Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hello, I’m a Mac. And I’m a PC.

I give a lot of talks. Sometimes, my talks are to large audiences. One day a few years ago, I was giving a talk on the differences between men and women when it comes to the development of commitment. There were around 600 people in the audience. This is one of my favorite things to talk about, so I was in a good mood and ready to have a groovy time. (Yeah, I said “groovy.” I’m bringing the word back.)

So, picture this. I’m standing at the podium, the audience is all ready, and I’m maybe 4 minutes into my talk. Just getting going. It will not shock you to know I was using PowerPoint. While PowerPoint can be over done, I think it’s exceptionally useful for talks like this where I want to make a number of points very clearly and not be misread. I also had some nice visuals to depict concepts I wanted to put forth.

Back to 4 minutes into the talk: Freeze. I don’t mean the room grew cold, though it was Summer and I’ve always hated over-refrigerated hotel rooms on those hot muggy days. But, no, the room temperature didn’t change; it was just fine. What got cold feet and froze wasn’t me and it wasn’t the room; it was my PC. I’m a PC. My name is Scott and I’ve always been a PC. (Up until now.) There are many reasons for this, but they do not matter to our story. Generally, I’m quite a geek and have had great success over the years with PCs and keeping them running smoothly.

So, what would you do in my shoes? You are in front of 600 people, you have just begun your talk, and your computer crashes. Of course, there’s nothing for it but to restart the PC. This was a total blue screen of death crash. Ctrl, Alt, Delete was not happenin.

Side tip on giving talks: If you live by technology don’t die by technology. I remember once watching someone else’s keynote address at a conference when their computer froze and they spent 20 minutes—really, 20 minutes—in front of the audience painfully working through fixes to get started again. That’s a very bad thing to do in a major talk. It is not only very boring, it makes the audience really anxious as your anxiety and frustration flow into them. If your equipment fails, just keep going with your talk. If you are multi-tasker like me, restart the equipment but proceed with your talk—even if you’ll be needing to buy a new laptop later that day. The show must go on and talks like this are partly a show. (Related tip: Always bring a printed copy of your notes with you.)

As a speaker, I’ve always used just about whatever happens in the room that’s interesting as part of my talk. I mean, why not? Life is short and stuff like this is an opportunity. There was an interesting dialogue going on now in my head, standing there, audience waiting, while my computer was restarting: “Hmmm. PCs. PCs. What is it about PCs? Maybe I should really be using a MAC, at least for stuff like this. MAC people don’t ever seem to be fiddling with their computers just to get their tasks done. Heck, with a PC, something that worked perfectly well yesterday can’t be counted on to work today. PCs give you that exciting edge of life, feeling, where you just don’t know. How boring would it be to have a MAC and just have things work all the time? How realistic is that? Hm. . . . I got it.”

Okay, back to the audience. This turned into one of my favorite moments in my history of giving talks.

How is marriage like the difference between MACs and PCs? Or rather, how are differences in marriages like MACs and PCs?

Most marriages, and I mean perfectly good, worth working on, solid marriages, are like PCs, not MACs. Just as there are many more PCs in the world than MACs, and there are many more PC marriages than MAC marriages. (BTW, if you think I’m talking about what type of computer you have at home or in your briefcase, you haven’t shifted yet to the more abstract level. I’m not talking computer equipment now.)

Here’s the deal. While the people I know with MACs are not always perfectly happy with their MACs, they are mostly a seriously happy lot when it comes to computing. They turn on their computers (which look gorgeous, of course), they do what they meant to do in getting on their computers, they don’t think as much about the computer as they do about just doing their tasks or following their interests, and then they move on. How simple. It starts up, you click on some things, you happily compute, and when you are done, you do something else. And none of your time involves searching for some error message on Google. Now seriously, that’s not my experience with PCs. PCs are something else.

PCs add a sense of deep mystery to life that is more in tune with the way life really is. PC people are living closer to reality in some cosmic sense.

Some people have MAC marriages but most people have PC marriages. You know you have a MAC marriage if it just works most all the time and you don’t’ think about why it works or how to make it keep working. You know you have a PC marriage if you have to frequently reboot, install a patch, update something, scan for problems, or simply endure the fact that something is not working today that worked perfectly well yesterday. PCs are exciting. MACs? Oh, they are so boring.

I think some people end up in MAC marriages—again, which are much more rare than PC marriages—simply because of luck. Others do so because they are very careful in the right ways about how they partnered up. For some couples, they simply had compatibility, attraction and a big ole helping of easy-going-ness. (Those with MAC marriages should not be arrogant; being thankful would be more the thing or else you may find your MAC starting to slow down.)

Most marriages, and this includes very good marriage, are PCs. They take effort in order to keep doing the work of life. The truth is, in healthy marriages that have enough of the right stuff and that are not dangerous, the work is worth it. Sadly that message is regularly undermined in our culture. But it’s true, and much research supports the point. There’s no getting around the work. It’s just part of life in a PC marriage. And remember this, those of you in PC marriages: You have the opportunity of getting that deep sense of satisfaction that comes from overcoming things together. MAC marriage people can only dream of that joy.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Daughter of Son of a Son of Dissonance (Cognitive Dissonance IV)

Maybe it’s just a bad movie that keeps coming back, but I’m not having any dissonance over writing so much about cognitive dissonance. (If you are tired of the topic, I really do think this is the last post on this for the time being.)

Some of you have been thinking about where I left off (and some have not). If you want the full background, you really need to read some or all of the prior three posts. In the prior post, I left off with a question about what cognitive dissonance might have to do with the trend for ever more expensive weddings. Caveat: I would guess, but do not know, that there is some reigning in on wedding expenses by those who historically could or would spend a lot, given our current economic downturn. Nevertheless, here’s a theory of why some people are spending amazing amounts of money on weddings.

