Appearances Can Be Deceiving (6. Perfectionism)

April 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Good enough for government work—not! The government has its share of perfectionists, as well as its share of those with casual standards. Perfectionism is normally distributed throughout the world. It is neither a good nor a bad thing—rather, its value depends on the needs of a particular situation.

My wife once worked with a government department whose manager was noted for bleeding red ink over all outgoing correspondence generated by their office staff. Not once, but draft after draft. A professional might submit a draft ten times before the perfectionist manager found nothing more to perfect and finally approved the letter for sending.

What causes people to be perfectionistic? In five previous posts, I presented behaviors that are often interpreted in one way but that could have other possible causes. First, we considered how fidgeting is not always impatience. Then, how solitude is not necessarily loneliness. Third, how smiling is not always liking. Fourth, how bravery is not always prompted by courage. And then last week, how volunteering is not always altruistic. I call these multi-source behaviors. Perfectionism is sixth on my list. People engage in perfectionist behavior for diverse reasons.

Tibetan sand art

Gaden Shartse Tibetan Monks, S. C. Hargis, 2010. CC BY-ND 2.0

Swarthmore College social psychologist Barry Schwartz, in The Paradox of Choice (2004), identified two extremes of decision-making—satisficing and maximizing. A satisficer is the proverbial good-enough-for-government-work decision-maker who, for example, might go to one office equipment store, look at their desk chairs, try one or two out, and then make a decision on the spot. A maximizer, on the other hand, is the proverbial make-a mountain-out-of-molehill decision-maker who expands every decision into a do-or-die situation. The maximizer might, for example, go to ten office equipment stores, sit in over 50 chairs, comparing prices and features constantly, and finally make a decision, agonizingly, while the satisficer has used the same time to write the great American novel.

So, why do maximizers do it? Why do people need to make every decision a major event? And, on the other hand, why do some not care about zero defects, ever?

As with other multi-meaning terms, perfectionism springs from many motives. Pittsburgh psychologist Pavel Somov has identified four sources of perfectionist behavior:

  • Neuroticism: striving for perfection in hopes of receiving attention and approval—arises out of a personal sense of insecurity
  • Narcissism: striving for perfection, especially on the part of others, as a way of offsetting low sense of self-worth
  • High-principles: striving for perfection as a form of moral, even Puritanical, righteousness, which can cause a judgmental effect toward others around them
  • Hyper-attentive: striving for perfection because of an innate temperament that finds concentration natural and satisfying

I would add these possible causes:

  • Need for control: a form of micromanagement in which everything needs to be done “my way”
  • High will to achieve: a genuine desire to be expert, or even to be the best, similar to the motive that spurs people to aspire to the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice described by Florida State University psychologist Anders Ericsson
  • The consequence of mastery: the Dunning-Kruger effect asserts that the best of the best have an acute sense after every performance that they could have done better—they see flaws in their performance that second-tier performers are clueless about
  • Competitive threat: a genuine concern that unless one is focused on perfection that one will be destroyed in business by masterful competitors
  • Following a model: never knowing anything different, as the Tibetan monks who have grown up with peers who model perfection daily
  • Aesthetics: taking deep pleasure in seeing something perfectly executed

Regardless of the motive for the occasions on which we are perfectionistic, we must realize that perfection is not always called for, and is often seen as satisfying more of a personal need that is of no or minimal benefit to others. To develop a sense of when, and when not, to be perfectionist is to develop the habit of asking for feedback from those who know us, and to develop the habit of being receptive to what they suggest.

showing up

Perfection Paralysis, Neshika Bell, 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Appearances Can Be Deceiving (5. Volunteering)

April 20, 2016 Leave a comment

“Never volunteer for anything!” That is what they cautioned me when I left the comforts of home in eastern North Carolina for basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in the sweltering Fall of 1963.

In four previous posts, I presented behaviors that are often interpreted in one way but that could have other possible causes. First, we considered how fidgeting is not always impatience. Then, how solitude is not necessarily loneliness. Third, how smiling is not always liking. And then last week, how bravery is not always prompted by courage. I call these multi-source behaviors.

