self-control

Raisins and Marshmallows

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41n6+3DqQ7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_You must all have heard about the famous “marshmallow” experiments by Walter Mischel at Stanford University about 50 years ago.

He was exploring the idea of delayed gratification among school children. Basically he found that in long-term follow ups the children who could exercise self-control and delay eating the marshmallows did better in life.

Now researchers at the University of Warwick have carried out similar experiments with children at 20 months of age using raisins. The toddlers were told they had to wait a minute before they could eat a raisin.

Almost a quarter were able to resist the urge to eat the raisin. Six years later, at age 8, these were the children found to have done best at school.

Note to parents: if you want to help your kids develop emotional intelligence don’t give in to their demands too easily.

Story in the Times, research published in the Journal of Paediatrics

From Rags to Riches and an early grave

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competition_corporate_ladder_1600_wht_6915The struggle to climb out of the gutter extracts a toll on your health according to a recent American study.

Researchers from Northwestern University studied around 300 rural African-American teenagers. Those from low-income families who exhibited high levels of self-control, and were thus more likely to achieve their goals, had immune cells that were biologically much oder than their actual age.

Rapid ageing of these cells has been linked to premature death and its thought to be due to long-term high levels of stress hormone.

To achieve upward mobility these youths must overcome multiple obstacles and often do so with limited support from their schools, peers, and families. Even if they succeed, these youths may go on to experience alienation in university and work-place settings and discrimination if they are African-American”

“Collectively these experiences seem likely to cause persistent activation of stress response systems”

Professor Greg Miller went on to say “For low-income youths, self-control may act as a double-edged sword facilitating academic success and psychological adjustment while at the same time undermining physical health”

In the research those with high self-control were able to focus better on long-term rather than short-term goals. were less depressed, used substances less frequently, and were less aggressive – regardless of their gender, family income or education

In addition those from low-income families were more likely to have the ageing immune cells.

Previous studies have shown that poorer children with better self-control were also at greater risk of heart disease because of their obesity, high blood pressure and levels of stress hormones in their blood.

The researchers add “These patterns suggest that for low-income youth resilience is a skin deep phenomenon wherein outward indicators of success can mask emerging problems with health”

They also think that providers of “character-building programmes” should include health education to help the youth mitigate health problems that stop them achieving their full potential. Low-income youths who do well in school and stay out of trouble are thought to have overcome disadvantage but it’s only half the full story it seems.

It would be interesting to know if these findings translate into other cultures and countries or whether they are only applicable to African-Americans from poor backgrounds.

Resilient Leadership

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bottomlineOver the years there have been many approaches to leadership with trait theories, style theories, functional models, situational/contingency models, transactional/transformational theories, ideas about biological and personality characteristics, and more recently emotional intelligence competencies

So do leaders need to be more intelligent than their followers? Well probably a bit, because that inspires confidence, but not too much more intelligent.

Do they need to be empathetic? It’s probably better if they have tough empathy ie “grow or go” but they do need social skills.

Do they need to be liked? No, but they need to be respected. And since the last recession integrity has become important again.

Difficult times require people to perform better than normal and people need exceptional leaders to help them do that. By exceptional I don’t mean charismatic or heroic leaders – although some people respond to that style of leadership which “encourages the heart” – but leaders who do what they say they will do ie are conscientious, and also act as role models.

And to do that they need to be both self-confident and emotionally stable.

Research among elite performers found that they had a number of characteristics in common. As well as being intelligent, disciplined and bold, with strong practical and interpersonal skills, they bounced back from adversity.

Jim Collins describes in his book “How the mighty fall” people who are exasperatingly persistent and never give up. They are not necessarily the brightest, most talented, or best looking, but they are successful because they know that not giving up is the most important thing they do. He says; “success is falling down and getting up one more time, without end”.

This resilience (from the latin to leap back) is linked to personal attributes such as calmness in stressful situations, reflection on performance through feedback, and learning systematically from both success and failure.

Resilient people generally:

Recognise what they can control and influence and do something about it, rather than worry about what they can’t
Stay involved rather than becoming cynical or detached or simply walking away
Work with others to shape the environment and influence things that affect them most
Act as a source of inspiration to others to counter self-destructive behaviour

Aren’t these the sort of behaviours you would expect from good leaders? So it’s not just about “bouncing back” and carrying on where you left off before. It’s about reflecting and learning from what has happened and then getting back to business.

Resilience seems to be an innate ability for most people and is increasingly found in leadership competency frameworks where it is linked with confidence, authenticity and ethical leadership ideas.

