11 Jun

Head Space: using psychological distance to make better decisions

Our best decisions are made when we are calm and clear-headed, when we have the time to reflect on our lived experience and to consider a wide range of facts, evidence and experiences from other people’s perspectives too. When under pressure to decide right here and right now (whether that perceived pressure and sense of urgency is realistic or not), we are forced to limit our range of options to those based on initial and sometimes erroneous first impressions of a situation. Our brains are simply not capable of taking in and consciously processing all the information that our senses can receive. The information we are likely to pay more attention to, often subconsciously, is that relevant to our basic survival needs.

The neurophysiological fact that we have two independent thinking brains in our heads – one that deals with the emotions and behaviours required for survival in the here-and-now, the other taking its time to evaluate and cogitate and to draw up complex plans for the future – is well written about: Kahneman’s ‘systems 1 and 2’, Mischel’s ‘hot and cool cognitions’ and Peters’ ‘Chimp and Human’ all refer to the same brain structures and functions that determine whether our initial reaction to a situation is immediate, instinctive and impulsive, or delayed, deliberate and implemented. Understanding that the emotional, survival-thinking, impulsive limbic brain is more powerful and quick to react than our highly-developed neocortex is an important step on the road to self-awareness, and, more importantly, self-acceptance. But what do you do next? So what if you get annoyed by specific triggers that are out of your control? What can you do about it to reduce the emotional impact the next time it might happen?


In a real emergency, it is often the case that our immediate response is to escape or flee. Our aim is to get away from the threat as quickly as possible. When at a safe distance, we might feel more comfortable (less uncomfortable) when looking at the situation. Take, for example, someone’s reaction to something perceived to be scary, such as a spider or a dog. When the object of distress is at a safe distance, the individual is more able to manage their emotions. If the object gets closer – either of its own accord or by the individual having to come closer to it – then the emotional reaction intensifies. In extremes, when an individual has nowhere else to withdraw to, an avoidant flight reaction can turn to a fight reaction – like the self-defence reaction of a cornered animal.

The spatial perception of physical distance and its impact on emotional distress is mirrored in at least three other dimensions, namely time, social involvement and probability. In each of these four dimensions, it is the perception of immediacy (time), proximity (spatial), all-immersing effect (social) and certainty (probability) that makes the perceived situation more-or-less distressing. “What’s that coming over the hill? Is it a monster?” “Yes, and it’s massive, and now it’s right in front of you, with its bloodshot single eye staring right at you, and you’re going to die!” There’s nothing quite like the absence of doubt to prompt rapid and focused evasive action. And when faced with a threatening situation, how much time do you want to devote to arguing against your instincts?


The more real or ‘concrete’ we think a challenge is, the more we believe in it and the more our emotional mind will respond to the perceived level of threat or opportunity, activating our sympathetic nervous system to increase heartrate and breathing, raise blood pressure, dilate arteries and bloodflow to the major muscles and reduce energy invested in digestion and other non-essential biological functions. These physiological sensations of being stressed (or, as psychologists love to say, ‘aroused’) can exaggerate the perception of how stressful the situation is. “I’m feeling really nervous and scared, therefore it must be really scary!” Recognise that this physiological reaction is automatic and starts within ½ a second of perceiving a threat, and you’ll be ready to calm yourself and others. It’s normal. Don’t worry about it. Keep calm and carry on thinking.

The more you are able to think of a situation in abstract terms – of being in the distant future or the distant past, of being not as big, close and quick as you first thought, of being considered something that could happen to anyone rather than just you alone, and of having at least some chance, no matter how small, of it not happening at all, the more you are able to calm down your emotional reaction (thoughts) and its accompanying physiological sensations.


Applying psychological distance in these four dimensions involves thinking in abstract terms, also known as forming ‘higher-level construals’. Situations and their potential consequences become less immediate, less all-or-nothing and less certain, allowing us time and space (quite literally) within which to manœuvre and to devise options and plans for action. Conversely, as our thinking becomes more concrete, so our plans become more specific, down to the level of being able to think, feel and act out specific routines and to rehearse them as if they are actually about to happen. Rehearsing set routines in this way is at the root of learning drills, leading to the formation of reinforced neural pathways in the brain. The stronger the pathway, the more automatic the learned behaviour. The spectrum stretching out between lower-level, concrete construals and their distant, abstract, higher-level cousins forms the hierarchy along which objectives decompose into goals, and goals break down into next steps. It is represented in the different coaching questions ‘What could you do?’ and ‘What will you do now?’

Most importantly, to those interested in learning and development, higher-level construals have been shown to be associated with affirmative beliefs in one’s ability as a feature of one’s personality, rather than attributing events to circumstances outside of one’s control. “I can see myself achieving this, because I have the knowledge, skills and ability.”