So how is volunteering a multi-source behavior? When I was in elementary school, I


Volunteer, by Andrew A., 2012.      CC BY-ND 2.0

remember that my classmates tended to label students who volunteered to help the teacher as “pets.” Cute, but definitely a put-down. Many forms of volunteer behavior pepper the day: offering to pick up lunch for the team, raising one’s hand when the first sergeant asks for three volunteers, offering to help the host clear the table after a dinner party, responding to a request for volunteers to help at school, hospital, marathon, disaster, Katrina, the recent earthquakes in Japan and Ecuador—the list could go on seemingly forever. Likewise, many explanations exist for why people raise their hand in such circumstances:

  • genuine altruism (no ulterior motive other than to help someone)
  • selfishness (to get on someone’s good side)
  • boredom (needing a change of pace)
  • curiosity (to find out what something is like)
  • romance (to get closer to someone you have an eye for)
  • pride (wanting to make sure the job is well done)
  • happiness (sensing that the volunteer activity will provide a rush of positive emotion)
  • self-inflating pessimism (thinking those involved will get it wrong, and that you are needed to get it right)
  • goal relevance (thinking that this volunteer service will move you closer to attaining a goal)

Milton Rokeach might call these terminal vs. instrumental motives, with genuine altruism being a terminal motive (doing it for the value in-and-of-itself), and the others being instrumental motives (doing it with some other end in mind).

So when I reached basic training and the first sergeant asked for volunteers, what did I do? I volunteered, of course! I volunteered to do extra k.p. (kitchen police, as in peeling potatoes all morning), to haul ammunition from a warehouse to a shooting range, to play the drum in a parade, to unload trucks—any time he asked for volunteers, my hand shot up. Why? What was my motive? Was I just a good guy and a glutton for punishment? To understand my volunteering for everything in basic training, you need to understand that I abhor being marched around, waiting in formation, and herded like cattle. I didn’t like marching in high school band, and I didn’t like marching and standing in formation at Fort Jackson. It was boring and regimenting. I volunteered in order to break up the monotony of same old, same old.

As it turned out, my instinct to ignore the advice about never volunteering paid off. I had a portable chess set that was the size of a postcard and thin as a book’s hard cover. It had flat plastic pieces that fit in narrow slits. During my volunteer episodes, the supervisors (usually corporals or buck sergeants) typically felt kind of sorry for us and gave us frequent breaks. I could always find someone who either a) played chess, or b) was willing to learn the game. So after an hour of hard labor, we got an ice cold Coca Cola in the South Carolina September sun and settled down for a 30-40 minute game of wits under the restorative shade of a giant oak until time for more labor.

Not bad, huh? Certainly better than standing in formation and marching like an army of ants. For me, at least. Not a sergeant’s “pet,” just an independent son-of-a gun!

Appearances Can Be Deceiving (4. Bravery)

April 13, 2016 Leave a comment

Think twice—what you see may not be what you think.

In three previous posts, we explored situations in which a single behavior might have multiple meanings and interpretations. First, we considered how fidgeting is not always impatience. Then, how solitude is not necessarily loneliness. Last week, how smiling is not always liking. I call these multi-source behaviors.

Every behavior has a source—a set of conditions that explains why the behavior occurred. 20th century German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin described this in an equation: B = f(P, E). Or, behavior is a function of the interaction of personality in an environment. Just as no person is an island, no personality trait is an island acting independently of its context. A person whose traits include a strong comfort in thinking through complex issues is likely to yawn when conversing one day with gossipers, but then look animated another day when conversing with theorizers. Whether yawning or animation happens is a function of their personality (complexity) and environment (simplistic or complex conversation).

Similarly, today’s subject—bravery—is a function of personality and

Bravery by de la Cruz


Bravery, by Richard dela Cruz, 2011. CC BY-ND 2.0


environment. Personality traits that could account for acts of bravery include nerves of steel, optimism, anger, high activity level, a preference for taking charge, low trust in others, imagination, competitiveness, pride, selflessness, ambition, or just plain rational thinking about what needs to be done. And of course a major factor that leads to acts of bravery is skill—it is more likely that a strong swimmer will jump off a boat to rescue a non-swimmer than would a weak swimmer. But whether each of these traits might activate and cause a brave behavior is a function of the environment—the situation surrounding the person/animal/etc. in distress. Are they a relative, a loved relative, a hated relative, a friend, an enemy, a family heirloom, one’s life savings, a helpless person, known or unknown, or are they important to realizing one’s ambition?

Acts of bravery could range from a skilled fighter chasing away a bully from an unknown, defenseless person (low personal risk and high chance of success with no obvious potential for personal reward—just doing the right thing) to an unskilled swimmer charging into the surf to rescue their drowning child (high personal risk and moderate chance of success with high personal reward). One more selfless, the other more self-serving. Not all bravery stems from a common motive. Make no assumptions. Before ascribing an act of bravery to a cause, to a bravery mindset, have a dialog with the brave person or those who know them, and determine what it was about the brave person’s personality, in combination with the context of the event, that most likely led to the brave response in a desperate situation.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving (3. Smiles and Liking)

What you see isn’t always what you get

Indeed. As I wrote in two recent posts about solitude (not always loneliness) and fidgeting (not always impatience), common behaviors don’t necessarily originate with common causes. Will Shakespeare would have us think otherwise, as he suggested when he had Julius Caesar say this of Cassius:

Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.

