Tag Archives: psychology

Stay out of that pretty little head of yours

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Can’t figure out how to reblog from tumblr, so I’m reposting this awesome Ray Bradbury quote from Kirk Damato’s tumblr:

If we listened to our intellect we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go in business because we’d be cynical: “It’s gonna go wrong.” Or “She’s going to hurt me.” Or,”I’ve had a couple of bad love affairs, so therefore …” Well, that’s nonsense. You’re going to miss life. You’ve got to jump off the cliff all the time and build your wings on the way down. – Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

Just a reminder that humans are not logical and rational (if they were, I’d be an economist, not a psychologist.)  In improv and in life, you’ve got to fucking embrace that.

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Carpe-ing the Diem

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It’s a really grand idea, in theory, to live in the present; to stay out of one’s head.

In practicality, though, it’s awfully hard.  And maybe not the best mantra.  Everything in moderation.

Like most of the rules that I’ve tried thus far, I’ve realized essentially that “the rules” are not meant to be hard-fast rules.  “The rules” are training wheels – you tell them to beginning improvisers (like myself) to get them on the right track.  But eventually, in order to become more talented, more comfortable and automatic in your play, one has to learn when it’s okay to bend/break the rules.  The rules, while initially helpful, can be sort of limiting.

Take, for instance, my current profession: graduate student.  If we were all living by my rule for the month of April (“Be present”), no one would go to graduate school.  Or medical school.  Or commit to long-term romantic relationships. Or start their own companies. Or run for office. Or become parents. Or do ANYTHING at all that is even REMOTELY difficult.  Our ids would take over completely (please forgive the expression, fellow psychologists).  The world would be in a state of disarray.  The thing is, there’s more to life than the present, and if we don’t plan for the future, then we will be lost when we get to it.  My “staying out of my head” rule actually started to backfire on me during April.

At first, it was amazing.  I made all of these discoveries that I didn’t know that I was going to make.  On stage: I made a discovery that my character was a divorcee who had a fascination with ensuring that she died in an intriguing way.  It was such an exciting discovery to make, and one that I am not sure taht I would have made had I not been very attuned to what I was saying and the gifts my scene partner was giving me.  I went into the scene (a Home Depot) knowing only that I really desperately wanted to paint my kitchen red.  Everything else evolved from within the scene!  There are actually countless other less salient examples of this that I’ll refrain from detailing in depth here.  The point is, it (“being present/staying out of my head”) worked.  Off stage: I let go of the guardrail I had on my emotions, and as a result, I had some really amazing experiences when I just flung myself wholeheartedly into my relationship.  With Y moving in a few months, there’s no certain promise of a future – that really forces me to appreciate the now.  I stopped stressing about whether I was balancing my life the “right” way (it’s so difficult to strike a balance between family, friends, a relationship, work/school, personal, etc.  Those of you who know my 5 S theory have heard me gripe about this).  I just decided that there is no objective “right”.  What is “right” is what feels “right” in this moment.  You can’t beat yourself up over your decisions or behaviors; they shape who you are as a person.  I even worried a little bit less about what others thought of me and my decisions, because when you’re trying to really live in the moment, there’s no thought of the future social implications of your behaviors.  It’s freeing, really.

But then, the backfire.  On stage: I found myself going up to perform without anything at all in my head.  That is a terrifying feeling.  I tricked myself, thinking, “Aha! Look at me! I’m so awesome-  I’ve stayed out of my head!”  But without even a something there to grab hold of if I needed it, I was insecure.  And frankly, did not have a lot of gifts to offer to my partners.  I understand that the whole “stay out of your head” thing is meant to keep people from analyzing their choices while they’re still in the scene.  It’s supposed to get them to listen to what’s happening, to respond from their gut, to respond naturally.  But sometimes, you need to get in your head in a scene.  You need to identify a pattern that is occurring, in order to figure out what that says about you and your character.  You need to know your characters, and their relationship, and that’s hard to do without analyzing trends in the way that they’re interacting.  As I’ve heard in improv classes many a times, “play to the top of your intelligence.”   Off stage: I found myself dragging my feet to do work that wasn’t absolutely necessary.  “Sure, it would be a good career move to stay in and write this manuscript tonight, but it will be there tomorrow.”  I found myself looking heartache in the face as I realized that I don’t know what is going to happen, and I have been a little bit reckless.  I found myself thinking, “Wow, you live so close to your family; what if something happened to them tomorrow and you hadn’t visited in a while.  How would you feel then?”

