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Psychology of engagement – in chewable sentences and in boring psychological language

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Psychology of engagement in chewable sentences

I am looking forward to the video of Jane McGonigal at TED Global 2010. Followers and psychologists of work, experience and other such related things will recognize her model and the underlying ideas of Ryan & Deci, Hackman & Oldham, German action theorists, positive psychologists, positive organizational scholars and mytho-poetic chroniclers.

This is is nicely stated, summarized brilliantly by Julie Lasky, who also writes on the need to used short pithy, memorable language.  I must learn.  My resolution for 2010: write chewable sentences.

Why are games so attractive?

Jane McGonigal explains why games are so attractive (and in contrast) why so much of modern day life is not (” reality is broken”).

Urgent optimism

An energetic willingness to attack a problem the gamer is confident of solving

Social fabric

Cooperating with other players builds trust and affection

Blissful productivity

WoW games spend an average of 21 hours a week in th

eir virtual world

Epic meaning

Gamers are super-empowered, hopeful individuals” who “believe they’re individually capable of changing the world,” McGonigal says.

Psychology of engagement in boring psychological language

Urgent optimism

We have urgent optimism when we have “crossed the Rubicon” from “wish to intent”. We become driven, goal-oriented, and focused and probably develop “tunnel vision”.  This behavior is highly valued at work and in clinical settings when we want people to do our bidding (e.g., lose weight). It is greatly helped by settings SMART goals and is facilitated by self-efficacy which is itself raised by experience, vicarious modelling, social support and coaching.

We also like being in this state.  Hence the high interest in personal productivity, GTD, procrastination, etc.  We like being active.

The corollary is that we are active when we feel able to begin, able to do, able to finish.  When those conditions are met, and only when those conditions are met “we go like a train”.  [Come to think of it, fellow psychologists, we know there is an association between our perceptions of the fit of a task, but has there been any research on the necessary and sufficient conditions of action?  Not also that work on necessary and sufficient conditions require a process model not a variance model.]

Social fabric

I love the wording “cooperating with other players builds trust and affection”.  What a loaded sentence!

Yes, we work so much better on common projects provided they don’t interfere with the autonomy needed to sustain “urgent optimism”.  When young people work in groups, they actually develop “language of initiative”.  They use more active language and conditional language (if-then).  Willful declarations of positive thinking (and vacuous laws of attraction), give way to thoughtful, engaged, responsive statements of exploration that has moral purpose.  We come alive.

I like the active verb and the cause-and-effect.  We “cooperate”.  Tasks exist on a social terrain that we navigate, explore and construct.  That helps us understand our own task, and raises our motivation to do our part and to work with the group.

Belonging, team dynamics all fit in here.  What psychologists often miss is the systemic links between individual action and group action that sustains the whole.  This is what games capture. How can we do more work like the “language of initiative”?

Blissful productivity

Flow with a good dollop of learning.  Being competent and developing competence.

Feedback is one of the most neglected concepts in work psychology.  Funny that, as it was key to behaviorism.  We are not the worst offenders, thought. Management textbooks even lose the feedback loop from system diagrams.

Blissful productivity is recognized in the outcome – frequent long stretches of absorption in a task.  The key mechanism that allows this absorption is feedback.

Old work psychology used to research “knowledge of results”.  Feedback certainly raises performance by the order of several hundred % and even in the order of 30% for high performers.  Feedforward and concurrent feedback allow us to “enter” a task.

Well-constructed tasks, and popular games are well constructed, allow us to learn as well.  Well-constructed games have first order feedback (what shall I do next) and allow second order feedback.  They allow us to learn the rules and get better at what we do.

Jane McGonigal’s alternate reality games allow, I suspect, third order feedback.  What is really important in life?  What is it important to get good at?

Why or why, have psychologists put aside this important aspect of their work?  I suspect our neglect is political. We don’t want to challenge our political & economic masters who are “feedback thieves”.  My view is strong. Do no evil.  Depriving people of feedback is immoral.  It should be illegal. Because depriving people of feedback stops them learning, stops them taking control of their lives, usually subordinates them and induces learned helplessness.  Learning how to manage feedback loops should be mandatory in our training as psychologists.

Epic meaning

Psychologists haven’t been good on epic meaning.  I have my suspicions that this is also a political bias.  We don’t want people getting above themselves.  We do do narratives, but for people who are trying to hold lowly lives together, not for people who might take on the world.

Meaning is not on the Ryan & Deci list. It is on the positive psychology list which has “pleasurable, engaged, meaningful”.  But in positive psychology meaningful means “social”.

Epic meaning – I like it. A series of events. On each, we could fail.  Often we are terrified that we are failing. We do fail. But we learn.

Of course, games are “fair”.  We have a chance at succeeding.  The world should be fair too.  But we know it is not.  We have to learn to deal with unfairness too and that is hard for an individual.  Dealing with unfairness is triple loop learning. It involves the emotion “this can’t be happening to me”.  Disentangling that emotion from what we could do is very difficult. That’s where parents, coaches, mentors and therapists come in.

But too often, we advise people to dismiss unfairness.  Yes, we can over interpret threat as ‘personal, persistent and pervasive’ and panic unnecessarily.  But often unfairness must be dealt with on its own terms and by its very nature, unfairness will not cooperate.

What we learn from supporting oppressed groups is that the most important response when we feel threatened is to ‘organize’.  Reach out in solidarity to other victims to unite. Not to rehash the victim story.  But to write the winner’s story.  Not vacuously but to engage with the oppressor who we should not turn into a victim but at the same time, who will respond to our generous spirit by refusing to give up their powerful status and capacity to vicitimize us.

Conscious engagement is important.

Of course, not everyone is involved in the same issues that we are.  So they may not respond to our overtures. It is important not to think that our issue has global importance.

Hmm, I like epic meaning.   I don’t think we have the whole answer to unfairness.  But we can begin.  Look for ways that people build epic meaning into their activities. Facilitate their story telling and organization.

Psychologists so rarely do any work in this domain.  We need to think about this.

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One Comment

  1. Terrific post – timely for me, living in quake-ridden Christchurch, and contemplating the unfairness of disaster! How can we prepare people for this kind of event except by helping them learn through feedback, and feedback can be via games, at-work performance, sports and such like.
    I love your blogging, it’s great to read.

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