaws. Cognitive dissonance allows both of these positions to ‘jump’ over the line between good and bad intent (or at least position one’s self in “the good box.”)

Wake up. We can’t. We won’t. Not gonna happen. We'll never, "all just get along."

We’ll never "all just get along." In virtually all cases, cognitive dissonance justifies our unpopular (among some) position by giving us an “out” of the bad box.

BUT,

If we open our eyes and see this from a higher perspective, perhaps we’ll see some common intent – even if our “logic” differs.

Worth a try?

*JK= Just Kidding. That's text speak I'm using. Cool, huh?

Psychways is owned and produced by Talentlift, LLC.