Stress and Self-defeating Behavior

I’ve just added a link in our page, the Psychology of Philosophy, to an interesting article in the NY Times from 2009.  I’ve thought back to it a lot over the last year and finally realized it might be worth sharing.  The ideas below come largely from that article.

Have you ever found yourself in a rut, performing in some routine way that is not really advancing anything?  Or, if you do manage to get words to paper in finishing your thesis or your essays, the results are mechanical, uninspired, boring?  Or perhaps you find yourself in one kind of social situation – say an APA interview – and suddenly you realize you are adopting the role prescribed at your mother’s tea parties, where you sat demurely and laughed at the adults’ jokes.  OMIGOD!

Well, been there, done that.  And could not understand why.  But one thing I love about cognitive science is that it can give one explanations of one’s own very puzzling behavior that are better than any one has had before.  And here’s one way of thinking of what’s going on in both of the sort of cases described above.   Effective creativity, whether writing philosophy or responding to new situations, requires a trust of one’s own instinctive sensibility.  You do not get it just by following rules.  Stress, however, in effect communicates danger to one’s nervous system, and it’s as though the brain says “There’s danger!  Now is definitely not the time to try out new things.  Stick with the old routines.”  So you find yourself repeating routine things such as summarizing articles, which looks terrible in your thesis.  Even worse, you find your adviser’s stock phrases showing up in your work.  Or if you do manage actually to say something that could be unexpected, you freeze with embarrassment, thus conveying the idea that your social skills are close to zero.

The alternatives are obvious: either get rid of the stress or get effective routine that will see you through the interview (aka: practive the interviews!!). 

Getting rid of the stress?  Well, what do you think?

8 thoughts on “Stress and Self-defeating Behavior

  1. JJ’s summary of (and posting about) the article is excellent.

    I would not want to receive the same torture (or sufficient rattling to achieve a demonstrably hyperactive stress response) as the rats, though four weeks of supportive vacation (after the torture) sounds nice.

    Despite the differences between rats and humans, what could our analogue be for the four weeks of supportive vacation? I am no model of success, but I usually make a point of not over-preparing (for anything), since too much preparation often seems counterproductive (literally in terms of back-firing) and, I think, often brings about the same kind of stress response. Again, I am no model of success, but I never do mock interviews, but rather miniature rehearsals with my friends. I am trying to think of forms of preparation that are supportive and not stressful. I often go into (potentially stressful) meetings (and other situations) cold and just try to be myself. Sometimes this works very well, and sometimes it bombs miserably. Of course, much really depends on the situation, the people involved, etc. Even if the people at the interview are going to grill you in a mean way, very often interviewees will have more success if they do not prepare too much, and if they prepare with supportive friends instead of literally getting ready for the grilling. Just some quick thoughts off the top of my head to try to answer JJ’s important question…

  2. If you were to see a great gushing stream, and decide to stick your hand in it to push the water and make it flow better, what would happen?

    Even as you moved your hand through the water, the water behind your hand would find it an obstacle to its direct progress, and the water in front of your hand could go no faster because of the weight of water in front of it, and if anything would falter because your hand, the obstacle, is preventing the water behind it from steadily pushing it on.

    You would be messing with the currents, messing with the flow. The same is true of creativity, but it is the hand of self-consciousness, of fear, of stress….we try to meddle with the creativity (be it ‘writing philosophy or responding to new situations’) because we are focused on the outcome, be that social or professional, or egotistical! And in so doing, we obstruct exactly the creativity we want.

    As David pointed out, too much preparation is counter-productive, again it is obstructing, it is trying to mould what cannot be moulded. And as he also said: be yourself. So, in conclusion, your creativity is there, your job is not to mess with it, and a big part of that is being as much in the moment as possible, enjoying the wonderful flow, because it is the most amazing thing. One of my philosophy tutors used to bemoan the final exams every year because, in his view, ‘they got in the way of learning’….

    P.S. I saw a card the other day, it read: ‘Be yourself. Everybody else is already taken.’

  3. I’m finding responding a bit difficult. I do think we’re learning that commonsense about how humans work can be extremely misleading. In our psychology of philosophy page we have a reference to work by Dweck. She says a lot of people think that doing really well at something requires a kind of talent and if one doesn’t have it, then one just can’t do it. In contrast, she argues that achievement takes a lot of hard work. It isn’t in general the case that some people can just wing it and get it right much the time.

    People who are excellent generally spend an enormous amount of time working at it. And in all sorts of cases, practice is absolutely central. Presumably few lawyers would walk into a courtroom without the facts of the case readily available, and they are going to do a much better job if they have enough experience to foresee questions and problems, and have an pretty good idea of how to answer them.

    Of course, we can work oneselves into a very stressed out state by practice. One way to do it, at least in my case, is to keep saying to oneself “O I’ll never be any good at this, look at all my mistakes” and so on. It’s essential that one works to see how much one is learning, what gaps are getting revealed that one can close, and so on.

    David, I wish someone had brought these sorts of issues, and the possibility of solving them, to me much earlier in my life. I worry that your comments, “I often go into (potentially stressful) meetings (and other situations) cold and just try to be myself. Sometimes this works very well, and sometimes it bombs miserably. Of course, much really depends on the situation, the people involved, etc.” is a statement of a problem. Of course, I don’t know the proportion of failure to success, but you want to try to find ways to make the proportion of successes pretty high, if they aren’t already. Mind you, academics are particular difficult people, all too often. And philosophers are trained to think about why something isn’t right, which is actually fairly irritating if you are trying to get something done.

