Moral licensing: When good habits go bad

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Have you ever found yourself not letting a car into your lane because you let another car in a few miles back?

Shoved a plastic bottle into the general waste bin as you reassure yourself you that you are someone who typically recycles?

Ignored a homeless person and then reminded yourself of your contributions to Shelter?

Eaten a whole pizza because “I ran today.”

 

If we’re honest, most of us will recognise ourselves here.

Psychologists refer to this pattern as ‘moral licensing.’  It means that “when people are confident that their past behavior demonstrates compassion, generosity, or a lack of prejudice, they are more likely to act in morally dubious ways” [Merrit, Effron and Monin, 2010].  Studies show that individuals who express non-racist or non-sexist views are then much more likely to go on and make racist or sexist comments – the earlier statements giving them permission to do so because they’ve already ‘proven’ their lack of prejudice.   And apparently we don’t even need to actively do or say anything ‘good’ for this to happen.  Just the mere act of imagining ourselves doing something good can create just the same effect [Khan and Dhar 2006].

 

Is this why dieting and exercise can make you overweight?

Ok.  Looking at all this in the context of our relationship with food and exercise is a bit of a reductive leap.  But for many of us, that relationship is a moral one – characterised by judgements we lay on ourselves and each other. When we exercise and eat healthily, we are ‘good’ people, and when we don’t do these things we’re ‘bad.’   In biological terms, food is simply fuel. In moral terms, it’s a battleground.

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What stories are you making up?

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Create your own storyI’ve always been addicted to story and story-telling in one way or another.  I ended up teaching literature for many years and completed a PhD in English a decade a go. In that time I was busy examining, deconstructing, and theorising narrative and meaning-making, and I can still busk a post-structuralist debate (“does experience shape language, or does language shape experience?”).  When I changed careers, I found myself immediately drawn to the marketing and communications side of business – still enticed over questions of how we make meaning.

I have more than my fair share of pleb tastes too.  I’m the go-to person if you want to know the latest TV box set to gorge on (FYI: Fargo).  I load up my kindle on a regular basis, whipping my way through titles like Christmas at Rosie Hopkins Sweetshop (yep) or Dawn French’s According to Yes. I got positively misty eyed at Star Wars – The Force Awakens.

To unwind, I go for the predictable stuff of chick-lit (horrible term, but I prefer it to ‘romance’) or mysteries. They’re comforting and familiar.  But too much and you can end up with that post Christmas holiday feeling  – overstuffed, a bit numb, and not really tasting that chocolate mint truffle any more.   It’s then that I crave something more challenging, a narrative that opens up new thinking and fosters creativity, not mere comfort for comfort’s sake. So beside my bed are pen-inked copies of Thinking Fast and Slow and David and Goliath. Wolf Hall also loiters there accusingly, half-read.

Shared experience, through story, is how we connect with each other

Ultimately, story-telling, shared experience, is at the root of our ability to connect and empathise with others. Neuroscience shows that stories bring our brains together.  Character-driven stories apparently cause oxytocin synthesis in the brain, and researchers have looked at how you can ‘hack’ the oxytocin system to encourage people to engage in co-operative behaviours.

I recently worked with colleagues to design a workshop that brought together people from different divisions and geographical locations in our organisation.   Read the rest of this entry »

Four ways to cope with uncertainty

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In the UK, the decisions around the government’s comprehensive spending review have been announced. While the scale of those cuts is perhaps not as deep as anticipated in some areas, the downstream impact on those of us who work in the public sector is as yet unknown.  We know change will be afoot, it will likely affect us or those we work with directly, and all this is set against a backdrop of increasingly vexing international news of global conflict and crises.

While we know the old adage that the only thing certain in life is uncertainty itself, changes of this nature – which feel so completely out of our control – trigger anxiety and fear in even the most resilient among us.

Pondering this, I’ve gone back to remind myself of the few positive truths about our negative feelings regarding uncertainty.

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Are you choosing to be Adult?

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okmugsI’m OK, You’re OK is one of those titles I’d feel slightly embarrassed to be caught reading on the train. When I bought myself a copy a while back, my other half reacted as if I had moved to the dark side. Before he knew it, I’d be lecturing him on how to Make Friends and Influence People, or letting him in on The Secret.

In fact, while I’m OK, You’re OK was highly popular during the 1970s, it’s actually pretty turgid stuff. In it, Thomas Harris builds on Eric Berne’s theory of ‘Transactional Analysis,’ which argues that from birth, through all our interactions or ‘transactions’ with one another, we adopt three different Ego States: Parent, Child and Adult. The theory goes like this:

As Parent, we behave or ‘mimic’ how we feel our parents or other parental/authority figures have acted. This may mean playing the authoritative and strict Parent, or a nurturing and rescuing one. And when we adopt this state, we are subconsciously positioning those we are interacting with as ‘Child’

As Child, we act and feel as we would have in childhood. We may have a negative emotional reaction if we are criticised (or perceive criticism) and may either sulk, withdraw or rebel. Alternatively, we crave and seek approval from others in order to feel validated, and when we adopt this state, we are subconsciously positioning the other as either a rescuing or dictatorial ‘Parent.’

It is as Adult that we are at our most objective and arguably distanced from these intrinsically emotional polarities of Parent/Child. We can stand back to see the reality of what’s going on and resist the temptation to leap to conclusions about intent or cause. We use our intelligence and reasoning capabilities to step outside the emotional ‘game’ or drama associated with the Parent/Child dynamic and instead focus on the practical steps needed to really resolve a situation.  We adopt an ‘I’m OK – You’re OK’ life position.

