I’ve been thinking a lot about the psychology of change lately. For one thing, it’s quite relevant to the pivot projects (https://pivotprojects.org)
I thought it would be fun to write a series of blog posts on experiences of personal change, either as a student, as a teacher, or more commonly, neither. It would be even more fun if readers shared a bit about their experiences of psychological change. Wouldn’t it be to everyone’s benefit if we understood the general principles of psychological change so that we can do a better job adapting to this ever-changing world? So, think of the example below as just “my turn.” And, then, it will be your turn.
When I was in “Junior High School,” I was interested in some parts of school and not so much in others. I didn’t care about my grades but they were okay because at that point, I had a very good memory. And, then, one day near the end of eighth grade, I happened upon a book in our library that said good grades were important because — guess what?
You’ll get into college? Nope.
That you’ll get a better paying job? Nope.
This book claimed a reward much more meaningful than either of those were at that point in my life. It claimed that if a guy got good grades, he’d be liked by the girls! Here was a secret formula to success with girls. All I had to do was get good grades!
It did not even occur to me at the time that this claim probably had zero data behind it. It was likely written to induce guys to get good grades. I honestly don’t even think it said anything about what it meant for girls to get good grades. However, that may have been because the book was titled and aimed solely at boys. Of course, it could simply be the rampant sexism that is with us still — (sigh) — like that one guest who you know is about to barf on your rug because they’ve had too much to drink, and they live next door and they’re being obnoxious and you really just wish your neighbor would head home but they don’t. Instead, they stay until they disgust and insult everyone, barf on the carpet, then start screaming at you for serving cheap wine. That guest is what continued sexism & misogyny is like for most us. It’s also what all the other superiority BS is like for most of us.
I had no such consciousness at the time. I just remember reading it and feeling as though I had discovered something akin to “The Fountain of Youth” or “El Dorado.” What’s amazing is that reading something in a book altered my behavior immediately and in a way that lasted for years. Getting girls to like me. That was a motivation that I could tie into. I think because getting girls was also tied into competition, it also changed me so that I viewed getting the best grades as winning. I already liked to win! Oh, yes. I was competitive. Overly competitive. But I had never thought of grades in school as any kind of competition. I got my grades based on how well I did and you got your grades based on how well you did. The two had been, in my mind, completely unrelated events.
Until I read that passage.
How many people did that passage impact? For me, even if it wasn’t based on any real data, it had a positive impact. I got good grades and I did have wonderful girlfriends. I got praise from my classmates too. I didn’t ever really feel the envy & hate portrayed in so many modern movies about high school. Maybe I was just too busy studying to notice.
I wonder if the same passage could have impacted some people’s lives negatively? Maybe someone read that and they just found out that they had gotten their girlfriend pregnant. They might have read such a passage and thought it was a cruel irony. Or, perhaps they were gay. Or, maybe they had a learning disability and were already working their tail off to keep a C average.
And, I suppose that the majority of kids my age who read it might have known it was BS from the git-go. On them, it had little or no effect.
Even if I am the only one to have ever taken it seriously, it is pretty remarkable nonetheless that my behavior could be pushed into a new state simply by reading a sentence or two in a book.
See? There is hope for humanity!
This essay describes some of the blockages to change; in particular, what is sometimes called “cognitive dissonance” In general, our decisions, unlike those of classical economic theory, are path-dependent. https://petersironwood.com/2019/07/18/essays-on-america-wednesday/
This post talks about how our habits can be so strong that we literally do not see what is right in front of us. https://petersironwood.com/2017/02/25/the-invisibility-cloak-of-habit/
The link here is to thoughts on how hard it is to face up to realizing that we’ve been fooled.