12/29/10

Your Misery Has Company. Not Realizing It is Hurting You Even More.



The holidays can be really, really hard.    We struggle to find the right gifts, and to find the money in our budgets to pay for them.  All the preparation – decorating, shopping, wrapping, cooking, cleaning - takes time and effort, and it’s not as if you can put the rest of your life on hold to get it all done.

And then there are the guests.  Playing host to family and friends may be the most difficult part of all, particularly when there is so much pressure to make the experience a joyous one.  (And if you are the guest rather than the host, holiday travel is no picnic, either.)

It’s not at all unusual for people to feel more anxious, exhausted, frustrated, or depressed at this time of year than they typically do.  As if that’s not bad enough, many of us routinely add insult to injury by feeling guilty or ashamed that we aren’t bursting with happiness like we “should” be.  After all, isn’t this the season to be jolly?

And what’s more, we feel like we are alone in our unhappiness – as if everyone else is making merry while we are making misery.  This common misperception only adds to our pain.

So why don’t we notice that other people are struggling as we are?  New research suggests that the answer is fairly straightforward: People are, generally speaking, more private when it comes to their negative emotions.

As a society, we are taught (often implicitly) to be embarrassed by feelings like sadness and anxiety, which suggest vulnerability.  Consequently, we are more likely to try to keep them hidden – the net result being that others assume us to be happier than we really are, even when they know us well.

In addition, the researchers found that people routinely underestimate how often their peers are faced with the negative experiences they themselves endure.  In one study, undergraduates underestimated how frequently their fellow students were rejected by a romantic interest, received a low grade, or felt homesick for distant friends and families by 10-30%.

They also overestimated the frequency of others’ enjoyable experiences, like going out with friends or attending parties, by 10-20%!  So not only do we think other people are happier than we are, but we assume their lives are better, too.

Our ignorance has serious consequences.  Research shows that the more you underestimate the emotional pain of others, the more isolated and lonely you feel. You are also more likely to brood and ruminate on your bad experiences, and feel less satisfied with your life.  When our perceptions of other people’s lives are distorted, we may feel sorrier for ourselves than we really should, and ashamed of our anxiety and sadness when we really needn’t be.

They say that misery loves company, and there’s good reason for it.  There is comfort, and wisdom, in knowing that other people share our difficulties and understand our experiences.  If you can’t take all the headache and stress out of your holidays (and I’ve yet to meet the person who could), then you can at least do yourself a favor this year, and embrace the very real truth that you are not alone.

SUCCEED: How We Can Reach Our Goals (Hudson Street Press) is available wherever books are sold!   Follow me on Twitter @hghalvorson

12/21/10

The Top 10 Psychology Studies of 2010



The end of 2010 fast approaches, and I’m thrilled to have been asked by the editors of Psychology Today to write about the Top 10 psychology studies of the year.  I’ve focused on studies that I personally feel stand out, not only as examples of great science, but even more importantly, as examples of how the science of psychology can improve our lives.  Each study has a clear “take home” message, offering the reader an insight or a simple strategy they can use to reach their goals, strengthen their relationships, make better decisions, or become happier.   If you extract the wisdom from these ten studies and apply them in your own life, 2011 just might be a very good year.



1)  How to Break Bad Habits

If you are trying to stop smoking, swearing, or chewing your nails, you have probably tried the strategy of distracting yourself – taking your mind off whatever it is you are trying not to do – to break the habit.  You may also have realized by now that it doesn’t work.  Distraction is a great way to resist a passing temptation, but it turns out to be a terrible way to break a habit that has really taken hold.

That’s because habit-behaviors happen automatically – often, without our awareness.  So thinking about George Clooney isn’t going to stop me from biting my nails if I don’t realize I’m doing it in the first place.

What you need to do instead is focus on stopping the behavior before it starts (or, as psychologists tend to put it, you need to “inhibit” your bad behavior).  According to research by Jeffrey Quinn and his colleagues, the most effective strategy for breaking a bad habit is vigilant monitoring – focusing your attention on the unwanted behavior to make sure you don’t engage in it.  In other words, thinking to yourself “Don’t do it!” and watching out for slipups – the very opposite of distraction.   If you stick with it, the use of this strategy can inhibit the behavior completely over time, and you can be free of your bad habit for good.

