Concept of the Day: Learned Helplessness

While discussing some work related issues the other day a colleague used the phrase:
Castle Stalker

Cultural change isn’t easy – especially when we’re operating in an environment where learned helplessness appears to be prevalent

He pointed to this link on Wikipedia.

That got me thinking: What is learned helplessness? Is it really prevalent in the context that we were talking about?

The first question took me on a journey of discovery, this is what I found:

First, a definition from the Wikipedia article:

Learned helplessness is the condition of a human or animal that has learned to behave helplessly, failing to respond even though there are opportunities for it to help itself by avoiding unpleasant circumstances or by gaining positive rewards

To bring it closer to our normal experience, it’s the choice not to respond when we see the opportunity to do something for a third, or forth time having failed on all previous attempts. Or the choice to avoid something because of a previous traumatic experience even though that thing might be very good for us.

Thinking about my life, I know that there are certain things that I don’t do because of previous poor experiences. Some of these experiences happened a long time ago and I’m a different person now, but I still haven’t returned to give it another go.

So from purely personal experience it would appear that learned helplessness is a real phenomenon, and there also appear to be quite a lot of evidential support for it too. The Wikipedia article is quite well referenced including 42 different items and there are numerous articles on reputable sites across the Internet.

Like all concepts and many theories though it isn’t a 100% cause-and-effect explanation, the initial experiment that was undertaken by Martin E.P. Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania on a number of dogs only resulted in learned helplessness in two-thirds of the animals involved. Some animals and some people respond in a different way. He also went on to link learned helplessness with clinical depression and other related mental illnesses.

The opposite of helplessness is, apparently, optimism, which Seligman later researched and wrote about, coining the phrase learned optimism. This involved the challenging of negative self-talk and numerous other positive psychology techniques. Seligman is still around and talking about a new era of positive psychology, but that’s a set of thoughts for another day.

Here’s my conclusion. Some people, in some situations, will behave with learned helplessness and that has serious consequences. We need to think very seriously about the situations that we create that induce helpless feelings. We also need to think seriously about the tools that we give people to help them respond to these helplessness situations as they inevitably occur.

I’m not going to answer the second question because that would need me to talk too much about the context. It is suffice to say that my colleague’s insight was quite revealing.

A couple of really interesting videos about Learned Helplessness to finish with:

Can We Induce Learned Helplessness?

Description of Learned Helplessness

Concept of the Day: Confirmation Bias

I spend much of my life reviewing other people’s work and I think I do a reasonably good job of it but I’ve been thinking recently about whether I use a bit too much confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is when you favour something because it agrees with what you thought. It’s confirmation bias that plays a major part in the ability of conspiracy theories to take hold and propagate. Confirmation bias also plays a major role in the proliferation of dubious healthy foods and diets. But confirmation bias can have far more significant impacts, it plays a major role in organisations’ inability to adapt to changing markets resulting in people loosing their jobs, it helps to create financial bubbles and crashes, it also causes doctors to overlook people’s real ailments because they are too focussed on finding the disease that they think it is.

Francis Bacon summed up the problem of confirmation bias with these words:

“It is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives.”

During the review processes that I participate in people present their solution to a problem posed by a customer. I’ve started to notice that it’s much easier to recommend solutions that look like the solution I would have proposed, compared to ones that are different to the way I would have done it. I would tell myself that this was because they were easier to understand, but I wonder whether this isn’t just subconscious confirmation bias.

The real challenge is to know the difference between experience and confirmation bias. Both experience and bias look and feel quite similar, but their value is radically different.

I recently listened to Dan Pink’s Office Hours discussion with Chip and Dan Heath on their book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. They spend quite a lot of time discussion confirmation bias and different techniques to overcome it. I’ve set myself a bit of a task over the next few months to integrate some of these techniques into the review processes trying to flush out some of the confirmation bias that I’m sure exists.

Concept Mapping (and Rich Pictures)

I’ve recently been doing some work with Concept Maps.

