Personal Development

On the Locus of Control

I have been thinking again recently about the concept of the ‘locus of control’, something I have mentioned every so often in this blog, but not mused about at length for some time. This is the idea that how you experience and interpret events is strongly shaped by where you attribute causation. If you believe that you make things happen, you have an internal locus of control; if you believe that things happen to you, your locus of control is external.

So I guess the first thing to note is why it is desirable to have an internal rather than external locus of control. On one hand, it affects how you feel about things: the sense that what you do makes a difference makes you feel more purposeful, less passive. You feel more optimistic about the future if you don’t feel like the victim of circumstance. On the other, it affects what you can achieve. Not everything we attempt is destined to succeed, but if we go in with the mindset that we can shape our own destinies, we are more likely to attempt things more often and to persevere longer in the face of obstacles.

Kahneman’s System 1 and Unconscious Prejudice

kahnemanDaniel Kahneman’s ideas about two different kinds of thinking helped me better understand two major areas in which I have long-term interests. I wrote about the first, the acquisition of skill, the other day. Today we get to mull over the thorny issue of unconscious prejudice.

Conversations about inequality and its impact in daily life are often fraught with anxiety and defensiveness because nobody really likes to think of themselves as unfair. Even more the case, nobody likes being accused of it - whether that is benefitting from an unfair advantage bestowed by others (aka privilege) or behaving differently to others along established lines of social hierarchy.

But research shows that many of the endemic structural inequalities we find in material terms are evident in social attitudes even of people who disapprove of them. Identical job applications are read more favourably when associated with a male name than with a female one. Measurements of pupil dilation show a more positive response to pictures of white faces than of black. Unconscious prejudice is clearly rife, but by its very nature is hard to identify and therefore hard to address.

On Kahneman’s Two Systems and the Acquisition of Skill


Last time I wrote about this, I gave an overview of the Daniel Kahneman’s model of two types of thinking we use, their functions, and their relationship. Today I want to mull over the implications of this for teaching and learning.

The ultimate goal of skill acquisition is to get System 1 doing all your routine operations. You want to be able to do your thing fluently, automatically, with ease and pleasure. It’s not just that it feels good to work in this mode, it’s that complex tasks need so many decisions to be coordinated that even if you had the cognitive resources to make them all in real time, it would be too slow to work properly. This is how it feels performing on a bad day when your inner voice is hectoring you: you react too late, and then you over-react.

Thinking Slowly About Daniel Kahneman

kahnemanYou know you really should read a book when you find several people you know from completely different contexts all independently saying you’d like it. And when the most recent recommendation comes just before a long journey, you’re primed to make an impulse purchase when you see that book in a shop at the airport. My friends know me well: Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow turned out to be exactly the kind of book I’d enjoy reading, and then mulling over repeatedly.

My purpose today is to organise my thoughts about his central model of two modes of thinking referenced in his title: the fast, intuitive, associative System 1 and the slow, effortful and painstaking System 2. There may be future posts where I work through the implications of this model in various contexts - principally the mechanisms of unconscious bias and the process of skill acquisition - but before I start to untangle those, I need to get my thoughts straight about the underlying concepts.

Goal-Setting in Action

Posting an article about goal-setting this week wasn’t purely a decision related to the New Year. I was also thinking about a session I was due to facilitate with the Music Team of Cleeve Harmony on Thursday. The chorus has just celebrated its 3rd birthday (indeed, they celebrated this week with a very well-attended Open Night), and are shifting from the new-chorus-doing-everything-as-novices phase into the now-we’re-established-and-have-a-sense-of-group-identity-how-do-we-want-to-develop? phase. Whilst they still feel they have plenty to learn, they have some solid experience and successes under their belts on which to build.

(I’m not sure that you ever really stop feeling that there’s more to learn, but being able to look back and measure the distance you’ve travelled since you knew even less does build a corporate sense of stability. And whatever the previous experience people come in with, the ensemble needs to do that journey together to generate that shared history.)

Multi-Dimensional Goal-Setting

This is something I’ve talked about in my Make Your Nerves Work For You sessions at various events over the years, but I think it’s worth mulling over in a wider context too. Goal-setting is not just about managing performance psychology, after all. (Though I think this wider context does help draw attention to the way that things we think of as specifically performance-related issues are often rooted far deeper in our whole relationship with our praxis.) And first blog-post of the New Year feels like a good moment to share these thoughts.

So, this is a nice simple formulation, borrowed from sports psychology. It distinguishes 3 different types of goal:

On the Fragmentation of Attention

I have often thought that when people complain of being short of time, it is more often that they are short of brain space. If you do an audit of every minute in your day, there are often plenty of minutes that are ‘unproductive’ if regarded from the outside. But, from the inside, you can’t make use of those minutes for anything very much because it just takes too much energy to upload something productive into your head for a brief time, and then - just when you’ve got going - dump it out again for something else.

This is of course that standard wisdom about why multitasking is inefficient - there are frictional costs of attention involved in every switch, so switch often enough and you get nothing done. Multitasking still has its place, I’d say, but only with routine tasks that you have at the tip of your brain anyway. I quite like the definition that multitasking is a technique for avoiding several dull tasks by doing them all at once.

Soapbox: ‘Creativity’ is Not an Excuse for Unprofessionalism

I’ve been wondering for a while if I’m going to have a rant about this, and it seems the thought won’t go away so here goes. The following graphic has been doing the rounds on social media and it has been irritating me quite disproportionately for what is intended to be a friendly and empathy-inducing little picture.
To start with, let’s acknowledge the psychological truths that it does capture with some success. The red phase says something valid about how resistance to a task is proportionate to its demands on your brain’s background-processing functions. The things that are the hardest to start are the ones that, once embarked upon, will invade your dreams. And the flurry of work up to the deadline reminds us about the end-effect, and the way it so helpfully refreshes attention as we head into the finish line.

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