The Putt and the Pendulum

Poe_pit_pendulum_byam_shawIt’s a good thing you can’t copyright titles, because I had to steal this one.   It’s just too good.   The play on Poe refers to a clever study by Harvard social psychologist Daniel Wegner designed to emulate a phenomenon well-known to golfers—the tendency to miss easy putts when the pressure is on.   In the study, subjects were told to hold a plumber’s pendulum—a string with a pointed weight on the bottom of it—and try NOT to move it in any direction. Wegner found that the greater the pressure to get it right, the more the string moved. The more you try not to do something, or tell yourself not to do something, the researchers hypothesized, the more likely you are to do it.

Eventually, after a series of similar experiments this notion became known as the “ironic effect,” because giving clever names to common phenomena makes you famous, helps you get published and increases your chances for tenure and income, especially after you do a TED talk. Perhaps because it wasn’t catchy enough, Wegner renamed the phenomenon the “white bear (or polar bear) problem” after reading Dostoevsky during his summer break.  Fyodor wrote: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.

Ironic processes have been proposed to arise as a result of the unconscious (automatic) component of thinking being heightened during periods of stress, creating an overload which then interferes (through “hyper-accessibility”) with conscious thought, resulting in less focus and poorer performance. The unconscious monitor is thinking “If I miss this putt I’ll lose the tournament, be ashamed, and my mother will have to tell her friends in the nursing home.”   The stress created by TV cameras, high stakes, and Tiger Woods teeing off behind you can be intense, thrusting the unconscious monitor into consciousness, thus interfering with the conscious thought—“softly about six inches to the left,” thus distracting the golfer enough to impair concentration and performance.

Increase the pressure to do something right and we are more likely to do it wrong.   But that principle doesn’t work all the time.   Performance under pressure works like an inverted U-shaped curve, in which too little pressure has no effect on performance, and too much pressure really screws us up.   The trick is to find that middle way, in which there is just enough pressure to push us toward our best performance.

When I was a young teenager, there was an Orthodox synagogue located down the street from where I lived called the “Sea Breeze Synagogue.”   The old wooden building was built close to the turn of the last century, and badly in need of repair, but rather than tear it down they decided to build a new building in the empty lot next door.   There was a steel girder, about a foot wide, spanning the length of the empty hole where the foundation and basement was to be, maybe 25 feet long.   The width of the girder was certainly large enough to walk across without fear.   But the fact that it was suspended over a large hole, large enough to do serious damage should one fall into it, made the walk from one end to another too daunting. I knew some kids who did it, or said they did, but I wasn’t going to be one of them.

It was an easy task, but the context “spoke to me” and made it out of the question.   If I simply were able to put it out of my mind it would have been a sea-breeze.   But instead, had I tried it, the knowledge that if I fell I would likely not survive or be paralyzed for life would overtake my focus and I would, as it were, be more likely to miss the putt.

Psychologists recommend distraction as a chief strategy for dealing with such distractions.   In other words, think about something else while doing the thing you already know how to do well, and your newly conscious thought will serve as the antidote to the venomous voices in your head. While it seems counter-intuitive that thinking about how to best prune roses while walking across a tightrope will increase the likelihood of making it across without splattering one’s viscera on the floor of the arena below, to then be devoured by the abused lion while the lion-tamer is distracted by the malfunctioning of his assistant’s wardrobe, who in turn might be distracted by the thud of your own body having fallen three feet from her, I am told by psychologists more knowledgeable than I that indeed this is a good way of coping with the white bear problem.

My white bears often overwhelm me, and distraction never quite does it for me.   I try, for sure, but sometimes I just have to give in to the white bears.   Maybe that’s why I could never play golf.



This Isn’t About Safety

You know that thing you hear all the time about the most dangerous part of flying being the drive to and from the airport?   Well, it’s true if the flying you are doing is on a commercial airline.   There simply isn’t a safer way to get from one place to a much farther away place than on a commercial airliner.   But if the flying you are doing is in a general aviation airplane– the kind with a propeller or two in the front of it, well then, you’d be safer driving. Small airplanes typically crash somewhere between sea and shining sea at the alarming rate of several a day.   Not that that is very much as a percentage of miles flown, but it is greater than the percentage of cars that crash to the whole of miles driven.

While it takes some statistical gymnastics to get there, the research on aviation safety concludes that flying in a small, general aviation airplane is just about as safe as riding a motorcycle.   If you ride motorcycles, you know all about that.   And if you don’t ride motorcycles, that’s probably the reason why. Riding motorcycles is more dangerous than driving a car not just because there is little to separate you from the environment, but also because they slip, slide, bump into things and are harder to see.

In spite of their danger, many people in the United States ride motorcycles, and many more people throughout the world ride motorbikes, sometimes, as one often sees in Southeast Asia, with whole families, infants, pets, laundry, and lumber precariously balanced over two wheels traversing pothole-ridden, detritus-laden roads. They do so primarily because it is a cheaper form of travel, and gives you greater access to places than cars.   But some, I imagine, do so because riding a motorcycle is thrilling, not unlike flying in an airplane with an open cockpit.   My cousin Peter flies an open cockpit Raven, and I can assure you it is much like riding a motorcycle in which you not only own the lateral dimension, but the vertical as well. His only speed gauge, he told me as we were flying, is the feel of the wind on his face.

But what you’re reading right now isn’t really about safety, because I am superstitious and a friend of mine died in a horrific aircraft accident not long after his safety-oriented article appeared in a magazine.   He was—I believe, a safe pilot, but sometimes the forces of nature are just too powerful compared to the meagerness of the best human ingenuity. Yet, glancing over at the other hand, perhaps most everything—to some extent, is about safety. It is just a matter of how far one can stretch a metaphor.   I suppose if you carry fear around with you at all times– and if you aren’t I’m not sure you’re worthy of being released on your own recognizance, all things are, more or less, about safety. Once ejected from the relative safety of the womb, we each land on a planet with wild winds, earthquakes, tsunamis, guns and white bread. That is why some really sensitive people don’t ever venture outside of their apartments, but still manage to get electrocuted in their bathtubs.