Modern leaders need not just brains and emotional intelligence but also resilience.

Acting as a role model is an essential part of being an effective leader hence the need for them to be hardy and emotionally stable. Research shows that resilient leaders can have a positive effect on the well-being of organisations and their employees so it’s well worth organisations developing such capabilities.

See how you can develop resilience

First posted on SGANDA in 2011

Emotionally Intelligent Leadership: Command & Self-control

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Emotional Intelligence, self-control, and those marshmallowsSuccessful executives see trouble as an opportunity and not a threat“, wrote Carly Chynoweth in the Sunday Times when I first posted this in 2010. Has anything changed?

The article was about the necessity for leaders to take tough decisions in tough times. One contributor said that you had to learn to thrive on pressure or go under, and it was your choice to make basically. He went on to say; “people at the top develop mental toughness… it’s about willpower and not seeing yourself as a victim“.

And a former Chief Executive said; “It’s about mindset and the employees in front of you. If you have a bad day you hide it, because you can be transmitting a virus“.

If self-awareness is the first building block in emotional intelligence, awareness of others’ feelings, or empathy, and self-control come next. And one of the most popular stories reflecting a cornerstone of emotional intelligence is the experiment carried out by Walter Mischel at Standford University in the 1960s using marshmallows to measure self-control.

In a recent post; “Practise makes perfect, probably“, I referred to David Schenk, a writer on genetics, who claims that the case for genetic predisposition is overstated and that if you practise hard enough you can even become a genius. In the same article he cites the marshmallow experiment as an example of how children can learn to develop self-discipline.

Another similar story that caught my eye appeared in the international edition of USA Today (one of the few “English” newspapers you can get on Eastern European airlines). The headline said “The secret of school success. Want your kids to master books? First they need to master themselves. Fortunately new research is finding that self-control can be taught.” The story was about programmes teaching self-regulation in American schools and at the heart of it was a description of the famous marshmallow experiment run by Walter Mischel in the 1960s. The story also criticises some modern parenting methods as undermining the development of self-regulation.

Back in November 2009 both the Observer and the Sunday Times picked up on the findings of a Demos think-tank report. The Sunday Times headline was “Bad parents kill prospects of working class”. It reported on an increase in social mobility between the end of WW2 and the 1970s followed by a period of stagnation up to 2000. The report identified three traits that were most important for children to improve their social lot.

These were:

  1. the ability to concentrate and stick with tasks,
  2. self-regulation – whether someone can control emotions and bounce back from disappointment, and
  3. empathy – the ability to be sensitive to other people.

The report went on to say that the best form of parenting to inculcate these characteristics was “tough love” ie setting clear rules and boundaries, instilled by discussion and affection. And the marshmallow experiment was cited as a predictor of success in life. The report also described disengaged and emotionally callous children and also suggested expanding the role of Health Visitors to provide supportive parenting.

The Observer took a similar tack with “Tough love breeds smart children“. This article contained a number of statistics and found that among the 9,000 families it tracked for the survey only 13% used a tough love approach combining discipline and warmth. Although the research found that it was the style of parenting, rather than income or social background that developed the 3 character traits referred to above, this approach was more common in wealthy families and where parents were married. The parents’ level of education was also an important factor , as was breastfeeding until 6 months.

The report also claimed that these soft skills, or character capabilities, had become increasingly important in life and were now 33 times more important in determining income for those who turned 30 in 2000 than for those 12 years older.

And in advance of a report from the think tank Demos the Times published a piece about the importance of self-control and empathy in children and included a description of Mischel’s now famous marshmallow test.

Mischel had been monitoring the lives of dozens of his subjects since he started the marshmallow experiments at a nursery on the campus of Stanford University, California, in the 1960s. His findings have proved so compelling that 40 of his original subjects, then in their forties, were preparing to undergo scans in the hope of answering a perplexing human question: “why are some of us better than others at resisting temptation?”

Brain imaging provides a very exciting and important new tool,” said Mischel, who now works at Columbia University in New York. By examining the differences between the brains of subjects who turned out to be good at controlling their impulses and those who wolfed down the marshmallow the moment it was offered, researchers hope to come up with new ways of teaching the benefits of delayed gratification.

Update

41n6+3DqQ7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Walter Mischel published a new book in September 2014: “The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control”.

Emotionally Intelligent Leadership

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Emotionally Intelligent LeadershipI first posted this in 2010 after coming across a great article on Emotional Intelligence by Dan Bobinski in Management Issues.

