Thursday, August 11, 2011
Muga-Mushin, Part 2: Machiavelli's Flood, Two-Factor Theory of Emotions, Bi-Strategic Controllers, Theory of Critical Moments
(Lorenzo Bartolini's sculpture of Niccolo Machiavelli)
I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.
This post will take a bit of a detour from the martial nature of the previous one and will instead look at how our emotional response mechanisms can aid and sabotage our efforts as we attempt to move through a strategic social environment. One finding is that our experience of significant, emotionally charged events often comes in predictable two-wave emotional sets, with the second wave containing an "attribution" loophole that can be used to manipulate us (alternatively, we could use this loophole to manipulate ourselves by framing a situation so that emotional energy was diverted into a pre-arranged path, as per Machiavelli and his quote about Lady Fortune).
Getting Past the First Reaction
The previous piece considered a very simple and primal flinch/protective reaction that occurred when an individual was suddenly subjected to a physical threat. Two possibilities were explored:
1. The victim's alerting network, which sorts through environmental information to provide warning of a threat, failed to keep on top of the situation. As a result, the threat information arrived via the first incoming punch or thrown object. This visual stimulus triggered a primitive defensive reaction that attempted to protect the eyes/face, throat, and upper spine by forming a protective shield between the threat and the head, closing the eyes, and (frequently) hunching the shoulders.
2. In this case, the victim's alerting network did recognize a problem early on, and handed the information off to the brain's more sophisticated orienting system. The orienting system, lacking a trained reason to do something else, defaulted to an algorithm we will term the 4Fs: Freeze, Flight, Fight, and Freeze (again). As a result, the victim waited, doing nothing particularly useful, as the threat came within range and launched an attack. At that point, an untrained protective motion was attempted.
We also considered how trained responses from well-tested fighting systems such as Western boxing and Muay Thai could be used to provide more effective counters to an initial attack.
Today's entry will look at what happens when our inner worlds must adjust and calibrate themselves to a more subtle---yet still-threatening in many cases---environment. A sudden physical threat that triggers a protective response will not be present in these situations; instead, pressure and stress will be created by emotional threats. We will focus on the orienting system and the role of the brain's emotional circuitry in forming an opinion about a situation (often categorizing it as either "threatening" or "exciting"). The cascade ends with a psychological state being generated that is capable of heavily influencing the subject's subsequent physical performance, often causing him to "choke" and fail to properly execute his learned skills.
A simple model that could prove useful in conceptualizing what is coming next might go something like this:
1. Presence of danger or even novelty creates a general state of arousal in the subject. Figurative result: "I feel physiologically aroused."
2. Subject makes sense of this arousal by linking it to something in the environment, thus experiencing an emotion that can articulated more specifically. Figurative result: "No, not just aroused, I feel angry."
3. Subject's cerebral cortex takes this feeling and rationalizes it by selecting elements of the environment that would correspond to/justify this underlying feeling of anger. Conscious use of evidence is now biased towards legitimizing the anger and alternative explanations will tend to be suppressed or ignored. "I feel angry because..."
Orienting System and the HPA Axis
As discussed in earlier posts, the nervous system is roughly organized to allow the organism to make successful decisions along an approach-withdrawal continuum. Features of the environment that can aid in reproduction and related positive activities are meant to be approached; withdrawal behavior is meant to be linked to threats. The initial, primitive feelings of attraction and repulsion direct our attentional resources towards parts of our environment and have been termed the brain's orienting system. The orienting system's job is to pick up on cues as we move through the world and to point them out to higher brain functions, usually also giving them an emotional tag. This all can happen very quickly and before our neocortical executive centers have had an opportunity to get traction on the situation.
Particularly where threats are concerned, a brain assembly called the HPA axis---hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis---plays a major role. The HPA modulates our responses to threatening situations and is largely responsible for our related feelings of stress. Both physical emergencies and social ones can cause the HPA to get involved and to trigger a stress response---socially dominated fish who are placed in chronic subordinate roles show HPA activation. In human beings, a number of mood disorders are associated with malfunctions or overactivation of the HPAA.
Our stress systems evolved for physical emergencies that lasted a relatively short period of time and then were dealt with, one way or another, in a fairly definitive way. Our modern world features few of these physical crisis points, although people engaged in high-risk jobs may encounter them fairly regularly, but it does tend to stress us in social dimensions. One problem with these chronic social stresses and the constant need to monitor one's position in a hierarchy is that the HPA axis may be overtaxed, resulting in a person's gradual physical and psychological deterioration. Thus, it can become important to have high-performance strategies and skills available to identify and neutralize threats of various stripes before they can cause us to poison ourselves.
