Monday, December 01, 2008

Never Let Them See You Sweat - On Barack Obama and Equilibrium

Barack Obama is the rare politician who seems to have a Zen-like control of his emotions, nearly always even-tempered, calm, and in control. Kate Zernike, writing in the New York Times, uses the example of Obama to suggest that this equanimity is available to all of us.

One quibble: Neuroticism is really NOT determined by genetics, but by early childhood experience, especially attachment to the primary caregiver. We now know that attachment experiences, especially failures and traumas, shape the neurological functioning of the brain. These experiences result in the brain chemistry that is treatable with various antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.

is more of a blend between genetics (mostly) and environment (as triggering agent). I really wish some of these writers would keep up with the research.

The cool thing that this article looks at is the neuroplasticity is teaching us how brains suffering from neuroticism can be retrained (w/out drugs) using various meditation and mindfulness techniques that various religions (especially Buddhism) have been teaching for 2,500 years or more.

Never Let Them See You Sweat

Published: November 29, 2008

The economy jolts and stumbles, wars slog on in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the horrors of a new terrorist attack blanket the news and draw frayed attention yet again to our precarious alliances in the world. The watchword for the holidays is subdued; certainly not much inspires celebration.

Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that to lead us in crisis, Americans elected a man repeatedly recognized for his uncommon calmness. More than ever, we crave stability, a steady hand, the reassuring face on television.

We even elevate such equilibrium to the superhuman: calm, as applied to No Drama Obama, often comes linked to the modifier “preternatural.”

But the calm temperament is not so superhuman, nor is it entirely the gift of the chosen few. It can be cultivated, even as the world cleaves around us.

So how do we get there without a steady diet of beta blockers and Xanax? Calm, per se, doesn’t appear in the taxonomy of those who study personality and temperament. People we might colloquially describe as calm are classified as low on the scale of neuroticism — a scale everyone is measured on, to a greater or lesser degree.

How much neuroticism anyone gets is determined largely by genetics. But it is also within our control. Psychiatrists and psychologists talk about emotional regulation — the ability to manage neuroticism so that even the most nervous of people can go through life appearing and feeling more in control than those genetically predisposed to calmness.

“What studies have shown us is that there’s great plasticity, even though people are genetically built in ways that make them respond anxiously or not,” said James J. Gross, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and director of its psychophysiology laboratory. “Genetically identical people can give very different outward impressions because they think differently, they regulate their emotions differently.”

It’s relatively easy to say how outgoing someone is, or how verbal. Those who study personality caution that it’s harder to know how calm someone really is under the hood — several noted that President-elect Barack Obama has had trouble kicking smoking, perhaps hinting at some compulsion beneath the cool.

And for all its benefits, coolness can have its drawbacks.

“No two people’s calmness functions the same for them,” said John D. Mayer, a professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire and one of the original theorists on the concept of emotional intelligence. “The calmness of an airline pilot is really functional and helpful. The calmness of a teacher could be misinterpreted as a lack of caring. It’s going to depend on how they integrate that personality attribute with their goals and desires and hopes and functioning.”

Efforts to classify temperament go back to the four humors of the ancient Greeks (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood) and run through modern self-help shelves and quizzes in women’s magazines. Today, those who study personality tend to rank people on several scales, often called the Big Five: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeability and neuroticism (some theorists identify them by different terms, but these offer the advantage of an acronym, Ocean).

These are the characteristic ranges that people all over the world have called upon again and again to evaluate themselves and others: do you tend to be interested in new ideas or closed-minded? Organized or irresponsible? Outgoing or shy? Affectionate or unkind? Easily rocked or buoyant in emotional tides? And in what combinations?

Of these, conscientiousness is often considered the least dependent on genes, and extroversion and openness the most. Neuroticism, the closest barometer of calmness, is also highly determined by inheritance.

Researchers estimate that about half the variation in our personalities reflects our genes, based on studies comparing, say, adopted siblings or fraternal and identical twins.

