How To Do Life

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Can Anyone Figure Out What Makes Us Tick?

Considering paradoxes can tell us a lot about human nature.

I'm reading the book, What Should We Be Worried About?: Real Scenarios that Keep Scientists Up at Night. It consists of 100 top scientists' few-page explications of their greatest fears. 

One of those essays, by Amanda Gefter, made me stop reading and write this post, because it raised an issue that will change the way I think about how to identify and solve problems. Gefter touts this approach to research: Identify a paradox and try to explain it. The example she used was from basic physics, of which I know very little. So below, I'll try to apply the method to a field I do know something about—human behavior. 

Here are four such paradoxes, and a proposed resolution for each. Do you recognize them from your own life, and if so, have they ever baffled you?

1. Sometimes, we're motivated more by criticism than by praise.

One of educational psychology's core principles is to emphasize praise over criticism. The theory is that praise gives feedback and builds self-esteem and thus motivates the recipient to repeat the praised behavior and to make further efforts to improve.

Yet how often have we heard that a person took on a challenge only when told, "You can't do that." I recall a client who said that only when a high school counselor told him, "You're not college material," did he decide to work hard at school—he wanted to prove that counselor wrong. 

A possible resolution of this paradox lies in there being a hierarchy of motivators: Yes, praise is a motivator but being told, "You can't," is often even stronger. Why? Because it's hard to accept that you're inadequate or a loser. In contrast, praise, while motivating, also fosters complacency. The recipient can't help but relax a bit: "Okay, I'm good enough, at least for a while." Perhaps that partly explains why individuals from some Asian cultures, in which self-effacement is emphasized more than praise, can tend to have, on average, lower self-esteem, even though they might have very high educational or professional achievement.

2. Heart attack victims quickly return to their bad habits.

Ninety percent of coronary bypass patients are, within two years, back to their old fat-, smoke-, and/or stress-filled ways.

Perhaps they're not convinced that retaining the lifestyle changes demanded by their episode will significantly-enough delay another coronary event. Or they believe their life is bad enough that even if reverting to their unhealthy behaviors shortens their life, the pleasures would be worth it.

A possible resolution may be for patients—perhaps with the help of a counselor—to ask themselves about each of the above. Consciously considering those could make some patients at least moderate their behavior. Perhaps even more potent, the person might look for motivating reasons to live longer—the joys of grandparenting, nature, music, work, whatever.

3. Employers often knowingly hire a worse employee than necessary.


Employers are ever more focused on cost-cutting: reducing training budgets, expense accounts, anything that doesn't directly build the bottom line. Yet in hiring, an enormous expense, they often throw cost-effectiveness out the window. 

The Internet makes it easy to do a worldwide search for the most cost-effective employee. Yet many employers cast a narrow net and worse, too-heavily base hiring decisions on looks, a pleasant personality, etc.

The paradox may derive from the fact that, for many managers, sexual attraction or the drive to feel superior or liked trumps their concern about the bottom line. The boss loses nothing by cutting expense-account budgets, but hiring the most cost-effective employee often means hiring someone less attractive or less potentially sycophantic—or who is smarter and harder-working than he or she is.

A partial resolution may reside in making decision-makers aware of that tendency. Of course, that won't work with managers who, even if so aware, care more about personal gratification than organizational success. At least a small percentage of that category might be helped if they were asked this foundational and likely guilt-inducing question: "Considering what's good for your career, your coworkers, your organization, and society, how important is your pleasure versus the organization's products and services being better?" 

4. Many people would rather suffer the severe consequences of long-term unemployment than accept a low-status job.

Many unemployed people whose most recent job was white-collar, or skilled blue-collar, won't take a job that is "beneath them." They'd rather be unemployed than, for example, work at a hotel. 

Perhaps that derives from thinking that if they take such a job, they'll be permanently stuck at it: They'll come home tired from work and lack the energy to look for a better position. Besides, their resume will indicate that their most recent job is a hotel cleaner. That's unlikely to make their application rise to the top of the stack for a management job. The resistance may also derive from fear of embarrassment—having to tell spouse, family, and friends that they've gone from white- or skilled blue-collar to service.

A possible solution might be to first acknowledge to the person that such worries are understandable but that they may be sufficiently mitigatible to justify taking such a job:

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  1. Let your supervisor and the hotel general manager know you're eager to be promoted and ask what you need to do to make that likely.
  2. Defer adding that low-level employment to your resume for a few weeks. Longer than that gets increasingly dishonest. Use that time pressure to make yourself devote a few hours a week toward finding a higher-level job: Contact everyone in your near and distant network, cold-contact employers that are at least one notch above. For example, if you're a room cleaner at a budget hotel, drop in on the manager at the Ritz-Carlton and ask for a better job but say you're willing even to be a room cleaner: Better to be a room cleaner at the Ritz-Carlton than at a motel.
  3. Reduce the embarrassment by not telling family and friends about the job right away, or if necessary, explaining only that you've taken an interim job and are working hard to find something better.

    Marty Nemko was named “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian and he enjoys a 96 percent client-satisfaction rate. In addition to his articles here on PsychologyToday.com, many more of Marty Nemko's writings are archived on www.martynemko.com. Of Nemko's seven books, the most relevant to readers of this blog is How to Do Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School. His bio is on Wikipedia.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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