Helen J. Langer on Mindlessness

Helen J. LangerHelen J. Langer was the first woman to attain tenure in the psychology department at Harvard University. Langer is known for her edgy experiments into the power of the mind over the body and is considered a progenitor of the positive psychology movement. Langer’s experiments involve studying how people’s thinking and choices can physically change them. In one experiment she placed a group of old men living in a nursing home in a setting mirroring the period when they were young. At the end of a week their blood pressure was lower, did better on mazes, and on an intelligence test than a control group who did everything the same except imagine they were twenty years in their past.

Langer has written many books reporting on her studies. The following excerpt is from Mindfulness written in 1989, although it seems like a message so relevant for today.

A very different, but not incompatible, explanation for why we become mindless has to do with our early education. From kindergarten on, the focus of schooling is usually on goals rather than on the process by which they are achieved. This single-minded pursuit of one outcome or another, from tying shoelaces to getting into Harvard, makes it difficult to have a mindful attitude to life.

When children start a new activity with an outcome orientation, questions of “Can I?” or “What if I can’t do it?” are likely to predominate, creating an anxious preoccupation with success or failure rather than drawing on the child’s natural exuberant desire to explore. Instead of enjoying the color of the crayon, the designs on the paper, and a variety of possible shapes along the way, the child sets out about writing the “correct” letter A.

Throughout our lives, an outcome orientation in social situations can induce mindlessness. If we think we know how to handle a situation, we don’t feel a need to pay attention. If we respond to the situation as very familiar (a result, for example, of overlearning) we notice only the minimal clues necessary to carry out the proper scenario. If on the other hand, the situation is strange, we might be so preoccupied with thoughts of failure (“What if I make a fool of myself?”) that we miss nuances of our own and other’s behavior. In this sense we are mindless with respect to the immediate situation, although we maybe thinking quite actively about outcome-related results.

In contrast, a process orientation…asks “How do I do it?” instead of “Can I do it?” and thus directs attention toward defining the steps that are necessary on the way. This orientation can be characterized in terms of the guiding principle that there are no failures, only ineffective solutions. (pp. 33-34)

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