Part 5: How We Think Differently
It’s easy to ask people “How do you feel?” What’s harder is figuring out how to let people answer easily and completely. The secret lies in understanding how we think impulsively and emotionally. Here’s what I learned in the early 90s, from my Midwestern collaborator and from the early birds in what came to be called The Decade of The Brain.
- Emotional thoughts precede rational thoughts, coming instantly after stimulus. It’s how we’re wired – the design of our overall nervous system including the part above the shoulders.
- There’s never just one emotional impulse. There are many, usually diverse and often contradictory.
- Emotional thoughts are inarticulate pictures, happening too fast to be in words. We can articulate them best in our own vernacular, not by fitting them into someone else’s categories.
People aren’t accustomed to blurting out all their different feelings to an interviewer, let alone to a survey. They need a sufficient level of trust to do so. Therapists and coaches (like my Midwestern neuroscientist/psychologist collaborator) work hard to build this level of trust. Usually it takes multiple conversations over a period of weeks or even months.
With a self-administered private survey, it’s actually easier to establish build this trust. Assuring complete confidentiality and in fact anonymity are the keys. Designing questions that feel empathic then seals the deal.
Fired up by these realizations, we scribbled down a radically-new design for a survey instrument. I put emotions first, mixed method questions, accepted short or long responses, minimized perceived expectations or norms about “what’s the right answer.”
Our first test run was with the IU Varsity Swim Team. Accustomed to ranking at or near the top of Division 1, they’d suddenly tumbled to a lower rank after the retirement of their storied coach, Doc Counsilman. Same swimmers with (mostly) same coaches producing much worse results. Teams of strength trainers and performance psychologists (including my collaborator) were brought in to get to the root of the problem. Everyone reported it was The Doc’s absence, and would take some years to “get over.”
We drafted one of our radically-new surveys, and my collaborator gave it to the swimmers and coaching staff after practice one evening. Team members filled it out in pencil in the locker room, leaning on the benches or up against lockers. It took them only a few minutes. They described it as “easy,” “thoughtless” and “kind of pleasant” – and told us “doubt you’ll get anything useful from what I wrote.” We learned tons. Swimmers expressed their anger toward The Doc, their mentor/guru/father who’d dropped them. They blamed themselves for his departure. They owned up to superstitious magical thinking about performance at high levels on the national stage. They spilled their guts, and we heard what was going unspoken.
My colleague was amazed that in less than 15 minutes they’d expressed more than he’d heard in multiple interviews with each swimmer and coach over a period of six weeks. We knew we were on to something.