A Psychologist’s Year in Cafe World – Part One: Just Being Sociable

Psychology impacts on just about every aspect of being human, and playing a computer game is no exception. After rejecting countless invitations from strangers (a.k.a. Facebook friends) to accept imaginary gifts or send culinary items, I relented and decided to see what all the fuss was about. It was the beginning on a year playing Café World (CW).  My primary motivation was just to have fun. Some of my real world friends accepted my invitations and it became another way of keeping in touch. However,  I also quickly learned that CW is a very socially oriented game. As a social psychologist this really appealed to me.

CW is a café-themed computer game where players build and furnish their fantasy cafés and complete tasks, which involves “cooking” dishes, serving drinks and interacting with other cafe owners in their neighbourhood. This includes requesting items, returning favours and joining forces to complete team tasks. In my “neighbourhood” I noticed that the one player points ahead of the rest, was also the most reliable in responding to requests.  In CW, even though it’s a competition, you succeed by co-operation. However, some people are slow to grasp this. There are also various challenges where players form teams to tackle time-bound catering goals.  Where there is a limited time to cook an insurmountable numbers of dishes, it isn’t possible to go it alone. It is these challenges that bring out the worst in people. There are some hilarious posts on Facebook profiles of bitter disputes that breakout over non-cooperation. Warnings and ultimatums are issued stating “If you don’t respond to my requests, I will no longer respond to yours”. People are accused of being “amateurs” and “not taking things seriously”. This minority, who take things far too seriously, complain, hassle and become quite aggressive with statements such as “How can we expect to succeed if you are not pulling your weight?”. They can become abusive. People gently point out that “it’s a game and none of us are getting paid for this”. For some, this does not seem to matter. They become so engrossed that they become the bullying celebrity chefs we so often see on television. This begs the question, if people behave like this playing a game, do they behave the same in the real world? What are they like as colleagues, team players and team leaders? Do we all play computer games by the same rules as we live our lives by? Did CW turn make these players a little too “enthusiastic” or just shine a spotlight on their behaviour?

Early on, I took the lead from the top player in our neighbourhood and I simply responded to all requests. I’m sure that some people hoped to prosper by taking without reciprocating, however I didn’t let their behaviour alter my strategy. I like the idea of succeeding by cooperation, so I just played my part and didn’t worry about the motivations of anyone else.

CW also appealed to my sense of fun and irony. Other non-players would scoff and tell me that I had too much time on my hands. I was told that I need to get a real life or run a real café. The implication was that my time should be put to better use. Part of me liked the fact that I was playing a “dumb game” and should know better. The gross assumption was that playing a computer game can tell us nothing about ourselves and other people. As I wrote at that start of this, psychology impacts on just about every aspect of being human, and playing a computer game is no exception. CW did not make me a more socially-oriented person, I was that before I started playing. I like the lesson that we can succeed in life by co-operation. Whether pixellated virtual reality of Café World or the “real world”, co-operation for me is not just a means to an end, it is an end point, a terminal value, in and of itself.

In the following parts I will consider how playing Café World can help us to reflect on goal-setting strategies, time-management, cognitive flexibility and transferable skills.

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PsyCentral Top Ten from 2009

Here are the top ten PsyCentral posts from 2009:

  1. Who Says So? Gender and the Social Construction of the Sewing Machine (& Other Power Tools)
  2. Dematerialization: Crystals & Car Keys
  3. The Dangers of Social Networking: Are We Frying Our Brains?
  4. Myth Busting Human Sexual Anatomy Quiz
  5. Body Language Myth: The 7% – 38% – 55% Rule
  6. Saying ‘No’ to New Year’s Resolutions
  7. The Clitoris, the Penis, Political Correctness & Biological Fact-ness
  8. Celebrity Body Language: Fact or Flim-Flam?
  9. Sex and Gender are NOT the Same Thing!
  10. Gender, Cave People & an Apology for Psychology

Review August 2009: Top Five PsyCentral Posts

Here’s a list of the top five PsyCentral posts for August 2009:

Dicing with Boredom. . . & Coping Styles

If you’re constantly channel surfing and find yourself watching the same old stuff, over and over again, stuck on facebook or twitter for hours on end, and the fridge door is opening and closing at night so much that the neighbours think you’ve having a disco in the kitchen, chances are YOU ARE BORED!

