March 31, 2008

Anything is an improvable skill

An interesting article by Geoffrey Colvin translates the concept of deliberate practice to the situation of business. Briefly, the term deliberate practice refers to the work by Anders Ericsson and his colleagues on how to achieve greatness in a field. These researchers have found that the best performers in any field are those who devote the most hours to deliberate practice. Deliberate practice means that you not mindlessly keep on repeating the activity you want to master, but instead, that you 1) Setting specific goals each time you perform the activity, 2) Actively obtain immediate feedback on your performance, and 3) Concentrate as much on technique as on outcome. Examples that are usually mentioned in articles are from fields like piano playing, chess, golf, etc. The interesting thing about the article by Colvin is that he explains how the principle of deliberate practice is relevant for business. This is what he has to say:
Many elements of business, in fact, are directly practicable. Presenting, negotiating, delivering evaluations, deciphering financial statements - you can practice them all. Still, they aren't the essence of great managerial performance. That requires making judgments and decisions with imperfect information in an uncertain environment, interacting with people, seeking information - can you practice those things too? You can, though not in the way you would practice a Chopin etude. Instead, it's all about how you do what you're already doing - you create the practice in your work, which requires a few critical changes. the first is going at any task with a new goal: instead of merely trying to get it done, you aim to get better at it. [..] Anything that anyone does at work, from the most basic task to the most exalted, is an improvable skill. [..] Armed with that mindset, people go at a job in a new way. Research shows they process information more deeply and retain it longer. They want more information on what they're doing and seek other perspectives. They adopt a longer-term point of view. [...] You aren't just doing the job, you're explicitly trying to get better at it the larger sense.

March 29, 2008

Positive psychology, the strengths movement and the solution-focused approach

Several years ago, I viewed the strengths perspective as an approach which had great overlap with the solution-focused approach. This article from 2002 reflects my understanding at that time. Gradually however, my view has changed a bit. I have become more aware of the importance of some of the differences between the strengths movement and the solution-focused approach. On this blog I have written about this shift in my thinking before in this post How important is the concept of strengths really? and in this post It is essentially about what has functioned well (not about strengths). In these posts I have argued that that being effective is essentially more about doing what works than about identifying and applying strengths. The shift in my thinking was stimulated further by the research by Carol Dweck and her colleagues (especially the research mentioned in this post PROCESS PRAISE more effective than TRAIT PRAISE). This research made me worry that the strengths perspective could easily promote a fixed mindset which has some known negative impacts (see here).

This week, I was discussing the issue with a few colleagues and I reflected on this afterwards. I realized that the strengths movement and positive psychology on the one hand and the solution-focused approach on the other differ in some dimensions, which might be described as follows:

1. Standardization versus idiosyncratism
: the strengths movement and most positive psychologist currently seem to rely rather strongly on standardization by developing taxonomies and questionnaires. The solution-focused approach relies on an idiosyncratic approach in which there is no need for standard labels and constructs. Instead, each case is viewed as unique.

2. Plan+implement versus Try+learn: positive psychology and the strengths movement usually seem to rely on first measuring, analyzing and diagnosing and then following certain predesigned steps forward. This is a rather linear process relying on explicit knowledge. The solution-focused approach however can be characterized more as a try and learn approach in that it involves taking one step at a time, and respond to the consequences of the actions taken. This is circular and iterative process relying on implicit knowledge. (more about this dimension here).

3. Applying strengths versus doing what works: the strengths movement focuses much on identifying and developing strengths as a route to fulfillment and success. In this sense it seems the strengths movement is rather individualistic in its focus. The solution-focused approach focuses more on the interaction between individual and context. The focus is more on doing what works than on applying strengths per se. Doing what works does not have to involve strengths at all. Doing what works can also simply involve using some situational feature or help by other people or just doing something which helps in that situation (without it having to be some core personal strength).

Having said this, I feel that the solution-focused approach and positive psychology differ more on a practical than on a principle level. If the goal of positive psychology is to understand how individuals and institutions thrive (and to promote this) this would NOT imply a need for high standardization, plan+implement and strengths focus. The goal of positive psychology could also be accomplished by following an idiosyncratic, try+learn and doing what works approach. Granted, the types of generalizable knowledge that would be produced would probably be different.....(hmm, interesting... how would it be different?) Gosh, I would like that... to see a group of positive psychologists who would follow this approach.

March 28, 2008

Positive Emotion Regulation

In the previous post, I wrote about how individuals, as they get older, use more positive and fewer negative affect words, use fewer self references, use more future-tense and fewer past-tense verbs, and demonstrate a general pattern of increasing cognitive complexity. I learned about this research by James Pennebaker and Lori Stone through a book by Margriet Sitskoorn (Lang leven de hersenen - Long live the brain).

In the same book, Margriet Sitskoorn writes more about the positivity of older people. She explains that as people grow older they usually get more skillful at positive emotion regulation. This means that as we get older we tend to focus more on positive information and ignore negative information (with the exception of information about threats).