J. Quinn, A. Pascoe, W. Wood, & D. Neal (2010) Can’t control yourself? Monitor those bad habits.   Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 499-511.

2) How to Make Everything Seem Easier

Most of us have grown accustomed to the idea that our moods, and even our judgments, can be influenced by unrelated experiences of sight and sound – we feel happier on sunny days, more relaxed when listening to certain kinds of music, and more likely to lose our tempers when it’s hot and humid.  But very few of us have even considered the possibility that our tactile experience – the sensations associated with the things we touch, might have this same power.

New research by Joshua Ackerman, Christopher Nocera, and John Bargh shows that the weight, texture, and hardness of the things we touch are, in fact, unconsciously factored into our decisions about things that have nothing to do with what we are touching.

For instance, we associate smoothness and roughness with ease and difficulty, respectively, as in expressions like “smooth sailing,” and “rough road ahead.” In one study, people who completed a puzzle with pieces that had been covered in sandpaper later described an interaction between two other individuals as more difficult and awkward than those whose puzzles had been smooth. (Tip:  Never try to buy a car or negotiate a raise while wearing a wool sweater.  Consider satin underpants instead.  Everything seems easy in satin underpants.)

J. Ackerman, C. Nocera, and J. Bargh (2010)  Incidental haptic sensations influence social judgments and decisions.  Science, 328, 1712- 1715.

3)  How To Manage Your Time Better

Good time management starts with figuring out what tasks you need to accomplish, and how long each will take.  The problem is, human beings are generally pretty lousy when it comes to estimating the time they will need to complete any task.  Psychologists refer to this as the planning fallacy, and it has the very real potential to screw up our plans and keep us from reaching our goals.

New research by Mario Weick and Ana Guinote shows that, somewhat ironically, people in positions of power are particularly poor planners.  That’s because feeling powerful tends to focus us on getting what we want, ignoring the potential obstacles that stand in our way.   The future plans of powerful people often involve “best-case scenarios,” which lead to far shorter time estimates than more realistic plans that take into account what might go wrong.

The good news is, you can learn to more accurately predict how long something will take and become a better planner, if you stop and consider potential obstacles, along with two other factors:  your own past experiences (i.e., how long did it take last time?), and all the steps or subcomponents that make up the task  (i.e., factoring in the time you’ll need for each part.)

M. Weick & A. Guinote (2010) How long will it take? Power biases time predictions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

4) How to Be Happier

Most of us tend to think that if we just had a bit more money we’d get more satisfaction out of life, but on the whole, this turns out not to be true.   So why doesn’t money make us happier?  New research by Jordi Quoidbach and colleagues suggests that the answer lies, at least in part, in how wealthier people lose touch with their ability to savor life’s pleasures.

Savoring is a way of increasing and prolonging our positive experiences.  Taking time to experience the subtle flavors in a piece of dark chocolate, imaging the fun you’ll have on an upcoming vacation (and leafing through your trip photos afterward), telling all your friends on Facebook about the hilarious movie you saw over the weekend – these are all acts of savoring, and they help us to squeeze every bit of joy out of the good things that happen to us.

Why, then, don’t wealthier people savor, if it feels so good?  It’s obviously not for a lack of things to savor.  The basic idea is that when you have the money to eat at fancy restaurants every night and buy designer clothes from chic boutiques, those experiences diminish the enjoyment you get out of the simpler, more everyday pleasures, like the smell of a steak sizzling on your backyard grill, or the bargain you got on the sweet little sundress from Target.

Create plans for how to inject more savoring into each day, and you will increase your happiness and well-being much more than (or even despite) your growing riches.  And if you’re riches aren’t actually growing, then savoring is still a great way to truly appreciate what you do have.

J. Quoidbach, E. Dunn, K. Petrides, & M. Mikolajczak (2010) Money giveth, money taketh away: The dual effect of wealth on happiness.  Psychological Science, 21, 759-763.



5) How to Have More Willpower

Do you have the willpower to get the job done, or have you found yourself giving in to temptations, distractions, and inaction when trying to reach your own goals?   If it’s the latter, you’re not alone.  But more importantly, you can do something about it.  New research by Mark Muraven shows that our capacity for self-control is surprisingly like a muscle that can be strengthened by regular exercise.

