Chapter 17: Order in the court!

When President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Washington D.C. in December of 1987 the stakes were high. A year earlier in Reykjavik, Iceland, these two sides failed to reach an agreement on the Strategic Defense Initiative, otherwise known as SDI. This meant that the two sides were still entrenched in the very dangerous policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. But this time things were different. Unlike the previous year, the USSR was in an economic free fall. Nuclear arms races are expensive propositions, and Gorbachev could no longer afford to keep up such furious spending. As a result the Soviet leader relented and signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, the first agreement to reduce nuclear weapons and a major inflection point in the ending of the cold war.

These facts are in the history books, but what many may not know is that the timing of this summit was no accident. Indeed, summit details such as the location, attendees, menu, agenda, and timing are never left to chance. But in the case of this particular summit great care was taken to build the entire event around one specific moment in time: December 8 at 2 p.m. (EST). The reason for this was simple: This was the time that Nancy Reagan’s astrologer told her that Reagan’s and Gorbachev’s astrological charts best aligned.

As much as we might find Nancy Reagan’s decision to consult an astrologer to help set the President’s schedule amusing (or perhaps even a little disquieting), the truth is that she was simply displaying a trait that is common in all of us: A need to find order and meaning in a chaotic universe. Early in our history our need for order gave birth to a variety of superstitions which attempted to rationally explain the world and its invisible forces. Some of these playfully persist today, such as knocking on wood or hanging horseshoes over doorways.

Over time people began to come up with a more complex ways of explaining the workings of these invisible forces that liked to play tiddlywinks with our lives. Divination, such as astronomy, numerology, and other arts came into vogue. Magi looked up to the heavens seeking omens that would help guide everything from important state decisions to when best to plant and harvest the crops. Ancient priests assigned numbers to letters in an effort to find hidden meanings in the scriptures. Prospectors used magical artifacts such as dowsing rods and seer stones to find water, oil, gems, or other treasures. Like superstitions, many of these practices are still widely used around the world today. Case in point, the much beloved Farmer’s Almanac bases its predictions for the upcoming year in part on such sources as astronomical signs, planetary positions, and sun spot activity.

Eventually our models for explaining the unexplainable became more and more sophisticated. Religion offered mythologies, histories, allegories, and parables to help us understand the nature of our being and our role in a mysterious universe. Intellectuals, eager to understand the universe through dispassionate and methodical observations, approached the same mysteries through the scientific method. Regardless of the means, be it superstition, divination, mysticism, religion, or science, all serve the same purpose: To offer a construct by which we can superimpose meaning and order over that which seems to have none. Granted, some models are more sophisticated and perhaps even more accurate that others, but in the end they are all offering the same promise: Order.

Given our intense desire to find order in the universe, it should come as no surprise that we attempt to find the same order in our dealings with people. Has anyone ever asked you your sign? Doing so is a way we try to understand someone’s behavior based on astrological principles. Tools such as the Myers-Briggs profiles, IQ tests, the DISC assessment, and other psychometric instruments are designed to impose order over human behavior. But understanding human behavior through astrology or even psychological instruments is like trying to measure the width of an atom with a ruler. Still, we try. And what’s more, it doesn’t matter if the explanations we contrive are correct or not, just so long as they assure us that there’s order in the universe and allow us to move on with our lives.

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Chapter 16: Making sense of it all

            When we consider all of the factors that go into makes us who we are, it really isn’t so surprising that once in a while we can be less-than-predictable. Human behavior is a confusing chaotic thing, and is an environmental constant that affects us all. And like any other environmental constant, one that gives us ample material with which to create false conditions.

            When people upset or frustrate us it’s because they are behaving in a manner that we consider somehow inappropriate. Whether people at work are sabotaging our projects, talking behind our backs, taking credit for our work, or failing to deliver on time, we feel wronged. Not just because it’s unpleasant but because this sort of behavior is inconsistent with what we consider to be acceptable and predictable. We try to understand it, but sometimes we just can’t. And really that shouldn’t be very surprising. If the last few chapters have taught us anything it’s that human behavior can be, at times, incomprehensible.

