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The Most Important Lesson of Social Science

The Most Important Lesson of Social Science

I have been a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell for over 40 years. My core interest has always been in the social-theoretical ideas that

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I have been a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell for over 40 years. My core interest has always been in the social-theoretical ideas that can actually be applied in to action. Sometimes, of late, something seems to keep repeating. Recently, it’s come together.

Throughout my career, my work has touched on various areas of the social sciences: organizational theory and leadership, organizational structures, social psychology. Of late, I have realized that there is one notion that is persistent in all my concerns, and it not only affirms my understanding of social science, but also has been affirmed by brain science. The original source of this insight is from a book by W.I. Thomas (The Child in America, 1928).

The underlying premise, as I think we all understand, is that we can create self-fulfilling prophecies. How we perceive a situation defines how we act in a situation, which inevitably reinforces our perception.

If a leader acts like jerk because they believe people are incompetent, or not on “their side,” or some other negative self-created myth, they create a self-reinforcing cycle. As a result, they will interact with their team in a defensive or even hostile manner. And to justify their bad behavior, they will say to themselves, “See, I was right. See how they are behaving?” What the leader fails to realize is that their negative interpretation led to the spiral that is now making things worse. As Thomas wrote, “If [people] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.

Let’s use an example from economics. What makes for bear and bull markets? Do you believe it is due to objective numbers? Do you really believe the slope of the curve, the standard deviation, the incremental measure of GDP is really a core predictor of the economy? It is only a predictor because people define the number in a particular way. Optimism and pessimism are the core predictors of the economy. Either condition may be sparked by some number, but essentially the economy is determined by how people define the situation. If enough people define the clouds of inflation as threatening, then it will rain cheap dollars and inflation will take off. If enough people define the economy as having growth potential, then the bull will continue. It is simply the definition of the situation. And in this case, the definition of the situation determines herd behavior, which determines the economy.

Have you thought about what the expression “getting up the wrong side of the bed” means? The embedded meaning is to ask how you will create the reality of the day.

You get up in the morning, bad back and all, but you tell your partner you love them and give them a hug. You do this even though you feel like garbage and don’t feel that your words are authentic, but you create one reality with your words and actions. In all likelihood this reality will result in a positive interaction, which will indeed change your marginally positive view into a positive, expanding view. Your back may still hurt, but at least you’ll have your partner in your corner.

The other choice is you get up, your back hurts, you groan, you whine, you’re a bit hostile. You’re engaging in what we call in New York the classical “kvetch factor”, and the day spins out of hand as you’ve created a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. You have defined the situation, and the consequences are real.

Recent studies of the plasticity of the brain show that how we define the situation has a direct impact on how the brain responds to the situation. If there is one lesson to keep in mind–optimism and pessimism, facts and fallacy, exist.  The real challenge is how you discipline yourself to define a given situation.

That means, once in a while, engaging in some dramaturgy that may not feel totally authentic in the first few minutes, but will take on its own reality, which will reinforce your attitude. This is not “fake it till you make it”; this is the legacy of W.I. Thomas, who was almost 100 years ahead of contemporary brain science.

The empowering lesson for leaders, economists, therapists, friends and rivals, may seem trite, but it is very powerful. Be mindful of how you define the situation.

This article is from Inc.com

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