Do you have a sweet tooth?  Try giving up candy, even if weight-loss and cavity-prevention are not your goals.  Hate exerting yourself physically?  Go out and buy one of those handgrips you see the muscle men with at the gym – even if your goal is to pay your bills on time.  In one study, after two weeks of sweets-abstinence and handgripping, Muraven found that participants had significantly improved on a difficult concentration task that required lots of self-control.

Just by working your willpower muscle regularly, engaging in simple actions that require small amounts of self-control - like sitting up straight or making your bed each day – you can develop the self-control strength you’ll need to tackle all of your goals.

M. Muraven (2010) Building self-control strength: Practicing self-control leads to improved self-control performance.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 465-468.

6) How to Choose a Mate

What role does personality play in creating marital bliss? More specifically, is it your personality, your partner’s personality, or the similarity between the two that really matters when it comes to being happy in your marriage? A study of over 10,000 couples from three countries provides us with some answers.

Your own personality is in fact a powerful predictor of your marital satisfaction.  People who were more agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable reported being significantly happier with their spouse.  That spouse’s personality was also a reliable, though slightly less powerful, predictor of relationship satisfaction.  Keep these same traits – the “Big 3” for happiness in a marriage – in mind when you are seeking Mr. or Ms. Right.

Finally, there’s personality similarly - which, as it happens, doesn’t seem to matter at all. The extent to which married couples matched one another on the Big Five traits had no predictive power when it came to understanding why some couples are happy together and others not.   This is not to say that having similar goals or values isn’t important – just that having similar personalities doesn’t seem to be.

So if you are outgoing and your partner is shy, or if you are adventurous and your partner doesn’t really like to try new things, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a satisfying marriage.  Whether you are birds of a feather, or opposites that attracted, you are equally likely to live a long and happy life together.

Just try to be generally pleasant, responsible, and even-tempered, and find someone willing to do the same.

P. Dyrenforth, D. Kashy, M.B. Donnellan,  & R. Lucas  (2010) Predicting relationships and life satisfaction from personality in nationally representative samples from three countries: The relative importance of actor, partner, and similarity effects.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 690-702.

7) How to Feel More Powerful

In the animal kingdom, alphas signal their dominance through body movement and posture.  Human beings are no different.  The most powerful guy in the room is usually the one whose physical movements are most expansive – legs apart, leaning forward, arms spread wide while he gestures.  He’s the CEO who isn’t afraid to swing his feet up onto the conference room table, hands behind his head and elbows jutting outward, confident in his power to spread himself out however he damn well pleases.

The nervous, powerless person holds himself very differently – he makes himself physically as small as possible: shoulders hunched, feet together, hands in his lap or arms wrapped protectively across his chest.  He’s the guy in the corner who is hoping he won’t be called on, and often is barely noticed.

We adopt these poses unconsciously, and they are perceived (also unconsciously) by others as indictors of our status.  But a new set of studies by Dana Carney, Amy Cuddy, and Andy Yap reveals that the relationship between power and posing works in both directions.  In other words, holding powerful poses can actually make you more powerful.

In their studies, posing in “high power” positions not only created psychological and behavioral changes typically associated with powerful people, it created physiological changes characteristic of the powerful as well.   High power posers felt more powerful, were more willing to take risks, and experienced significant increases in testosterone along with decreases in cortisol (the body’s chemical response to stress.)

If you want more power – not just the appearance of power, but the genuine feeling of power – then spread your limbs wide, stand up straight, and lean into the conversation.   Carry yourself like the guy in charge, and in a matter of minutes your body will start to feel it, and you will start to believe it.

D. Carney, A. Cuddy, and A. Yap (2010) Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance.  Psychological Science, 21, 1363-1368.

8) How To Tell If He Loves You

“If he really loved me, then he would…”

Everyone who’s ever been in a relationship has had thoughts like this one.  If he loved me he would bring me flowers, or compliment me more often, or remember my birthday, or remember to take out the damn garbage.    We expect feelings of love to translate directly into loving behaviors, and often judge the quality and intensity of our partner’s feelings through their more tangible expressions.  When it comes to love, actions speak louder than words, right?

