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By now, you’ve surely noticed that toilet paper is a hot commodity. And you’ve probably noticed that stores aren’t quite as fully stocked with eggs as they once were. So I guess I wasn’t totally surprised when I read a little while back that some folks began stress-buying chickens (as in real live ones, to lay eggs – not chicken, rotisseried, nuggetted, or otherwise).

Which reminded me of the handful of chickens my family had when I was growing up. Why did we have chickens? I have no idea, but I do remember that they left a little something to be desired as pets, even though they did lay the occasional egg.

Because chickens don’t play fetch. And they’re not interested in cuddling. So not being sure what else to do, I would occasionally run around and chase them.

Until one day, when the particular chicken I was chasing suddenly stopped, dropped to the ground, and just sat there like a rock. To be honest, the abruptness of this act of passivity kind of freaked me out, and I worried that something was seriously wrong. Fortunately, it was just temporary and she eventually got up, wandered back into the coop and went on to have a normal chicken life. But that moment always stuck with me. And it all came back to me when I took Psych 100 in college and read about “learned helplessness.”

Learned helplessness is a phenomenon that was first identified back in the 1960’s, and is essentially the observation that some people will passively accept their fate rather than trying to make things better, if the lesson they’ve learned from past experience is that they have no control over their situation.

And what does this have to do with music?

Well, I think everyone has had a bad practice week. One of those weeks, where nothing seems to get better, nothing sticks, and it feels almost as if you’ve hit a wall and no matter what you do, you just can’t get to the other side.

These periods of stagnation or extended failures are not a lot of fun, and can be pretty demoralizing.

So I was particularly intrigued when I came across an old study from the 70’s which suggests that the way we talk to ourselves when we’re stuck, could potentially be one of the reasons why some people seem to shrink and perform worse in response to failure, while others seem to bounce back and perform even better.

Let’s take a look!

60 fifth graders

A pair of researchers1 recruited 60 fifth graders, and gave them an assessment that measured how they explained failure to themselves. As in, did they tend to attribute failure to a lack of effort (mastery-oriented group)? Or to a lack of ability (helpless group)?

A challenge

And then, the students were presented with a game or puzzle of sorts. Kind of like the hot or cold game that you probably played as a kid. You know, the one where your friend hides something, and as you wander blindly around the room trying to guess where the object is hidden, your friend says hot as you get closer to the object and cold when you move further away.

There’s more to the game than this, but the gist is that participants were given a bunch of cards, on which two shapes were printed, in two different colors, with one of two different symbols inside the shape. The goal being, to figure out what the correct variable is. Like, is the correct answer the color red? Or is the shape of a triangle? Or the star symbol? Based on the experimenter’s feedback on whether the student’s guess was correct or incorrect (like your friend saying hot or cold), the participant should through process of elimination, be able to deduce what the correct answer is.

What are you thinking?

The students each completed eight practice problems, to make sure they understood how the game worked.

And because the researchers weren’t really interested in their ability to problem-solve, so much as what their thought process might be in response to failure, during the the last two training problems, students were asked to begin “thinking out loud.”

To say out loud anything they were thinking, whether it was related to solving the problem, or lunch, or whatever.

Set up to fail

And then, they were presented with four test problems to solve – but the game was rigged so that they would fail.

How so?

Well, no matter what answer the students gave, the experimenter always responded by telling them that their answer was wrong.

So how did the kids respond to failure? Would they continue to problem-solve effectively? Or would they give up and start using ineffective strategies – like continuing to say “triangle” over and over, even though they were already told that “triangle” was wrong?

Changes in strategy

Training phase

While working through the eight training problems, both the mastery-oriented students and helpless students used feedback effectively, keeping their hypothesis when they were told that they guessed correctly, and changing their hypothesis when they were told that they guessed incorrectly.

Test phase

But once they began the test, and started to experience failure, things took a pretty dramatic turn. 

On the first test, all 30 helpless students used effective strategies. But after the first failed test, the number of students using effective strategies went down to 73.3% for the second test, and then to 63.3% for the third test. By the fourth and final test, only 36.7% of the kids were continuing to use effective problem-solving strategies.

On the other hand, every single one of the students in the mastery-oriented group used effective strategies across all four test problems. Some even showed a tendency to up their game and use increasingly sophisticated strategies after experiencing repeated failure.