Neuroscientists and meditation experts Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius describe the functions of the HPA axis this way:
Suffering is not abstract or conceptual. It's embodied; you feel it in your body because it proceeds through bodily mechanisms (my note: Hanson and Mendius refer to the physiological cascade using Buddhist terminology as the "First Dart", and the avoidable emotional reaction of the self to the cascade as the "Second Dart")...
Suffering cascades through your body via the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA) of the endocrine (hormonal) system...while the SNS and HPAA are anatomically distinct, they are so intertwined that they're best described together, as an integrated system.
...the thalamus---the relay station in the middle of your brain---sends a 'Wake up!' signal to your brain stem, which in turn releases stimulating norepinephrine throughout your brain.
...the hypothalamus---the brain's primary regulator of the endocrine system---prompts the pituitary gland to signal the adrenal glands to release the 'stress hormones' adrenaline and cortisol.
Your emotions intensify, organizing and mobilizing the whole brain for action. SBS/HPAA arousal stimulates the amygdala, which is hardwired to focus on negative information and react intensely to it. Consequently, feeling stressed sets you up for fear and anger...As limbic and endocrine activation increases, the relative strength of executive control from the (prefrontal cortex) declines. It's like being in a car with a runaway accelerator: the driver has less control over her vehicle.
The defense against a chronic stimulation of the HPAA axis in everyday social situations has multiple layers, but perhaps the most important one is to be able to identify people who have adopted social strategies that are designed to trigger prolonged HPAA "reigns of terror" in others, and who employ random doses of positive and negative feedback to keep the game going and increase their spheres of influence.
Two Phases of Panic
We will return to toxic social arrangements and those who generate them in a moment, but first let me detour and say a quick word on tactical training and the execution of physical skills under emergency conditions. There has been much debate about whether or not training can be accessed in a fight-or-flight environment, and it is here that we can use the metaphor of a big-wave surfer to look at the difference between survival stress and panic. If a surfer dropping in on some monster wave is able to stay ahead of the wave, he will have access to his learned repertoire of techniques. He can react as a trained and conditioned athlete even though he will certainly be under a certain amount of survival stress the entire time, and he may suffer nervous agitation before he ever gets out in the water. If he slips and falls into the wave and is unable to escape before it crashes, however, he will be sent for a cartwheeling underwater ride that will induce a panic reaction in even the most experienced surfers. To survive, the surfer may now have to successfully suppress a far more acute and blind emotional upwelling than he did when he first confronted the wave.
If training has taken place at a deep enough level and the skills are owned by the cerebellum, technical performance will be accessible under natural stress. We could term these the "win set" skills because they are largely concerned with good performance. If the stress level suddenly spikes upward again because the skills have failed, then a new and stronger wave of panic reaction may set in and have to be confronted. The skills associated with recovering from this secondary panic reaction could be considered "survival set" skills because they normally are recruited when the perfect plan is no longer available. In order words, the shift from a failed Plan A to a contingency Plan B often requires the successful suppression of a panic spike that is greater than the one associated with the original Plan A.
Thus, it is entirely possible for someone to have magnificent win set skills and to coast along on these until a situation does cause the first set of training failures. At this point, the individual may metaphorically drown under the secondary panic reaction. In simple terms, what may be happening is that the initial performance was managed almost entirely by the cerebellum and supporting elements of the brain, all of which were running on a subconscious level. When a failure occurs, the executive center of the brain gets involved and the smooth, continuous flow of deeply trained skills becomes disrupted by new and potentially self-destructive cognitive processes. Recovery from the first failure may require the ability to manage one's emotions and avoid becoming absorbed in the problems that have already occurred.
As we will soon see, this quality may represent a big part of the so-called "mental game" of athletics, and those who are frequently able to prevent precious cognitive resources from being diverted towards rumination are prized for their ability to perform under particularly stressful conditions.
Please also note that the two-tiered panic description normally applies to individuals who are competent. An untrained individual may be swamped by the first wave, go straight to a thermonuclear panic spike, and never recover. The multiple-panics model does assume that the subject is already legitimately skilled, so it is not particularly useful for designing an initial skills exposure program and could be thought of as a beneficial approach for intermediate and advanced students.