            Think of it as an algebraic expression, like 12=5+x. In this case solving for x is pretty straight-forward. Subtract 5 from 12 and you have 7. Put it all together and we get 12=5+7. Simple, clean, logical—everything we humans long for. The problem is that human behavior is not so predictable, constant, logical, or rational. Trying to figure out human behavior is more like trying to solve for x when x≈yζ(a±Ψ)+✄f. There’s just no way to approach this expression. What does ζ mean? How can it be plus or minus Ψ? And what’s up with that ✄ icon anyway? As a mathematical problem the expression is meaningless and not deserving of any further scrutiny. But humans are not mathematical expressions; we’re people that want to think that we operate in rational and predictable ways. So rather than simply walk away from this problem as utterly absurd, we try to solve for x—human behavior—the best we can. We do this by making assumptions about the variables. So we gather information. We might learn that y is a whole number and a single digit, so now we can narrow that variable down to something between 0 and 9. We might then learn that odds are y is an even number. This leaves us with 2, 4, 6, or 8. Since 6 is kind of in the middle we might select this number as the best option. And so we do this with all the variables of human behavior. We make assumptions based on things like age, gender, religion, ethnicity, and a myriad of other variables. We practice empathy, walking a mile in their moccasins to try and see things from their perspective. All this we do in an effort to understand why someone would behave as they do. Still, try as we might, when it comes to human behavior we can never solve for x. Not even close. The variables are just too numerous and vast. Most of us have a hard enough time solving for our own x—our own behavior—let alone the x of others.

            This need to find order and predictability extends far beyond our desire to understand human behavior. It drives the way we approach the world in just about every imaginable way.

            Let me show you.

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Chapter 15: See the strings

            But wait. Hold it. You and I are human beings, too. Right? Does that mean that we’re as much the result of evolution, genetics, upbringing, psychology, and group dynamics as all these morons we work with?


            But knowing is half the battle. (G.I. Jooooe!)

            Ever read comic books? You should. Good stuff out there. In the comic book series Watchmen there’s a character called Dr. Manhattan, a superhero created when Jon Osterman was accidently trapped in an Intrinsic Filed Subtractor. (You see, that’s why your mother told you not to play in that thing.) As his name might suggest, Dr. Manhattan’s powers were based on quantum physics and atomic principles. He had the power of teleportation, death rays, flight. You know, the usual. There was also something that he could do that used to drive all of those around him absolutely bonkers: He could see time as one eternal now. Everything that had ever been, was now, and would ever be he could see as though it were happening right in front of him at that very moment. And if that wasn’t weird enough, he could see his own future too, but apart from his present. I’ll show you what I mean.

            In one scene in the ninth book Dr. Manhattan is talking with Laurie, his old girlfriend. At one point he tells her that this is where they would hold their conversation, and that it would start when she would surprise him by telling him that she’s seeing another man.

            “You know about Dan?” she asks.

            “No. Not yet,” he says. “But in a few moments you’re going to tell me.”


            Later, in the course of the conversation the news does come out, and Dr. Manhattan is indeed surprised.

            This drives Laurie nuts!

            “Why does my perception of time disturb you?” Dr. Manhattan asks.

            “Why ask?” She says. “You already know my answer: It’s stupid!” She then asks why he was surprised that something would happen even when he knew it would.

            “Everything is preordained. Even my responses,” he tells her.

            “And you just go through the motions, acting them out?” Laurie asks. “Is that what you are? The most powerful thing in the universe and you’re just a puppet following a script?”

            Dr. Manhattan turns to her, looks Laurie in the eye, and says, “We’re all puppets, Laurie. I’m just a puppet who can see the strings.”

            Like Dr. Manhattan, we too are at the mercy of those things which influence our behavior. The strings of evolution, genetics, nurture, psychology, and group dynamics are having a ball with us. Simply knowing that they exist is not enough to resist their effects. However, knowing that our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are often influenced by a myriad of invisible reasons can help us come to peace with who we are and our own environmental constants. And hopefully, it will help us be more patient with others as their behavior challenges us.

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My dissertation topic has been approved! Huzzah!

Okay, so maybe not the biggest milestone in the history of mankind, but I’m pleased, nonetheless. For those of you remotely interested in psychology in the workplace, here are the details:  

The title of my dissertation will be: The pursuit of self-esteem: A help or a hindrance in thriving in the workplace? It will ask the question: What effect does the pursuit of self-esteem have on an employee’s ability to thrive in the workplace?

