Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.
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Some of the most interesting articles I have read recently have been published by a social psychologist called Dan Wegner on what he calls ‘ironic processes of mental control’. What this means is that often by trying to control our mind in some way – e.g. trying not to think about cigarettes or trying to fall asleep – we often, ironically, induce the opposite. The mechanism at work is this: if we try not think about a white bear (one of the experiments Werner recounts) then the mind sets up a goal (don’t think of the bear) and will automatically set up a monitoring process for this goal so that it knows if success has been achieved. When the goal is a mental process the mind then automatically keeps checking to see if it is being successful – am I thinking about a white bear? – and so the very thing we are trying not to think about keeps coming into our thoughts. Ironic effects are particularly likely if we are in a stressful situation or if our brains are being taxed, as they often are in an educational context.
Ironic effects are particularly common around relaxation – the more we try to relax the more aware we become of being tense. Wegner et al write: "… too often our efforts to cool down, withdraw, or calm ourselves seem to backfire – producing greater agitation than we had suffered before we even tried to relax." They even report that people suffering from anxiety "who are given a paradoxical instruction to become anxious sometimes fare as well in relaxation as those who are instructed to relax". Wegner and colleagues suggest that it may be better for professionals to take much more indirect approaches and "disguise the overall aim of relaxation procedures in some way."
This is of great relevance to policy makers and practitioners in education. If they are now going to try to get certain outcomes they need to be aware of the need for subtlety. In England there is now a heavy emphasis in the new taught approach to social and emotional education (SEAL) on young people learning calming down techniques. These include taking your pulse and repeatedly telling yourself ‘be calm, be calm, be calm’. Wegner’s research suggest that doing this with children is likely to make, some of them at least, in danger of feeling more tense and worked up, not calm. If this happens it will then justify doing more calming techniques in the classroom and a vicious circle will be in place.
Exactly the same thing could happen with confidence. If adults keep going on to children and young people about the importance of being confident they will become more aware of any lack of confidence they have and this may make them anxious about confidence. In other words, it could be counter-productive. When it comes to public speaking, or sport, people can often do things, and get a good result, even if they don’t feel confident to begin with. So we have to be careful that this agenda does not backfire.
This certainly does not mean that there is nothing we can do to nurture young people’s confidence or well-being. What adults and professionals need to do is ensure that in schools and homes we create the right conditions for young people’s confidence to rise or for them to feel calm. As with most things in life, when it comes to confidence and well-being there are no short cuts.
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