[insert table 3 chart, but reorganized/edited for study 2 only, side by side]

In other words, when the helpless students failed, they quickly abandoned the strategies that would actually have led to success, in favor of ineffective strategies that were more likely to lead to failure!

So…what was going on in these kids’ heads when they experienced failure?

Changes in thinking

During the training phase, the inner thoughts of participants in both groups was no different. But when the test began, and everything they did was wrong, their internal dialogue began to change in a pretty big way.

Approach

The helpless students began having more thoughts about ineffective strategies and a lack of ability (“I’m getting confused” or “I never did have a good memory”).

The mastery-oriented kids, on the other hand, through self-instructions like “I should slow down and try to figure this out,” or by self-monitoring their effort and concentration like “The harder it gets the harder I need to try,” appeared to focus their energy more on trying to find a solution to the problem, than on trying to figure out what it was about them that was leading to failure. In other words, they were less self-diagnostic, and more task-diagnostic.

Emotions

With repeated failure, the students’ emotional experience of the challenge also began to change.

A third of the mastery-oriented students continued to remain reasonably positive despite repeated failure, saying things like “I love a challenge.” On the other hand, two-thirds of the helpless students expressed more negativity, saying things like “This isn’t fun anymore.”

Almost two-thirds of the mastery students also expressed “positive prognosis statements” or thoughts which suggest they thought they were close to a solution, like “I’ve almost got it now.” None of the helpless students said anything remotely like this, and a handful flat out said “I give up.”

Focus

There was also a huge difference between the two types of students in task-relevant thinking.

Two-thirds of the helpless kids verbalized random thoughts like “There is a talent show this weekend, and I am going to be Shirley Temple” (and if you’re thinking gee, that’s kind of weird, just keep in mind this study was done in 1978). One poor kid kept choosing the color brown, and saying “chocolate cake,” even when repeatedly told that this was wrong. 

And as you’ve probably already guessed, not a single one of the mastery-oriented kids verbalized any such irrelevant thoughts.

So what are we to make of all of this?

The tl;dr summary

Well, the big takeaway for me is how different the internal experience of the helpless students and mastery-oriented students were.

The helpless kids were more inclined to figure out why they failed by looking internally at themselves, as opposed to the mastery-oriented kids who, to quote the researchers, were “less concerned about the cause of their failures than they were with a remedy for the failure.” (emphasis mine)

The helpless kids also experienced more negative emotions in response to failure, while the mastery-oriented kids remained pretty positive, even expressing more optimism about a successful outcome, even though, once again, unbeknownst to the poor kids, there was no way to succeed at this task. As the authors say later in the paper, “…it did not appear that the mastery-oriented children perceived themselves as having failed. The positive affective and positive prognostic statements suggest that the mastery-oriented children responded to the “wrong” feedback chiefly as information leading to problem solution, not as a failure or as a prediction of future failure.”

The helpless kids also had a lot of thoughts that were totally irrelevant and didn’t relate to solving the problem, unlike the mastery-oriented kids who tended to have more task-relevant thoughts.

So what are we to do with this?

Take action

Well, the researchers suggest that it might be helpful to practice monitoring your thoughts when faced with adversity, and to try to reduce the more task-irrelevant ones that pop into your head, engaging more with the solution-focused type of thoughts that tended to dominate the mastery-oriented students’ thinking.

To essentially get better at putting your teacher hat on, and staying more relentlessly task-focused rather than self-focused, even when things don’t seem to be improving at the rate you’d like.

Caveats

The authors note that while persistence can be a really good thing, there can be a dark side to persistence too. In that if someone believes that failing at a task means that they are a failure, this could lead to an unhealthy and unproductive level of persistence in a narrow sort of direction, and difficulty seeing other pathways to success.

Which made me think of something I remember seeing in a Star Trek movie at some point – i.e. the Kobayashi Maru test/simulation. But my brain is a little too fried right now to Google this further and wrap my mind around whether this example actually supports or negates my point… Maybe some of the more Star Trek-aware folks out there could give it a think and let me know if it does or doesn’t below in the comments? =)


References

Diener, C. I., & Dweck, C. S. (1978). An analysis of learned helplessness: Continuous changes in perfor- mance, strategy, and achievement cognitions following failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 451-462.

Footnotes

  1. One of which is Carol Dweck, whose subsequent work on “growth” and “fixed” mindsets you’re probably familiar with.

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

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