He maintained that 2/3 of the difference between average and top performers is due to EI and that in senior positions it accounts for 80% of the difference. Which seems a good reason for managers and leaders to work at developing or enhancing their EI levels.

And so he set out a 10 step plan to help them do just that, starting with the idea that we should stop thinking about good and bad personality and think of people as just being different. And that different isn’t the same as difficult, it’s just that people haven’t learnt how to deal with differences. 

Since Goleman popularised the term emotional intelligence 20 years ago it has become massive (When I googled the term in 2010 I  got almost 3 million hits. Today I got over 7 million). Interestingly when he first described EI it had 5 elements but once he became involved with HAY/McBer it evolved into the classic 4-box model much beloved by consultants. The 4 boxes can be generically described as Self Awareness; Self Control; Awareness of Others; and Managing Relationships.

Self-awareness is generally agreed to be the starting point in developing EI and also in developing leadership skills. In a report published by the Work Foundation in 2010, Penny Tankin said: “Outstanding leaders focus on people. Instead of seeing people as one of many priorities, they put the emphasis on people issues first“. And the Institute for Leadership & Management (ILM), which obviously has an interest in developing leaders, agrees with the report that developing leaders is possible but difficult.

The ILM’s then Chief Executive Penny de Valk said: ” A lot of it is about becoming more self-aware. You need to be much more conscious of the clues you use both verbally and in gestures. … a lot of coaching now teaches this kind of thing“. Tankin agrees and adds that psychometric profiling will give an insight into what people are like and any areas for improvement and that; “a lot of these things can be learned from feedback from others“.

As a coaching psychologist this is music to my ears as I regularly use psychometric tools such a the MBTI and Firo to help clients become more self-aware – followed up by 180 and/or 360 feedback.

At the time I was originally posted this, Gordon Brown was apparently demonstrating his lack of self-awareness, and empathy if it comes to that. You may remember that he called someone who disagreed with him a bigot (see Bobinski’s proposition that different can be seen as difficult to deal with), and then blamed everyone but himself for the outcome of his petulant outburst. PS GB later accepted the blame for what happened, presumably after discussing the matter with his PR advisors.

Surprising many people, Gordon Brown showed a more human side with his resignation speech even admitting that he had frailties. There is some aspect of his personality which stops that being part of his public persona – perhaps his need to be in control (which then allegedly unravels under stress). Good leaders know that occasionally it pays to selectively admit to weaknesses.

Originally posted in 2010 on SGANDA (this has been edited)

Motivating yourself needs the right words

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pushing_someone_to_the_edge_of_custom_text_13242Pretty much everyone knows about using self talk to help improve self-control. It’s become a staple of most self-improvement books and life coaches as well as sports coaches. But it turns out that the form of words you use can make a big difference.

An interesting series of experiments reported in the BPS’s Psychology magazine found that speaking to yourself in the second person i.e. “You can do it” was more effective than speaking to yourself in the first person i.e. “I can do it“.

Not only did the participants in the study who used the second person encouragement complete more problems, they also said they would be happier doing them again in future.

Why would there be this difference? The researchers speculate that when the going gets tough using the second person self-talk cues memories of being encouraged and supported by others, even back to childhood.

The experiments weren’t perfect relying on psychology students and written self-talk in relation to solving anagrams and planning to do more exercise. But it’s something to think about if you’re in the coaching business (and not too late to start encouraging your kids!).

 

 

My most read posts in 2012

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writer's_block_grayYes it’s the time of year when I get my feedback from WordPress about whether or not anyone out there actually read my posts and which they liked the best.

I wrote a measly 17 posts last year – falling far short of my own expectations of one a week! That brings the total to 72 since I started it in 2010.

This is partly because I was enamoured with tweeting and because I also write a leadership & management blog amongst others. As with all my blogs most of the pictures I use are ones I have taken on my travels so I hope you liked them as well.

My readers come from 75 different countries; mostly the UK but with the USA and Canada not far behind.

In reverse order:

My 5th most read post was: “Can you recognise emotions?” from November 2011

My 4th most read post was: “No country for grey-haired men” from January 2011, which was in second place last year.

My 3rd most read post was: “Moral judgements & decision-making under the influence” from October 2010, which was also in third place last year

My 2nd most read post was: “Emotional Intelligence, self-control and those marshmallows” from May 2010, which was in fourth place last year

And my most read post was: “The four agreements – shamanic emotional intelligence” from August 2010. This has been in first place for 3 years running.

So 4 out of 5 posts were also in my list last year. Must do better with new material next year!