The rest is shaped by environment, though how is harder to know. Birth order may have something to do with it, as did where you grew up. In Mr. Obama’s case, his wife has said that Hawaii is the key to understanding his personality.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose calmness is often recalled in discussing Mr. Obama, may have gotten it from his parents. According to Jonathan Alter’s account in “The Defining Moment,” when the family was aboard the ocean liner Germania as it plunged beneath a giant wave, F.D.R.’s father remarked coolly, “We seem to be going down.” His mother took her fur and nestled 3-year-old Franklin into it: “Poor little boy, if he must go down, he’s going down warm.”

But many researchers argue for two ways to think about calmness: you are calm, or you learn how to be.

Imagine two people with equally high measures of neuroticism dealing with the same irascible boss. One gets yelled at and leaves the boss’s office perfectly composed; the other gets yelled at and flees to the bathroom in tears or storms out and kicks the wall.

The difference is that the first person has learned to regulate the neuroticism.

People tend to think that the confrontation produces the reaction; if you’re faced with an irrational rant, who can blame you for falling apart? But researchers in emotional regulation tease out a factor in between: how we think. Between the “a” of the antecedent and the “c” of the consequence, they argue, is the crucial “b,” for belief, which in the case of the person melting down might sound something like: my boss hates me, everyone hates me, I’m a total failure.

That is the opportunity for emotional regulation.

Professor Gross, at Stanford, outlines five methods. They are situation avoidance (steer clear of the boss); situation modification (turn your desk so you don’t have to look at the boss); attention deployment (when the boss invites you in for a chat, look at the wall, a picture, anything but his face); cognitive change (he’s a jerk anyway, what do I care what he thinks?); and finally, repression (concentrate on keeping your face still instead of blinking furiously or twitching in anger).

“Even if you’re someone who is initially anxious, you can develop tricks and strategies, so someone on the outside would say: ‘Her, anxious? She’s awesome at cocktail parties, she’s great at public speaking,’ ” Professor Gross said. “They wouldn’t understand that if you didn’t have those strategies, you wouldn’t be able to do those things.”

This may be easier for some than others.

George Washington, memorialized as an austere and cool leader, was extremely emotional as a young man, said Dean Keith Simonton, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis who has studied the personality profiles of presidents and leaders. “He cultivated it through sheer willpower.”

“It’s capitalizing on your worst fault so it becomes your greatest strength,” Professor Simonton said.

Certainly, we prize calmness as a strength.

Consider the composure of the Air Canada pilot who brought a flight from Toronto to London last January to a safe emergency landing after his co-pilot began to have a nervous breakdown. According to a report about the incident released recently, the co-pilot became increasingly disoriented and belligerent somewhere over the Atlantic and had to be sedated and forcibly removed from the cockpit. A flight attendant, not lacking for calmness herself, then helped land the jet in Ireland.

But while there is some evidence that complex tasks benefit from calmness, that’s not to say it’s everything.

We want our doctors to be calm, but we want them to show emotion and empathy, as well. When the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, finally appeared on television before his shaken country 18 hours after the attacks began in Mumbai last week, Indians criticized him for being too temperate, not emotional enough.

There are times when we want our leaders to rouse us out of our complacency. Professor Simonton contends that global warming might have been such a case. “It’s not one of those threats that is obvious. It’s not like seeing the twin towers attacked. You need someone who is going to slap people in the face.”

David Winter, a psychologist at the University of Michigan who has analyzed the leadership personalities of presidents and other world leaders, said, “I’m not sure I know of evidence that higher degrees of stability are conducive to better leadership.” Winston Churchill, he noted, was highly reactive and emotional. Calvin Coolidge was calm to the point of phlegmatic. And F.D.R., like Mr. Obama, could be cool to the point of remote.

For leaders, it is a balancing act — to lead, but also to be human.

“If there isn’t a tear after a grandmother who raised you just died, if there isn’t a flash of anger against perpetrators or the anxiety that people feel as they lose their jobs, there’s not the sense of connection, that this is a real person,” said Professor Gross.

“What we want from a leader is a paradoxical mix, having the emotions we feel, but almost being our better self.”

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