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If your life was a story, what kind of story would it be?

in Work Psychology by

We are all stars in our own story. The early days were misadventures. That career was a series of triumphs. In some cases the story takes sharp turns in unexpected directions. Other times we hit obstacles and tragedies.These stories are referred to as our narrative identities and they help us to make sense of our past and anticipate our possible future.

Many of the stories we use to construct our narrative identities are reinforced by our upbringing, society and culture. Cultural stories are one way we pass on wisdom. Research also shows that the narratives we adopt to describe our lives can predict how well we subsequently respond to significant life events.Do any of the following stories ring true for you?

The Redeemer

My life is about learning from all the hardships and mistakes

Redemption narratives involve overcoming significant hardships, leading to greater awareness and appreciation. They involve life lessons and challenges that helped shape the person today.

The Connector

I learned to lean on others 

Communion narratives underscore building social connections and relating more to those around them as a means of overcoming difficulties. For example, a disconnected workaholic may learn to lean on family and friends when his or her life turns upside down and realises that social connections are more meaningful than money.

The Fighter

I saw the challenges in front of me and dived straight in

Agency narratives involve the individual taking full control of their destiny through sheer force and determination. They may, for example, persevere and overcome injustice and fight their way to the top in an organisation or triumph over a major physical obstacle, like climbing a mountain.

The Unlucky

The good days are behind me

A contamination identity follows the opposite path to the first three themes. The person who has a contamination narrative starts their story in a good state but is plagued by misfortune. They may, for example, keep seeing opportunities pass them by at work, struggle with endless physical complaints. The good days are well and truly behind them.

Narrative Identity and Resilience

These four themes were examined by researchers to work out whether they helped individuals navigate through hardships. Researchers identified individuals who adopted one of these four themes and then traced the trajectory of their lives at six month intervals over two years. They were also interested in whether the narrative identities would help them better respond to a negative significant life event. So they recorded any instances where participants experienced a significant physical illness.

Those who viewed their life through a contamination lens, were less resilient when confronted by this illness. The illness was just yet another misfortune on the journey toward degradation.In contrast, the other three identities seemed to improve resilience. That is, individuals who viewed their lives through the lens of redemption, communion or agency were better able to cope with the hardships of the physical illness, both mentally and physically.

Using this information, we could possibly re-write our life stories to have a more meaningful and positive journey.

Leaders could motivate others during times of significant change and upheaval by anchoring the changes to a story that resonates. Perhaps the difficulties will form part of learning (redemption narrative) or an opportunity to lean on colleagues and build their connections (communion narrative)?

People are just like me

in Work Psychology by


Why did he get so angry? What makes that person so creative? How did she feel when I said that? Every day our minds try like naïve psychologists to make sense of the behaviour of others.

According to research, we use our own beliefs about our own personal traits to predict the behaviour of others. 

If you are predicting what makes a person creative, for example, you might think, ‘I’m an introvert and idealistic and also happen to be creative!’ So you basically form a belief that idealistic introverts are creative. 

Your predictions about creativity, therefore, are biased by your own ‘scientific’ explanations about yourself and you generalise these theories to make predictions about everyone else. Psychologists call them ‘causal trait theories’.

But are causal trait theories accurate? Perhaps there are lots of extroverts who are realists and are even more creative?

Think of the implications of this research. You might enter into endless debates with someone because you formed fundamentally different beliefs about people. 

You might, for example, believe that anxious people are more dependent in general because you’re laid-back and like your independence. Your colleague may believe that anxious people are more independent because he or she is an anxious person who prefers to work alone.

Both of you, therefore, approach an anxious colleague in different ways based on these theories. You may want to give the anxious person more support. Your colleague may instinctively back off and give them extra breathing room.

So, when making decisions, it might be humbling to realise that we are biased by our own theories about people. 

I’m sure you’ll listen to my advice. After all, I happen to believe that only creative, intelligent, and forward-thinking people read my blog!

Time heals all wounds…right now

in Work Psychology by


Imagine your worst fear. It could be a job interview or having to give a speech. Perhaps you dislike heights and will do anything to avoid flying. It may be as simple as feeling obliged to network among a group of peers.