Well, not necessarily.  According to new research by psychologists Lara Kammrath and Johanna Peetz, romantic feelings like love, intimacy, and commitment reliably lead to some loving behaviors, but not others. In their studies, love predicted spontaneous, in-the-moment acts of kindness and generosity, like saying “I love you,” offering a back rub, or surprising your partner with a gourmet dinner – the kinds of loving actions that don’t require much in the way of forethought, planning, or memory.

On the other hand, love does a lousy job of predicting the kinds of “loving” behaviors that are harder to perform, often because they have to be maintained over longer periods of time (e.g., remembering to do household chores without being asked, being nice to one’s in-laws) or because there is a delay between the thought and the action (remembering to buy your wife a gift for her birthday next week, keeping a promise call home during your conference in Las Vegas.). When it comes to the harder stuff, it’s how conscientious you are, rather than how much in love you are, that really matters.

So if you’re trying to get a sense of how your partner really feels about you, the smaller, spontaneous acts of love that occur without much forethought are a much  better indicator of the depth of his love than whether or not he remembers your birthday or to take out the trash.

L. Kammrath & J. Peetz (2010) The limits of love: Predicting immediate vs. sustained caring behaviors in close relationships.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

9) How to Make It Easier to Cut Your Losses

Sometimes, we don’t know when to throw in the towel.   As a project unfolds, it becomes clear that things aren’t working out as planned, that it will cost too much or take too long, or that someone else will beat you to the punch.  But instead of moving on to new opportunities, we continue to devote our time, energy, and money to doomed projects (or even doomed relationships), digging a deeper hole rather than trying to climb our way out of it.

Why?  The most likely culprit is our overwhelming aversion to sunk costs - the resources that we’ve put into an endeavor that we can’t get back out. We worry far too much about what we’ll lose if we just move on, and not nearly enough about the costs of not moving on  - more wasted time and effort, and more missed opportunities.

But thanks to recent research by Daniel Molden and Chin Ming Hui, there is a simple way to be sure you are making the best decisions when your endeavor goes awry:  focus on what you have to gain, rather than what you have to lose.

Psychologists call this adopting a promotion focus. When Molden and Hui had participants think about their goals in terms of potential gains, they became more comfortable with accepting the losses they had to incur along the way.  When they adopted a prevention focus, on the other hand, and thought about their goals in terms of what they could lose if they didn’t succeed, they were much more sensitive to sunk costs.

If you make a deliberate effort to refocus yourself prior to making your decision, reflecting on what you have to gain by cutting your losses now, you’ll find it much easier to make the right choice.

D. Molden & C. Hui (2010) Promoting de-escalation of commitment: A regulatory focus perspective on sunk costs.  Psychological Science.

10)  How to Fight With Your Spouse

Having a satisfying, healthy relationship with your partner doesn’t mean never fighting – it means learning to fight well. But what is the best way for two people to cope with their anger, frustration, and hurt, without undermining their mutual happiness?

Thankfully, recent research by James McNulty and Michelle Russell provides the answer.  The best way to deal with conflict in a marriage, it turns out, depends on how serious or severe the problem is.  Did your spouse drink too much at the party last night, or is he drinking too much every night?  Did she splurge a little too much on clothes last month, or are her spending habits edging you closer and closer to bankruptcy?  Did he invite his mother to dinner without discussing it with you first, or did he invite his mother to live with you without discussing it first?  Little problems and big problems require very different approaches if you want to have a lasting, happy marriage.

When it comes to minor problems, direct fighting strategies – like placing blame on your spouse for their actions or expressing your anger – results in a loss of marital satisfaction over time.   Flying off the handle when he forgets to pick up the dry cleaning yet again, or when she spends a little too much money on a pricey pair of shoes, is going to take its toll on your happiness in the long run.  You really are better off letting the small stuff go.

In response to major problems, these same direct fighting strategies predict increased marital satisfaction!   Expressing your feelings, blaming your partner and demanding that they change their ways will lead to greater happiness when the conflict in question is something significant – something that if left unresolved could ultimately tear your relationship apart.  Issues involving addiction, financial stability, infidelity, child-rearing, and whether or not you live with your mother-in-law need to be addressed, even if it gets a little ugly.  Couples who battle it out over serious issues do a better job of tackling, and eventually resolving those issues, than those who swept big problems under the carpet.

J. McNulty & V.M. Russell (2010) When "negative" behaviors are positive: A contextual analysis of the long-term effects of problem-solving behaviors on changes in relationship satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 587-604.