11 Dec

If you want to succeed in your resolutions, then start thinking about failure

When do you start thinking about your New Year Resolutions? Sometime between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve, when, perhaps, the excesses of the festive season have started to take their toll and you’re looking forward to starting off the New Year with a renewed spring in your step? Out with the old, in with the new; wave goodbye to old habits; become that person you’ve always wanted to become.

How long is it before you find you are starting to fall behind with your plans? How quickly does that mind’s eye picture of the ‘new you’, that was so vivid and vibrant, start to fade? By when have you typically ceased to be ‘on plan’ at all, but have reverted to the old habits that you never really waved goodbye to, instead having formed one or two new unhelpful ones along the way?

One of the strongest habits you might have is the annual habit of making and breaking New Year Resolutions. This year, have a go at doing it differently. Think about what you’d like to achieve in general – your aspirations that break down into the oh-so-familiar ‘SMART’ goals – and then turn your thoughts to the ways that you will most probably fail. This ought not be too arduous a task, if you already have a track record of making laudable, respectable and exciting resolutions, which, by the start of February, have already fallen by the wayside.

Why think about failure when resolutions are supposed to be all about motivational outcomes and images of the perfect ‘you’, and using that bright shining future to create the get-up-and-go needed to take action? In order to stand a better chance of making progress with your plans, it’s important to prepare more thoroughly for the setbacks and upsets that you are likely to experience along the way. Our plans and visualisations of success will be heavily laden with emotionally-positive imagery – of the desired outcome being achieved through a plan of action that runs, well, according to plan. When a setback or failure comes our way, not only is the outcome unexpected, but so too is our own emotional reaction to it. In that moment of emotional disorientation, our brains are less capable of thinking up a logical way around the problem. We can fall victim to impulsive thoughts and actions and indulge in self-defeating behaviours, allowing unwanted emotions to fuel unrealistic ideas of self-worth, both positive as well as negative.

Thinking ahead is not only about having enough time available to consider the impact and likelihood of potential setbacks and obstacles in your way (although time is a key factor in carrying out resolutions and it pays to be prepared); it is also about having access to those parts of your brain that are capable of applying logic and perspective of time and space to these likely scenarios. When faced with a challenge in the here-and-now, logical thinking can be impaired by emotional thinking. The parts of the brain which are largely involved with executive functioning and planning (the cortical areas of the brain, including the frontal lobe and anterior cingulate cortex) can be disrupted by the limbic areas of the brain (amygdala, orbito-frontal cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex), which collectively perform survival thinking and influence impulsive behaviour.

Consider a typical example of a New Year resolution of getting physically fit, which includes as part of the plan going to the gym after work every evening. One evening you return home tired and stressed after a challenging day. This could give rise to at least two emotional reactions. One reaction could be rewarding and self-focused, in that you decide that you are too tired to exercise and that it would be better to sit down with a cup of tea and watch TV. You justify having a night off with the promise to yourself that you’ll definitely go the following evening, and that you’ll make up for the missed session by working out for twice as long. Emotionally, you are generally positive and happy.

A different emotion, such as anger, could be focused on the causes of the stressful day, with the belief that your fatigue and stress and consequent inability to go to the gym are the result of someone else’s fault and that you are the victim. The outcome is the same: you decide not to go to the gym because there’s no point now.

In both scenarios, emotional thinking in the moment reduces your ability (in your frontal lobe logical-thinking brain system) to put things into perspective and to come up with a plan to get around the challenge. Given no time to think, because the emotional-thinking limbic areas have already spurred the body into action, the easier option to take is to stay at home and control the things that bring reward and a sense of security and of being in control.

What would you say to someone else who was experiencing the same thing? “Yes, you’re tired, but I’m sure once you get to the gym, you’ll feel invigorated enough to workout.” Or, “Yes, you’re tired and stressed from work, but don’t let others stop you from having a workout and of getting fit!” How difficult is it, really, to be prepared to ‘say’ the same things to yourself in your head, or indeed out loud if it helps?

Being prepared to deal with these setbacks has an intrinsic reward in itself: once you successfully implement your intention to go to the gym no matter what, your sense of emotional mastery is increased. You are rewarded for having mastered yourself in the moment, shown commitment to your goal in the face of emotional opposition, proven to be resilient to the temptations of an easy option, a cup of tea, a night infront of the TV and all the fault in the world being attributed to everyone else but you. Your self-esteem is that little bit stronger. Yes, your workout regime is challenging, but your self-discipline is robust enough to carry you through. And after six months of managing yourself and being dedicated to your resolution, you can look back and notice the difference.

So, take the time now to think about how you could fail in implementing your New Year resolutions. The more time spent thinking about how it could go wrong before it does, and what you could do about it, the greater the number of choices for action  you will have available to you in the moment that a problem arises. Spending time thinking about the negatives and making contingency plans is a positive thing to do: it’ll help you avoid setbacks, relapses and failure.

