One day, at a nursing home in Connecticut, elderly residents were each given a choice of houseplants to care for and were asked to make a number of small decisions about their daily routines. A year and a half later, not only were these people more cheerful, active, and alert than a similar group in the same institution who were not given these choices and responsibilities, but many more of them were still alive. In fact, less than half as many of the decision-making, plant-minding residents had died as had those in the other group…
So begins our new book club selection Mindfulness by Ellen J. Langer. And it is enough to keep me reading through ten chapters. This week we are talking about the first three chapters. Is it possible that the way we engage in decision-making and noticing our lives affects the length and quality of living?
This question prompted Ellen J. Langer to spend years studying the mindsets of human beings. She and her colleagues termed polar thinking styles mindfulness and mindlessness and illumined how these mindsets have the power to change lives. Before we discuss transformation we need to gain a better understanding of what these two concepts look like. In chapter two, Langer discusses three cognitive tendencies that underlie mindless behavior.
Trapped by Categories
One way humans make sense of our world is by creating categories that improve efficiency in understanding. “It’s a jazz song.” “She’s lives in a Third World country.” “He is very authoritative.” For the most part, categorical thinking is helpful. But when we rely too rigidly on categories and distinctions created in the past, mindlessness ensues.
The creation of new categories, Langer tells us, is a mindful activity.
When we fail to think actively about what we are doing, we often fall into patterns of automatic behavior—attending to minimal stimuli from the world around us. Habit, or the tendency to keep on with behavior that has been repeated over time, naturally implies mindlessness, Langer says.
Acting from a Single Perspective
When a narrow perspective dominates thinking, the result is often mindlessness. Langer notes that highly specific instructions especially discourage us from opening our minds to alternatives. She cites the example of following a recipe. How often do we stray from the specific directions, even if we know something that might improve the recipe? “Jeff loves garlic…I think I’ll double what it calls for. ”
Not very often. By maintaining a single perspective we lose the opportunity to create something customized to individual preferences.
Chapter three talks about the roots of mindlessness. Here, Langer identifies some of the reasons we fall into the above mentioned rigid mindsets.
When we know a task so well that we are considered an expert, often the steps required to do the task are no longer consciously available to us. Repetition leads to mindlessness. In one study that Langer mentions, when subjects were asked to think about a familiar topic before discussing it, they experienced a disruption in fluency. Subjects who were asked to speak about the familiar subject right away did much better. Langer concludes a familiar structure or rhythm helps lead to mental laziness, acting as a signal that there is no need to pay attention…
Premature Cognitive Commitment
Sometimes we form a mindset without thinking about it and continue to cling to that initial impression upon subsequent encounters with the subject. This is called premature cognitive commitment.
When we accept an impression or a piece of information at face value, with no reason to think critically about it, perhaps because it seems irrelevant, that impression settles unobtrusively into our minds until a similar signal from the outside world—such as sight or smell or sound—calls it up again. At that next time it may no longer be irrelevant, but most of us don’t reconsider what we mindlessly accepted earlier. Such mindsets, especially those formed in childhood, are premature because we cannot know in advance the possible future uses a piece of information may serve. The mindless individual is committed to one predetermined use of the information, and other possible uses or applications are not explored.
Belief in Limited Resources
A reason we may become trapped by categories is our belief that resources are limited. If we are able to see the world as dynamic and continuous, categories wouldn’t have to be so rigid. Langer suggests mindfully considering what is actually being sought to open our minds to possibilities. She gives the example of a couple going through a divorce who are arguing over who “gets” the child.
…This may be the wrong question. What is actually at stake? Is it the physical presence of the child that the parents want, or is it a certain relationship with the child? Is it the child’s body or the child’s unlimited love they seek? Or is it a way to get back at each other for whatever hurt was experienced in their relationship? A mindful consideration of what is actually being sought might show that there is enough of the so-called limited resource to go around. A child’s love is not a zero-sum commodity. Two people can love and be loved by a child. Feelings are not a limited resource, yet we often don’t recognize this because we focus on elements of them that do appear limited.
Other causes of mindlessness that Langer mentions include the notion of linear time, education for outcome, and the powerful influence of context. But what does Langer recommend to counter these influences on our mindset?
Because rigidly following set rules and being mindful are, by definition, incompatible, this book will not offer prescriptions, she says. Instead, it is her hope that we will find—as she and her colleagues have—that thinking about mindfulness and mindlessness will alter the way we see the world and result in more mindful decisions.
Next week we’ll be discussing chapters four and five, The Costs of Mindlessness and The Nature of Mindfulness. If you’d like to join the discussion, leave a comment or link up below with a post at your blog.
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