How to Outsmart Your Ego
The Feedback Trap
The ego issue: How do most of us react when someone criticizes us, even constructively? "By denying, rejecting or transforming the threat to preserve self-worth," explains Michael Inzlicht, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, and his colleagues, in their study on performance threat. The price: A distorted sense of reality and a failure to learn from mistakes.
The fix: If you can spare five minutes before your next performance review, marital spat or the like, use it to identify something you value immensely (creativity, travel, family, comedy, for instance), and then jot down a few thoughts about why it matters. This exercise—clinicians call it "value affirmation"—makes us less prickly and more open-minded when hearing about our mistakes and flaws, concluded multiple studies. It works because it protects our broader sense of self-worth, while disabling the "ego protective" alarms that drain mental energy. Bonus: Value affirmers also have better self-control and make fewer errors on subsequent tasks, found Dr. Inzlicht.
The Confusion Trap
The ego issue: Imagine there's something that you're fairly clueless about—spreadsheets, perhaps. Long ago, you tried to crack the code, but felt out of your depth. Now you're too proud to go back to square (or cell) one—and, so, you'd rather just not know what you don't know.
The fix: Don't avoid confusion, embrace it. Missteps become assets when you practice "productive failure," a learning technique described in a study at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education in Singapore. There, math students were faced with seemingly impossible problems, then asked to come up with solutions on their own. The students were encouraged to get lost and confused and to make up wild theories. They failed, of course. But later, after they were taught the solutions, they performed better on subsequent tests than those who received straight-out instruction. Failing—thoughtfully and without shame—helped them to learn more deeply.
Next: Why presuming the upper hand hurts your success
The Destiny Trap
The ego issue: You feel flattered when a stereotype seems to work in your favor. Of course you're good at giving; you're a woman! Of course you're good at science; you're a man! But watch out, found psychologist Angelica Moè, PhD, after testing men and women in spatial relations, an exercise in which males were presumed to have the upper hand. While we might expect men's scores to soar after a perceived ego boost, they actually performed worse than usual. Pride gained from an unearned advantage turned to anxiety about living up to it.
The fix: If you're ever told that you're naturally gifted or look the part—or that you have any other advantage having to do with genes or destiny—break the evil spell it'll have over you by saying, "Oh, please. That's just a stereotype." When Moè told test-takers that a cultural stereotype was the underlying reason why men outperform women in math—not superior "math genes"—everyone scored better because the "biology-as-destiny" expectations were lifted.
The (Secretly) Superior Trap
The ego issue: Yes, it's narcissistic, but many of us think that our own lifestyle choices represent the universal ideal. For instance, couples often think that single people would be better off in a relationship, and singles think that couples secretly feel trapped, found researchers at Stanford University and the University of Waterloo. What's even worse, is when smugness turns into bias: In the study, people gave same-status job candidates more positive ratings in a mock job interview than those with a different relationship status (everything else being equal).
The fix: The next time you catch yourself evangelizing your own lifestyle, imagine it changing (after all, everything changes...eventually). The research found that the more people perceived their relationship status as fixed and unchangeable, the more they defended and idealized it, and the more biased they were against those who were different. However, when they were prompted to effectively channel their inner Buddhas—that is, to think of impermanence as a fact of life—they became more understanding of the other side's position.
The Cool-and-Collected Trap
The ego issue: To quote Thomas Jefferson, "nothing gives one person so much advantage over another as to remain always cool and unruffled under all circumstances." But there's a price to such power and invulnerability: You end up suppressing yourself or denying things that actually do matter to you.
The fix: Watch this clip from Oprah's Lifeclass, in which psychologist Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, describes how she reminds herself to let down her guard. She says that she keeps "permission slips" in the pockets of her jean jackets to remind herself that's it OK to be excited, passionate, goofy, heartfelt and joyful...in short, to free herself from the restraints of coolness, which she compares to armor.
Next: How your posture can make you dishonest
The Power Trap
The ego issue: We've all been inspired by the research that finds that an Olympic-medalist body posture—arms out, legs spread—boosts testosterone levels and self-confidence in just two minutes. However, in some settings, the "power pose" can tip over into dishonesty, concluded a study led by Andy Yap, PhD, a lecturer at MIT's Sloan School of Management. Dr. Yap and his colleagues found that when people had to—out of necessity—stretch out their limbs in a generous SUV-style driver's seat or at a large (24-by-38-inch) desk, they were likelier to steal money (not report overpayment), cheat on a test and commit traffic violations than in places where their bodies were more constricted.
The fix: Keep your throne or oversize workstation, Dr. Yap says; after all, the feeling of heightened power can also decrease stress and make you feel more positive. But in those settings, he recommends finding ways to stay alert to larger goals. When powerful people focus on noble principles—duty, obligation, accountability—he explains, they're much less likely to behave unethically. (Which brings to mind a slogan I once saw splashed on a wall of an oversize studio, perhaps by the artist to keep herself in check: "Art and Ego Are Antithetical.")
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