Your heart pounds and thoughts race. Your palms sweat and your chest feels tight. Right now, your sympathetic nervous system is doing everything it can to keep you sucked into the present moment, heightening your senses and drawing you into this specific point in time. 

According to research, the best way to neutralise these feelings, and restore your composure, is to pull your mind out of the present and think about your future.

Across a series of studies, the researchers made participants think of an event which
made them distressed. They then made some of them reflect about the emotion and
whether it would continue to be a source of stress in the near future, while another group had to imagine how the emotion might impact them in the distant future.

Participants who reflected on the distant future reported less distress than the individuals who reflected on the near future. Pondering the distant future seemed to help nullify symptoms of distress.

The researchers also identified one of the mechanisms that explained these effects. They discovered that when we think about the future, our perspective improves. That is, we see the emotion as a moment in time rather than an enduring problem.

These findings are a reminder that when under times of stress, you might untangle yourself by lifting yourself out of the moment and seeing the experience as a blip on the radar of your life.

One thing to motivate employees…

in Work Psychology by


My old man told me his boss reckoned he needed only one thing to motivate employees: a four by two (a timber club). Fortunately, an intriguing theory suggests that we can achieve this without the four by two.

According to this theory, developed by Dr Simon Moss, all you have to do is give people a sense of purpose and meaning.

Called the Model of Sustained Strivings (MOSS – get it), this theory explains that all the positive changes we want to see in employees–such as increased motivation, open and creative thinking, improved decision-making, self-awareness and resilience–occur naturally when our jobs and lives are meaningful.

But how do you actually give someone meaning?

It’s more like four things you need to do…

Dr Moss suggests it might not actually be as simple as doing one thing. Instead, it is as simple as doing four things.

First, you need to create a stable and predictable workplace, providing a sense of control. Humans are instinctively cautious, closed-off, and unimaginative when their immediate environment is unpredictable. Think of how creative you would get if you were wondering around the jungle with a tiger lurking in the undergrowth!

In the workplace, creating clear, unambiguous expectations goes a long way to creating a stable workplace, for example when we clarify policies, procedures and rules.

The second determinant of meaning is working in a supportive and cooperative environment. Think about the last time you worked with people who didn’t really help you or possibly even undermined your efforts. When you are not supported, you tend to work just to survive not to improve.

We are also in this mindset when our workplace keeps changing and the future is uncertain. The third determinant of meaning implies that we want to have some continuity and consistency to know that what we are working on today will be valued in the future, otherwise it feels like a meaningless exercise.

Lastly, being allowed to be different and unique is essential to demonstrate our capability. This determinant of meaning boosts our self-esteem and motivates us to keep trying to improve.

Ok, so now you have the four things required to motivate and improve? Presumably, all you have to do is implement programs to address these four areas?

Unfortunately, according to Dr Moss, the research shows us that each determinant can directly contradict the other. So, capability impedes cooperation. Cooperation impedes consistency, and so on.

For example, while you are promoting ‘one culture’ and a unified team, you may also be undermining a person’s need to stand out and be different. Similarly, you tend to learn more and develop your unique capabilities in different, therefore uncertain, workplaces but these workplaces also make us feel insecure and undermine meaning.

Ok, maybe six things you need to do…

Fortunately, you can resolve these issues. All you have to do is six things (are you seeing a pattern here?).

How might you might reconcile the need for certainty and need to develop in novel and uncertain environments? Dr Moss suggests that when people feel stressed learning in novel environments, they could learn to associate these feelings with excitement in recognition of the opportunity to develop. By doing so, you can boost your capability and perceive the change as a challenge rather than something to fear.

To resolve the contradiction between feeling unique and unifying your teams, you could rotate the responsibilities of leaders. That is, you promote leadership on some tasks, allowing people to learn and develop but ensure they are subordinates on other tasks, to help encourage trust and cooperation.

But, to get all these things to work, you need to just do these 28 things…

Just kidding.

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