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old post: On loving my job for 25 years

From 2012

The first year of Psych Geek has been a time of learning. I need to find a way to blog and do my regular semester work at the same time. But now it's summer, so I should be able to post more regularly.
On Sunday I attended the commencement that marked the end of my twenty-fifth year at American. A couple weeks back, a student friend expressed relief that I still love my work, with the implication that too many people don't. Since then, I've thought off and on about loving one's job and thought that social psychology might offer some insight. So here goes on some reflections of still loving what I do even after 25 years of it. I'll draw on five distinct social psychology concepts.
This isn't to say that I enjoy every moment of my work. Blue books are the devil's spawn and badly run meetings his first cousin. There are days when I couldn't teach a vulture to eat roadkill. (Tip of the hat to friend Scott Parker for that one. He heard it once in an interview.) Done well, the job of the professor is necessarily impossible and so you need to live with a constant sense of, in some ways, your own inadequacy. There is just too much to know, to do. People around us sometimes make bad decisions, and that makes our lives more challenging, often needlessly. All of this is true, but nonetheless I don't think I could be happier with being a professor at AU.
Our explanations are always partial.Why do we do what we do? Our answers depend on where we first look. It's common to look at our histories, and that certainly has played a role for me. I am blessed with a loving family who not only provided inspiration but also left me virtually debt free. Too many now need to choose jobs to ensure they can pay their bills. I had the luxury of being able to try the professor bit, knowing that if it didn't work, I'd lost only time. I've also been blessed with remarkable teachers...Toni Zeiss, Albert Bandura, Phoebe Ellsworth, Amos Tversky, Lee Ross, Mark Lepper, Walter Mischel, David Rosenhan, Merrill Carlsmith, Lauren Alloy, Lyn Abramson, Bob Sekuler are among my professors. Some of my grade school teachers might read this--I wouldn't be here without them, too. It's also common to look at that which we love as the cause of our love, and surely there's much to love about my job. I get to study gratitude and mindfulness, which it's easy to find interesting and which I believe to be important in this world so valuing materialism.I am fortunate to not only respect the intellect of many of my colleagues, but to respect them as people, and to count some as good friends. That matters a lot. I teach good students. Much of being a professor is showing others things that you love, and sometimes students get it, and what is better than that? AU has grown in my years there. Hard to imagine, but I've been at AU  for over a quarter of the time that we've enrolled students. (Geez.  I'm ancient!) When I got here we were just removed from the financial  brink. Now we are remarkably stable. When I got here my first lab was  in a building now torn down. The physical support for the move into the lab was to  buy me paint and brushes. AU has grown, and it is easy to find joy in that.
All of that is true, but I think restricting cause to those two foci does us a disservice. Our loves arise not only from our history and our current circumstances, but also from our choices, and I suspect that focusing on the former diminishes the latter. So how might some choices have shaped my love of my work? Here are five social psychology stories.
1) Time and variety. People adapt. We grow used to whatever we experience. That is reassuring in times of crisis. We generally get past. It gets better. But it also means that that which initially brings joy gradually so often becomes, well, boring. The first bite of a good curry carries more punch than the tenth. How do we fight that tendency? Two rules of thumb are time and variety. If we wait long enough before the next bite of curry, it's just as good. If we intersperse the curry with jambalaya and barbecue and tea leaf salad and tibs and (ok, I'll stop. I'm getting hungry again), then the curry stays interesting.
What does that have to do with choice? Some of the time and variety is surely in the object. I try to only teach introductory psychology once a year. More often and I've found it harder to keep my interest. Here, I drift from the data, but I suspect part of the variety, at least, is choice. One word. Mindfulness, not plastic. If we attend closely, are two bites of the curry the same? I don't think so. Just so no two students, nor a given student at two different points in a class. No two studies are identical. No two committees are the same. There is infinite variety before us.Everything is new under the sun. If we look. And looking is a choice, one that can be developed by exercise. It's a choice that is self-reinforcing because the variety we can see is so much more interesting than the monochrome that we would otherwise bring. Bored with your job, or with anything else you might have once loved? That diminishes the incentive to look, but look anyway. You might be surprised and love again.
2) Overjustification. Find people who love something and then give them rewards for doing it, money, power, fame, the opportunity to watch Cardinals baseball. After awhile they'll stop doing that thing that they used to do just for love (unless you bribe them!). It's become a job.This one is the curse of modern American education. We take children with immense curiousity and then stick and carrot them to exercise that curiousity till all they want is to be out of the whole game. And I worry for the future of the professoriate. Now, surely many professors have done their work in the past because it feeds their ego or their pocketbook. But will the increased emphasis on assessment, done for very understandable reasons, have the unintended effect of increasing overjustification? Will more professors teach a good class or engage in a good study because it meets assessment goals rather than out of love for that class or that study?
