Criticism Backfires

I have a hard time understanding where the balance between being critical of someone versus being supportive and encouraging of them lies. There are many things we all fall short with, and in many ways, what we need is not a kick in the rear, but some guidance and support to be better. However, sometimes the kick in the rear or some tough love is what people need to be spurred to action and to be pushed out of a mopey comfort zone. I generally don’t find myself to be a good judge of when we should use which approach.

 

Dale Carnegie, in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, seems to be more supportive of the encouraging route versus the critical route. He writes, “Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.”

 

Carnegie’s quote suggest to me that I might be looking at the contrast incorrectly. Perhaps, the right approach is neither coddling nor criticizing, but understanding how to challenge people with honest feedback that highlights what is working well and what could be improved. Carnegie’s book mostly focuses on the workplace and in people management. In that setting, criticizing an employee who you need to continue working for you, but who you also need to be more productive is likely counterproductive for your own ends. Criticizing them will lead to a shut down, they won’t listen to what you have to say honestly, and will defend the decisions they made, rationalizing potentially poor choices and behaviors. Instead, Carnegie would suggest an approach that is more collaborative with the employee to help encourage them to put forward a greater effort without the need for harsh criticism or babying.

 

I don’t see why these relationship and motivational strategies would be limited to a work environment. I don’t know exactly how they might look at home or with a child, but I can see a team-work like strategy being more effective than pretending that major problems really are not so bad, and more effective than direct criticism of another person.

Temporal Landmarks

My general sense the last several years is that people are starting to sour on the idea of a new year’s resolution. People that I have talked the last few years seem to be getting away from the idea of making a big change for the upcoming year, or at least if they are planning on making a change, they are not admitting it. Generally, I have been supportive of killing off the new year’s resolution tradition, but Dan Pink’s book When challenged my thoughts on the usefulness of such resolutions.

 

I have had the mindset that people shouldn’t wait for a specific date to try to make a change in their life. I am also skeptical of trying to implement a resolution on January first, since it is immediately after the Christmas holiday in the United States and many people likely still have family hanging around, still have extra pie in the fridge, and its a cold and dark time of year. Trying to start a big change during this time, when the weather is demoralizing and you are not on track with a routine schedule, seems like a poor idea to me. As a result, at least as long back as I can really remember, I have never made any substantial new year’s resolution and I have not been one to encourage people to adopt a resolution.

 

The reality, however, is that people find it helpful to make a change when there is something that can delineate a new starting line for them. Pink describes it this way, “The first day of the year is what social scientists call a temporal landmark. Just as human beings rely on landmarks to navigate space – to get to my house, turn left at the Shell station – we also use landmarks to navigate time. Certain dates function like that Shell station. They stand out from the ceaseless and forgettable march of other days, and their prominence helps us find our way.”

 

I had not thought of navigating the space of time the way we navigate the space of the world around us. But it is accurate to say that days and time can blend together, and since we can’t control time, it can feel as though it relentlessly races forward. I have heard people in the Bay Area in California talk about the disorientating nature of their climate. The Bay Area doesn’t have pronounced seasons the way other parts of the country do. Most days are ok, and the temperature and weather doesn’t vary dramatically across the year. The passage of time feels different when you don’t really have a spring, summer, fall, and winter.

 

Using temporal landmarks helps us make sense of the passage of time and gives us a place to plant ourselves for our upcoming life pivots. Just as we might use another wall or a step to brace ourselves if we are pushing a heavy piece of furniture, a specific date can be a brace for us to push for a new habit. It can provide a reference point for how far we have moved and how successful (or not) we have been with any changes that we want to make.

 

So rather than looking down on the idea of new year’s resolutions or being unhelpful in telling people to just make the changes they want to see in their lives today, I can help encourage people to use temporal landmarks in a smart way. I can encourage people to think about the obstacles they will face and how long after their temporal marker they think they might face those obstacles. I can encourage people to think in time chunks with more temporal landmarks to navigate the time landscape they traverse as they implement new lifestyle goals.  Time landmarks are not just random and arbitrary, they are social constructs that can help establish shared meaning and goals across time and space.

How to Describe a Norm

What inputs drive what types of behaviors in humans? This is a question I think about at an incredibly basic level all the time, but that I don’t really hear much insightful discussion about in general. We all like to believe we (and everyone else) is in complete conscious control of our thoughts, minds, and decisions all the time, but we know that can’t be true. If you leave someone in a room with a plate of freshly baked cookies in front of them, they will almost invariably eat a cookie, even if they had woken up that day determined not to eat any cookies. If you deprive someone of sleep for a whole day while they travel across the country from Seattle to Orlando with multiple layovers and tired and cranky kids, you are bound to hear a few exasperated yells, even if that person was determined not to yell at their children (or anyone else). At  a certain point, the inputs that make their way into our mind have a big influence on the resulting behaviors that we see in the world.

 

Norms are one way that we establish certain inputs associated with certain behaviors. They help us regulate what kinds of behaviors are acceptable and desired. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in The Elephant in the Brain, “The essence of a norm then, lies not in the words we use to describe it, but in which behaviors get punish and what form the punishment takes.” Norms are guidelines for nudging behaviors by changing the inputs into the minds of individuals.

 

We can applaud, ignore, or punish a behavior to change the likelihood of an action taking place again. If I send out a tweet with terrible insults, and that tweet is re-tweeted and I receive encouragement for speaking out against the people I insulted, I am receiving cues that suggest I should do more of that. If however, I see an old lady walking to the register at the grocery store, and I use my youthful speed to quickly jump in front of her, I am likely to receive angry looks and possibly be forced out of line if a big enough person sees me jump ahead of the little old lady. If the punishment in this situation is embarrassing enough, I likely won’t repeat this behavior the next time I am at the store.

 

Our minds and, consequently it seems, our brains are changed by the norms we use. What is possible in our wold is shaped by how we know other people will respond to what we do. The agency we feel when we think about the world is constrained by the thoughts, looks, and actions of other people. We rarely talk about all the inputs that may change our thinking and decision-making, but it is clear that we operate in a space where many physical and non-physical things can shape what we do, believe, and think. The mind absorbs many inputs and we are not always at liberty to decide how we will respond to those inputs if we are constrained or encouraged by specific norms.