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Thought-terminating clichés? Whatever…

in Editor Pick/Media Psychology/Work Psychology by

Sigmund Freud used to sit patiently whilst his clients rambled endlessly about their lives, waiting for the brief but insightful moments of clarity. This clarity was the unconscious mind, bursting through in snippets of slips of the tongue, pauses and moments of discomfort. So it goes.

Freud recognised that much of our conversation and discourse operated at the surface and was fairly meaningless. The true motivation and personality was buried under layers of neurotic complexity. Such is life.

This complexity is further heightened by our limited ability to understand others and the ever changing, strange world around us. Because true understanding is never quite achieved, it is puzzling that we ever feel satisfied or move on from analysing. It is what it is.

One mechanism we use to let go and avoid analysis paralysis is a thought-terminating cliché. To explain this concept, let me give you an example. Have you ever heard the cliché: ‘It’s all good’?. What does this actually mean? Because nothing is ‘all good’.

This phrase is a thought terminating cliché. It is a well-worn phrase used to terminate an end to the discussion. It allows the individual or individuals to move on from a topic and feel a sense of closure even though the phrase is essentially meaningless.

Some other thought-terminating clichés include: ‘it’s common sense’, ‘you win some you lose some’ and ‘just forget it’. We’ve probably used all of these from time to time.

The thought-terminating cliché is often used in workplaces to prevent others from analysing a comment or decision in too much detail. They may be useful in helping teams to move on from over-analysis, and may help reduce tension where there is a clear disagreement that is unlikely to be resolved.

Nevertheless, the thought-terminating cliché does not really help get to the heart of problems. As Freud would have understood, this cliché is just a way we help manage our interpersonal relationships and deal with the uncertainty around us.

This cliché can also be misused. Why? Because I said so.

Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was ridiculed for her utterance of the cliché ‘moving forward’ 24 times in a five minute speech. ‘Moving forward’ is likely a thought-terminating cliché designed to prevent discussion and analysis of the internal conflict that had plagued her political party.

Similarly, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and fellow party members regularly used the phrase ‘Stop the Boats’, referring to illegal immigrants, which could be considered a thought-terminating cliché to prevent further analysis about the policy.

So, it pays to listen to the phrases people use. They may just be trying to stop you from thinking. But, whatever will be, will be.

Now, let’s face it. If you haven’t already had your fill of thought-terminating clichés throughout this blog, you may be expecting another to wrap it all up. Well, you don’t always get what you want.

You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry

in Work Psychology by


When Bruce Banner gets angry and becomes the Incredible Hulk, he gets results.

For that reason, anger is one of those interesting emotions that can make us uncomfortable but—strangely—feels compelling.

Anger typically helps us to overcome obstacles to certain goals. Specifically, when we are pursuing rewards or ideals and someone or something gets in the way, our ‘fight’ response kicks in to help us push through these obstacles.

For example, when delivering a pet project you may regularly come in contact with others who throw up smokescreens and barriers to prevent you from reaching your goals. They’ve got their own goals, mind you, and maybe you’re getting in the way of them.

That’s why we all bounce around like ping pong balls between one person and the next to try to reach our own preferred outcome. And we often step out of the way or avoid the angry, vocal lot. Anger can work wonders in getting you closer to a goal.

But there are some drawbacks with anger. Aside from the obvious problems it generates—the inevitable outbursts, alienation of co-workers, and even violence—anger can also give you tunnel vision.

Studies show that anger makes us better at dealing with details but impairs our ability to see the bigger picture.

In one study, participants were required to hit a button when they saw a particular letter of the alphabet on a computer screen. The letters were presented in clusters so that when viewed as a whole they actually showed a larger pattern which also resembled a letter.

The participant had to try to switch their attention from the larger ‘bigger picture’ letter to the smaller letters from which it was composed. Essentially, the test lets the researcher know how easily the participant can broaden or narrow their focus.