The socially-embedded model of thriving in the workplace proposed by Spreitzer, Sutcliffe, Dutton, Sonenshein, and Grant (2005) asserts that self-determination theory is the key mechanism whereby unit contexts promote agentic behaviors, which in turn promote thriving. According to Spreitzer et al. (2005), the “engine of thriving” (p. 540) is agentic work behaviors, which the researchers divide into three categories: task focus, exploration, and heedful relating. For example, when individuals work attentively to others, it is said that they are heedfully relating (Weick & Roberts, 1993). In doing so, individuals subordinate their own idiosyncratic intentions and needs to facilitate the goals of the collective (Weick & Roberts, 1993). However, Crocker and Park (2004) suggest that the requirements set forth by self-determination theory make thriving at work difficult if one is actively pursuing of self-esteem. Crocker and Park (2004) contend that the pursuit of self-esteem comes at a cost to an individual’s sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. For example, as relating to self-determination theory’s need for relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 2000), and Spreitzer’s et al. (2005) need for heedful relatedness, Crocker and Park (2004) believe that when self-esteem is the goal, relatedness is hindered. This occurs because the individual becomes more concerned about his or her contingencies of self-worth than on the needs of the collective. This dissertation will consider this possibility and examine the relationship between the pursuit of self-esteem and thriving and thereby seek to better understand whether the pursuit of self-esteem has an effect on an individual’s ability to thrive in the workplace.

There is disagreement in the academic community regarding the importance and potential risks of pursuing self-esteem. Some researchers, such as Crocker and Park (2004), contend that the pursuit of self-esteem can come at a cost to autonomy, learning and competence, relationships, self-regulation, physical health, and mental health. Others, such as DuBois and Flay (2004) and Swann, Chang-Schneider, and McClarty (2007) disagree, contending that self-esteem can be pursued in a healthy and positive fashion. However, while many studies have tackled the topic of the pursuit of self-esteem in and of itself and, in so doing, theorized as to its effect in different conditions, none have directly asked the question of what effect does the pursuit of self-esteem have on an employee’s ability to thrive in the workplace.

This research will put the debate of the pursuit of self-esteem in the context of thriving in the workplace, thereby examining the application of the pursuit of self-esteem in the practice of industrial/organizational psychology.

Crocker, J., & Park, L. E. (2004). The costly pursuit of self-esteem. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 392-414.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227-268.

DuBois, D. L., & Flay, B. R. (2004). The healthy pursuit of self-esteem: Comment on and alternative to the Crocker and Park (2004) formulation. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 392-414.

Spreitzer, G., Sutcliffe, K., Dutton, J., Sonenshein, S., & Grant, A. M. (2005). A socially embedded model of thriving at work. Organization Science, 16(5), 537-562.

Swann, W. B. Jr., Chang-Schneider, C., & McClarty, K. L. (2007). Do people’s self-views matter? American Psychologist, 62(2), 84-94.

Weick, K. E., & Roberts, K. H. (1993). Collective mind in organizations: Heedful interrelating on flight decks. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38(3), 357-381.

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Chapter 14: It’s getting crowded in here

             No one lives outside of a group. Even a hermit defines his existence in part through the group. After all, without the group he would have nothing to run from. Living as part of a group affects our behavior just as does evolution, nature, and nurture. As we saw from our monkey example, groups require us to take on roles as we come to understand the group’s expectations of our behavior. These roles in turn can determine how we interact with one another and the nature of these interactions. We assume norms determined by the group, rules of conduct for group members. What to wear, how to speak, what’s considered good manners. All of these are examples of norms that we assume to be an accepted and contributing group member. This helps develop cohesion, a sense of pride, trust, and commitment to the group and its members.

            But there are the side-effects of group behaviors that run the risk of luring members away from the best course of action. For example, groupthink can drive people to a bad course of action, all in the interest of seeking concurrence among group members. In these cases the value of agreement among group members is placed above that of finding the right answer. Also, we’ve all seen or experienced instances in which ideas were squelched or withheld because they ran the risk of disagreeing with a group leader or the direction the group seemed to be heading. These and other less-than-helpful practices are very common phenomena in many work groups.

            Another thing to consider is the interactions between groups themselves. Perhaps nothing can better demonstrate the paradoxical nature of this type of group psychology than religion. For the most part all religions espouse positive, wholesome principles like love, compassion, charity, and mercy. And yet, when put together on the world stage, many of these groups find themselves at odds with one another, sometimes even coming to blows. Some people try to cite this as evidence that religion is a bad thing, but really these religious groups are behaving as do all groups, whether they be religions, political parties, nationalities, ethnicities, genders, or any other category we humans can contrive. All one needs to do is listen to the vitriolic rhetoric of the political parties to see what I mean. Both are equally committed to the good of the country and its people, yet to listen to them you’d think that the other is spawned from pond scum.

            The groups that make up the workplace are no less susceptible to these and other group dynamics.