Thank you for reading, liking, and following. All my posts are tweeted at @bizpsycho which you can follow or you can subscribe on this site

Self-control, again

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I’ve posted recently on self-control so I was interested to read a post from PsyBlog, one of my favourite bloggers, about the impact of money on self-control.

In fact it was the mere mention of money that appeared to boost self-control following experiments that tired the “self-control muscle”.

I’ve also posted recently on the effect of money on “matching and mirroring” where a reminder about money breaks the rapport established through mimicry of NVC.

I wonder if the same mechanism is at work here. In both example people recover their self-control; in the mimicry example they break the spell cast on them by the person trying to develop better rapport (whether intentionally or not). Does money always have this effect on people?

If you are really interested in this topic Psyblog has a post which sets out a number of ways to improve your self-control


The Science of Self-control – use it or lose it

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A survey of almost 600 adults by the American Psychological Association found that 93% had set themselves behavioural change goals for 2012.

This was even though fewer than half had actually succeeded in maintaining goals they had set the  previous year

Most goals were health-or finance-related. When asked what obstacles they faced  1 in 4 said lack of willpower although 70% optimistically thought it could be improved.

Building on the work of Walter Mischel (famous for the marshmallow experiments) and Roy Baumeister among others, the APA’s report on the research makes the case that willpower is ike a muscle. Short-term demands weaken it but using it more leads to better self-control in the long run.

Baumeister says that behavioural change needs three components: the motivation to change, monitoring change, and willpower, whilst Mischel’s experiments highlight the need to plan ahead and avoid temptation.

The report also recommends ways of developing willpower including keeping your blood sugar levels balanced through eating and snacking healthily as some research suggests low glucose level weaken self-control. Other research found it was merely necessary to wash your mouth out with an energy drink to boost self-conrol i.e. the carbohydrates boost willpower through affecting motivation not nutrition levels.

Another method is using IF – THEN statements: if  I’m offered a cupcake then I’ll eat a raw carrot, or if I’m offered a glass of beer then I’ll have a fruit juice instead.

The APA’s CEO said; “it’s reassuring to know that even though people view a lack of willpower as a hurdle in their quest  to live healthier lives they believe that they can learn the skills they need to change their lifestyles”.

Research shows that setting goals, monitoring progress, and seeking support can be very effective in helping people increase their self-control and lead healthier lives.

It also has implications in work and management. Baumeister’s model is not too dissimilar to Beckhard’s change management equation and self-control is a key element in developing emotional intelligence (EI).

Read more about APA report here

Self-control (those marshmallows again)

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Latest research from New Zealand demonstrates that childhood levels of self-control are clearly linked with outcomes later in life.

1,000 NZ children were assessed at 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 years of age and then interviewed at age 22.

Participants with poor self-control were more likely to become one-parent families, more likely to have credit and health problems, and more likely to have a criminal conviction. This was true even allowing for the effects of intelligence and social class.

  • In the top fifth – in terms of childhood self-control –  11% had serious adult health problems compared to 27% in the bottom fifth.
  • 13% of the top fifth were involved in a criminal offence compared with 43% of the bottom fifth.

Terrie Moffitt and her colleagues argue that this is a strong case for introducing universal self-control training into schools for children and adolescents. This would not carry the stigma of one-to-one interventions and would benefit everybody in society.

Source: February 2011 Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences

NB Marshmallows refers to Mischel’s famous experiment often cited in connection with emotional intelligence.

Here is another article about self-control with an embedded video showing 4-year olds using distraction to avoid eating the marshmallows.

Developing Resilience

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Research among elite performers found that they had a number of characteristics in common. As well as being intelligent, disciplined and bold, with strong practical and interpersonal skills, they bounced back from adversity.

Jim Collins describes in his new book “How the mighty fall” people who are exasperatingly persistent and never give up. They are not necessarily the brightest, most talented, or best looking, but they are successful because they know that not giving up is the most important thing they do. He says; “success is falling down and getting up one more time, without end”.

Early research on resilience focussed on survival in extreme situations (and we still see examples in the recent events in Japan). However resilience is now seen as a more regular phenomenon and the evidence is mounting that most people recover from traumatic events and regain their emotional equilibrium fairly quickly.

In doing so they may use seemingly dysfunctional coping strategies, for example boosting their egos almost to the point of narcissistic behaviour. Or they may choose to repress negative thoughts or emotions – what some psychologists might see as denial. George A Bonanno calls this “coping ugly”.

In his research after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the SARS epidemic, he found that up to 2/3 of survivors experienced few if any symptoms and after 6 months there were only about 10% who needed help.