Omega Rules and Delta Moments
Some insights into how the autopilot and manual-control decision systems interact in practice can be gained from specialists in neuromarketing, a relatively new branch of applied psychology that seeks to optimize advertising and marketing campaigns by understanding what is really going on in the minds of shoppers.
Two consumer behavior experts at the venerable AC Nielsen market research firm, Alastair Gordon and Duncan Stuart, have developed an analytical framework that they call "DeltaQual." DeltaQual examines shopper behavior by considering two aspects: Omega rules and Delta moments.
Omega Rules are quick, efficient cognitive shortcuts that are based on habits. These habits in turn are founded on repeated exposure to patterns; over time, the link between a scenario context, a decision rule, and an outcome becomes encoded as a heuristic (rule of thumb). A key consideration here is that heuristic-based learning may take place without the customer ever being aware that a learning event has occurred. This type of knowledge can become implicit: customers make decisions in a reliable way, but may not be able to articulate why they do so.
Shoppers who are using Omega rules will tend to move through a store on autopilot, selecting products based on subconscious criteria. Many popular brands such as Coca-Cola have invested decades in forming positive associations in the minds of shoppers, and these associations pay off when customers make purchases based on Omega rules.
In contrast, a so-called Delta moment takes place when one of these conventional habit pathways is blocked or disrupted and a customer pauses to make a conscious decision between alternatives. In marketing terms, the Delta moment is desired by new firms, while older and established firms would probably wish to suppress Delta moments and have customers shop by Omega auto-pilot. Nielsen's consultants believe that these Delta moments tend to motivated by three different conscious goals: bargain-shopping, in which prices of similar products are evaluated to find the best price; variety-seeking, in which a customer decides to try something different; and buzz-seeking, in which a customer is enticed enough by word-of-mouth or a structured product marketing campaign that he or she will look for the product specifically.
Going back to our example of an extreme surfer going out to meet heavy waves, we could consider the normal, prepared behavior as the following of the Omega rules (in many cases, an experienced, sane professional adventurer would not put himself into harm's way unless he could operate via Omega rules) and a failure of the rules as the equivalent to a Delta moment, albeit one that is forced upon the surfer.
The Omega rules/Delta moments framework may also help to conceptualize the underlying cognitive mechanism for the muga-mushin experience: on the battlefield, a superbly trained warrior could be carrying out many tasks by following a tacit set of habitual Omega rules. His ability to perform combat tasks on autopilot thus frees the conscious working memory capacity of his prefrontal lobes to look for Delta moments: particular variations in the emerging scenario that would present opportunities or threats. Once a Delta moment event took place, the warrior could branch to an appropriate contingency plan, staying ahead of the metaphorical monster wave, and "surfing" it to his destination even as it overwhelmed other, less-prepared individuals and pulled them under, drowning them or breaking them.
Amygdala Hijackings, Narcissism, and Social Consequences
Because the brain evolved during a time period in which physical dangers to life and limb were far more common than they are today, there are situations in which the HPA axis may prove to create some reactions that are maladaptive where modern life is concerned. Daniel Goleman, the somewhat controversial author of Emotional Intelligence and popularizer of related concepts, coined the term "amygdala hijacking" to refer to a situation in which a given environmental stress has (in Goleman's normal context) been misdiagnosed by the ancient fight-or-flight system, leading to a socially inappropriate response.
As we discussed in a previous post, a number of non-life threatening threats can still be placed in the fight-or-flight response category; the acronym SCARF---Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness---has been used to describe social threat triggers that can reliably generate adrenal dumps and cause unpleasant emotions to cascade. When threatened by a SCARF attack in a social environment, the amygdala-modulated survival reaction may actually serve to make things worse by either: A)dramatically escalating the confrontation; or B) forcing the subject to endure continued adrenal stress reactions without recourse to any solution.
There appears to be a certain type of competitive and aggressive human being who learns about SCARF relatively early in life and who develops a social skillset based around using these threats to control resources. Researchers have observed that some young children, typically showing signs of narcissism, learn to manipulate others by using SCARF attacks. For examples, consider the potential impact of kicking another little girl out of the clique one day for some made-up transgression (attack on Relatedness); using public ridicule, usually over appearance, to cause shame and humiliation (attack on Status); and forcing obedience to tightly-controlled fashion trends (attack on Autonomy).