None of these activities are intrinsically ‘bad’, it’s just that sticking to the same habitual patterns of of ”boredom relief‘ is hardly likely to relieve boredom. It’s important to take a reality check from time to time and ask ‘Am I hungry or bored?’ or ‘Do I really want to watch the 1930s movie in ‘brown & white’ or am I bored? Am I networking or ‘net-jerking’? To relieve boredom we usually go through the same rituals, such as eating, drinking or watching TV simply because they are our tried, tested and trusted ways of relieving boredom. There’s also an element of emotion-focused coping. This means that we use food or TV to replace the negative emotions associated with boredom. However, emotion-focused coping should only really be a short-term solution. It’s a quick fix but it doesn’t cut to the heart of the problem, that is, boredom. Instead, it just deals with the symptoms.

There’s an old saying that variety is the spice and this sounds like I’m ‘stating the bleedin’ obvious’, but you’re only bored because you aren’t doing anything that you’re really interested in at that moment! So rather than stick to the quick-fixes, here’s a little technique that helps make up your mind to do something different. I’ve borrowed the idea from the book The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart. It’s the story of a therapist who decides to live his life according to the roll of dice, with alarming consequences. However, we are only going to subject our boredom to chance!

Here’s how:

Make a list from 1 to 21 of the things you could be doing to relieve the boredom, that doesn’t include food, drink or TV (or any other of your rituals). The reason it’s 21 things is because that’s the combinations of a numbers on a pair of dice (1 & 1, 1 & 2, 1 & 3. . .and so on up to 5 & 6 and 6 & 6). A third of the things should include things you have been putting off such as  ‘decluttering your wardrobe’. A third should be personal challenges that you never seem to make time for such as ‘learn a new language’. The remainder are things you like doing to relax such as ‘go for a walk’ or ‘read a book’, and so on.

So, the next time you feel board and find your fingers zapping the remote control or opening and closing the fridge door, reach for a pair of dice and your list. Roll the dice and add up the dots and do whatever number is on your list. No excuses, no second roll. Just do it. The afterwards review your thoughts and feelings? Did it do the trick and relieve your boredom? If not, then roll again and try something else.

Negative emotions can effectively put us on a sort of remote control. We are controlled by the negative emotions and act in habitual, quick-fix ways to relieve the symptoms. The dice technique is a fun techniques for pattern-breaking, to get us to consider other options. However, it is no substitute for making informed choices and adopting a control-focused coping style, that is, we seek to tackle the problem at its cause, not just mop up the symptoms.

So next time, you’re faced with an unpleasant emotion, instead of reaching for the cake slice or the remote control ask yourself what’s behind it, and what you can do to tackle it at source.

Links:

The Great ‘Typical Alpha Male’ Delusion

Commenting on Barack Obama‘s trip to the UK, it was interesting to hear a journalist refer to the President Obama as ‘the typical alpha male, laid back and relaxed’ which is exactly not what an alpha male is supposed to be!

The alpha male (in animal groupings) usually has to fight off aggressively his ‘young-buck’ challengers so that he can continue to shag anything that moves. Er. . . I’m not sure that this President would be too pleased with that assessment.  Also, imagine the alpha male in an animal grouping saying to the young aggressive contenders ‘Chill out! Relax’ before getting his head or antlers torn off.

Mr Obama may well be the most powerful man on the planet, politically, but thankfully he possess none of the typical alpha male qualities. When we use the term ‘alpha male’ to refer to ‘powerful men’ we are more or less saying they are ‘bastards’ in the symbolic sense of the word. When men refer to themselves as ‘the alpha male’ they are usually dickheads or bullies or both! Being the ‘alpha male’ is never a compliment! It usually refers to a thoroughly unpleasant bloke who doesn’t have enough friends to tell him that his people skills stink!

So please, just let go of this same-old  tired  ‘alpha male gender stereotype BS’ that we heard too many times before. Instead, let’s focus on the best of our human qualities of compassion, understanding, leadership and the ability to listen to other viewpoints without seeking to crush them. . . just as Mr Obama seems to be doing in the early stages of his presidency. We need models of exemplary human behaviour to aspire to, not lazy-ass ‘stock phrases’ from journalists who don’t appear to know their ‘alpha males’ from their elbows!

