Ellen Langer

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  • Mindfulness
  • Feb 27, 04:17 PM

Mind Power

At the time, the dominant view in the field of psychology assumed that human decision-making was a thoroughly logical process, driven by a constant calculation of probabilities and costs and benefits. The reaction to that botched deal made Langer suspect something very different.

To test this, she ran a study in which she set up a lottery and varied the terms by which people got their tickets. She found that subjects valued their tickets much more when they were allowed to choose them, even though that did nothing to increase their chances of winning. She called this “the illusion of control.”

Langer followed this up by looking at the often meaningless factors that determine how people evaluate information. In one study, conducted with Benzion Chanowitz and Arthur Blank, she had experimenters approach people who were using a Xerox machine and ask to cut in to make copies. They found that people were more likely to let someone cut if offered a reason – but, intriguingly, it did not matter if the reason made sense. People were as receptive to a meaningless reason (“to make copies”) as a valid one (“I’m in a rush”).

“It is not that people don’t hear the request,” Langer wrote in “Mindfulness,” “they simply don’t think about it actively.”

The above is from a profile of me that ran in the Boston Globe a few days ago. You can read the rest of it here.

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  • Mindfulness
  • Feb 27, 04:12 PM

The Art of Living Mindfully

“Mindful attending, noticing, is enlivening,” says Langer. “People who say they’re bored—with their relationships, for example, or their jobs—that’s because they’re holding it still. They’re confusing the stability of their mind-set with the stability of the underlying phenomena. Things are always changing.”

From a profile that The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran of me and my work. You can find the rest of the article here.

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  • Mindfulness
  • Feb 10, 04:54 PM

Revenge is a dish best not eaten

If you’ve ever been mistreated, you may be thinking that revenge is sweet. Often, a person more experienced in these kinds of matters tells us that revenge is a dish best eaten cold. Surely waiting before we take any action is likely to be good advice. I want to argue, however, that after waiting, we choose grace not revenge.

When people misbehave, it is not out of strength. Further, just as walls do not a prison make, no matter what someone does to us, we don’t have to feel belittled by it. Whatever we do feel is a matter of choice. Why ever choose to feel victimized? If we chose to feel sorry for the other person, revenge becomes unnecessary.

When we think of taking our revenge, we stop the clock at the point of being hurt rather than getting on with our lives. Better that we listen to those wiser, who instruct us that living well is the best revenge. Besides, “they” typically get it in the end anyway.

There are several reasons this is so, whether or not you believe in Karma. First, if it’s characteristic of them to do wrong by others, they are increasing the chances of getting caught by those mightier than they. Second, if they indeed know better, bad actions will take their toll on the doer. Stealing a candy bar as a child isn’t nearly as psychologically costly as stealing one after we’ve grown up. It’s hard to think well of oneself after engaging in actions we know are perceived as deplorable. Finally, people mistakenly take it for granted that they will have hold power forever and that their lot in life will remain stable. As we inevitably becomes less powerful, those that have been “stepped on” on our way up will be there on our way down.

Live well to live well, not to show him we aren’t down for long. Understand that he still wins as long as he is occupying our thoughts and we’ll soon give up the idea that revenge is empowering.

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  • Feb 6, 09:08 AM

BBC Horizon

The BBC show Horizon ran an episode this week titled “Don’t Grow Old” that featured the Counterclockwise study. An article about the study also was published in BBC Magazine that includes a clip from the show, you can find it here:

Can the power of thought stop you ageing?

The show will be repeated on Tuesday, February 9, 2010, on BBC 1 at 2:50 GMT.

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  • PsychToday
  • Jan 26, 08:30 AM

Same thing, only different

When we look at the “same” thing, what do we see? Presumably, we see the same thing. This simple assumption may be at the core of most of our interpersonal difficulties. Instead consider that 1) we may see different aspects of the same target; 2) we may see the same aspects differently; and 3) we may see the same aspects the same way and interpret them quite differently.

The first of these is the most familiar. When a flute player hears an orchestra, the notes played by the flutist may be most salient, while the rap artist may look instead for the repetitive beat of the music. The nutritionist, similarly may observe the lard in an oreo cookie that is totally missed by the hungry child or the adult on a diet. When we try to resolve interpersonal conflicts, it is these sorts of differences we try to find.

The second of these, that we may notice the same stimulus but interpret it differently, is also familiar when the difference in question is one of evaluation. The optimist see the glass as half full, the pessimist, as half empty. When evaluation is not the issue, however, this difference is much more obscure and often reveals that we are ignoring the fact that the same stimulus may look quite different to the two of us. We are in a paddock and five horses come running in our direction. To me, the horses are coming “to say hello” and so I stay to greet them. To everyone else they are coming “to trample us” and so all of you quickly run away. Because there are more of you, the consensus is that I’m in denial. If most of us stay and only one runs away, the person who runs is taken to be a coward. These attributions suggest we are unaware that we are really not seeing the same thing at all.

The third instance, where we acknowledge that we are seeing the same thing, but differ in our interpretation of what we see, is the least appreciated difference. Here we have the successful entrepreneurs who notice the chaos and look for opportunity. It is different from the difference between optimists and pessimists in that initially the view of the stimulus event is the same. What is done with the material is what differs. If no one in a community knows how to ride a bicycle and there are no bicycles, one may conclude that it would be a poor business venture to open a bicycle store there; someone else may see it as a great opportunity in that the market has not been tapped yet.