Because older people are, on average, better at positive emotion regulation they feel offended less easily, their negative moods last briefer, they will be less inclined to yell or call people names, they remember positive things more easily and are less impressed by negative events. Not everything gets worse with aging. Some things do get more and better.

Speaking words of wisdom

Is there any truth to the stereotype that elderly people tend to be grumpier than young people? Do people become more negative and complain more as they grow older? A new book by Dutch psychologist Margriet Sitskoorn pointed me to research by James Pennebaker and Lori Stone. These researchers wondered how the use of language develops when we get older. Do we use more or less negative terms and positive terms as we get older?

Pennebaker and Stone analyzed texts of people at different ages. They counted the use of positive and negative terms. In addition to this they analyzed the extent to which people used future-tense and past-tense verbs at different ages. Did they find that people talk more in negative terms and use more past-tense verbs? On the contrary! This is what they found:

"With increasing age, individuals use more positive and fewer negative affect words, use fewer self references, use more future-tense and fewer past-tense verbs, and demonstrate a general pattern of increasing cognitive complexity."

Reading this, you may think that this is due to the prosperity of our modern times in which older people are better taken care of than in past centuries... but no! Pennebaker and Stone also analyzed texts by authors like Shakespeare, Eliot and Yeats that they had written at different ages.

They found exactly the same conclusions: the older, the more positive and future-oriented. Wow, the older we get, the more solution-focused our language seems to get.... Not bad!

Also read: Milton Erickson

John Medina's Brain Rules website

A new book (with DVD) by John Medina, called Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, looks rather interesting. Here are the 12 rules, which, according to the author, an affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine and director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University, reflects what scientists know for sure about how the brain works:

Rule #1: Exercise boosts brain power.
Rule #2: The human brain evolved, too.
Rule #3: Every brain is wired differently.
Rule #4: We don't pay attention to boring things.
Rule #5: Repeat to remember.
Rule #6: Remember to repeat.
Rule #7: Sleep well, think well.
Rule #8: Stressed brains don't learn the same way.
Rule #9: Stimulate more of the senses.
Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses.
Rule #11: Male and female brains are different.
Rule #12: We are powerful and natural explorers.

Dr. Medina's website is an impressive display of modern day book promotion. There are video's, there's a blog, there are links to reviews and articles, and there is more.

March 19, 2008

March 18, 2008

What is 'Doing what works'?

Doing what works is one of the core principles of solution-focused practice. One thing this implies is that when you want to achieve something you look at what has helped before to achieve something comparable. Another thing it implies is that, when you trying to accomplish something, you pay careful attention to what is working and do more of that. This reflects the very pragmatic orientation of the solution-focused approach. It is one of the things I like about it. This pragmatic nature is also expressed in the principle of 'If it ain't broken, don't fix it'. This could be rephrased as: 'If something is working, there is no need to change it.' Doing what works seems to be very straightforward. But it isn't always. Look at these examples:
  1. Sometimes, at first, something seems to be working well but after some time it turns out it doesn't. You do something and at first the consequences of your behavior seem to be positive but only after some time you discover that there are negative consequences too. This is not merely a theoretical example. Carol Dweck has show that giving trait praise to children ("well done, you're very smart) at first seems to work well (proud smile) but after some time turns out to have negative consequences (avoiding challenges, giving up easily, not believing in the value of effort, ignoring useful negative feedback, feeling threatened by the success of others, read all about that here, and here).
  2. Maintenance: if 'If it ain't broken, don't fix it' is your favorite interpretation of Doing what works, be careful. It might lead you to neglect maintenance activities. If you never check the tires of your car and wait until they explode you may be a going too far in your pragmatism.
  3. Investment: If you rely very strongly on pragmatism, you may also forget to invest in your future which at some point you may begin to regret. If you never do any exercise because your body still seems to be working, you may build up some serious health problems. Investing in you future (for instance by exercising, by studying, building up a financial buffer for hard times, etc.) may not give you an immediate sense that it works. There is no instant effect. Rather, it may take a very long time before you suddenly feel like it has all been worth it.
I know the above does not prove that 'Doing what works' is invalid. After all you could say that 'if you have noticed over the years that maintenance, investment etc. work, applying them is still a matter of Doing what works. What these examples do show is that you must be careful with your interpretation of Doing what works. If you interpret Doing what works as 'only doing things that show immediate positive effects' you may be in for some negative surprises.
Also read: Truth is what works