Is ‘addictive personality’ really just a coping style?

The concept of addiction seems to be ever-extending.  It’s all part of the tendency to view everything according to an ‘illness model’ that sees any excessive behaviour as an addiction, from drugs and alcohol, to eating, to shopping , to gambling,to computer games, to social networking, to texting, and even having sex. However, it’s clear that not all of these behaviours are physical addictions but more psychological compulsions.

Clearly, hard drugs do create a physical, biological dependency but can we really apply the same to texting, social networking or eating too much cake? Are some so-called addictions really indicators of psychological problems rather than symptoms of an underlying disease process? Does it really help to treat psychological problems as if they are physical illnesses or does it harm us by taking away the responsibility for our actions and emotions?

It’s first interesting to observe that different cultures are addicted to different things, so in part ‘addiction’ has a cultural or social component. From a social psychology perspective, what we are increasingly labelling ‘addictive personality‘ is arguably learned behaviour rather than anything biologically determined. Of course we can argue that we have inherited an ‘addictive personality’ but it is equally valid to argue that some behaviours, such as over-eating, are part of wider family and social patterns. In short, we learn our eating patterns by copying others. After all, our first models of what is normal and how to cope with the world come from our families.

Another way of viewing addictive personality is look at it in terms of coping. From an early age we are taught how to replace negative emotions with positive ones. As children, gifts of sweets of food help ‘heal’ a disappointment or offer an ‘antidote’ to sadness, and sometimes even physical hurt. Fall off your bike and a chocolate bar will make it better’. As adults we tend to use the same approach, for example with comfort eating: a nice slice of cheesecake is thought to cure all manner of emotional ills. This is known as emotion-focused coping. We focus on replacing the unpleasant emotions rather than getting to the root of the problem (control-focused coping). So if we are sad or bored; we eat. When we gain weight and feel even more sad, we eat again to get rid of the unpleasant emotion, and on it goes. It’s the same as people who go out and spend on their credit cards to cheer themselves up from the dismay of the size of their credit card bill! This approach never gets to the ‘why’!

It’s easy to see how an over-reliance on emotion-focused coping can be described as an ‘addictive personality’. Instead of dealing with the  issues  that cause the unpleasant emotions we blot them out by drinking, eating cake or having sex. Replacing negative emotions with pleasant ones is not an ‘addictive personality’ it’s a short-term fix, coping strategy. It’s a psychological problem not a physical one. For a longer term fix, we need to address the underlying issues and look take a control-focused or solution-focused approach. What can we do to change the factors that cause the negative emotions?

This is not to deny that some people experience incredibly stressful events in their lives and a little bit of emotion-focused coping can provide blessed relief for a short time. However, it’s never a long term solution, and neither is owning a label (‘addictive personality’) that prevents people from even bothering to try any more!

If we scratch the surface, all forms of addiction have a psychological component.  If we focused on long-term coping strategies instead of unhelpful labels and quick-fixes, would ‘addictive personality’ cease to exist? Can we get unhooked from our dependency on the ‘illness model’ to address the underlying psychological reactions to the root causes of our problems?

Links:

Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It

The Dangers of Social Networking: Are We Frying Our Brains? Is it 21st Century Onanism?

Social networking: Are we in danger of infantilization?

Social networking: Are we in danger of infantilization?

Internet social networking has now become the target for age old debate on harmful media influences. Leading neuroscientist Professor Susan Greenfield has speculated that as we spend too much time on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, we run the risk of infantalizing the mid-21st mind. However haven’t we heard similar arguments before most notably with TV and video games, right back to the chivalry books of Don Quixote?  Indeed eerily similar warnings of the dangers of on-line social networking were also made for masturbation (onanism) in the 19th century. According to Lord Baden-Powell, such ‘beastliness’ was said to destroy both health and spirits so that the practitioner becomes ‘feeble in body and mind and often ends in a lunatic asylum’. Is social networking becoming the onanism of the 21st century?

Too much on-line onanism?

Too much on-line onanism?