Julius Caesar Act 1, scene 2, 190–195

The Bard makes two assumptions here: they who are fat are happy, and they who are gaunt are plotting to take your dinner (or throne). All who are fat are not happy, and all gaunt persons are not dangerous.

Take smiling. One might assume that, when someone smiles at you, they like you. Friendly smiles, however, are not always friendly. Body language research has demonstrated that most of us interpret someone’s smile aimed at us as evidence that they like us. But smiling can also be a subterfuge, a stalking horse that masks inner hostility at worst, or boredom at the least. Or it could suggest amusement, but not necessarily liking. Even if a smile does convey truly positive feelings, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is flirting with you. Research shows that the typical heterosexual man tends to interpret a woman’s smile as meant for him in a romantic way, while women do not typically take a man’s smile as a come on.

The 19th century French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne defined a true smile, i.e., one

duchenne smile

Duchenne smile, by RealWann, 2006. CC BY 2.0

that reflects positive affect, as one that entails both a contraction of the muscle that raises the termini of one’s mouth, and also the muscle that raises one’s cheeks with the effect of forming bird feet flanking one’s eyes. Today, psychologists contrast this genuine Duchenne smile with the Pan Am smile, named for the desperate flight attendants who try their best to put on a polite, happy face to their often unpleasant travelers. That Pan Am is caput suggests that fake smiles don’t work.

To ensure that you don’t misinterpret someone’s smile, look for bird feet at the edge of their eyes and cheek creases at the edge of their upturned mouth edges. If these two signs are present, assume that a) the person is feeling positive affect, or that b) they are a fine actor and may be seething with hatred, evaporating from boredom, or maybe deeply amused at something. In a good way, or not.

Like most behaviors, a smile’s motive must be confirmed, or clarified, through dialog.

It turns out that Julius Caesar (via Shakespeare) was right in his interpretation. Luck of the Romans.

But after all is said, it sure is nice to be around smiles, rather than frowns, even if smiles, like flowers, are resting on something rotten and smelly below!

When You’re Not You

March 30, 2016 Leave a comment

“You just don’t seem your same self!” someone remarked with friendly concern. “What’s going on?”

What does it mean to be oneself? And, what does it mean not to be oneself?

One’s self is who we are in our shoes-off state—being able to take our shoes off is (usually) evidence that we are experiencing minimal stress from external demands, major disruptions to our lives, looming deadlines, or internal oughts and shoulds. We’re chilling, relaxed. If we were to take a personality test in this shoes-off self, we should get a reasonably good picture of who we are. At other times, we are likely to be adapting to circumstances, and thus not our true self.

In my shoes-off self, I am sedentary, resistant to taking on leadership roles, and imaginative. When I take a personality assessment, such as the WorkPlace Big Five Profile 4.0, I get extreme scores on those traits. So when I am being myself, for example, I am sedentary, independent, and creative. When I am not myself, I could go in one of two directions on those three dimensions: I could be more sedentary than usual (as in stopping my exercise) or more active than usual (as in increasing my exercise, doing less reading and desk work, and maybe building a deck or gardening). Or, I could be more independent than usual (as in taking even less responsibility for organizing, monitoring, and evaluating the activities of others) or less independent than usual (as in taking charge and laying down the law for those around me). Or, I could be more creative than usual (as in neglecting bill payments and other mundane tasks and designing new programs that have little likelihood of flying) or less creative than usual (as in obsessing over getting organized and cleaning house/office).


reading, by Christine; CC BY-SA 2.0

What takes us out of our shoes-off self, our normal stride? When we do more of what comes naturally, as in a socialite being even more sociable or a perfectionist being even more obsessively perfectionistic, the cause is typically some kind of extreme stress, as in a major loss (job, friend) or change (in health, status). When feeling such extreme stress, we feel out of control, and doing what comes naturally to an even greater degree is the path of least resistance. The last time I felt major stress was two years ago during a major management crisis, and I can recall that my behavior was more sedentary than usual (taking comfort in reading), more independent than usual (performing even less leaderly functions than usual), and more creative than usual (working on a major family history project). In each case, I was doing more of what came naturally to me.

