Thursday, October 22, 2009

Culture: It's Action, Not Attitude

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Barbara Ehrenreich is currently on a book tour for her latest book, Bright-Sided. A simplified version of the thesis that she presents is that a culture of positive thinking has blinded United States culture from identifying and addressing the root causes of major problems, allowing things like the financial collapse in 2008 to happen because people that warned that it might happen were told they were "too negative" and ignored--or even punished.

Anyone that knows me will not be surprised to find that I agree with pretty much everything that Ehrenreich posits. The United States does have a real problem with a "positivity" culture that eschews realism. Never mind the economy (but listen to what happened to dissenting figures in this episode of This American Life if you want to see her opinion supported), I've seen friends decide not explore the root cause of their personal problems and instead just take a more positive attitude, only to find similar events happening again--and blame themselves for not being positive enough. To me, excessive "positivity" is just another aspect of the extreme individual focus of culture in the United States that completely ignores any problems or disadvantages that occur at the community or group level--or just through chance. If you don't like your own life, it's your fault, and you shouldn't expect any help from anyone to change it. If you don't like someone else's life, then you're putting the blame in the wrong place if you think society caused them problems--it's their own fault, and you shouldn't help them. Those are the messages that constantly bombard anyone in the United States that is "negative."

Ehrenreich--who presents the historical roots of the trend thoroughly in her book--started exploring this topic as a result of her struggles with breast cancer. Everywhere she turned, she was told to be more positive about the disease. While Ehrenreich has discovered that medical studies have shown that it actually makes no difference what kind of attitude one takes during treatment on its success, the convention wisdom is that it does matter. Besides some early studies that seemed to indicate this, the convention wisdom exists because it tends to match our experience--everyone can think of a story about someone that seemed to give up emotionally and died shortly thereafter, or someone that badly wanted to live and recovered when doctors thought they were terminal cases.

What Ehrenreich points out, almost as an aside to her core points, is that what really seems to make a difference is taking action. Someone who has emotionally given up may decide not to take action--not telling a caregiver when their condition changes, or proactively asking what to expect during a treatment, whereas someone with fight in them will probably take every action that they have the energy to do. The same thing applies in economic self-help situations. Someone who has given up likely won't do anything to change their situation, whereas someone who is "more positive" is probably taking actions to try to find a job or whatever assistance can improve their situation. Yet, a person who expresses dark humor or muses on their long odds but still listens to their doctors or networks to find a job may be just as likely to work their way out of the situation as the overtly positive individual. What people ascribe to attitude seems to have a lot more to do with action.

There have been a long list of business situations in which I have said something to the effect of "X is unlikely to work--we can try Y or Z." Every single time I've done that, I've been accused of being too negative. Almost every single time, X has failed before too long. The smart bosses let me work on Y or Z in the background while telling their own bosses we were focused on X, and in some cases we salvaged the situation. The less intelligent bosses actively prevented me from doing anything other than working on X and watched their enterprises devolve into big trouble, sometimes too late for Y, Z, or anything else to do any good. Needed action wasn't taken, and "positivity" didn't save those situations any more than it saved the US economy in 2008 or the war in Iraq in 2003.

Sadly, Barbara Ehrenreich will likely be ignored--maybe even punished economically for questioning positive thinking. A culture that has been based on marketing since its inception (think Paul Revere and Benjamin Franklin) will always find careful evaluation threatening and reject it. And, sadly, I don't see that there's any action I can personally take to prevent that.

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