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Don’t blame me. The ‘system’ wrote this

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

My friend was holding a can of soft drink and as he checked his watch he poured the drink on his foot. A person in my line of work—Human Factors—would call this ‘human error’.

How would we interpret the situation if, instead of laughing, I simply rolled my eyes and lost respect for my friend?

What if they ruined their shoes?

What if it left a puddle on the ground that led to someone slipping over?

What if after slipping over the person cracked their head and died?

What if that unfortunate person was also holding the cure for cancer and now this silly act of tomfoolery had led to the unnecessary suffering and death of people all over the planet?

But let’s say my friend knew they were going to pour the drink on their foot. It might be for a laugh and to get a reaction—to play the clown. This would no longer be an error but a form of intentional behaviour. That is, there is some additional calculation of the brain that determines the behaviour is a worthy idea.

So now, instead of being a catastrophic event caused by a harmless error, my friend is culpable. That few seconds of planning and intent is everything.

The cause of the event can be found in the deep, complex recesses of my friend’s brain. Somewhere in there neurons fired in unison and sent signals to my friend’s wrist to twist and pour the drink. Somewhere in this brain there is something to blame and assign fault.

Alternatively, the blame is elsewhere. It could be attributed to the broader system. My friend may have been trying to impress me with their sense of humour. So, he was under peer influence.

The soft drink can manufacturers could be blamed as they designed the can. They also failed to display a warning message that these kinds of events could occur.

The surface on the footpath may be to be partly to blame. Surely, it shouldn’t become slippery from a small amount of liquid.

Local councils may have under-invested in the quality of footpaths due to a broader systemic issue related to funding.

The funding was the result of an economic downturn and, yep, we were willing to tolerate the possibility of soft drink-related deaths so we could save a few dollars.

Perhaps even the broader culture is to blame. After all, we live in the age of YouTube videos and Facebook where individuals love to play the fool to get some much-needed applause from their peers.

Of course, if we play out a genuine scenario where an error—as harmless as it can be—led to true catastrophic events, the same basic logic is often applied after the event. What plays out time and time again is the extent to which a person caused a problem and how much of this was caused by the ‘system’.

I feel deeply uncomfortable with blaming individuals even when they choose to do silly things. This is because I sometimes do silly things myself. Likewise, I feel deeply uncomfortable with blaming the ‘system’ as it leads to a whole host of other implications.

Importantly, blaming behaviour on the ‘system of influences’ suggests that we must also accept that success, bravery, creativity and acts of kindness are the result of the system. Nevertheless, we often seek to praise and reward individuals when they demonstrate these positive attributes but can quickly revert to blaming the system when they display poor behaviour.

Is the system causing these things or not? I’m not sure we can have our cake and eat it too.

The heart of my discomfort is probably related to the concept of free will. When we seek to blame individuals for their mistakes and punish them, we must also assume that they have the free will to choose this action.

When we blame the system, and argue a complex series of events over time culminated in the event, making the individual a passive participant in the transaction of soft drink homicide, we imply that the individual does not have free will.

Systems thinking might be seen as a cover for deterministic thinking.

Deep down we want to blame people because the idea that we don’t have a choice in the matter is also alarming. If I do not have choice, then what am I? And can I celebrate my successes? Who’s typing this blog anyway? The system?

And if people generally feel more comfortable blaming others then this is ultimately a product of the system too. So, we have a deterministic system that basically advocates free will. Is your head spinning with this pop-philosophy?

There is, of course, a softer conclusion to draw. We might argue that individuals have choice but are heavily influenced by their past and immediate surroundings. Somewhere in my friend’s brain, the system has contaminated their intentions but those neurons still have the capacity to side-step the infection and come up with an alternative.

The individual, according to this view, triumphs over the system. But, then again, how did the brain achieve this? Aren’t those neurons ultimately a product of the person’s genes, development and experiences? That is, all elements of the system anyway?

So, when I see someone actively trying to force blame on individuals, I believe we are no better at understanding individuals—perhaps much less so—than we were thousands of years ago when ancient philosophers debated free will and determinism.

Deep down, they are reconciling their discomfort with determinism like the time Aristotle pretended to spill wine on his foot to get a good laugh…

 

6 times to try the opposite at work

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

Don’t trust your anxious gut

It can often be difficult to differentiate between our gut—our intuition—and anxiety. Intuition helps us detect patterns and leads to moments of insight. It can guide us through difficult interpersonal and personal issues.

