Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Coasting: Drive by Opportunities

As you can tell, there is something about Sliding vs. Deciding that I think a lot about. In the briefest version of the concept, our team refers to sliding as situations where a person could be thinking about what is going on and making a decision, but instead, things are just happening to that person. The idea of all here is that there are important times in relationships (or work, or projects, or whatever you are into) where we might not notice that a pretty big transition is happening that we probably should be making a decision about; instead, we are is sliding into wherever we will end up. There is a lot of sliding in romantic relationships, these days, when it comes to sex or living together or having a child—times when something pretty big and life altering is happening but many times people are not making a decision about it. I’ll say a lot more about this in the future.

Here, I want to introduce a concept that is subtly different from Sliding but that has some overlap—Coasting. Coasting is what I call it when one is moving along through life, and not really sliding into anything risky but just not noticing important choice points are whizzing by. Coasting is not noticing when were at a place where a decision could make all the difference between drifting away from one’s life goals and reaching those goals.

Metaphor time:

The risk of Sliding is somewhat like turning accidentally down a dead-end alley that has no turn offs, and as you get all the way in, you find out your reverse gear does not work. You end up in a riskier place because you slid into a place that is hard to get out of and now there are more limits on your future options.

The risk of Coasting is more like rolling on down a big highway, just cruising along, and missing a crucial turn off that was a more direct path to what you really wanted to have happen in your life. It’s sort of like being on auto-pilot. If the direction you are headed is already where you meant to go, there’s no problem with coasting along because you are already on the right road. But if you need to turn off to reach your goals, Coasting won’t do.

Think of all the places we can coast in life: Career goals. Education goals. Marriage or parenting (family) are big areas where there are opportunities you may, in the future, wish you took in terms of time and attention with those you love, but life is Coasting by.

Why it is so easy to Coast? Because it takes energy and concentration to notice when you need to make a decision or do something other than what is just happening to you. It is harder work, anytime in life, when we are making decisions. It’s especially easy to coast by important moments or opportunities when we are tired and busy. There’s just not a lot of energy left to do anything different. Doing something different requires a decision and energy to pursue it.

I hope I’m not sounding, in any way, preachy here. If I am, I’m preaching to myself as much as anyone else. I can’t imagine the person in this day and age who cannot relate to the problem of coasting. The antidote, of course, is to think about where you really want your life to be or head, and make the right turn-offs to get there. And even if one makes the right turns pretty frequently, there will still be coasting. I think the reasonable goal is to just try to make as many of the right turns (or left) as we can while accepting that we will miss some of them. Life seems to me to be more like a compass than a GPS device.

In his wonderful book, Stumbling on Happiness, researcher Daniel Gilbert makes the point that later in life, people tend to have more regrets about good things not done than bad things done. Coasting is the engine of future regrets.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Oxytocin: I Feel Your Pain

It’s hard for me to get tired of Oxytocin stories. I’m quite attached to them. Here’s the latest, which you can read about in a story by the BBC (here). Professor Keith Kendrick, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University, conducted a pretty straightforward laboratory study of people’s reactions to different, emotionally evocative pictures (child crying, grieving older man, etc.). He found that the emotional response of men to these types of pictures was as strong as the reactions women typically have when the men had a dose of oxytocin (nasally). Usually, women have stronger “empathic” responses to such pictures than men, which could be for scads of reasons of the sort I’ve written about recently. But men closed the gap if they had the spray of oxytocin and didn’t if they has a placebo. I find this next part extra interesting and conscientious on the part of the researchers. While the men behaved differently based on oxytocin, they could not accurately guess whether they had gotten the oxytocin spray or something inert. That’s compelling.

In a second laboratory experiment, the researchers showed that those who got a little jolt of oxytocin were more reactive to, or responsive to, smiling faces that reward learning. That’s just that much more evidence of the role oxytocin might play in sociability, bonding, and caring for others.

I remember when I first read about oxytocin spray; it was in a report of a study by economist Paul Zak. He was showing that people made more trusting bargains in classic game theory scenarios in the lab if they had a bit of oxytocin (again, nasally). When I first read of that work, I thought, “How soon before this shows up in bars.” After all, all the evidence suggests that oxytocin moves people in the direction of trusting others. Zak has even speculated that the stress of poverty depresses oxytocin levels to such a degree across a community that this is just one factor among many that makes it hard to turn around deeply entrenched poverty—people cannot gain on trusting others, and without some basic trust, you can’t really have an economy that works well (or a community). Might car dealerships want oxytocin spray wafting through their waiting rooms? Obviously, car manufacturers need people to trust them or else they are not going to buy their product. Maybe that new car scent should be laced with oxytocin? Especially in test drives! (That could make that deception so like the effect of un-careful dating as to not really be funny but sobering.)

But, back to bars. Since there are really date rape drugs that seem to have some effect, would people misuse oxytocin in a similar way to influence others? I know at one point Paul Zak didn’t think this type of thing would happen, but you never know. Something that turns out to have a clear effect that can be used for good might also be used in less good ways. There’s something in the air.