Archive for the ‘Judgment’ Category

I’m Just a Churl Who Can’t Say “No”

Well, not really a churl. Or a girl, for that matter.

At the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies, we employ the Five-Factor Model to describe individual differences in personality traits. One of the traits is Accommodation, which reports how an individual typically behaves around power. Broadly described, Challengers are those low in Accommodation—as a rule they have no trouble saying “No”—i.e., standing up for themselves. Negotiators are those in the midrange—saying no is more situational, and they are as likely to negotiate to get what they need as they are to say no when their limits have been reached. People high in Accommodation are Adapters, and these are they who tend to have trouble saying no—saying no to social pressures, saying no to requests for help, or saying no in moral dilemmas when something untoward is requested of them.


Letters on Road, Dan Brady.      CC BY 2.0


As a researcher and educator, I am always looking for ways to help people understand how their traits work for or against their interests. One of my favorite resources is “poem-a-day,” a free digital poetry service of the Academy of American Poets ( I’ve subscribed to this service for several years—I get one poem on weekdays composed by contemporary poets, and one poem on weekend days composed by past poets. Today’s offering is from Poet Dana Levin, who is Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis: “Instructions for Stopping.” It is an ode in support of saying no:

Instructions for Stopping

By Dana Levin

Say Stop.
Keep your lips pressed together
after you say the p:
(soon they’ll try
and pry
your breath out—)
Whisper it
three times in a row:
Stop Stop Stop
In a hospital bed
                           like a curled up fish, someone’s
gulping at air—
How should you apply
your breath?
List all of the people
you would like
to stop.
Who offers love,
who terror—
Write Stop.
Put a period at the end.
 Decide if it’s a kiss
or a bullet.
Copyright © 2017 Dana Levin. Used with permission of the author.


One way to evaluate the quality of literature is to look for evidence that the writer’s characters reflect the various dimensions of the Five-Factor Model. Characters who can’t be pegged as to their traits are what I would describe as flat characters. Characters whose personality traits are apparent I would describe as round characters—more fully developed characters.  In this brief gem, Ms. Levin captures the essence of the internal struggle between the two poles of the Accommodation continuum—Whether to draw the line (“bullet”) or to bend the line (“kiss”)—that is the question. Well drawn, professor!

Making the Most of What Willpower You Have

December 9, 2015 1 comment

Our capacity to pay attention varies along a continuum from highly effortful to totally effortless. Effortful attention is like when you must read the instructions for a new piece of computer software. For most of us, this requires highly focused concentration that entails the marshaling of all of our mental resources. As such, much energy is consumed by our brain. This results in a decrease of glucose—the brain’s fuel. After an episode of effortful attention, it is difficult to continue with another episode of effortful attention—we simply don’t have the energy for it. In one study, persons who solved a difficult math problem were then given the choice between a healthy (celery and carrot sticks) and an unhealthy (chocolate chip cookies). Those who had worked on the math problem were more likely to pick the unhealthy snack, while the control group that had not dealt with the math problem were more likely to resist the unhealthy snack in favor of the celery and carrots. It just requires more mental energy to resist sweets.

It is best to follow effortful attention with non-effortful attention for a while before returning to effortful attention. And even better, have a snack after effortful attention. Studies have shown that having a healthy snack (i.e., not sugary and non-banana and pbnutritious) can restore our capacity for effortful attention by replenishing our glucose supply.

These activities require significant mental effort:

  • Resisting something you like (like chocolate chip cookies)
  • Doing something unfamiliar/novel (like studying instructions for new software)
  • Doing something you don’t like (take your pick!)