Yet, here’s the problem with planning for the future: it’s so uncertain.  You know that saying. that the only thing that won’t change is change itself?  TRUE. A recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy (love that show) spoke well to this point:

“We spend our whole lives worrying about the future. Planning for the future. Trying to predict the future. As if figuring it out will somehow cushion the blow. But the future is always changing. The future is the home of our deepest fears… and our wildest hopes. But one thing is certain, when it finally reveals itself, the future is never the way we imagined it.”

In fact, one of the reasons why the future isn’t the way that we imagine it is because we, as humans, have a variety of cognitive biases.  In psychology, thinking about the future is called affective forecasting, and we are notoriously bad at it.  When we consider events in the future, we ascribe them greater intentionality and greater value than events in the past.  We forget that humans adapt (to both positive and negative events) and we exaggerate how much influence unique events will have on our future happiness and well-being.  It’s hard to plan for the future with any sense of accuracy because we are biased when we consider it, which means it makes even more sense to live in the present and stay out of our heads.  Chances are, when we get to the future that we’ve been thinking about (or the scene on stage that we’ve been planning in our heads), it will be different anyhow.  What’s the point?  Why not carpe diem?

My middle-of-the-road statement is that it’s wise to be conscious of the future (all behavior is driven by our goals and motivations, and what are those if not future-oriented?).  But we should also be aware that our opinions of the future are biased, and as such, that we can only control it to a certain extent.  It’s just as important to embrace today, too.

So, yes, understandably I’m a bit disillusioned with the concept of carpe-diem, of getting out of my head.  But I can appreciate its merits, of which there are many.  Do I regret my living in the moment? Nope, not for a second.  I’m a person who fully disbelieves in regrets.  Especially given the seeming futility in trying to map out what happens next (in life or on stage), it seems that, like all things in life, the advice to “be present” and “stay out of one’s head” is best when balanced.

A psychology-heavy reflection on human connections

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Making up for lost time by updating more than once in one day!

Consider the following situations:

  1. A young woman, a “friend” of mine (please note the oozing sarcasm), is terrified by the mouse she saw in her apartment.  Her under-dog landlord is swamped with petty-requests from tenants.  Young woman continues to tiptoe around her home near tears, landlord feels stressed by to-do list, mouse stays warm and probably well-fed.
  2. Students in my program are exceedingly anxious about our comprehensive examination. Professors dismiss concerns with “proper tactics” for dealing with the test. Students no less anxious because professors didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know, professors annoyed that students’ anxiety still interfering with work.
  3. My boyfriend is newly recovered from a cold. I am going out of town for the weekend.  He doesn’t want to hang out. I am upset that he doesn’t want to see me before I leave, he is upset that I don’t remember that he’s sick.
  4. I am super giddy about the happy state of affairs with said boyfriend.  Single friend doesn’t like being reminded that she is not in a relationship. I talk about Y and am upset by lack of enthusiasm, friend is sad about her current status and frustrated with my lack of awareness.
  5. I’m visiting where I used to live for one night only.  Number of friends who want to see me > number of friends I have time to see.  People are upset that we did not hang out, I feel overwhelmed by demands.

Let’s do this Jeopardy-style: “All of these scenarios have this in common.”

What is empathy gaps?

