January 31, 2011

Half Full or Half Empty?

Most of us know someone who seems to be perennially pessimistic about things—a spouse, co-worker or friend. And it’s also true that most of us have an acquaintance or two who is rarely discouraged by anything that comes along. To an observer it looks as if they are on two ends of a continuum, and in some ways that is accurate.

From those who do research into this kind of thing, we’ve learned that such dispositional differences are influenced profoundly by heredity, some say as much 50-80%! Whether on the positive end of the continuum or the negative end (or more likely near the middle), each of us seem to have a dispositional range where we operate. As individuals, we’ve had the experience of trying hard to appear happier and more optimistic (or maybe even more pessimistic) than we really feel, just to get through a situation or event. Or we are up or down for a period of time depending on circumstances. It changes for a little while, but over the long term, we all have a dispositional style that we generally return to. In other words, those with a half-empty perspective can work toward the middle, but they’re probably never going to see the world in the same way as those born with more rose-colored glasses. And those who are higher in optimism may drift lower, but are never going to become a Chicken Little (The sky is falling! The sky is falling!). (more…)

August 31, 2008


I’ve been thinking more about burnout lately, as several people from my private practice show signs of this, and as I hear from friends who work in agencies that fail to consider the health of employees.  What IS burnout?  Is it a real thing, or simply a buzzword that has come to have little meaning?

The experience we call “Burnout” has been described by Elliott Aronson and Ayala Pines in their classic book, Burnout: Causes and Cures.  I often recommend this book to those struggling with a sense of hurry and worry about their work life.  In short, burnout might be described as the experience of mental and physical exhaustion, accompanied often by negative attitudes and a sense of hopelessness.  Of course, physical symptoms may be present, making it harder for the person to sort out the causes of distress.  In general, we’re talking about burnout related to (more…)

August 17, 2008

Positive Psychology is NOT about constant happiness!

“Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”Helen Keller (1880 – 1968)

In recent months articles on happiness are everywhere.  We see optimism and happiness, and life satisfaction mentioned in every publication from those on psychology to the magazines on gardening.  The tone of these articles suggests that we should be pursuing happiness full time, and that anyone experiencing sadness or grief is simply not trying hard enough.

A life of happiness and satisfaction is one built upon meaning, not pie-in-the-sky Pollyanna thoughts, and we should expect that some life experiences will be challenging, difficult, even sad or very hurtful.  At no time should it be imagined that a life of happiness and satisfaction would carry no grief or sadness, because that would be completely untrue.  To have meaning, life must be valued; I think we would all agree to that.  So it follows that in times of loss of life, loss of treasured relationships or when devastation (earthquake, fire, floods) strikes us, we may very well experience shock, sadness or grief.  If we have practiced the skills of optimism and resilience will know that these are not permanent emotions, but we will be sad, and feel grief at our losses.  The impermanence of life, and our happiness is part of why we treasure it. (more…)

August 3, 2008

You Are “Super Saturated”

“Simplicity is the peak of civilization.” Jessie Sampter

To be alive in America today is to be bombarded by messages and information.  Nearly every surface, from the newspaper to the sides of downtown buses carry messages and information entitled “must see”!  If you don’t believe me, take conscious notice of the room you sit in right now—look around at the book titles, the magazine covers, the sticky notes and the television.  All vie for a limited commodity: your attention.

Is it a wonder that we all feel as if we have some degree of Attention Deficit Disorder?  After a certain age, we begin to think it is the onset of dementia when names escape us, or words will not come to mind, but it is likely this is the effect of over-stimulation.  The brain is wired up to pay conscious attention to only one or two things at a time.  At a lowered level of consciousness, we can also monitor a number of other things (the song now playing on a radio in the background, the increasing noise from our neighbor’s back yard), but we cannot give conscious attention to all that is happening in our environment at any moment, unless of course we’re in a windowless room alone, with no distractions.  I haven’t had that experience, so I shouldn’t really say that it would be possible to pay attention more closely in that environment! (more…)

July 20, 2008

You See What You’re Looking For

“Men willingly believe what they wish.” Julius Caesar (100 BC – 44 BC), De Bello Gallico

“They were so strong in their beliefs that there came a time when it hardly mattered what exactly those beliefs were; they all fused into a single stubbornness.”Louise Erdrich

During the political season it’s easy to observe that people see only what they are looking for.  Of course, we all do this—there’s even a specialized name for the phenomenon: confirmation bias.  Maybe you recall the study done with teachers a number of decades ago where ordinary, normal students were randomly divided among the three third grade teachers in an elementary school.  These students were not tested for abilities, they were simply assigned randomly to one teacher or another, however the teachers were told that the students had been selected by intellectual ability, and that Teacher A was getting “the really bright ones—the high achievers” and Teacher B was getting the bottom of the barrel, intellectually speaking.  Teacher C was getting the middle of the pack.  By the end of the first grading period, Teacher A DID have all the really bright ones, but not because they were in some way different than the students in the other two classes.  It was because their teacher was seeing what she believed.  Likewise, the other teachers saw poor performance, or mediocre performance, just as they were expecting.  At the beginning of the school year, these classrooms full of children were about equal, but they performed in accordance with their teachers’ expectations.  The teachers had been “taught” a bias about the children in their classes, and they found it in their students’ performances!  They saw what they were looking for! (more…)

July 9, 2008

Do You Care What’s True?

“Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.” – Carl Sagan

I ask this question of students in my classes, and they often laugh, “Of course we care what’s true!”  But inevitably, I find that as I talk about the best information we have in psychology today, several students will want to assert a belief that has long-since been left behind by researchers.  This is not so damaging in a classroom where debate and questioning are part of the learning process, but in real life, such reliance on old information can be dangerous.  A good example would be that of so-called “eyewitness testimony,” the foundation of the evidentiary process for years and years, and yet it was shown to be wildly inaccurate in research done more than two decades ago.  Reliance on eyewitness testimony has been reduced because of the research showing it is unreliable, but most people still believe that their brains are working much like a movie camera, recording accurately all that is seen.  Collectively, we had a hunch that we remember exactly what we see, but methodical investigation of that idea shows otherwise.  Every year as I teach this information, a student will be unable to accept that we are all susceptible to inaccurate recall, or reconstructed memory for an event.  They have fallen in love with a belief and are unwilling to give it up in the face of scientific fact.  In other words, they no longer care what is true, but want to continue believing the thing that feels most comfortable, or that confirms what they’ve “always thought.”

I care deeply about what is true, and that often means I must revise my ideas about something I have relied upon, even something I have thought to be true for a long while.  Rather than thinking of this as a betrayal of my former ideas, I regard these moments as exciting and interesting.  In fact, doesn’t it seem arrogant to imagine that my hunches and beliefs would all be correct, all of the time? (more…)

July 1, 2008

Welcome to Mechanics of Change

Greetings! I’m glad you found the website for Mechanics of Change.  Here you will discover information about human behavior and experience that will make you think—and think differently.

As your host, let me introduce myself: I am Mark A. Hurst, Ph.D. a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Olympia, Washington.  I’m also privileged to be faculty in Psychology at The Evergreen State College, and the combination of these two experiences provide a great opportunity for me to stay up-to-the-minute on the field of human interaction. (more…)