12/19/10

Make It Easier to Cut Your Losses

(From Fast Company)

Sometimes, we don’t know when to throw in the towel.   As a project unfolds, it becomes clear that things aren’t working out as planned, that it will cost too much or take too long, or that a rival company will beat you to the punch.  But instead of moving on to new opportunities, we all too often simply stay the course.

Company leaders continue to allocate manpower and money to projects long after it’s become clear that they are obviously failing, digging a deeper hole rather than trying to climb their way out of it (Remember how long it took to get rid of New Coke?)

The costs to the company, in terms of both resources and lost opportunities, can be enormous.  For the leader who refuses to see reason, it can be career-ending.  We recognize this foolishness immediately in others, but that doesn’t stop us from making the same mistake ourselves.  Why?

There are several powerful and largely unconscious psychological forces at work here.   We may throw good money after bad because we haven’t come up with an alternative, or because we don’t want to admit to our colleagues, or ourselves, that we were wrong.   But the most likely culprit is our overwhelming aversion to sunk costs.

Sunk costs are the resources that you’ve put into an endeavor that you can’t get back out.   Once you’ve realized that you won’t succeed, it shouldn’t matter how much time and effort you’ve already spent on something.  A bad idea is a bad idea, no matter how much money you’ve already thrown at it.

The problem is that it doesn’t feel that way.  Putting in a lot only to end up with nothing to show for it is just too awful for most of us to seriously consider.  We worry far too much about what we’ll lose if we just move on, and not nearly enough about the costs of not moving on  - more wasted resources, and more missed opportunities.

Companies have developed ways of trying to deal with this problem, but they usually involve extensive external monitoring of decision-making that is both costly and labor-intensive.   But thanks to recent research by Northwestern University psychologists Daniel Molden and Chin Ming Hui, there is a far simpler and inexpensive way to be sure you are making the best decisions when a project goes awry:  focus on what you have to gain, rather than what you have to lose.

As I’ve written about before, psychologists call this adopting a promotion focus. When we think about our goals in terms of potential gains, we automatically (often without realizing it) become more comfortable with making mistakes and accepting the losses we may have to incur along the way.  When we adopt a prevention focus, on the other hand, and think about our goals in terms of what we could lose if we don’t succeed, we become much more sensitive to sunk costs.

For example, in one of their studies, Molden and Hui put participants into either a promotion or prevention mindset by having them spend five minutes writing about their “personal hopes and aspirations” (promotion) or “duties and obligations” (prevention).  They also included a control group with no manipulation of mindset.

Next, each participant was told to imagine that he or she was president of an aviation company that had committed $10 million to developing a “radar-blank” plane.  With the project near completion and $9 million already spent, a rival company announces the availability of their own radar-blank plane, which is both superior in performance and lower in cost.  The question put to participants was simple – do you invest the remaining $1 million and finish your company’s (inferior and more expensive) plane, or cut your losses and move on?

Molden and Hui found that participants who had been put in a prevention mindset  (focused on avoiding loss) stayed the course and invested the remaining $1 million roughly 80% of the time.  The control group, included to provide a sense of how people would respond without any changes to their mindset, was virtually identical to the prevention group.  This suggests that when a project is failing and sunk costs are high, most of us naturally become prevention-minded, and more likely to try to keep waging a losing battle.

The odds of making that mistake were significantly reduced by adopting a promotion mindset (focused on potential gain) – those participants invested the remaining $1 million less than 60% of the time.*

When we see our goals in terms of going for a win, rather than avoiding a failure, we are more likely to see a doomed project for what it is, and try to make the most of a bad situation.

It’s not difficult to achieve greater clarity if you make a deliberate effort to refocus yourself prior to making your decision.  Stop and reflect on what you have to gain by cutting your losses now – the opportunities for progress and innovation.  If you do, you’ll find it much easier to make the right choice.

*Why not a bigger drop? Good question.  Remember that promotion focus was manipulated very indirectly through a totally unrelated writing task.  If you adopt a promotion focus directly with respect to the decision itself, considering what you could gain by moving on from your failure, the effects should be even stronger.

12/12/10

Why Creative People Get Kept Out of the Driver's Seat

From my Fast Company blog:

Two candidates are being interviewed for a leadership position in your company.  Both have strong resumes, but while one seems to be bursting with new and daring ideas, the other comes across as decidedly less creative (though clearly still a smart cookie).  Who gets the job?  And who should?

