Great Expectations

One of the most enduring concepts in the field of individual differences is optimism, usually described by invoking what is conventionally thought to be its opposite: optimism-pessimism. That turns out to be oversimplified: rather than being at opposite ends of a single dimension, the statistics suggest that while they are related, they represent discrete dimensions.

Optimism is often thought of as hope: the hope that things will be better in the future. In the nature of things, that’s likely for only part of the time: things also get worse! The difficulty with ‘better’ and ‘worse’ is that they have an emotional connotation; an alternative is to think about it as the inevitability of change. Better or worse actually means better or worse for ‘me’. Here’s an example: you’d very much like to see one particular candidate appointed to the management role in your team, but one of your colleagues would rather it was a different candidate.

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The F-words

Most people have heard the phrase ‘fight-or-flight’, which describes a response to perceived threat: faced with an aggressive competitor for food or mates, animals have the choice either to respond in kind (fight) or to run (flight). The choice is simple, but it will be influenced by a variety of factors. If the animal is protecting eggs or young from a predator, for example, it might be more likely to fight than to flee; confronted with an overwhelming threat like a wildfire, animals will always choose flight. The emotional components of fight or flight might be different – aggression or fear – but the physiological response involves the same cascade of hormones. The most prominent of these is adrenaline, which facilitates action by increasing heart-rate and blood pressure. There is always adrenaline in your system, but the inner part of the adrenal gland is specialised to secrete large amounts of it very rapidly in response to demand.

The physiological process of fight-or-flight is the same in all animals, including humans, and the intensity of the demand determines the amount of adrenaline produced. To use a human example, if you’re quietly reading a book and someone calls your name, you look around to see who it is. This orienting response involves an increase in adrenaline, but the physiological effect is almost imperceptible.

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Enough is Enough

One of the scales on the Challenge of Change questionnaire is titled Perfect Control. The higher your score the stronger your perfectionist and controlling tendencies are, and on the course we emphasise that low scores are the goal. We are not saying the work is never perfect – books have to balance and you can’t have a spelling mistake on a billboard – but that’s not the sort of work that trips up people high in perfect control. More typically, these are the people you see going over and over (and over!) plans, graphs, emails, etc., double-checking and checking again that it’s “right”. They’re also likely to be the people staying late, putting on the finishing touches and making the presentation just perfect – they find it almost impossible to say “enough now”, and the cost is when they find themselves spending too much time and effort on one task when their attention needs to be given to another.

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