However, this is only half of the story: children who use these tactics will also reward servile behavior by including a new child in the group, presenting compliments or gifts or invitations, and so on (note that Autonomy is rarely encouraged). Because the strategies shift to manipulate both positive and negative social emotions, the manipulative children are termed "bi-strategic controllers" and they are often praised by teachers for showing "leadership qualities".
Unfortunately, the situation seems to be getting much worse: average scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) screen have been steadily increasing over time (bi-strategic control tendencies are highly correlated with narcissism) and there is significant evidence that popular social networking sites can end up rewarding the core skills of the narcissist (aggressive self-promotion; tightly edited and lavishly photojournaled lifestyle descriptions designed to depict achievement, travel, wealth, popularity, and excitement; demanding a self-centered audience-performer relationship within the social network).
An equally troubling finding is that a disproportionate share of the increase in narcissism is concentrated in young girls. I am not a sociologist and tend to favor the reductionist and static view of human nature that is offered by evolutionary psychology, but I have to concede that there does appear to be a significant learned or cultural component to narcissism and that it is shaped by positive and negative feedback loops.
Findings are inconclusive and the research is very controversial, but for argument's sake we can say this: if there is indeed a strong gender-biased aspect to the overall trend of increasing narcissism, then this will have very serious long-term social ramifications in regards to dating norms, divorce rates (which will increase dramatically, thus creating an expectation of divorce among those who are considering marriage), and rates of childbirth.
Rational men, once informed about the data, will react with misogynistic expectations: the anticipation of narcissistic/entitlement trend tendencies among females (which could, among other things, cause women to underestimate the probability of divorce) could combine with the biological fact that the genders have very different reproductive windows to create interesting, extremely cynical game theoretical results where optimal male mating strategies are concerned.
This will be the topic for another day, but one interesting paradox that results is that the most desirable man for a narcissistic woman to get married to under one set of expectations (the idea that marriage is a self-glorifying and glamorous stand-alone public event to attain status within a peer group) may simultaneously be among the least desirable men of all to be married to if marriage comes with a different set of expectations (the idea that marriage is a largely private, long-term process of relationship management in which the ability to put a positive spin on tough conditions, to compromise, and to offer emotional stability will be prized).
In any case, we can safely say that having to deal with emotionally manipulative and self-absorbed bi-strategic controllers in either a childhood or adulthood setting can lead to terrible psychological and physiological costs in the long-run. Remember that aggression triggered by threats to status or self-preservation is associated with a different neural circuit than is the type of aggression triggered by predatory instincts, with the RAGE circuit (reaction to threats) being experienced as emotionally unpleasant while the SEEKING circuits (reaction to a hunting situation) is experienced as emotionally pleasant.
Besides being insulated against SCARF attacks by having fall-back positions in each category, the social operator who must navigate an emotionally treacherous world may decide to acquire skills of offense as well as defense. The trick to dealing with certain types of unavoidable/recurring conflict may be to be able to emotionally reclassify the other party as a prey item rather than a threat, thus creating an emotional landscape of pleasurable hunting and sensation-seeking rather than competition and anger. I believe that this is best handled by what negotiation analysts and decision theorists at Harvard have termed "BATNA dominance" ("BATNA" means "best alternative to a negotiated agreement")in several likely conflict dimensions, but I will leave this for the next post.
Schachter's Two-Factor Model of Emotion
Returning to the Plan A and Plan B cartoon illustration of a double wave of panic responses, we can generalize a bit and turn now to the rich body of experimental results supporting the notion that virtually any substantive emotional response to events also comes in two waves. In the first wave, we react physiologically to the event. This could be termed the "arousal switch" and it is general in nature: the same basic physiological reaction will take place in situations that are correlated with fear, excitement, lust, or anger. The second wave could be termed the "categorization" switch, and this is the component that pushes the general feeling of arousal in a more specific emotional direction.
Because we may not subjectively experience a discontinuity between arousal and categorization, the idea of emotionality starting with a common state and then branching into a specific emotion may be deeply counter-intuitive to us. Psychologist Arthur Aron has done a great deal of work in this area; his research findings are just fascinating to me and I have found that author Ayala Malach Pines provides some of the best summaries:
In (Aron's) study, the male students who served as subjects assumed the role of a soldier who was captured behind enemy lines. The soldier was tortured by an interrogator, played by an attractive female research assistant, who was trying to force him to reveal Army secrets. The interrogator "tortured" the soldier by dropping "acid" (actually water) into his eye. Each subject was told to imagine that acid caused him unbearable pain, that it burned his eye, that if the torture continued, it would burn his brain and eventually result in a horrible death. The subject was encouraged to scream every time the "acid" touched his eye. The students really got into the role. They shook and sweated, later reported that they had felt terrible fear. Even the female assistant had to comforted and calmed after going through the difficult experience of "torturing" six soldiers every day. A control group, also playing captured soldiers, had water dropped into their eyes but were told that the water represented the first, easy stage of interrogation.