The answer to the question of who gets the leadership job is usually the less creative candidate.  This fact may or may not surprise you – you may have seen it happen many times before.  You may have even been the creative candidate who got the shaft.  But what you’re probably wondering is, why?

After all, it’s quite clear who should be getting the job.   Creativity – the ability to generate new and innovative solutions to problems – is obviously an important attribute for any successful business leader.  Research shows that leaders who are more creative are in fact better able to effect positive change in their organizations, and are better at inspiring others to follow their lead.

And yet, according to recent research there is good reason to believe that the people with the most creativity aren’t making it to the top of business organizations, because of a process that occurs (on a completely unconscious level) in the mind of everyone who has ever evaluated an applicant for a leadership position.

The problem, put simply, is this: our idea of what a prototypical “creative person” is like is completely at odds with our idea of a prototypical  “effective leader.”

Creativity is associated with nonconformity, unorthodoxy, and unconventionality.  It conjures visions of the artist, the musician, the misunderstood poet.   In other words, not the sort of people you usually put in charge of large organizations. Effective leaders, it would seem, should provide order, rather than tossing it out the window.

Unconsciously, we assume that someone who is creative can’t be a good leader, and as a result, any evidence of creativity can diminish a candidate’s perceived leadership potential.

In one study conducted by organizational psychologists Jennifer Mueller, Jack Goncalo, and Dishan Kamdar, 55 employees rated the responses of nearly 300 of their (unidentified) coworkers to a problem-solving task for both creativity (the extent to which their ideas were novel and useful) and as evidence of leadership potential.  They found that creativity and leadership potential were strongly negatively correlated – the more creative the response, the less effective a leader the responder appeared.

In a second study, participants were told to generate an answer to the question “What could airlines do to obtain more revenue from passengers?” and give a 10-minute pitch to an evaluator.

Half the participants were asked to give creative answers (both novel and useful, e.g. “offer in-flight gambling with other passengers”), while the other half were told to give useful but non-novel answers (e.g., “charge for in-flight meals.”) The evaluators, unaware of the different instructions, rated participants who gave creative answers as having significantly less leadership ability.

Even though it is a quality that is much-admired, there is a very clear unconscious bias against creativity when it comes to deciding who gets to be in the driver’s seat.  Organizations may inadvertently place people in leadership positions who lack creativity and will only preserve the status quo, believing they are picking people with clear leadership potential.

The good news is, the bias can be wiped out – in fact, reversed - if evaluators have a charismatic leader (i.e., someone known for their uniqueness and individualism, like a Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, or Carly Fiorina) rather than an effective but non-charismatic leader in mind.   In the airline-revenue study, when evaluators were asked to list 5 qualities of a “charistmatic leader” prior to the idea pitch, the participants with creative solutions were instead perceived as having the most leadership potential.

Taking the time to remind yourself (or, if you are the applicant, remind your interviewer) that creativity is essential to effective leadership rather than at odds with it, is the key to making sure your company has the very best people behind the wheel.

Does He Love Me? I Want to Know. (And Here's How To Tell.)



“If he really loved me, then he would…”

Everyone who’s ever been in a relationship has had thoughts like this one.  If he loved me he would bring me flowers, or compliment me more often, or remember my birthday, or remember to take out the damn garbage.

We expect feelings of love to translate directly into loving behaviors, and often judge the quality and intensity of our partner’s feelings through their more tangible expressions.  When it comes to love, actions speak louder than words, right?

Well, not necessarily.  According to new research by psychologists Lara Kammrath and Johanna Peetz,  romantic feelings like love, intimacy, and commitment reliably lead to some loving behaviors, but not others.

Some gestures of love are spontaneous and of the moment – it occurs to you to do something nice for your partner, and you act on that thought immediately, or in the very near future.  Saying “I love you,” offering a back rub when your husband has had a particularly trying day, surprising your girlfriend with a gourmet dinner – these are examples of loving actions that don’t require much in the way of forethought, planning, or memory.