One of my friends, N, studies empathy gaps.  In social psychology, empathy gaps are the biases by which we evaluate another person’s situation.  An empathy gap is a cognitive inability to understand the other person’s situation due to a difference in emotional states between the perceiver and the observed.   Typically we talk about empathy gaps in the context of medical decision-making.  When a doctor and a patient work together to come to some agreement about a patient’s care plan, each is affected by the process differently.  To the patient, his or her life may be on the line, he or she may be feeling physically ill and weak, and the whole process may be overwhelming.  The patient is in a “hot” emotional state, or in a state where his emotions are so visceral that they influence his decision making processes and other higher-order functions.  Conversely, the doctor is in a “cold” emotional state: this patient is just one on her to-do list for the day, she’s been through this protocol more times than she can count, and she’s thinking about how she will avoid traffic to make it on time to her daughter’s play that evening.  The doctor isn’t necessarily a cold person, she is just unlikely to be dramatically influenced by her context in the way that the patient is.  When these two individuals encounter one another, they have a hard time understanding one another, which makes for difficult and sometimes poor decision making.  Now that I’ve given you the elevator speech on empathy gaps (hope I did it justice, N!)…

My gosh, these are everywhere in real life, people!  I guess I should have expected that – the fundamental attribution error describes our human tendency to overestimate the effect of personality variables and underestimate the effect of the situation.  (That homeless guy on your street corner? He’s a loser, right? Or maybe he just has been struck with some really terrible luck and has no social support network to help him get back on his feet.)  We are awful at truly empathizing with people.  It doesn’t make sense to me – we are more like each other than we are alike to any other living thing on this planet.  If we can see appreciate the power of the situation on our disposition, why do we fail at perceiving it in others?

It turns out that when we think about the beliefs, values, and intentions of other people, a similar part of our brain is active as when we think about our own beliefs, values, and intentions.  The human mind is a black box, honestly a mystery to anyone who is not ourselves.  But it is essential for our function as social beings to at least somewhat understand what others around us are thinking, and how that is going to influence our behavior.  (The kid on the playground: “Is that bully going to punch me?” A young child: “Is Dad going to feed me now?”  Your boyfriend: “What did I do wrong?”)  So we try, and not entirely fruitlessly.  We think, whether consciously or not, “If I were this person/in this situation, what would I do?”  And we assume that they are like us, and form our perceptions/expectations about their behavior accordingly.  I guess what I don’t understand is, if this is the way our brain is neurally dealing with other people, then why do we not behaviorally deal with them in the same way, and avoid some of the items in my list (above)?

This is where I’ve come to rely on improv.  I don’t know why we haven’t learned to accommodate for our glaring errors in the case of empathy gaps, but I think I found a way that might attenuate them.  By truly respecting the other people in our lives, by acknowledging that this upcoming surgery is a big deal to the patient, even if it’s not to the doctor, by making the patient feel like a superstar before he goes in for surgery because his concerns were all well founded and he was right to express them – by doing all of these things, we can connect on a more intimate level, one which fosters understanding and cooperation.  In improv, when we make each other look and feel awesome, no one is a star and no one is a straggler, but the group as a unit is a success.  I’m holding tight to that philosophy each time I encounter an empathy gap in the future (and I’m getting better at picking up on them!)

RESPECT. 

“If they treated each other like geniuses… they could become that on stage.”

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I want to talk about gossip and prejudice.

There’s no room for either of these things, in improv or in real life.

I vehemently hate gossip because I’ve seen it hurt people too many times.  Even “good” gossip is bad. (A friend was saying to me that gossip can be advantageous – for example, in the case of a new couple that doesn’t have to go around telling all of their friends that they are dating because the gossip will do the work for them.  Then again, this article argues a quite convincing case for “good” gossip.)  Gossip is talking about people behind their backs, and often saying things that you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to their faces.

