Saturday, February 22, 2014

In Search of Paradox

Update: 3/31/14:  Today, this article was  published on

I'm reading the book, What Should We Be Worried About?: Real Scenarios that Keep Scientists Up at Night. It consists of 100 top scientists' few-page explication of their greatest fear.

One of those essays, Amanda Gefter's, made me stop reading to write this blog post. It raised an issue that will change the way I think about how to identify and solve problems.

It touts an approach to research: identify a paradox and try to explain it. The example she used was in basic physics, of which I know little. So here, I try to apply that method to a field I know something about: human behavior, especially as it pertains to career, education, and health.

Here are four such paradoxes and a proposed resolution for each. I believe they stand up logically and thus warrant empirical study.

Sometimes, we're motivated more by criticism than by praise.

One of educational psychology's core principles is to emphasize praise over criticism. The theory is that praise gives feedback and builds self-esteem and thus motivates the recipient to repeat the praised behavior and to make further efforts to improve.

Yet how often have we heard that a person took on a challenge only when told, "You can't do that." I recall, for example, a client who said that only when a high school counselor said, "You're not college material," did he decide to work hard at school--he wanted to prove the  counselor wrong.

A possible resolution of the paradox lies in there being a hierarchy of motivators: Yes, praise is a motivator but being told, "You can't" is often stronger. Why? Because it's hard to accept that you're inadequate, a loser. In contrast, praise, while motivating, also engenders complacency. The recipient can't help but relax a bit: "Okay, I'm good enough at least for a while." Perhaps that partly explains why Asians, with a culture that emphasizes self-effacement more than praise, on average, have the lowest self-esteem, even though their average achievement is the highest.

Heart attack victims quickly return to their bad habits

Ninety percent of coronary bypass patients are, within two years, back to their old fat-, smoke-, and/or stress-filled ways.

Perhaps they're not convinced that retaining the changes will significantly-enough delay another coronary event. Or they believe their life is bad enough that even if reverting to their unhealthy behaviors shortens their life, the pleasures would be worth it.

A possible resolution may be for patients, perhaps with the help of a counselor, to ask themselves about each of the above. Consciously considering those could make some patients at least moderate their behavior. Perhaps even more potent, the person might look for reasons to live: the joys of grandparenting, nature, music, work, whatever.

Employers often knowingly hire a worse employee than necessary.

Employers are ever more focused on cost-cutting: reducing training budgets, expense accounts, anything that doesn't directly build the bottom line. Yet in hiring, an enormous expense, they often throw cost-effectiveness out the window. 

The Internet makes it easy to do a worldwide search for the most cost-effective employee. Yet many employers cast a narrow net and worse, too-heavily base hiring on looks, pleasant personality, etc.

The paradox may derive from the fact that, for many hirers, sexual attraction, the drive to feel superior, and/or be liked trumps their caring about the bottom line. The boss loses nothing by cutting expense-account budgets, but hiring the most cost-effective employee often means hiring someone less attractive and sycophantic and who is smarter and harder-working than s/he is.

A partial resolution may reside in making hiring decision-makers aware of that tendency. Of course, that won't work with hirers who, even if so aware, care more about personal gratification than the organization's success. At least a small percentage of that category of hirers might be helped by asking them the foundational and likely guilt-inducing question: Considering what's good for your career, your coworkers, your organization, and for society, how important is your pleasure versus the organization's products and services being better?"

Many people would rather suffer the severe consequences of long-term unemployment than to accept a low-status job.

Many unemployed people whose most recent job was white- or skilled blue-collar won't take a job that is "beneath them." They'd rather be unemployed than, for example, work as a hotel room cleaner. 

Perhaps that derives from their thinking that if they take such a job, they'll be permanently stuck at such a job: They'll come home tired from work and lack the energy to look for a better position. Besides, their resume will indicate that their most recent job is hotel room cleaner. That's unlikely to make their resume rise to the top of the stack for a middle-class job. The resistance may also derive from fear of embarrassment--having to tell spouse, family and friends that they've gone from white-or skilled blue-collar to manual labor.

A possible solution might be to first acknowledge to the person that such worries are understandable but that they may be sufficiently mitigatible to justify taking such a job:
1. Let your supervisor and the hotel general manager know you're eager to be promoted and ask what you need to do to make that likely.

2. Defer posting that low-level employment on your resume for a few weeks. Longer than that gets increasingly dishonest. Use that time pressure to make yourself devote a few hours a week toward finding a higher-level job: 

Contact everyone in your near and distant network, cold-contact employers that are at least one notch higher-level. For example, if you're a room cleaner at a crappy hotel, drop in on the manager at the Ritz-Carlton and ask for a good job but say you're willing even to be a room cleaner: Better to be a room cleaner at the Ritz-Carlton than at a fleabag.

3. Reduce the embarrassment by not telling family and friends about the job or if necessary, explaining only that you've taken an interim job and are working hard to find something better.

Is there a paradox in your field you might try to resolve?


Rex said...

Being a teacher, I know a little about the first paradox you mention. I have also noticed a similar situation with my students. In addition to what you mentioned, I find that during class, the less I appear to "care" about my students, the more diligently they complete assignments and interact with one another. Of course I still invest a great deal of energy into preparing for my classes, but while class is in session, I only hand out praise for good or correct answers, and aside from presenting new material, the only time I speak is to answer questions. I remember during my school days, much of my best work was completed under competent teachers who were stern and never minced words. Far from acting like cheerleaders in the classroom, these teachers were highly professional, performed their jobs to the letter, and then left it up to the student to succeed or fail. There was very little in the way of motivational speeches or criticism. Most of my colleagues are afraid to adopt this approach because they fear student complaints and so err on the side of cheerfulness, constant praise and encouragement, lots of smiling, motivational speeches, the occasional tantrum, and incessantly walking around the classroom pushing every student (no matter how uninterested) to do their best work. Judging by the amount of time my colleagues spend complaining in the break room about how unmotivated their students are, I would say their approach is failing...Of course, openly discussing my approach with colleagues during company meetings is out of the question because student satisfaction surveys revolve around "enjoyment of classes" and teachers must strive to make classes "fun" as much as possible.

For your last point, per the article you referenced, the problem is not that coronary bypass patients refuse to change, it's that they do not change under the current healthcare system. There are vested interests in cardiology. It's been proven that heart disease is reversible using diet and lifestyle changes alone, yet very few physicians are aware of this fact. Heart disease is not like cancer. Significant vascular renewal can and does occur within a few short weeks if a patient adopts whole-foods plant-based diet with no added fat. Cancer is trickier, but often responds to this approach as well. If this became accepted practice in medical schools and hospitals, a lot of people stand to lose their jobs...Ornish showed it was possible simply by getting people to radically change their diets and to put them in support groups. This would be so easy to implement nation-wide. Hire a few extra nutritionists, counselors, psychotherapists, cooks, etc., create an online support forum and a meeting space for patients who have the same physician, and I believe people will make the necessary changes...

Marty Nemko said...

It is so hard to keep to a healthy, plant-based diet.

Anonymous said...

Question: What if a person is at the interim job longer than the few weeks, to the point where it pretty much HAS to go on the resume?

Marty Nemko said...

One of my more deeply held beliefs is that candor will end up not only being ethically right but pragmatically beneficial: You're more likely to get rejected from the wrong jobs and accepted for a right one.