Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pollyanna Versus Chicken Little

One of the dualities of my life -- and one that I struggle to hold in equipoise -- is Pollyanna-like optimism versus Chicken Little-like pessimism. I give my parents credit for making me bi-polar in this regard. As I wrote in my mother's eulogy:
Her optimism and confidence that the glass was half full was never daunted by [my father] Frank’s worst-case certainty that it was half empty.
Growing up, my mother's blind optimism -- and what I perceived as an associated inability to empathize with our setbacks and heartbreaks -- drove me crazy. I was determined I would grow up to be neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but a realist.

Now I'm not so sure. I'm not sure that our very subjective emotion-governed brains actually permit us to be objective realists.

Beyond that, I've written before about the value and power of belief -- in anything, really -- as a sort of willing self-deception that can induce courage and confidence--even miracles. This positive thinking starts a self-reinforcing spiral that can elevate mood,  yield creativity and productivity, and thereby create a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, and gratitude. In a previous blog I talked about psychological techniques that counteract a human being's natural "negative cognitive bias" -- a propensity to focus on negative phenomena. For our caveman ancestors, heightened sensitivity to harm was critical for survival. It's possible that psychology might actually be in danger of falling overboard on the bright side, but that seems to be the way they are thinking these days.

At any rate, what brought me back to this subject today was contemplating the effect that a strong negative bias can have on others. For example, I understand the frustration of some of my friends as they try to stay supportive of one of our group who sees a dead-end to any and every suggested avenue for circumnavigating her numerous challenges in life. We listen to her woes and try to empathize. We invite her for tea. We listen some more. We make more suggestions of resources that could help with that. But there's always some reason this won't work and that won't help.

It's awful to be Job, but it's also not much fun to be one of his friends. Psychologists have found that good fortune tends to generate a penumbra of optimism and satisfaction with life in the neighborhood of people who are lucky. I wouldn't be surprised if they found that the Jobs and Chicken-Littles of this world create local pockets of depression.

Robert B. Cialdini, Noah J.Goldstein, and Steve J. Martin write in their book Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive that strongly negative, fear-inducing communications
usually stimulate the audience to take action to reduce the threat. However this general rule has one important exception: When the fear-producing message describes danger but the audience is not told of clear, specific, effective ways of reducing the danger, they may deal with the fear by 'blocking out' the message or denying that it applies to them As a consequence, they may indeed be paralyzed into taking no action at all.
I suspect that the same psychological forces could be at work in relationships and when we are called to choose people as our spouses, mates, leaders,  friends, team-members, or co-workers. Taking Chicken Little on board could portend endless hours fruitlessly trying to reassure him or her that the sky is not falling -- rather than enjoying life or solving immediate problems. So instead we block out the message, stop listening, stop wasting our time offering suggestions -- or just turn the gloomy one away.

Sadly, I think that's what happened to me in my village church. I see problems at all levels--from mindboggling challenges with basic aspects of contemporary Christianity to the way our local clergy fail in their interactions with our village congregation. Serving on the parochial church council, the only suggestion I've offered for reducing risk of the church dying is a survey to ask our village what people do and don't want in a church. It's not really a solution -- but I don't think it will be possible to keep the church alive without taking that basic step. The suggestion wasn't taken up. Perhaps if I'd just focused on tiny problems and immediate solutions, I would not be feeling like a Chicken Little- non grata.

Back to Pollyanna -- and the types of people who are instantly welcome in our corporate and individual lives -- I think it's the people who make us feel good about ourselves and the world. Not with platitudes and flattery, but through insight. Their very presence reassures us that everything's going to be fine. They call out special gifts that we might not have noticed. Their careful gaze and thoughtful consideration convinces us that they know and love us. They may also see urgent problems--but also see "clear, specific, effective steps...to reduce the danger," as Cialdini and his colleagues write.

And somewhere in there likes a happy point of equipoise -- a way to be a sympathetic and tuned in to the woes of a friend, a spouse, a child, an organization, the world--yet never lose hope or lose sight of the good and the possibilities for fresh, creative answers.

No comments:

Post a Comment