29 Nov

What are you thinking?

Doing things on purpose: how the single-minded pursuit of simple actions beats multi-tasking hands down

In the highly-connected world that we live in today, it is not unreasonable to demand instant answers to the questions that pop into our heads at any time of day. When we want to know our bank balance, or what time a train departs, or what’s on at the cinema this week, we simply open up an app or type into a search engine and our need for instant gratification – to know right away – is immediately satisfied.

Our expectation for instant knowledge is taken for granted in the 24/7 ‘always on’ lives that we lead. An unfortunate and possibly unwanted effect is the contrast it places on the length of time that we do not know something. When we receive emails from work colleagues requesting information, we can potentially jump to two assumptions: firstly, that the instantaneous nature of the email being sent and received requires a similarly instantaneous reply, and secondly, if it is the case that we don’t have an appropriate response to the request made, that we are somehow unable to meet our obligation (of supplying the information requested) and in some way lacking competence.

When the perceived demands placed on us exceed our perceived ability to perform, we experience pressure and stress and feel overwhelmed. When this continues for a short while, the usual prescription to cure the ailment is attendance on a time management course. The side effects of these are usually an increase in unread emails and a bad case of course coffee breath. When the condition becomes chronic (pun intended!), negative consequences are increased irritability, headaches, difficulty in concentrating and making decisions, leading to, in the worst case, exhaustion and burnout.

What can neuroscience tell us about what is happening inside our heads? A crucial fact to be aware of is that a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in detecting errors, making judgements, taking a decision and committing to action, is disrupted and its performance impaired by information overload. This impairment becomes more pronounced when there is a perception of being incompetent and unable to manage the demands. Everything can quickly seem to be important (meaning in need of a decision being made) and even the slightest failure on our part can be taken as concrete evidence of complete and utter incompetence.

The word ‘perceived’ is in italics for a reason, for it is the world as we perceive it that leads to interpretations of our being able to cope or not. Not only can these perceptions be inaccurate, they are formed by two independent thinking areas of the brain that have entirely different purposes: one is for rapid decision making and action for the purpose of survival, and the other is more deliberate in how it reaches a conclusion, taking time to use logic and to plan. The former influences the sympathetic nervous system and the stress response (increased heartrate and pulse, rapid breathing, butterflies, sweaty hands and dryness of mouth), and it has the power to override the latter brain’s ability to think logically and deliberately. We experience the physical sensations of anxiety as we fear making a fool of ourselves by not coping (performance anxiety), find it difficult to see the wood from the trees or explain ourselves clearly (orientation anxiety) and worry about letting ourselves and others down (acceptance anxiety).

Speed of reaction is one differentiating factor between these two thinking brains. Another is how they manage perspective – how incoming information differs in terms of time and scale. For survival purposes, it is expedient to perceive threatening issues as being immediate or imminent and of a magnitude that is absolute and overwhelming. Right here, right now, no ifs and no buts. However, believing that everything has to be attended to right here, right now (emails responded to, information sought, action taken) leads us to pay attention to selected stimuli at the expense of getting on with the longer-term, more considered plans carefully devised by our slower, logical-thinking brain. A scattered attention span gives rise to lower-quality decisions and increases the chance that the outcome will be less optimal than required – adding to the initial perception of being unable to cope, incompetent, not up to the job (even these perceptions and self-beliefs can become absolute, all-or-nothing).

So, what can we do to start to reduce the effect of this ‘scatterbrain’ feeling of being distracted by information overload? We need a clear and straightforward plan designed to achieve a clear and simple purpose. Breaking down a goal or objective into simple, achievable steps is at the core of SMART goal-setting: visions, missions and strategic objectives decompose into goals and tasks – putting perspective of scale and magnitude onto the desired outcome. This allows a sense of control to grow, which helps to stabilise any beliefs of incompetence. In effect, it forces an answer to the question ‘How do you eat an elephant?’.

As soon as perspective of scale is established, perspective of time will follow. ‘How soon is now?’ is the question Morrissey of The Smiths would ask. How quickly are we expecting to receive feedback, and to what extent will that feedback satisfy our emotional need for reassurance – to reduce our feelings of acceptance, orientation and performance anxiety?

With a well-defined purpose in place (clear in time and scale), a plan can be formed. If we can manage our expectations for immediate and reassuring feedback as we monitor our progress, and learn to become resilient to setbacks, we can reduce the load on our anterior cingulate cortex and make better-informed and better-timed decisions. Purpose, Plan, Progress©: reduced noise, sharper focus, stronger performance.

I close with the thoughts of the Prussian Field Marshal Helmut von Moltke on being focussed and not distracted: “the surest way of achieving your goal is through the single-minded pursuit of simple actions”.