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Daily crises: the economy is jolted; people are losing their jobs. Terrorist attacks blanket the news. In an article in the NY Times, Kate Zernike writes an article titled “Never Let Them See You Sweat.”
Mentioning the president-elect’s preternatural calm, she wonders what makes some people stay unruffled in situations that send other people round the bend.
It is not superhuman, she writes. And it isn’t entirely the gift of the chosen few. It can be cultivated. And without beta-blockers or Xanax.
Those who study personality and temperament don’t have a category called “calm.” What we colloquially describe as calm, they classify as low on a scale of “neuroticism,” a scale everyone is measured on to a greater or lesser degree.
How neurotic we are is largely determined by genetics. But it is also largely within our control.
Psychiatrists and psychologists speak of emotional regulation — the ability to manage neuroticism so that even the most nervous among us can go through life appearing and feeling more in control — perhaps even more so than those who have a genetic predisposition to be “calm.”
James J Gross, professor of psychology at Stanford University and director of its psychophysiology laboratory, says “What studies have shown us is that there’s great plasticity, even though people are genetically built in ways that make them respond anxiously or not. Genetically identical people can give very different outward impressions because they think differently, they regulate their emotions differently.”
Although it’s relatively easy to say how outgoing or how verbal someone is, it’s harder to know how calm someone is under the hood.
And we must remember that coolness can have its drawbacks, especially when action is required.
John Mayer, professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire says, “No two people’s calmness functions the same for them.
Mayer is one of the original theorists on the concept of emotional intelligence. “The calmness of an airline pilot is really functional and helpful,” he says. “The calmness of a teacher could be misinterpreted as a lack of caring. It’s going to depend on how they integrate that personality attribute with their goals and desires and hopes and functioning.”
Historically there have been efforts to classify temperament, as early as the ancient Greeks, with their four humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood). Today we have self-help shelves and magazines filled with personality scales.
Those who study personality at this moment in time often rank people on “The Big Five:” openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeability and neuroticism (with the helpful acronym OCEAN).
These are characteristic ranges people everywhere have looked to as they evaluate themselves and others: do you tend to be interested in new ideas or are you closed minded? Are you organized or irresponsible? Outgoing or shy? Affectionate or unkind? Easily shaken or resilient in a crisis? And also, in what combinations?
Conscientiousness, we are told, is the least dependent on genes. Extroversion and openness are the most dependent on them. And neuroticism is also highly determined by inheritance.
About half the variations in our personalities reflect our genes, researchers estimate. These judgements are based on studies comparing adopted siblings, or fraternal and identical twins. But the rest is shaped by environment.
It is harder to know how it all works, however. Birth order may have something to do with it, as may the fact of where you grew up.
Many experts feel there are two ways to think about unflappable people: they ARE calm — or they have LEARNED to be calm.
For example, Zernike offers the case of two people with equally high measures of neuroticism who have a maddening boss. When one gets yelled at, he leaves the room calmly; when the other is yelled at, he flees to the bathroom, yelling and kicking the walls.
The first has learned how to control the neuroticism.
Researchers tease out a factor in between antecedent A: the boss’s rant — and consequence C: the employee’s response.
They argue that in between is a crucial B: belief — “I’m a total failure,” versus “I know I’m okay.”
At Stanford, Professor Gross outlines five methods for addressing the “I’m a total failure” situation. They are
- situation avoidance — (steer clear of the boss)
- situation modification — (turn your desk so you don’t have to look at the boss)
- attention deployment — (when the boss invites you in for a chat look at the wall, a picture, anything but his face)
- cognitive change — (he’s a jerk anyway, what do I care what he thinks)
- repression — (concentrate on keeping your face still instead of blinking wildly or twitching with rage)
“Even if you’re someone who is initially anxious,” says Professor Gross, “you can develop tricks and strategies, so someone on the outside would say, ‘Her, anxious? She’s great at a cocktail party; she’s an awesome public speaker.’ They wouldn’t understand that if you didn’t have those strategies, you wouldn’t be able to do those things.”
Doing all this is easier for some people than others, however. Be inspired by our first president.
We know George Washington was highly emotional as a young man, but later became remembered as cool and austere. Says Dean Keith Simonton, professor of psychology at UC Davis, “He cultivated it through sheer will power. It’s capitalizing on your worst fault until it becomes your greatest strength.”
sole source: NY Times article by Kaye Zernike on 11/30/08. www.nytimes.com
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