Thursday, February 14, 2013

The psychological response to obstacles

Few important things in life come easy.  Starting in school, there are days where assignments just don’t go well.  That concept you thought you had nailed in class has flown from your mind by the time you sit down to do your work.  As you get older, the obstacles get more varied.  You might want to buy a great new car, but you don’t have the money.  You could be thwarted at work by someone who has a different agenda.  Or perhaps the economy has made it difficult for your business to push forward on a new venture.
Dealing with obstacles is a crucial part of being successful in life.  And there are lots of strategies we use to help us deal with them. 
Sometimes, of course, we just push through the obstacles.  That is, an obstacle may just increase our sense of commitment to a goal.  I have written before about research by Ayelet Fishbach, Ron Friedman, and Arie Kruglanski showing that we often associate key obstacles with the goal they block.  So, seeing a tempting piece of cake may actually help to remind you that you’re on a diet. 
When you’re faced with a new obstacle, though, this kind of automatic reminding won’t work.  An interesting paper by Janina Marguc, Jens Forster, and Gerben Van Kleef in the November, 2011 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology demonstrates that when we hit a new obstacle, one way that we deal with it is by thinking about the problem more globally. 
To get the intuition behind this, consider a simple experiment from this paper.  In this study, participants solved a difficult maze on a computer screen.  As they worked on the maze, the computer tracked their eye movements.  For some participants, when they reached a particular spot in the maze, their path was suddenly blocked by a barrier.  In response to this literal obstacle, participants suddenly searched the entire maze for other paths, while those who experienced no obstacle continued on their way.  That is, the obstacle led people to think about the task globally rather than focusing on the specific part of the maze they were working on.
Of course, this result isn’t that surprising.  The surprising part is that dealing with an obstacle tended to make people think more globally in general.  For example, other groups experienced the obstacle in the maze and then were given other tasks in which they could respond locally or globally.  In another study, participants were given an unrelated perceptual task.  In this task, people saw large letters made up of smaller ones like the letter S made up of smaller letter F’s in the figure.  Letters like this come from a classic study by David Navon.  People who experienced an obstacle in the maze were faster to identify the large (more global) letter than people who had not experienced an obstacle. 
Experiencing an obstacle also affected conceptual processing.  In yet another study, people were given the Remote Associates Test (RAT).  In the RAT, you see three words that appear unrelated, and you have to identify a fourth word that fits with all three of those words.  For example, you might see the words CRACKER, UNION, and RABBIT.  (I’ll give you the answer later.)  Solving these items correctly requires thinking more globally about the words.  People who experienced an obstacle were better at solving items in the RAT than people who had not experienced an obstacle.
This conceptual study also allowed the authors to demonstrate an important quality of this increase in thinking globally following an obstacle.  There is a difference between people in how likely they are to remain engaged with difficult tasks.  This difference is called volatility.  People who are not that volatile tend to engage with a task and stick with it even when it gets difficult.  Those people who are highly volatile tend to skip from task to task to task.  The influence of an obstacle on a later task was observed only for people low in volatility.  Those people who are high in volatility were not more likely to think more globally in general following an obstacle.
What does this mean for you? 
Your motivation system wants to help you achieve your goals.  One way it does this is to naturally change the way you are thinking about a problem when you reach an obstacle.
You can help it along, though.  When you reach an obstacle and you’re feeling stuck you can help yourself to think more globally and abstractly.  A simple way to do that is to look around the room.  Check out all of the objects in front of you.  For example, I have a coffee mug, a stuffed Squirt (from finding Nemo) and a stapler on my desk.  Looking at each object, think about the more general category it comes from (container, toy, and office supply in my case).  Do that for a number of objects, and you will prompt yourself to think more abstractly.  After that, go back to the task where you reached an obstacle and see if that helps.
By the way, the correct answer to the RAT item from earlier was JACK.