A simple but effective way to gain perspective on our thoughts and actions

Of course there is a lot more to it than this, and the bases for the original theory have been much-critiqued. In many ways the model is perhaps just too simple, the Parent, Child, Adult categorisations neat labels we can ‘shoehorn’ our behaviours into.

However, I’ve found that the power of this idea actually rests in its inherent simplicity.

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Three simple ideas for boosting happiness at work (and in life)

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We often confuse what makes us happy with what gives us pleasure, but in fact, what makes us happy may not feel pleasant at a particular moment. Paul Dolan ( Professor of Behavioural Science at LSE, and author of Happiness by Design) argues a simple but powerful point: to feel happy, we need to attend to both pleasure and a sense of purpose in our lives.

And what gives people a sense of pleasure or purpose can vary; there is no one-size-fits all approach here. The trick is to get an equilibrium that’s right for you.

pleasure_purpose

But in the workplace, a sense of purposeless or futility can be especially toxic, lowering our morale and ability to get things done. Why bother? 

So how do we address this?  A few very simple ideas inspired by Dolan:

1. Attend to your enjoyment of co-workers more than your ‘next career step’

First, we need to spend less time fixated on an imagined future state where things will be ‘better’ (when I get that promotion things will change). Instead we need to attend to the experiences on any given day that make us feel happy – spending time with a co-worker you really like, for example. When considering our happiness, we often overlook these simple everyday experiences, when in fact they have a major impact on our overall happiness. Far more than we realise.

2. Stop forgetting to say thank you

We’re forgetting to say ‘thank you.’ As organisations become increasingly dispersed and digital, and our in-boxes get more out of control, we can often forget the power of a simple acknowledgement. (I know I can be guilty of this). A report or proposal is sent, but due to other priorities, we forget to acknowledge it, and tackle other pressing tasks instead. A day or two goes by and we’ve forgotten about that ‘hey I did this for you’ shout-out from a colleague. And that colleague is now beginning to question the purpose of what they’ve done, and why they even bothered.

A simple recognition of the value of work done can go a long way in preventing that creeping sense of pointlessness that makes us disengage, and can have a real positive impact on motivation.

3. Don’t presume intent

Dolan’s main point is that we need to acknowledge people to make them feel valued and therefore happier. But I want to add that on the flip side, just as toxic to a sense of happiness can be the stories we tell ourselves about colleagues ‘deliberately ignoring’ us.  This is why my other mantra is ‘don’t presume intent.’ Be mindful of when you may be committing a fundamental attribution error – inferring that because you’ve not heard from someone, that they are deliberately ignoring you, and are therefore a bad person. That response is often far more likely to be about you than the other person, who very likely has no inkling of the impact of their behaviour (and if they do, it’s another matter entirely).

So remember…

Next time you have a decent conversation with a co-worker – whether it’s about work or which box-set you’re both currently addicted to – remember this is having more impact on your  day-to-day happiness than finishing that major report, or getting a pay rise (momentarily satisfying though those things are).  Seek out those connections and pay attention to how you feel about them.

Remind yourself to acknowledge others – a heartfelt thank you will do as a start.  And remember that there’s nothing like feeling ignored to make someone feel like their work is pointless.

But if you’re on the receiving end, and feeling like your work is not valued, be aware of whether you are leaping to conclusions about the intent of the co-worker ‘maligning’ you.  Chances are they’re fighting their own battles.

Want to learn more? Here’s a really short video where Dolan gives tips on workplace happiness.

And here’s a much longer one  where he presents at the 2015 ‘Good Day At Work’ National Wellbeing Conference.

How to change habits when you’re not in the mood

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We’re taught to think that changing our habits for the better is simply a case of mind over matter. All we need is self-control and determination. (I wrote about this tendency last week).

But the irony is, the more we let go of the notion that we just need to be determined to achieve what we want, the more likely we are to make changes that stick.

So how do we change our habits and behaviours, even when we’re not really in the mood?

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Breaking Bad. Thoughts on cultivating ‘good’ habits (Part 1)

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I’ve been preoccupied with habits lately and the question of why some behaviours ‘stick’ for us, and others don’t.  This might be because I am currently preoccupied with two areas where I want to shift my habits: eating less (so I can lose weight) and getting into the routine of writing regularly.

I know all the tips in the book as to what I should do  (and very adept at offering others advice on same) but knowing it and actually doing it are very different things. Even to write this piece I’ve had cajole myself with different techniques (Pomodoro, switching off social media, ‘putting myself in jail,’ breaking up the task into manageable chunks and then ticking them off a to-do list).  All just to stop me from procrastinating, even know I know once I am fully immersed in the writing, it will flow.

When and how will regular writing just become a habit – something I just automatically do as opposed to something each time I have actively decide to do and overcome my own resistance?

In the excellent Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives,  Gretchen Rubin points out that habits are so powerful because they “eliminate the need for self-control.” A behaviour is habitual when we are not using mental energy to decide.  And to understand how people are able to change and move forward, we must understand habits and how they are formed (or not).

This is a monster topic.  So in this first post, I focus on willpower and motivation and how they are in fact overrated when it comes it comes to shifting habits. This means that self-flagellation over not being able to ‘stick to things’ is really not going to get you anywhere (and it’s likely to get you worse off). I also talk about how self-awareness is critical for forming good habits, but at the same time how we also need to ‘get over ourselves’ if we’re really going to get anywhere. Finally, I remind us of the paradox that ‘better’ is not a happiness destination – that fulfilment is in not necessarily in reaching the goal.  Realising this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother ever changing (that way low mood and inertia lies) but that we can ease up on ourselves a bit, because the pressure we put on ourselves often gets in our own way.

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