26 July 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of Constructive Change

Is there anything about yourself or your life that you've been wanting to change, but somehow just cannot get enough willpower together to make the change? You may be going about it the wrong way. Psychologist Ibrahim Senay of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign looked at the difference between "willfulness and willingness", or the difference between "making it happen" and "letting it happen."

In twelve step programs, for example, participants must admit that they cannot make the needed change by themselves, and must be willing to let a "higher power" assist them in changing. The approach has worked for atheists and believers alike, for good reason, if the person is willing to let go, and let constructive change happen to him.
It’s a tricky concept for many and must be taken on faith. But now there may be science to back it up. Psychologist Ibrahim Senay of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign figured out an intriguing way to create a laboratory version of both willfulness and willingness—and to explore possible connections to intention, motivation and goal-directed actions. In short, he identified some key traits needed not only for long-term abstinence but for any personal objective, from losing weight to learning to play guitar.

...Here is how Senay tested this notion. He had a group of volunteers work on a series of anagrams—changing the word “sauce” to “cause,” for example, or “when” to “hewn.” But before starting this task, half the volunteers were told to contemplate whether they would work on anagrams, while the others simply thought about the fact that they would be doing anagrams in a few minutes. The difference is subtle, but the former were basically putting their mind into wondering mode, while the latter were asserting themselves and their will. It is the difference between “Will I do this?” and “I will do this.”

The results were provocative. People with wondering minds completed significantly more anagrams than did those with willful minds. In other words, the people who kept their minds open were more goal-directed and more motivated than those who declared their objective to themselves.

These findings are counterintuitive. Think about it. Why would asserting one’s intentions undermine rather than advance a stated goal? Perhaps, Senay hypothesized, it is because questions by their nature speak to possibility and freedom of choice. Meditating on them might enhance feelings of autonomy and intrinsic motivation, creating a mind-set that promotes success.

...Next, Senay ran still another version of this experiment, one more obviously related to healthy living. Instead of anagrams, he changed the goal to exercise; that is, he measured the volunteers’ intentions to start and stick to a fitness regimen. And in this real-world scenario, he got the same basic result: those primed with the interrogative phrase “Will I?” expressed a much greater commitment to exercise regularly than did those primed with the declarative phrase “I will.”

What’s more, when the volunteers were questioned about why they felt they would be newly motivated to get to the gym more often, those primed with the question said things like: “Because I want to take more responsibility for my own health.” Those primed with “I will” offered strikingly different explanations, such as: “Because I would feel guilty or ashamed of myself if I did not.” _SciAm
The exercise of willpower involves a tightening and pulling together of the person's resources. The "I", or ego, is fortified and solidified. This makes change -- for good or bad -- more difficult.

The exercise of a wondering willingness opens gaps in the ego -- places where the subconscious components of motivational change can slip in unnoticed, subtly altering the sub-surface dynamics.

Salesmen, propagandists, political operatives, drug dealers, and pickup artists know all about this -- and use numerous cues to get inside a person's mind in order to create manipulated change. But if more parents, teachers, supervisors, and counselors understood these inbuilt mechanisms of change better -- and were willing to call on them to aid the growth of the individuals under their care or instruction -- the everyday world would take on a more constructive appearance.

In the end, it is up to the person to choose the attitude he will adopt in facing the world and his life. And it is that attitude -- whether of willfulness or wondering willingness -- which makes all the difference.

The tricky part is that there is no one attitude which suits all situations. Human beings who attain a higher level of existence are more likely to possess a fuller toolbox of attitudes with which to approach a wide array of situations. Such persons are able to slip from one attitude to another as conditions warrant. This wide and easy adaptability of a full palette of attitudes is priceless, and is unlikely to be achieved automatically -- nor to be the result of indoctrination.

The leaked emails of JournoList and UAE Hadley CRU, provide two good examples of the destructiveness of groupthink and orchestrated indoctrination. Any society that breeds such perversity is in desperate need of constructive change on a societal level.

Like that's gonna happen. In lieu of that, focus on the personal level. Personal constructive change is more satisfying, regardless.

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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