8/27/10

Get Dirty and Lighten Up!



People might like you more when you get a little dirty.

Our language is loaded with common sayings that use cleanliness as a metaphor for goodness and virtue.  When your hands are clean, or when you have a clean conscience, it means you aren’t guilty of a transgression.  When you clean up your act, you become a better, more admirable person.  On the other hand, dirty words are those that violate our standards of speech, and dirty tricks are underhanded and unscrupulous maneuvers.  When you play dirty, it means you cheat.   There is obviously a strong psychological association between physical cleanliness and our sense of not only what is good and bad, but also what is morally right and wrong.

But it turns out that cleanliness is much more than a metaphor for virtue.  A few weeks ago, I wrote about how sitting on a hard chair can lead you to make more rigid decisions, and how holding a heavy clipboard can make what you’re doing seem more serious and important.  Recent research reveals than your own cleanliness influences not only how virtuous you feel, but how harshly you judge the behaviors of others.

In one study, half of the participants were asked to clean their hands with an antiseptic wipe before using the keyboard to answer a series of questions.  The researchers found those who had cleaned their hands subsequently rated behaviors like smoking, using drugs, looking at pornography, cursing, littering and cheating on your spouse as significant more immoral than those who had not cleaned their hands.

In other studies, people who simply spent a few moments visualizing themselves in a clean slate (“My hair feels clean and light.  My breath is fresh.  My clothes are pristine and new…. I feel so clean”) rendered harsher moral judgments on 16 issues, including abortion, homosexuality, obesity, prostitution, and masturbation, than people who had visualized themselves in a dirty state, or who did not visualize at all.  They also rated themselves as possessing a significantly more moral character than their peers.

So being clean makes you feel like you are a better, more virtuous person, and that is probably on the whole a good thing.  People who believe they are moral are usually more likely to behave morally.  But there is a potential danger here as well.  As the researchers write, “Our seemingly rational desires and acts of cleanliness have not only the potential to shift our moral pendulum to a more virtuous self, but also license harsher moral judgment on others.”

When we are squeaky clean, we are more likely to adopt a self-righteous, less empathetic and understanding view of the shortcomings and foibles of others.  We are more likely to see ourselves as morally superior to others, when we may in fact not be.  That’s the kind of thinking that leads to far greater unhappiness, for you and for the people around you, than a little dirt under your fingernails or spaghetti sauce on your tie.

So if you want to lighten up a bit and not judge others so harshly, try getting just a little bit dirty.  Perhaps more importantly, take a moment to think about the personal cleanliness of the important people in your life, like your boss, your spouse, your mother-in-law.  You’d be wise to expect the clean freaks to take a less generous view of your lapses in judgment than those with a more relaxed approach to hygiene.

And finally, if there is something you need to confess to your romantic partner, try doing it before he or she gets into the shower.

8/25/10

What to Say When You Have to Say "I'm Sorry"



The 3 kinds of apology, and who they most appeal to.

Apologies can be enormously effective when it comes to resolving conflict, repairing hurt feelings, fostering forgiveness, and improving relationships in both our personal and professional lives. They increase relationship commitment and satisfaction, employee loyalty and satisfaction, feelings of trust, and cooperation. An apology can even keep you out of the courtroom. (Despite the fact that lawyers tend to caution their clients to avoid apologies like the plague, fearing that they are tantamount to an admission of guilt, studies show that when potential plaintiffs receive an apology, they are more likely to settle out of court for less money.)

But as anyone can tell you, apologies don’t always work. (Ask Michael Richards, for instance. Or John Edwards.  Or Trent Lott.  I could go on and on.)  At times they seem to fall on deaf ears.  This can be because the person or persons we are seeking forgiveness from really aren’t interested in forgiving, or because the transgression itself is deemed simply unforgivable.  But more often than not, our apologies fall flat because we apologize the wrong way.

So what is the right way? How should you apologize to your coworker, customer, friend, or spouse, in order to be sure that your already bad situation doesn’t end up even worse?  Until recently, there has been very little (scientific) psychological research focusing on what constitutes a “good” apology.  A new set of studies, however, reveals that different kinds of apologies appeal to different kinds of people, and that the key to an effective apology lies in thinking carefully about your audience.