These activities require little or no mental effort:

  • Resisting something you don’t like (for me, wrapping presents—I’m not really a Scrooge—I just don’t like wrapping things, so I procrastinate)
  • Doing something that is familiar (scrapbooking)

Willpower is the capacity to engage in effortful attention. Florida State University social psychologist Roy Baumeister, in his 2011 book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, has pulled together the relevant research on what it takes to make the most of one’s capacity for will power. These are among his findings:

  • Take frequent breaks and snacks.
  • Keep in good shape–sleep, exercise, diet healthily.
  • Remove unwanted distractions.
  • Practice with relevant distractions, as in football offenses who practice listening to their quarterback’s signals with blaring loudspeakers in the background to simulate antagonistic crowds of 75,000 fans at away games.
  • Use library study carrels.
  • Avoid unnecessary multi-tasking.
  • Install distractions or obstacles from bad choices, as in the kids in Walter Mischel’s experiments who resisted eating a proffered marshmallow by entertaining themselves with a game or other diversion, just so they wouldn’t have to think about not eating the marshmallow.
  • Declare your intentions publicly, to associates, family, and other stakeholders or observers.
  • Negotiate for appropriate absence of interruptions, as in communicating with your work team or family that you are going to close your door for two hours to work on a project, and to solicit their cooperation—I’ve done this kind of thing by burning a candle and wearing a baseball cap at my computer to signal that I’d prefer not being disturbed.
  • According to the Zeigarnik Effect, unfinished earlier projects cause intrusive thoughts when we attempt to work on subsequent ones, as in “I should really be working on the patio rather than writing this book.” Having a plan for unfinished business reduces and sometimes eliminates intrusive thoughts about that unfinished business that interferes with current priorities.
  • Eliminate boredom increasing your challenges and/or handicapping yourself, and eliminate frustration by increasing or skills and personal resources and/or reducing your degree of challenge. Read Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow (1990) for further explanation. Also see my chapter on the flow concept in Howard (2013).
  • Have a partner for support and monitoring.Cat and Dogs
  • Join a support group, real (face-to-face) or virtual (Internet).
  • Understand and practice Mindfulness (start with meditation training—read Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct, in which she treats the pervasive positive influence of meditation/mindfulness).
  • Understand the importance of practice and repetition in establishing new habits or patterns.
  • Three most common ways of battling a bad habit:
    • Vigilant monitoring (e.g., Seinfeld’s calendar app, inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s actual practice of having a year-long calendar on one large page on his wall, then marking a big X every day that he executes his good habit—as in writing for at least 30 minutes—and then enjoying the chain of Xs and only breaking the chain when major obstacles occur—e.g., sickness)
    • Creating distractions or constraints from irresistible cues (Ulysses’ being bound to mast)
    • Changing the situation (e.g., going to library where there’s no refrigerator)

Being in the field of personality assessment, we are certainly aware that some personalities lend themselves to these practices more naturally than others. However, these practices are habits, and habits are learnable by everyone. We must simply pick the habits that feel the most natural.

Having and Wanting

October 30, 2015 1 comment

While I cannot find the source for this research, the point it makes is worth sharing.

Mental attitudes—mind over matter, thinking positively, reframing, putting a spin on things, looking for the silver lining, deciding to let go of a loss—some are easier to manage than others. I remember the first time I sent a book manuscript to my editor in Texas. It was returned with page after page of “queries,” a polite word for corrections and challenges. My first reaction pictured her as a malevolent high school English teacher determined to crush my ego with red ink. I wanted to quit. But something told me to reframe the situation—she was not my critic, but my teammate. Together we could make something stronger than either of us could alone. So rather than be bummed by her markings, I made a game of it. With future submissions to her, I tried to learn from her past corrections and anticipate how she might react to my new material. My goal was to minimize her queries. With that change in mental attitude, I have gone on to work with four additional editors on twelve different books. And to think I almost quit!

This recent research (whose source I can’t put my hands on) about mental attitudes and well-being found that two mental attitudes are associated with a higher sense of well-being:

  • “I want what I have.”
  • “I have what I want.”

Here are some personal examples of “I want what I have”:

  • I have a temperament that is uncomfortable around crowds and noises, and I have no desire to be any different—I don’t want to learn to enjoy noisy crowds (i.e., I like/want my quiet).
  • I have a lower-priced sedan that is safe and durable, and that is fine—I don’t dream about a more expensive car with more features.
  • I have a 3’ x 6’ N-scale model railroad to enjoy with my grandchildren (and any other children of all ages), and I have no need or desire for a larger layout.

And here are examples of “I have what I want.”

  • I wanted both children and grandchildren, and I have them.
  • I wanted a collection of early musical instruments, and I have them.
  • I wanted a laptop computer that would enable me to work anywhere, and I have it.