The researchers also flashed split-second images designed to elicit feelings of anger to half of the participants. The images were outside conscious awareness but nevertheless made some of the participants angry.

These angry participants found it easier to see the smaller letters but their reaction times were slower when detecting the larger letter. That is, they were better at narrowing their focus but couldn’t rise out of the weeds to see the bigger picture.

The researchers also found that angry individuals were also less inclusive in how they categorised things. For example, they rejected the notion that words like ‘camel’ and ‘car’ could be classified under one heading (e.g. mode of transport, words starting with c).

Anger appears to help individuals to focus on a specific goal and works to close us off to alternatives. Of course, unlike the Incredible Hulk, I am open to an alternative interpretation.

Aesthetics is more than just window dressing (except when you’re working on windows)

in Work Psychology by


Steve Jobs knew instinctively that consumers would want to select their own typefaces or fonts. People don’t just want to read and deliver content. They also want it to look good too.

Since the early days of the Apple Macs, we now have more and more options on how to format and improve the attractiveness of our documents and presentations.Finally there’s research that validates all that tinkering around with fonts, borders, styles, layouts, headers, footers and clip art.


This research shows that working on these aesthetics—that is, the beauty and attractiveness of things—is one of the easiest ways to lower resistance to new ideas.To understand why this is let’s look at one of the main reasons why people resist change: well-ingrained behaviours, beliefs and values.

When the change appears to challenge who we are and what we believe, we react and can dismiss the ideas even if they sensible.

What appears to lower this resistance is getting people to actively think or talk about their personal values or what seems to interest them—called self-affirmation. Self-affirmation appears to anchor and solidify our sense of self so that we don’t feel as threatened when a change is proposed.

A universal value relates to aesthetics. In general, we all value beauty and attractiveness, even if it’s just on an unconscious level. So, by exposing individuals to something which is more aesthetic is a way of reaffirming one of their core values.

For example, in one study individuals were shown a university guidebook which described and showed the campus. One group of participants were exposed to an aesthetically pleasing campus. Another group looked at a campus with a focus on functionality and efficiency.


Aesthetically pleasing


Not aesthetically pleasing

After reviewing the guidebook, participants were presented with options that were either advocated by the researcher or not.Participants exposed to the aesthetically pleasing campus were more inclined to endorse the advocated option. In other words, they were more easily influenced after viewing the aesthetically pleasing material.

In a related study, the researchers found that being shown these aesthetically pleasing products led to increased openness. Participants stated they were more likely engage in certain behaviours like attending a service of a religion they did not practise.

So, spending that little bit of extra time working on the look and feel of a solution isn’t just for your own satisfaction. It could actually make the the difference in persuading someone to your cause.

Left Vs. Right Brain Characters

in Film & TV Psychology by


Although only loosely based on science, there is some truth in the idea that the left side of the brain functions differently from the right side.

The left hemisphere is traditionally associated with rational thought, logic, linear thinking and appears to be better at processing threats, and details. The right hemisphere is associated with intuition, creativity, emotion, and insight. Read more about this here.

Although there’s actually not much support for the idea that we are left or right brained, the term ‘left brained’ and ‘right brained’ in a convenient way to distinguish between logical and rational people versus creative and intuitive types.

Many of our favourite TV shows have established ‘left brained’ and ‘right brained’ characters who spend much of the time fighting.

Spock and Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy


Much of the series Star Trek pitted the deeply logical and rational ‘left brained’ Spock against the passionate and very human ‘right brained’ Dr McCoy. These two characters were forever debating the merits of logic versus compassion.

Dr Jack Shepherd and John Locke


Lost had a rich array of characters to call on but the show ultimately centred on two main characters. Jack Shepherd was the logical, ‘left brained’ leader who followed science. Locke trusted his faith and intuition and had genuine insight and awareness into the unseen weirdness of the island where they crash landed.

By the end of the series, Locke had perished and Jack carries on his legacy, perhaps showing that Jack had an awakening of insight or his right brain was finally let loose.