My Theory

We live in a time when people largely are still interested in marriage. The image of marriage has been tarnished and confidence in marriage has suffered, but people want it. Why, you might ask? Because marriage remains the preeminent symbol of commitment for two people interested in life-long love. Sure, not everyone is into it or can be into it (a matter way too complex for me to touch here), but it remains what most people want and what most people will seek.

My theoretical assumptions look like this:

Assume people are more anxious than ever before maintaining life-long love.
Assume people are as likely as ever to fall in love.
Assume that most people will seek to address commitment in love by marrying.
Assume that the security of marriage, as a vehicle for commitment, has suffered.
Assume that cognitive dissonance is a fact of the human experience.

Some people who can afford it (and many who cannot) will spend an amazing amount of money on their wedding because doing so creates a particularly strong cognitive dissonance dynamic that serves to reinforce the commitment. I’m NOT saying that these folks are more committed than those spending a lot less (you can’t believe how little my wife and I spent on our wedding). What I am saying is that some folks will feel acutely a need to create a binding commitment that lasts, and dissonance theory predicts that making a bigger deal, spending more, and having more guests, etc., will all add to the power of the dissonance force that is created.

Suppose you have the Smiths and the Jones. They are identical—virtual clones, of each other in all ways that matter, including desire to marry for life and anxiety about marriage for life working. And let’s assume that the anxiety is pretty strong for all four people involved because they all came from homes where they saw commitment not work out very well, up close and personal. (Refer back to research by Paul Amato and colleagues, and Sarah Whitton and I and colleagues, some posts back. )

The only difference: The Smiths pay $ 30,000.00 for their wedding and the Jones pay $ 3000.00 for theirs. What researchers like Rosenblatt predicted long ago (1977 is pretty long ago, right?) is that when times get a little tough, like they usually do, the Smiths will feel a stronger force of dissonance to keep to their committed path than will the Jones. The reason is simply that the Smiths more strongly built a dissonance that will add extra discomfort when tempted not to follow through. In their heads it sounds like this (if you could put it into words so easily): “I really made a big deal and a big investment out of committing to my partner, and in front of scads of people; I simply have to follow through. I must have really meant it!”

I’m suggesting that the escalation in what people are willing to spend on weddings may be a form of buying insurance for their marriages. (For some, obviously, it’s simply about a big, showy, expression of wealth, which is another matter altogether.)

Am I recommending this? Nope. I’d rather see people have reasonable wedding costs and better savings—or less debt—at the start of their marriages. I’d also much rather see people invest in things like learning about how to communicate, manage conflict, clarify expectations, and build and preserve friendship and commitment in marriage by doing things like attending a marriage/relationship education class. There’s more than money when it comes to ways to invest in your relationship.

As a poignant side point: Researchers who study couples in poverty note an especially strong desire to have a formal wedding rather than merely go to the justice of the peace. The stated reasons are often about respecting marriage by respecting the wedding process. In this, I think there is a recognition of the positive role of ceremony in forming strong commitments. This makes particular sense for couples who tend to have very high respect for marriage but a lot of odds stacked against their marriages when it comes to making it in life. Here, the goal isn’t a lavish wedding but a solid, good enough, serious ceremony. That’s a nice goal.

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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Son of a Son of Dissonance (Cognitive Dissonance III)

Silly me, I used to think dissonance was more about wanting to behave in ways that were consistent with what you decided or committed to do. While that’s in the mix, research suggests that dissonance’s force is even more strongly related to wanting the bad feeling of not being consistent to go away rather than to have the good feeling of being consistent to stay. If that sounds like a distinction without a difference, you’ll have to fight your point with ultra geeky social psychologists who tend to be really excellent researchers. Good luck with that.

To sum up, the more you have grappled with a decision—really examining the pros and cons and what you intend to do—the more you will build a strong intention to follow through on that decision, partly based on a dissonance mechanism. Further, as suggested by Rosenblatt in 1977, you’ll feel a lot more internal dissonance to follow through on a commitment in a relationship when you’ve made that commitment very publically.

Think about that, unless you’re in a big hurry to keep surfing the web. It’s an interesting idea that Rosenblatt had. Ever wondered why some type of serious, solemn, and public ceremony exists for weddings in most all cultures on the planet? The more public the ceremony, the more witnesses, the more serious, the stronger the resulting intention to follow through. The decision making up the commitment becomes a big deal. A BIG deal. That may help quite a bit when what is intended is a life-long commitment. What’s that say about a culture that is steadily dismantling ceremonial aspects of entering into commitments? I’m thinking it’s not too good.

With a clear decision made before others, the decision becomes part of you, and the rest of you will be pulled to behave in ways consistent with that decision. When you are tempted to stray from the path, a stronger and clearer original decision will produce more dissonance; dissonance is your friend because it helps you keep to what you said you’d do.

Coming full circle, decisions are important because decisions support follow-through. People are less likely to continue down a path that they have not decided on. That’s why sliding through important relationship transitions can be a pretty bad deal.

Here’s my final point for now. Decisions are most important when there is something at stake—something that requires follow-through. If there is nothing at stake or that needs sustained effort, decisions are less important and sliding into whatever happens may be just fine. Could even be fun. Since decisions take a lot more mental energy than sliding, you don’t want to be making everything into a decision. But the big things in life—especially in your love life—call out for decisions so that a sustainable commitment can be built.

What kinds of things do you want to be making decisions about in your life?

I feel Cognitive Dissonance IV coming on, and I really thought this would be the end of my dissonance. In my next post, I think I’ll make some points about the current craze for super costly weddings. I wonder if you can guess where that point will go and why.

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