The researchers identified three distinct forms of apology:  offers of compensation, expressions of empathy, and acknowledgment of violated rules and norms.

Offers of compensation are an attempt to restore balance through some redeeming action.  Sometimes the compensation is tangible, like paying to repair or replace your neighbor’s fence when you inadvertently back your car into it, or running out to get your girlfriend a new phone when you accidentally drop hers into the toilet (which happened to me, by the way.  Not cool.)  Offers of compensation can also be more emotional or socially-supportive.   (as in,  “I’m sorry I was a jerk, and I’ll make it up to you by being extra nice from now on.”)

Expressions of empathy, on the other hand, involve recognizing and expressing concern over the suffering you caused.  (e.g., “I’m so sorry that I didn’t appreciate all the effort you went to.  You must have felt awful, and that’s the last thing I want.”) Through expressions of empathy, the victim feels understood and valued as a partner in the relationship, and trust is restored.

When your apology is an acknowledgement of violated rules and norms, you are basically admitting that you broke the code of behavior of your social group, your organization, or your society. (e.g.,  “No one in my family/profession/community behaves this way, I should have known better.”  “I didn’t just let myself down, I let my teammates/company/fans down.”

Research shows that these three different types of apology are most effective when offered to people who think of themselves in particular ways.

People who have an independent self-concept think of themselves primarily as individual, autonomous agents, completely separate from others.  They tend to be focused mainly on their own rights, feelings, and goals, and as a result, experience transgressions as a personal injury or betrayal.  No surprise then that they respond most favorably to apologies that offer compensation.   The United States is a particularly independent, individualistic society, which may explain why American juries seem to love doling out lots of money as compensation for pain and suffering.  (And this is why telling a deserving employee who you passed over for promotion that you “feel his pain” is probably not helpful – he doesn’t care what you feel, he wants what’s coming to him.)

People with a more relational self-concept see themselves as primarily defined by their relationships with significant others (e.g., spouse, parent, child, friend, colleague).    This type of self-concept is more common among women, for whom relationship ups and downs tend to loom large. When your self-concept is relational, you are focused on creating, maintaining and strengthening the relationships in your life.  Transgressions are experienced as betrayals of mutual respect and trust, and consequently, apologies are most effective when they include expressions of empathy, rather than offers of compensation.  (And this is why your gift of flowers after you’ve forgotten your wife’s birthday or stayed out too late drinking with the guys is usually met with an icy stare.  We don’t want your flowers – we want you to feel our pain.)

Finally, people with a collective self-concept see themselves first and foremost as members of the important groups, organizations, and cultures to which they belong.  When you are a part of a group, whether it’s your family, your company, or your society, there are rules that govern how you are supposed to behave.  For instance, baseball players aren’t allowed to take steroids.  Accountants aren’t allowed to fool around with the books.  Politicians can’t break the laws that they are elected to create and protect.  Members of my family aren’t allowed to violate the rules of grammar. (You want to see an icy stare, try saying “You did really good” in front of my mother.  It’s positively Arctic.)   Transgressions are experienced as betrayals of the rules or values of the group, and thus, apologies that offer acknowledgment of violated rules and norms are your best bet for restoring your good standing with the other group members.

When crafting your apology, remember to ask yourself:  Who am I talking to, and what are they looking for in my apology?  What troubles them the most about what I did?  Was my transgression perceived as a personal injury, betrayal of the relationship, or betrayal of the code of behavior of our group?

If you’re not sure, think about how the injured party most often talks about themselves – do they focus on their own individual qualities, their key relationships, or the important groups to which they belong?  Knowing something about how the person you wronged thinks of him or herself is your first clue into what is probably bothering them most, and will help you to apologize in the most effective way.

8/20/10

Rejection in 3 Minutes or Less



Why some of us really shouldn’t try speed dating

Most of us get a little nervous approaching an attractive stranger, hoping to make a connection.  Even if you are usually brimming with confidence, the obvious potential for rejection in these situations can rarely be ignored.  But for some of us, trying to find love in the singles scene presents a particularly terrifying challenge, illustrated nicely by a recent study of speed dating.

