Longer May Not Be Better, But It Seems That Way

From my Fast Company Blog:

Thinking about trying to shake things up at work?  Brimming with new ideas and strategies?  Hoping to move your company boldly into the future?  Good for you.  But if you are going to innovate, it might help you to start by understanding what you are up against, psychologically speaking.

It’s not just that people fear change, though they undoubtedly do.  It’s also that they genuinely believe (often on an unconscious level) that when you’ve been doing something a particular way for some time, it must be a good way to do things.  And the longer you’ve been doing it that way, the better it is.

So change isn’t simply about embracing something unknown – it’s about giving up something old (and therefore good) for something new (and therefore not good).

Recent research shows that people have a very reliable and tangible preference for things that have been around longer. In one study, students preferred the course requirement described as the status quo over a new version (regardless of whether the new version meant more or less coursework), and liked it even more when it had been around for 100 years rather than only 10 years.   In another, people who were told that acupuncture had been in existence for 2000 years expressed more favorable attitudes toward it than those who were told it existed for 250 years.

The bottom line is, unconsciously we all believe that longevity = goodness.  There are, admittedly, plenty of instances where this is perfectly rational.  When something has stood the test of time and beaten competitors, it is probably a superior product in at least some respects.

The problem is that longevity and tradition aren’t always accurate predictors of goodness – inertia, habit, marketing prowess, market monopoly, and fear of change can all be the real reasons why we haven’t tried something new.  Also, there are areas of life that really should be unaffected by this sort of bias - in domains like art or cuisine, how long something has been around should have little to do with how aesthetically pleasing or delicious you find it.

And yet, it does.   In one study, people who saw a painting described as having been painted in 1905 found it far more pleasing to look at than people who saw the same painting described as created in 2005.  In another, they admired the appearance of a tree described as being 4500 years old more than did those who thought the same tree just 500 years old.

In my favorite example, study participants were given a piece of European chocolate.  It was described to them as having first been sold in its region either 73 years ago or 3 years ago.  Guess which group rated the chocolate as better-tasting.

It’s not impossible to overcome an unconscious bias, but if you want to succeed you need to start by realizing that it’s there.  Innovation requires that we not only convince others that new can be good, but that we address their (often unconscious) assumption that what’s been around longer looks, works, and tastes better.

Follow me on Twitter:  @hghalvorson


The Dark Side of Self-Control

From my Psychology Today Blog:

Why do people drink too much, eat too much, smoke cigarettes, take drugs, or have sex with people they’ve just met?  What’s to blame for all this bad behavior?

Most people would say that, while these self-destructive acts can have many root causes, they all have one obvious thing in common: they are all examples of failures of self-control.  Each of us has desires that we know we shouldn’t give in to, but when faced with temptation, some of us lack the willpower to resist it.

A recent paper by psychologists Catherine Rawn and Kathleen Vohs, however, argues that if you really think about it, something about that simple answer doesn’t quite make sense.  In fact, it turns out that sometimes it’s having willpower that really gets you into trouble.

Think back to the time you took your very first sip of beer.  Disgusting, wasn’t it?  When my father gave me my first taste of beer as a teenager, I distinctly remember wondering why anyone would voluntarily drink the stuff.   The experience is similar for most of us when it comes to our first sips of wine, hard liquor, and coffee as well.  And smoking?  No one enjoys their first cigarette – it tastes awful, burns your throat, makes you cough, and is often nauseating.  So even though smoking, and drinking alcohol or coffee, can become temptations you need willpower to resist, they never, ever start out that way.

Just getting past those first horrible experiences actually requires a lot of self-control.  Ironically, only those individuals who can repeatedly override their impulses, rather than give in to them, can ever come to someday develop a “taste” for Budweiser, Marlboro Lights, or dark-roasted Starbucks coffee.

We automatically think of willpower as a resource we use to help us do the things we know we should do – the things that are good for us. So why then would anyone ever exert willpower in order to do something that isn’t good for them?