The other way of not being oneself is to do more of what does not come naturally. For me, that would entail being more physically active, more in charge of others, and more practical. What would cause me, or you, to do less of what comes naturally? The most likely culprit is a goal of some importance. This goal could be externally imposed (by my family, boss, or community) or internally composed (i.e., something I thought up and want to achieve for my own reasons. Whether internal or external in origin, I accept responsibility for pursuing the goal. Goals that entail activities that build on my natural strengths and behaviors allow me to be myself. Some goals, however, demand behavior that is not natural for us. It is these goals that cause us to adapt in order to achieve. When I was in graduate school, our second child was born. As she grew, we needed new sleeping space for her. We had neither space nor budget to expand the residence or buy a nice bunk bed. In order to have a bunk bed, I would need to buy a kit and build it myself. By accepting this goal, I committed to being something other than my natural self—for a while. If you had met me during that time, you would have thought me a highly active person, not sedentary, but if you had met me after the paint had dried and the tools were stored, you would have known me in my natural state—more sedentary. When we take on an important goal, we do what it takes, including sometimes engaging in behaviors that are unnatural for us. Clearly, the ideal goal is one that involves our strengths and natural dispositions. My imminent goals are to write a book (sedentary, creative, and independent) and to build a 19th century merchant ship from a kit with our grandkids (sedentary, somewhat creative, and independent). I look forward to both, and I will be being myself.

So what’s the point? Be aware that, during extreme stress, our natural behavior may or may not be helpful. Know what you may neglect under stress and find a way to account for it—by delegating, finding a crutch, or just forcing yourself to do what is necessary. And be careful to prefer taking on goals that build on your strengths and natural tendencies. When you must take on a goal that leans on your weakness or unnatural behavior, again, find a way to account for it—by partnering, delegating, finding a crutch, or grinning and bearing it.

Either/Or, or Shades of Gray

Once upon a time there was an adult mind who craved simplicity. One day it met up with its mirror opposite who craved complexity. They argued. Failing to resolve, they called Einstein to referee. “Tis wise to be as simple as possible, but not too simple!” the German-American wise man urged.

In my field—personometrics, the measurement of various aspects of the person—simple versus complex is best illustrated by scales that force a choice between two extremes, versus scales that allow a continuum from one extreme to another. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is an example of forced choice. Both the questions and the scores force one to one extreme or another. A question would be “Do you prefer being a) alone or b) with others?” The problem with this question is that it does not allow for persons who have no preference, for those who enjoy both being alone and being with others. The MBTI reports one’s score, for example, as either an introvert or an extravert—you are one or the other.

An example of the other extreme—measuring a continuum—is the WorkPlace Big Five Profile™. A question would be “Enjoys spending time alone.” The answer to this question is not a forced choice, not a simple yes or no, but is a so-called Likert scale: Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Neutral, Agree, or Strongly Agree. This response scale permits shades of gray, and not just two extremes. The WorkPlace Big Five Profile™ reports scores as a number from 1 to 100, such that a person might score more extraverted (i.e., between 55 and 100), which comprises 31% of the population, more introverted (between 1 and 45), which comprises another 31% of the population, or more ambiverted, in the middle (between 45 and 55), which comprises 38% of the population.

To say I am an Extravert, I think Einstein would call this too simple. To say I am a 48 on the Extraversion/Introversion scale, I think Einstein would call this too complex. To say I am more ambiverted and more likely to exhibit a balance of extraverted and introverted behavior—I think Einstein would call that simple, but not too simple.

false dichotomy

to be or not to be: a false dichotomy, by Tantek Celik, 2010. CC BY-NC 2.0


These two opposing ways of reasoning have made their way into the logical fallacies hall of honor. The fallacy of the false dichotomy (or false dilemma) refers to assertions like either/or—as in you are with me or you are against me, when in truth your position may be somewhere in between. The fallacy of the middle ground, also called the argument to moderation, refers to assertions that extremes are bad, and that only moderation is of value. The MBTI exhibits the fallacy of the false dichotomy—one is either an introvert or an extravert, while another traditional personality model, the Enneagram, exhibits the fallacy of the middle ground asserting that the ideal personality scores in the midrange on all traits—one should be neither an introvert nor an extravert, but ambiverted—half and half.

Last week a friend give me a current copy of the American Bar Association’s ABA Journal (January 2016). She pointed me to an article by Leslie A. Gordon titled “Most lawyers are introverted, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.” Really, I thought to myself? What’s their evidence? In reading the article I learned that a New York consulting firm had administered the MBTI to 6,000 lawyers since 1990, with 60% scoring as introverts. This would mean, in MBTI terms, that 3,600 scored in the introverted range. They were counted as introverts whether they scored only one point into that range or whether they scored 100 points into that range. An attorney who scored just one point into the introverted range and one who scored just one point into the extraverted range were labeled introvert and extravert respectively, even though they were only one point or so apart. This is an example of the fallacy of the false dilemma.