As you are probably aware, speed dating is designed to introduce people who are looking for love to as many other love-seekers as possible in a single evening.  Gone is the awkwardness of having to approach a stranger, because everyone has to meet with every potential partner for a short time – usually about three minutes.  A bell rings or a whistle blows when the three minutes are up, and off you go to another table to meet the next Mr. or Ms. Potentially Right.  Everyone keeps scorecards to indicate who they would be interested in dating, and when there is a match, the event’s organizers give both parties the contact information they’ll need to pursue the relationship outside of speed dating.

It’s not easy to present yourself in your best light in three minutes, nor is it easy to make an accurate assessment of someone else in so short a time.   Also critical is your ability to sense whether the other person seemed to like you – even in the somewhat odd and artificial world of speed dating, rejection still stings.

Then there is the question of strategy – should you cast a wide net, giving the green light to lots of potential partners in order to avoid missing that love connection, or should you be highly selective, choosing only those you liked most and who clearly liked you? Is it more important to seize any opportunity for love, or to protect yourself and avoid the pain of unnecessary rejection?

This is a hard question to answer, but it’s particularly difficult for those among us who are what psychologists call anxiously-attached. In a nutshell, anxiously-attached people have a somewhat hyperactive need to feel close to and form relationships with others, while simultaneously suffering from a heightened fear of, and tendency to over-perceive rejection.  In other words, they are both really needy and really touchy.  (Attachment styles are often the product of early childhood experiences with caregivers – for more information, see here.)

Think about that for a second, and you’ll realize that it is a really killer combination – you desperately want love, but you are terrified of rejection, and you see rejection everywhere.  Some estimates suggest that about one in four adults are anxiously-attached, so chances are good that if you aren’t anxiously-attached yourself, you know someone well who is, so you’ve seen the damage this combo can do first-hand.

When anxiously-attached people speed date, which strategy do you think they use?  Do they cast a wide net, in order to grasp any chance at love, or do they make fewer selections, in order to avoid the dreaded rejection?  Recent research shows that the answer is the former – anxious speed daters give their stamp of approval to significantly more potential mates than non-anxious daters.  They are less picky, hoping that by setting the bar lower they will be more likely to make a match.

The bad news is, it doesn’t really work.  Anxious daters (particularly male anxious daters) were significantly less popular than non-anxious daters, and less likely to make a match.   In as little as three minutes, these individuals rub Mr. or Ms. Potentially Right the wrong way.

This isn’t really surprising – past research shows that anxiously–attached people often have a variety of social handicaps.  They are more likely to monopolize conversations, disclose too much about themselves too soon, and get defensive way too fast.  They are long on obvious insecurity and short on charm.

Lowering the bar really doesn’t help them in the long run – anxiously-attached people are unlikely to find lasting love without directly addressing their anxiousness.  If you think that you yourself might be anxiously-attached, the good news is that you really aren’t stuck that way.  People can and do change their attachment style over the course of their lives, as they become aware of their behavior, and as new experiences shape their understanding of how relationships work.  Your early experiences of rejection need not haunt you forever – but until you can learn to leave them behind, speed dating is probably not such a terrific idea.

8/17/10

Stop Being So Defensive!



A simple way to learn to take criticism gracefully

I rarely admit this (and frankly, I wonder why I’m doing it now), but I am a very defensive person.  I can be quick to feel challenged or threatened by perceived criticism.  When that happens, my typical responses range from somewhat testy to downright hostile.  It’s not an attractive quality.  I’m not proud.

I have wanted to do something about it for a long time, but I figured that in order to stop being so defensive, I’d have to do something drastic, like stop caring about what other people think.  That sounds great, but it’s an awfully tall order for most of us, and not a realistic option for me.

Thanks to a recent set of studies of defensiveness, I now have a far more practical strategy for dealing with my defensive tendencies.   When I suspect criticism may be coming my way (for instance, when I send my editor a new chapter for feedback, or when my husband comes home from work to find that I’ve redecorated the bedroom), I take a moment to reflect on something I really like about myself.

I remind myself that I am exceptionally well-organized, that I am a sympathetic listener, that I make a killer baguette, or that I’m fun to have around at parties.  This is called self-affirmation, and it can take many forms. Usually, we self-affirm through thinking, talking, or writing about our most important values, skills or characteristics.  We do it when we reflect on our past successes, and the lessons we have learned.  And when we do, we provide a boost to our sense of self-esteem, and a buffer against any incoming threats.