The short answer is, we do it in order to achieve some goal.  And more often than not, that goal has something to do with social acceptance.   We force ourselves to consume alcoholic beverages that taste awful, inhale cigarette smoke that gags us, and try to mask the taste of coffee with generous applications of milk and sugar, in order to seem sophisticated, grown-up, and cool.  We experiment with illegal drugs, even though we are terrified of the physical and legal consequences, in order to feel accepted.  We have sex with people when we feel no sexual desire whatsoever, hoping that they will like us and that maybe it will “go somewhere.”

When we use our willpower to overcome our healthy impulses, we are choosing interpersonal gains - like forming friendships and avoiding rejection - over personal well-being. These aren’t self-control failures – far from it.  They are deliberate choices, and they are in fact self-control successes.

So if you think that your child will grow to become a clean, sober, and abstinent teenager just because he has the willpower to hold out for two marshmallows later instead of one marshmallow now, think again.

Self-control is simply a tool to be put to some use, helpful or harmful.  To live happy and productive lives, we need to develop not only our self-control strength, but also the wisdom to make good decisions about when and where to apply it.

Follow me on Twitter @hghalvorson


How to Give Good Feedback: 3 Rules

Here's my guest post on giving feedback for SmartBrief:


Would You Be A Greedy CEO? Here's How To Tell

From my Fast Company Blog:

It’s difficult to open a paper these days (or, turn on your laptop or smartphone, if that’s how you get your news) without reading about a new and reprehensible instance of CEO greed.  Most are tales of golden parachutes received after nearly running a company into the ground, or huge bonuses paid out in a year when hundreds of employees lost their jobs.  Occasionally, there’s a real doozy – remember when John Thain, former CEO of Merrill Lynch, spent over a million dollars redecorating his office?  Or when former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski bought a gold-plated trashcan on the company’s dime?

Obviously, most CEO’s do not behave this badly.  But how can we understand the behavior of the ones who do, and anticipate when a leader might be particularly likely to go the Way of the Golden Trashcan?   In other words, when is a leader most likely to be self-serving, rather than focused on what’s best for the company (or, for more mid-level leaders, their group within the company)?  And how can each of us tell which type of leader we are, or might someday be?

The answer is an important one, since self-serving leaders are often ineffective leaders.  By allocating more resources to themselves (pay increases, bonuses, office space, credit and recognition, etc.) and less to their group, and by focusing on their own goals rather than group goals, greedy leaders undermine employee loyalty and motivation. Their self-serving ways have been known, on occasion, to bring an entire company to its knees.

You might think that power itself is to blame - that more powerful leaders are inherently more likely to hog resources than less powerful ones.  But it’s not that simple.  Recent research suggests that both low and high-powered leaders can make self-serving decisions, but that they do so for very different reasons.

High Power Leaders: Research shows that being in a position of power makes people generally less sensitive to what’s happening around them  (e.g., input from others, social norms) and more sensitive to their own internal states and feelings.

Powerful people care less about what others think of them, and become demonstrably less adept at correctly assessing other people’s feelings and perceptions.  (Interestingly, even people in very temporary positions of power show these same effects – there’s something about power that seems to immediately turn our vision inward).

In particular, research shows that very powerful leaders tend to be swayed by their personal beliefs about what an effective leader is like.

If your idea of an effective leader is someone who pursues their own goals and ambitions at the expense of the group, takes full advantage of their status and perks, and invests little of their personal time or effort into helping their employees, then being in a position of power is quite likely to turn you into self-serving leader.  If you’re fortunate enough to be made a CEO, there is probably some gilded office furniture in your future.  Good luck with that.

If, instead, your idea of an effective leader is someone who is more concerned with whether or not the group is effective, puts group goals ahead of their own, gives up perks, and invests time and effort in tasks that benefit their employees, then power won’t turn you greedy – in fact, you’ll probably be generous and attentive to others.  And the really good news is, your beliefs about effective leaders are correct – leaders who focus on their employees, rather than themselves, understand what leadership is all about and are more successful because of it.