The research suggests that such attitudes promote a sense of well-being. They contrast with two attitudes that add nothingi want more to one’s sense of well-being:

  • “I want something that I don’t have.”
  • “I have something that I don’t want.”

In the spirit of practicing what I preach, I have tried to minimize wanting something that I don’t have. Therefore, the three things that I will list are things that I have wanted in the past, but that I have decided that I no longer want:

  • I want(ed) a getaway cabin in the mountains.
  • I want(ed) to have less of a temper, i.e., to have a slower trigger.
  • I want(ed) a child or grandchild with whom I can play duets.

So, I have abandoned these three desires—for different reasons. The cabin, because 1) I have read that having a vacation home provides no boost to happiness, and 2) Jane and I like variety, so retreating to different locales has a stronger appeal than feeling that we have to go repeatedly to the same place to justify the investment. The temper, because I couldn’t change myself short of a pre-frontal lobotomy—but I’ve learned to avoid situations that trigger it, such as deadlines (I typically give myself false, early deadlines, so I don’t run up against the real ones). The musical kids because they just did not turn out to be musicians! And, as Khaled Hosseini writes in The Kite Runner, “Children aren’t coloring books. You don’t get to fill them with your favorite colors.”

Finally, three things that I have that I don’t want:

  • I have a lovely spiral staircase when I (we) should have no stairs at all (knees, back).
  • I have a yard that is more of a burden than a pleasure or source of pride.
  • I have a balalaika (3-stringed Russian musical instrument) that I have never learned to play nor have I maintained it properly (cleaning, and so forth).

We tried to address the first two items in 2008 by trying to sell our house and move into a condominium. Then the economy tanked—dream deferred, but still a dream. The balalaika, I would love to find a home for.

But there is something a little too neat and comfy about these mental attitudes. I like the idea, and it does make sense. But how does this outlook relate to the need for one to have goals in life? Does it mean, for example, that to have a Bucket List best things aren't thingsis a drag? One thing I want to do that I haven’t done is to create a multi-media show based on music and art that have been set to Psalm 150. Ah! There’s the difference. Doing something is different from having something! Just as the research shows that money spent on possessions is less satisfying than money spent on experiences, so having a list of things to do is different than having a list of things to have. In addition, the research shows that having goals are important, but that making progress towards those goals is more important than the goals themselves. Having a goal without making progress is like wanting something that you do not have. To have a goal and make no progress is a bummer. I have begun my multi-media treatment of Psalm 150—it’ll take a while, but it’ll get done. Making progress on a goal is like having it. There are a LOT of things on my Bucket List, and they are things I don’t have that I want. No, not things—experiences. Things I want to do, not to have, and I am slowly checking off one experience after another on my bucket list. One of these days Psalm 150 will be checked off.

Taking Care of the Goose

October 7, 2015 Leave a comment

This morning my nephew, Bob McGahey, emailed to alert me of two blogposts he thought I’d take an interest in. They concerned the role of religion and the state of the planet. Bob is a devout Quaker and an eco-educator. In responding to his posts, I found my topic for this week’s blog of my own! Here goes.

For me, the unquenchable human spirit is my beacon. I am renewed daily by my own inexplicable and irreducible 500-year To Do List–what is it about me (and others) that never lacks lust for life? Yesterday’s story (Charlotte Observer) of trumpeter John Parker, who auditioned for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra his senior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who at 23 is among the youngest principal players in the history of the symphony, and who will play the Shostakovich Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra this weekend, was rejuvenating. Meanwhile, Carolina Panther quarterback Cam Newton’s rejection of all animal protein but fish–just for the discipline of it, he says, no other reason–is token of the human spirit nudging itself Platonically towards some ineffable ideal. Ineffable but real in its compelling drawing power. These driven souls are not all leaders–some are creators, builders, parents, athletes, inventors, writers. They are not like me, but they are my kin.

It seems to me that the universal idea of a higher power is a form of that inner drive towards an ideal, or a set of ideals. Some need to give this engagement in life a name. I am comfortable leaving it unnamed.