    There’s a lot to be learned from experienced people, and asking them could be very helpful. Searching through the fairly decent pop psych stuff can be a huge help. Not that one wants just to believe what one reads. Anyway, enough!

  4. JJ, I appreciate your comment. I agree with most everything you write. However, just to clarify – apart from the times that I am not burned out and/or busy brooding and worrying, I literally work almost every waking minute (which is not to say that I am great at anything). In any case, having already worked so hard as my job and my life, I find that working even more for certain things can produce more negative results than positive. So I often prepare much less, and sometimes not at all, for various things that I have worked on for years. The extra preparation generates some version of the stress loop that you described so well in your post. That’s part of the sort of thing I was trying to express in my comment. Maybe more on this later (after some more reflection productively/constructively prompted by your comment/post).

    Reading through the wonderful Dweck piece is ringing very true in numerous ways.

  5. JJ, some more thoughts to share. Personally, I will indeed heed the importance of your post/comments. On the other hand, I think we might have talked a bit past one another. The sort of thing I had in mind is what Joel Kupperman, in his wonderful introductory book “Classic Asian Philosophy: a guide to the essential texts”, calls Lao Tzu’s Law: “The consequences of pushing for something often will include elements that amount to the opposite of what is pushed for”. Of course, although the context can make a big difference, sometimes just letting things happen is the best way to go.

    The idea here is similar to what Jon Elster has called “states that are essentially by-products”. For instance, of course to become a great tennis player (or highly skilled at anything) one must practice very hard, work very hard, study very hard, pay very close attention to very important and subtle details, such as the angle of our feet, the position of our hands, the height of our elbows, and so on. To become a highly skilled tennis player, one must study, practice, and work hard at these things over and over. However, times come when tennis players need to forget all of that and just play tennis. Roughly, the idea is that after years of careful practicing, studying, and working hard at cultivating the requisite skills, tennis players should not review them the night (or even the week or the month) before a big match, nor should tennis players even think of them at all while performing during an important match, or matches generally. The idea/point does seem to generalize to many different kinds of situations.

    Do Lao Tzu’s Law and Elster’s point/claim help elucidate my comments?

    By the way, one book that influenced me considerably during college is “Schooling in Capitalist America” published around 1977 by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis. It is not on the psychology of philosophy, though that section of the Feminist Philosophers blog strongly reminds me of it. In 2002 Bowles and Gintis published a wonderful retrospective piece that brings the claims in the book up to date and compares them to more recent data. Interested readers can download this 2002 piece here (or from the journal Sociology of Education vol 75, issue 1, pp. 1-18):

    Click to access soced.pdf

    A great piece from Chomsky also comes to mind on these matters. The version I have is titled, “The Function of the Schools”. Again, not on the psychology of philosophy, but possibly much relevant overlap. I do not think the version I have is available in print. Interested readers should feel free to ask me about it.


  6. Goodness, David, I never meant to suggest that you don’t work hard. I was really speaking to two things: (1) the question of interviews and (2) the idea that creativity is some force one doesn’t want to try to control in any way. I’m also concerned with the idea that if training or practice makes one stressed and nervous, then one shouldn’t train. Or rather, I’m concerned about whether that advice is a good recipe for success.

    Bert Dreyfus has argued that both physicanl and intellectual skills when mastered involve instinctive, automatic responses that are entirely different from the discursive practices a novice may have to go in for. I think a lot of research confirms this. Thinking can indeed interrupt all sorts of highly skilled performances, and these may constitute one sort of case where making an effort has a bad effect. Playing Juliet will not be helped on stage by the actor thinking about the mechanics of voice projection. But, of course, there’s a background of lots of practice.

    Maybe another point that’s complicating things is the attitudes and goals that accompany both practices and performances. Meditation, which seems a matter of catching a flow if anything is, can involve years of practice; many of the so-called Eastern arts seem to involve an enormous amount of repetition. But undertaking the training with gusto because one wants to be a star meditator, one better than all the rest, seems to be another kind of self-defeating behavior, where merely reaching for a goal seems to put it beyond one’s reach.

    Of course, to pick up on a later point of yours, we might well ask whether one wants that success, or should want it.

  7. Just to add on: The point of the example of acting and meditation is to look at different ways in which it seems true that trying can well make it worse. If it does seem that trying makes it worse, then it is really worth asking why. Sometimes it might be that one has got the wrong goals, and another time it could be that the trying is very appropriate in some contexts and not others. But sometimes also one has a real problem if the trying seems to interrupt what one wants in the way of performance. Some of it might be that one is trying to do what is demanded by a mean and in fact nasty person who gives directives aimed at confusing. Other times it might be that the teacher is in fact kind and helpful, but one is at a loss at how to integrate another’s advice into one’s performance. I will say that this is what happened to me in a particular art class, and it was probably caused by my conviction that I wasn’t really good, a view definitely not shared by the instructor. But that was a time long ago when everyone thought, it seemed, that if you felt you weren’t any good, you needed to try to inquire into the unconscious sources of those feelings, preferably by paying a lot to a therapist who could discover what you really thought. Fortunately, it seems much more effective now to try to do something much more directly about how one thinks.

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