Low Power Leaders: Mid-level leaders, on the other hand, are less likely to use their own beliefs about effective leadership as guides, and are more strongly influenced by external cues, like information about their own and their employees relative performance.  When low power leaders believe they have outperformed their employees, they feel entitled to more benefits, and make more self-serving decisions with regard to recognition, perks, and pay.  When their employees have superior performance, they spread the benefits around accordingly.

Often, it’s only when an individual is promoted from a position of relatively lower power to one of high power that we begin to see their true colors, so to speak.  Only then does their mental image of an ideal leader begin to influence their own leadership behavior in tangible ways.  Corporate Boards would be very wise to try get a sense of a CEO candidate’s beliefs about great leaders, because the behavior the candidate admires is exactly what the Board, and the employees, are going to get.

Rus, D., et al., Leader power and leader self-serving behavior: The role of effective leadership beliefs and performance information, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (2010), doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2010.06.007


It's Not How Often You Test - It's What You Think Tests Tell You

From my Psychology Today blog:

“What makes a test feel like an interesting challenge rather than an anxiety-provoking assault?”

This is the question posed by Elisabeth Rosenthal, in “Testing, The Chinese Way,” an article in this week’s New York Times (Week in Review).  In the piece, she writes about the experiences of her young children as students at the International School of Beijing.  Beginning as early as kindergarten, children in China (Rosenthal’s included) take frequent quizzes and exams, and she notes that by and large her children did not find this constant testing anxiety-provoking, even when they performed poorly.

Americans, on the other hand, have traditionally been philosophically opposed to too much testing, particularly of very young children, on the grounds that it adds unnecessary pressure to the educational environment. Many fear that testing can create debilitating failure experiences that permanently shape a young child’s view of learning.  But the tide of opinion in the U.S. may be changing.

Increasingly, some American education experts, including members of the Obama administration, are advocating for more testing, on the grounds that more frequent assessments will give teachers and students a better sense of how they are progressing.  Research shows that this kind of low-stakes, age-appropriate testing provides feedback that can in fact help students learn more effectively.

There are still plenty of good reasons to be concerned when it comes to increased testing, which Rosenthal acknowledges, but despite these concerns, there is little doubt that assessment is on the rise in the American classroom.

So, given the direction we seem to be going in, back to Rosenthal’s question – how do we make sure that testing is perceived as informative and challenging, rather than as a series of anxiety-filled experiences that disrupt real learning?

I think we’ve been missing something important in our national discussion of testing – something that will help us find the answer to that question.  We rarely talk about what testing means to a child and to their teachers.  We don’t consider the kinds of conclusions we tend to draw when a child does poorly.

Different cultures tend to rely on somewhat different explanations for why a child underperforms, and this difference is essential to understanding why testing may work so well in China and be so troublesome here in the U.S.   You see, Americans tend to believe that test scores are a reflection of ability, while in China, they are perceived to be, more than anything else, a function of effort.

Most East Asian educational systems are founded on a bedrock of Confucian doctrine that heavily emphasizes the importance of effort (e.g., “Being diligent in study means devoting one's effort to it for a long time. “- Confucius, Zi Zhang chapter )

One of my fellow graduate students at Columbia, who had been born and educated in Korea, once told me that Koreans have an expression, sugo haseyo, that is used to congratulate someone on a job well done.  It literally means “work hard.”  The message it conveys is that no matter how well you have done, you can always try to do better.  (To which a typical American response would be “Gee, thanks a lot.”)

Not surprisingly, Asian students are much more likely to blame their poor performance on a test (as well as their successes) on the effort they put in to it.

For example, in one study, Japanese college students who were led to believe that they had failed on an anagram task were most likely to choose “lack of effort” rather than "lack of ability," "task difficulty," or "luck" as the most important cause.  In another, researchers found that Chinese mothers cited “lack of effort” as the predominant cause of their child's failure in mathematics, while American mothers tended to blame failure on ability, training, luck, and effort equally.