Other gestures have a much higher degree of what Kammrath and Peetz call “self-regulatory challenge.”  They are harder to perform, often because they have to be maintained over longer periods of time (e.g., remembering to do household chores without being asked, being nice to one’s in-laws) or because there is a delay between the thought and the action (remembering to buy your wife a gift for her birthday next week, keeping a promise call home during your conference in Las Vegas.).

In their studies, the researchers found that while feelings of love are quite good at predicting spontaneous, in-the-moment acts of kindness and generosity, they do a lousy job of predicting the more challenging, longer-term loving behaviors.

When it comes to pulling off the latter, they found that it’s how conscientious you are, rather than how much in love you are, that predicts success.

In one study, college undergraduates who were currently involved in committed relationships were given an online survey to fill out, that measured (among other things) their feelings of love, intimacy, and commitment.    After completing the survey, they were informed that as a reward for participating, they could come to a “candy lab” on campus and create a gift for their boyfriend or girlfriend, and enter that person’s name in a drawing to win a $50 gift card.

Kammrath and Peetz varied whether the “candy lab” would be open on the very next day, or not until four days later.  They found that the intensity of a student’s feelings of love predicted whether or not he went the next day, but not whether he went four days later.

Only those students high in conscientiousness (i.e., who  “were always prepared,” “paid attention to details,” “followed a schedule,” and “got chores done right away”) showed up four days later to make the candy gift, regardless of the depths of their love.  I’m guessing they were the only ones who remembered to write it down.

In another study, people were asked to list seven easily doable loving behaviors they would do for their partner (e.g., give a compliment, send a loving text message), and were told to try to do them either all that same day, or to do one each day for a week.

Once again, being more deeply in love resulted in doing more of the loving acts on the same day, but not when they were spread out over a week.  (And once again, only conscientiousness seemed to matter when more planning and better memory were needed).

So if you’re trying to get a sense of how your partner really feels about you, the smaller, spontaneous acts of love that occur without much forethought are a much  better indicator of the depth of his love than whether or not he remembers your birthday or to take out the trash.

(When he reads that last sentence, my husband will no doubt rejoice that he is finally off the hook, and remind me that he’s been telling me this all along.)

If the birthdays and the trash-removal are important to you (as they are to me), then you might want to try lending them a hand through some gentle reminding.   Love may not help them to remember, but you certainly can.

12/6/10

Understanding the True Cost of Leaving People Out

My guest post on Smartblog on Workforce:

It happens all the time in the modern workplace:  Someone gets left out of the loop.

Often, it happens unintentionally.  A recipient gets left off an email, or your colleague is on vacation when a development occurs and you simply forget to tell him about it when he gets back.

But in many instances, we leave people out of the loop on purpose, strategically. We choose not to share information for political reasons, to consolidate power, for expedience, or just to avoid dealing with someone who can be kind of a pain in the ass.

I’m sure that every manager who has ever decided to intentionally leave a team member out of the loop has realized that this strategy comes with some risk.  You expect the excluded person to be, at the very least, a little annoyed.

You probably don’t understand, however, the magnitude of the risk you are actually taking, and the psychological damage inflicted by this simple act.   Getting “annoyed” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Human beings are acutely sensitive to social rejection and ostracism – it’s hard-wired into our system, having evolved as a result of our reliance on other humans for survival.  Psychologists call being out-of-the-loop partial ostracism, since you aren’t completely excluded from the group, but you feel that you aren’t completely included either.

Research shows that even partial ostracism is quickly detected, and that lacking information that others in your group seem to have undermines not one but four fundamental human needs:  the need for belonging and connection to others, self-esteem, the need for a sense of control and effectiveness, and the need for meaningful work.

A new set of studies shows that when people feel out-of-the-loop, they immediately (often unconsciously) interpret it as a subtle sign of rejection.  As a result, they report trusting and liking their bosses and colleagues less, feeling less loyalty to the company, and feeling less motivated to perform.

What it seems to boil down to is this:  being left out of the loop is perceived as a signal that one has low status or standing in the group.  People who lack information that their colleagues seem to have often feel that they have fallen out of favor, or that others have turned against them.  It is this loss of standing, according to researchers, that undermines our four fundamental needs as well as out trust, loyalty, and motivation.

Interestingly, this is true even when we believe that we have been left out of the loop unintentionally.  Why?  Well, even when someone accidentally leaves you out of the loop, you often suspect that they could have remembered if it was really important to them, if they really respected you.  In the end, even inadvertent exclusion feels like a sign of low status.