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Chapter 13: Maslow was right

            Have you ever noticed how incredibly immature otherwise sensible and rational adults can be sometimes? Think of the way that a black light can illuminate bright and vibrant florescent colors that otherwise would be invisible to the naked eye. As children, our need for love, affirmation, belonging, and security are natural and raw. Age and experience—what we call maturity—paints layers over these stark florescent colors to where they become all but gone. But they are not gone. They’re still there, lying underneath the surface, invisible to even ourselves. But once in a while circumstance pulls out a black light and shines it on us. Maybe it’s in a harsh performance review that we were not expecting, or maybe when we’re pulled into an office and told that we’re being downsized. These experiences have the ability to shine a black light on our most basic needs for security and belonging.

            Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs tells us that everything we need to be healthy and happy is reliant on our most basic needs for such things as food, security, the availability of resources, health, and family. Without first meeting these needs we cannot go on to reach for the more noble goals of life, such as self-esteem, confidence, creativity, and spontaneity. In many ways our ability to meet these basic needs is directly tied to our jobs. (More about that later.) For most of us our employment is what allows us to buy food, pay the mortgage, access healthcare, and provide for our families. All of this means that when we perceive our employment as being in jeopardy we might perceive everything we are as somehow being under threat. This can bring our scared inner-child screaming to the surface!

            Our childhood fears and insecurities have not left; their needs have simply become more sophisticated. Where a child worries about being loved by its mother, we worry about being appreciated by our bosses. Where a child worries about having a nurturing home, we worry about having a secure position. When a child feels that its love or place in the home is at risk, its fears and insecurities manifest themselves in way of moping or tantrums. Likewise, even as adults our fears and insecurities can exhibit themselves in strikingly similar ways.

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Chapter 12: It’s something in the water

            The flip-side of this equation is nurture—the effects that our environment can have on who we are. From the time we came into this world it has been helping to forge our opinions, attitudes, beliefs, perceptions, and behaviors. The culture in which we’re born—our religious background, our economic status, our family and friends, the education afforded us, the social/political systems of the country in which we live—all help to mold us into the people we are today.

            Throughout history many philosophers have compared a newborn babe to a blank slate, ready for a lifetime of experiences to create a personality. Of course we now know that evolution and genetics play their part in driving our behavior, but there can be little doubt that our physical environments have a great deal to do with what sort of people we become.

            In its most basic form the effect of nurture is easy to see. Behavior that is considered positive and beneficial is rewarded and therefore reinforced, while less-desirable behavior is frowned upon and punished. This makes sense, until we consider what happens when the rules of the game change and the need for the behavior changes.

            Take the case of five monkeys. One day a group of researchers placed five monkeys in a room. Inside this room was a mechanism that, when actuated, provided a reward in the form of a treat that all the monkeys just loved. (They went ape over it! Get it? Ape? Anyway…) However, whenever one of the monkeys would go near the mechanism the researchers would spray the other four monkeys with cold water. This was the environmental input—the “nurture”. Well the other monkeys didn’t like this one bit, so every time a monkey would even look at that darned mechanism the others would pounce on him and beat him up. The message was clear: No tasty treats or you’ll get a whooping. So after a while the monkeys stopped trying to get treats. Then the researchers did something interesting. They substituted one of the monkeys for a new one. This new monkey recognized the mechanism but had never been sprayed with cold water and so went right for the treats. The other four monkeys, afraid of the cold shower that was sure to come, did what you might have expected. They ganged up on the new monkey and beat him up. Before long the new monkey as well stopped trying to get a treat. Then the researchers substituted a second monkey, and the same thing happened. The second monkey went for the treats and the others clobbered him, except this time the first monkey that had been substituted joined in on the beating. This went on until all five monkeys had been switched out. All that remained were five monkeys that had never been sprayed with cold water and yet would beat up any monkey that tried to go for the treats. If we could ask these guys why they did this, chances are they’d say something like, “That’s just how things are done around here.”

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Chapter 11: It’s in your genes

            I once heard my father telling a friend of his about how he raised my brother and me. We were just two years apart and had pretty much the same childhoods. We had identical rooms, ate the same food, wore the same cloths, and attended the same schools. Then my father told his friend, “One became a drug dealer, the other became a Christian missionary.” (I’ll let the reader decide which one I might have been.)

            Each one of us is a completely unique person. Even identical twins have different fingerprints. This is the result of countless genetic mutations that have occurred in our families’ histories. Think back to Biology 101. Our DNA and genome contain the blueprints that make us who we are, and as they go about doing their jobs, mutations take place. These genetic mutations can occur during cell division or by exposure to mutagens such as radiation, mutagenic chemicals, or certain types of viruses. Mutations can even be induced by the organism itself through standard cellular processes or introduced from one or both of the parents’ reproductive cells. As the genes come together to form the chromosomes these mutations can manifest themselves as micro-deletions, duplications, translocations, or inversions. Mutations are a regular part of the cellular process and help to contribute to a healthy and vibrant gene pool.