Asian children are explicitly taught that hard work and persistence are the keys to success.  It makes sense, therefore, that they would respond to poor test performance with increased effort (and over time come to excel in subjects like math and science, which require determination and long hours to master.)

Too often, American students (even very young ones) labor under the (mistaken) belief that doing well on tests is a matter of possessing some innate ability – as if some people are just born capable of spelling and long division.  When they test poorly, they jump to the (mistaken) conclusion that they don’t have what it takes to do well.

If we want our children to see tests as informative and challenging, we need to emphasize the importance of effort, persistence, and strategy use over ability.   We need to explain to them how tests can help them see what they need to improve, and express confidence that they will improve if they don’t give up.  We need to learn to praise our children for their effort and hard work, rather than (or at least in addition to) always telling them how “smart” they are.

American children can probably benefit from more testing, but only if they come to see assessment as a tool of learning, rather than a measurement of fixed ability.  In other words, only when we teach them that testing is about getting smarter, rather than being smart.

For reference:

R. D. Hess, C. Chih-Mei, and T. M. McDevitt, “Cultural Variations in Family Beliefs about Children’s Performance in Mathematics: Comparisons among People’s Republic of China, Chinese-American, and Caucasian-American Families,” Journal of Educational Psychology 79, no. 2 (1982): 179–188.

K. Shikanai, “Effects of Self-esteem on Attribution of Success-Failure,” Japanese Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 18 (1978): 47–55.

Permission to Make Mistakes Usually Means Fewer of Them

From my Fast Company blog:

If you have ever had to assign an employee a new project or task, you are no doubt familiar with the look of discomfort and anxiety such assignments often provoke.

While some people may be eager to tackle a new challenge, hoping it will help them to climb the corporate ladder, many workers are really just trying to survive without committing any major screw-ups.    Becoming responsible for something new and unfamiliar is understandably frightening.  The odds of making a mistake increase dramatically when you are inexperienced.  Small wonder that a “new” assignment is greeted with so little enthusiasm.

So how can we motivate employees to approach new responsibilities with confidence and energy?  The answer is simple, though perhaps a little surprising:  Give them permission to screw-up.

I know this may not be something you are thrilled to hear, because immediately you’re probably thinking, “If my employee screws up, I’m going to be the one who pays for it.”  But you needn’t worry about that, because studies show that when people feel they are allowed to make mistakes, they are significantly less likely to actually make them!  Let me explain.

People approach any task with one of two types of goals: what I call be-good goals, where the focus is on proving that you have a lot of ability and already know what you’re doing, and get-better goals, where the focus is on developing ability and learning to master a new skill.

The problem with be-good goals is that they tend to backfire when we are faced with something unfamiliar or difficult.  We quickly start feeling that we don’t actually know what we are doing, that we lack ability, and this creates a lot of anxiety.  Countless studies have shown that nothing interferes with performance quite like anxiety does – it is the productivity-killer.

Get-better goals, on the other hand, are practically bullet-proof.  When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and mastering, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, we stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur.

Just to give you an example, in one study I conducted a few years ago, I found that people in pursuit of be-good goals (i.e., trying to show how smart they already were) performed very poorly on a test of problem-solving when I made the test more difficult (either by interrupting them frequently, or by throwing in a few additional unsolvable problems).

The amazing thing was, the people who were pursuing get-better goals (i.e., who saw the test as an opportunity to learn a new problem-solving skill) were completely unaffected by any of my dirty tricks.  No matter how hard I made it, these participants stayed motivated and did well.

Usually, when managers assign a new task, they emphasize how important it is for the work to be done flawlessly, no matter how challenging it might be.  They make the focus all about being good, and the prospect becomes terrifying.

The irony is that the pressure from managers to be-good results in many more mistakes, and far inferior performance, than would a focus on getting-better.