What were the results? The young men who went through the hair-raising experience of being "tortured" were far more attracted to their interrogator (!). They expressed a greater desire to kiss her and be close to her. In addition, there were more erotic and romantic themes in the stories they wrote afterward.
("You poor fool, I torture you with electric cattle prods and yet you are still aroused," hissed the Hungarian femme-fatale as she adjusted her necktie).
Similar experiments have been conducted using wobbly, suspended foot bridges and mild electrical shocks that some subjects were told to imagine being vicious forms of torture. In each case, those that were first aroused by fear or anger reported members of the opposite sex to be more attractive than those who were not stimulated first.
Even when we mistakenly believe that we find someone sexually arousing, the person seems more attractive to us. Here is an elegant demonstration of this surprising finding. Male subjects were told that their heartbeats would be amplified and recorded while they looked at 10 slides of half-nude Playboy Bunnies. In fact, the subject heard not his own heartbeat, but prerecorded heartbeats arranged to beat faster when various, randomly chosen, photographs were projected. In other words, the men believed that their hearts were beating faster in response to certain photographs when in fact they were not.
Then, they were asked to rate the attractiveness of the 10 Playboy Bunnies. Results showed that the men rated those women who supposedly made their hearts beat faster as significantly more attractive and chose their pictures when offered a poster of a Bunny as a token of appreciation for taking part in the study. Even a month later, in a totally unrelated situation, when asked to rate the same 10 pictures, they again rated the same women as more attractive.
There are various explanations for these results. The excitation transfer hypothesis states that there is an additive, if not multiplicative, relationship between arousal states. A man aroused by electric shocks and then aroused by the sight of an attractive woman will combine the arousal states for an extreme result. Misattribution is another explanation: a woman goes sky diving or skiing and then reports finding her instructor to be more attractive because she misattributes her fear arousal as a romantic one (note that this is a weaker form of excitation transfer, with one arousal being mistakenly interpreted rather than two different arousals combining to form a super-arousal). Yet a third explanation---response facilitation---suggests that a general physiological arousal created by almost anything---including vigorous exercise---will turbo-boost every subsequent emotional reaction we have. Response facilitation is probably the most gentle of the three in terms of its potentially self-destructive effects.
Individuals who look to use neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to influence or directly manipulate others have a field day with these results. So-called "pick-up artists" and "seduction engineers" who specialize in science-based sexual predation and conquests will no doubt attempt to harness these loopholes in human psychology to piggyback their seduction attempts on top of independently-triggered states of arousal, perhaps by designing first dates to include events that will reliably cause stimulation. It will also generally be desirable for such individuals to isolate the target in order to ensure that the arousal does not get "grabbed" by someone else in the immediate vicinity: a lot of hard work could go down the drain if the intended victim was carefully prepped for physiological arousal and then ran into an ex or a co-worker and linked the arousal to attraction to that third-party rather than the would-be master of puppets.
The goal of many seduction engineers is to obtain sexual access to multiple women by employing tactics and techniques that are normally derived from evolutionary psychology and related fields such as neuromarketing and influence studies. In effect, the egocentric overconfidence and lack of sophisticated emotional self-management or "theory of mind" associated with self-absorbed narcissism are systematically exploited by cynics (who usually feel quite justified in doing so, some even going so far as suggesting that they are providing a socially beneficial vigilante-type service).
On the other hand, those who find themselves on the receiving end of manipulation, whether by chance or deliberate planning, may gain an edge if they can separate the physiological arousal from the emotionality. This would be particularly important for non-reflective, "spontaneous" individuals who were prone to basing important life decisions on fleeting episodes of emotional flooding.
It goes without saying that long-term mate selection based on an initial misattribution or elicitation transfer could be ruinous. The wrong information would be used to inform long-term decisions. Men and women are equally prone to making long-term extrapolations based on initial results, with men typically finding that women are less sexual and carefree than extrapolations suggested and women typically finding that men are prone to provide less emotional and administrative support than extrapolations suggested.