On the path to Maiden MoorMy work life is spent reading documents. Documents have, for centuries, been the way that organisations have defined and communicated things. For the most part documents have been based on a huge volume of words. For a long while now I’ve had a deep conviction that there has to be a better way when it comes to describing many things. It’s an efficiency question, it takes a long time to read words and if a picture is worth a thousand words perhaps it can also take less time than reading a thousand words.

Speaking as someone who would much rather see a diagram than read a description my investigations into better ways of communicating have gravitated towards graphical methods. For some time now the most popular posts on this site have been the ones about Rich Pictures, a tool that I use regularly. I like Rich Pictures but, like all tools, they have their place. Concept Maps are different a different tool for a different purpose.

A description from Wikipedia (which is a subset of the information from the Florida Institute of Human and Machine Cognition):

A concept map is a diagram showing the relationships among concepts. It is a graphical tool for organizing and representing knowledge.

Concepts, usually represented as boxes or circles, are connected with labeled arrows in a downward-branching hierarchical structure. The relationship between concepts can be articulated in linking phrases such as "gives rise to", "results in", "is required by," or "contributes to".

The technique for visualizing these relationships among different concepts is called "concept mapping".

Concept Maps work in a similar way to Rich Pictures in that there power is in joining together different ideas. A concept map is normally structured around a question. They are supposed to be more structured that Rich Pictures and arranged in a hierarchy flowing from top to bottom, with the important concepts being at the top. Sometimes, in defining the ideas and their connections you get to see what the important ones are.

As an example: Michael Hyatt recently wrote about planning an ideal week, that got me thinking, what would be my ideal working day (I’m not sure I’m structured enough to think about a whole week). The following concept map is my attempt to understand, for myself, what the elements of a perfect day were:

What is my perfect work day

I was surprised by some of these. My working day tends to be on my own, but as I considered this question I realised how important team-work was. You’ll also notice how low down on this chart personal benefit appears, I’m not that motivated by money or individual recognition, I’d much rather be adding value. What this map has allowed me to do has been to assess my day and to make some changes that I’m unlikely to have seen if I’d tried to describe a perfect working day in a sentence. The power is in the diagram.

If you want to have a go the free cmap tool is quite straightforward.

The IHMC documentation also includes a lot of information about why mapping is so successful, but I’ll let you read the report for that, and let you decide on its validity.

I’ll leave Dilbert with the final word though in this classic:

Concept of the Day: Cognitive Surplus

Today I watched Clay Shirky presenting at TED (via their excellent podcasts). Clay outlines a number of challenges to the way that we imagine people’s motivation. He explodes the premise that we all love to be “couch potatoes” and highlight a number of examples that demonstrate that as he says:

We like to create and like to share

Jimmy and Granddad Explore the Lake DistrictPeople don’t just contribute when there is payment at the end, they contribute when they are creating, and with the currently available technology the opportunities for creating are becoming ever broader.

This effect creates a global surplus of cognitive ability of “a trillion hours a year”. There’s a lot you can do with a trillion hours of creativity if only we treat it in the right way. he calls this Cognitive Surplus.

Not only is this concept a huge challenge to the way we approach social projects, but it’s also a challenge to the way we approach business projects.

My perception of many business projects is that they are constructed with the assumption that people won’t want the change, and hence a stick is required to get them to change. If people truly do" “like to create and like to share” then engaging people in a creative constructing way in the change process will turn them from blockers to enablers. It might even get them to invest some of their own cognitive surplus.

The latest example of this, for me, is the location tagging of a Glastonbury picture that is underway. Thousands of people are tagging themselves in a picture taken at Glastonbury. The reward for this is little more than the feeling that you have been part of something. They’re all using their cognitive surplus to create a shared experience.

Coming to think of it – why is it that I write this blog?

Concept of the Day: Cultural Plasticity

I’m not sure whether this counts as a real fully fledged concept, or just an idea, or actually even whether there is a difference.

PisaThe idea comes from Jonah Lehrer over on The Frontal Cortext blog where he reflects on the diversity of music that we enjoy (his pretext is the events at the MTV awards with Kanye West and Taylor Swift).