How can you assign projects in a way that conveys the goal of getting-better?  It’s easy, actually. Here are the 3 steps:

Step 1: Acknowledge that the project is difficult and unfamiliar, and that you expect your employee will need some time to really get a handle on it.  They may make some mistakes, and that’s ok.

Step 2:  Remind your employee that you are there as a resource, to help them when they run into trouble.

Step 3: Let them know that you are confident they have what it takes to eventually master this new responsibility.

Remember, by giving your employee permission to not do everything perfectly from the start, and by acknowledging that there is a learning curve and that improvement takes time, you are taking the anxiety out of the situation.  And in so doing, you are not only increasing their motivation to succeed, but also dramatically reducing the chances that any mistakes will be made at all.


Yesterday Influences Your Performance Today in Surprising Ways

It probably won’t surprise you if I tell you that thinking about your past successes and failures can influence your performance in the here and now.  There’s nothing like a winning season to give a player confidence going into that last game, and nothing like a string of awkward dates to make you nervous about how the next one is going to turn out.  But thanks to new research, it’s become clear that the relationship between our past and present isn’t as obvious as you might think.

Imagine you are about to take a difficult test, or undergo a grueling interview.  Before you begin, you take a few moments to reflect on some of your past successes – moments where you really shined.  This turns out to be a really good idea, because when you think about the many times in the past when you reached your goals, you start feeling like you’ve really got something that makes you a successful person.

In other words, reflecting on past successes (plural) leads your brain to unconsciously, and quite naturally, assume that since you are the common denominator in all of those successes, your traits (e.g., your intelligence, creativity, charm) are the reason for your success.

Believing that you’ve got it, whatever it is, makes you more confident, and provides a very real boost to your performance.

Of course the same kind of process occurs when you reflect on many past failures before embarking on a new task – you unconsciously assume that something about you is to blame for your bad track record, and as a consequence your performance in the here and now suffers.

No real surprises there, right?  But what if instead of reflecting on your past successes and failures plural, you just thought about a single success or failure?  What does your brain do with just one particular memory?  The answer:  it unconsciously draws the opposite conclusion!  That’s right – remembering a single episode of success can make you doubt yourself, just as the memory of a single instance of failure can leave you feeling more confident.  But why?

General memories, or memories about a group of similar behaviors (like many games won, or many dates gone wrong) lead you to make unconscious inferences about your own traits, because they seem to reflect what you typically do.

Specific memories, on the other hand, are about a single event (e.g., that one win against Central High, that one bad date with Brad).  When you focus on a single event, you are less likely to see yourself as responsible for whatever happened, and more likely to unconsciously conclude that it was all due to the situation you were in.  (You beat Central High because their team isn’t that strong.  Your date with Brad was awkward because Brad isn’t really your type.)

In other words, memories of a single occurrence in our lives can easily feel like the exception, rather than the rule.

This was nicely illustrated in a set of recent studies.  Some of the participants were asked to reflect on a number of their past successes or failures by completing the sentence: “In general, I’m successful (I fail) when….”

The other participants were focused instead on a single episode of success or failure, by completing the sentence: “I succeeded (failed) once when I had to….”

The results were remarkable.  People who were asked to reflect on their many past successes or a specific failure scored roughly 10% better on tests of mathematical ability, as well as verbal, spatial, and abstract reasoning, than those who reflected on either many past failures or a single specific success.

Let that sink in for a second.  You get the same boost of confidence from thinking about a single time you screwed up that you do from reflecting on the many times you really shined.  And you fall victim to the same nagging self-doubt from thinking about that one time you did something right, that you do from dwelling on all the times you did everything wrong.

So if you’re looking to bolster your confidence and really motivate yourself before your next test, or your next blind date, or maybe the next meeting you have to run, remember that it’s a good idea to draw on your memories of success, so long as you have a string of successes in mind.  That way, your unconscious mind (which is so often the maker or breaker of a great performance) will clearly understand that your awesomeness is not the exception – it’s the rule.