Psychologically Determined

Unlike my previous entries this week, today’s entry poses a different challenge for me because I haven’t had any personal psychological experiences. I haven’t seen a shrink, and my only visit to the counsellor was a cursory one for the Counselling & Psychological Services Open House and took about 15 minutes discussing general issues. Much of my contact with psychology is through studying it (at least, till my internship begins) and so I shall talk about today’s value, determination, in an academic standpoint. Let’s see what the mind has to say about determination, shall we?

1. Health Psychology

Health psychology is a field that believes that our health is affected not only by biological but also psychological factors, such as stress or adherence to medical advice. Yep, some people are more prone to listening to a doctor than others, which is why some people stick religiously to the daily regime of 4 tablets per day while others simply do not see the point in following orders so precisely — they eat their medication when they feel like it. Health psychologists believe that these factors can be studied for practical uses, that health campaigns and communications to deter smoking and other behaviours should take these factors into account. For instance, it’s been found that patients whose ward windows face bright plains and cheery pleasant surroundings have a higher rate of quicker recovery. Surely this has a psychological effect on them.

Similarly, determination comes into play when people are abstaining from unhealthy substances or recovering from an illness. If you’re determined to keep yourself healthy, you’re less likely to succumb to unhealthy pressures or outside influence. If a person is suffering from a terminal illness, doctors will agree that willpower is very important in determining whether he will recover. Don’t underestimate the power of your own mental state in helping your body!

2. Personality Psychology

Personality psychology believes that people are governed by different traits, and that as a species, we all have individual differences in personality. It coheres with Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is all about natural differences that ensure that the strongest survive. In this case, there is a possibility that people with good personality traits survive better than those without. For instance, hardworking people are more likely to succeed in life than lazy people, and thus more likely to attract mates and start a family. People prefer people of positive traits compared to those with negative traits, and this ensures the survival of mankind in a positive direction.

In psychology, determination is more commonly known as “grit”, the passion for a particular long-term goal or end state coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their respective objective. It has been found that people with the personality trait of grit generally turn out to be high-achieving successful individuals. Of course, by today’s standards, such people may turn out to be extremely busy people who don’t have time for family, thwarting Darwin’s plans, but considering that such successful people usually hold talks to inspire the next generation, this is probably their way of propagating their values.

By no means does personality psychology say that our personalities are determined from birth. In fact, you probably know that your personality changed somewhat as you grew older, and personality psychologists are constantly in debate over the weightage of nature and nurture. No matter what, they do all agree that determination is a trait that ensures survival of mankind over challenges that arise.

3. Biological Psychology

Biological psychology, or neuroscience as it is closely related, talks about how hormones hold sway over our psychological states. Our emotions, our personalities, our reactions and behaviour are less in control than we think. Hormones are the mastermind behind the complex web of mood swings in women, or memory loss in old people, or simple “bad moods” and “good moods”.

Did you know that you can get more determined at a task with increased levels of dopamine? Dopamine is a hormone related to reward-driven learning, and controls the reward system that makes us feel pleasant when we succeed at something. Dopamine is what addictive drugs release, such as cocaine or methamphetamine. It can be discomfiting to know that hormones ordinarily do good things to us, but once their levels exceed what they should be, they become so dangerous and can change a person’s life forever.

Well in this case, dopamine makes us more determined at a task. When we succeed at a goal, we get a dopamine rush which encourages us to keep going. This is why people advocate setting small achievable goals that culminate in a big target, so that we can get multiple rushes of dopamine to push us onward. This is the trick to making yourself more determined!

4. Positive Psychology

I’ve mentioned in a previous Saturday entry that positive psychology studies positive outcomes, and the determinants of happiness. Basically they try to study how ordinary people like you and I can make our lives better. For instance, they have found out that there is a specific gene linked to happiness, called 5-HTT. In addition, they’ve also found that mindfulness and focusing on the present is the best way to inspire happiness, such as by taking rollercoasters, in order to distract ourselves from thinking about whether we’re happy. Because research has shown that happiness levels drop when people ask themselves 4 times a day whether they were happy.

The Character Strengths & Virtues Handbook has found that when people possess certain virtues and strengths, they get happier. And, you guessed it, persistence and fortitude was one of them. They didn’t go on to explain why, but I suppose one would be a lot happier if one managed to achieve what one wanted to do. Don’t you think so?

5. Social Psychology

Social psychology is tightly linked to personality psychology, but while personality traits have to be enduring, social psychology studies momentary behaviours linked to the social situation at the present moment. It can explain why a person with a certain personality may suddenly do something different because of his surroundings. And in this case, social psychology talks about what happens when determination is carried too far.

There is an interesting effect known as the “belief perseverance effect”, which is part of something known as the confirmation bias. It talks about why people would continue to hold a strong belief after evidence to the contrary has been presented. You can see this in effect from the cognitive dissonance held by people who believe that the world is ending but it didn’t. In fact, psychological experiments today are also responsible for strengthening sometimes detrimental beliefs in people.

For example, there are many experiments that test people’s reaction to judgment. I’ve done an experiment where I do an IQ test and regardless of my answers, the test will tell me that I scored in the bottom 25th percentile of people who took the test, going to show that I’ve a terribly low IQ. If I believe the accuracy of the result, I will start thinking back of times when I had gotten some simple maths sum wrong, or when I couldn’t grasp some relationships between concepts that others could, and I’d agree that yeah, I’m a stupid person after all. At the end of the experiment, there is often a debrief where the experimenter says the experiment was a lie and the test didn’t actually reflect my true IQ score. But I’d still be thinking of those memories of the wrong maths sum and the relationships of concepts, and I’d persist in the belief that I really am stupid.

This not only goes to show that deception tests should be performed with extreme caution, but also that we may be too determined and one-track-minded with our beliefs. There are times when determination does not equate to stiffness, and we should be prepared to give up a principle if we find that it is wrong. Be determined only in doing the right thing!


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