Fox Mulder and Dana Scully


Agent Scully was the skeptic forced to go undercover to expose Agent Fox Mulder. Together they eventually formed a formidable partnership. Mulder believed in the unusual and weird and was willing to trust his instinct about the true nature of an alien conspiracy.

Scully would forever look for simple, linear, and rational explanations for all strange events, which became more difficult over the course of 9 seasons of freaks, aliens, and monsters.

Sheldon and Penny


Pair physicist Sheldon Cooper (and his friends to a lesser extent) with actor neighbour, Penny, and the outcomes are inevitable. This duality plays out constantly on the Big Bang Theory.

‘Left brained’ Cooper is logical and rational to the extreme, almost operating and perceiving a different reality. ‘Right brained’ Penny flies by the seat of her pants, trusting her gut, following an unpredictable yet creative career path.

Walter White and Jesse Pinkman


Some would argue Breaking Bad’s Walter was also a master ‘right brained’ thinker, trusting his insight and intuition. Others would argue that he was so strongly rational and left-brained that his cold, hard logic led to poor decisions, which alienated everyone around him.

Jesse didn’t seem to follow either hemisphere in the early seasons of Breaking Bad. However, the cold logic of Walter White, ultimately didn’t ‘feel right’ for Jesse who slowly became deflated and traumatised. Surely his ‘right brain’ was telling him something was off?

Why you trust that weather forecaster more than the forecast

in Work Psychology by


Computers can churn through data, identify trends and patterns that a human couldn’t comprehend, and spit out statistical probabilities with precision. Yet, we
seem to still prefer that ol’ human touch.

Studies published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology show that we are more willing to trust the judgment of a person over a statistical model. This confidence remains even when participants are shown evidence that the person had made almost twice as many errors as the model.

I wish I read this study prior to mentioning the term ‘structural equation modelling’ at work. After conducting this advanced analysis on extensive data, I was puzzled when the data failed to convince but, rather, seemed to do the opposite. Years later and other statistics are still quoted from senior leaders, but these finely tuned statistics conducted under controlled conditions are largely forgotten.

Perhaps what underlies these outcomes is a subconscious distrust of computers? Often films depict futuristic computers with artificial intelligence, such as Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, as cold, cunning, and diabolical. Maybe we prefer to trust the flexibility and creativity of the human mind?

The findings published in the journal direct us to be cautious when confronted by a critical decision. How often do we make a decision based on the data, compared to doing so based on the advice from someone who seems to know what they’re talking about?

More importantly, even if you have some important facts to communicate, you may find that people are unwilling to listen. Perhaps better to leave out the stuff about the modelling and tell them you have a hunch!

Want fulfilment? Send your mind away

in Work Psychology by


Some may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.

Are you the type to reflect on the past? Do you think about where you’ll be in the future? Perhaps you’re more of a person who likes to propel the mind into hypothetical scenarios. I’m not sitting in an office. I’m sitting on a beach somewhere overseas. The person on the beach overseas is thinking what’d it would be like to be in an office…maybe not.

When we imagine these scenarios, we’re essentially sending our minds into a world that doesn’t exist. It’s the wonderful joy of abstraction that can help us pass the time on a crowded train or send us into despair as we contemplate our existence.

A recent series of studies shows that this ‘mental simulation’ might be the gateway to a more meaningful existence. Across several studies the researchers showed that people reported a greater sense of meaning when they were asked to contemplate the future or past in detail (also see blog on nostalgia).

In contrast, when they were asked to think of these points in time superficially, they didn’t feel the same sense of meaning. That is, the superficial recollections didn’t evoke vivid enough recollections. Interestingly, these effects were also found when participants were asked to imagine themselves in another location, suggesting that when we simply mentally simulate a scenario, we somehow feel as though life is more meaningful.