But whether we name the drive towards the true, beautiful, and good or whether we accept it for what it is, we must know that preventive maintenance is necessary for goose and golden eggour machines (earth, self) to keep burning. Aesop’s peasant greedily cut open his ever-golden-egg-laying-goose only to discover normal innards and not a cache of more gold. Rather than try to exhaust our earth of gold (oil, rainforests) and to push our bodies towards excellence (world records, fortune), we must have the good sense to take care of the earth’s production capability through respecting the purity of her air, water, soil, and denizens, as well as our body’s performance capability through respecting her evolved needs of sleep, nutrition, love, kindness, and exercise.

Dag Hammarskjold once suggested that world peace might ensue from everyone committing to develop one high quality relationship. Perhaps the same could be said for our bodies—commit to at least one healthy bodily practice (such as adequate sleep or regular aerobic exercise), and our earth–that our planetary home might be conserved by everyone committing to one significant way to decrease their carbon footprint. Ten years ago, Jane and I eliminated our second car in that spirit. My carbon footprint is now at 15,674, as calculated here:

What’s yours? What can we do as a next step to protect Mother Earth? When we were in Tokyo recently, we remarked that we were impressed by the practice of bus drivers turning off their engines while parked at the entry to our hotel. Our host commented that Shinto practitioners treat the earth as their home, and that unnecessary running of motors is regarded as something like urinating on one’s living room carpet. That was a powerful image. Now, at the end of the day when I get the car to pick up Jane in the portico of our building, off with the motor and down with the windows as I await her smile to join me!

Enjoy your golden eggs, but take really good care of that goose!

carbon footprint

A Summer’s Tale

September 23, 2015 Leave a comment

It was a dark, unstormy night. The adults gathered on the porch of our Oak Island beach home for the week. The kids were up to their devices inside, awaiting word that bedtime was at hand. Except for Liam Hinson, our 13-year-old grandson and the senior kid, who was hanging with the grownups.

“Liam,” I queried, “what good campfire stories did you hear at Camp Thunderbird this summer?”

And he began, confidently, the adults in the palms of his hands, with the moon and gentle waves as backdrop, to narrate the story of Thunder Warrior.

The aging chief of the Appalachian band called his youngest son and said, ”My time has come to step aside–I must choose my successor. One of my three sons must lead our people. You are to climb our mountain and bring me a suitable token of your leadership.”

The youngest was also the most athletic, and he bounded up the mountain, but only to become winded half-deer and shooterway up. To continue, he found that he would have to scale a rock outcropping. Time to return, he mused, but not empty-handed. So, he shot a deer and lugged it home. “Here, father, is my token of leadership—I have killed a deer to feed our family.”

“Thank you, my youngest.” And then the chief called his middle son, to whom he gave the same charge. Cleverer than his athletic brother but not as athletic, he paced himself and carefully scaled the rocks that had intimidated his younger brother. But he slipped and strained his ankle. I must return, he thought, but not empty-handed. He espied a cave, searched therein, and found a bowl of gems. He picked the largest and shiniest jewel and hobbled home, presenting the stone to his father. “Here, father, is my token of leadership—I have found a large and precious gem for us to use in bowl of gemstrade.”

“Thank you, my middle son.” And then the chief called the oldest son and bid him to accept the same challenge as his two younger brothers. The one most in years, less athletic but perhaps wiser than the others, began a slow but sure climb, mastering the rocks, and approached the mountain peak at nightfall. He sat to rest, having just refreshed himself with spring water and berries. Sleep overtook him. He awoke the next morning to a sight unheard of. The sun was a prism rising in a panoply of fiery colors, shadows, clouds, and rays. After breakfasting on more spring water and berries, he began his descent, keeping in mind the splendid sunrise, one that had been hidden from his people on the other side of the mountain. He trekked home empty-handed but full-headed.

“Father, I have no token of my leadership to give you. But I must tell you of the most beautiful sight that I havesunrise ever beheld in all my years.” And he described the dramatic sunrise in great detail.