I have routinely been surprised at how often individuals who perform with great competence in certain domains make very poor, unreflective decisions when it comes to critical issues like long-term mate selection, despite the overwhelming evidence about attribution issues and the horribly debilitating effects of a toxic domestic environment.
Pines is clearly very concerned with this same problem and she focuses on the origins of love. She states that:
The two-factor theory of love is a derivation of a more general theory of emotions. According to this theory, like a car that in order to arrive at its destination needs us to start the engine and then determine its direction, to define a certain emotion we also need two things: One (which is analogous to starting the engine) is a general state of arousal; it is similar for all strong emotions and includes such physiological responses as a rapid heart beat and fast breathing. The second (which is analogous to steering the car in a certain direction) is an emotional label that explains the arousal---love, anger, fear, jealousy. We learn the appropriate labels for different states of arousal (which is what we are supposed to feel in different situations) from our parents, teachers, friends, the media, and personal experience...what we are expected to feel has a major influence on what we actually feel.
In other words, our bodies react first to the external stimulus with a blind, universal reaction that is value-neutral (neither good nor bad), then we consciously perceive that physiological arousal and come up with a matching emotion or feeling to explain it in the current context. This initial period of diffuse physiological arousal (DPA) may present a chokepoint or funnel opportunity for a social strategist: perhaps we can, with training, consciously intervene in the interpretation of DPA and look at spin-doctoring ourselves to make sure that the right emotional CEO (using Kenrick's terminology) is put in charge when it comes to taking action.
The Theory of Critical Moments
An intriguing and related concept comes from sports psychologist Roland Carlstedt. Carlstedt's model, which he terms the "Theory of Critical Moments" (TCM), identifies psychological factors that are particularly important during high-level athletic performances. In his words:
Critical moments can be defined as instances or situations that are pivotal to the successful outcome of competition. These moments test athletes' ability to perform their best when it counts the most, demanding extraordinary control over mind-body processes. In a tennis match on a grass court, a critical moment might be a break point opportunity against a good server. In golf, a critical moment might involve having to reach the green with an approach shot in order to have a chance at making a birdie...critical moments can be operationalized quantitatively...using a hierarchical system that rates the psychological effect that critical moments are expected to exert on an athlete's psyche.
Carlsted goes on to discuss the theoretical "High-Risk Model of Threat-Perception", an applied model that seeks to isolate personality components that have been linked to high susceptibility to stress and stress-related physical illness. The three variables that Carlsted focuses on in his own work are absorption, negative affect (also referred to as neuroticism), and repressive coping.
Absorption refers to the athlete's ability to control his or her attention in the face of external information or distractions. This would seem to be a factor in which one would want a high score, but the situation is complicated by the effects of the other two major factors, negative affect and repressive coping. Negative affect is straightforward: a high score in this factor predicts that the athlete would frequently engage in negative self-talk or thoughts that referenced loss or failure. Repressive coping refers to the ability to focus away from negative situations or memories---in other words, to "forget" the bad stuff and move on.
An athlete who has a high score in absorption but an equally high score in neuroticism and a low score in repressive coping could become effectively paralyzed during play, trapped in a depressing inner monologue that ignored the demands of the outside world (thanks to the absorption) and gave preferential treatment to thoughts of catastrophe and humiliation. The lack of repressive coping ability would mean that a single mistake or even departure from technical perfection could initiate a spiral of rumination and negative emotionality that could affect performance for the rest of the game. The result, of course, is a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the athlete's focus on negative potential outcomes sabotages his or her real-time performance and causes those bad outcomes to come true.
Closed and Open Motor Skills
As a general rule, high scores in neuroticism and low scores in repressive coping are not going to be of benefit to an athlete. However, the degree to which higher or lower absorption scores benefits an athlete will depend on whether the athlete's sport is dominated by open motor skills or by closed motor skills. Closed motor skills require the execution of a task that has been choreographed and rehearsed to perfection prior to the event: a ballet dancer or gymnast is normally charged with executing a sequence of closed motor skills. Open motor skills are characterized by a dynamic operating environment and the need to adjust techniques in the face of new information: directly oppositional sports including football, basketball, and tennis demand the employment of open motor skills. As one would expect, the ability to ignore the outside world (i.e., to become absorbed) would be of far greater use during the performance of closed motor skills than it would be during the performance of open ones.