Until recently disaster sites would be inundated with counsellors offering critical incident stress debriefing, something now considered unnecessary and possible harmful. And after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami the World Health Organisation actually warned against using this technique. It only takes one person in a group to react badly to re-living the trauma for the whole group to be affected.

Linked theoretically with positive psychology and CBT resilience is partly about filtering negative messages, to enable you to take a more realistic perspective, and partly about being single-minded about what you can and cannot control.

It is also linked to personal attributes such as calmness in stressful situations, reflection on performance through feedback, and learning systematically from both success and failure. Resilient people generally:

  • Recognise what they can control and influence and do something about it, rather than worry about what they can’t
  • Stay involved rather than becoming cynical or detached or simply walking away
  • Work with others to shape the environment and influence things that affect them most
  • Act as a source of inspiration to others to counter self-destructive behaviour

So it’s not just about “bouncing back” and carrying on where you left off before. It’s about reflecting and learning from what has happened and then getting back to business.

So can you learn to be more resilient? Clarke & Nicholson, authors of “Bounce back from whatever life throws at you”, think so and set out a 10-point plan.

  1. Visualise success
  2. Boost your self-esteem
  3. Enhance your efficacy – take control
  4. Become more optimistic
  5. Manage your stress
  6. Improve your decision-making
  7. Ask for help
  8. Deal with conflict
  9. Learn
  10. Be yourself

And the US Army certainly thinks so as well. Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology, is currently delivering a multi-million dollar contract to teach over 1 million soldiers how to be more resilient and using a “train the trainer” approach to train NCOs how to cascade the programme.

Based partly on the Penn University resilience programme the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Programme incorporates large chunks of positive psychology eg looking at character strengths, emotional intelligence elements such as empathy, self-awareness and impulse control, and CBT techniques such as Ellis’s ABC model.

Because it also incorporates elements about family and spirituality it may appear to have more in common with life-coaching than executive coaching but it is designed to reinforce the warrior ethic and to make better leaders.

Research shows that resilient people can have a positive effect on the well-being of organisations and their employees so it’s well worth organisations developing such capabilities.

If you want a free report on character strengths go to: http://www.viacharacter.org/

Make better use of your brain

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High achievement has little to do with your IQ but to a partnership between your brain and behaviour.

So say Drs Brown and Fenske, regular contributors to the Harvard Business Review, in their book “The Winner’s Brain”.

They also believe that the brain retains the capacity to change throughout adulthood (also see “Old doesn’t mean stupid“).

They say if you put in the work you can enhance brain function which in turn will help you become more self-aware, more resilient and with better control over attention and emotional responses (some of the key aspects of emotional intelligence).

Using neuro-imaging techniques researchers can now see which parts of the brain are active when people are engaged in specific tasks and also what impact certain activities have on those areas. They believe that those functions can be enhanced –  literally fine-tuning the brain.

They suggest a number of strategies to help us perform better.

  1. Meditation for stress relief can affect visible changes in areas of the brain which in turn have an impact on our ability to control attention and our emotional response
  2. The bigger the task the more likely you are to procrastinate. Therefore you nedd to reframe the problem and break it into small, concrete steps (bite size chunks as trainers might say). It is the ability to change the way you look at a task or problem that is important and the more you do it the more success you have.
  3. Brain functions that provide focus break down when you are multi-tasking or have distractions. To work optimally you can’t multi-task because the brain has limitations when doing multiple things (see “Multi-tasking makes you stupider than smoking pot“). So eliminate distractions but not all of them. To be at your best you may need to reduce activity in parts of the brain involved in self-monitoring and self-criticism. So us a gentle distraction like background music or ambient sounds just enough to keep your critical self-conscious occupied so you can focus and work more easily. But avoid abrupt distractions like phone calls or e-mail alerts.

Source: HBR September 2010

Updated 5 November 2010: Neuroscientists at the University of Oxford have discovered that passing electricity through the brain, from the right parietal lobe to the left, improves mathematical ability. If you pass the current in the opposite direction however it reduces your ability.

The research was looking for ways of treating dyscalculia, the numerical equivalent of dyslexia, which is thought to affect 6% of the population. Such a treatment might also be useful for people who have suffered a stroke or brain injury.

Of course there would be nothing to stop people with normal ability in maths using such a treatment to improve their ability eg when taking exams. This could replace the smart drugs such as Ritalin and Provigil used by some people as cognitive enhancers by improving attention and alertness. (See my earlier post; “Keeping up with speed“).