March 14, 2008

The Cult of Statistical Significance

There is a new book called The Cult of Statistical Significance by Stephen T. Ziliak and Deirdre N. McCloskey which seems to be an important one to me. The book shows how many scientific disciplines rely way too much on the concept of statistical significance. I have read the book and I find it convincing. The authors show how the focus on statistical significance has taken away attention for 'real' significance. In other words: the focus on statistical significance often means that researchers fail to ask whether their findings matter. In statistics, a result is called statistically significant if it is unlikely to have occurred by chance. So testing for statistical significance is asking the question how likely it is that an effect exists. It tries to answer that question by looking at how precisely the effect can be measured. It does not answer at all how strong and important this effect is. And this latter question about the effect size is much more important from a scientific and a practical perspective. Statistical significance does not imply an effect is important, lack of statistical significance does not mean an effect is not important. You may ask: how can an effect be important that is not statistically significant? The answer to your question has to do with HOW a statistical significance test tries to answer the question of whether an effects does or not exist, which is by looking at HOW PRECISELY the (presumed) effect can be measured. There are circumstances in which an effect is important yet can not be measured precisely. This would be the case when there is a lot of variability in the effect. When an effect is strong YET highly variable (for instance ranging between 30 and 70), statistical significance tests say the effect cannot be measured precisely which can lead to the conclusion: not statistically significant. At the same time, a weaker effect with lower variability (for instance ranging between 4 and 5) could be measured more precisely, which might lead to the conclusion 'statistically significant'.
Mind you the book is NOT a plea against quantitative research nor statistical analysis. On the contrary. It is a plea for doing it and doing it right by bringing back focus on effect sizes in social science.
Also read:

March 10, 2008

Patterns of high performance

"People are like other people when they do ordinary, competent work. They become uniquely themselves when they do their best work."
~ Jerry Fletcher(1993). Patterns of High Performance: Discovering the Ways People Work Best, pxiii

March 8, 2008

Doing good

“He who would do good must do so in minute particulars; the general good is the plea of patriots, politicians and knaves.”

~ attributed to Samuel Butler (source: Watzlawick, 1988)

Also read: Paul Watzlawick

Update: Paul Watzlawick may have uncorrectly attributed this quote to Samuel Butler. I find many sources on the Internet who attribute the quote to poet Willam Blake.

March 6, 2008

Quote Chris Peterson

"Someone may be a creative genius *and* an interpersonally difficult person, but we need to be careful about attributing the accomplishments of this individual to the latter characteristic when the former characteristic seems to be a more plausible account."

~ Chris Peterson, author of A Primer in Positive Psychology

Best Solutions

Instead of dwelling on the biggest problems, we should focus on identifying the best solutions.... But embracing a solution to its fullest extent is often unrealistic and ultimately unhelpful.

March 5, 2008

The fragility of human intelligence

“Human intelligence is among the most fragile things in nature. It doesn’t take much to distract it, suppress it, or even annihilate it.”

~Neil Postman

Also read:

Quote Duke Ellington

"A problem is a chance for you to do your best."
~ Duke Ellington

March 4, 2008

Inner attitudes

"Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives."

~William James

March 1, 2008

What's the deal with self esteem?

Many people in education have long believed that in order to improve performance of pupils at school you have to first make them feel good about themselves. The idea behind this was: it is easier to function well if you feel good about your self. Many educators, psychologists and parents have tried this. But does it work? Here is a long quote from a very interesting article by Albert Mohler:
"Since the 1969 publication of The Psychology of Self-Esteem, in which Nathaniel Branden opined that self-esteem was the single most important facet of a person, the belief that one must do whatever he can to achieve positive self-esteem has become a movement with broad societal effects. Anything potentially damaging to kids' self-esteem was axed. Competitions were frowned upon. Soccer coaches stopped counting goals and handed out trophies to everyone. Teachers threw out their red pencils. Criticism was replaced with ubiquitous, even undeserved, praise. In 2003 the Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature. His team concluded that self-esteem was polluted with flawed science. Only 200 of those 15,000 studies met their rigorous standards. After reviewing those 200 studies, Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn't improve grades or career achievement. It didn't even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of them selves, debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem.) At the time, Baumeister was quoted as saying that his findings were "the biggest disappointment of my career". Now he's on Dweck's side of the argument, and his work is going in a similar direction: He will soon publish an article showing that for college students on the verge of failing in class, esteem-building praise causes their grades to sink further. Baumeister has come to believe the continued appeal of self-esteem is largely tied to parents' pride in their children's achievements: It's so strong that "when they praise their kids, it's not that far from praising themselves."
The basic idea of the self esteem movement sounded plausible but was incorrect. Trying to improve a child's functioning by first trying to make them feel good about themselves ... does not work. But is there no relationship at all between functioning and self esteem? Yes there is, but as Martin Seligman has written, the causal relationship is more likely to be the other way around. By functioning well, people are more likely to start feeling well about themselves. So, first there is functioning well, then there is self esteem, not the other way around.

But does this mean there is no need for or place for praising children (or co-workers) at all? Sure there is. Here we get back to the thrilling research by Carol Dweck. She has shown it depends on the way you compliment. As I wrote before, she compared two forms of praise: process praise and trait praise. With process praise you compliment the child with his or her effort or strategy ("You must have worked hard", or: "You must have used a good strategy to solve this"). With trait praise you compliment the child for a trait, some kind of fixed internal quality ("You have done well, you must be very smart."). Both forms of praise feel good at first but after some time trait praise turns out to lead to some negative effects: it makes the person afraid of taking risks and defensive whereas process praise works well also in the long term.

So what does this mean? Don't go for the self esteem movement idea. Don't believe you have to make the person feel good about themselves first before you can expect progress. Praising can be very useful but process praise has a far better chance of working than trait praise, even when the child has a low self esteem.

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