So, when you are deciding whether or not to leave someone out of the loop, think very seriously about the consequences of your actions.  The short-term gains will be far outweighed by the significant losses of trust, cooperation, loyalty, and motivation you create.  Is it worth it?

Also, when you find that you have accidentally left someone out of the loop, remember that it’s important for people to feel that their status is respected and acknowledged.  It’s worth it to go out of your way to repair the damage by letting them know how much they are valued.

For reference:

E. Jones and J. Kelly (2010) “Why am I out of the loop?” Attributions influence responses to information exclusion.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 1186-1201.

The Motivational Secret to Great Negotiating

From my Fast Company blog:

Negotiating well is a powerful skill, and it doesn’t come naturally to most people. That’s because a negotiation is an experience that is rife with conflicting motivations.  When two parties haggle over price, the buyer needs to somehow reconcile his desire to pay the lowest possible price, with the knowledge that if he bids too low, the negotiation may break down and the seller could walk away.

These concerns are equally present when it comes to negotiations over salary – managers want to keep costs down, without losing their best people to better paying jobs.  And employees want to get the highest possible salary, without overplaying their hand and getting canned, or simply humiliated, in the process.

The key to a good outcome in any negotiation is a strong opening bid, since that bid is the jumping off point, as well as the frame of reference, for the negotiation that follows.  You are never going to end up paying less than your initial offer when purchasing a car, or making a bigger salary than you asked for when starting your new job. But a strong opening bid takes a certain amount of gutsiness – you need to overcome all those perfectly rational concerns you may have about taking things too far, only to end up embarrassing yourself and failing completely.

So how can you embrace risk, particularly when risk-taking doesn’t come to you naturally?  The answer is simple:  when you think about an upcoming negotiation, focus only on what you have to gain, and banish all thoughts of what you might lose.

Psychologists call this adopting a promotion focus.  When we think about our goals in terms of potential gains, we automatically (often without realizing it) become more comfortable with risk, and less sensitive to concerns about what could go wrong.  When we adopt a prevention focus, on the other hand, and think about our goals in terms of what we could lose if we don’t succeed, we become much more conservative and risk-averse.

These different ways of looking at the same goal (e.g., to pay the lowest price, to get the biggest raise) have profound effects on the way we approach negotiation.

In one study, psychologist Adam Galinksy and his colleagues divided 54 MBA students into pairs, and asked them to take part in a mock negotiation involving the sale of a pharmaceutical plant.  One student was assigned the role of “seller” and the other “buyer,” and both were given detailed information about the circumstances of the sale, including the fact that the “bargaining zone” would range from $17-25 million dollars.

Galinsky then manipulated the goal focus of the buyers.  Before the negotiation began, half were told to take a couple of minutes and write down “the negotiation behaviors and outcomes you hope to achieve… think about how you could promote these behaviors and outcomes,” giving the buyers a promotion focus.  The other half were told to write down the behaviors and outcomes “you seek to avoid and how they “could prevent” them, giving those buyers a prevention focus.

Each pair began their negotiation with an opening bid from the buyer.  Promotion-minded buyers opened with a bid an average of nearly $4 million dollars less than prevention-minded buyers.  They were willing to take the greater risk and bid aggressively low, and it paid off in a big way.  In the end, promotion buyers purchased the plant for an average of $21.24 million, while prevention buyers paid $24.07 million.

Why? It turns out that approaching a goal with a promotion mindset helps a negotiator to stay focused on their (ideal) price target.   A prevention mindset, however, leads to too much worrying about a negotiation failure or impasse, leaving the buyer more susceptible to less advantageous agreements.

This is one of those things that’s worth taking a moment to think about – two negotiators, each armed with identical information, facing similar opponents, and yet one overpays by nearly $4 million dollars.  The only difference was that one negotiator was thinking about all that he could gain, while the other focused too much on what he had to lose.

So when you are preparing for your next negotiation, take a few moments to list all the ways in which you will benefit if you are successful.   Repeat them to yourself just before the negotiation begins.  Most importantly, shut out any thoughts about what could go wrong – just refuse to give them your attention.  With practice, this thought-training will become easier, and eventually automatic.  Risk-taking, believe it or not, can become second nature to you, if you think about your goals in the right way.