27th July 2012
We all know the feeling of mindlessness. You get it when you drive the same roads as usual and get out at the end not remembering anything about the journey, or when you eat a meal without tasting it, or leave a meeting without the faintest idea what just happened. Yet to everyone around us we've behaved just the same way we always do.
There's something really odd about this, because it suggests that we don't need to be conscious of what we're doing to achieve what we want to do. Whether that's a good thing or not is debateable, because being mindless with money is likely to cause results that might be best described as "unfortunate".
The modern idea of mindlessness as a problem in everyday life originated by Ellen Langer, who is one of the more interesting personalities in the psychology community. Langer's interests bridge the scientific with the esoteric, and I don't mean that in a negative sense: she believes that you can't boil an individual down to a few tests and that personal psychology is as important as broader trends. Langer's interest in mindlessness – and it's opposite, mindfulness – seems to have originated in her research into the illusion of control:
"Perceived control has been shown to have very positive effects on stress reduction and health … It is the perception of control, rather than any objectively viewed control, that is the significant variable. Interestingly, when a person behaves mindlessly, the perception of control is not possible. Therefore we conducted several investigations … to see if mindfulness in elderly populations could be increased with positive effects. We found that this could be accomplished with relatively simple manipulations, for example, having more control over one's schedule and taking care of plan[t]s"
Yes, giving an old person a pot-plant to look after significantly increased their lifespan. By increasing their feeling of being in control, and reducing their opportunity for mindlessness, the addition of a pot plant and some minor control over their schedules – such as when they went to see a movie – made a major difference.
You Are Not A Computer
Part 1: Focus on Failure
Part 2: Don't Oversimplify
Part 3: Hold the Big Picture
Part 4: Stay Resilient, Be Prepared
Part 5: Avoid Overspecification
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