Many individuals, however, believe they are trusting their gut when they are really being manipulated by their internal worries and fears. Unlike intuition, anxiety narrows our focus, makes us fret about the near future, and leads to avoidance behaviour.

Anxiety keeps you in jobs that are making you miserable. It makes you avoid public speaking and standing up for yourself. It creates a wall between you and others out of fear of embarrassment.

When you experience anxiety, your best course of action is to do the opposite of what the anxiety is telling you.

You should go for that new career, speak up, and lower your guard with others.

Start the day with something challenging

Most of us ease into the year, the month, the week and the day like we are getting into a hot bath. It’s easier to email a few people or file some documents then move into something challenging once we’ve warmed up.

The opposite is to jump straight into something challenging.

Indeed, research suggests that when we start each day with a couple of tasks that are mentally demanding we are more alert and attentive later in the day.

Allow yourself to feel sad

I recently watched a video taken at my daughter’s kinder, summarising the year. The video solely focused on happy moments, as you’d expect. No parent wants to see a video depicting children crying, sitting alone, or looking sad.

We like to quarantine sadness as an anomaly or deviation from the norm. Mild sadness and dejection, however, serve a purpose to help us reflect on our shortcomings and plan a different approach.

Furthermore, forcing ourselves to be positive has the unintended consequence of making us feel miserable—called the ironic rebound effect, where the emotion we try to suppress returns more intensely than before.

The opposite here would be to use a flat mood to your advantage. Instead of fighting it, embrace it. Slow down, reflect and plan your next steps.

Stop monitoring people

Most organisations demand compliance but lose track of all the written and unwritten rules of the workplace. Workplaces become onerous and confusing places and before long individuals aren’t even sure what’s expected of them.

When individuals feel obliged to complete an activity or follow a rule they need to exert more mental effort.

This effort can ultimately lower motivation. This means that when the supervisor isn’t checking, employees bypass these boring and disengaging rules. Monitoring, therefore, increases to stamp out the non-compliance and around we go.

In contrast, when individuals truly value an activity they don’t need to expend as much mental energy. The task doesn’t require self-control.

So, do the opposite when you have a compliance problem. Reduce the monitoring and cut back on the rules. Instead, identify what employees value.

Two ears one mouth

It seems logical in the workplace to constantly strive to demonstrate your worth and ability. We might highlight our accomplishments or actively try to solve a business problem and show results.

But research shows that we are more influential when we shut up and listen. Additionally, when we adopt an open approach to learning, rather than performing, we appear less threatening and are liked more by our colleagues.

Importantly, we also learn more too. So, in doing the opposite, you should always be thinking ‘What can I learn?’ rather than ‘Look what I can do.’

Never worry…ever

Worrying is intoxicating. It makes us feel like we have more control over future events than we really do.

But debating with yourself and thinking about all the things that could go wrong is almost always a waste of time. Worries rarely come true and even when they do we learn more from the problems anyway.

Do the opposite next time you are stewing over a difficult problem. Try the opposite and enjoy the liberation when you realise you don’t have to worry anymore.

Dr Nicholas Duck is a blogger and founder of Opposite 

Reassuring people can make them worry

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

I have a relative who described how he worried for several months leading up to his wedding. The actual wedding was no concern nor was the commitment. It was the wedding speech he dreaded.

He delivered the speech perfectly and breathed a sigh of relief.

I also have a colleague who complained about a sore foot. Although he had been doing a lot of extra walking, he naturally assumed he had a blood clot.

There was no blood clot or anything serious.

After experiencing trouble swallowing I started to worry that I had oesophageal cancer. Never mind the fact that this cancer affects only a tiny percentage of the population and they are usually older folk who smoke. Nevertheless, my brain told me that death was looming.

The tests came back negative.

Does reassuring people help?

In the face of these worries and concerns our natural tendency is to reassure others that everything is going to be ok.

Interestingly, at least in the health literature, individuals can end up worrying even more when they are reassured. Studies show, for example, that children who are reassured by their parents or nurses prior to having an injection end up becoming more distressed and worried.

It seems that individuals can feel as though something particularly awful is about to happen if you’re going to all that effort to prepare them for the worst.

No doubt many of us have felt that way prior to an event that makes us anxious. On our first day at a new job we might feel more anxious if our family members approach us with big smiles to wish us luck. You only wish someone luck if there is the prospect that things could go really badly.

How often do you wish someone luck before they go to the movies?