“Thank you, my first and oldest,” and he assembled the three. “Leadership knows what the people need and helps them find it. We have flourished in this valley for generations. Nature has been good to us. We have plenty to eat, and we have abundant materials for trade. The deer and gem were nice but unneeded. However, a people need to dream; they need to have a vision for the future; and my oldest has brought to them a longing to visit the mountaintop that will never die. You, my oldest, are the next Thunder Warrior. In you, I am pleased.”

From the mouths of youth comes the wisdom of the ages.

A Lesson in People Judgement

September 16, 2015 2 comments

horse 1I recall someone writing that personality assessments were an idle activity of the leisured class. They said that people before the 20th century were just too busy trying to survive to spend time talking about values, belief systems, traits, virtues, abilities, and their ilk. As our family historian, I have read several wills written in the 18th and 19th centuries. All of the itemized lists of possessions contained only items necessary for survival—plates and plows, no books or pictures. I do recall one deck of playing cards! It was a Spartan life, with tomorrow’s planting or plowing more on their minds than the whys and wherefores of human destiny.

I’m not so sure. Humans have always been ponderers, I think. Today, a whole industry supports pondering, with upwards of 3,000 personality assessments creating an almost billion dollar industry.    While paper and pencil or computer-administered personality assessments were unknown to the ancients, they certainly showed evidence of engaging in personality assessment in their own low-tech ways.

When Jane and I worked in China in 2012, we heard a presentation on the Chinese tradition of horse sense and its relevance to Human Resources. The speaker told the story of the aging Bo Le, a mythological Chinese character reputed to be the first person to tame horses. Duke Mu (659-621 BCE), 14th ruler of the Zhou Dynasty in the state of Qin, was concerned that he was about to lose a valuable resource—a person with good horse sense, who knew how to tell the difference between a solid and an ordinary or even risky horse purchase. The Duke asked Bo Le, “You are getting on in years. Is anyone in your family able to take over for you and find me a good steed?” Bo Le replied:

“A good horse may be judged by his physique, countenance, sinews, and bones. But in judging the best horse in the world, it seems as if these qualities are red herrings. The best horse raises no dust and leaves no tracks. All my sons are lesser talents. They can judge a good horse, but they lack the talent to judge the best horse in the world. However, there is a man who is my porter and firewood gatherer who is called Nine-Cornered Hillock. In judging horses, he is not inferior to my abilities. I respectfully request that you grant him an audience.”

Duke Mu granted him an audience and commanded him to search out a fine steed. After three months Nine-Cornered Hillock returned and reported: “The horse has been located. It is in Shaqiu.”

Duke Mu replied: “What kind of horse is it?”horse 2

“It is a yellow mare,” answered Nine-Cornered Hillock.

Thereupon Duke Mu sent men to Shaqiu to obtain the horse. The horse, however, turned out to be a black stallion. Duke Mu was quite displeased. Summoning Bo Le, he inquired of him saying: “What a loss! The man you sent to find me a good steed cannot distinguish the color of one coat from another nor a female from a male, what could he possibly know about horses?”

Bo Le let out a long sigh and replied: “It always comes to this! This is precisely why he surpasses me by a thousand or ten thousand fold and is infinite in his capabilities. What Hillock observes is dynamism of Heaven. He recognizes the refined essence and discards the dross. He focuses on the internal and disregards the external. He looks at what is to be seen and does not look at what is not to be seen. He scrutinizes what is to be scrutinized and disregards what is not to be scrutinized. It appears that what he has judged is a quality more precious than just a horse.”

The horse arrived and ultimately proved to be an excellent horse. Therefore the Laozi says: “Great straightness is as if bent; great skill is as clumsy.” (from Huainanzi, (c. 139 BCE), 12, tr. Major et al. 2010:458; in Wikipedia, under “Bo Le (mythology)”

Bo Le and his successor Nine-Cornered Hillock both recognized that we cannot look only at surface features in making personnel decisions—degrees, class standing, clothing, coiffure, facial features, physique, weight, awards, and so forth. They understood that we must look behind the masks and into the infrastructure of the person—the behavioral traits, the mental abilities, and the values that form the core of how they naturally approach work and life. Today, we recognize that there are not enough like Bo Le and Nine-Cornered Hillock to staff all of the Human Resource departments in the world, so we use personality assessments and analytics to supplement our personal judgment.

horse 3