On the WorkPlace Big Five Profile™, where 31% score from 0 to 44, and approximately 19% score between 45 and 50 (or, half of the 38% who score between 45 and 55), in order for 60% of these lawyers to score as introverted would mean that all 3,600 would have had to score below 45. To directly compare these MBTI results with an assessment like the WorkPlace Big Five Profile™, we need to understand that a score of 50 on the WorkPlace Big Five Profile™ is neither introvert nor extravert, but ambivert. The MBTI, in terms of the WorkPlace Big Five Profile™, is saying that 3,600 people, or 60%, scored below 50, and were thus introverts. However, current personality scholars would say that you have to score below 45 to be considered introvert. I do not have the New York firm’s data, so I do not know how the 3,600 scores were distributed below the midpoint. However, if this set of scores is similar to other sets, then quite a few would fall in the ambivert zone of 45 to 50. Perhaps as many one to two thousand of them. So, six out of every ten lawyers do not score introvert, but rather some score introvert and some ambivert. I would need to see the data to know the actual spread. But my educated estimate is that about four out of ten score below our 45 cutoff for introversion.

Conclusion: About four in ten lawyers score in the introverted zone, with maybe three or four of ten in the ambiverted zone and two or three in the extraverted zone. That is a far cry from the assertion that “most lawyers are introverted.” Almost as many are ambiverted. The more introverted lawyers likely prefer spending time in reading, research, and case preparation. The more extraverted lawyers likely prefer spending their time in court or conferences. The more ambiverted lawyers likely prefer a balance between the two extremes. Given the many legal specialties, these preferences can certainly be accommodated.

How Do Religion and Politics Mix?

February 24, 2016 1 comment

An Imam, a Rabbi, and a Ronin were sitting on the bimah. Their host asked each to comment on this question: What is the line between religion and politics?

In a country that officially embraces the separation of church and state, the audience of mostly Jews and Christians at Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina, were eager to hear their views. This was the kickoff session of a six-part series on religion and politics. You judge whether the answers by the Muslim, Jew, and Buddhist had more, or less, in common.

KABUL, 24 June 2015 Ð AfghanÕs future leaders Ð the young men and women of one of KabulÕs college.

Afghan’s future leaders–the young men and women of one of Kabul’s colleges. June 24, 2015; UNAMA/Fardin Waezi.    CC BY-NC 2.0

The Imam strummed a welcome chord when he pronounced that he who says he should have power is not who should be in power. Only those whom others say should be in power should rule. In the current crush of egos courting voters in the 2016 U. S. presidential elections, the Imam’s words are discordant with the rush of “Me, me, me” on screen, stage, and town halls. The Imam would ask: But whom do the people say should serve? Elizabeth Warren? Michael Bloomberg? Nikki Haley? Jesse Jackson? Rupert Murdoch? Joe Biden? Jon Stewart? Mitt Romney? Alec Baldwin? The Imam seemed to suggest that we need a nomination process based on the masses’ identification of who should lead, and then ask the nominees to campaign appropriately. This reminds me of Shakespeare’s “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” (Twelfth Night, II,v) The Imam would seem to urge the latter—that the people should press their desired leaders into service—no more teaching, lawyering, or banking for you: time to lead your country. The role of religion in politics, then, would be to assist the people in identifying right leaders and encouraging them to serve.

The Rabbi took a different approach, addressing not so much who should serve, but how religion should behave towards those who do serve. “Speak truth to power,” she urged. That is the role of religion. Hold leaders accountable, and do not let them obfuscate fact with fiction. Where the people have great need, and their leaders discount those needs, religionists should hold the leaders to their tacit contract: Keep your eyes on what the people need and do not lose your focus. Do not let ego, fame, power, or the desire to be reelected distract you from compassion for the poor and ill-treated and the need of the electorate to be educated and safe.

The Ronin eschewed the issue of who should serve and how they might be identified, but he did expand on the Rabbi’s plea to speak truth to power. However, the Buddhist leader urged a different style for speaking the truth: It was not so much about calling out a leader’s lies, deceptions, and mistakes, but rather holding a mirror to them so that leaders might discover, and own up to, their distractions from what is right. How? Said the Ronin: It is better that I ask more questions than that I give more answers. Thus, the task of religion is to have dialog, Socrates-like, with our political leaders, such that the people may see their leaders’ ability to withstand the scrutiny of thoughtful interaction, or even interrogation.

To me, the three religious leaders focused not on the dividing line between religion and politics, but on the responsibility of religionists towards politicians. Get the right people to serve, guide them through thoughtful questions, and call them to task when gentle dialog is not enough.


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