Again, what does this have to do with choice? Once more, I drift beyond the data (at least those I know). I suspect if we look to our work as an end, rather than as a means to an end, that it can help keep the overjustification effect at bay. Can I look at a lecture and do it because there are really brilliant ideas there and it's a joy to share them? Can I engage in a committee because there's a task that needs doing and there is joy in accomplishing that task? Can I keep my eye on the goodness of the idea embodied in my research as opposed to that which I get for doing research well? How can you love your teaching, your scholarship, your service, if your attention is instead on what rewards you expect loom behind them?
3) Cognitive dissonance. The basic idea of dissonance is that if we have two conflicting thoughts (I hate meetings. I'm in a meeting.) that causes tension. We don't like the tension, so we do all sorts of mental gymnastics to get rid of it. If people lie to someone else and are paid little to do it, they come to believe the lie. That doesn't happen if they're paid a lot. If people are induced to tear down someone else, they come to dislike that person. Thus, the idea goes, you find people so caught up in justifying themselves to themselves that they are barely in touch with reality. And I suspect to love, we need to be well in touch with reality.
The familiar question...choice? The familiar answer...The data are unclear. I asked one of the seminal figures in dissonance research (Elliott Aronson) once how we could dodge dissonance effects, and his answer was "self-compassion," but he had no data. Self-compassion is, indeed, a choice. Can we choose to simply accept conflicting information and go about our lives anyway? I think the alternative is madness, one to which to many succumb. Can I hold the thoughts "this student just failed my course after basically giving it no heed" and "this person has many fine qualities" to both be true? They generally are. No student is either perfect or irredeemable, but the temptation is surely to lionize those we've praised or demonize those we've failed. And where's the love in that? As we read scholarship, most any study has both flaws and virtues. Can we see both, so as to not go overboard for or against? As professors, we have good days, good weeks, good months, good years. We as professors have bad days, bad weeks, bad months, bad years. Can we accept both or will we either give up in despair, forgetting the good, or be insufferable, forgetting the bad? Neither of those is love.
4) The fundamental attribution error. As I wrote above, we tend to place cause wherever we first look.When we see others act, our attention is generally on them, so we tend to ascribe cause to them, missing their circumstances. And in part from this we tend to see others as more immutable, more traited, than they actually are. And if people are fixed, then why look? And so we have students, colleagues, administrators whom we look past, and what effect does that have on them?
Happily, I actually do know data suggesting choice matters here. Empathy instructions reduce the fundamental attribution error. If we put ourselves in others' shoes, we see from their perpsective and are more prone to understand that part of the cause of their actions is their situation.That gives reason to keep attending to those around us because they might just change situations. (One of my favorite former students once got a C- from me as a course grade but subsequently enrolled in a doctoral program and remains a friend...Go figure. Circumstances change.) It also gives us incentive to change situations for others so that they can flourish. If folks are fixed, are we as attentive to their situations? A class or a department or a committee in which folks are not attentive to the situation strikes me as one that will not summon forth the best from all, one in which there is less love.
5) Thinking, fast and slow.That's the title of Danny Kahneman's autobiography, sitting here awaiting it's turn in my summer reading. The thrust of the idea is that we think in two different ways, one relatively effortless, intuitive, outside awareness, the other relatively effortful, systematic, conscious. Both have their utility, but the misapplication, using intuition where some effort would help, or effort where our intuition actually knows better, causes us problems.
I find that reminding myself of this distinction is useful. I know I don't deploy my resources perfectly, but I've learned both to just trust my intuition in a lot of circumstances, trusting also that I and my students or colleagues have the grace to muddle through if I was too thoughtless. And I've learned that some decisions are important enough and uncertain enough that they are better made, if possible, after a night's sleep or consultation, or both. (A happy story is from a colleague who went through our governance situation at AU with me a few years back [AU came out better than before.], who told me he now uses that wisdom, having learned it from me...) A life allowing both intuition and reason their places strikes me as one that is much more amenable to love.
So that's it. I've been a bit lighter on the social psychology tonight than I'd planned, but the hour is late. I'm sure I'll write more about the psychology in the future, so stay tuned. I'm glad to be back to blogging. I'm grateful for the quarter century that I've taught at AU and hopeful of a quarter century or more more. And I'm hopeful that one or another of my thoughts above helps you with your job, or with others things you might choose to love.


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