Playing the “why-boy” game with our habits

Photo by halfwaytoconcord

Following my last post on Anita Williams Woolley’s work on outcome and process focus I kept thinking about the idea of action identification. This is how action identification is generally defined:

[A]ccording to this theory, individuals can construe, construct, or conceptualize a specific act with reference to specific details and features. Alternatively, they can construe the same act with reference to more abstract labels, such as the purpose, goals, or implications of this action

And as I quoted from Woolley in my last post:

[I]ndividuals can identify actions as low-level, specific activities (e.g. ‘‘I am typing a report’’) or in higher-level terms that encompass multiple specific alternative activities for enactment (e.g. ‘‘I am consolidating and communicating my knowledge’’).

I think this idea has tremendous power both professionally and personally. It reminds of the idea of Equifinality I wrote about the past:

There are a lot of ways to reach success.  If we treat everybody according to their uniqueness we create variety which is beneficial

Many times we get entrenched in our own habits. We do the same thing again and again just because we are used to it or because it is easy. Or we might do it without even thinking about it. Just because. And we resist change because we our sure that our way is the way. But there is no such thing as “the way” to do anything. This idea is wonderfully illustrated by Friedrich Nietzsche in his famous book Thus Spake Zarathustra:

By divers ways and wendings did I arrive at my truth; not by one ladder did I mount to the height where mine eye roveth into my remoteness. And unwillingly only did I ask my way—that was always counter to my taste! Rather did I question and test the ways themselves. A testing and a questioning hath been all my travelling:— and verily, one must also learn to answer such questioning!

That, however,—is my taste: —Neither a good nor a bad taste, but my taste, of which I have no longer either shame or secrecy. “This—is now my way,—where is yours?” Thus did I answer those who asked me “the way.” For the way—it doth not exist!

Thus spake Zarathustra

In The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, the authors describe an interesting study:

For his first study, Rozenblit approached students in the hallways of the psychology building and asked them if they knew why the sky is blue or how a cylinder lock works. If they answered yes, he then played what he calls the “why boy” game, which he describes as follows: “I ask you a question and you give me an answer, and I say ‘why is that?’ Channeling the spirit of a curious five-year-old, I then just keep following each explanation with another ‘why is that?’ until the other person gets really annoyed.” The unexpected result of this informal experiment was that people gave up really quickly—they answered no more than one or two “why” questions before they reached a gap in their understanding. Even more striking were their reactions when they discovered that they really had no understanding. “It was clearly counterintuitive to them. People were surprised and chagrined and a little embarrassed.” After all, they had just claimed to know the answer.

And my question to you is: how many times do you stop and ask yourself – why I am doing this thing in this specific way? What am I really trying to achieve? What is my high-level goal? I think you will be surprised with some of the answers.


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