At work during organisational restructures and change we may appreciate and expect regular communication about what’s about to happen. This communication and management involvement is a textbook approach to managing change.

But what if this continuous reassurance leads people to think, ‘Why are they reassuring me so much? Should I be worried?’

Should you reassure yourself?

Humans are good at reassuring themselves in the absence of support. As children we learn to transfer the support and assurance of others into our minds so that we always have a virtual parent or friend to calm us down.

Therapy used to focus a lot on this positive self-talk as a means of helping individuals cope with the anxieties and stressors of life. If you had negative thoughts and worries you would be instructed to challenge the legitimacy of the concern.

‘Excuse me grey matter. Do you have any references to back up the claim that I will, indeed, die of a heart attack?’

But let’s look at how this can play out. Our mind worries. Our mind reassures. Our mind worries. Our mind reassures. The brain is flexible. Whatever logic you throw at yourself, it can create all kinds of concerns that you missed.

‘Hello, Nicholas, I know you are in the low risk group for heart failure and I know there’s no family history. But what if? What if?’

Cognitive Fusion

Experts in mindfulness give this tangle of thoughts a pretty futuristic sounding name, cognitive fusion.  All it really means is that you are engaging with your thoughts as if they were real.

Mindfulness teaches individuals to practice disengaging with their thoughts instead of challenging them.

It’s a bit like dealing with an argumentative peer or neighbour. You could invest a lot of energy and time debating with them to try to make them see reason only to find that they counter every one of your points and throw up several red herrings.

Instead, the best approach might be to simply disengage from the debate entirely.

Time heals all wounds…right now

in Work Psychology by

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Imagine your worst fear. It could be a job interview or having to give a speech. Perhaps you dislike heights and will do anything to avoid flying. It may be as simple as feeling obliged to network among a group of peers.

Your heart pounds and thoughts race. Your palms sweat and your chest feels tight. Right now, your sympathetic nervous system is doing everything it can to keep you sucked into the present moment, heightening your senses and drawing you into this specific point in time. 

According to research, the best way to neutralise these feelings, and restore your composure, is to pull your mind out of the present and think about your future.

Across a series of studies, the researchers made participants think of an event which
made them distressed. They then made some of them reflect about the emotion and
whether it would continue to be a source of stress in the near future, while another group had to imagine how the emotion might impact them in the distant future.

Participants who reflected on the distant future reported less distress than the individuals who reflected on the near future. Pondering the distant future seemed to help nullify symptoms of distress.

The researchers also identified one of the mechanisms that explained these effects. They discovered that when we think about the future, our perspective improves. That is, we see the emotion as a moment in time rather than an enduring problem.

These findings are a reminder that when under times of stress, you might untangle yourself by lifting yourself out of the moment and seeing the experience as a blip on the radar of your life.

The top neurotic moments of George Costanza

in Film & TV Psychology by

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“They’re men with jobs, Jerry!” 

George Costanza is one of the most memorable TV characters. We laugh at his expense but, perhaps, we are laughing at something we see in ourselves.

This ‘something’ is what psychologists like to call ‘neuroticism’. But what is this exactly? Let’s explore some neurotic characteristics with George Costanza.

Emotional Stability

Neurotic people tend to be up and down. They can be easily frustrated, annoyed, and quick to panic.

Neurotic people can also be prone to feeling deflated and depressed in the face of obstacles.

They may also be prone to losing their temper in frustration.

Excessive worry and rumination

A chief characteristic of neurotic individuals is their excessive worry often over trivial problems and situations. They might, for example, feel insecure about their sexuality.

They may relive the same scenario over and over and regret their choices, blowing everything out of proportion (i.e. catastrophic thinking).

Delayed gratification

Due to problems with managing their emotions, people with these characteristics may struggle to control their impulses, such as delaying gratification.

There could be a tendency to over-indulge and binge eat.

They may even give in to some more primal urges against their better judgement.

But, hey, we all have a bit of George in us, right?

Is Dr Duck stressed?

in Work Psychology by

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Referring to yourself in the third person may help you manage stress. During a stressful event, we can talk to ourselves—literally or in our thoughts—using phrases like ‘I need to get this done’, ‘almost there…’ etc.

Research suggests that if we instead refer to ourselves in the third person (e.g. ‘Nick needs to get this done’) we experience less stress. Referring to ourselves in the third person distances ourselves from the stressful event. That is, we are better at untangling ourselves from the situation and can observe and accept situations with greater objectivity.

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