At best, Prof. Susan Greenfield’s comments are conjecture. She admits that there is no evidence to support her assertions (see Newsnight link below). So why bother then? Well, she’d just like the government to provide some funding to satisfy her hunch.  But by contrast, oh the bells, the alarm bells from Dr Aric Sigman who claims that there is ample evidence although, according to Dr Ben Goldacre (Bad Science) Sigman only bothers to look at half of it (see link below). In short, the half that would provide us with a balanced scientific perspective is missing.  It is worth pointing out that Dr Sigman’s piece does not cite any research that he carried out (although it’s difficult to tell as he did not cite the full list of authors in his reference list, so he may be in there somewhere). The paper looks to be a  literature review with his own conclusions and he concedes (in the Newsnight interview) that it is meant to be a one-sided piece intended to provoke discussion, something he appears to specialize in (see: In Bed With Mary Whitehouse). The paper is based on the assumption that Internet social networking increases isolation and loneliness which in turn leads to health problems.

As with many of these media-scare stories, the more dramatic conclusions require a leap of faith that correlational studies indicate causation. They do not.  So for instance, does Internet social networking increase isolation and loneliness or do lonely and isolated people seek out a means to make themselves less so? This could mean that on-line social networking is a positive thing. And perhaps we should for a moment consider e-learning’, providing wider educational opportunities? No, the ‘e’ doesn’t stand for evil!

Dr Sigman speaks of displacement arguing that children are sitting in front of a computer when they could be out socializing with friends. However, couldn’t the same argument be made for watching television (er, yes it has), reading and even doing homework. I know I would have rather been out playing ‘kick the can’ as a child, when I was stuck in doors reading about the printing press and how it gave ‘the great unwashed’ ideas above their station (pretty much in the same way as the Internet does today). Worries that children can be too ‘bookish’ are now largely overlooked in favour of newer ‘dangers’. And presumably, on-line social networking has displaced ‘staring aimlessly out of the window on a rainy day’ too.

Sigman has also made the claim that we can only be friends with someone if we can shake hands with them. That’s assuming that everyone has hands and  that they can shake them! He also makes questions whether we should be chatting on-line to people across the globe instead of playing with ‘real friends’. Has he forgotten ‘penpals’ at school, the practice of writing to complete strangers in different countries? It was heartily encouraged! As a social psychologist, I would have thought connecting with people from other lands was a good thing (in contrast with good old-fashioned, small-minded, back-porch xenophobia). However, some evidence suggests young people are using online social networking primarily to enhance existing friendships and interaction with ‘e-friends’ is secondary. Unfortunately Facebook only uses th category ‘friends’ for all online contacts. It doesn’t mean that each and every is viewed the same; users may make their own distinctions. Thinking about my own experience. I have over 600 contacts in my email contact list although only 20 that I use frequently. It is not a coincidence that these are the people with whom I have the greatest face-to-face contact.  In short, much of the headline-seeking, scare mongering stems from a failure to understand how the average user uses online social networking, instead indulging in worst case scenarios. I could go on but instead invite you to read Sigman’s article and with the aid of Goldacre’s response ask you to think of alternative explanations that make up the whole of the picture. And while you’re at it consider how Greenfield throws together a heap of ideas and assumptions that do not necessarily have to be connected in the same way as she does.

So are we all twittering ourselves into oblivion?

Much has been made of the ‘rewiring our brains’ hypothesis and Prof Greenfield has speculated that in middle of the 21st Century – that is in about 40 years time –  our brains will be different. This seems a little premature to say the least. Sigman would warn us about exposing young brains to novel experienes but this also includes just about everything at school. Children have an enormous capacity for integrating new experiences. Chances are the world will be a different place and yes humans will adapt. Isn’t that learning? In the long-term isn’t it evolution?

We simply do not have the evidence to assess the extent of brain changes  and it certainly won’t just be all down to how much time we spend chatting to our real or ‘virtual friends’. Life is so much more quixotic! It’s also important to recognise that new technologies impact on different people in different ways. The diffusion of any innovation is such that we have innovators, early adopters, the late majority with laggards, er . . lagging behind.   So will we have a sliding scale of brain-mush? Will the ‘slow on the uptake’ be spared?  Again, more conjecture. It’s simply not possible, nor scientific, to conclude that any changes will be for the worst  and to pretend that ‘brain infantilization’ or ‘hairy-palmed isolation’ are  foregone conclusions (or even likely) is at best bad science. It’s just another example of not letting the evidence get in the way of  a good story.

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