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Why You Should Kick the “Versus” Habit

Why You Should Kick the “Versus” Habit

A world painted only in black and white is a hard place to live or work
St. Michael and the Devil

In our time-starved, action-obsessed approach to work and life, we easily drop into the habit of seeing every choice or decision in terms of simple opposites: good versus bad, right versus wrong, success versus failure, winners versus losers. Every choice must be one or the other, with no options in between. Macho management thinking is full of such false dichotomies.

This makes for a tense and uncomfortable workplace, as well as a warped view of reality. Worse still, it produces that habitual “us versus them” mentality, which destroys relationships, undermines co-operation, and slowly renders us paranoid.

A world of self-induced paranoia

The urge is strong today to reduce everything to simple, “A versus B” choices. Essays and self-expression are replaced in schools by multiple-choice questions. Forms come full of boxes to check and sentences to be “crossed out where not applicable.” What we wish to say is reduced to choices between what others have already decided is appropriate (or acceptable).

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Such an attitude makes life less complicated — no subtleties to produce those annoying and confusing shades of gray — yet destroys it too; for in a polarized world, those who are not for you must be against you. There are only friends or enemies, allies or “evil empires.” What you choose to believe in, and the actions you embrace as “good,” must not — cannot — be questioned or faulted. There are no neutrals, no possibility that you — yes, you — may be mistaken. Those who choose another way are, by simple definition, wrong — too wrong even to contemplate what might be learned from them.

In the name of profit, speed, and efficiency, we tear up centuries of human thought. In the pursuit of “getting things done,” we lay aside our capacity for wonder and our curiosity for other ways.

The workplace as melodrama

Encouraged by the media, who love simple oppositions and melodramatic confrontations (witness The Apprentice), we demonize “the opposition” or “our competitors” and praise ourselves, “the good guys,” with thoughtless extravagance.

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In a bad novel, every circumstance becomes a life or death struggle, without a balance or subtlety. In a similar way, many leaders today assume every decision is important, simply because polarized thinking makes each appear so stark: winning or losing, support or opposition, love or hate, eager agreement or hostile condemnation, blind loyalty or base treachery.

And so, like ham actors, leaders “chew the scenery” of their workplaces in emotional paroxysms over the smallest setback, or fly into extravagant joyousness at the least triumph. When winning is all that matters, losing becomes an unthinkable horror. No space is left to honor those who have done their best, yet still fallen a little way short. They are lumped together with all the others in the simple category of “failure.”

Choosing to stay blind to our folly

As we dwell lovingly on the defects in “the other guys,” treating them as stereotypes at best (or downright stupid, evil, or dishonest at worst), we set ourselves free from the need to reconsider our own assumptions. There may be equal or even greater problems in the “right way” that we have chosen, as there are in the “wrong way” that they follow, but we will never see them — until it is too late. Our simplistic viewpoint cannot stay in place and allow this to happen.

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Why do so many corporations blunder into crazy ventures, then cling to them in defiance of sense? Why do leaders make it a test of loyalty for their subordinates to applaud every action, no matter how ill-advised? Why do people make truly bad career choices, then stick with them for years?

The answer is as sad as it too is simple: because there are, in their self-constricted minds, no acceptable alternatives. Because there are only two ways: what they have chosen and what has therefore to be, by definition, undeniably worse.

Getting back to reality

The reality of this world is that all extremes are uncommon to the point of invisibility. They aren’t just scarce; the more extreme they are — absolute good versus absolute evil, unquestionably right versus undeniably wrong — the more likely that they exist only in theory, if at all. Daily life plays out somewhere in the middle, between whatever extremes you care to name. This world, whether we like it or not, is a world of countless overlapping options and choices. In place of the black and white simplicities we try to impose upon it, there are nothing but the subtlest shades of gray.

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How to kick the habit of over-simplified thinking

  1. Slow down and recognize with Oscar Wilde that truth is “never pure and rarely simple.” Take your time to unravel at least some of its complexities. Subtlety and ambiguity are the first casualties of haste and short-termism.
  2. Be endlessly wary of convenient simplifications and false certainties. There are many people happy to tell you that they know the “one, right answer.” Why shouldn’t you believe them? Because no such answer exists. They are deluding themselves — and will delude you too, if you let them.
  3. Question, question, and question some more. Questions aren’t dangerous, answers are.
  4. If you are presented with an “A or B” choice, don’t take it, if at all possible. Synthesize these extremes to see the options that lie between them. Human creativity arises from taking things that first seem to be irreconcilable opposites, then discovering all the ways in which they work together.
  5. Whenever you think you have found the complete and final answer, lie down in a darkened room until you come to your senses. Every answer is provisional — every one. What you have found may be the best you can do at present, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t find a better one sometime; or that others haven’t found a better way already.
  6. Ambiguity and uncertainty are your friends. They encourage you to go on searching. They try to save you from betting everything on what you know today. People treat them as enemies because they undermine our pompous and self-righteous belief in “certainties.” Yet, the greatest risk anyone can take is to imagine that they already know what’s most important.

Only by slowing down and taking time to question and think — really think — shall we return to dealing with business reality, in place of those simplistic, misleading, cardboard-cutout, Hollywood melodramas we are becoming used to putting in its place.

Photo credit: Nils Tubbesing

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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