            The vast majority of mutations have no measurable effect on the fitness of the organism, but some can have profound effects. Take my son Brandon, for example. He has a neuro-genetic disorder known Angelman Syndrome. It’s caused by a micro-deletion of a tiny portion of the 15th chromosome on his mother’s side. The mutation affects a minuscule piece of a chromosome in a microscopic DNA strain, but the results are profound. The condition is characterized by general developmental delay, lack of speech, walking and balance disorders, hypermotoric behavior, tongue-thrusting, spontaneous laughter, seizures, jerky movements, ataxia, and sleep disorders. In fact, my son’s psychomotor and mental development is so severely delayed  that he will never develop the motor skills past that of a one-year old child, even though he’s a fully-grown adult.

            All of this begs the question: If such an indescribably small mutation in a person’s chromosome—one that a few decades ago could not have been observed at the genetic level—can have such a sweeping effect on a person’s development and behavior, what other behavioral characteristics might be the result of seemingly neutral or imperceptible genetic variations that occur in each one of us?

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Chapter 10: Blame it on Darwin

            Ever had your appendix removed? Chances are you or someone you know has. So what is that thing anyway? What does it do? Well, as it turns out, not much. All it seems to be good for these days is getting infected and putting us in the hospital. Oh sure, it probably served some purpose early on in human evolution, but today it’s about as useful as a whale’s hind legs. (Yep, they still have them.)

            Like our physical selves, there are behavioral remnants of evolution that serve little purpose today but can really make a mess of things. Take the principle of fight-or-flight, for example. We encounter a dangerous situation and our bodies respond. Our pupils dilate, our hearts beat faster, breathing increases as our airways open in anticipation. Nonessential blood vessels constrict while those of organs that might be called upon to respond, such as skeletal and cardiac muscles, dilate to increase blood flow. The digestive system shuts down while blood glucose levels rise and the adrenal glands furiously pump adrenaline into the system. Now we’re ready to rumble (or run like a dickens)! Problem is we’re not running from a ravenous bear or protecting our herd from marauders. We’re sitting in a meeting, hearing someone sabotage our project right there before our eyes, in front of our peers, supervisors, and customers. And as satisfying as it may be to walk over and slug the guy then bolt for the door, this isn’t really an option. The physiological responses we need to be successful today have changed since the days we had to fight with mountain lions to get our next meal, but somewhere along the way evolution didn’t get the memo. Think of it as a brand-new computer complete with old software preinstalled that you will never use but still manages to muck up the operating system now and again. We come preinstalled with many features that only seem to be good for getting us into trouble.

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Chapter 9: Why are people so messed up?

            Reality TV. We just can’t seem to get enough of it. Cops, 16 & Pregnant, The Amazing Race, The Apprentice, Survivor, The Bachelor, Big Brother, The Celebrity Rehab, MTV’s Real World, the list seems endless. All over the world viewers are making reality TV shows the top rated programs.

            There are many reasons why these shows are so popular. For starters, they’re wildly unpredictable and exciting to watch. As welcomed voyeurs in the lives of some amazingly colorful people, we find ourselves rooting for our heroes and groaning with disbelief when the bad guys come out on top. And because we think the people and situations in these shows are real (as opposed actors following a script), we attach a greater level of importance on the outcome. Reality TV shows also have an ability to prick our moral and ethical sensibilities more so than fictional drama. Because aspects of these programs are purportedly real, we feel empathy and compassion when we see an animal suffering or someone struggling with a disability. But there’s another, perhaps more sinister side to this coin. Some elements of these reality shows appeal to our baser instincts, conjuring up those same feelings that spectators perhaps felt as they witnesses gladiators maul each other in the colosseums. We watch dumbfounded as people engage in some of the most outrageous and unthinkable behavior imaginable. Unapologetic backstabbing, name-calling, verbal abuse, lies stacked on lies, and rationalization of the most shallow sort, all abundantly provided for our viewing pleasure. Why we seem to love this so much is hard to say. Maybe seeing the problems of others makes our own seem relatively small by comparison. Or maybe we enjoy a sense of vindication that tells us that while we’ve done some pretty stupid things in our lives, at least we’re not that bad! None of us like to think we’re idiots, so watching someone else behave far worse than we think we ever would can help us feel better about ourselves.

            Whatever the reason, one thing that’s safe to say, we’re fascinated by human behavior.

            We find outrageous and absurd behavior captivating in part because we like to consider ourselves rational beings, so when someone freaks out on screen we seem drawn like moths to a flame. But are we really so rational? Let’s take a moment and look at some of the things that make up human behavior.

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