Nevertheless, some who do venture out inevitably crash and manage to simply dust themselves off, walk away and collect insurance.  What makes one person see danger as a mere inconvenience and another see the same danger as a tragedy is certainly a combination of genetically determined temperament and early experiences. It is, I imagine, a parent’s ability to sensitively manage an infant’s fear and provide a safe environment that goes a long way to equip innately fearful children to steel themselves against life’s inevitable challenges.

Most pilots with whom I speak don’t admit that they feel the least bit frightened when they fly.   They also think that being fearless is a good thing.   And apparently, according to a poster I saw hanging on the wall of a yoga studio, fearlessness is the number one characteristic of a yogi. I don’t think that would be hanging on the wall of the yoga studio unless someone else also thought that was a good thing.   I don’t think it’s a good thing; in fact, I think it’s a really stupid thing.   To me, fear is the friend who accompanies me everywhere and teaches me how to calculate that risk-reward ratio that defines life outside the uterus.   Without it, I suspect I wouldn’t be here, nor would you.   In all fairness, I don’t think that what a yogi or yogini says when he or she refers to fearlessness is exactly the same thing as what I mean.   There’s only so much you can explain on a poster, or only so much people who read posters want to know as they are doing warrior two.   Fearlessness to a yogi likely has more to do with a certain amount of comfort or acceptance of fear rather than the absence of it, and if I’m wrong about that you should probably switch lamas.

I take my friend Fear with me every time I fly, from the moment I get into my hangar and eye that beautiful beast of mine to the moment I leave the hangar and feel grateful the big hangar doors didn’t land on my head and crush me. It is also why, safely on the ground, I feel a sense of mastery and exhilaration when it is over.   And it is also why, if I want to be as close to absolutely certain that I will make my friend’s daughter’s wedding in Paducah in one piece, I will fly commercially, and hope the ceremony isn’t too far from the airport.



The Route Not Taken

I submitted an article for a column I write in Plane & Pilot magazine called “The Route Not Taken.”   I’m fond of the piece, probably because I just submitted it and haven’t had the requisite amount of time and distance to re-read it and hate it, and to question what I was thinking and what makes me think I have the chops to be writing articles in magazines anyway.

The idea of the piece is essentially that pilots are often reluctant to divert from their original destinations because certain elements of their personality that may be strengths also work against them.   Their dogged goal-directedness, for example, may contribute to a diminished psychological flexibility—perhaps the main ingredient required to make the important decision whether or not to divert from their original destinations or route.   Diversions, by the way, are an essential part of keeping pilots and their passengers safe from potentially hazardous weather, bumping into other airplanes, or being escorted by an F-16 or two and forced to land at a military base to be greeted by uniformed machine-gun toting patriotic Americans taught not to smile even when pointing a gun at an unarmed, gray-bearded and balding man exiting a wimpy airplane, perhaps alone or perhaps with a miniature poodle left in the cockpit because he couldn’t carry him out of the airplane at the same time that his hands were reaching for the sky.

In writing the article, I couldn’t help but think about a few diversions in my own life, although I decided not to mention them because of space limitations and because they weren’t specific to aviation.

It was the summer between the second and third year of college, and I saw an ad for a researcher position at Learning Magazine in Palo Alto.   The researcher was the one who read articles and wrote summaries for the staff writers, and it was a step above the mailroom on the path to becoming a writer.   I interviewed well, but didn’t get the job. When I told my housemate, who knew how badly I wanted the job and also happened to be a fearless, only child, he asked my permission to call the editor himself and find out why I didn’t get hired.   I reluctantly gave in, and sure enough Jason was able to coax the editor to reveal “off the record” that although I was the most qualified and possibly most talented of the three finalists, I was the wrong gender.   The magazine staff was almost entirely male, and they were being pressured from management to even things out.   Jason was angry, but being rather feminist even in those days, I wasn’t, and even felt somewhat satisfied that I had lost the job for a good cause.

But I have often thought that, had I been able to score a paycheck for writing, which was my first love, I would never have gone on to become a psychologist.   It is not that I entirely regret having spent most of my life in a career that has allowed me the privilege of contributing to the relief of suffering one human at a time; my career has been a blessing on multiple levels. Yet I do sometimes regret that my practical fear of not earning enough money to support myself and a potential family —a fear to some extent that was nurtured by my parents’ dogged determination to shrug off their own poverty—prevented me from following my deeper passion.

I also know had I gotten that job at Learning Magazine I have no idea how my life would have turned out.   The entire game would have been altered. Every subsequent moment would have been different, never to intersect with the life I actually ended up having. The expenditure of any significant amount of energy on regrets over paths not taken is one of the least productive ways of engaging the past, unless of course we use it as motivation to act in a more courageous way in the moment.

There are, of course, many reasons pilots end up making decisions to forge ahead when doing so may not be the safest thing to do, and each pilot in each circumstance will be motivated differently.   While the article in Plane & Pilot began as an article about diversions, it turned into an article about psychological flexibility– a key factor that correlates highly with overall measures of mental health.   There is considerable evidence that enhancing one’s own ability to be less rigid is a skill that can be learned. It requires the motivation and determination to do so, but people who already find themselves too rigid to adjust their plans and thinking to the demands of the moment often don’t lack the determination to see things through. It just requires the decision to channel that determination into being more flexible, or, as Yogi Berra was alleged to have said: When you come to a fork in the road, take it!