There are also a number of performance environments that impose rapid attention-switching demands on athletes. Rather than fitting fairly neatly into the open vs. closed motor skill schema, these environments force participants to transition from dynamic play and fluid improvisation to ideally becoming machine-like cyborgs---cold, disassociated beings capable of systematic execution of very technical, well-rehearsed movements. Penalty kicks and free throws are examples of how isolated, mechanical techniques can suddenly be imposed on what was previously a very busy game of hustle and scramble.
Thus, the ideal athlete in at least some games will be able to switch between two different regimes: one moment being fully engaged in what his opponents are doing and changing tactics and techniques on the fly as these opponents commit to certain courses of action, while the next moment he can ignore the screaming taunts of the crowd or other distracting elements of the environment and flawlessly execute an isolated motor program that he has rehearsed thousands of times in practice.
(swashbuckling Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo is frequently cited as one of the rare and brilliant athletes who displays great powers of concentration, psychological resistance to stress, and near-effortless mastery in both closed and open motor skill categories within his sport)
At the risk of oversimplifying the process, here's how a TCM intervention might work: high or low score tendencies for absorption, neuroticism, and repressive coping are identified by administering psychological tests on the athlete. Carlsted takes these scores and overlays the athlete's peculiar threat-perception characteristics over a "map" of the stress characteristics that have been identified for that particular sport or activity (this map is created using heavy input from coaches and other athletes).
Those scenarios that would be predicted to reveal the clash between the athlete's psychological weaknesses and the demands of the game would then be specifically articulated and the athlete's mental training plan would be designed to prevent him from choking during these pre-identified critical moments. Highly-salient scenario training exercises and very detailed visualization would probably be used to try to make the athlete mentally "bombproofed" as much as possible and to avoid destructive psychological spirals.
TCM and Interpersonal Relations
I rather like the idea of using the Theory of Critical Moments to make predictions about human behavior outside of sports and war. Extensions of TCM-type testing have been suggested to uncover those who would have great difficulty creating happy and satisfying relationships. While it may be popular to speak of "emotional complexity" and "the need for emotional support" as if these things were benign, an individual who has rapid and uncontrolled mood shifts, emotional incoherence, and a tendency towards negative affect could prove to be a ticking time bomb in a long-term relationship if that relationship requires the application of effective conflict resolution techniques (e.g., most marriages).
At critical inflection points within a relationship, a person who has high scores in negative affect/neuroticism and self-absorption will tend to think that his or her relationship is not ideally represented as a win-win situation based on highlighting the areas of overlapping interest. In contrast, the ideal relationship for such a person would be a sort of pseudo-therapeutic one in which the partner with the most unstable emotional command system apparatus would come to dominate his or her partner, and then the combined psychic resources could be hijacked and dedicated to the afflicted partner's neurotic spirals.
It is worth noting that self-absorbed neurotics do not normally choose other neurotics as partners; they complain bitterly about neurotic or self-absorbed traits in others, and seek those stable types who are seen to have spare, readily-accessible emotional resources. In other words, the possibility of a true win-win arrangement with mutual support may have been rejected from the very start in favor of a form of quiet predation. Some therapists have argued that this is still a workable deal provided that the neurotic partner carry the relationship in other ways, and perhaps there is an opportunity for negotiation if the partner with the emotional condition is conscious of his or her issues and can put in place a process for compensating the stable partner for putting up with it. The problem I see with this form of reasoning is that it once again assumes that the executive centers of the brain are going to be running the show on a day-to-day basis.
Scientists studying marketing campaigns have long been puzzled by the very low correlation between product scores on customer satisfaction surveys and the consumers' actual repurchase rates for the same product. The intuition clearly would be that a satisfied customer would be more likely to buy the same product again, but the relationship between the two is shockingly weak. It appears that people will engage in executive brain-heavy processes when filling out a survey, but will return to autopilot habits when they actually go back to making purchase decisions.
A lesson that we can take from this work and apply to relationships suggests that it is important that our friends and partners are habitually kind people. Waiting to see how someone behaves during a crisis and thinking that this will reflect true colors may not be a safe way to proceed: during a crisis, the executive brain engages and may make very crafty, opportunistic cost-benefit decisions if the future social payoffs from good behavior during the crisis are seen to justify an immediate investment.
Crisis-opportunism is epitomized in the classic "wolf in sheep's clothing" mating strategy, in which a sexual predator, typically male, poses as a considerate and emotionally supportive friend to his target and waits for her to endure a crisis. During the crisis, the predator seeks to outperform his rival(s) and to gain sexual access by being seen as kind, sensitive, emotionally generous, etc. It will be later, perhaps months later, when the true autopilot settings of the predator are revealed.