It turns out that these simple reminders of our own self-worth and integrity significantly reduce our tendency to respond to negative feedback with defensiveness.   Instead, we are able to see what may be valuable in the criticism we receive, without feeling the need to prove ourselves right at all costs.

One important drawback to using this strategy, though, is that it is effective only when you self-affirm before you start responding to the criticism - in other words, before you start feeling and acting defensive.   If someone criticizes you and you start feeling hot under your collar, stopping to think about your own good qualities is unlikely to help calm you down.  The trick is to self-affirm before the feedback, and that isn’t always possible, especially when criticism comes as a surprise.

On the other hand, if you know someone who tends to get defensive, this is a great technique to use to make sure your criticism is well received.  Before you criticize, start out with an affirmation, as in “You really have an eye for color, and I like what you did with the furniture.  Though I’m not really crazy about the new bedspread.”  By starting with an acknowledgment of what you do like, you are far more likely to avoid getting anyone’s defenses up, and increase your chances of having a reasonable, hostility-free discussion.  Either way, though, you are probably stuck with the bedspread.

8/5/10

How You Are Sabotaging Your Self-Control



Why thought suppression is a bad way to deal with temptation.



Have you ever tried to lose weight by just not thinking about food?  How about trying to play it cool and stop yourself from calling (or emailing, or texting) your love interest by blocking out all thoughts about that person?  Ever try to quit smoking by trying not to think about smoking?  Did it work?  I’ll bet it didn’t.  And it’s really not your fault that it didn’t.

Thought suppression is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it is a very commonly used strategy – people often try to block out or put the lid on unwanted thoughts and feelings, in order to control their influence.  Dieters try to suppress thoughts of tempting snacks, alcoholics suppress their desire to drink, stressed-out workers suppress their feelings of anxiety, and smokers suppress the thought of cigarettes when trying to quit.

On the other hand, thought suppression is not only very, very difficult, but it works only very briefly, and has some very nasty unintended consequences.  Suppression has often been shown to increase the frequency of the unwanted thoughts you were trying to rid yourself of, once the period of active suppression is over.  Suppress thoughts of smoking, and the thoughts come rushing back with even greater force once you let your guard down.  But does this unintended consequence actually lead to more smoking?  Are you actually worse off in terms of quitting than when you started?

Yes, you are.  In a new study, undergrads who smoked at least a half-pack a day on average were asked to keep track of their smoking for several weeks.  For all of Week 2, some of the students were asked to try to suppress any and all thoughts about smoking.  Not surprisingly, they smoked significantly fewer cigarettes during Week 2 than non-suppressers.  But during Week 3, when these students were no longer required to suppress thoughts of smoking, they smoked significantly more cigarettes than non-suppressors!

While they were at it, the researchers who conducted this study looked at students’ stress levels across all three weeks.  Not surprisingly, suppressors reported a dramatic rise in stress during the week they were suppressing (while non-suppressors stress levels remained unchanged).  So not only does the thought-suppression strategy backfire, it feels terrible while you are doing it.

So how can we deal with unwanted thoughts more successfully, in ways that don’t end up actually diminishing our willpower?  I’ve written about this in previous posts, but here are two suggestions:

  1. Don’t suppress, replace.   Decide in advance what you will think about when a thought about smoking, snacking, or hitting “redial” pops into your mind.  When you find yourself thinking about how yummy a candy bar would be right now, try replacing that thought with one that focuses on your health and weight-loss goals (e.g., “It feels better to fit into my skinny jeans than it does to wolf down chocolate-covered nougat.”)

  2. Don’t suppress, plan.   Creating an if-then plan is an easy and effective way to deal with temptations.  You don’t need to block out the thoughts – what you really need is to learn how not to act on them.  By planning on exactly what you will do, in advance, when the tempting thought occurs, it becomes far easier to stick to your goals.  For instance, when thoughts about smoking occur, plan to chew gum, or step outside for several long deep breaths of fresh air.  Whatever you plan to do, it will disrupt the connection between the thought and giving in to the temptation, and over time, the thoughts will fade all on their own.


It’s almost never a good idea to put a lid on your thoughts and feelings.  It may feel like it’s working in the short term, but soon you’ll find yourself right back where you started – surrounded by candy wrappers, and wondering why he hasn’t returned your three dozen phone calls.