It got me thinking, in what other ways are we culturally plastic:

  • Food: The range of food available in the UK is incredible. Foods from every country in the world and even fusions of different food types. We skip between them without really thinking about it, something that my grandparents would never have done.
  • Video/Television/Films: I know a few people who will only go to the movies to see a certain type of film, but there aren’t many of them. And the range of film genre is increasing all of the time.
  • Reading: Looking at the book shelf beside me there is a huge variety of material. There’s no Mills and Boon, but apart from that there is practically every other type of writing.

So what impact does this plasticity have on the world of work?

Teams that accept diversity work better and produce stronger results. As people become more tolerant of, and learn to enjoy cultural differences hopefully this will be reflected in teams. This will be especially true for international teams which will become more prevalent as technology enables it.

I suspect, to, that people we start to choose the places where they work on the basis of the diversity of the culture. Places with a monolithic culture we be regarded  as stale and dull. Skilful business managers will be able to create diverse cultures that are highly productive.

Concept of the Day: Disconnect Anxiety

Jimmy and Grandad go to find the snow (or lack of it)Sometimes I feel I’m turning into a grumpy old man before my time and all that I am doing is raising the ills of IT. Unfortunately today is no exception.

Today’s ill is disconnect anxiety:

Disconnect Anxiety refers to various feelings of disorientation and nervousness experienced when a person is deprived of Internet or wireless access for a period of time.

If you are reading this blog you have probably experienced this anxiety and you are not alone. The Solutions Research Group has done some research in the US and the numbers are quite startling:

Overall, our research finds that 27% of the population exhibit significantly elevated levels of anxiety when disconnected. In terms of profile, 41% of this group are 12-24, 50% are 25-49 and 9% are over the age of 50.

A secondary group of 41% exhibit above-average levels of anxiety occasionally, depending on the situation.

The balance, 32% are below average in their anxiety response when unable to use their cell phones or the Internet. This group is disproportionately older than average (i.e., majority being 50+).

Or to put it graphically:

They went on to do research to try and understand why and how the anxiety was manifest. It’s a good report and links in nicely with a number of the things I’ve said previously about ADT and the machines taking over.

Perhaps that is why laptop free meetings are such tense affairs these days – everyone is experiencing disconnect anxiety.

Personally, I’m only occasionally anxious about being disconnected.

The summary of the report is here (pdf).

Hat tip to Endgadget.

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Concept of the day: Deindividuation

Caramel and Cream - yummyAnyone who has used email or any other form of electronic communication has seen (and probably sent) written content that shocked you. You were amazed that the person, that you know, could say such a thing in such an aggressive way. The New Scientist has an interesting article that suggests that some of the reason for this is deindividuation:

Social psychologists have known for decades that, if we reduce our sense of our own identity – a process called deindividuation – we are less likely to stick to social norms. For example, in the 1960s Leon Mann studied a nasty phenomenon called “suicide baiting” – when someone threatening to jump from a high building is encouraged to do so by bystanders. Mann found that people were more likely to do this if they were part of a large crowd, if the jumper was above the 7th floor, and if it was dark. These are all factors that allowed the observers to lose their own individuality.

Social psychologist Nicholas Epley argues that much the same thing happens with online communication such as email. Psychologically, we are “distant” from the person we’re talking to and less focused on our own identity. As a result we’re more prone to aggressive behaviour, he says.

The most recent place where I have seen this personally has been in the occasional reply-to-all storms that we have in our email system. Someone will send out an email to whole set of people. Someone else will reply-to-all that they don’t know why they received the first email, or similar. This will then set of a storm of activity from people replying to the reply-to-all. Each of these replies will get more and more aggressive in their language.

If only these people sat back and analysed what they were doing they would stop doing it. It’s unlikely any of them have read though the recipient list to see who is on it, in their minds they are just replying to some random person. What they are actually doing is replying to all sorts of senior people who could have a great influence on their career, what’s more they are abusing a fellow colleague. If they only thought about how they would feel to receive such an email they wouldn’t do it.

A wise person once said: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

via TechCrunch

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