One possibility for further research would be to combine the TCM testing battery with the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) and a longitudinal study in order to find if strong correlations exist between some of these "high risk" psychological traits and destructive relationship patterns in the real world. The idea here is that a person who is predicted to choke under pressure based on TCM scores and who also possessed a high score on the NPI might: A) be prone to negative moods; B) feel non-reflective about the feedback loops and contagion effects that these negative moods could create within a relationship; and C) could still feel entitled (via narcissistic traits) to force these on another person in a relationship setting. Of course, such a person would likely resent and resist psychological testing batteries and would attempt to make his or her behavior seem normal, perhaps even desirable.
It is also possible that performance arts which typically require dedication to extreme, highly choreographed technical perfection---ballet being one example---could also tend to attract fragile-but-perfectionist "diva" personalities that carry these risk factors. At the other end, a total lack of neuroticism and absorption and a very high score in repressive coping could create a person who is perceived to be detached and to offer a limited emotional range (note that such an individual could do well with another like himself or herself, but the same cannot be said of the self-absorbed neurotic, who by nature would fail the most basic test of Kant's famous categorical imperative to "act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law").
Psychological Assessments for War Zone Deployments
Ironically (?), the best psychological attributes to look for in a potential spouse may be the same ones that you would want in a teammate you were deploying with for dangerous missions overseas. Psychologist Paul Brand, formerly the head of human resources for private military contractor DynCorp, is the CEO of a company called Mission Critical Psychological Services. Brand's group specializes in conducting selection and training programs for individuals who will be deployed to conflict areas (and, more notably, in developing support services for those returning home). His written test and "MCPS" interview methodology apparently are quite good at identifying applicants who will tend fare well when it comes to dealing with the psychological stresses often associated with war zone jobs.
Brand's process selects for traits such as aggression, confidence, ability to be autonomous/self-directed, and novelty-seeking behavior (i.e., EXPLORER personality traits as per the Fisher test battery). National-level military special mission units (SMUs) also have access to trained psychologists and make use of them during screenings.
None of these will catch a clever Machiavellian sociopath (fortunately, such an individual may even have useful traits for this type of work). I have found that many of the popular tests for Emotional Intelligence have obviously correct and incorrect answers from the standpoint of how people are *supposed* to act, and as a result these tests are fairly easy to defeat. A robust exam will expose true tendencies because the person taking the battery will feel that the true answer is also the justified, consistent, or morally correct one.
Any interview process obviously runs the risk of participants gaming the system and telling the interviewer what he or she wants to hear, but perhaps a combination of the Brand pre-mission assessment methodology, standard personality testing (the "Big 5" and so on), and Carlstedt's TCM tests could help to round out a nice psychological battery. Fisher's relationship-type classification system based on brain chemistry and emotional circuits could be used as a second step to look for compatibility (remember that, to Fisher, EXPLORERs tend to do well with other EXPLORERs and BUILDERs with other BUILDERs, but DIRECTOR and NEGOTIATOR types work well in mixed pairings).
At the risk of sounding like an unromantic freak who should be put to use collecting dangerous occult manuscripts or some similar activity, I think the ultimate psychological relationship-fitness battery would probably include Fisher, TCM testing, and a variant on DeltaQual that looked to identify heuristics-based everyday decision rules as used within a relationship (this would mean that a potential mate was seen as a shopper who emotionally, economically, and sexually "purchased" his or her relationship on a daily basis, which is an admittedly cynical way to view such things. I will of course use just such a cynical proposition---a relationship being a lifestyle contract that bundles services and products into a mix of potential benefits for the partner---as the central organizing theme of my next post).
Returning to our DeltaQual discussion, perhaps a similar study could be applied to interpersonal habits. The ideal template may well be a personality that is very easy to get along with as a result of the habitual, subconscious use of positive decision rules (Omega rules) during a normal day. These decision rules would of course be based on emotional systems that whirred quietly in the background. Because habitual behavior must be forcibly brought up into the light for executive review, we would expect the Delta moments in the relationship to correspond to conflicts that inevitably take place. These inflection points in the relationship could be thought of as negotiation opportunities, and more structured skills related to negotiation and persuasion could be used. Deliberate social strategies based on exploiting the underlying mathematics of evolutionary game theory will be the subject of the next post.