But it’s all well and good to feel like life is meaningful. Is meaning actually meaningful? The researchers suggest that when individuals feel as though life has purpose, they are also less depressed and anxious and their physical health can improve. There is also a sense of connectedness that could promote cooperation and teamwork (I’ve also posted a blog on the importance of meaning here).

Now ask yourself whether returning to your work feels like a meaningful exercise or if you’d prefer to contemplate these ideas further and propel your mind somewhere else.

Read this blog!

in Work Psychology by


Now that I have your attention, can I ask if you will read this blog today? Now, go and make a coffee and think about it. The blog will still be here when you get back.

Ok, you’re still reading? It worked then? That’s ok, I know you didn’t really make a
coffee. You’re more of a tea person, right?

These somewhat trivial instructions can influence whether someone will modify their behaviour. Take a Stop sign. It doesn’t ask you to ponder whether you would like to stop. It just directs you to do so. And most of the time people comply. This kind of message is what’s referred to as an ‘imperative’.

But think about the kind of message you get on the back of a cigarette packet. It usually highlights a horrible disease you might develop as a result of smoking, getting you to ponder and make a choice. That is, it doesn’t simply say, ‘Stop smoking now,’ recognising that some behaviour is modified over time and needs to be sustainable.

These messages are called ‘interrogative’ because they rely on you taking more time to process the information.

A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that people are more likely to follow the interrogative message when they have more time to think it through.

In one study they placed a sign next to a flight of stairs and set of escalators. Two
types of messages were posted. Pedestrians either saw the imperative message (‘Take the Stairs’) or interrogative message (‘Will you take the stairs?’).

At first it looked like the imperative message was more effective because more pedestrians took the stairs when they viewed this message. However, when the sign was placed further away from the escalator, to give more time for people to consider the message, they were more likely to use the stairs after reading the interrogative message.

The researchers suggest that when there is little time, direct messages are more
likely to be followed. However, when people have a bit more time to think, they
generally prefer instructions that invite autonomy and choice.

The point is that direct and blunt instructions may get people to act but they may be less inclined to follow these instructions when they have time to think it through. That is, people want some say in their destiny.

Stop reading now! If you want to…

Are diversity programs promoting uniformity?

in Work Psychology by


“I’m a white male aged 18 to 49, everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are.” This timeless quote, from Homer Simpson, is related to a real problem in organisations: the tendency to hire the same type of people over and over.

Besides the obvious issues around fairness and equality, organisations that do not diversify attract the same kind of thinking and behaviour even when they are keen to make changes to improve their competitiveness.

Managers respond to these issues by implementing diversity programs and appointing managers to promote this equality. All logical and sensible, right?

Allow me to provide a diverse response: wrong! Diversity programs could actually undermine organisational diversity, according to research.

This research showed that white males are especially unlikely to support actions that promote fairness and equality if they are also informed the organisation has implemented a diversity policy and training.

Even when presented with clear, objective evidence to the contrary, these participants maintained their belief that the organisation was fair.

The researchers suggest that these programs don’t promote fairness but, rather, create the illusion of fairness. That is, the mere presence of the program is enough to shape beliefs, not the program’s actual performance.

This belief isn’t limited to diversity programs. How often do people assume something is working simply because there is a program in place, such as when a process has been mapped, or a training program has been implemented? How often are any management practices evaluated to see if they work?

But don’t listen to me. I’m just another white male, aged 18-49, and people listen to me no matter how dumb my suggestions are. 

Is Dr Duck stressed?

in Work Psychology by


Referring to yourself in the third person may help you manage stress. During a stressful event, we can talk to ourselves—literally or in our thoughts—using phrases like ‘I need to get this done’, ‘almost there…’ etc.

Research suggests that if we instead refer to ourselves in the third person (e.g. ‘Nick needs to get this done’) we experience less stress. Referring to ourselves in the third person distances ourselves from the stressful event. That is, we are better at untangling ourselves from the situation and can observe and accept situations with greater objectivity.

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