This past weekend, gossip flared its ugly teeth.  The context was such: I threw a party for my graduate program and our prospective future students.  A mass email went out to attendees expressing concern about the “safety” of my part of the neighborhood.  I was a little bit uncomfortable that this email had been sent to everyone, because, I mean, I live here. I may be on a student stipend, but I wouldn’t live somewhere where I didn’t feel safe, and I don’t want others to form a negative association about me/my home.  To be fair, I do live close to areas where there are high incidences of crime, but I live in a city.  I wouldn’t recommend that anyone go to bed with their doors unlocked.  Still, it was clear that the email was sent in a rush (receipt was spelled “recipe”!) and I wasn’t going to take personal offense to it.  The message sender was entitled to her own opinion, and my friends are capable of assessing the situation and forming their own thoughts on the matter.

Shortly thereafter, a mass reply email went out from my friend, Z.  She meant well, calling everyone’s attention to the slip, citing statistics invalidating the comment, addressing possible implicit racism/classism which may have caused it, and cautioning us to be careful of the impressions about our neighborhood that we convey to others (particularly potential future students).  All in all, I appreciated that she had the guts to say something that, frankly, needed to be said.  However, she chose rather strong language for public discourse.  I know that she is impassioned by the issue, but sometimes context should preclude passion.

Needless to say, countless responses (some more tense, some more jokey) followed and that email thread was a buzz topic that evening.  The thing is that people were saying one thing to Z’s face, and different things to each other!  GOSSIP!  The worst thing is that I was guilty of it, too! When Z asked me what I thought of the email, I responded sincerely that I appreciated her sending what needed to be sent and that I know she’s passionate about the issue, but chose not to mention the inappropriateness of the strong wording.  I am such a people pleaser sometimes I disgust myself! EW! There was nothing wrong with expressing my honest opinion to her.  And yet, I didn’t (but I made sure to express it to everyone else who asked me).  Yuck. (Dear Z, if you read this, sincerest apologies for not being more upfront in the first place.)

What did I learn from this gross feeling of having facilitated gossip?  First, I’m a bit hypocritical (hating gossip, and then perpetuating it).  But also, respect is tantamount to conveying delicate and important information to an uninformed recipient.  If we had all been respecting one another’s legitimate passions and concerns, the prospective students would have seen a more cohesive program. (And in improv, don’t we want to present a cooperative group to the audience? Don’t we want them to sense that group mind, that we are all on the same page? That’s where the magic happens.)

But I learned more from this situation.  If we had all been respecting the different upbringings that our neighbors have had, or the different choices that we’ve all made, wouldn’t we see that even an area that is physically/visually distinct from the rest of the neighborhood is no less safe?  For that matter, wouldn’t we see that people are still people regardless of if they live in a “safe” or “unsafe” part of town?  The gang members that may live in surrounding neighborhoods still have mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, etc.  I’m not saying that I’d want to hang out alone near those gangs at midnight (or put myself in obviously unsafe circumstances), but I am saying that if we respected the power of the situation, and the power of the human condition, wouldn’t we be less prejudiced, or at least more aware and more able to consciously check ourselves?  Wouldn’t we be more compassionate?

Perhaps I’m being idealistic.  Some social psychologists would argue that our prejudices rely on an evolutionarily adaptive aversion to outgroup members, or people unlike us, because they might pose a threat in prehistoric times to our tribe’s safety.  They even argue for the automaticity of these prejudiced cognitive processes.  But most research conducted on the issue today is inherently confounded by the cultural context in which it is conducted.

I guess my point is this:

“It was Del’s belief that performers needed to have the utmost respect for one another- that if they treated each other like geniuses, poets and artists, they could become that on stage.”  In improv, if we respect one another, we can trick audiences into thinking that the crazy flub mistake that just happened on stage had been planned all along, and that the whole group was in on it!  We can make people forget that there’s not a script.  By treating each other like we’re brilliant, we become brilliant in the audience’s eyes.  The audience takes their cues from us, and if we don’t treat any idea as a “bad” or “wrong” one, then bad and wrong ideas simply don’t exist.

It’s the same way in real life.  Most of our reality is what we’ve constructed for ourselves.  If we respect everyone and every situation as we construct that reality (if we respect Z’s right to know our opinion up-front), then maybe we can avoid “bad” or “wrong” misconceptions about our world.  And we can avoid that icky-post-gossip feeling.